Cat Scratch Fever – Maeve Barry
March 31, 2023
Bonnie has heard of cat scratch fever, and she’s been scratched many times. She taps the stick of her neck, breathes her sour apartment. She opens her laptop and clicks into its search bar.
She starts in the usual places. Pink flesh throbs the screen of WebMD: photos of raised skin, blistering pus. Listed symptoms include appetites lost and relentless fatigue, which she had already. She wonders if she’s getting her period. She can usually tell it’s coming when she gets the idea to grant her cat humanitarian release.
“Put us to pasture, am I right,” Bonnie would say to the cat as it stepped over her body, sprawled across the damp bathroom floor.
Bonnie crouches over her laptop, her long spine raised, arching behind. She tries Reddit. A guy called alanon6669420 writes “yooooo why do thee baddest slut have cats scratch fever.” A response hyperlinks to what looks like a scientific article. Bonnie doesn’t click it. The accompanying message says there’s a correlation between having cat scratch fever and liking to be slapped during sex.
“Huh,” Bonnie says, considering the vertical scratches down her arms, bumped and closing already. She likes to be tossed, the way that you are in ocean. Pummeled by waves and tugged under, the slap of salt-rocked water scraping your face. You choke a little and know it will end. Come up, gurgling, sprayed wet creeping from nostrils.
Cats don’t like water. Bone does. Bone is the cat, named in Bonnie’s likeness. Bone’s never been in ocean; she sticks her face beneath all faucets. She once climbed into the bath with Bonnie, as she sat in scorching water, ignoring the grime of the tub once white. Bone floated a moment. Her fur waterlogged then splayed. Bonnie tucked her hands beneath Bone’s stomach and they sat like that, the tub peeling around them, in strips of lead based paint. Dirty white pieces drifted beside black fur, clumped off and sinking.
“This is nice,” Bonnie told Bone. Bone said nothing.
Bonnie brings Bone to her boyfriend’s house upstate, where they both are much happier. They ride Amtrak, Bone’s sleek head poking. Bonnie unzips the mesh of Bone’s carrier so she can watch the Hudson through the window, see the trees standing naked in gray. Bone, it turns out, is uninterested in landscapes.
Bonnie’s boyfriend, her nice boyfriend, who only slaps during sex and when asked, is at the station to greet them. Bonnie’s landlady called the boyfriend a golden retriever when they met, pinching his chin, his sandy hair shaggy. Bonnie couldn’t explain to her landlady why being a golden retriever wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The boyfriend stands there waiting, holding thermosed cider and a buckwheat cookie.
“You brought the cat…,” Bonnie’s boyfriend asks as she hands him Bone’s carrier. Bone screams then pisses through its mesh.
In the country, away from the cramped apartment in the cramped city, Bonnie and Bone learn to spread. Once dark, Bone zooms and crashes into no furniture. They’re calm and content until the night with the gas leak that isn’t one.
“I smell sulfur,” Bonnie says, partially asleep.
“Everyone OUT OF THE HOUSE,” the boyfriend hollers, even though it’s only them.
Bonnie’s boyfriend wants to leave the house, the cat, immediately. Bonnie’s not so worried about the house exploding. She takes her time finding Bone’s teal harness and leash. She straps Bone, tucks her into an armpit. She puts on her parka and no pants. The three of them exit into the night raw as water.
They wait in the boyfriend’s truck for his nearest neighbor: a volunteer firefighter, two miles and twelve minutes away on his ATV. He’s coming with his gas gauge. Bonnie holds Bone to her chest, strokes her black fur. She thinks how this is similar to if she had a child and they were forced to shelter through an air raid. She thinks how she’s good at it. Bonnie’s boyfriend says he’s going to walk and meet the neighbor.
“Bone doesn’t like sudden movements,” Bonnie says as the boyfriend slams his door shut.
Bone hurls against Bonnie’s arms that try holding her. She claws Bonnie’s face, sinks nails deep in flesh, forearm, thighs. Bonnie lets go and Bone flips, torpedoing the cab of the truck, turning full circles in its air. Her scream is a siren, her claws extend, swiping Bonnie’s face as they pass it.
The neighbor arrives with his shirt off. Bonnie sees the red and blue inked confederate flag of his chest pulse beneath white fur, an erect nipple.
“No gas,” the neighbor says, then looks at Bonnie and Bone, who squat on the stairs. Bone’s on her leash, blood leaks through the paper towel pressed to Bonnie’s face, dripping into her eye.
“What the fuck is that,” the neighbor says.
“A cat,” Bonnie tells him.
They return to the city. Bonnie and Bone to their apartment and two roommates, the boyfriend to his apartment with its in-unit washing. Bonnie’s apartment is small and now it feels smaller. She brings her dirtied clothes to the mat, feels the strap of her laundry bag dig ridges in her shoulder. It scrapes against a cat-scratch so it breaks and it bleeds. Back at her apartment, Bonnie googles cat-scratch fever.
Bone and Bonnie live beside a cat colony. In the patch of pavement next to their apartment: five cats, three of them tomcat-jowled, circle paper plates piled in kibble. A burly pigeon stands among them, leading the charge. Bonnie and Bone watch the colony from the bedroom window. In the blue-black part of morning, so late that it’s early, they lay there and listen to the female cats scream. Cat dicks like jagged spears, forcibly entered. Bonnie remembers the first time she heard a female cat penetrated, how she thought it was a person. She listened and paced, pressed her face to the window. She woke her roommate, who explained the situation of cat pussy and penis. But it doesn’t make any sense! Like, evolutionarily!, Bonnie yelled. She thought of going outside to interrupt it, but instead put on headphones. Now, she lies in bed and listens. Bone watches from the window. Bonnie wonders if Bone ever feels jealous, if she ever wants to know what it feels like. Bonnie wonders if that’s how she sounded. She gets up and it’s not even six. She grocery shops and calls, wakes, her mother.
“Are you budgeting,” the mother asks, tucked between Bonnie’s ear and her shoulder.
Bonnie loads expensive cans of Spanish Ceviche and Paw-Lickin Chicken and La Isla Bonita cat food and cheap, tinned, human-intended tuna in her basket.
“Literally yes,” she tells her mother as she pays for french bread and steals cheese.
She returns to Bone, sat on her perch at the window, her yellow eyes watching. She chirps to the birds she’d enjoy killing. Bonnie laces loafers that pinch her toes numb. She leaves for work.
After, Bonnie goes to a bar. A British guy explains to her that when a cat meows, it’s not their natural sound. Bonnie nods, downs her third white russian.
“They’re only mimicking humans, their real sound is throaty and guttural. Did you know that?” the British guy asks when Bonnie doesn’t answer.
“I didn’t know that, no,” Bonnie replies in a British accent even though she did.
Back at the apartment and drunk, Bonnie eats tinned tuna as a meal. She can’t face the thought of another plate dirtied; she peels the tin open, sticks her tongue in to lick. Her roommate named Pear comes in.
“Are you being a cat,” Pear asks.
“Oh no this is just because of my eating disorder,” Bonnie tells her.
Bonnie looks at Bone, who too laps tuna from its tin. Their tongues pointed triangles, rapidly poking, swiping wet fish across their bright teeth and lips.
Bonnie’s boyfriend brings her to dinner at Balthazar. He talks while Bonnie watches herself in the mirrored walls. Her eyes look yellow; she wonders if she’s jaundiced. She watches her face pucker when the boyfriend mentions the thin woman he once dated who now works in publishing. Bonnie says nothing, listens as champagne trinkles and forks spear plates. The man seated on the red booth beside her explains to his much younger date what it really means to be a venture capitalist.
White wine and mashed potatoes climb Bonnie’s throat. Congealed in her body’s acid, balled to a chalk-like fuzz. The ball grates up; the chandeliered light refracts in the mirrors, swimming Bonnie’s eyes. She suppresses a cough when potatoes hit her throat, then she chokes stifled air until potatoes and saliva wine tumble on to the white clothed table. Her boyfriend stares, face crinkled and floppy.
Later, Bonnie walks to the subway from her boyfriend’s apartment. Women in expensive athleisure pose in front of a brick wall. Adjacent to the station, across from the man wrapped in a trash bag and sleeping. Bonnie smells like sex and regurgitated potato; she needs to pass the women and their Drybar scented blowouts.
“Excuse me,” she says but her throat’s rasped from coughing and it comes out a growl.
The blonde woman, who Bonnie recognizes from laxative commercials, shrieks and hops out of her way.
Bonnie gets home and the apartment is dirty. Rather than clean, Bonnie paces. There’s hardly room for it; the kitchen is the living room and her bedroom’s small splotch of floor is covered. In clothing, cellophane slick from brie cheese, wrappers that once held Lactaid. So she turns to the long and unusable hallway of her railroad apartment. Bone uses the hall, for sour litter and darting. She tracks piss-clumped gravel across the long Turkish runner.
Bonnie paces up and down it. Getting faster, stronger, she thinks, as her limby legs engage and her grass arms swing, pumping. She makes sure to keep her knees locked; they extend straight in front of her. Running would be too strange, Bonnie knows. She’s moving as fast as her stick legs and string arms can hurl her when her other roommate, the one from California, opens the door.
“Someone has the zoomies,” the roommate’s vocal fry trails as she stands, stoned in the doorway.
“What no I took Vyvanse earlier,” Bonnie answers, her sentence climbing, in a California way. It occurs to Bonnie that she has no idea what her real voice sounds like. She sees Bone sitting, watching her zoom.
Bonnie agrees to babysit the kid she swore she’d never babysit again. After the dad came home late, with the mother in Long Island. He and Bonnie snorted lines off a My Little Pony DVD case and Bonnie feigned surprise when he kissed her. She agrees to babysit because she paid her half of the Balthazar dinner after she vomited it. The meal cost half her paycheck.
Bonnie arrives at the condo in DUMBO. Sammy, who is five, assigns Bonnie the role of Teenage Girl Cat because she’s good at playing it. And, Bonnie suspects, because Sammy assumes she is a teen, in her small tops and tights, with her potentially teenaged profession. Bonnie places sparkly cat ears over her dark hair and pouts at herself in the mirror. She looks very good in them, she thinks, her eyes ringed in mauve circles. So she pouts at herself in her iPhone camera, pushes her lips forward to hollow her cheeks. She sends the photo to her boyfriend to show she is maternal and that she looks good as a teen cat, pouting. Sammy asks what she’s doing.
“Texting Clast,” Bonnie tells her, which is what they call the Cat Boyfriend characters.
Bonnie makes herself cry real tears in a scene rendering the fraught relationship between two teenage girl cats: Clast has chosen Girabella (Sammy’s teen cat name), over her. Sammy’s father who works in finance walks in to Bonnie crawling his living room, across his carpet, with her tears dripping and streaming. She arches her back, curves its dip low, so that her tail, ass, sticks up.
When Bonnie’s boyfriend comes over, she is sitting in her wardrobe. It’s a tight fit; she sees Bone sit there constantly.
“Where’s my Bonnie,” the boyfriend calls. “I want a hug!”
Bonnie presses flat against the back wood so it digs knobs in her spine. She scrunches her legs close and clothes curtain over her face. Her boyfriend drags the clothes hangers to the side and shoves his damp, eager nose in to see her. Bonnie springs to her feet and she leaps to the floor. She gallops to the living room where she sits in a basket.
“Is it playtime,” the boyfriend asks, chasing and excited. He nears the basket, paws Bonnie’s breast. Bonnie tips the basket to crawl out. She runs to the bathroom, climbs into the claw-footed tub and pulls the curtain to shield her.
“What are you doing,” the boyfriend asks, his voice trailing in a growl.
They have sex on Bonnie’s bed and she listens to her own yowling, high-pitched and climbing. She sounds nothing like her. Her boyfriend is on top and grunting; Bonnie hears her own cries mimicked close to her ear. She turns her face and Bone is there, perched by her head on the pillow, staring at Bonnie. Bonnie’s screams get higher, Bone’s follow. Bonnie’s eyes lock with Bone’s yellow stare as the boyfriend cums. Bonnie’s head and Bone’s body popcorn on the pillow, screaming, faking.
Bonnie keeps her coat on and watches her reflection in the box office window. She perches on the stool, ass numb, examining the oil slick of her long matted hair. Like cat’s fur, once they’ve given up on self-grooming. Bonnie listens as a woman screams and is stabbed seven times for the third time that day. Through the thin wall, projected onto the screen in theater three.
“You look tired,” her coworker says, and he means she looks worse. He eats stale popcorn and holds the bag out towards her.
Bonnie picks up her purse and walks out the door. Fingers of sun creep across the gray sky. She stops at the cafe she can’t afford.
“Milk please,” Bonnie orders.
“A latte?” the barista in black nail polish asks her.
“Just milk,” she says and the barista gives her a look.
Bonnie brings her milk to the park. Her fingers are chapped and cold milk won’t warm them. She finds the black bench with the most sun and sits. The seat’s still cool; she tips her head up and feels warm on her face. She sips her milk, licks its froth from her lips.
Someone meows beside her. It’s a woman, hair purple and fried, eyebrows penciled in lines thin and jagged.
“Meow,” the woman says again and it comes out British.
“Hi,” Bonnie says, noting the woman’s Halloween cat ears, her duster jacket covered in ash.
The woman isn’t meowing at Bonnie. She’s addressing the pigeons who circle and peck at her feet. The woman licks the front of her hairless hand; her tongue extends and twines her acrylic-tipped claws. Bonnie wonders whether it might be time she leave the city.
Bonnie and Bone ride Metro North. As far north as it will take them, is Bonnie’s only plan, whispered to the soft whiskers of Bone’s pointed ear. Carrier forsaken, Bone straddles the gap between Bonnie’s thighs. The world blurs past them.
A mother and towheaded toddler board at Croton-Harmon.
“What a sweet kitty,” the mother says, bringing her face too close.
“Meow cat meow,” the toddler says, and Bonnie doesn’t mean to hiss.
The train stops in Beacon, at the end of the line. Bonnie and Bone disembark.
“It’s not exactly the country,” Bonnie says, eyeing the galleries and the third-wave cafes.
“No shit,” Bone answers.
Bonnie carries Bone down the stairs, off the platform to the sidewalk. She sets Bone on the pavement. They turn from each other, Bone towards the river and Bonnie towards the dumpster. They crawl on their way.