So I really wanted to blog tonight, but given that it’s Monday, and given that I’ve got writer’s block, I figured I’d post something old. I had promised to start posting some of my creative writing, so here’s an assignment for my senior Seminar in Writing that I’ve always kind of liked. The assignment was an ekphrastic piece: we had to go to the art museum on campus and observe a painting at great length, and then craft a story or a poem around a description of the piece.
I never really liked writing prompts in creative writing classes, I found them rather limiting, but I actually had fun with this one. For some reason this story’s always stayed with me. It didn’t have a title when I first handed it in, but I titled this blog “The Cat Lady” just because that’s more eye-catching than a blog called “Untitled.” Enjoy!
“She looks like you,” he offered hopefully.
Jared closed the door as Katherine sauntered into the apartment with an air of impatience, brushing past him with less courtesy than she showed the doorman downstairs. It was very late on a breathtakingly cold Tuesday night. A wind had followed them home from the restaurant, biting into their skin with a prickling numbness that almost felt hot. Like all apartments on the Upper East Side, theirs was spacious enough to build a second floor, and no matter how quickly Jared closed the door, the cold always managed to sneak its way in and hide the lofty ceiling.
She glided to the center of the room, her stilettos barely clicking on the parquet floor. The train of her black silk dress billowed as she pulled off her shawl and let it fall. Her slender body rose from the backless dress like an ivory snake, her bare shoulders trembling slightly.
Who dresses like that in January? she remembered Jared asking.
I thought you were taking me someplace nice.
“What are you talking about?” Katherine sneered as she stared at her birthday present, propped against the cream-colored sofa and probably leaving a mark on the expensive suede.
“You know, around the eyes,” He laughed, “She looks like you!”
Katherine had pencil-straight black hair and was so tall that her slenderness teetered on awkwardness. She, on the other hand, was a robust, middle-aged woman with short auburn hair cropped in a thick curtain across her forehead. She was the Woman Lying on a Leopard Skin, and she was the ugliest thing Katherine had ever seen—a 27½ x 39 oil painting in a gaudy frame. Katherine glared hatefully into her eyes as if assessing a new rival. The woman stared back at her with seductive longing that exuded confidence yet also begged to be loved.
Not by me, you ugly bitch.
“I guess she does if you think I look like Zsa-Zsa Gabor, or that freak who had all that surgery to look like a cat.”
Katherine shivered as she looked into the eyes. They were wide and slanted, but the irises were too small to discern their actual color—hazel, maybe green. Tints of gold, brown, and green blended together in the tiniest pinprick of color, creating a depth to the expression that was too human. But it wasn’t human. It was a woman, yes, but the features were distinctly feline: the widely spaced eyes, the flattened nose, the slit of a mouth whose nonexistent lips were thickened by glossy red paint. The sensuous features were framed by abnormally high, rounded cheekbones that descended in a sharp angle to the triangular chin.
“Yeah, a cat—exactly!” He said excitedly, “She looks like a cat.”
She was staring at Katherine and it made her nervous. Katherine’s own eyes were vibrant emeralds, pure green, and she could seduce without scaring, but this painting was saying, “Come hither because I want to eat you and fuck you—and I don’t care which I do first.”
The woman was on a bed of deep coral pink, leaning on a scrunched up leopard skin whose asymmetrical spots were strikingly vivid and offset only by the intensity of her stare. Her posture was bizarrely unbecoming of a woman her age—the curvaceous, pasty body, clothed only by a lace shawl and contorted into a vigilant, threatening position. The right leg was tucked beneath the left as if preparing to pounce. She leaned on her right arm, pulling it back so her hand hung over the leopard skin like an outstretched claw. She held her throat with her left hand as if propping her head up on her elbow, and that simple gesture was the only thing that suggested any measure of humanness in her position.
Katherine remained silent as she turned her back on the painting. She scanned the room without looking at Jared until she saw the mini bar: a waist-high black cabinet against the thin strip of eggshell-colored wall that separated the kitchen from the hallway. On the wall was a small square of white canvas scarred by angry slashes of red, yellow, and blue amidst a more methodically painted grid of black and gray lines.
Now THAT’S art, she thought as she glided over.
Jared was only just removing his coat, as if waiting for her approval of the painting before getting comfortable. He should have known better, though, from the way she had grimaced as she said “thank you.” He sighed as he hung his coat on the rack, shaking tiny flecks of melted snow out of his curly hair. His warm eyes smiled at her from behind his oversized wire-framed glasses, and his actual smile was hidden by a thickening carpet of scruff that bothered the hell out of her.
“You know what it kind of reminds me of?” He stepped closer to the painting.
“Hmm?” She asked, pouring herself a glass of sherry.
“It kind of reminds me of that—that—that movie, you know—Cat People.”
Katherine finally turned to face him, her expression unreadable as she leaned against the bar and took a sip. The alcohol stung her lips, sore from the biting cold.
“Is that the one with David Bowie?” She said absently.
Jared’s entire face lit up. A broad smile pushed his rosy cheeks upward and he shook his head.
“No, no, no. He just did the song for that one—you know…”
He began to play an invisible guitar and deepened his voice into a horrendous Bowie impression that made her skin crawl.
“Putting out fire—with GASOLINE!”
She took another sip.
“Yeah…no, no, that’s the one where the people turn into, you know, giant panthers whenever they’re horny,” He laughed, “So they have to, you know, stay away from sex,”
She tried to look at the painting so he’d attribute the disgust in her eyes to that instead. But as soon as she looked back at it, she noticed for the first time the monstrous figure of a jackal in the background. The backdrop was a black curtain, but subtly painted into the curves and folds of the fabric was the hideous animal. It emerged from the blackness as though made of it—the contours of its body wove seamlessly into the wrinkles of the curtain—but the profile of its head was clear: an eye, an ear, a brow bone descending into a twisted snout and the outline of teeth.
“You remember that one?”
“I remind you of a horny panther?” She asked numbly.
“Come on, it’s just an observation,” he scoffed.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t overestimate the narrow parameters of your observational capabilities.”
He looked stung, his jaw slackening as a blank and vulnerable expression softened his face. His eyes were immediately watery, and Katherine was afraid he was about to break into one of his frequent bouts of crying. She hated men who cried, but she didn’t have it in her tonight to fake an apology.
“Damn it, move that thing,” She said impatiently, “My heels are killing me.”
Jared scoffed, but he grabbed the painting by the frame and slid it around to the side of the sofa like a complacent puppy. She drained the rest of her sherry and left the glass behind as she strode across the living room and collapsed into the cushions.
“What’s the problem now, Katherine?” He blinked back tears.
“I don’t have a problem,” She groaned, unstrapping her heals in the bleak hope that taking them off would alleviate her aggravation. It didn’t work.
He loomed over her with his arms folded, his eyebrows furrowing into a pathetic attempt at a scowl. He looked like an angry child with a beard. As he glared at her, she examined his attire: the oversized maroon sweater, the khaki pants. How dare he dress like that when she went so far out of her way to look the way she did.
“I’m just…tired,” She sighed.
“You hate the painting, don’t you?” He pouted.
“Well, yeah—I do,” She shrugged, “But I mean, I appreciate it.”
She might have just broken up with him by the look in his eyes.
“I’m sorry—I’ll—I’ll take it back.”
And there it was. As she stared blankly at him, she realized how much she loved him: about as much as the puppy her father got her when she was eight. So docile and obedient, she just wanted to tell him to roll over and play dead. Or drop dead.
“No, don’t do that,” She said, “You like it—we’ll just hang it somewhere …somewhere …somewhere you can appreciate it.”
Jared collapsed into the sofa beside her and shook his head. Finally, the first stab of guilt—well, a twinge really, barely nibbling at her. She put her arm around him and nuzzled playfully into his shoulder, smelling the wintery scent of dampness and cologne.
“I’m sorry, I just wanted to make your birthday special.”
Then why’d you take me for Chinese? She thought bitterly. Why’d you get me that angry, middle-aged cat woman? Katherine kissed his ruddy cheek, more so to reassure herself than him, but he smiled anyway.
“No, it’s fine,” She said, “You just don’t get my taste in art.”
“I could get my nephew to finger-paint for you, you’d like that,” He said sarcastically.
Katherine leaned back into the cushions, her aggravation quickly returning.
“I don’t get you,” He smiled though his voice was shadowed by a bitter truth.
Understatement of the century, she thought. He hadn’t gotten her in a long time. They’d had the seven-year itch at six months, growing vastly apart from each other as they sank into painful monotony, yet eighteen months after that, they were still at it. She never understood why she had fallen in love with him, or even if she really had. She told herself that she was tired of one-night sands and short-lived flings, but she missed them almost immediately. She missed the excitement of a man who didn’t want to know her, who let her be whoever she wanted (it was someone different every night), and who wanted to get out almost as quickly as he got in. She missed the satisfaction of breaking hearts she didn’t care about breaking, and never having to make breakfast in the morning. She missed somebody who would fuck her from behind and pull her hair, who wasn’t afraid to leave marks.
Jared made love to her like an awkward teenager, fumbling all over her and probing her body with exploratory curiosity. After two years he still made love to her as if he was a virgin, apologizing if she even began to moan (No, no, that’s a GOOD thing). He made her breakfast in the morning and insisted on watching her eat it before he even touched his own. Going to bars by herself would make him cry, but he never wanted to go to bars, so they were stuck at home every night, watching primetime television and eating on portable trays like an old married couple. He loved Seinfeld.
“Listen,” Jared broke the awkward silence, “I’ll take you with me to the gallery this weekend before I leave and you can pick out another one yourself, okay?”
She snapped out of her reverie with a start, gazing at him for a dazed moment before realizing he was still obsessing over the painting. She rolled her eyes and leaned forward to kiss his cheek again.
“Enough about that already,” She sighed, “I really appreciate the present…”
If she had to spend another moment talking about that dreadful thing, she was going to break it over his head. Snuggling closely to him, Katherine nuzzled her face into his neck as she diffused the issue the only way she knew how. Gyrating slowly against his body, she began to kiss his neck softly, her lips prodding at the prickly beard, working her way slowly up to his ear. He began to tense as she started nibbling his lobe, kneading it gently with her teeth. Suddenly she didn’t notice how cold it was anymore as her breathing quickened and her face flushed. To her surprise, she found herself almost wanting it.
“You haven’t given me my real present yet,” she whispered hotly into his ear, her tongue gliding across the ridges.
But just as she reached for his crotch, he grabbed her hand and pulled it gently away. The icy reality of things crashed down upon her as she sat up straight and gawked at him in utter disbelief. He held her hand in his and pressed her knuckles warmly to his lips.
“Actually, I was thinking we could watch a movie,” He said brightly, completely oblivious.
She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. She wanted to burst into hysterical laughter, or strangle him, or both. She wanted to say something mean to him, really mean, but she was completely speechless.
“I got you a cake too,” He smiled, “Strawberry shortcake.”
She was allergic to strawberries.
“Umm…yeah…go get it and turn something on,” She said, secretly praying her throat would swell up and she would die.
He gingerly hopped to his feet and scurried away to the back rooms to get a DVD, leaving her dumbfounded. She leaned back into the pillows and closed her eyes. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that as far as birthdays and special occasions were concerned…Jared had done pretty well tonight.
* * * *
She didn’t know if she was going to sleep with him yet. She wanted to—everybody wanted to. He was perfection, and the way the pinstripes of his navy suit curved over the contours of his muscles hinted that his body was to die for. He had small, honey colored eyes set into a face that looked like it was chiseled from rose quartz, and his wavy hair made her weak in the knees. His office had been next to hers for three years, and she’d wanted him since before she even knew Jared. Why she’d waited to make her move escaped her, and once Jared sucked her into his vapid world of baseball games, sci-fi movies, and weekend ski trips, she thought she’d lost him forever. But the morning after her birthday, when she went into work to find a bouquet of Calla lilies waiting for her on her desk with a playfully inappropriate note, she knew she couldn’t resist. He’d gotten her favorite flowers right off the bat without even asking—unlike Jared who still got her roses at least twice a month. Jared was away skiing (boys only this weekend—thank God), and Katherine was looking forward to a weekend alone. But for him she’d make an exception.
“What are you drinking?” She asked casually as she scooted over to the bar.
“Whiskey if you have it—straight,” He said eagerly.
She cast him a backwards glance, smiling sideways at him. He stood in the corner and gawked at her, making it plainly obvious that he was checking out her ass. The look in his eyes said he knew quite well that he was about to be an accomplice to adultery and was trying to decide how adamantly he was going to protest. The fleshy tip of his tongue slid quickly across his lips as he slowly tugged at his tie, loosening his collar somewhat. He’d made his decision.
“This is quite a place you got here,” He said.
“Oh, you’ve never seen it?” She said as she poured the amber liquid into a glass.
“I thought I had you over before.”
He chuckled quietly, “I think I would’ve remembered that.”
“I know you would’ve,” She said.
I guess I’ve made my decision too, she thought as she poured herself half as much whiskey as she poured him.
Suddenly he called out in excitement,
“What?” She asked.
“Liegende auf Leopardenfell,”
Katherine turned around quickly, her heart pounding at the excitement in his voice. But when she saw his face, her stomach tightened into a knot. He was looking at the painting, which now hung over the sofa, taunting Katherine with its feline stare.
“Oh,” She blushed, “It—it’s nothing—It just—.”
“No, I love it!” He gazed into the woman’s eyes in awe, “You’ve got amazing taste in art.”
She shrugged off that last statement to avoid losing interest and hurried over to him. He took his drink without looking at her, and she felt an irrational stab of jealousy.
“Actually, Jared picked it out.”
He looked back at her, his eyes still lustful, unfazed by the mention of Jared’s name. It was clear that this man lacked any conscience whatsoever—God, how she wanted him. But he was looking at the painting again the way he should have been looking at her.
“For your birthday?”
“Yes,” She said tersely, draining half her glass in one gulp. Suddenly, she found herself wanting him as much as she wanted the doorman—an aging, psoriatic bald man named Phil. Even from a hundred miles away, Jared was killing her sex life.
“That man of yours really knows how to pick’em,” He said.
“Oh yeah, why’s that?” She sulked.
“She looks just like you.”