Much like a Cat – Homeless
August 3, 2018
Much like a cat, Mark had to be coerced out from underneath the couch whenever Wendy had company over.
“Where’s Mark?” one of Wendy’s guests would inevitably ask, and Wendy, after making that nervous little smile of hers, the one she learned to perfect ever since Mark began acting weird over the past year or so, would grab the bag of treats off the kitchen counter, walk over to the couch and, feeling everyone’s hushed, quiet and curious eyes fall upon her, she’d shake the bag up and down.
After a few shakes, Mark’s head would pop out from underneath the couch, his hair littered with dust bunnies and dust rabbits and even the occasional dust buffalo. Reaching into the bag of treats, Wendy would look at Mark with that embarrassed look on her face, the one that seemed to ask, “Why? Why are you doing this to me?” and then place a treat on the rug she and Mark picked out online after first moving in together.
Nervously, slowly, Mark would crawl out from underneath the couch over to the treat, and, after giving it an inquisitive sniff, eat it up.
Wendy would look back at her party guests, most of which smiling uncomfortably, as if wanting to think this was a joke but somehow knowing better, and then she would proceed to explain to them, “He just gets a little nervous around people,” and, as if this were his cue, and as if proving her point, Mark would scurry back underneath the couch.
“Can I make anyone a wine spritzer?” Wendy would then ask her guests in a tone of voice as if her boyfriend’s legs weren’t currently sticking out from underneath the couch.
Mark knew there was a time when he was once normal, a time when he could hold conversations with people, a time when he could look people in their eyes and not feel like he had butterflies in his stomach that just ate unrefrigerated, one-week-old, leftover Korean food. He just couldn’t remember those normal times clearly. As Mark lied there underneath his and Wendy’s bed, his recollection of them was vague at best. Like a memory covered in seran wrap, you kinda knew what was wrapped inside after putting it in the overcrowded fridge of your memory so long ago, trying to keep it fresh, but you just weren’t completely sure.
It was a Friday night and Wendy was having people over—co-workers to be exact—and rather than forcing Mark to try and socialize with them, Wendy, after almost a year of trying to explain why her boyfriend was hiding under the couch to anyone who came over, and, yes, you can try to get him to come out but he might swipe at you, Wendy had just been keeping Mark in their bedroom. It wasn’t ideal for either of them—Wendy always having to lie about Mark’s whereabouts whenever her guests asked where he was, why he was never around anymore, and Mark always feeling insanely guilty for putting Wendy through this, for not being able to help her host, which he knew she loved to do, and for not being able to just be normal and enjoy Wendy’s friends and coworkers alongside her—but this, keeping Mark hidden in their bedroom, worked best for both of them. It was a temporary solution, they both knew, or at least hoped, but neither really had any other idea as to what else to do.
Mark mindlessly batted a stuffed toy mouse back and forth with his hands as he listened to the murmur of the party going on in the living room of his apartment. 15-20 people, his brain guessed, making Mark shudder as he briefly imagined himself out there, as he imagined the volume of their collective voice, the same mindless small talk, all those eyes looking into his, searching for some brief connection that momentarily made life seem profound or meaningful but, in all actuality, just helped make them forgot how fast-passing and impermanent they were.
No, Mark couldn’t do people anymore. What was once a small nervousness when being around them, which, for as long as he could remember, had always been there, had now turned into a full blown panic attack—heart racing, shortness of breath, the sweats—and the only thing that made it go away was distance, distance from people and all the careless, reckless, clunking baggage they constantly carried around with them. Only after distance was put between Mark and people, and often with the additional security of something protecting him from their vision—a couch, a bed, a closet—did the symptoms fully go away, allowing Mark to feel safe. Only then could he relax and not worry about getting hurt by these monsters who seemed too naive to have any idea they actually were monsters.
Mark woke up hours later to the sound of the bedroom door creaking open and instinctively hissed at the intruder from underneath the bed.
“It’s just me…” he heard a small, shrunken but familiar voice say.
Mark began purring. A confused purr, half-relieved but also half anxious. A purr undergoing an identity crisis.
Wendy, however, began crying.
It all began after their cat died.
Wendy had never seen Mark cry so hard, or for so long. Ralph had been Mark’s cat first, and, although Wendy grew to love Ralph as her own, Mark took his passing a million times worse than Wendy. Yes, Wendy cried the day the vet put Ralph to sleep, and, yes, she even squirted a few tears the day after when she almost began making Ralph his dinner, but Mark, however, cried every day for two weeks, not consistently, but off and on, and at the most random times—during breakfast, shopping at Whole Foods, as they watched Roseanne on Wendy’s laptop in bed, one time even right after sex—and Wendy, trying her best to be understanding and consoling, eventually began losing her patience after a month had passed and Mark was still crying over his dead cat, a frustration that culminated when Wendy snapped at Mark after he began crying one night as she was trying to fall asleep.
“Oh my god!” she exploded from her side of the bed, her back facing Mark like a pale iceberg so rock hard and cold it could’ve sunk the Titanic. “I can’t take it! I can’t take it anymore! It’s been a month! Start to get the fuck over it already!”
Mark’s crying came to a stop like an old, rusty garage door malfunctioning mid-lift, and silence filled the bedroom.
Wendy, regretting not what she said but how she said it, felt bad and apologized immediately. Mark, however, in the middle of Wendy’s apology, grabbed his pillow and went to sleep on the couch.
Wendy didn’t go after him, and the next morning she woke up to find his pillow and blanket on the couch but Mark himself gone.
She checked the bathroom, but when he wasn’t there she realized he must’ve left and silently began to panic. She opened their closet and found his clothes still there. Good sign. In fact, Mark hadn’t taken anything, at least not that Wendy could see. He had just picked up and left. Maybe to McDonald’s for breakfast. Maybe just for a walk, or maybe to see an early movie. It was the weekend after all, and maybe he just needed a little bit of space to clear his head.
Wendy waited all day for him to come home. Around dinner time, when Mark still hadn’t returned, she really began to get nervous, and just as she picked up her phone to call her girlfriend and tell her what was going on, Mark crawled out from underneath the couch.
Mark ignored Wendy and walked to the bathroom. After he came back out a few minutes later, Wendy stood up in a manner both calmed and relieved and ready to talk to him, ready to give him a full apology, but before she could even open her mouth to ask him if he’d been hiding underneath the couch all day, Mark scurried back underneath as if she weren’t even there.
Wendy just stood there, staring at the couch in disbelief.
What the fuck? her addled, side-swiped brain kept saying over and over.
Wendy kicked off her heels, slid out of her slim-fitting cocktail dress, which she just threw on the floor instead of hanging it up like she used to, and, in nothing but her underwear, sat down on the bed.
She was still crying and, hearing this, Mark, skeptically, nervously, crawled out from his hiding spot underneath the bed and brushed the side of his face back and forth against her shins, trying to make Wendy feel better without actually having to talk to her.
“Stop…” Wendy said, and gently pushed him away with her tear-soaked hand.
Mark paused for a moment, then crawled back underneath the bed. He grabbed the toy mouse with his mouth, crawled back out and dropped the toy mouse on the bed next to Wendy, presenting it to her as a gift, as a ratty, slobbery olive branch.
Wendy looked at the mouse, then at Mark, almost mournfully he thought as she looked at him, like she couldn’t recognize an ounce of the man she used to know in this man who was now looking at her, in this stranger who was looking at her, then, as if giving up, Wendy stared down at the floor.
Mark sat on the bed next to her.
“Something happen tonight?” he asked, knowing full well nothing had happened at her party.
“No,” Wendy affirmed, and wiped the wetness off her cheek with the back of her hand.
“I’m sorry,” Mark found himself saying out loud, and although he didn’t expect these words to come out he knew he meant them, truly and wholeheartedly, he meant them.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” Wendy said. “This isn’t a relationship. I feel so alone, Mark. I feel so alone all the time. Even when I’m with my friends, this is all I can think about.”
“I know,” he said.
“Are you still mad at me? Is that why you’re doing this?”
Although he said nothing, letting her question hang there like a plastic bag tangled in the branch of naked tree on a breeze-less day, Mark knew why he was doing this. You have a lot of time to think when you’ve quit you job and spend the majority of your day hiding underneath furniture.
It was simple, and yet it wasn’t.
It was self-preservation, that was the conclusion he had come to, like some instinct that had been lying dormant inside of him for years that had finally revealed itself—or was just recently born, Mark wasn’t sure.
All Mark knew was that people had hurt him over and over again throughout the course of his life, sometimes intentionally, other times unintentionally, and on top of that, or teetering on the verge of that maybe, Wendy, of all people, had hurt him, pushing him over the edge into a complete distrust of the human race, like if even the one person who loved him more than anyone else in the world could hurt him this profoundly then he wasn’t safe, and if Mark wanted to preserve himself, if he wanted to save his life by keeping himself from being hurt, this—hiding like a cat, hiding like Ralph used to during those rare thunderstorms when he got scared and would make a break for the couch—this was what Mark had to do.
Distance from the human race—it was the only thing that would keep him safe, his body and brain told him, almost the same way a bird’s body and brain tells them, “Hey. It’s getting too cold out. Let’s fly the fuck somewhere warmer.”
“Mark?” Wendy said, after Mark had gone quiet for a prolonged period of time.
Suddenly feeling anxious, and having to resist the urge to dart under the bed, Mark said sorry again.
“Stop apologizing and just tell me what to do. This isn’t healthy for either of us. Especially you. How do I help? What do I have to do?”
Mark wasn’t sure if there was anything she could do but he didn’t tell her this. He just looked at Wendy. She wasn’t looking at him. She was staring down at her lap. Her face was pretty and wet and glistening, like a porcelain dream dipped in lukewarm milk, and her makeup was running like lost, black rivers searching for the nearest large body of water to pour themselves into.
Mark took Wendy’s hand and held it in his, and, to his surprise, she didn’t pull away. Exhausted, she leaned her head on his shoulder, and, sympathetically, Mark leaned his head onto hers.
“I’m sorry,” he heard her say, and then she looked up at him, almost on the verge of tears again, prompting Mark to kiss her forehead. Wendy leaned into his kiss, pressing herself into the comfort and reassurance that all forehead kisses gave, then she looked at him, and then they kissed, softly, tenderly, their kissing gradually becoming more and more heated. Wendy wrapped her arms around Mark and Mark reached behind Wendy and unhinged her bra. After she slithered out of it, Mark softly fell on top of her, guiding her back onto the bed.
“Wait…” Wendy said, reaching behind her back and pulling the stuffed mouse out from underneath her, which, with a cute smile that acknowledged the small awkwardness as humorous, she threw on the floor. Mark watched it hit the carpet and then Wendy grabbed him, pulling him in close to her as she began kissing him again.
“Hold on,” Mark said as he pulled away.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just need to use the bathroom first.”
“Oh. Okay,” she said. “Hurry.”
Mark smiled and kissed her forehead. On his way out, he looked at the toy mouse on the floor—Ralph’s old toy mouse—prompting him to stop and look back at Wendy.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you,” she said with a smile. And then, excitedly, “Hurry.”
Mark left their room, closing the door behind them.
Their apartment was a mess. Empty glasses everywhere. Empty bottles. Plates and utensils scattered about. Wendy’s going to have a lot of cleaning up to do tomorrow morning, Mark’s brain said as he walked through their living room.
He continued on, walking down the short hall to their front door, passing the bathroom on the way.
He opened their front door and, quietly, closed it behind him.
He took the elevator to their lobby.
He walked outside.
He walked three blocks to their subway station.
It was late, and no one was around so Mark hopped the turnstile.
He walked all the way down to the end of the platform.
After looking around and making sure the coast was clear, Mark hopped down onto the tracks.
He followed them into the subterranean darkness.
He found a safe spot away from the tracks and sat down, feeling like he was underneath the safety of an enormous concrete couch.
A deep sigh came out of him as his eyes slowly began adjusting to the dark.
He kept as still as possible, waiting patiently for a rat to peek its head out.
Fuck, I’m hungry, Mark’s brain said, while also silently wishing he’d thought to bring his bag of treats with him.