In keeping with the low-key hum on the radio, the late-night drive back to her apartment at the other end of the city was soft and quiet, and it allowed for reflection. Behind the wheel I made the best of the first respite in what seemed an ever-accelerating sequence of events—from the moment this quasi-stranger I had caught sight of but once before had called me on the intercom and asked me if I would like to join her for a cup of coffee after work to our finding ourselves entangled on the carpet of my living-room—chewing over how when things started not turning up exactly as expected, there was no telling between a good and a bad surprise.
I contemplated, still not worrying, what the situation was:
- A vegetalian—for that was the reason I had been gulping the whole of a greenish bundle of unidentified fibered substances a bald monk-looking waiter had squashed onto my plate in the vegetal-only restaurant she had insisted we should try, and pretended to her (and his) great satisfaction it was the best food I’d had in years, and the whole thing was actually fun, and a nice change to boot:
- A cat-owner—for Satan was the name of her cat, of course, she had specified, when I let go of the bra’s back-clip and gaped at her in religious astonishment.
It had just so happened that the cat was born on an S-year, and Satan was one of the first names in the list.
It would seem the situation was a bit too much, altogether, a vegetalian plus a cat-owner, if only for one night. Perhaps it was the nature of the night, the easy, mellow-warm, traffic-free flow of the midsummer big-city night, perhaps it was the music, that had me willing to give it a go all the same. As a conclusion to the behind-the-wheel reverie, I considered, however, that if this happened to last, I would have to get into the habit of sleeping seldom in my own home—be it on its living-room carpet or its bedroom bed—or work out some solution about the cat.
Meet Satan, was the introductory phrase, when we had stepped into her living-room. Satan, male-friend. Male-friend, Satan.
Neither of us was especially concerned with the formality—I panning around the wide open space of the well-lit, sparse-furnished, cosy three-room apartment, noticing the remarkable lack of partitions or doors in it (making it in actuality a single-if-mazy room, with a kitchen, and a bathroom), while the skinny black shape of a cat in the sofa was deep in the methodical task of licking its black little hairy genitals. Without consulting each other we nevertheless made an effort, regarding how enthusiastic she seemed about the ceremony.
I patted it quickly. It allowed itself to be patted indifferently.
Later, in bed, having smoked my pre-sleep cigarette, and kissed her already-fast-asleep forehead goodnight I closed my eyes and launched myself into a mental rerun of the last episodes, dwelling more closely on those more immediate ones having to do with sex. After a few minutes of such meticulous reviewing, the outcome of which was my being glad I had decided to give it a go in the first place, and about to let myself slip into the arms of Morpheus, I detected a presence in wake next to me. I turned around.
What I saw gave me the terrified surprise of nine lifetimes.
Satan, the cat, was sitting between me and her, as quiet as a statue on its hind legs, and staring right down at me. Cats’ eyes are notoriously inspirational—a T.S. Eliot, a Charles Baudelaire, even the downest-to-earth James Joyce will tell you as much—they convey anything your paranoia urges.
But in those two green-glowing pupils with swelling dots of death at the centre, there was a message that never should have been let carried through.
‘Whatever is it that you are doing in this place, little piece of man,’ was what the eyes seemed to be telling now, ‘in my mistress’s bed? What’s upsetting you? Me? Moi? Sleep tight, little piece of man. In case you haven’t been notified, I am the watch, so don’t you worry, I’m in charge. O, sure, maybe, I’ll scratch you, bite you, maybe I’ll rip you, and I’ll pee on you, I don’t know which for sure. It might happen, and then it mightn’t. Who knows? But sleep tight, anyway… And O—sweet dreams too…’
The rest was a daze.
I did not mention the night’s incident over breakfast in the morning. There were exchanges of infatuation that made me forget all about it like a dispensable dream. Later in the day, as memories of the eve distracted me from my work, I confirmed to myself that this meeting with the cat’s eyes had been but an epiphenomenon, and a silly dream indeed. I called her on the intercom and offered that we go to the movies.
That night, while I smoked, the memory of the ephiphenomenon returned and I decided in jest I would pretend I was fast asleep for an hour after we had said goodnight and suddenly check what the cat was up to, and thereby prove to my sceptical self I had been wrong.
When I sensed complete stillness and quiet in the whole apartment I blinked an eye open. The cat was in position, sitting up straight, between the two of us, the two greenish spheres on their marks, hovering in the dark, not blinking once—drilling into my mind.
The following nights, I performed various acrobatic contortions with my eyelids. But even when I but slightly winched one up, leaving but the faintest slit for an iris to perceive, the cat knew. It was seeing through my scheme, all the way, all the time. And in the mornings I always found the little prick snoring in his mistress’s arms. As if nothing had ever been happening.
That coincided with things’ starting to get out of control.
Seeing me spend every night in her bed she proposed to give me a set of keys and that I take in some clothes and whatever else I felt that I needed. The promiscuity proved an exponential thrill, with an exceptional, dark, anticlimax wedged, however, between the two of us : Satan.
Now, if it had been but nightly strife, perhaps I might have conjured sufficient strength and ignored it. A proof of my good will, in the beginning, I gave Satan more than one indication that there was nothing I asked for more than a good man-to-man talk over the whole situation which only too obviously rested on some foolish misunderstanding. Making a clean breast of it and, maybe, burying the hatchet with the help of a few rounds of drinks, was my own experience of decent, grown-up cohabitation in the socialised world.
But as Satan saw it, the pacifying virtues of the Verb were risible sham : there would be no relenting, no truce.
Typically, when I came home Satan whizzed out of the sofa and vanished to the other side of the apartment as soon as he heard me step into the living room. Mind you, he would not do so upon hearing the key in the apartment door. It was not actually fear, then. It was a calculated decision Satan made: he wanted me to see this show of terror and escape he was putting on, and if his mistress was there to attend, all the better. When the mistress was out and I was left alone sitting Satan, as it were, Satan would not eat the food I prepared for Satan. When I would be watching television, and chewing in a meal consisting of the best I could make out of a refrigerator in which anything from the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, to every living thing that moveth upon the earth—or what cometh out of them—was deemed persona non grata (she having me convinced of the healthiness of such a diet on top of that), Satan was nowhere to be seen. But upon his mistress’ return, he dashed to her like a whirlwind out of his mysterious hiding place, panting and squeaking in famish.
Didn’t you give him his food? Poor, poor puss… Whereupon she cajoled him and carried him to his yet untouched dish in the kitchen, which he all of sudden found appetizing and gobbled up, purring furiously.
The former was the first line of reproach I heard that was intended to me. There were others to follow.
Most of my own grievances I kept to myself. What sense would it have made to suck up to his mistress in my turn and complain about Satan’s not being nice to me, the whole situation’s being unfair?
Worse, the animal had the higher hand on the whole game, and I knew there was hardly anything I could do against it that would not induce her taking its side. Satan’s most forceful trick, I came to understand, was that he could made believe there was no difference between acting out and being truthful, so that the evil or good in him was a matter of others’ interpretation, while all I ever wanted was to exist to the world as a do-gooder.
It was all so very disheartening. I used to believe I had mysterious magnetic powers over cats akin to a je ne sais quoi divine charm. When I was in a room, I remembered, a cat would soon trot up to me and rub her back against my shins, and purr up mechanically onto my lap. A cat trusted me. A cat liked me. Me and my stillness, my quietness, my sense of measure. But a Satan did not think so.
After six months, I found substantiation of what was so very wrong about the situation in that she never called Satan by his name when he was around. It was always puss, puss or else baby. As it should, the name Satan remained unspeakable as a direct reference or a call unto him: it was a name that you merely uttered in passing, in his absence, in a low voice.
In front of such righteous, stubborn, evil I was not so foolish as not to ready myself for a long, nerve-grinding cold war in which no quarter would be held in the end.
But in truth, the whole contest was rigged from the outset, I complained mentally.
Satan was privileged by nature. He had every opportunity of sabotaging my nights, for one thing, and catching up on sleep, and shaping up for combat during the day, while there was no choice for me every morning but to get up, get out, and earn a living—and incidentally, to contribute for the Whiskas supplies.
Another of Satan’s privileges indeed was, to my even greater outrage, cultural: the only form of meat allowed in the apartment was the one in the tin cans of cat-food.
Satan loved meat; he devoured it.
One day, as I roamed in the labyrinth of the next-door department store in search of the aforementioned cans of cat-food, I happened on a whole counter devoted to cat paraphernalia. One of the items caught my attention: a rubber mouse, its resemblance with a real mouse being more than stunning. There were instructions on the back of the toy’s package :
“Cat’s mouse, also known as Hunt Champ Troph’. This smooth-grained toy is designed to oblige the playful predatory instincts of your feline friend. It’s guaranteed! You will be marvelling at your dear companion’s feats of cunning as it chases and corners its rubber prey. The ensuing rest will be for your pleasure only. The toy is non-toxic. A cat’s friend’s last piece of advice : take the toy away when damaged.”
This was quite an interesting piece of information and it got me scheming. The most obvious scheme was to syringe a dose of arsenic inside the toy. I grinned at the sophistication of the plan, but then I thought, what if there’s an autopsy? A more simple plan was to have faith in the ominous undertones of the fabricant’s last piece of advice, and by no means take the toy away when damaged: if any unfortunate tragedy was to occur, perhaps we might even be granted an indemnity.
When I returned from shopping with big bags of goods in my arms and a beaming smile in my face, she greeted me with a kiss for being so thoughtful about the cat.
When I let the rubber mouse out in the open, Satan barely sniffed at it, shrugged and took off to take a nap.
The next day I took the toy away myself and put it in the trash.
Spending my days hatching tortuous plots I knew all the while I would not be able to pull through, and my nights trying at least to out-trick and neutralize Satan, overcome my angst and get a few hours of sleep, I developed a bad need for rest.
In the morning I did not shave properly, and left out wild bunches of beard around my cheeks and under my chin.
I would mismatch socks. One morning I mismatched shoes.
During sex I became aware of the probable peeper’s presence, and nudity within the apartment started to be a problem.
At the office I grew inattentive, clumsy, nervous. I yawned and I sighed, to the mounting irritation of my colleagues. Instead of concentrating on the delayed reports and tasks the delays of which I found harder and harder to conceal from an increasingly suspicious head of department, I spent most of my time brooding over payback.
The diet I had to adapt to did not help on my constitution either.
It occurred to me that the very composition of my body was undergoing a global transformation. I had been willing to trust her certitudes about alimentation, unaware of the consequences on my flesh’s integrity. The texture of my faeces testified as much.
More often than not, upon seeing me move about towards the bathroom Satan would be toddling after me and squeezing himself through the door, settling in the litter appropriately disposed at the foot of the toilet. There was an unmistakable tinge of sarcasm in the look that he gave me from the rock-solid turds he was proudly dropping, diminishing the somewhat more fluid sound of the product of my own bowels in the toilet.
In every field, all in all, Satan made sure he proved a fierce competitor.
Even the more farcical stories come to an end, Satan would have probably said, if he had cared to speak out at last: but he didn’t, he just let his demonic talent do the job.
It was a Saturday morning, a year to the day after I had been struggling to undo a quasi-stranger’s bra on the carpet of my living-room.
I was sitting in the sofa, in the living-room, re-reading a six-month delayed report. Under the panic of the unredeemable delay, I lit a cigarette and looked up towards the living-room’s window, as one is partial to when one is looking for magic solutions to earthly predicaments. But it was Satan that was in the field of my vision. He was in a classic cat’s occupation, leaning over the window and looking. I watched the animal in distraction.
Then Satan looked back and winked at me, before jumping out of the window.
The apartment was on the sixth floor.
The next day I stood in what was in actuality a trial the verdict of which had been reached in a split second before the trial had even begun and I could defend my case.
She was sitting in the sofa, holding on her lap a Satan that had been wrapped up in bandages like a mummy with plaster casts round each leg. The only trace of black left in Satan was a couple of ears protruding through the white coils of the bandages and the thin laths of black of the irises.
‘You understand,’ she commenced, ‘we need to talk very seriously’.
‘It costs me so much telling you this. I had been suspecting something ever since the beginning… Please, don’t interrupt!’ she cried as I attempted to reveal the truth. ‘This jealousy, Goddammit! It’s insane! This is just a cat, for God’s sake! An inoffensive, innocent, loving, loving, gorgeous little creature. How could you possibly wish him harm? How could I possibly trust you, now? Perhaps it’s not you fault, I know. But the very fact that I’m in doubt, as I am speaking, my envisioning the possibility that you might be responsible for this horror—the suspicion !—it’s like a rotten fruit in our relationship.’
She sighed very deeply.
‘All this distrust makes it impossible for us to carry on together. To tell you the truth, I feel as if I had never been knowing you….’
Suddenly the cat gave a heart-wrenching meow. She held it tighter against her and said, ‘Poor baby… Don’t worry, your medicine’s coming in a minute.’
And that was the end of that.
It did not take me very long to collect my clothes, and the other stuff, and get out to my car. As I shoved everything into the trunk, I looked up and thought I saw a quick shape of black leaning over the balcony above. But if it was real it withdrew right away. In the car I had a very deep sigh myself before I started the engine. I decided before I went back home and hoovered a year’s dust on my living-room’s carpet I would roam around the city for a while.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Valès is 24. He lives in Paris, and teaches at the University of Cergy-Pontoise. This piece is the first in a series of nine stories on turn-of-the-century big-city cats (and their owners), some of which, quasi-autobiographical, others, quasi-fictional.
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