Cat Therapy (was: Adventures in Felinity)
1230 words long
Today you're taking a vacation from humanity.
Notes from the author:
Like Buckaroo Bonzai says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It’s not enough sometimes just to take a week off and travel somewhere new. You can’t leave your own brain behind, so there are some troubles you can’t help bringing with you. It would be nice to be able to take a vacation from being human, spend time in a simpler brain with simpler cares and anxieties that are more easily assuaged. But I imagine that if we ever figured out how to do that, we’d wind up inventing a host of other problems to go with it, worse than the ones we’d hoped to leave behind.
The body therapist chats with you as she works, asking you about your day and what brings you to Miami. Business trip, you tell her. Team's doing some technical work at a client's office tomorrow. (No, you can't remember the last time you had a massage.) Today you all get to play tourist. No, no plans in particular. (Yes, that shoulder's tense all the time. Comes of working a desk job. ) Team lead's with the client this afternoon. Marlene and Robbie will of course be romancing it up and sparkling insufferably for all to see. That leaves you. No, it's cool. (The pressure's fine, thank you.) You like vacationing solo.
The conversation trickles away. The body therapist is going after really deep tissue now. You cast your mind after anything to distract you from the too-intense sensations. The little MP3 player has reached an especially insipid track with panpipes and a harp and, yes, birds singing in the background. Your jaw tenses and chatters in response; you're mortified to realize you're chirping. Then you realize why, and embarrassment recedes. Cats are never embarrassed. The body therapist strokes your fur and massages the muscles of your paws. You purr.
The timer dings. The body therapist helps you down from the massage table. There are bowls of food and water waiting for you. While you eat, she draws back the heavy curtains, letting sunlight dazzle the room. "I'll pull you back at six o'clock. That gives you eight hours, unless you come back early." She opens a window for you. "Have fun!"
You twine around her ankle for a moment. Then you hop up onto the sill and down into the heliconias lining the walkway behind the hotel.
"Come back early" is a euphemism. If you manage to get squished by a bus, you'll return to your human body in the spa. You'd prefer not to get squished. You paid for eight hours, and you don't want to forfeit them by failing to land on your feet. Tail high and whiskers forward, you trot around the corner of the building—only to run smack-dab into Marlene and Robbie having an argument near the main entrance. Your ears go flat and you scuttle for the cover of a handy palmetto.
"No," says Marlene, "I'm telling you, I don't want a manicure. I want—"
"Well, a massage then. Go on. Look, if you're worried about the cost—"
"Dammit, will you listen to me? Robbie, I thought we were going to spend the day together—"
"Because there are things I want to do, for Christ's sake—"
"Like pick up a beach bunny at a tiki bar? That's why you want me out of the way, isn't it? Don't think I haven't seen the way you watch them."
Robbie shuts up. His face goes several interesting colors. Now he's pulling out his wallet, counting bills into his hand: One, two, three, four, five. He shoves the cash at Marlene. "Take it. You don't want to visit the spa, fine. Do whatever you want." When she doesn't move, he drops the bills, lets them flutter to the ground. She just stares at him. "Sure. Fine. Set it on fire if you want, I don't care." Then he walks away.
Only once he's out of sight does Marlene crouch to retrieve the money. A small sea breeze teases one of the hundreds down the block. You chase after it and pounce. You're a cat. It's what cats do.
Marlene laughs. It ends alarmingly, choked off by a sob.
You march the stray hundred over to her, warbling proudly. She makes that awful not-quite-laugh again. She accepts the returned money gravely, adds it to its four siblings in her other hand, and then folds herself up right there on the ground to cry.
You meow at her, but she doesn't look up. She's got her face pressed into the knees of her smartly pressed slacks. Can't see an inch past her nose, human-you thinks. Nothing changed there. But cat-you just wants her attention, so you rub your cheek against the straps of her high-heeled sandals.
Now she raises her head. Her usually exquisite make-up is racing with the tears down her face. "Look at you," she says. "You're as much of a mess as I am. But you're sweet."
You're no one's prize Persian, that's for sure. A glance in the mirrored hotel windows demonstrates that. Your short calico-tabby fur is sticking out every which way. For no reason at all, considering that your cat-body didn't exist before the body therapist massaged it into being, your right ear is shredded as though from a lifetime of back-alley fights.
You headbutt Marlene's slacks, leaving short gray-black-white-orange hairs all over the meticulous creases. She straightens up, rearranges her knees into a cross-legged posture, and pats her thigh at you. "Come on then," she says, and you hop into her lap.
Humans like to talk to cats. You're no exception when you're human. Now that you're a cat, you're finding out Marlene isn't either. She pours her heart out while she pets you. "Just a matter of time," she's saying, "especially since I turned thirty. He likes them young." Human-you is recording every sentence to mull over later (the saccharine-sweetness of Marlene and Robbie is an old office joke, who knew they were on the rocks?) but human-you is a very small point inside the larger cat-cosmos, which swarms with impulses like whatever she just had for lunch smells good, and She should rub under my chin again. You tilt your head, angling that spot toward her hovering hand. She complies. "And the money thing, that was just demeaning. Wow, you're real loud purrer, aren't you?"
At some point during this impromptu therapy session, she picks you up and sits you both down on a bench. She takes a moment to clean up her tear-streaked makeup with a moist wipe from her purse. When Robbie comes back maybe an hour later, she's looking a lot more dignified. You, being a cat, were dignified to begin with.
In the same warm tones Robbie uses for the kind of public sweet-talk that inspires multiple coworkers to mime sticking their fingers down their throats, Robbie croons, "And who's this gross specimen of diseased felinity?"
"You watch your mouth," Marlene says. "This cat has been an utter peach. Certainly nicer to me than you've been."
"Ugly old furball." Robbie reaches down to knuckle your head. Human-you is one with the cat-cosmos as far as that goes. Your ears smear themselves flat, your lips curl in a growl, and, when Robbie fails to get the hint—"Jeez, cat, what's your damage? Snuggle up to my girlfriend, you're gonna have to put up with me"—you bite him hard between his index finger and thumb.
Robbie howls. He straightens up and snatches back his wounded hand. You teleport yourself up a nearby tree before he can try anything else.
Calmly and clearly, Marlene says, "Robbie, you're an asshole." She goes into the hotel, leaving Robbie staring after her and the vanishing prospects of any sympathy at all.
He looks up at you. "This is your fault, you know." You respond with an emphatic, drawn-out hiss. He mutters an obscenity and walks away, presumably in search of a bottle of iodine.
Human-you is deep in thought. You're still stunned at discovering fellow-feeling for someone as plastic and shallow, or so you'd thought, as Marlene. You feel you ought to approach her, offer the hand of friendship and womanly support and maybe an invite to dinner, but you aren't sure how to begin without revealing that you've inadvertently spied on her moment of vulnerability. Human-you is conflicted and confused.
But you've only got about five hours left of being a cat today, and you're not going to waste them thinking about human things. You scrabble down the tree—it's not so hard—and slink away through the line of palmettos, ready for a proper adventure.
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