The week after Diane died and I decided calculus and life were too hard, my mother showed up to my dorm with her hair dyed red and a cardboard box in her arms. Covered with silhouettes of kittens, bunnies, and puppies, it was the kind of box the pet store gave you when you were willing to adopt an animal, but too cheap to spring for a real carrier. My roommate invited my mother into our suite then disappeared. Mom found me underneath a too thin comforter in my tiny dorm room. Except for trips to the bathroom, I had been in bed since my best friend’s death. Mistakenly under the impression my mom was capable of providing some kind of comfort, my suitemate had gotten in touch with her.
Mom sat down at my desk chair with the slightly battered box in her lap. My mother is crazy. She sat very still, but occasionally I could hear a noise. It was like the sound of someone methodically making tiny tears in the cardboard, patiently and minutely shredding it as if from the inside with an art knife.
“No cats in the dorm,” I said, through the gap in my blanket of solitude.
Mom opened the box briefly and pointed its top at me.
“Do you see a cat?” she said.
I didn’t respond. I didn’t even try to guess what she was up to. It was best to keep your expectations low with people like my mother. I hadn’t seen her in a year. Mom had once often repeated a story her grandmother had told her about a Blackfoot man coming to the door of their home on Ucluelet Island claiming they were relatives. Her great grandmother had no interest in Indians and had run him off, but Mom had gotten a lot of mileage claiming to be Indian. A year earlier, I had asked her to stop and we hadn’t spoken since.
I heard the box land on my desk.
“You know, I cosigned some pretty big loans for you to go to this school. Do you know what I could do with an extra 18,000 dollars?”
I was well aware of what she could do with extra money. My father had left me with her in a house full of art and medicine cards. There was little food, even when there was extra money. My mother had a weird definition of what constituted a necessity.
I rose to the bait, “I thought you always said money was less real than time. That it’s just an illusion?”
She laughed. “Yes, but Sallie Mae is real. And she will really garnish my checks, if we aren’t able to pay back your loans because you flunked out of school. It’s a little late to decide calculus is too hard.”
We were both quite for a moment.
“What’s the formula for the reciprocation of unconditional love? The algorithm of secret keeping,” I muttered.
My mother’s laugh was harsh, like an ax chop.
“I forgot the cat food,” she said suddenly, standing up. “For the non-cat. And you haven’t said anything about my hair.”
I didn't have the energy to laugh, so I sighed. I communicated with mom through sighs a lot. Even before Diane died. Even before Diane told me her doctor said she might die.
“I mean, I only drove all night. To New Mexico and back. And I’ve always had black hair. And I could use a nap, too. But I'll go get her some food.”
She closed the room’s door loudly as she left, but was kind enough to leave the lights off. I rolled over and saw the box still sitting on my desk. I closed my eyes. I wanted to go back to sleep.
Four days earlier, my doctor had prescribed some stuff for anxiety and instead of worrying or thinking, I had spent those days slipping in and out of sleep. The pills were supposed to last a month, but I was halfway through them. I contemplated taking one from the bottle’s hiding spot in the rolled up socks in the girly combat boots beneath my bed. But, when I heard the shredding noise again, I sat up. I heard my Game of Thrones figure of the warrior girl too good for the world clatter down off the back of the desk. She landed in the nest of light and laptop cords.
The cat carrier went quiet. I got up to make sure it really was empty. I felt dizzy. That’s what happens when you stop eating and stay in bed all the time. I walked over to the cardboard box. A hole the size of a pre-kindergartener’s fist had been punched out from its inside.
“WTF?” I muttered.
I picked the box up and shook it. It was definitely empty.
In the bathroom I got a glass of water. I ferreted out my bottle of pills and counted what was left. My best friend had gone into hospice two weeks ago while I kept going to class. She died drugged and afraid, I guess. I wasn’t there.
I thought about taking all fourteen. The biggest problem I saw was screwing it up and ending up bedridden and at the mercy of my mother. With guardians like her you couldn’t afford to mess around.
Instead, I took one pill and a long drink of water and climbed back into bed. As I curled up around my pillow, I felt a weight on my shoulder. It draped there and I felt points of pressure across my upper arm.
“Diane?” I stupidly whispered.
I had done the same thing right after she died, called her name, while watching a tire swing move back and forth in the stillness of our backyard. I mused that she was hanging out, when of course the dead have better things to do than visit the tree swings of the living. You’re not supposed to speak the names of the dead in the year after they die, supposed to let them rest. If you call them, they might think they need to come back.
Over my cheek, the blanket pressed down. Heat of the lowest intensity spread from my arm to my elbow. I smelled kitten. Kitten smell is like newborn baby head. There is some weird chemical thing that happens to a lot of people when they breathe that scent in. Clean fur, fresh skin, warmth, milk. I felt my body relax involuntarily. I took another deep breath through my nose, but tried not to move too much.
My mother had spent time in New Mexico before I was born. When I was little, she took me back to visit Aztec, the little town where she had spent a summer doing archaeology. As we walked through the historic site of kivas she told me the story of her ex-boyfriend wandering through the ruins in the middle of the night. “I warned him not to hop the fence,” she whispered, her eyes wary of the park’s interpretive guide. Her boyfriend had argued that his native ancestors would have approved. Half-way there, a small cat began to follow him. When he got to the fence the cat sidled between him and the fence and meowed insistently. He pushed the kitten away, placed a throw rug over the top of the fence, and climbed over. The cat was immediately beside him and walked adjacent to his route as he toured the ruins.
In the moonlight, he had wandered through what was left of the Puebloan structures. When he tried to climb down a ladder that lead into what was left of a Kiva the cat blocked his path and meowed angrily. He suddenly felt he was being watched. In the shrub along the far side of the grounds he saw two red dots, like two small eyes. He thought better of descending. The cat followed him back to the fence. In his haste, he scraped his arm deeply on the prongs as he climbed over. The cat had disappeared. As mom and I walked through the ruins, I kept my eyes open, looking for a small, white cat. I was five.
I asked her, “What happened to him?”
She shrugged, saying she didn’t know. She’d broken up with him soon after when his parents came to visit and she found out he had lied about being Indian. Their relationship was too small for two wannabe Natives. She went to Oklahoma and married my Cherokee father, Dan Wilson, soon after.
I heard the door open and the smell of kitten was replaced with the smell of steamed buns and chili. I felt a light punch on my shoulder for a moment only and then weightless nothing. My mom stood in the doorway.
“I have coneys and Pepsi and that popcorn ice you like.”
“Please come to the living room. I don't want to eat lunch in here. Your bedroom stinks.”
Reluctantly, I followed her into the front room.
My body, the traitor, reacted to the smell of the hotdogs. I scooted into the corner of the loveseat and mom shoved the foam tray of coneys into my lap.
Moments later she handed me a soda. I set it on the floor next to my foot.
“You guys will have to be careful about keeping the door shut or else she'll get out.” She paused and sipped at her drink. “I mean, a cat like this, she has to agree to stay with you. No one owns a ghost cat. She has to choose you. Because eventually someone's going to leave a door open.”
I looked out at her from underneath my longish black bangs. After I was born, she had started dying her dishwater blonde hair to match mine. It was another secret she didn’t think I knew.
“What if my roommates are allergic?” As depressed as I was I could still manage snide. It’s my superpower.
She shrugged. “To an invisible cat?”
I reached out for the Pepsi and felt something sand itself across my knuckles. I yanked my hand back knocking an unseeable thing away.
My mother laughed. “That’s not how you build relationships. You better pick up some catnip or something to make amends,” she clucked.
I looked directly at her. Her blue eyes glinted. She had these eyes that always seemed to be vibrating imperceptibly. She only blinked when her contacts were bothering her. It kept you off balance, if it didn’t mesmerize you. Absentmindedly, I took a bite of my chili cheese dog. Then I took a few more and suddenly my first coney was gone. I set down the tray with the second coney on the floor and picked up my soda. My mother raised an eyebrow at me.
“Once you've offered the food to Gris, you mustn't eat any of it,” she said, gesturing with her chin towards the floor.
I glanced down at the tray. “I mustn't, mustn't I?”
Mother didn’t respond.
“Why is he called Grease?”
“Not Grease. Gris. It’s grey in French.”
We sat in silence. I felt something brush my ankle, sliding between me and the coney. I stayed very still and tried to remember what the word was for a hallucination you could touch.
“Not what?” I said sharply.
“Not a tactile hallucination. She's a cat. And a ghost.”
“Why the hell would a cat be a ghost?” She was starting to upset me now. “Does it have unfinished business? Is it seeking revenge?”
My mother got up. “Just not ready to move on, I guess. More stuff in the car. I'll be right back.” She slipped out the front door.
I felt shaky. Diane had been my anchor. We created art and wrote for each other before we shared our work with anyone else. I could tell her anything and now I had nothing to say to anyone. I wanted to believe in ghosts because that meant death wasn’t the end. I didn’t know if I wanted to believe in reincarnation. If death was the end, did that mean living was pointless? Eat, sleep, go to class, repeat? A life of meaninglessness loomed, a life where the people you loved died on you. And people who were supposed to love you kept disappointing you.
When mom returned she was carrying a litter box.
I stared at her. “Am I seriously going to have to clean up ghost cat poop?”
Mom shrugged. “Maybe. Just fake it and see if that works out. You’ll just have to learn what she likes. I wouldn’t know. No Ghost Cats for Dummies at the pet shop. Maybe that should be your next book.”
Diane and I had been trying to write books since we were in the second grade. When I used to trust her, I naively told mom all my ideas. I guess snide is also my mom’s superpower.
She walked toward my bedroom door and opened it. She stopped, turning as if waiting for someone to follow her in, then she closed the door behind them.
I cleared our trash from lunch. Even when I wanted to die, I tried to be as good a roommate as I could manage. As I kneeled down, I caught a whiff of sour tears and sweat wafting off my t-shirt. Suddenly, I wanted a shower. I found my bedroom door locked and had to knock.
“What?” my mom called.
“I’m going to take a shower.”
A few minutes later my mom opened the door and handed me my robe, a towel, and my shower caddy. “Got you some new shampoo,” she whiffed.
In the shower, I let the water run into my closed eyes. Diane was really gone. Her family had buried the body she once animated and they were all as broken hearted and in shock as I was.
“Death, death, stupid effing death,” I muttered.
Mom had bought me the unnecessary and expensive shampoo I loved. It smelled like heaven, but burned the hell out of my eyes. How could she get everything else so wrong, but get little things right?
Once out of the shower I brushed my tangled hair for the first time in a week. I pulled it back in a ponytail. I kept a stash of razorblades in a drawer. I took one out and chopped at the top of the ponytail and my hair dropped around my face in an inverted bob. I wondered if anyone would accept the eleven inches of hair as a donation. I wished I had cut my hair when Diane lost hers. I wished she had seen me when it mattered.
Back in my room, my mom snored in my bed. She had set up a clean cat box underneath it and moved my boots. I rolled my eyes. Behind me the door hadn’t quite shut. I sat down on the floor next to the foot of my bed, my back against the wall, my legs crisscrossed. My mother had pulled the blinds up, but outside it was gray. I wanted to go back to sleep and not think. Thinking hurt. Everything hurt. Her snore taunted me.
I reached for my boots. The socks were gone. So were my pills. My mother had already found them, which probably explained her mid-level snoring.
I found my breath synching up with hers as I leaned back into the wall. I began to daydream about hanging out with Diane at her house late at night. It was one of those daydreams that starts out as a memory, where you watch yourself. I was revisiting one of our last sleepovers at the beginning of her illness, before not dying became everything for her and her family. We had stayed up until dawn watching scary movies. In the kitchen we created recipes and spells that would make us famous novelists, bring us true love, allow us to live forever, cure her.
I felt myself slide into the memory, shift into my own body as I stretched out on her family’s black couch. In the reliving I saw something new, a wisp of white smoke, curled up against Diane’s leg. I watched as she talked passionately, but reached her hand down absentmindedly to pet the cat who wasn’t there.
It was the only conversation we had ever had about her diagnosis.
“Are you scared?”
“What do you think? I’m friggin’ terrified.”
“I just keep thinking why you? Why now?”
Diane smirked at me, the face she made when she mocked the orange faced President and then shrugged, “Sad.”
Then she laughed and the gray wispy cat climbed into her lap.
“How long is long enough?” she said.
I looked at her.
“A life? What’s the algorithm for a death that’s not a tragedy?”
“But you have things to do. Books to write.”
“You’re right. There should be more time.” She stared into the eyes of the increasingly visible gray cat. “But there isn’t. Can you imagine what it would be like if you knew exactly how much time you had? Would you do anything? Would you try to do everything? Think of the things people would never do….” Diane seemed lost in thought. “Why me? Why not me?”
In Diane’s year of dying, I hadn’t spoken to my mother. Her life was only slightly more of a mystery to me than it had always been. My maintenance had moored her life until I graduated from high school, but I had stopped being her best friend by third grade. Her internal life was something I had never understood. She told lies to make herself more interesting to strangers, to people who would pay her to read their medicine cards, to people who don’t understand the word “Indian,” to absolve herself of a guilt she should have used to make the world better.
Kindness and self-preservation necessitate secrets between mothers and daughters, lovers and spouses. When Diane died, my secrets died with her. The future yawned before me, a world without, a world where I might or might not write the books Diane and I had talked about. Other than me, no one would care.
On my leg, a weight the diameter of a nickel pressed and I froze. Then a second weight pressed and both weights punched into my thighs. Prickles, like tiny claws, poked and retracted, shoved and gave, and suddenly the weight of smoke landed in my lap. I inhaled the smell of kitten. I exhaled slowly. I drifted my hand slightly over edges of fur that wasn’t there. A warmth spread up and through me as the ghost cat settled in to sleep in my lap.
Moving into a future without my best friend felt untenable.
But I had a cat to take care of now.
And I guess that’s something.
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