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Meow

To Juan Bonilla, who endured the first part of this story

I can’t see it from the terrace, so I don’t know how big it is, or what color. The only thing I know is that every night, perched up on the roof, it wails my name at the moon. I’m no cat expert, but I think it has to be in heat; it sounds  like a heartbroken child.  I might even say it’s terrifying.  It reminds me of the screams of those pale creatures  locked in basements in horror films. And I’m increasingly convinced she’s meowing my name.

Naturally, I’d love a second opinion. Someone I could ask: “Hey, listen, don’t you think that cat is meowing my name?” But Virginia left me two months ago, before the meowing began, as stealthily as she had come into my life. On a day like any other, she set off to buy lettuce to restock my denuded fridge and never returned, even though that very same morning, her body entwined with mine, she had assured me that now that she had found me, she would never leave. After her flight, I regretted that the two months of passion we had spent shut up in my apartment, far from the outside world, had left nothing more useful than happiness: no phone number, or address, or surname to complement the first name that, once she had disappeared, I found myself compulsively murmuring at all hours of the day, like a spell that no longer conjured her up. But that was how she had wanted it: two naked souls, stripped of their everyday identities and impurities, each one yearning for the other. She wanted her body, her greenish eyes, her damp hair, to be enough for me, that I should know nothing at all about her when we weren’t together. She wanted a love apart from the world, outside even of time, free from the binds of circumstance, a love composed solely of flesh and blood and electric skin. There would be time later for all the rest, all of the stuff that would render us worldly and wise and other. For the stuff that would probably destroy us. And I accepted her conditions, which revealed her to me as she wished to be seen: a wood sprite, an elfin being, the last throwback to a mythic lineage garlanded with fairies, fauns and elves, and about whom the only thing I needed to know was that she loved me like nobody else ever had or ever would. Although, if I had suspected that one fine day she would simply vanish, I’d have asked for every detail down to the address of her dentist. That way, I could have sought her in more accessible and likely places than in an enchanted wood.

Virginia, the woman who vowed she would never leave me, disappeared on an afternoon like any other some two months ago. Ever since, I have been unable to sleep at night. Darkness descends on the city and from my bed I watch the world, which at those small hours only emits the creaks of a drifting ship: the snorting fridge; the metallic belch of the  elevator secretly running through the building’s depths, a solitary car horn in the distance, like the lament of a dying man. I listen to it all scrupulously, but above all I listen for the cat, the only living thing that, apart from me, seems to be awake in this corner of the universe. Had I been called Evaristo, Froilan, or Salustiano, perhaps things would have been easier. Names like these are impossible for cats to pronounce. But I am called Juan, like my father, like my grandfather, like the fictitious Don Juan Tenorio. And the cat seems to be aware of this, for every night, with startling punctuality, she turns up on the roof and desperately, painfully, calls to me. She calls me like someone calling her lover.

I don’t want to think like this because it may be the first step toward losing my mind, but the truth is I can’t help it. I spend the whole day obsessed, waiting for nightfall, when I can have another chance to prove that I’m mistaken, that I’m not mad, and that the cat is not calling my name. Yet every time I hear more clearly that she is meowing my name: Juan, Juan... Tirelessly, yearningly.

I’m the only Juan in the building. I’ve checked the mailboxes. There are dozens of Antonios, numerous Pedros and Luises, even a Froilan, but no Juan. If that cat is calling to anyone, it has to be me. I’m the one she’s looking for. There’s no other possibility. The fourth time I hear her, fearing she’s turning me into an  insomniac, I decide to act. I knock on some of the doors. It seems no one hears a cat meowing desperately in the night. But this might be because I am the only occupant on the top floor. In the end, someone gave me a clue: maybe she belonged to our new neighbor, the girl who had just moved into the building. Ever since Virginia left me, I have turned my back to the world, so I was not surprised to discover we had a new neighbor of whom I knew nothing. In the state of self-absorption in which I find myself, I’d only have noticed her arrival if they had dragged a grand piano up the stairs for her. But the new neighbor arrived without musical accompaniment, muffled in the insulation of a tight silence. And from the terrace I assumed was hers, no cat would have had trouble reaching the roof. I could have done it myself. I think there can be little doubt about who the little pussycat who ruins my nights belongs to.

I resolve to end my ordeal and ring her doorbell in the middle of the afternoon. I   can’t decide whether the woman who answer is beautiful or not, but she seems appealing enough. Thin, not too tall, one of those who would go to her grave with a smile.  Based on her clothes—a tight cropped top that exposes her pierced navel—and the sweat beading under her arms I deduce that I’ve interrupted a workout. Perhaps she was running on a machine or doing sit-ups on one of those contraptions you can store folded up beneath the bed, where a chamber pot used to be kept. I’ve always admired the kind of girl who can set aside a few hours a day to sculpt her body, possibly because I count myself among those who leave their shapes to chance and the wind. But I know nothing could possibly happen between us because we’re condemned to get off on the wrong foot. With perfect manners I enquire whether she has a cat. A female cat, she specifies. With even more refined manners I propose that she stick a ballpoint up the cat’s rectum, because I’m completely fed up with hearing her meow every night. But it goes without saying that we don’t live in a world where we can freely express ourselves. The woman’s smile vanishes, and she stares at me as if I had just dropped squid guts onto her trousseau. The dark circles under my eyes don’t seem to move her. With superlative manners she informs me that, despite the fact she would be more than willing to introduce a ballpoint—or any similar sharp object—into my rectum, she has not the least intention of doing so to her cat’s. Earplugs are available from any pharmacy, she concludes, beginning to shut the door.

That was when the pussycat appeared. And that changes everything. What can I possibly say? The sight of her moved me greatly. She’s a white cat, of such a delicious whiteness that I can’t help thinking that someone extremely skilled made her out of a snowball. She is neither plump nor emaciated, with a light, flexible body. And her eyes are of an indefinable green verging on yellow. But what surprises me most is the way she behaves. The cat stands stock-still in the kitchen doorway and studies me with a mixture of mistrust and rapture. Finally she overcomes her paralysis and advances slowly toward me with measured steps, as if I were some apparition that could vanish at any moment. Then, when she reaches me, she rubs against my legs with such sincere affection I become uncomfortable. Her rhythmic and ecstatic rubbing provokes a vague quiver of excitement. I pick her up and look into her eyes.

“Why do you call to me? What do you know about me?” I ask in a whisper so the woman won’t hear me.

The cat says nothing. She restricts herself to staring at me with a look that appears to conceal another behind it, a  double look. My neighbor breaks the silence. “I don’t believe it,” she says, shaking her head as if she has seen a miracle, “it’s the first time she has behaved like this with someone she doesn’t know.  She’s usually hostile. She doesn’t let anyone come near her, much less pick her up.”

I return the cat to the floor, from where she continues staring at me. It is as if she wants to be sure I got the message. But what message? What is she trying to tell me?

“Would you like coffee?” asks the woman, suddenly friendly.

I agree and she invites me in, still expressing her amazement, in a jumbled monologue, at the pussycat’s extraordinary behavior. It’s obvious she’s only just moved in, because the passage to the living room is a real obstacle course: crates, bags, and filing cabinets block the corridor and  spill into corners. She invites me to sit down on a narrow sofa in front of a table improvised from a  closet door and a few bricks.

“I’m going to make coffee and take a shower. Make yourself comfortable.”

I try to obey her, but it’s hard to make yourself comfortable with a cat in front of you that won’t stop scrutinizing you with a disconcertingly fixed stare. She has a gaze that could trip up a trapeze artist; render sleepwalkers  self-conscious;  make a man ask himself why no woman has ever looked at him  that way. I feel obligated to respond to her attention, but how? Meanwhile her owner is busying herself in the kitchen preparing the coffee. From the amount of noise she makes, it would have been less work to build a pyramid. In the end, just as I am considering venturing into the kitchen to enquire whether she might need assistance in undertaking such a complicated procedure, I hear the water start to run in the shower. Her cat and I continue to study one another, without knowing what to say. I wonder whether the animal is absorbed in the same thoughts as me, or if I am attributing a sensitivity and intelligence to her she doesn’t possess. After all, she’s only a cat. But why doesn’t she seem like that to me? Why do I have the uncomfortable feeling that for her being a cat is only an assumed role, a disguise?

I’m absorbed in these reflections when the girl reappears, wrapped in a yellow bathrobe, and carrying a little tray with two cups on it. As she walks over to the sofa, the garment intermittently opens, like the curtain of a puppet show, revealing a pair of soft pink thighs. I’d hardly be human if my pulse didn’t quicken when I notice that the only thing protecting the rest of her body is the precarious knot she fastened the bathrobe with, a knot that could so easily slip even in the hands of an idiot like me, useless at origami or cardiovascular surgery. Casually, she begins to serve the coffee, as though unaware of the sensuality exuded by her damp hair and the scent of soap on her skin, but I wasn’t born yesterday: I know she is setting a trap, that she is offering me my coffee with feigned insouciance, that she wants to rescue a bad day at the office and needs my help. As I take my cup I let her know she can count on me by giving her thigh a fleeting (and largely noncommittal) caress. We then launch into one of those banal and stupid conversations whose only aim is to pretend we are not animals, a preamble of words and smiles intended to civilize the imminent meeting of flesh. I think doves fluff up their crops.  We, the guardians of Creation, are more refined. With calculated disinterest, our bodies gradually gravitate toward each other, invading one another’s space, clearly extending an invitation. I guess she is trying not to think of something else. To forget about that bastard boss of hers. Or how she will ask me to leave when all this is over. For my part, I’m attempting not to think about Virginia. Yet, in truth, what the two of us should have been thinking about is the cat.

It all happens incredibly fast. When our lips collide, we hear a terrifying screech. Next comes a flash of white lightning, almost too fast to see. Before I can comprehend what has happened, the girl pulls away from me, howling with pain, covering her cheek with her hand. From between her splayed fingers spouts a torrent of blood. She flees to the bathroom and presses a towel to the claw marks scoring her cheek. I follow her, dumbfounded. Despite the impressive amount of blood, happily the wound does not appear to be too deep. The girl and the cat stare at each other, sizing each other up.

From that moment on I have a cat. The girl gave her to me, more or less. “Take this monster out of my home,” she ordered, “or I won’t be responsible for my actions.” I opened the door and beckoned to the cat.. The pussycat did not even hesitate, but followed me straight to my apartment.

Now I spend most of the day in front of the television, with the cat curled up in a ball on my lap. Sometimes she licks my hands lovingly, and I absentmindedly stroke her hot, fluffy body. Most of the time, however, we simply stare at one another. We remain like this for hours on end. That’s when I think I asked the wrong questions. I should have asked her very different ones, like “Who are you?” or “Who is looking at me through your eyes?”

I don’t want to think in terms of  reincarnation because I’ve never believed in that kind of thing, but sometimes, at about my third or fourth drink, I can’t resist opening the bedside  drawer and once more unfolding the obituary I found in the newspaper the day after Virginia’s disappearance, and which I cut out without knowing why, perhaps prompted by the coincidence of name and age. Now, when I consider how the cat looks at me when I reread it, an absurd suspicion overwhelms me. Perhaps the name is no coincidence. Perhaps, after all, Virginia died on her way home, hit by a car or felled by a heart attack. The way it happened isn’t important. What’s important is that, as she said, having met me, she would never leave me.    

© Félix J. Palma. First published as “Maullidos” in El Menor Espace, March 30, 2010. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012  by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor. All rights reserved.