by Asa Noriega
After the divorce, Claudia Frank bought one of those overstuffed couches where the pillows sink together like alternate directions of a life converging. In the mornings, she’d crumple into the cushions and stare at a puddle flooding the sidewalk and part of the road in front of her house. It was big and showy, a water feature set in the middle of the street. She’d studied it over her morning coffee. As rainstorms came and went, it collected water until it seemed like it might cascade down her driveway and rush the basement. But it never did. The puddle filled right to the top of the curb and then had a way of receding, slowly, like a sly grin. She liked to think the water knew exactly when to stop – mother nature genuflects!
Her mom, completely settled in a second marriage in Massachusetts, was anxious about Claudia riding divorce’s wake right back to live at home, and so every time Claudia had called from Seattle, her mom took a distant, comedic approach, sending cards with weird sayings like Bigamy is having one husband too many. Marriage is the same. Although, she herself, remarried.
These exchanges made it seem to Claudia that the only avenue available had to be on her own in Seattle. At forty-two, she didn’t want to go through life lonely, or as her mom would put it, to be alone. It seemed such an obvious fate; alone, and then alone and dead, with a cat licking her face, her mom had explained the last time they spoke. “But I don’t own a cat,” Claudia reminded her to which her mom snipped, “It could be anything. A dog, a parrot, a weasel, I saw some lady walking a goat the other day!”
And so last month, Claudia announced that Tyler, the handsome twenty-five-year-old trainer who once had untangled her from a resistance band at the gym, was living with her. “It’s onward or the insanity ward,” her mom had joked. But Claudia was already cooling on this direction, her feelings for him ebbing and flowing, not so different from her puddle, she recognized right away.
We’ll see where it goes, Claudia thought, gazing out the window. It was her new way of approaching things. We’ll see where the water goes. We’ll see where this relationship goes. It calmed her to think that she could go with whatever came about, seamlessly adjusting, like one might hear in an epitaph of a life well-lived. When she was married, to combat anxiety of making mistakes, she had approached things with a should do. We should celebrate our anniversaries. We should buy a house. We should get a pet as a trial for when we have kids. And it all worked well until a fork pitched a different path.
“Good morning,” Said Tyler. He eased on the couch and she leaned into his arms. “Are you going out today?” He waited, rubbing his matted down hair.
“Of course,” she answered, wondering when he would leave for his first appointment, “Do you need something while I’m out?”
He shook his head, paused and said softly, “Hugo called last night.”
“He wants you to call him back today.”
Absolutely, positively, not! No, no, no! She thought.
“Why would I do that,” She said.
“Are you asking me?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed.” Did he say what it was about?”
“Nope,” said Tyler as he slid his cup on the table and kissed her cheek. She liked how he wore thick, pocketed sweats that flowed evenly down his legs, and a zippered sweatshirt, oversized, cuddly.
“I’ll see you tonight,” He said. “It looks like a decent day. If you go to the store, I’d love something sweet, like you.”
Claudia made her way to the bathroom and examined her face in the mirror. A thick hair had sprouted from her chin, like a whisker, so she plucked it. She wondered if Hugo felt anything when he heard Tyler’s voice answering the phone, realizing that she still harbored some sort of feeling and perhaps living with a guy ten years her younger might make her look silly, maybe even predatory, but she felt less of the sleek, wily cougar-like qualities of women her age and more clumsy, inert, like a sinkhole, with invasive cheatgrass sprouting from the surface. She had read about one in Florida. A guy had made a sandwich in the kitchen when the ground opened, swallowing him, like a sacrifice.
She grabbed a cracker and dialed Hugo’s number.
“It’s Claudia,” she said, monotone.
“Hi,” Hugo said softly. “I’m glad you called back.”
“Yeah, well,” she said.
“Listen, I need to let you know something. Liz and I…we’re…we’re having a baby.”
“You’re having a baby,” She repeated. “But you don’t want kids.”
“We weren’t trying,” he said,
“You weren’t,” again she repeated. “But you don’t want kids.”
“I thought you should know.”
“Okay,” she said. “I just don’t understand how, I mean, obviously I know how but I thought–“
“I was the reason.”
“I guess,” she said. An inability to get pregnant seemed somehow more fitting for the one who didn’t want kids. After months of treatments Hugo had begged to change their course. He described how deer, elk and even pond turtles will cross highways searching for food but get run over. Whole families are wiped out by a single Volvo. They could raise money to redirect them he’d suggested. He showed a picture of turtle families – so cute and the moms so attentive!—forming a line along a screen that directed them toward a safer route.
“Oh, my god. Life sucks!” she blurted.
“Claudia, I know how much this hurts— “
“You have no idea!” she yelped.
“But it’s better if you know now. We thought, I don’t know. We thought it would be better now that you’ve moved on.”
“Leave me out of your discussions with Liz. We are not friends anymore. She’s not my friend!”
“I know this seems bad right now.”
And before she knew it, everything about the last year – its isolation, humiliation, turtles and resistance bands, best friends –and that fucking affair! — started to whip up so she jumped into the middle. She began to shriek. “I’m hanging up now. Don’t call me ever again. I don’t want anything to do with you two. That’s what divorce means. I don’t have to know anything. I don’t have to do anything. So just get the hell out of my life!” She was shocked by the venom and hurt in her voice. She had, after all, moved on. She had, after all, asked Tyler to move in. She had laughed playing Scrabble in her underwear. She’d even thought things might’ve just worked out for the better once when she and Tyler were cooking chard and dancing in the kitchen.
“Sorry,” said Hugo. He sighed long and hard.
“You know what, Daddy, I don’t think you are!”
“Serves them right.” Her mom said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Raising kids is hard. Hugo and Liz are just so stuck on themselves,” she said. Claudia heard her mom’s new dog, Helga, scamper and drop to the floor cleseby. “A baby will put them in their place.”
Claudia’s mom as confidante was not ideal. As a teenager, Claudia would relay some hurtful slight by one of her friends. Her mother would listen and gulp her gin and tonic, ice clinking wildly against the glass, then threaten to report the girl to the parents, the school, the PTA, and anyone who’d listen! When Claudia forbade her, her mom would resort to pointing out all the ways each girl was somehow beneath her. While Claudia found this delivery unhelpful, even a bit scary, it was the content that was addictive, the immaturity of blaming someone else, the satisfaction of knowing that she had someone fully in her corner. She longed for a best friend.
“You know how I feel about Liz,” her mom launched in. “She’s a copycat. She does everything you do. She always has, only she takes it to the extreme.”
“You mean she does it better.”
“You cut your hair short, she cut hers shorter. I wouldn’t say it looked better. She bought the same car as you. She wears the exact same sneakers. You rode a bike through Italy, then she not only rode a bike through Italy, she took Italian cooking classes, she made Italian friends, she took Italian lessons, she visited Rome every Goddamn year for a decade. She practically became Italian, which just shows you how ridiculous she can get!”
“I think,” said Claudia slowly, “she was trying to find common ground.”
“I’ll say! She certainly did that with Hugo, didn’t she?”
There was silence, and then her mom asked lightly, “How’s it working out with Taylor?” Claudia could tell that a year of, more or less, the same conversations about separation and divorce had taken a toll. Her mom already shifting the focus. “Maybe he wants kids.”
“Tyler, Mom, his name is Tyler. Besides, isn’t it obvious? I’m the one who can’t have kids.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. “Maybe you can just have fun, then.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Don’t analyze things too much, Helga. You conjure all sorts of things, and then”
“Claudia, Mom, you mean, Claudia.”
“What did I say?”
“You called me Helga.”
“Did I?” she chuckled.
“Yes,” said Claudia, heat building in her neck. She sensed her mom had tired, the call laughing to an end and so she wrapped it up with a promise to be more open to new possibilities, then grabbed her car keys and went out. She needed to think. She circled the neighborhood, and then she left it, driving the twenty minutes across town to Hugo and Liz’s house.
She eased the car alongside the curb. A cat on the porch lifted its head but its body remained perfectly still. It was fluffy and orange but more of a milky, tannish hue with white patches. Long darker wisps of hair overlay the downy undercoat — a kitty comb-over, she thought lightly, waiting for her next move to come to her.
“Hi,” whispered Claudia from inside the car. What it must be thinking of her? Of who she is. Of course, it didn’t respond. It simply stared at her and twitched the end of its tail. She unlocked the car door and fumbled; her hand a little jittery but it landed on the handle and pulled back. “What am I doing here?” she mumbled, feeling flushed. She started the car and drove away. Claudia’s hands were on the wheel and she let out a long breath, ridding her lungs of pressure. She outstretched her hands and noticed for the first time that her ring finger was shorter than her index but on her other hand they were the same length. She curled them loosely back around the wheel, maneuvering the car through the quiet streets, the push and pull, ushering her back to normalcy. Her stubby ring finger navigating home, she thought. That’s what she and Hugo had become. Stunted but still capable of turning a wheel.
Claudia drove too fast through the puddle, sloshing and settling on the parking pad. She turned off the engine and walked halfway up the block to get a better view of the landscape. She could see how the fifteen-foot-wide basin started in the middle of the street, and then gradually curving just underneath her porch. It was oval-shaped, an egg sliced in half, and her porch was the yolk. There were several cracks in the foundation. The ground so obviously shifting. Did a stream swell underneath? Or perhaps it was a cave held together by roots, gravel, and now buckling under the weight of the pavement.
Inside the house, it was warm and smelled spicy. Tyler was cooking tomato sauce. He put down his spoon and hugged her. “Did you call Hugo?” He asked.
She shook her head, “no, of course not!” She wondered if she was in love with Tyler. She thought that she felt love right then, her fib in the same air as the aroma from his cooking. She held out a box. “I bought organic Twinkies.”
“C’mon upstairs,” he said, turning off the burner.
Tyler leaned her onto the bed. Their bodies were symbiotic, and cooperative as teammates passing and catching. His mouth ready and he kissed her gamely. Her breath was hard and choppy but she inhaled deeply and made herself relax until it smoothed into a warm, even tempo. How could she not love him right there, cradled in warmth and the stillness of soft, white sheets.
When she thought Tyler was sleeping, she tiptoed downstairs, ate a few bites of Twinkie, and slipped back upstairs into bed. Tyler lay awake.
“I’m feeling weird about you and me,” He said, rolling over.
“I know,” she agreed. She sighed and remained silent. After a while she asked, “Do you think you are going to want kids?”
“I think so. I hadn’t thought about it, really.”
Claudia told Tyler she had talked to Hugo and she was the one not capable of having kids. Tyler said he understood her reaction and that he was happy about the prospects of no birth control. He became more assured, like lingering questions had finally been answered for him.
“Life is funny like that,” he said. “One minute you’re fine and then, Bam, you get a curve ball!” He fisted the air for dramatic effect. “You gotta keep on movin’ on, though.”
“Where am I moving to?”
“I mean, you can’t let it get you down.”
“Or, fight for the right—” She was joking but it came across harsh and unexpected, halting the momentum of their banter.
“You don’t want to be one of those women,” he said softly.
“The ones who become bitter because of some supposed unfair treatment.
“There’s this one movie where a woman sleeps with a married man and she thinks he’s going to leave his wife. But he doesn’t so she hangs the family cat—”
“I thought she boiled the daughter’s bunny.”
“Was it a bunny? I didn’t see the movie.”
“Well, there’s also the one about the wife wanting a divorce,” she said gamely, thankful the conversation was flowing, “but she and the husband both get too possessive about the division of assets and the wife serves his cat for dinner.”
Tyler grimaced. “That’s not the one.”
“It was the rabbit and the affair then,” she said. “What was it called?”
“My point is, the bunny-boiler goes crazy for something that just wasn’t in the cards.”
“I guess,” said Claudia, but that’s not how she saw it. The woman was deceived and grew false hope of a life with a man she loved. And then, of course, there’s the fact that a young, promising woman’s life comes to a brutal end, drowned in a bathtub. Much like the bunny, this woman seemed tragic.
“Well, there’s bad times and then good times,” he said, “Carpe Diem.”
Tyler tucked into her and tried to cradle her in his arms, to keep her with him. She slid closer but her mind had floated over a puddle where the water glistened, she drowned in water, just like the rabbit, she thought, sensing the coolness of feet sinking into mud, squishing through as she submerged into the liquid comfort of sleep.
In the morning, after Tyler left, she called her mother. “I stalked Hugo yesterday” she announced. “I’m a stalker.”
“Always so quick to judge,” her mom said. “You’re just going through a rough patch. It’s not like you are peering in windows or making obscene phone calls.”
“Of course not!”
“What you have, honey, is too much time on your hands,” Her mother said. “Maybe you should become an artist—a painter. Create something.”
“That sounds like a bumper sticker. Besides, people don’t just become creative. They are born with it, like blood clotting disorders.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “Margie, the one who just lost her retriever to hip dysplasia, has taken two classes and you should see her oranges. There are formulas for getting it right. Did you know a person’s eye level is exactly halfway down the head?”
Claudia was silent. Her mom had a point. What’s the harm in letting things go a bit?
After another moment, her mother sighed, “You never should’ve quit your job.”
Claudia remembered after they signed and walked away. She was so tired and simple things seemed too hard to execute. “I didn’t quit, Mom, I surrendered.”
“Right. And now you need to come back from all of that,” Her mother said. “Most community centers have all sorts of free classes. You could paint or write or pound the crap out of clay.”
Claudia thought the class would be a little like divorce itself. All the emotions swirling in you finally converge and erupt and you’re forced to explain why your cherry tree appears to be coming out of a dead rabbit. Claudia said flatly, “I’ll think about it.”
In the middle of that night, she awoke to what seemed like an earthquake, but it was the clank of a truck rumbling down the street, hitting the dip. The bedroom door jiggled, and the windows vibrated. Tyler’s breathing was steady and even. She slipped into a sweatshirt, heavy socks and slippers with a rubber sole. She wrapped a crocheted blanket around her, an old lady’s cape. It was tattered and pilled, like an annulus with markings of a tough year. She went outside, sliding a lawn chair to the puddle’s edge. The air was moist. A breeze rippled the water. Across the way, each craftsman silhouetted as family portraits against the blue of the night sky. She needed to drive.
This time, she brought a dehydrated salmon treat for the cat. It was crouched on the ground and jutting its neck out. After a while it lazed back to the porch, then leapt onto the swing. She wondered if Liz and Hugo swung together. She wondered, too, if they exchanged rings. Hugo didn’t want to wear a ring for their marriage. Instead, he’d insisted on getting an expensive diver’s style watch that would mark the times of their life together, still circular, still symbolic, even closer to a main artery. He tugged at it, though, always trying to loosen it. “It’s not a handcuff,” she had joked once. He told her that it was plucking hairs from his arm. Obviously, there was more to it. A ring would’ve been better, she thought. A ring doesn’t bend. It doesn’t shift. She would’ve believed more in a ring.
The cat’s green eyes flickered as it reflected the light from the porch.
“Here, kitty,” she whispered. The sound of her voice in the darkness was eerie. She said it again quickly, holding out the treat. As the cat moved toward her, its top fur floated lightly in the air, and its tail twitched with suspicion. It seemed just as baffled as Claudia about this series of visits. She reached out and it sniffed, tickling the ends of her fingers with its whiskers and then dipping its head into her hand, giving itself a rub.
“You see, kitty, I’m nice,” she whispered, “Do you want to come with me?” she said, reaching her other hand around to coax it toward her but then she stopped. “Get a grip!” she hissed. Women take pets, men take girlfriends. The cat stepped back, its eyes unflinching and green, like a traffic signal. The cat cleaned its paws; crouched down; twitched its tail; ran across the street and shot up a tree. Claudia shut her car door; started the engine; looked back; and made her way quietly down the street, vowing never, never, ever to do that again.
When she returned home, Tyler rolled over and hugged her tight and for a moment, she let herself sink into his arms. She felt grateful to be with him and found herself quickly giving in, folding, soft and available, like a cocktail napkin. She thought of how great love notes are hastily scribbled on these squares. Her head filled with poetry that she might jot down: Why is this bar persimmon/ It’s hard to sip my gin/Another double on the rocks/Of being in love with him. She loved him, she thought, just maybe there was love, as she drifted to sleep.
In the morning, a flatbed truck carrying a backhoe rattled and sloshed through the puddle, parking east of her house. Another truck’s breaks squealed as it stopped. Workers hopped off the back and pulled No Parking signs with them, surrounding the puddle the same way she envisioned a military assault might occur. One truck rumbled off and when she ran downstairs and looked out the window, there were florescent orange directional arrows making a rectangle with the word “OUT” spray-painted along the lines.
“Out?” she yelped. “What the hell!”
“That was quick,” said Tyler, hugging her from behind. “They said they’d be here in a few days. But I didn’t believe them.”
She pulled away from him. “You called them to fix my puddle!” She said darkly. She was feeling possessive.
“Yes,” he admitted proudly.
“How could you do that without asking?” She saw it now, how their life would be together. He would innocently go about living; she would try to stop living. He’d yell, she’d yell. They’d realize there’s nothing – no kids, no movies, no turtles – to bind them. He’d sleep with her new best friend.
“That’s not a puddle, it’s a crevasse waiting to happen! You don’t know what could be running underneath; a stream; shifting sand. It could open up—”
“That crevasse as you put it,” she said pointing hard, “is important to me.”
“You mean to tell me, a gaping watery mess pulling the street and your house into the ground, is important to you!”
“It’s important to me,” she repeated combatively.
“That’s a little crazy, right? Can you see that’s crazy?”
Claudia sighed. “I don’t even know why you are with me.” She shook her head. “Why are you with me?”
“You know what,” he said. “I think you have to answer that yourself.” And he grabbed his coat and marched out the door.
Claudia took up post on the couch. The workers had attached a drill-like contraption to the backhoe. They cranked it high into the air and let it drop, crashing it to the ground. There was a crack and a rip as it punctured and smashed the pavement. The impact to the house wasn’t bad. It shook and the windows rattled, but then it rested, still and firm, giving in to nothing at all. There was no creaking or settling after each blow, no echo or cracking, only restraint. She dialed her mom.
“I’m watching a metal awl smash through the street,” said Claudia, slumping into the middle of the couch.
“Oh,” said her mom. “You are not in front of anyone’s house you shouldn’t be, are you?”
“Of course not,” she said. “Tyler called the city to fix the puddle in front of my house.”
“Well that’s good news,” said her mom, letting out a sigh. “That thing is a menace.”
“I half expect steam to rise up any moment as it sucks me under,” Claudia said loudly.
“Believe me, you wouldn’t want to go too far underground there,” her mom said. “That’s where they put all the garbage from the World’s Fair.”
“Right, that’s exactly why I wouldn’t want to sink underground.”
“Are you alright?”
“I got mad at Tyler for calling the city,” she admitted, making a last-minute decision not to tell her how she found herself at Hugo’s house again – Not a good sign in life. But then she said, “I almost took—” and then she stopped, admitted nothing more.
“Listen, Claudia, I could come out there for a while.”
“My God, Mom, no!” she said and then tried to say lightly, “Not in the middle of this excavation.”
“Think about it,” said her mom. She sounded worried. “Think about me coming out.”
“Right,” said Claudia, wondering if her mom meant it to sound like advice.
In one day, the workers had transformed the puddle into a deep rectangular square with a flattened gravel base. The street and sidewalk seemed quieter in contrast to the noise it took to get there. The hole was still and so structural that it reminded her of a mold, a form, a start of something. She entertained the notion that perhaps by the end of her marriage, before Hugo and Liz got together even, she didn’t want to be with Hugo. She didn’t expect such a swift and dramatic end but when it was all unearthed, she wasn’t surprised.
By three o’clock, the workers had packed up for the day and she waited for Tyler to return. And when he didn’t come home by 11:00 pm, she lay awake long through the night, through the sound of a truck braking to navigate around the roadwork, through the screech of two cats fighting over territory, a loud breathy gasp of her house settling. She felt herself grow heavy, sink into the bed, look at the window. Tonight, she would go one more time to Hugo’s, say goodbye to the cat and maybe, tomorrow, she’ll even send Hugo and Liz a card. She would let it go, “Congratulations on your baby.”
The cat batted at a moth that was dancing in the light. There was a new clay pot on the porch with a flowering cabbage. Claudia scanned the house. There was a mobile in one of the upstairs windows. The cat was squatting, glaring at something, ready to pounce. It was more playful tonight, she decided. She closed her eyes to calm herself and when she opened them again, the cat had disappeared. Just as well, she thought, “goodbye kitty.”
Gazing out the car window, she was startled when a light went on upstairs. She turned on the car but didn’t move. The curtain opened, and she saw Hugo’s face, a flat, uncomprehending expression as he looked out to the distance and then he seemed to flash Claudia a grin or it was a peaceful gaze into nothingness and Claudia happened to be there to catch a glimpse. Claudia slumped down. She sighed listened to the palpable thump of her heart. These visits were taking a toll.
Perhaps, if she’d be more open to Tyler they could – what could they do? Certainly not get pregnant. It was that simple. She felt narrow, deteriorated, unstable; everything, if she really thought about it, was the opposite of fruitful. She needed to grab herself, shake her, force her to get on with life, “on guard!”. If a family was what she really wanted, she could do it. But she wouldn’t do it by getting a pet or caring for turtles! She sat up to look again. The curtain was already closed. As long as she sat there, she would be a stalker. Her mouth went dry. “On guard!” She let herself mumble.
“On guard!” she repeated. She put her car in gear pressed the gas, hitting a bump as she sped off. She looked in the rearview mirror to see if anything fell off her car.
When Claudia parked, she swung her legs to the ground and leaned out, scanning the length of the car’s body, verifying the hubcap was still in place.
She stepped out of the car, looking to the front door, hoping Tyler would be home. Something drew her to glance to the back tire. She could see a tuft of orange fur in the wheel well. She fingered the fuzz and forced herself to poke above the tire. It took just one touch to feel a doughy warmth. She knew what it was, pulling one hand away quickly inspecting her fingers for blood. A cry escaped and she gasped, holding her other arm straight out to support the carcass against the car, looking away, unable to catch her breath.
“No, not you!” she yelped. “Oh kitty, not you. I’m so sorry!” She started to tear up. A paw dropped down. Orange, fluffy, murdered. Something switched on in her. The blood in her body churned and swelling. Her surroundings changed – electrified and awful. Everything that until now only unstable had crumbled, fallen away, and was rearranging to become something else. She had killed a family’s cat. She was a cat-killer! She started to shake, and her hands went numb so that she could barely feel the carcass. She could not go back in time to fix this.
“Is that a dead cat?” asked a soft voice from behind. Tyler had returned.
“I hit it,” she said, sobbing hysterically, trying to catch her breath. “It darted out and I hit it.” She began to weep and shake so that Tyler turned her to face him so they both held the heavy fur body. “I am a cat killer,” she said, crying, resisting the urge to say more.
“No, you’re not,” said Tyler. He guided her to a small dirt area by the street that hadn’t been tamped down yet and helped her lay it on the ground. He pulled her up and wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly. She held him back. The world seemed open wide and it was screaming for sacrifices and leaps. She would bury the cat in the sinkhole, she thought, a hardened seed thrust deep down in her gut, for surely it had to go there.
About the Author:
Asa Noriega lives in Seattle, Washington and works as a brand and marketing director for a residential construction company. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Vermont and completed a certificate in Literary Fiction Writing at the University of Washington.