In Case of Emergency, Have Your Cat Call an Ambulance
The True Story
Jessie was eating olives over the kitchen sink when she woke up in the emergency room. She’d almost died, but only almost. “It’s a good thing you called 9-1-1 before you hit the floor,” the doctor told her.
“But I didn’t call.” Jessie had been spitting pits into one hand, brine running down her forearm. She touched her forearm now, remembering. She touched the bruised, bald area of her scalp and the stitches.
“The EMTs broke down the door.”
She found her phone on the floor of her apartment.
“See, you must have called,” her boyfriend said. “You were alone, weren’t you?”
She nodded. “But my phone was way over there. It wasn’t me.”
The boyfriend kept pausing the TV show to bring it up. “Then who called? The cat?”
They looked at the cat, who blinked.
Jessie stood watching the cat from different angles, then came up close to inspect the cat’s paws. She thought of the first time she saw the cat as a kitten in a box in a garage—how their eyes met over the cardboard edge. Later, Jessie shook her boyfriend awake in the night, her eyes wet and possessed. She garbled through her dental retainer, “I think you were right.”
Jessie recreated the night in question, collapsing in front of the cat, waiting for a response. She hired a local pet psychologist to study the cat. She stared at the cat, as though imploring verbal corroboration. She found stories of feline heroism on the internet and read them aloud to the boyfriend while he showered, so he couldn’t escape. “You have to believe me if you want this to work,” she said.
“Let’s agree to disagree,” was the last thing he said before she broke up with him.
Alone, Jessie repaid the cat for saving her life with treats and toys, incessant hugs and kisses. But the attention irritated the cat, who took to sitting in her litterbox and swiping at Jessie with claws. This went on until the cat, old and overweight, grew ill.
The cat wailed in corners, losing her sight. Vomit dried into her fur. She scrabbled her paws mid-dream as though hurtling to earth from a terrifying height. Jessie hounded her local veterinarians, in search of better news, and her distress opened a portal of need through which the boyfriend returned.
The volume of Jessie’s sorrow in the vet’s office frightened the boyfriend, and he apologized to the waiting room. “Don’t say sorry for her,” said an old woman with a pink-eyed Pitbull. “It’s her family.” Chastened, he rubbed Jessie’s back. The furry lump in her lap twitched.
After, Jessie felt lighter, free, now that her duty to the creature was finished. It was like waking from a long, intense dream of having been saved by a cat. She stepped into the sunny parking lot with the cat’s wrapped body in an old backpack and took the boyfriend’s hand. She realized she no longer cared about winning. It was behind them. Wasn’t there more to love than a shared, compatible reality?
In the car in the parking lot, the boyfriend yanked on his seatbelt and startled. He jerked to look at the backpack in Jessie’s lap. “Did you hear that?” he said.
“What?” Jessie said. “Hear what?”
The boyfriend gingerly moved the backpack from her arms to the backseat. “Never mind,” he said, and started the car.
That night, the boyfriend asked Jessie if she’d set her alarm, and she said yes, and they smiled at each other, an old routine revived. She fell asleep quickly, the heavy sleep of the unburdened, but the boyfriend rolled between the sheets. It was after two when he slipped into jeans, out the back door, to the patch of upturned soil, under which they had packed the cat’s lifeless body into the cold dirt.
The flashlight’s beam cut shadows in the grass as the boyfriend lowered to his knees, sat on his heels. He listened, eager and afraid. The trees creaked in the wind. He slid to his stomach and pressed his ear against the earth, straining to hear it again, the sound of something impossible and his, something he’d be desperate and doomed to share.