It was early August and already it seemed like most Augusts before. There were those days when the air was so hot and so humid that Tracy saw watery lines on the black stretches of road in front of her. The first day she met the cat, it was one of those days. She was planning on cranking up the A.C. in her condo when she first noticed, through the sliding glass door, the cat splayed out in the middle of the back porch.
It looked at her and said, You’re alone. Tracy tried to get close so that she might pet it, but the cat flinched when she walked forward. I’m alone, said the cat. It reached out an orange paw to lick. Tracy was afraid it would run away if she got any closer, so she just stood, frozen. In a flush of confidence, the cat laid down on its back, so that Tracy could see its soft downy stomach. As it rolled over, it said, But I’m fine with it. Tracy squatted down on the back-porch steps, and there she watched the cat for an hour and a half, until the sun began to set and she realized that she had never been outside on her porch when the sun was setting before. “Pretty,” she thought.
That August, Tracy suffered from migraines. She didn’t drink enough water and she inhaled too many fragrant toxic things. Chemical house cleaners and bleach. Lavender Air Fresheners. And, because Tracy was offended by the smell of her own shit, pumpkin-scented plug-in-pods were to be found in both her upstairs bathroom and downstairs half-bath. At work, she made excel spreadsheets and ran papers to people and sent courtesy emails and sometimes urgent ones, always signed with “Best, Tracy.” All day she’d sit at a desk as the air conditioner hissed. It would provide relief at first, but as the day progressed, her sinuses would begin to hurt the way that ice water sometimes gives a brain-freeze. That August, she would always forget how much she needed a cardigan.
When it was time for her lunch break, she’d climb in her small sedan, inhale a steaming whiff of the inside, and get another headache. Then, she’d head to the drive thru at Chickin’ Lickin,’ where she would eat a meal of refined sugars and carbs, endocrine disruptors, and preservative-rich chicken juices, all of which always left a vaguely tuna-can taste in her mouth. She wasn’t sleek enough to eat salads at lunch. She had tried, those times when she decided she was starting a cleanse, but Tracy never even made it halfway through a cleanse because she could barely make it halfway through a salad.
Tracy daydreamed often about really changing things in her life, like hanging plants, buying a vegetable mandolin, or tanning. Tracy had never been able to successfully tan. Her skin went from pale to red, with nothing in between. Then again, she hadn’t tried recently. Sometimes, Tracy changed small things. She bought herself new sunglasses every summer, new running shoes occasionally, lipstick constantly that she hardly ever wore.
That August, Tracy spent time on the back porch of the condo she had bought a few years back, thinking about the things she’d change. For the past few weeks, she had been imagining a red grill from Moe’s on the porch. “It could be nice,” she thought. Some night, she could maybe grill herself a chicken breast and sit outside with a glass of red wine. But Tracy was thirty-four and didn’t know wines. She liked easy foods, mostly carbs like microwave pasta dishes and cheesy roasted potatoes with rosemary. The next time she saw the cat, she was in sweatpants microwaving her second Fettuccine Alfredo of the night.
The cat came right up to the kitchen window and pawed at the screen and squeaked a tiny meow. It said, when was the last time you ate a vegetable? Tracy rolled her eyes and waited for the cat to leave, watching the dish whir in circles. It was still at the window when the microwave dinged and Tracy reached in and pulled out the plastic pasta tray. It was still at the window when she began to eat straight from the container and when she looked up and it was looking back, she said out loud, “Fine. I’ll get a plate.”
On Tracy’s thirtieth birthday, a coworker had asked if her friends were throwing a party and when Tracy said no, she’d suddenly wondered if anyone ever would. For the next five years she tried not to think about it as best she could. After the cat came by that night, Tracy created an account on Cupid.com, though she wasn’t quite sure why. She uploaded a photo of herself at the beach, smiling in a sunhat and sunglasses. There was no hiding that she looked as pale as the meat from Chicken' Lickin,’ but at least it showed her attempt to tan. It showed determination and merit.
When she went to bed that night, Tracy dreamed that she coughed up a hairball. Tracy didn’t usually dream or remember her dreams. It was unusual for Tracy to wake up in the middle of the night, and even more unusual for her to wake up with a choking itch in her esophagus. She sat straight up in bed and held her throat with her hands, and when the itch did not go away, she ran to the bathroom and held back her hair as she drank from the tap.
She wondered if she had maybe heard the cat calling to her in her sleep. She decided to check the back porch and see if the cat was there, waiting for her. But the back porch was empty, so Tracy waited for it in case it decided to come by. The moon was large and orange, but a fainter orange than the cat’s orange coat. Tracy waited on the porch for a long time and in the end, it didn’t show. She didn’t mind waiting; she had waited for most of her life.
It was at work that Tracy thought of the cat the most. She had begun to take long pauses. When she was typing, her brain would start to feel foggy and she could hardly think of anything. When she was told to take notes in a meeting, she would leave the pages of her yellow legal pad blank. When she was supposed to be making copies she would think “or was it faxing?” And when she couldn’t remember, she would stand by the copy machine and think of the cat. She began to look at animal adoption agencies online during her lunch break. Sometimes she looked when she wasn’t on her lunch break. One Friday, the animal adoption agency’s website announced that they had closed, given that all of their animals had found homes. So, Tracy decided to check Cupid.com as she sat at her work desk. Her stomach tied in a knot when she logged in and saw that a bald man with a mustache, called Brian Reed, had sent her a message. He had a few photos with a burly pug. It was her first match within her radius. “Hey, this is a little spontaneous, but would you want to go out to dinner tonight?” he asked.
Tracy wrote back quickly, “I’m a little spontaneous myself, so I’d love to :)!” She watched him type back. After a few negotiations on time and place, they settled for seven pm at Lombino’s Family Restaurant. Brian had revealed that he was in fact, kind of a foodie, and that Lombino’s had the best steaks within a driving distance. Tracy checked out the menu, spotting Fettuccine Alfredo.
At seven PM sharp, wearing a dark blue dress made of a stretchy material, Tracy walked into the restaurant. Brian was already there, waiting on one of the two benches in the plant filled entryway. He recognized Tracy immediately, stood up, and introduced himself. He was friendly, eager, a bit sweaty, certainly nervous. Tracy peered into the restaurant, getting a sense of her surroundings. Two marble pillars marked the beginning of the dining area, which was a loud sea of small children flailing breadsticks, parents getting drunk on sweet wines, and the persistent aroma of garlic and fry oil.
Of course, it was the Friday night crowd. Brian asked the hostess if she could seat them, and she cheerily informed them that it would be a thirty minute wait. “That’s fine,” said Brian, “we can get to know each other a little better,” as he laughed, sort of at the wrong time. The two plopped down on the benches in the entryway and then his questions began. “What do you do for a living? What’s your favorite movie? Where are you from? Which celebrity do you have a crush on? What would you do with a million dollars? What’s your guilty pleasure?”
Tracy lied about nearly all of her answers. “I work in insurance. I love The Godfather. I’m from outside of Chicago. I’ve always found Paul Rudd attractive. I would travel. I’m an online shopaholic.” When it came to Brian’s turn to share, he rambled about his time as an Eagle Scout, his pug, Scoundrel, his job working at a State Park, his brother’s political career. While he talked, Tracy imagined what their life would be like together. She would take Scoundrel for walks at the State Park, and go to fundraisers for his brother. They would go to Lombino’s, or a restaurant like it, every Friday and every summer, they would vacation in Cancun. Tracy was thinking about the name of their first child when Brian interrupted to ask if she was a Bears fan and, if not, what other sports teams she liked. She lied again and realized that all of Brian’s questions were giving her a headache.
Their food arrived on plates larger than their heads, Brian’s glistening steak and Tracy’s heap of Fettuccine Alfredo. With a mouth full of meat, Brian demanded, “Tracy, you need to have a bite of my steak.” She relented, smiling politely, but she found that the steak, the food at Lombino’s in general, and Brian for that matter, looked much better than they tasted. As they ate, she couldn’t escape the feeling that Brian was trying to hold eye contact with her. Each time she looked up from her dish, he met her eyes instantly, so she decided to avoid looking at him altogether. When the dinner was over, Brian insisted they order dessert. He ordered one tiramisu for them to share. Tracy asked for another plate, to separate hers from Brian’s . Soon, the restaurant portion of the date was over. Brian encouraged her to follow him back to his apartment for a glass of wine. Tracy suddenly felt a pang of guilt and told Brian, very kindly, that she needed to go home and feed her cat. She had lost track of time and hadn’t considered it for hours. They hugged and he kissed her cheek. “We should do this again sometime,” he said. “Definitely,” said Tracy, slinking away.
August was almost over when Tracy saw the cat for the third time. She could feel September coming on, the nights were cooler and the school supply coupons had arrived in the mailbox. The cat came by again on a Sunday. Tracy’s mother and Tracy’s mother’s mother had always spent their Sunday mornings in church, but Tracy usually spent hers thinking about throwing a garden party. She had never bought the grill from Moe’s. She had never grilled herself chicken. At least she had bought a few red wines to sample. She thought of the cat, who was the only company she’d had in the last month.
She considered that the cat was a stray, it perhaps was not being fed properly, although it certainly had a jiggle when it walked. Tracy did as well, which is why she always wore spandex shorts underneath her pencil skirts. As she was considering buying a few cans of cat food to lure it inside, the cat wandered by.
It spoke to her like it did the last two times she saw it, but this time it said her name, Tracy. “Yes, that’s me,” said Tracy. Tracy, said the cat. “Yes, I’m Tracy. That’s my name.” Tracy! said the cat again, but this time Tracy pursed her lips. She didn’t feel like she had much authority when she wore her “gardening” shorts, but she took a strong stance because she wanted the cat to speak like it had before. “Won’t you say anything else?” said Tracy. “You said more before.” No, said the cat.
“Would you like me to buy you some food? Would you say more then?” said Tracy. Perhaps, said the cat. Then it flopped down again in the middle of the porch and licked its right paw. “Well, I’ll buy you some food then,” said Tracy. “Maybe you can come around a bit more.”
I’ll consider the offer, said the cat. But no promises. “Fine,” said Tracy. Tracy left cat food out every morning. She sat on the back porch every night. Sometimes the cat came around.