Schrödinger’s Cat, But for Marriage
"Can a Cat" by Olivia Parkes, an original short story recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Most of my disagreements with my husband can be solved by Google. A famous argument in our household, through not a particularly epic one, was over which states constitute the tristate area. I said it was Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. He said New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York. Turns out, there are multiple tri-state areas on the east coast. We both got to be right, which is why the argument is famous.
The more complicated arguments are the ones that cannot be solved by Google, but that doesn’t mean they are not about facts. (On a road trip under particularly terrifying skies, we debated if the storm was getting worse ahead, or if the night was just getting darker. This one was actually surprisingly animated.)
The reason that these low-stakes rows are so fraught is because they are actually very high stakes. Our sense of our own intelligence—in fact the very place we’ve staked for ourselves in the world—has been gleaned from a lifetime of experience. We’ve lived it, and now we’re being asked to prove it.
Olivia Parkes’s “Can a Cat” is an astute, remarkable, and funny expression of this conundrum, the way that integrating your life with another person forces you to compromise not only, say, your preferred time to do the dishes, but your very sense of what is real.
In “Can a Cat” the argument is whether a cat can indeed survive falling from a great height. The narrator and her husband Michael are having this very argument when a cat falls from the sky above, seemingly from nowhere, and lands on a table in the restaurant where they are not really enjoying lunch. That there has been some kind of cosmic intervention to settle this debate seems at first like a gift, and then more like a curse.
Unrelated to the cat, it has recently turned out that Michael has always, for his entire life, been allergic to eggplant. The narrator cannot recall this ever being true. “I could not say exactly what had happened between us—only that at some point we had entered into an argument about reality,” Parkes writes.
The cat thing might have been Googled, but the situation with the eggplant is far more dire. Michael insists on his life-threatening allergy, his wife refuses to believe it. And thus they “entered that phase of a relationship where it becomes necessary to strip the other person of their illusions, the kind of petty looting that precedes an imminent breakdown of social order.”
Read this story for sentences like that, and to find out what the breakdown of social order in a marriage looks like. Read this story to find out whether the cat lives or dies. Read this story to take your own arguments a little less seriously, and to cherish the paradoxical moments, as with Schrödinger’s cat, when you both get to be right.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
Schrödinger’s Cat, But for Marriage
“Can a Cat”
by Olivia Parkes
My husband and I were talking about whether cats could, in fact, survive falling from great heights, or if this was a myth—just one of the eight extra lives attributed to felines—when an actual cat crashed onto the table beside us. We were eating lunch outside at the Greek restaurant in town, a few weeks into the fall semester at the small college where my husband taught geology and I haunted the library stacks, theoretically finishing my PhD about the significance of bells in village life. We looked up; we looked at each other. Shame flickered across his face and I remembered something he’d said to me once when we were drunk at someone else’s wedding. I am just a reflection of you.
Luckily, or as fate would have it—whichever was actually in charge—the table the cat had struck was empty. Its four chairs, tipped in and chained together, looked unsurprised by what had just happened, and within moments I too felt the shock leech out of me. Reality has everything on such a short leash. You wander off, weaving your fantasies, and with a quick jerk, there you are: at lunch with a man you no longer recognize, presented with a circumstance that will settle the argument you have been having for the last ten minutes, or maybe for the last ten years, in someone’s irrevocable favor.
The only other guests on the patio were a family of three, a lanky teen with a widow’s peak and a pale, rumpled couple who could only be his parents. They were staring at the still, soft body of the tabby with a kind of polite aversion, as if they had ordered it by mistake and would now be required to eat it. Before any of us moved, the cat’s tail whipped straight up and quivered. At this the woman launched a protective arm across her son, letting out a tentative scream. The boy caught my eye and blushed. I tensed in my seat, worried I was required to scream next. But before I could summon some false and dreadful feeling the cat began to seize, jerking so violently that the metal chairs rattled their chains. Its stiff legs beat the table and I saw that it had been declawed. Finally, the animal was still, and the waitress, who had come running at the sound and stood in the doorway with a hand clasped to her mouth, approached.
“It’s dead,” she announced shakily. My husband and I locked eyes and I watched his face undergo a brief turmoil before closing like a door.
I could not say exactly what had happened between us—only that at some point we had entered into an argument about reality. One evening last fall, I had extended a plastic spatula to him, oily with baba ghanoush, and he looked at me like I was trying to kill him. “I’m allergic to eggplant,” he said.
“No you’re not,” I countered, my mind scanning back to all the times we had consumed the innocent vegetable together. He explained that it gave him migraines. It is true that in all the time I have known him, my husband has suffered from sudden and debilitating headaches. Early on, it was part of his mystique. He was prey to an unknowable force that could strike at any time, to auras and undoing. “Since when?” I asked.
“Since forever,” he said, and we entered that phase of a relationship where it becomes necessary to strip the other person of their illusions, the kind of petty looting that precedes an imminent breakdown of social order. Later, I began to doubt that the migraines were real at all. Love is like a magic trick. If you do not believe, the magic is gone and only the trick remains.
“Where the hell did it come from?” The waitress asked. She looked up at the poker-faced sky, and then, it seemed, directly at me.
The idea that our marital strife could have made a cat fall from the sky, though fantastic, was weirdly in keeping with my research, or at least with the wispy thought of the New Age gurus it had led me to on YouTube. Bells were once believed to have powers beyond calling a congregation and keeping time; they could attract saints and repel storms, their sound a mediator that embodied divine power on earth. An inquiry into the power of sound had led me, late at night, to the power of vibration. Nobody believed in bells anymore, but apparently now we were ringing, or being rung, emitting a constant if inaudible call to fate. In this way it is said that we attract our each and every circumstance like an asteroid acquires mass, before combusting in some other atmosphere. I did not know what I believed—only that the cowardly and increasingly unreal nature of our discord was having a violent effect.
For months now, our conversations had favored the hypothetical or speculative. The positions we took, hasty and ill-informed, allowed us to argue with careless violence, and the most impersonal subjects incited increasingly personal arguments.
If you had to be a criminal, I had asked last night, what kind of criminal would you be?
A burglar, he said instantly. I would break into houses in the dead of night.
With practice I have found a way of speaking through almost imperceptible noises and expressions, so that sometimes my husband is able to have the entire conversation with himself.
What? That’s greed? I wouldn’t even have to take anything. I would be happy just moving things around.
It’s not creepy! It could be a kind of service. Help people see things in a new light.
What do you mean “You can’t be a good bad man?” Like, that’s not an option? That’s not on your menu?
Oh. And who are you to say if I have what it takes to make a graceful entry?
We had not had sex since May. When he asked what I would be, I said that I would be an arsonist, and in that moment it had seemed not only possible but likely that he would rob our home to prove a point and I would burn it down.
But lunch today was supposed to patch things up, and I had been treading gingerly. Time, I sensed, was running out. My husband had taken up woodworking—he a man who had never been able to so much as assemble IKEA furniture—and we were in danger of becoming different people entirely. The cat question had seemed safe, even innocent. We had never owned a cat, and neither of us had ever lived higher than the third floor. But when I suggested that a cat probably could not survive a massive fall better than say, a man or a fish or a dog, he had put his fork down like it was something he would never need again. With a professor’s delight in disquisition, he began explaining the aerial righting reflex, a feline’s instinct for sensing which way is down, which allows them to twist their bodies like a gymnast or an astronaut and position their feet beneath them for landing. He spoke crisply and used his hands. Only the last word—a thing we both wanted badly—was lost to the crash.
I opened my mouth to speak, but a noise came from the cat instead, a harsh rattle that had to be called breathing. The animal’s whole chest rose and fell like a bellows. “It’s dying,” the waitress said, but she no longer sounded sure. We watched, horrified, as the cat righted itself and stood swaying, a little blood coming from its mouth.
And then, almost as quickly as it had happened, it was over. The boy’s mother stood up and lifted the animal to her chest, where it hissed and flexed a clawless paw. She asked the waitress for directions to the nearest animal hospital, and within minutes all four of them were gone.
That evening I prepared dinner while my husband put the finishing touches on the gate he’d been making for the front of the house. We lived in a sagging wood-frame on a street populated mostly by students and made a steady effort to distinguish ourselves from them and their yearly churn, to appear somehow more permanent. I put music on and laid the table the way I only did for guests, with placemats and cloth napkins. Dressing the table always felt like making the bed right before you slept in it, but tonight I wanted a little ceremony. The cat, which might have decided things, was alive or dead, or alive and dead at the same time. I needed to take matters into my own hands. Terrible things happened when people lived together telling different stories. In my research I had come across a battle that had taken place in a small town in rural France over whether or not the bell should be rung during thunderstorms, half the town taking the position that ringing the bell would cause the storm to subside, and the other that it generally made things worse. The argument grew so fevered and intense that the two sides eventually annihilated each other, and that was the end of village life.
I dug the wick out of the only candle I could find, a citronella left over from the long buggy summer. I cupped my hand to shelter the match, and as I lifted it my husband came in from outdoors.
“Wow,” he said. “What’s all this?” We smiled at each other across the room.
“I haven’t cooked in a while,” I said. He moved past me to the sink and turned the faucet on to wash his hands. “How’s it going out there?” I asked.
“Looking good,” he said. “The paint should be dry by morning.”
“And are all the sheep penned in for the night?” I asked. “And the chickens and the horse and the cows?” A look of faint surprise that bordered on pain crossed his face, as if he had run the water too hot, and for a moment he looked years younger, like the gawky undergrad I had met over a decade ago. The farm had been the kind of earnest joke that forged our early courtship. One winter night in my dorm room he had crossed his arms behind his head and asked my ceiling: did I think this was the time and place—a waking hour borrowed after midnight, in bed—that partners made the difficult decisions about their life together, where they had the conversations that gave it shape?
Like what? I asked. Like, should we sell the farm? Exactly, he said. And when after some thought I told him no: we should keep the farm and sell the thresher and lay down five non-GMO varieties of criollo corn, I was telling the truth. That was the difference between then and now. In those days, when the hypothetical was still a place we could tend and labor with hope of harvest, we were telling the truth—and we believed each other. Once, people had believed in bells. The sound of the village bell warned off calamities and accompanied wishes, as well as the souls of the dead. It made the imperceptible audible and perceivable and bound the beating heart of people who lived together into a daily rhythm—until its power became first a question and then a contest, and finally something that no one believed in at all.
Standing now at the sink my husband’s ears reddened, and it occurred to me that he thought I was mocking him. The thought produced a sudden pain so slim and sharp that I reached out and touched his shoulder, as if I could pierce the slime that had solidified between us like something in a drain. He coughed, shaking off my hand. “I’ve installed a digital lock above the latch,” he said. “You have to enter a code to get in.”
He moved jerkily to the table and sat down, unfolding the napkin in his lap, which was printed for some reason with martini glasses. A smile tightened the corners of his mouth. “What is this?” he said again when I lifted the lid on the serving dish. The heavy ceramic dish was shaped like a duck and had been a wedding present. It was, like almost all the kitchenware we had received, intended for “entertaining.” Such items required washing by hand or the kind of conditioning treatments that I reserved annually for my hair. In the first year of our marriage I had opened the dishwasher on a load of crystal flutes and discovered it full of sparkling shards of glass. This, at the time, had seemed like permission, and I had cried and cried. My husband had comforted me down on the tiles and ordered a sturdy set of tumblers online. He was staring now at the eggplant parmigiana in the dish like it was his own liver. “You know I can’t eat that,” he said.
“But I don’t know that,” I said. “I don’t know anything anymore. That’s the problem.” Would he eat? I willed him to come back to me, to mend the original rupture so that we could reenter a common reality. We stared at each other and I ferried a spoonful to my plate. “Is it ok if I start?” I asked.
He stood, knocking the table, and the candle flickered. “Fine,” he said. “Fine—if this is what you want.” He wiped a finger across my plate and sucked it, his eyes bulging. And then he was tearing into the duck’s back with a serving spoon, shoveling the cheesy eggplant into his mouth. I watched him like a man might watch a pregnant woman eating coal, with a mixture of fear and respect, disgust and gratitude. “There,” he said. Sweat stood out in pinpricks on his brow. He did look for a minute as if he was about to be sick. He wiped his mouth and tossed the oily napkin on the floor. For a long moment he stood swaying, and then he left the room. I heard the scrape of car keys in the bowl, the catch and slam of the front door. The car started in the driveway and the lights blazed for a moment fiercely into the room, and he was gone.
All evening I waited for him to come home. When he did not I went to bed and prepared for sleep with my usual defenses: ear plugs, eye mask, and mouthguard. You could hear the students moving at night like raccoons, depositing and removing half-dead furniture from where it languished near the bins. Already I could hear them passing in twos and threes, laughs or scraps of conversation piercing the thin purple night. There was a full moon and the light falling across my bed made me shiver, alert to every noise. The voices intensified in quantity and pitch until it seemed as if a crowd had gathered outside my window. Music began to throb like it was playing in the house and the house was my head. I ground my earplugs into my ears to no avail. Finally, I went to the window and wrenched it open. A group of students had spilled out onto the porch and sidewalk of the house across the street. I shoved my head out and yelled, “Can you please turn that down?”
“What?” one of the boys shouted up at me.
“I said can you please turn that down.” The others gestured amiably with beers, a mix between a shrug and an invitation.
Downstairs everything was as I had left it. My husband’s plate remained pristine. I found the front door unlocked and slightly ajar. Outside, I saw that he had finished the gate with a coat of bright red lacquer. It stood beneath the full moon like an actor about to begin. Everything else seemed leached of color as if the fragile scenery was sinking under water. The latch clicked shut behind me. I crossed the street and drifted into the party in my nightgown. Someone gave me a beer. “Hey,” he said. “That was pretty wild today.” It was the boy from the Greek restaurant. I felt the same zing of surprise as when the cat had struck the table, the same brief, electric feeling of contact with something like fate. This was the moment in which everything could be decided.
“What happened to that cat?” I asked.
“It died,” the boy said. “We drove around for twenty minutes looking for the vet and couldn’t find one. I think it was dead for most of the drive, or maybe even from the moment it hit the table, but my mom was really freaking out. She thinks it’s a sign that I shouldn’t go here.”
I didn’t bother telling him that it was my cat, my sign—that he could go to school where he wanted. The cresting wave of adrenaline in my chest made me briefly giddy and I grabbed his arm with my free hand to steady myself. I had won! His bare arm was surprisingly thin and cold, like a branch encased in frost. He rolled his forearm gently in my grip, and I stumbled closer. He was blushing again, and I willed him recklessly to kiss me. I felt at that moment that I could make anything happen. His eyes dropped to my hand.
“Do you think you’re still allergic to an animal if it’s dead?” he asked. I looked down and saw that his skin was mottled with hives. My euphoria turned and paled, sickening to anxiety. I saw my husband driving too fast down the windy two-lane highway that connected our town to others like it, a stream of head and tail lights running like Chinese dragons in his addled vision. I saw him sick and being tended by our waitress at lunch, who had noted his allergy in her pad with the reverential solemnity of a funeral director. Even if the things you fought about were fake, the stakes were real. Standing in my nightdress with a teenage boy who did not want to kiss me, the origin of our disagreement seemed distant and impossibly small, a point on a timeline that would never have been plotted if not for the disaster that followed. It did not take a storm to destroy a village when people were perfectly happy to do it themselves. I saw the front door standing open, the candle left burning in an empty house.
I released the boy’s arm. My hand fluttered to my temple, where my fingers found the eye-mask strapped to my forehead like another, calmer face. “Hey—are you OK?” he said.
“I have to go,” I said.
The night was damp and electric. The gate would not open and I stared blindly at the complacent red eye of the keypad on the digital lock before tucking my nightgown up between my legs and hoisting myself over. I heard a rip and felt a sharp pain on my left leg. Almost immediately the device began to beep a baleful alert. Inside, things looked both familiar and unfamiliar. The cushions on the sofa seemed to have been rearranged. A Bix Beiderbecke record I did not know we owned lay on top of its sleeve on the credenza. I plunged a finger into the soil of the snake plant which looked darker, as if it had been freshly watered. In the dining room, the candle guttered in a pool of wax sheltered by high, curling sides.
“Michael,” I shouted, like his name was a spell that would bring him back. We had avoided addressing one another lately by name, as if as long as we failed to say them aloud the mess we were making of our lives might be nothing but a terrible play. I climbed the stairs to our bedroom, half-believing I would find him there asleep. There would be an empty glass with a white cast of powdered aspirin on his bedside table. But there was not. I had left the window open and the curtains sucked in and out. Suddenly I was cold and very tired. My leg hurt, and I saw that I was bleeding. At the sight of my own blood I realized that the alarm I’d set off on the gate had stopped bleating. The silence magnified the sounds in the house, or was the house my head? I could no longer hear the party. Instead: a creak on the stair.
“Michael?” I said. My heart beat a note of joy and two of fear, a tune that made me step towards the open window. The yard below was wet, tangled, alien. It did not belong to anybody. I put a knee up on the ledge and hoisted myself. A step sounded firmly upon a stair. Anyone might enter on a night like this, I thought. It might be Michael or an uninvited stranger, or the stranger I had incautiously invited. I would not know until I saw him if he meant me harm. I gauged the distance to the grass below and wondered if there was a difference if the cat fell or the cat jumped. Fate is powerful but so is intention. It is possible that they are head and tail to each other: a snake consuming itself, a tossed coin turning in the air. The future is a palm clapped down upon it and we can only wait and watch it lift. I was ready for whatever entered, poised, depending on the face I saw, to jump.