The Tuxedo Cat
The tuxedo cat walks in like it owns the place, confidently rubbing up against my leg while emitting a loud purr before entering through the back door I just opened. I’ve never seen this cat before and, upon its appearance, I realize that I’ve never once given a thought to whether I actually like cats, though I know enough to identify the black-and-white coloring marking this feline as a member of the tuxedo cat community. This one has a confidence I envy, as I watch in dismay as the cat unsurreptitiously inspects my kitchen, fastidiously sniffing the trash can and the fridge, before jumping up on the counter to examine the daisies I’ve just placed on the windowsill over the kitchen sink.
“Mom, let me call you back,” I say, as I finally have a good excuse to get off the phone with my mother, Janine, who has taken to calling me at all hours of the day to make sure I’m doing well and, in her words, “not going crazy from loneliness.”
My only plan for the morning was to have my coffee outside on the back deck while enjoying my new view of the Pacific. Instead, I decide to follow the tuxedo cat’s inspection of my new home. As it sniffs intently at the clothes strewn on the floor of my bedroom and meanders from one room and hallway to the next, I note that the cat moves with the purposefulness of a creature with places to go and people to see, though at its own chosen time and pace.
Once done with its inspection of the house, the cat allows me to pet it for a few minutes while crouched down on the kitchen tile. I’m so desperate to touch a warm body, I don’t care if it’s human or animal at this point, as the isolation of the lockdown has already become too much to bear. And, poof, just as quickly as the tuxedo cat appeared, it now stands by the door until I open it for its departure, the cat slinking unhurriedly out the back door, casually vanishing into the mists of the early morning fog.
A couple of days after my first interaction with the tuxedo cat, I notice something is amiss in the backyard. There’s a disturbance at the very edge of the property, which lets out onto a somewhat abandoned nature trail located behind my house. The realtor had boasted about this trail. Though upon inspection when I’d first moved in, I realized that the overgrown woods, with its difficult-to-identify pathway, was more the scene for my potential rape and murder than a viable athletic-trail-run option for a single lady such as myself.
The air in the backyard, it isn’t right. It’s wavering melodically to and fro in the distance, the way the air looks like when you have a fire going on the outdoor grill. I even detect a faint, staticky, almost white noise sound emanating from the area, but I’m not sure if it’s just the echo of the distantly pulsing ocean waves. I get as close as feels safe to the wavering in the air. Something happens, though, when I use the end of my rake to poke up against it; the wooden handle passes through the air, and its tip disappears from view, as if straddling a different atmosphere or reality. I pull the rake back from the presumed abyss, letting it drop to the ground before running back toward the house, slamming the door behind me. I pour a tall glass of red into a coffee mug and sit in the kitchen, sipping slowly while peering out over the backyard through drawn shades.
Suddenly, there’s a clawing noise coming from the back door. I look out the door window, and I see nothing until I look down. A black-and-white tuxedo kitten now sits by the door, its golden, gimlet eyes shining bright in the early evening’s darkness.
I open the back door, but block the entrance with my body, deciding to go outside and not let the mystery cat in. As I sit down on the back porch steps, the kitten rubs up against my legs, purring softly as if happy to be finally home. I inspect the cat under a sneaking suspicion that it has to be the offspring of tuxedo cat senior from last week. Last thing I need is a whole litter of kittens being raised in my backyard, I think with dismay, upon realizing that the kitten has no collar or identification tag. Though it does give me pause that this cat, like the visitor from last week, shares the exact same markings. Specifically, the same white, five-pointed, star-shaped marking located squarely in the middle of its otherwise black chest, as well as the same crescent-shaped tear in its right little ear.
I finally remember where I’ve seen this cat, and its family member from last week—on an old, weathered missing cat poster stapled to a telephone pole in front of my house. Weird.
I decide to invite my neighbor Albert—not Al, he admonishes me upon our initial introduction—over for a drink on the back deck. Albert’s a professor of science at the local university, an astrophysicist to be precise. Something about Albert, maybe his age or the way he keeps referring to me as Helen, instead of Helena, reminds me of Roy’s father, but in a good way.
“Any strange happenings that you’ve seen?” Albert asks me point-blank as we sit out on my newly finished back deck. I don’t have anyone else to invite over to enjoy the new space, so Albert seems as good as anyone else. Plus, my mom says it’s important to know your neighbors. Well, maybe she’s right.
As if on cue, the tuxedo cat saunters up to the deck, sits down at the beginning of the elevated steps, and starts to fastidiously lick its paws. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had quite a few very interesting sightings of this cat. I’d found a decrepitly old version sunbathing on top of my car, its previously bright, golden eyes dulled, covered in a layer of milky white cataracts. Another few times I’d peered out into the backyard early in the morning to see a seemingly middle-aged version of the tuxedo cat walking nimbly, as if on a tightrope, traveling atop the backyard fence, seeming as if it was on the way to a very important mission. A few other times I’d even seen the cat, age undeterminable because it was partially hidden from view, cloistered comfortably underneath my car, unwilling to move, no matter how hard I tried to coax it out from under.
“Um…well…” I start, opening and closing my mouth as I try to articulate my belief that the same cat, at various ages, has decided to move in. Or maybe I’m the new kid on the block, and the cat, in all of its different ages and iterations, is totally justified in showing up as is. Arguably, I’m the only one new to the neighborhood, if the ancient missing cat posters are any indication.
“Well, I have noticed this kind of crazy wavering in the air, over there by the fence,” I say, pointing toward the backyard’s outer limits. Today, the air looks normal and non-wavy, as if to contradict my assertions of its lack of normalcy.
“Oh, by the old trailhead, you say?” Albert asks as he takes out a cigar from his plaid sports coat pocket, lights it, and begins to unceremoniously smoke it.
I wrinkle my nose in annoyance; at least we are outside, sitting six feet apart from each other, but come on! He could have at least asked first.
“Ah, yes,” Albert continues. “The last couple who lived here complained about the atmospheric disturbance back by the trail. I’ve never been able to lay eyes on it myself.”
I lean forward in my deck chair and put my hand down toward the wooden ground, beckoning the tuxedo cat to come closer so I can get a better look. But the cat continues to sit eerily by the steps, its large, yellow, dilated pupils darting back and forth between me and Albert.
“Yup, by the trail.”
“Well, you see, Helen,” says Albert as he takes a sip of the beer I provided, “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for over thirty years, and around here things, and people, have a tendency to go missing, never to be seen again.”
“Yes, this property in particular, and that trail specifically, may be the site of what I believe to be a real atmospheric disruption. A true fly in the ointment, if you get my drift,” Albert says with a smile, revealing even, yet stained, yellowed teeth.
“Atmospheric disruptions?” I parrot, as I notice from the corner of my vision the tuxedo cat, who, after much beckoning on my part, finally begins to saunter toward me.
“Yes, my dear, an atmospheric refraction, to be precise, is most likely what’s happening. What kids your age might call a disturbance in the Force, if you will.”
“And what do you think is causing this atmospheric refraction?”
“Could be a temporal anomaly of some sort,” Albert says nonchalantly, as he takes another deep inhale from his stogie.
“Huh?” I say, as the tuxedo cat takes the opportunity to jump in my lap. I start to stroke the cat, leaning into its purr of enjoyment as I attempt to process what Albert’s telling me. I make a note to google the terms “atmospheric refraction” and “temporal anomaly.”
“That damn cat.”
“You know him?”
“Yes, I know her and her entire brood.”
“I think it’s a he.”
“How do you know it’s a he?”
“I don’t know if it’s a he; I simply think that it’s a he,” I say and leave it at that, deciding to change the subject by mentioning the new quarantine restrictions that have recently been announced.
The wind whips violently through my hair as I stand outside on the back deck with the tuxedo cat by my side. It’s early evening, and the gray clouds looming up above indicate that we’re about to experience the first real rainstorm since I moved to town. The last time I saw rain clouds looming over Oceana was when I first visited with Roy. He had loved surfing the Oceana beaches and had brought me down for the day. I was too afraid to get in the water—still am—so we just sat in the sand, talking for hours until we got rained out by a storm that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
This storm coming now, it isn’t sneaky the way the storm was on that day with Roy. Aggressive howling sounds are coming from the ocean and above, signifying that something significant is brewing, though the atmospheric disruption can still be clearly perceived up ahead. Misty precipitation sits thick in the air, hazily obscuring my typically unaltered view of the sea as I go over, as I have obsessively for the last few months, my many unanswered questions I know will never be resolved until I put my money where my mouth is. Questions like, can I go back like the tuxedo cat, back in time to an earlier version of myself? If I leave this way, exiting through the ether in front of me, will I ever be able to return? If I come back, will I be like the cat, younger than before, or older than when I left? If I go back in time, where will I land, and will Roy be there, alive and well and unventilated? Will the current version of myself continue to exist as is—me, newly widowed Helena Bowery, alive and relatively well?
There now seems to be a sense of urgency in the tuxedo cat’s movements as it begins to zig and zag back and forth between my legs, as if trying to herd me toward the wavering in the air that reappeared this morning by the back fence. I take a deep, diaphragmatic breath in and release it slowly, pushing my shoulders back and my chest out as I depart the deck.
As if taking my change in posture as a cue, the tuxedo cat sprints toward the atmospheric refraction in front of us, lunging forward and quickly disappearing into nothingness. The last thing I see of the tuxedo cat is the white-tipped marking on its otherwise pure black tail.
Putting one foot in front of the other, I walk toward the wavering night air, heading toward either my future or my past, or some new, unknown world located betwixt the two.