Cat Therapy, by Claire Guyton

When your cat Tuxie stares at you with vacant, glazed eyes—when one ear twitches, her body still, her air expectant—she is asking for (A) attention, (B) food, or (C) your spot on the sofa.

I’m sorry, no, the answer is (A) attention.

Do you think your late nights at work prevent you from giving her enough attention? Do you think she sits at the door in the evening, waiting for you, her paw reaching with hope to the door knob, wishing you home? Do you think she meows while she paws at the door?

Your cat is what we call under-motivated; she is an under-achiever. She spends too much time pawing at the door when you’re not home and staring at you with those blank green eyes when you are. But you mustn’t blame Tuxie for that, you mustn’t burden Tuxie with your expectations. Instead you must appreciate her free spirit—the spirit trying to break through the weight of your need.

Are you transferring your expectations for yourself onto your cat? Are you asking Tuxie to hold in her tiny, white paws your ambition of being a lawyer? Have you encouraged your cat to internalize your own disappointment at dropping out of law school and having to settle for being a paralegal? Do you discourage Tuxie’s free spirit because you don’t have a free spirit yourself?

Why do you stay late so many nights when you’re just a paralegal?

Do you think it’s wise to keep that picture of you, standing in front of your law school, right there on your desk where Tuxie can see it? Where she can see your college boyfriend—the one you were supposed to marry, the one who couldn’t remember your name when you called him two months ago at 3:00 a.m. after too many vodka gimlets? Your parents are in the picture, too, looking so hopeful. But now your parents won’t take your calls, and Tuxie has never met them or your college sweetheart.

Why won’t your parents take your calls? Is it because you stalked your married law professor and the scandal forced you to leave and now no law school will have you? Because your parents had already paid for the wedding your college sweetheart cancelled?

Do you think Tuxie should have to look at these meaningless faces every day, these people who don’t love her?

When Tuxie shreds your rug or plucks at your sofa or gnaws your book covers, she wants (A) better food, (B) a rub-down, or (C) a prettier apartment.

I’m sorry, wrong again—the answer is (B) a rub-down.

You mustn’t blame Tuxie for using her only tools to request the rub-down that you are not there to provide because you spend so much time at the office doing whatever paralegals do. You must get over your attachment to things and foster a closer attachment to your cat.

Incidentally, research has shown that B is most often the correct answer in multiple-choice tests—something to do with the human psyche that I can’t address, as I only know about the cat psyche—so if you’re in doubt, you should always choose B. Of course in our case you must be honest, you must be absolutely, perfectly honest, because Tuxie’s emotional well-being depends on it.

Now, about this married man you’re sleeping with, this lawyer you work for at the firm. You bring him home, don’t you, but he never spends the night, does he, and this means Tuxie doesn’t have stability in the home. Cats need stability.

Why do you think he never spends the night? Do you believe him when he says he wants to, or do you think he’s lying to you, just like he’s lying to his wife? You don’t expect an adulterer to tell you the truth, do you?

You mustn’t yell or clap your hands at Tuxie when she’s tearing up your rug or eating the covers of your paperbacks—loud noises traumatize cats, and those cheap romances you like to buy, those paperback-only editions, are they really worth your cat’s emotional health?

Screaming and throwing things, of course, also count as loud noises. When you screamed at the adulterer, you upset Tuxie, didn’t you? When you hurled that knife set at him, and the knives flew around the room, and one stabbed a sofa cushion, don’t you think Tuxie noticed that this was her favorite sofa cushion? The crash of the wood block against that cracked window, the falling glass, clattering knives, and the adulterer’s curses—didn’t that terrify poor Tuxie, didn’t she run under your bed?

Tuxie needs a safe place to hide when you’re throwing knives, so please keep the floor under your bed clear of debris at all times.

Do you think you threw the knives because he told you he loved you just before he lied and said he had to leave?

When Tuxie howls like a dog in the middle of the night, that mournful yowl that sounds like a call to the underworld, that wail that drags you by your neck so you’re sitting up straight in bed, panting, your whole body tensed with the fear that something is very wrong, Tuxie is (A) testing your love, (B) alone and afraid, or (C) hungry.

Very good, you’re learning something from our sessions. The answer is (B) alone and afraid. Tuxie paws at your nose when she’s hungry and you’re asleep, and Tuxie would never test your love because cats don’t play games like that.

Do you think you considered answering (A), testing your love, because the married man you’re sleeping with does this to you? You wear the licorice underwear he gives you, and the shackles; you tattooed the word “lunch” at your bikini line, like he wanted—so why do you think you have to keep proving yourself to him?

Do you think he does this to his wife, too? Do you think that’s why he’s sleeping with you? To test his wife’s love?

Why do you think Tuxie wakes up alone and afraid so often, yowling at you from a pool of moonlight at the bottom of your bed, her head back and her front paws lifted, reaching for you? Do you think this happens so often because of your nightmares? When Tuxie wakes you with her sad wailing, don’t you always have tears on your face? Doesn’t your hand always go to the empty place next to you first, before you go to Tuxie? Why do you think you don’t go to Tuxie first?

When Tuxie knocks your bottle of sleeping pills off the bedside table and bats it around, she is (A) trying to open the bottle, (B) hiding the bottle, or (C) playing.

That’s very good, yes, the answer is (B) hiding the bottle. Because Tuxie remembers what you did with your last bottle of sleeping pills, doesn’t she? When you tested the adulterer’s love? The adulterer ignored your phone calls and all those e-mails, didn’t he? The adulterer never came. If not for Tuxie pawing and scratching and wailing at the front door, that forty-ish bank teller across the hall would never have clip-clopped in her cheap heels to your apartment. She would never have found your door unlocked—for the adulterer’s convenience—and  you, unconscious and soaked in gin and yellow puke, spread-eagled in the bed in the diaper and bib the adulterer gave you for Valentine’s Day. If not for Tuxie and the bank teller, you would be dead, isn’t that right?

Do you see Tuxie as your personal alarm system? Did you expect her to summon the bank teller? Don’t you think that’s putting too much pressure on Tuxie?

Why did the adulterer fail your test?

What is your reason for owning this cat? Is she a pet to you? Have you considered what that means, that word “pet”? Would you like to be someone’s pet? Would you like to be called a pet? Would this make you feel less than?

You mustn’t think of Tuxie as less than.

You mustn’t think of Tuxie as yours.

Do you think the adulterer thinks of you as his and in turn you had to have something that’s yours, and that’s why you bought Tuxie? Because you can’t have him? Why can’t you have him?

Do you think you can’t have him because you’re only a paralegal?

And how do you think Tuxie felt when you raged and sobbed and slashed the adulterer’s pajamas and robe? Didn’t she puff up to almost twice her size? Do you know how much energy that takes out of poor Tuxie, puffing up like that? Don’t you know how stress dries out her skin? Haven’t you seen that little bald spot by her tail?

When you slashed the adulterer’s clothes, did you use the same knife that ruined Tuxie’s favorite sofa cushion?

When Tuxie balls up behind the clothes dryer and refuses to answer your call, she is (A) sleeping, (B) playing a joke, or (C) terrified of you.

No, the answer is not (B) playing a joke, the answer is (C) terrified of you. Tuxie would never play a joke on you. But the adulterer would, wouldn’t he? Like when he had his friend call you and pretend she was his wife. Do you think he always laughs so hard he turns purple and has to lie down? Or that time when he left you in your Heidi the Alpine Goat Girl costume, waiting at the corner while he ran to buy cigarettes. Other men slowed their cars to offer you money, and then it started to rain, and you tried to cover your long braids while you ran to the drug store, but he wasn’t there. Oh, yes, he has played jokes before, and that’s why you were right to steal those pills from the adulterer’s medicine cabinet when you were there for the office party and he wanted a quickie in the bathtub. He never showed up, did he, and you spent over an hour waiting for him in that tub—that was another of his jokes, wasn’t it?

Do you think the adulterer considers sleeping with you one of his jokes?

When the adulterer comes to your apartment to confront you about the slashed pajamas you mailed to his home, addressed to his wife, and you calm him down with a quick, quiet apology and offer him a glass of his favorite brandy, will Tuxie be in the room? Will you let her see you do it? I understand why you have to put all those ground-up pills in his brandy, but do you want to model this sort of behavior in front of Tuxie? Hasn’t Tuxie seen enough ugliness?

When the investigation is over, and the police determine that the adulterer took too many pills because he was drunk, and you’re safe—safer than before, because now your coworkers who knew all about the affair actually feel sorry for you—will you stay at the firm? Will you keep flirting with that other lawyer, the one who’s divorcing his wife? Because that would be a step up, wouldn’t it? He would stay the night, and then Tuxie would have some stability.

Because it’s hard for a cat to fend for herself so much, it’s hard for little Tuxie to know that she isn’t first in your life. Just like it’s hard for your parents, your college sweetheart, your former friends, and the adulterer—they all have to keep their distance because they know how selfish and weak you are.

I see we’ve come to the end of our time together, but I want to ask one final question. When Tuxie rams her head into your chest, when she noses into your palm and licks your fingers, when she flops over and lets you rub her belly fluff, she is (A) working out the last of a catnip high, (B) confusing you with her former owner, or (C) doing her kitty best to comfort you, because no one will ever love you.

Oh, I’m so pleased to end today’s session on such a high note—yes, you’re right—good for you! The answer is indeed C — No one will ever love you.

* * *

Claire Guyton, the Maine Arts Commission’s 2012 Literary Fellow, is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach in Lewiston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Hunger Mountain, The Journal for the Compressed Creative Arts, River Styx, and elsewhere. Claire is attempting to write a short story every day for a year and blogs about this challenge at dailyshorty.com. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
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