Random swipes on a dating app for crisis-aged fools like us tipped Olivia and me off. She was newly single; I was chronically so. Friends had introduced us back when, and we went out—modern art plus hip Mexican dinner at a dark cafe lit only by glowing sombreros. We laughed a lot; I liked her sass; I knew I was in love.

But the “friends” had other ideas. Drunk at the party I hosted for Olivia’s birthday, they separately cajoled each of us the other was too cunning. Olivia married a jerk. I became one (and a total wreck). Call me crazy, but I’ve waited all this time, through her marriage, kids, divorce, loneliness, and by sheer chance, grinding parallel lives as ER nurses, for Olivia to walk through my door this balmy spring eve.

Tal.

Olivia!

We liplessly press cheeks, Olivia kicks off her sneakers, nestles into my sofa, surveys my reformed terrain with eyes more stunning beneath her bob for their soft ripples of pale purple below.

You redecorated.

Guilty.

My cockroach-n-dope days, when owning a sofa proved a life, redecorating meant cleaning, and my life possessions summed clothes, a toothbrush, a moka pot, and a Go set (still on proud display mid-game dead center of a reclaimed tree stump) were over. My dojo/brothel mashup, stark lines tilling beige and tatami green girding plush velour, perhaps weird, is at least habitable: furniture, gourmet cutlery, plants, and the bed that mercifully suffocated my air mattress.

How long has it been, Tal?

Since we’ve seen each other?

No, since you started the Go game. Your best move now would be the feather duster.

Olivia’s sass doesn’t stab—she’s right, the ER stopped my Go. I pull the promised crostini from the oven, shake and strain Manhattans, put on a CD. Jeff Buckley skips down till he sounds like Snoop Dogg.

What else.

Sex Pistols?

Too flippant.

Sade?

Too romantic.

Marylin Manson?

I’ll leave.

We settle on Roison Murphy, perfect for innocuous reminiscing over food and drink.

Our chat gets flirty. Phones cast aside, hands flutter across thighs and shoulders before swarming napes of necks—our sudden kiss is heady, our first time together, umami, and Olivia is still here. Lucky for me, she hasn’t pulled that squeamy maneuver I had turned into an art form: bolting.

Later I thrash around in bed sweating off the liquor caught in a Roisin Murphy matrix, “If We’re in Love” skipping on repeat. What then, what then . . .  Olivia sleeps unperturbed, the sheet curled into her fists, the little packages tucked under her chin, at peace.

When I can’t sleep, I often ponder the innards of my closet, a fraught place of clutter and memories. Naked inside now, I brood over a worn shoebox crammed with unrequited love letters, unrequited because I never sent them . . . to Olivia. But there’s no time for remorse or nostalgia, because Bluto, my curmudgeonly neighbor’s glum brindle rescue Boxmas (and my fellow insomniac) wants in. Bluto softly mewls as he tries to burrow in from his master’s closet into mine, perhaps pining for me as I did and do for Olivia. If dogs could speak, what might this one say? Homo erectus! The old man’s gonna be my end! Take me in! Please?

Every day, Bluto drags his thick leash up alone to our high floor, his owner shuffling far behind for fear of tripping on the way up and breaking his shins on the way down as he juggles his armfuls of Snapple and bulletproof-glass Chinese takeout while Bluto hasn’t enjoyed a good buck bone in years. Bluto’s daily girthful slams against my door and the thin wall separating the landing from my shower, his scream for help. Now he senses me with another, snorts and yowls when I return to her. When I slip back into bed, Olivia stirs awake.

Closet more interesting than me?

Women always know.

In a way, the closet is you. Sweet dreams.

Didn’t know you had a dog.

I don’t. Long story.

Long story. Right.

She wraps my hand into the comfy package under her chin and goes back to sleep.

Gnight.

Olivia’s presence is spectacularly simple. Simplicity is what we both need, the best analgesic for strife—the gunshot and stab wounds, overdoses and hypochondria, falls and leaps, crashes, beatings, and burns, and the complicated rest of what we endure. I roll over and take my own pulse. It’s high. Nurses always know, even from within. Now I’ve forgotten the gesture of the gentleman: the nighttime glass of water for his love. I fill a glass for her at the kitchen sink, deflate when my warped reflection on the spigot returns haggard. Back in bed, I shake off my wan image as Olivia hydrates.

Thought you’d forget. My ex-husband always did.

Do you even know me?

Olivia stares at me, and I love it. She closes her eyes, pats my glutenous paunch (stress-eating, pizza) and doesn’t recoil. Women’s tolerance makes every man lucky.

The early traffic swashes like distant breaching whales. Our socks and underwear amid pink-and-honey specks of dawn on the floor frolic far more obscenely than we did. I pull back the curtain on morning: vivid colors on the fire escape, the iridescence of pigeon necks. Olivia’s flipped some switch in me. I alight to the kitchen to make her Spanish eggs.

Tal?

Olivia.

Didn’t know you were one of those pleasers. Come hold me until the alarm goes off.

I turn off the gas and head back, holding Olivia until we’re stopped by the latest ping!

We had fun, Tal.

Yes, we did.

We stare at each other until one of us blinks. We laugh and start kissing again.

Olivia slinks into the kitchen behind me wearing my shirt like a dress. Her arms lasso my torso as I sear the eggs crispy. The espresso pot screams, we breakfast on the sofa, the coffee tastes good. We both know she can have as much of me as she wants, but it can’t work the other way around. Jobs, kids, ex-husband—Go—love always reckons.

Wish you’d stay.

I can’t. I’m meeting the kids at the park. The older one is teaching the younger one how to play frisbee—pway fwisbee, the younger one says. So cute—then I gotta work a double.

Ouch. What are your kids’ names?

Are you high? I’m not telling you my kids’ names.

I’m only curious.

Oh yeah? Curious this!

Olivia pulls me into another heady kiss.

Shower to freshen up?

Perfect! But I’ll shower alone. The kids.

She play-slaps my face.

Olivia’s shower gives me time to dress and slip a letter from the closet into her purse, a love grenade to be defused later. Maybe I am high.

She exits the bathroom in sweat clothes brushing her teeth, last night’s garb in a bag. At the door, she laces up her sneakers, texts someone, the someone texts back.

The sitter brought my kids here.

Here?

Yeah. They’re downstairs. I’d never find them in the park.

The lock’s still broken and the buzzer never works. Loud clomping echoes up the stairwell.

My daughter’s wearing her boots.

Boots for frisbee?

I already can’t control her—and she hasn’t learned how to toss the frisbee to her brother yet either, she tosses it . . . wherever.

Olivia’s chin buckles with each ascending clomp.

Olivia, I’m not sure if I’m ready to meet—

An orange blur wobbles onto the landing, chased by two rambunctious kids, a boy and a girl. Too late. Olivia lunges forward with hugs.

Hey guys!

For a sec, we ignore our phones and marvel at the former pie tin, that old plastic wonder, the frisbee. Olivia whips around to me.

What are your big plans for today, Tal?

Not the slightest, off till next week.

Olivia’s son is a skinny older tween handsome for his age but sacked by his favorite football jersey. Flip flops fish around his feet and his longish hair lashes his eyes, causing a little tic as he blows it away. Olivia’s daughter is a bashful mini-Olivia in a flower dress, far from gray in her matching bob, a few years younger than her brother. They make a lovely triangular family, lovelier for its absence of Olivia’s deadbeat ex-husband the jerk. A little raw, I extend my hand to the boy.

I’m Tal.

The kid’s ribs sharpen in his jersey, but there’s no puff. Maybe next year. He kicks at his ankles and glares at me.

You’re not ta—eee—tall enough to be a Tal.

Nice try, sport. In a way, he’s right, even with a larynx desperately squeaking for teenhood. I shrug off her son’s jab with a wink at his mom. Olivia reaches over to tousle her son’s hair more than it is already.

Sebastian! That’s not nice.

No names, right?

Olivia smirks at me and now it’s her nameless daughter’s turn.

Mistuh, you ah cweepee.

Stella! Sorry, Tal. ‘Creepy’s her new favorite word.

Mom, let’s go!

Stella’s sassy like her mom. She fidgets with the orange object in her hands and can’t stop giggling. The kids pull Olivia onto the stairs. She sighs up at me, teetering between her kids as they march her down, Stella clomping ahead, Sebastian kicking his ankles behind. I sigh and teeter, too, how their mother smelled after all that bitters and sweat, lilies and sandalwood to my angostura and rye. The Manhattans might’ve been a fluke, but we loved our town.

I linger in the doorway until the clomps subside, dreading I’ll never see Olivia again. Dread never makes anyone feel better. Sex can, for a while.

There’s the vacuum rush of the main door downstairs opening and closing, then opening and closing again, then a metallic sound like nails across concrete and heavy labored breathing chased up the stairwell by a badly off-key tune.

I leave the door open and wait on the sofa—not for Olivia, but for heartbreak’s best friend—Bluto trots in dragging his leash. He sniffs around for you know who before gluing himself to the floor at my feet. Panting off his frustration, he knits his brow like Brando at the height of his yearning in the back of the taxi in On the Waterfront: “It ain’t my night!” Ain’t never been Bluto’s night, poor turmoiled thing.

I pamper Bluto with strokes and pat his head. His whole being wags. He basks in me as I bask in visions of Olivia playing at the park with her kids. ER carnage makes frisbee seem like what the childhood ads brainwashed us it was: Ultimate Fun.

Glum quadrupeds deserve steak. Before I can make Bluto one, outside my door twenty minutes in, the curmudgeon’s heinous rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” obliterates this bound-for-boredom afternoon. The curm codas his “tune” with a call to his dog.

Blu-u-u-to-o-o. Good boy, where are you?

Even Bluto’s cringing. He chaws his tail and plods out my door without even a lick of goodbye. I perch on the sofa and watch the philodendron grow.

Then, hope. Olivia texts: Hey cweep [Blushing Smiley Face] come pway fwisbee to wherever with us at the park [Blushing Smiley Face].

How can I say no.

 

I have owned three cats in my life and my favorite by far was Barnabus, and he was my best friend. He was big, furry, and black, with emerald-blue-green eyes, more like a small bear than a large cat. My spirit animal if I had ever had one. But a cat you could never say you owned.

I named him after a television rerun vampire, “Barnabus Collins,” from the original daytime soap opera, Dark Shadows. (I still can’t understand why housewives of the time would watch the show, but I guess they did, as it was quite long-running at 1200 episodes and five years.) Or maybe I named him after the black-clad messenger character in Kafka’s The Castle (?).

Anyway, Barnabus, known as “Barn” to our close circle of cat-loving college friends, was the kind of cat who would steal everyone’s hearts at parties, not only because of his eyes, furriness, and proportions, but for his habit of walking around, looking up at everyone, rubbing legs til they sparked with static electricity, posturing and meowing for attention. More like a dog than a cat, he was a real ham. Even draping him around your neck like a faux mink stole or letting him perch atop your head like a Russian ushanaka seemed to give him great, languid pleasure, like he was feline royalty, and he basked in the attention. (I once knew a bulldog, a star of some commercial, who would make a grand kitchen entrance of his own volition at parties.)

Barnabus had a huge appetite for tuna, and the first spinning crack of a can of such would drop him from his perch and he’d be instantly there for the ensuing feeding frenzy, already wobbly on his feet drunk off the aroma as he dug in. He was a rare cat in that he could not only scale trees, but was unafraid to claw his way down (usually with a goose-bump raising and ear-piercing slide, yeowch!, but nonetheless, he did it on his own).

Yes he was a pet, but he was also an animal with a wild soul. Every year when winter melted into spring, he would try to sneak out and express his tomdom, or some might say, his tom-foolery. I’d catch him perched on the window sill, staring longingly at the wild and free world outside—birds, beasts, rodents, other cats, and the Nature his species had been domesticated from. Hoping by some miracle the window would open. Or he’d wait by the door for it to crack open and try to rush between your legs back to whence his species had come. At the time, the idea of keeping him in a cage when I wasn’t home seemed cruel, and due to his expressed, free-ranging temperament, at least one eventual escape, always seemed inevitable. I still regret the day it finally happened.

I ran out after him and frantically searched the area, but he was nowhere to be found. I fell into a manic-depression for the next days, as I plastered my neighborhood with “lost cat” posters, prominently featuring his image, his name, and my phone number.

I though I had lost him forever to his nine lives, when the phone rang a few long weeks later and a gruff, wizened, voice spoke between what sounded like tokes off a joint. “You lost a cat? Big black one, green eyes?”

“I did in fact. Barnabus.”

“Barna who?”

“Forget it, where do you live? Coming right away.”

“Nicollet Island, the back half of the island. I’ve seen your cat coming in and out of the woods. I tried to fish him in with tuna, but nada—my name’s Bruce. Bruce Lee.”

Hmm. Anyway, the back half of Nicollet Island then was hippie-punk bordering on anarchist, and was known to be infested not only with Deadheads, but with raccoons. Thank God I refused to have Barnabus declawed. I imagined—hope, prayed, cursed—he had been holding his own.

I jumped on my bike and road the few miles from my neighborhood across the river over a bridge and onto the wooded island. Barnabus had traveled far.

I reached the address, a dilapidated house overgrown with sunflowers and jimson weed, and immediately saw Bruce. His face bespectacled ala John Lennon and, like his house, overgrown with an unruly, matted beard. He was wearing overalls, a tie-dyed shirt, and had his hair in a ponytail any prancing show pony would be proud of. Blaring from a boombox on the uneven porch came “Terrapin Station.”

Bruce stood with his back to the woods and was waving his hands in the air, trying to lord over puffed-up, screeching Barnabus high, large, and intimidating enough so he would freeze long enough for us to corral and, hopefully, capture/rescue him. From the look of his eyes, he may have been on acid.

“He just come out of the woods! He’s been scrapping with the raccoons. They got part of his tail!”

Fear, revulsion, sympathy, and terrible guilt.

“I got him thinkin’ I’m a damn grizzly! Cujo! Hurry up!” Bruce said. “Take up his rear flank, then we can get him back for ya!”

As I took up a position at Barnabus’ rear flank and mimicked Bruce, I took one look, and it was easy to see my beloved pet had gone feral, wildly feral in only a couple weeks, puffing his fur out so he looked twice his size (he was already big) and not so much meowing as growling at me and arching his back, his poor injured tail stabbing at the air and his fur moving around like there were snakes underneath it. Imagine Jack Nicholson’s transformation in The Shining. No longer the cute and cuddly and charismatic beast I had once known. Warring against the Nicollet Island raccoons, something in him had changed. Why he went there, I’ll never know.

I kept up my waving gesture grizzly on steroids act, lording over Barnabus, then lowered myself and dove forward to lasso my boy back into the fold of my arms, where he first spasmed out of paranoia and fear, maintaining his blood-curdling screech. Sad and awful to witness.

Like I said, something in him had changed.

Bruce let out a sigh. “Thank Jerry Garcia, we got ‘im. Don’t know how long he would have lasted out in the woods. You like the Dead?”

“Not particularly,” I said, stroking Barnabus all over while cooing at him to calm him, and me, down, until he became a baby bear again.

Soon his borderline-rabid growl (he didn’t contract the disease, thankfully) eased back into a purr that vibrated not only my arms, but my being.

I held Barnabus across one of my arms as I pedaled home. Over the bridge and with each passing block, he seemed to relax and calm down, squinting his green eyes out of pleasure against the cool evening wind. When we got home, he fell immediately to sleep.

Whenever he crossed my path after his foray into the wild, I felt lucky to have him back. Nurturing him out of what seemed to be his nature. I felt equally guilty about imposing more restrictions on his household movements, and no more parties, but for the rest of his years, I never let Barnabus out of my sight again. He lived a long life, and I miss him.

“Will the wind ever remember the names it has blown in the past?”—Jimi Hendrix

There is a flicker of dark, then of light, then of dark and light again, and there she is in all her crinite glory, chewing gum and slipping hairs a strand at a time out of a brush, a nonchalant pheme conspiring to take a final torture to her obelisk of hair.

In another life, her hair might have been a peacock god— Malik Tous (Peacock Angel), a central figure of the Yazidi religion. Irresistible in its religious pilings, dazzlingly polychrome in each tendril’s play with light, somehow indicating the end of the world in its vertigo-inducing brocades of gold-green indigo, silver-gray, and purple brown. Her hair bows to no one.

Still troubled, fidgeting , and furiously brushing her incomparable hair, she beckons like some broken, ulotrichous siren. Not mere woman, an aleph. That alephic power, many contend, resides in the hair she obsessively cultivates, colors, cares for, covets, and hasn’t cut since childhood.

Her hair is untouchable.

“A curious, unstoppable flocculence, a stupendous, eye-catching crinosity, stared at by every passerby, and occasionally causing cars to crash!” a barker might have called. “Where is this hair’s owner?” the dog catcher might have queried.

How she washes her hair, no one knows, but she keeps it clean across mysterious hours spent in the shower or in a tub near the mirror on the closet door. It’s not a wig, tiara. diadem, a hairstyle from Vogue, it’s a cloud of frozen, colored smoke, a vortex of a dream.

Then there is her hairbrush. Silver-handled, boar-bristled with extra, boggling features whose lights and functions appear as wondrous and infinitely useful as those of a Japanese washlet (toilet). Her flocculent mane’s treasured implement is the sole appendage she allows to stroke or tear at her coiffe. (In life, she collects, buys and sells antique hairbrushes, never attesting to the fact whether she uses them herself first.)

She doesn’t own a blowdryer, and only uses natural substances—oils or muds or waxes or resins—to achieve her “look,” which is more like a sculpture than a stock hairdo one might receive at, say, Vidal Sassoon. I’ll take that one, Konrad.

No, not at all.

Mutely translucent, dark-rimmed, mottled-cyan eyes rolling, her simper twists saccharine and lopsided; her lip-gloss shimmers across her mouth, and she squats befuddled as an eidolon discovering their reflection for the first time. Brushing her hair and chewing her gum before the mirror, glaring out from the corners of her eyes.

Relentlessly mute, motioning reminiscent of scenes from Hôtel électrique (The Electric Hotel, or in Spanish, El hotel eléctrico), the groundbreaking 1908 silent French comedy-fantasy film directed by Spanish film pioneer Segundo de Chomón, a film thought to be lost, but later recovered and restored (sort of like her). In the film, invisible forces pull and coif at the lush dark hair of new hotel guest Julienne Mathieu, whose visage remains stolid but radiant.

The film comes to mind because she and Mathieu resemble each other in their allure, violent motions, and eternal pixelation. Beauties best described as “fuming,” vaporous beauty that makes your gaze feel unworthy.