// Illustration by Alejandra Paton
When I first moved in with Chris, all the things in my life were so sentimental I couldn’t bear to throw them away. The apartment was a small one bedroom overlooking Chinatown. It was pretty clean save for the old tiling, the grubby crown molding, the way the kitchen slanted so that the door would always creak open and clang against the wall if you left it ajar. But it had an extra room in the back, with a picture window that faced the fire escape. When we viewed the place, Chris called that room a tiny haven. I loved him for that, how he walked around like he was looking for a port in a storm though he had grown up in comfort and his parents expected his ambition to match the privilege they had provided him. But in the tumult of moving in, of almost crashing my car when parallel parking, of realizing we had two of every kitchen tool, of tetris-ing the furniture into place and making love atop our still-packed boxes after drinking a magnum of wine, that haven became a storage place for all our stuff and the place that held the litter box for my cat, Jellybean.
We sat watching crime procedurals in the living room on that first night, my laptop slanted atop three boxes, glowing dimly. Jellybean laid on top of the highest shelf he could reach, his paws folded in front of him like a penitent monk. His slight body moved back and forth with every breath he took.
“He won’t stop staring at us,” Chris said.
“He’s just getting the lay of the land. Let him enjoy himself.”
“He’s sizing us up to see if he can eat us. Did you know that if an old person dies, their cats will eat the body after just three days?”
“Well, I would eat you if you died and I had nothing else to eat and I was trapped in here. I’d tear into your entrails with my teeth.”
“Good,” he said. “You gotta get protein somehow.”
I leaned into him.
“I love your practicality.”
Chris had all kinds of plans for that back room. In the weeks after the move, after coming home from our at-that-point menial jobs, we spent a couple hours cleaning and hauling the extra stuff to the street. I couldn’t stop talking about how the place was already dusty, as if the boxes themselves brought their own dust, which made sense, because so many of them had come from years at my parents’ place, like me and Jellybean.
I steeled myself. There was no need to have two can openers, two pairs of scissors, two bedroom lamps, not in that tiny place, so we donated as much as we could and felt good about it. Felt virtuous that we weren’t arguing over whose stuff we were throwing away. Chris was good like that. Not one to argue over the merits of a slightly superior set of forks, even if those forks belonged to him, finer than the ones my mom had thrust into a box as we were leaving like I was moving to a country without cutlery.
* * *
After a few weeks the place was in good shape. The storage room was still packed, a little path in the extra boxes cleared out for Jellybean to wend his way to the litter box, but the other rooms were clutter free. We hung posters and watered plants, we rolled joints for our friends on our mahogany coffee table, we played records and danced in the slanting kitchen and somehow the open window made the place feel huge, to me at least. Once the boxes in the back room were gone, Chris told me, it would feel truly big and truly ours. Imagine that, an extra space beyond the bodily-necessary functions of the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom. A place for us. I think he saw some romance in it, as if an empty extraneous space would fit his capacious heart, would hold our love, but really, I knew that it would give him comfort because it would make him feel rich, despite the omens of poverty that were the cockroach husks we swept up from underneath the oven. It was with Chris I learned that “minimalist” does not necessarily mean “clean.”
Chris was at times a musician, and he wanted those boxes gone to have a room to play his music. He was at times into fitness, and he wanted to bring in a weight bench and a rowing machine so we’d be Adonises by summer. He wanted space to grow plants, peppers and herbs and beans in the light from the picture window.
“What do you think the back room should be for?” he asked, after some silence, one night after making love.
“Other than storage. I mean, it should have some purpose, right? If we sublet it to one of our friends, we’d have enough money to go to Europe or South America every summer. Imagine.”
“The storage is a purpose. It can store the things we don’t use every day, but don’t want to throw away.”
“Let’s go through the boxes some day. Some of them are mine, I know. But we pay to rent the space. We might as well.”
I wasn’t naive: I knew some tension was an inevitable result of our moving in together. I’d watched enough popular media to know that our relationship was set to become more domestic, more flatulent, more freighted with the unromantic grind of two bodies committing all the accretions and excretions that were necessary to survive.
I leaned over the bed and saw Jellybean’s green eyes shining in the dark. After some difficulty, he hopped up and sat down on my chest. I ran my hand along the ridges of his spine. Chris reached over, and soon the two of us were patting him in a little alternating concert. Jellybean purred on like he had for so many years, and I was happy.
“I love your practicality.”
Chris made an effort. At waking up, at going to work, at cooking meals, at saving a few hours for companionship and his various projects, but on Sundays he used to sleep and sleep. He lay in the bed, stretched in a twirl of covers, til two, til three, I used to wonder if he would sleep forever if I never woke him up. But he didn’t complain. He said he was always happy to see my face first thing, even if I broke the somnolent spell that he hoped would temper his hangover.
One day I woke him and suggested we look at the boxes, wanting him to know it was my idea, so we ventured into the dusky room at the back of the hall with mugs of tea and began to open them up.
“How’s it going over there,” he said after half an hour, his garbage bag full of extra clothes and baseball cards, old computer speakers, two boxes folded against the wall.
“Not bad,” I told him, but I was lost. Poring through my makeup from high school and dried-up oil paints, the stacks of unread handouts from undergrad, I felt not memories but half-memories, the surfacing of long-lost moods, though the truth was I couldn’t even remember three quarters of what was in the boxes. I reached into a box and pulled out pieces of an art project I had done for school: an old tin can, an empty condom wrapper, a plastic bag, a paper towel tube and other bits of garbage, all of them dipped in liquid gold to unveil how arbitrary it was to venerate any object under capitalism. Jellybean mewed for food from the kitchen.
The project was terrible. I filled my bags, one for donation, one for refuse, trashed a few boxes, I smiled and told him I had problems letting go. I wasn’t a hoarder, it wasn’t that. I wasn’t bringing in new and useless garbage. It was more that I was twenty-four and didn’t want to confront the forgetting that might come with losing the things I’d held onto all my life. Even if it was time, even if I’d forgotten them already. I half-joked and blamed it on my artistic temperament, that unwillingness to confront forgetting, but even then I suspected it had more to do with the eighth of weed I smoked every week.
In any case I was strong. We cleaned up the back, took out most of the excess stuff save the golden garbage, some essays marked by favourite professors, and the computer monitor and tower I thought I might someday use. I forgot about the rest, quickly and happily, like the diarrhetic passing of a delicious but spicy meal.
Chris played video games and I read magazines. We played scrabble, bathed together in the little tub, sloshed water all over the bathroom, used his filthy towel to clean it up, we sat in the winterblue light on the fire escape and watched the salarymen hunch home through the alleyway. I brought him candy, a new pair of gloves, stories of horrible customers from the taco restaurant where I served. I loved to come into the place and see his lanky frame stretched across the leather couch I’d brought from home, Jellybean purring on his lap. Angel Bean. Jealous Bean. Jellyface. Jollyface, and sometimes, when I needed his guileless companionship most, I called him just Bean. There were so many names for that small gray cat, accumulating without ceremony like snow.
Chris went to work at the liquor store, came home and laid out massive treatises about startups and cryptocurrency. He bought plants for the back room that I never watered, weights I never lifted, arts and crafts supplies I never used, refusing in silence to let that room have purpose. But I loved him, loved his plans, loved the feeling of hauling the computer tower and old art project to the street in March to make more room. At that age, productivity was still an intoxicating feeling, arising from unseen hollows and unexpected activities. At that point I was always improving. Learning to clean, learning to cook, learning to do laundry every week, learning when to neglect those activities out of sheer joy, out of sheer kindness to myself.
The days grew longer. One day Chris came home with pictures of a new sofa that Rami, his supervisor, was giving away. Dark brown upholstery with a little extra section to lay on while looking at the big screen TV that Chris was planning to buy.
“Think about it.”
“I love it,” I said, not without some honesty. “What about this couch, though?”
The one we were presently sitting on in the living room, the three of us.
“We can keep it in the back.”
“Yeah? Then let’s get Rami’s. But I told my mom I’d hold onto this one.” I tapped its cracked black leather, the places on the arms that Jellybean had scratched away over his long acquaintance with the upholstery. “She doesn’t have room to store it, and it was so expensive when she bought it.”
“For sure,” Chris told me.
I laid my legs across his.
“Maybe it’s time to let it go,” I said. “I’m almost twenty-five. Maybe it’s time for a couch that a cat hasn’t demolished.” I lifted Jellybean’s skinny body and put him on my lap, his back arched, as he refused to look me in the eyes and thought of a polite excuse to get away. Instead I held him there, cupped my hands around his perfect little head, flexing my fingers like they were about to pressurize a piece of coal into a diamond. “You little destructive animal.”
“We’ll put the old couch in the back.”
“I love you, Jellybean,” Chris said, and kissed him on the head.
“Do you think Jellybean is our avatar?” I asked him.
* * *
You know how this story ends. April came and the couch sat turning into whitewashed coral in the slanting light from the back room’s picture window. We rearranged the living room. We fucked on the new couch’s little extra section. We bought complicated cleaning products and he took coding classes online. One night when Chris was out playing softball I smoked a joint to myself and filled two garbage bags with clothes from the back of my closet, torn-up jeans and sweaters from before I lost the weight, and walked them to the heaving metal box that accepted donations out by the park.
I went into the back room with my sketchbook, moved aside some old boxes and sat down on the couch to drink wine and draw fairies and goddesses and cave formations. All at once I thought, at some point, Chris is going to ask me about this couch. He is reasonable, so he will wait until it is reasonable, until some months have passed. He will ask me, again, what purpose I think this room should have, and I will tell him storage.
I sat there and I knew it.
Soon he would ask me: when was the last time you even sat on the couch, and I would think about this moment, with my wine-purpled lips and sinuous drawing of a dryad. I knew I would think about this musty smell, and tell him, not for a long time.
Then he would have a great idea. He would hold my hands and look at me with those big eyes and describe a miniature rock climbing wall back here, a studio, a home office, a “cuddle zone,” but first we’d have to clear out the couch, my couch, just like we had cleared out everything else that belonged to me.
I tried on different feelings like the clothes that no longer fit. Was he attacking me, or just my things, or was the liquidation just a byproduct of his plans, his insecurity about his lack of ambition? Did he know he was doing it? I shaded the area underneath the dryad’s armpit with my pencil. I knew the future, but I was also growing, and this very predictability was part of what I thought I wanted from my life.
Besides, at that moment, as I watched the sun go down outside the picture window, I couldn’t remember anything we’d thrown away.
“When did you get home?”
* * *
We found him beneath the radiator in the bathroom after fifteen minutes of looking in all his favourite spots. He mewled as I lay on my stomach and reached into the dark to pull him out.
“Why’s he sitting here?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know why cats choose anywhere to sit.”
Jellybean’s little body rocked back and forth with every breath he took, everything sloping downward as he sat. His paws were caked in shit and litter as he peered around the room and refused to make eye contact, like he always did when he was embarrassed.
“He doesn’t want to walk,” Chris said.
“Come on, Jellybean.” Tsk tsk. “Come here.”
“Look at the way he’s walking. Poor Jellybean, he looks pathetic.”
“He’s walked like that for a while,” I said, but I wasn’t sure. I covered my nose, asked for a cloth, wrapped him in a towel and made him up a throne on our bedroom chair of pillows and blankets and toys. We watched him laid out on his side, staring at god knows what, resplendent like a convalescent duke. Later that night I called my mom, too far away in Sedona, and she told us to take him to the vet and do what we felt was right.
I wanted to know what the difference was from how he was before and when the difference came. I wanted to know the proper behaviour and proper medications for a nineteen year old cat. I wanted to know the chances for recovery from an ailment that wasn’t diagnosed. Instead, Chris made me dinner and drew me a bath, he gave me an orgasm and woke me up with breakfast, he checked our schedules and set an appointment without even asking, that was his generosity. Over the next three days, as I watched Jellybean drag his bowlegged feet to the litter box and fall asleep halfway through his business, as I found him under the radiator again, whenever I asked Chris what he thought, is this the end for Jellybean, he just frowned and touched his chin.
“He has had an excellent life,” he said, someone who would know. Has had. Past tense wearing the clothes of the present, naked to any pretense of a future I hated his refusal to imagine. But of course he didn’t outright say Jellybean was going to die. I knew I was being unfair. Besides, he wasn’t a vet.
“Nineteen years is very many for a cat.”
The vet was standing over us, a woman in the full roundness of life and middle age, pens spilling out of her coat pocket as she felt across Jellybean’s stomach and clucked. “What a beautiful boy,” she said, with all her sympathy, smoothed and rounded as it was by decades of focus and attention to boys and girls as beautiful as these, their pictures taped around the walls of the tiny examination room.
“How many years can you expect, for a cat?”
“Are you saying he’s going to die?”
She looked at me and smiled.
“Every animal will die, I’m afraid, but sometimes we are tasked with a decision. Difficult. His blood work shows severe anemia, extreme dehydration. Feline dementia.”
“But he was fine a week ago.”
Chris put his arm on my shoulder: “He’s been like this for a while, Jeanine. It’s been a slow decline.”
I shrugged it off. I stared into Jellybean’s slowly blinking eyes as he lay on his side, the sockets around them completely white. He stared at the space on the wall between us, and I thought, there’s something about us that cats will never understand. There’s something about cats we will never understand, and that’s the only reason the arrangement works.
“That’s how it often is,” the vet said. “We can run an MRI, do a full CT scan, which would cost around fifteen hundred dollars. That would describe the problem. Cancer, feline AIDS, kidney failure, it’s hard to exactly say, but then you’d have surgery, which, for a nineteen year old cat—”
“Whatever he has is not survivable, probably,” Chris said.
“Is there any chance?”
The vet shrugged. “I can’t say, but – again, nineteen years,” and on like this we went around for a few more minutes before she left us to make our decision.
“I want to be humane,” I said, holding him in my lap and staring at the cartoon cat in the food ad on the ceiling. “I want to be a good person.”
“You are a good person,” Chris said. “You’re my favourite person.”
“So what should I do?”
“If you’re worried about feeling bad, you shouldn’t. He’s had an excellent life.”
The vet came in, wiped her hands dry of sanitizer. I put our guy on the table. He sat down with his hugely arching back, blinking and rocking side to side with his breath.
“Have you made your decision?”
The vet looked over at Chris. He closed his eyes, bowed his head, nodded solemnly, and I wanted to say, you barely know him at all.
She prepared a small kit of needles, then pulled out a shaver and began to razor the fur above Jellybean’s paw. I thought, don’t ruin his beautiful fur, it will take so long to grow back, absurdly, because I knew he wouldn’t need it anymore. He lay there with so much dignity, sedated, staring me finally in the eye, but of course he couldn’t have known what was coming.
“His blood is so thin, it’s hard to find a vein. Okay,” the vet said, her voice carrying the utmost kindness. “Now would be the time to say goodbye.”
I stood up, stroked him, held his paws and kept on staring, then leaned down and kissed him on the head.
“Bye, bean,” I said, and then the needle went in.
The little meow, the head turned up, the eyes going to blank, and then he was an object, inert, as the time left him and seeped out into the room.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
We stayed with the body a few more minutes. I held it and sang it little songs, I kissed its little head, I picked up the towel we’d wrapped him in to bring him, made arrangements for the disposal, then paid for the procedure.
I went outside to the parking lot in silence. Chris walked beside me. He looked a little anguished, a little wondering what he was going to have for lunch, I couldn’t tell. Though I knew that was unfair, I was already in my forgetting place. I kicked the gravel, unlocked the car. Chris got inside while I walked around and opened up the driver’s side door.
“I’m so sorry, Jeanine. It’s so hard. I know he was your cat, but I loved him too. I really did.”
I threw the towel into the back seat, then found my keys and put them in the ignition.
“I love you,” Chris said.
The two of us looked straight ahead out the windshield.
“We can throw away the couch,” I said, and put my foot on the gas.
So that was the first time I ever lived with a man.
Sam White is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s M.A. in Creative Writing program. His writing has recently appeared in Carve and Sequestrum.