The Girl and the Window
A few months ago I was walking home from an appointment and saw a girl at the end of the block looking up at the buildings across the street. By the time I passed her, her gaze hadn’t moved.
Kerri stood on the corner of 21st and Locust, hands in her pockets, looking up at the third floor window across the street. Her former girlfriend, Andrea, lived in that apartment. The light was on. Tonight was Wednesday. Andrea would be home eating spaghetti in sweat pants and bare feet, watching reruns of Bewitched on Nickelodeon. She wished Andrea would come to the window. She missed her. She would look down, wave, and they would talk and watch reruns together.
Kerri’s eyes came down to street level. She saw her own reflection in the black windows of Kuato’s Dry Cleaning Service, and Rocket’s Hair Salon, closed for the night. Kerri brought her dry cleaning here sometimes. Once she’d even run into Andrea. It had been nice rather than awkward. Tonight… Kerri’s breath caught. Tonight she was having a hard time.
A taxi slowed down near her. She was standing too close to the curb. Kerri backed up from the curb. She shook her head and the cab sped on.
Kerri swallowed. She glanced up at the window one last time. She looked back at the ground. She started walking. Kerri’s cat died yesterday. Mr. Scrimshaw had been twelve. He had been old and walked with a limp, a stray that Kerri hadn’t had the heart to ignore. Half the time she hadn’t even been sure he liked her. But he always came back, and he was more than happy to come inside when winter came. She’d found him yesterday next to her bed. He’d died in his sleep. First she’d been angry, then she’d called animal control and cried for an hour. Andrea had hated ‘that ratty old cat,’ but she was the only one who understood how much Mr. Scrimshaw had meant to her.
She made her way to a local coffee shop. The barrista knew her. “Hi, Kerri,” he said. He must have seen something in her body language. More meaningfully than usual, he asked, “How are you doing?”
Kerri smiled with only half of her face. The other half drifted down. “Not so great. Scrimmy died yesterday.”
“Aw, you’re kidding!”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Yes she did, but not here. Not right now. “Can you give me an Earl Grey with sugar?”
“Yeah, absolutely.” She started fishing for money. “Forget it. It’s on me.”
“No, I didn’t mean to—”
“Shut up.” He put a piece of cinnamon apple cake next to her cup. “Look what fell next to your tea.”
Kerri sat by herself in the coffee shop. She was in the corner where the musicians played on Friday nights, under an abstract painting of Jimi Hendrix that looked like it had been taken through a kaleidoscope. The shop was filled with a scattering of students taking advantage of the wifi and neighborhood types who wanted a better cup of coffee than they would get at home. She finished the cake before the tea. Comfort food. She didn’t think she’d ever told the barista that the cinnamon apple cake was her favorite. One of her angels must have been looking out for her tonight.
“Hey there. Mind if I join you?”
Speak of the devil. The barista stood next to her chair, wiping his hands on a towel that hung from his belt.
“Sure,” Kerri said. He dragged over a nearby chair. She couldn’t remember his name. Billy. Tommy. Something that ended with a y. She noticed his name tag said ‘Jeff.’ Oh well.
“I wanted to let you know, if you want another cat, I think Andrea’s looking to give one away,” he said.
“For real? When did she get a cat?”
“About a month ago. She picked up a stray, like you did with Scrimmy.”
Kerri felt ill. The karmic convergences were too much to handle all at once. She asked, “But she doesn’t want to keep it?”
“I think it’s beating up her dog. There’s a poster over on the bulletin board.” He nodded to a cluttered piece of corkboard that hung on the wall behind her. Kerri had placed ads there herself for piano lessons and stuff she wanted to sell. Kerri looked. Halfway down, on the left, there was a picture of a gray tabby sitting on the couch where they used to hang out. The phone number on the poster was Andrea’s cell.
“It feels too soon to get another cat. Maybe I’ll go talk to her. I don’t know.”
“Does you need to talk to her?”
“Then do it. You’ll handle the rest as you go.”
“You’re the best, Jeff.”
She blinked. “What?”
“I had to borrow someone else’s name tag. It’s part of the uniform. Jeff loaned me his spare so I wouldn’t get in trouble if the boss showed up.”
Kerri felt like an idiot. “Don’t mind me. I’m tired, I’m upset, and I actually had your name right in my head.”
“Don’t worry about it. I have to get back to work. Take care.”
Kerri made her way home. Between the tea, the cake and the conversation, she felt better. The space where Mr. Scrimshaw’s bed used to be still looked awfully empty, like seeing a vacant lot where your favorite playground once stood.
The following morning, Kerri left a message with Andrea asking about the cat. Just making a move, any move, helped her feel better about Scrimmy. She didn’t even know if she’d like the gray tabby. In his picture at the coffee show, his whiskers were turned down and his eyelids were drooping. Either he had one bad attitude or he was stoned on catnip. Either way she didn’t know what she was getting into.
Andrea didn’t call back. Kerri sat watching TV with a pillow in her lap instead of the cat. How I Met Your Mother reruns faded into Project Runway. Kerri traded the blue velvet pillow for the green stitched pillow. She was about to try the faded pillow that came with the couch, the one that was coming apart on the ends, when she dropped her hands and asked out loud, “Why the hell hasn’t she called?”
Kerri tried to call Andrea again. She hung up in the middle of the fourth ring. She threw on her denim jacket and walked the four blocks over to Andrea’s apartment. The cloudy night threatened rain, but Kerri was already depressed from losing her cat. If she had to sit in her apartment alone one more night she was going to… she didn’t know what. Something.
The lights were on in Andrea’s apartment as she walked down the block. Andrea thought she could see shadows from someone walking around. Kerri buzzed the doorbell. Nothing. She buzzed it again. Still nothing. Kerri walked back out to the sidewalk and checked the window.
A tabby silhouette looked down at her. Kerri drew her breath. The shadow’s tail flicked slowly. Kerri couldn’t help smiling. She didn’t know if she was being judged or if the cat was curious. You could never tell with a cat. “Hi, kitty,” she whispered. Its ears twitched.
Now she had to meet it. It was a moral imperative.
A fire escape ran down the back of Andrea’s building. The first floor was a fenced-off yard, and the second floor was dark. Kerri climbed the fence and shinnied her way to the fire escape’s ladder. “I’m batgirl,” she told herself, to keep from losing her nerve. Once she had it in place, it was easy enough to climb up to Andrea’s apartment, assuming no one got the wrong idea and called the cops.
“What wrong idea would that be? I’m only breaking into my ex’s apartment,” she whispered aloud. Kerri didn’t care. She felt like she’d been dragging herself through emotional tar for weeks now.
The cat was waiting for her at the window to Andrea’s kitchen. “Hi, sweetie,” Kerri whispered. She tried to lift up the window, but for the first time ever, Andrea had locked it. She must have gone out and left the TV on. “Ugh! Come on, Andi! Give me a break.”
The cat didn’t have an opinion, but it did seem to be curious over the stray on the other side of the window. Kerri smiled. She scratched at the window where she would normally rub the cat behind the ears. The tabby pawed at her fingers.
“So cute,” Kerri said. “Well, all right, Mr. Tabby. My name’s Kerri, and I hope we meet again sometime soon.”
Andrea walked out from the shadows between her kitchen and her living room. Kerri jumped so fast she almost fell over the fire escape’s railing. The cat went running. Andrea put her hands on her hips. “What the hell are you doing on my fire escape?” she asked.
Kerri said, “You didn’t return my call. Or answer your doorbell.”
“I didn’t want to talk to you.”
Kerri felt like Andrea had punched her in the belly. Normally she’d cry but she didn’t want to let her off the hook that easy. “I heard about the cat. I wanted to adopt her.”
“You said so on the phone.” Andrea shifted her weight from one foot to the other. The cat crept back halfway into the kitchen. It looked past Andrea to Kerri, through the window.
“Ah hell. You can’t just stand there. Someone’ll call the cops.” Andrea unlocked the window. As if she were talking to a vampire, she quickly added, “Come in.”
Kerri climbed in. The kitchen was a mess. Andrea used to be neat as a pin. Kerri looked at her. Andrea seemed to look at her face, not her eyes. Andrea turned away. She walked into the living room. Kerri knew the way. Cloth tapestries in the hallway, abstract art by her friends in the living room, plus a few family pictures. Kerri smelled incense, but not tobacco smoke. That was new. “You quit smoking?” Kerri asked.
“Yeah.” She waved to a package of Nicorette gum on the end table by her chair. Kerri found her way to the couch. When they watched TV, this was normally how they would sit, if they weren’t cuddling on the couch.
The cat walked over to the stranger, tail up, ears perked. Kerri put down her hand. The cat sniffed it, then rubbed its head against her hand.
“So, you two have met,” Andrea said.
“She’s a good conversationalist.” Kerri gently rubbed the cat behind the ears. The cat arched her back and rubbed against her jeans. Kerri missed Scrim.
“I miss Scrim,” Kerri said.
“Sorry,” Andrea said. Kerri snorted. “I mean it. You loved that old cat.”
The ratty old cat, Andrea had once said. Kerri let it go. “Thanks.” She kept petting the cat.
Andrea kept rubbing the back of her neck. Then she rubbed her hands together. It must have been the cigarette withdrawal. Kerri had never felt like the calm one. This was weird.
“Are you okay?” Kerri asked.
“You came here to ask about the cat.”
“Jeez. Fine. Can I have her?”
“I don’t know if I want to give it away any more.”
Kerri looked up. The cat did, too, which almost made Kerri laugh. Even the TV had gone to a dead air between commercials. The quiet in the room made Kerri’s ears ring.
“I’m just not sure. I’ve had it for a week, and I’m starting to get used to it.”
“That’s why you didn’t answer?”
“Yeah,” Andrea said. Kerri didn’t believe her. Andrea never a one-word answer to anything.
The cat walked between Kerri’s leg and the couch, like a scarf tied around her ankles. Kerri thought it was adorable. Kerri’s stomach boiled with tea from earlier in the night. Between her batgirl antics and this, she’d need an antacid to go to sleep.
Kerri stood. “All right. Well, I’m interested. Let me know when you make up your mind. I’ll… leave by the door this time.”
Andrea stood. She started as if she was going to give her a one-arm hug, like they did when they first broke up, then held the door open for her instead. Kerri nodded. She left the apartment. When the door closed behind her, she said, “What the hell already.”
Kerri went to the coffee shop again for the next two days. The sign to adopt the cat was still tacked to the cork board. Kerri asked Tom about it. He said he didn’t know. He must have passed the word along to Andrea, because the next day Kerri met Andrea by her door holding cat carrier.
“Hey,” Kerri said.
“Hey,” Andrea said.
Awkward. Kerri wanted to get her mail, but Andrea was standing between her and the mailbox. She had to know that. She’d been over her apartment enough times. “You don’t want her?”
“We’re… not a great fit. She keeps pawing at the dog. I spray her with a water bottle but she’s stubborn.”
“She’d be perfect for me, then.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“Well, let’s go upstairs. You can drop her off. Thanks.”
Andrea stepped back to let Kerri lead the way. That was new. Andrea always used to lead the way, no matter what they were doing. She said it was her impulsive side. Andrea set the carrier down and opened the door. The cat waited until Andrea stood all the way up, then scooted out like the carrier was the last place she wanted to be. She disappeared behind Kerri’s easy chair.
“Ungrateful little shit,” Andrea said.
“She probably just hates being cooped up,” Kerri said. The cat came back out to the middle of the living room. It was wobbling. Kerri was about to wonder what the hell was going on, when the cat hunched, gagged, and threw up on her carpet.
“I’m sorry! She was fine when we left! I swear!”
“She’s probably motion sick from the carrier. Ugh!” Kerri started for the kitchen to grab paper towels. Andrea was already there. She stood in her way, turning in circles. “I… you need to move.”
“You changed everything. Where are the towels?”
“I’ve got it.” She gently pushed her out of the way. “I had to keep busy. Can you fill a bowl with water for her?”
“Have those moved?”
“No, same place.”
Kerri held her breath and worked on the stain. It came up. Andrea put down a bowl of water, then came back with the bottle of Stain-Rid that Kerri had used for Mr. Scrimshaw. Tag team, just like old times.
It took a few minutes, but she got most of the stain up. What was left wasn’t as bad as the old wine stains, coffee stains and snags in the rug that had accumulated over the years.
Kerri washed her hands. She could see into the living room from the kitchen. The cat looked fine. It nosed around the furniture, checking out its new home. Frankly, she looked like the most comfortable person in the room. Kerri’s hands smelled like smoke and chucked-up cat food, and Andrea sat on the end of the easy chair looking guilty.
“Hey. Are you all right?” Kerri asked.
“No! Three days ago I throw you out of my apartment. Today I bring you a pet and it gets sick on your carpet.”
Kerri took a long look at her former girlfriend. Andrea looked fragile. Kerri wasn’t interested in getting back together or anything, but she had to admit she was curious. “Since when does that kind of stuff bother you?”
She pet the cat as it walked by. “I’m going to miss the little dustball. Oh – you’ll have to clean more. Or brush her a lot. She likes to go underneath stuff.”
“Great.” Kerri got two bottles of flavored water out of the fridge. Andrea took one. She looked sheepish. “So if you’re going to miss her, why give her away?”
“I didn’t want a pet. I missed you.” Andrea stopped herself. “Not the drama. Just, you know, hanging around. When you showed up I was so mad! It was like you were sneaking in to steal my band-aid!”
Kerri took a sip of her water. So. “What do you think about visitation rights?”
Andrea rubbed her arms. Kerri could relate. Her skin was crawling remembering the breakup. “We’d have to play it by ear.”
“Choosers can’t be beggars. Sounds good to me.”
Kerri jumped when she saw the dead sparrow. It lay in the middle of her bedroom floor, presentation-style, and it hadn’t been there an hour ago. The cat was leaving her gifts again. “Ugh! Damn it, kitty!” Lady trotted into the room and sat down next to her trophy. Yes, I killed this. Yes, I did it for you.
Kerri called into the other room, “Andrea, your cat is a killer.”
“You might want to sleep lightly, then. And that’s your cat, not mine.”
Andrea kept setting up snacks in the living room. Kerri spotted popcorn in one bowl, Cheez-Its in another, and wine for both of them. A glamorous Saturday night. Kerri dug a dust pan from under the kitchen sink. “I don’t know where she finds them. She must be sneaking out the window when I’m not looking.”
“Do you need a hand?”
“I’ve got it. Get the movie queued up.” Andrea was squeamish anyway. It would take her twenty minutes to do what Kerri could take care of in five. Kerri swept the bird up, dumped it in the garbage, then dumped the garbage down the chute in the hallway.
Lady seemed surprised by all the fuss. The cat looked at the floor, at Kerri, and walked around her while she scrubbed the rug with disinfectant. Kerri looked at the cat as she said, “She hisses. She spits. She scratches. She acts like this apartment is hers.” The cat bumped foreheads with her. Awww.
Kerri flopped down in her easy chair across from Andrea. “Just like her mom.”
“Would that be me, or you?” Andrea asked.
Lady walked into the living room. She looked at Andrea, then at Kerri. Andrea said, “She’s wondering whose lap is warmer.”
“Who feeds you, kitty?” Kerri reminded Lady.
Lady sat down. Her regal posture reminded the two humans that it was an honor to have a cat in their lap.
“Whatever, your highness,” Kerri said.
Lady picked Kerri. The cat fidgeted until Kerri stretched out her legs, giving the cat more room to lay down.
“Brown noser,” Andrea said.
“Extra tuna for you tomorrow,” Kerri whispered. Lady seemed happy with that. She asked Andrea, “What movie did you bring?”
“Oh, I love that. Hey… since when do you like Brit TV?”
“I missed it when you left. I guess it rubbed off on me.” Andrea tried not to smile. “And you let me have visitation rights. I figured I owed you one.”
Kerri settled in. She had one friend in her lap, and another sitting across from her. What were friends for?