It’s not like we could even adopt a cat, but there we were at the animal shelter anyway. We were young and broke and didn’t want to admit that we were on the verge of breaking up, so when Shelli suggested it, I didn’t say no. What else were we going to do? Too many days till payday to go to the movies, too hot to go for a hike, and the mall was just depressing when you couldn’t buy anything. But looking at animals was free and heartwarming, according to Shelli. Part of me wondered if she was planning how she’d replace me once she did finally move out.
She grew up in a veritable zoo: Her mother kept tropical birds and headed up the local tropical bird society. There were four cats over the course of her childhood, three dogs, a passel of guinea pigs they bred for pet stores, and, at one point, a herd of emu. College was the first time she didn’t have a pet, and we were supposed to get one when we found a place together, but the only apartments we could afford: No pets. We got her a turtle from a kiosk at the mall instead and she named him Yertle, but I suppose it wasn’t the same. Me, I’ve never had pets.
So she said, “Let’s go to the shelter,” and I said, “Sure,” and the next thing you know we were standing in a room of dog kennels and the air stunk of saliva. Everything was gray: gray painted cinder blocks, gray linoleum, gray cages. I wondered if it was done that way to make you feel bad for how dreary these dogs’ lives had become.
We walked from cage to cage, like trick or treaters, but instead of getting candy, each time we were greeted with an upturned snout and a tail that wagged back and forth, back and forth. Each time, Shelli squatted down and spoke to the dogs in a falsetto saved for children and animals. I stood back and watched, until Shelli gave me a side eye and said, “Why are you being so weird?” So I started offering them treats in exchange for licks that left my hands uncomfortably sticky.
“I wish I could take them all home with me!” she said after we finished the rounds, and I said, “Maybe you could volunteer?” and she huffed, “With what time?” Which was true. She’d started working full time as a pilates instructor for a local gym, but still took shifts decorating cakes at Giant Eagle on the weekends.
If you tried to look at the situation logically, things had gotten much better: I’d finally started meds that slowed my mind down to a manageable speed but kept me from tanking emotionally, landed an office job so I could pay my half of the bills so we didn’t rack up even more credit card debt. We never really fought anymore, but we also never had sex, never whiled away the evenings talking about the universe or going on some frantic adventure. With my illness went the passion, the backbone of our relationship.
We progressed to the cats, which at least didn’t smell as bad, but they also didn’t seem to care as much that we were there. The set up was perplexing, a tower of cages six feet tall in the middle of a room, and all the walls filled with cages, too, as though they needed to up their cat-per-square-foot ratio. Cat Tokyo. Here, Shelli gave a meaningful sigh, the kind I’d gotten used to hearing.
One looked exactly like you’d imagine an old man would look like in cat form: dull cream with a bulbous nose and bits of crust in the corners of his eyes. He stood up and stretched when we passed his cage, slowly meandered to the front and rubbed his side against the bars. “Well, hello, sir,” she cooed as she stuck her finger in to scratch the top of his head, and he pushed forward into it. I copied her, and read his bio: Wesley Crusher. “I’m very friendly and just want a nice lap to sleep on. I have early stage kidney failure, and need someone who is able to take care of a kitty with special needs.” For a moment, I could imagine us taking him home with us, coming together as we nursed him through his illness, helping him live longer than he was ever expected to last. But when I glanced at Shelli, I could see her eyes were already drifting away. She moved to the next cage, a tabby named Nancy who remained curled in an antisocial ball, glaring at us.
When I lagged behind, she glanced back said, “He’s so weird looking, it’s kind of cute, isn’t it?” She walked over and leaned against me for a moment, watching him as he squatted back on his haunches and began cleaning his tail. I could smell the tea tree oil from her shampoo. I placed one hand against the small of her back.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could adopt him?”
She shook her head and stepped away, and whatever had briefly existed between us disappeared again. “Do you know how much medicine for a sick cat costs?”
And I felt a flinch of resentment that she didn’t wouldn’t even imagine a life with Wesley, a cat that needed us. Sometimes I wondered who she’d become. We met our sophomore year, when she was organizing canvassers for a vote to make our town a sanctuary city. I’d never really thought about refugees, but she was cute and admired her ability to knock on doors of complete strangers and convince them to care. Her ability to empathize. Her ability to want the unwantable. Now she had become someone who no longer loved the hardest luck cases. But the only explanation was that I had made her that way. This was the bed I had to lie in.
So we moved on. We came to Penelope, tiny, black, and fluffy, just like Pepe Le Pew’s love interest. “Ohhhh…” Shelli moaned, then unlatched the cage door. The little girl butted her head up against Shelli’s hand and immediately started emitting a low purr. Penelope let Shelli pick her up, and when my girlfriend dipped her head down to look at her, she rubbed one cheek against Shelli’s chin. When Shelli finally looked up at me again, her eyes shone and I could see the longing. I could feel it, too, this deep ache pressing against my breastbone, the sadness that comes with wanting something you know you don’t get to keep.
“I don’t think it would hurt to ask about adopting,” I said.
“You know we can’t have pets,” Shelli said to Penelope, scritching her under the chin. Then suddenly she stopped. Squeezed the cat tighter. Swallowed hard and breathed in so her nostrils flared. After a moment, she added, “I think I’m ready to go home.”
“I swear I’ve seen those assholes on the second floor with kitty litter.”
She looked at me and then back at Penelope.
“Worst case scenario, they say no.”
She pressed her nose and mouth against the nape of the cat’s neck. The cat kept purring. Finally, after a long moment, she pulled her face away and nodded. She gently placed Penelope back in the cage, to which Penelope gave a sharp cry of protest. “We’ll be back in a few minutes,” Shelli murmured. Penelope meowed again.
The middle-aged woman working the desk looked kind of butch, crew cut and studs all up one ear. I thought that might mean she’d be on our side. And she did smile when she handed us the paperwork, asking, “Who you girls interested in?”
“Penelope,” Shelli answered.
“Oh, she’s a real love.”
We both nodded. The paperwork was easy enough: Name, Address, Occupation, How many hours will the pet be alone? And so on. Then: Do you rent or own your home? Please provide proof of home ownership, a copy of your lease, or landlord’s contact information.
My fingers felt twitchy, but I wrote in “Montlack Realty.” Maybe some of their properties allowed pets. I handed the form back to the woman, wondering if she noticed it shivering. She scanned it over, nodding. “Mind if I call your landlord now?”
“Oh. Sure,” I replied. “But I don’t have their phone number.”
“I can find it online.” And my heart sank because I knew we were hitting a dead end.
This entire time, Shelli stared at her hands, fiddling with her rings. And all I could think was that I wanted to make her happy at least one more time before this all fell to pieces.
As the adoption lady dialed the phone, I realized I could have given her one of our friends’ numbers. Or it would have happened this way: I would say I didn’t have the number, the woman that she could look it up, and Shelli, always one step ahead, would say, Oh, you know, I have it saved on mine, and immediately know which person would play along with the charade.
“Hi, I’m calling from the Cuyahoga Animal Shelter… Yes, a couple of your tenants have come in looking to adopt a cat, and I just wanted to confirm that it’s okay with the terms of their rental agreement… 36 Rosemary Avenue, Apartment 34.”
I slipped one hand around Shelli’s and squeezed, and she let her hand lie still there under mine while we waited for the verdict. I thought of all the small things I could have done along the way to make things better for her: Those job applications I lied about filling out because I didn’t want to consider what it meant if even Wal-Mart turned me down. All those times she came home from work and found me still on the couch replaying Skyrim and asked, You didn’t even try to take out the trash? Those three appointments she made for me at the community health center before I actually went. The fact that she believed it wasn’t just some fault of my character.
“All right. Thank you very much. Have a nice day.” The woman’s tone shifted slightly, from a genuine warmth to the crispness of a person who has spent thousands of hours on the phone talking to people about matters she has no emotional investment in. I gave Shelli a hopeful smile, but she just closed her eyes and gave a small shake of her head. She pulled her hand out from under mine.
The woman turned back and in the same voice said, “I’m sorry, girls. They told me they don’t allow pets.”
I watched the muscles of Shelli’s jaw clench and unclench. “Of course,” she muttered. Then, louder, “Thank you anyway.”
“Of course.” Then the woman shifted her gaze to the next set of applicants, a wholesome nuclear family that probably had a stick figure rendition of themselves in their SUV’s rear windshield and, more importantly, owned their own home.
“Let’s go,” Shelli said, in a dull monotone that made me wish once more I’d just been able to do something differently, or that the verbiage on our lease was just bullshit like not hanging things on the walls and that the management company would just say, sure, what the heck, have a cat. I could see us filling out the rest of the adoption paperwork, handing over the fee and carrying our new pet out in one of those carrying cases, everybody smiling at us like we were the happiest sight in the world.
“Let’s go back to say goodbye,” I suggested.
Shelli opened her mouth to protest, but then just shrugged.
Penelope greeted us with a sound halfway between a chirp and a meow, and Shelli’s eyes welled up, which made me have to blink back tears. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Wesley meandering to the front of his cage, too, but I turned my head. Out of sight.
When Shelli opened the door to the cage to give Penelope one last scratch between the ears, it came to me. No one could see us.
I unzipped my hoodie halfway down, picked the cat up by her middle.
“What–” Shelli started, and I dropped the cat into the pouch I’d created, zipped my sweatshirt up around her while keeping one hand under her rump. Her little paws scrabbled at my chest, so I held her closer to me with the other hand.
“Walk,” I said.
“Are you insane?” she whispered, but she stationed herself right in front of me so she could block the wriggling mass on my chest, and we progressed out that way down the hallway, past a volunteer introducing a couple to a leashed poodle, past the kennels of dogs and a room labeled “Small and Furry,” past the alley of visitation rooms.
Near the shelter’s entrance, just when we were almost home-free, the cat gave a long, low yowl. The front desk lady turned to look right at us, yelled, “HEY!”
Shelli glanced at me, and I hoped to see one of her old conspiratorial grins. But instead, her eyes were wet, her skin mottled pink. When I tried to give her a reassuring smile, she snapped her gaze forward.
If circumstances had been different, if our love had just dwindled away, if I had not felt so much like I had caused the rift that pulled us apart, maybe I wouldn’t have felt like I needed to keep gripping so tightly. In another version of our lives, I would have flirted with the marketing girl at work, started a casual emotional affair that I felt no guilt for because Shelli and I had simply grown apart. But that wasn’t what happened.
The woman yelled, “What’s that under your shirt?” I could feel myself starting to cry now, too, realizing. But I had to keep walking, towards the exit. No turning back.