Honey Badger jumps through the open window and peeks through columns of books stacked on the short bookshelf. His eyes are vibrant jade saucers in a large black head, and he announces himself with an elongated meow.
“God dammit, Josephine,” says Rob, with a mouthful of spaghetti. “These cats are fucking everywhere.”
We’re sitting close to one another on the small couch, eating dinner at our low wooden coffee table and watching the news.
“I haven’t seen Fuck Off in a while,” I say, thinking aloud.
I started feeding the stray cats when I moved in with him. To attract company, I began leaving food and water by the front door. Fuck Off was the first cat to frequent our patio. She would meow incessantly and snake Rob’s ankles whenever he sat outside. Then, Honey Badger and Ernest showed up and I allowed them all in. Now, this is their territory, and Fuck Off steals food while they sleep.
“I’m happy Fuck Off finally fucked off,” says Rob.
It’s winter in Miami Beach and cool enough to turn off the AC and open the windows. The sounds of crickets pulsate through the tiny apartment.
“Thanks, for tolerating them,” I say. “They keep me company when you’re away.”
“Ah, I know they do.” he says, patting my thigh. Rob just got back from a month-long dig in the Florida Keys and is working in West Palm next week. At least he’s no longer in the Army, I think. Archeologists have a longer life expectancy.
Honey Badger maneuvers in and around the packed bookshelf in front of the open windows. He knocks three books to the floor leaping up an eight-book tower. Rob jumps to attention. “God dammit.”
Honey Badger perches on the stack of books, licking himself.
“It’s okay. Sit down. It’s only a couple of books.”
Rob does so, reluctantly. He stares at the cats as though they’re violating a peace treaty.
Ernest is snacking on Cat Crunchies. He tilts his small white head to one side, crunch, crunch.
“I think he has a bad tooth.”
“Does he now?” Rob breaks off a piece of garlic bread.
“Well, my grills are fucked too,” he says to Ernest. “Too bad, cat.”
Earnest stops crunching. Uneven tabby patches blotch his face. A fleck of food clings to a whisker.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” Rob leans forward, lowers his head above the salad bowl and narrows his eyes.
Ernest flicks his tail.
“They’re just cats,” I say. “They’re doing what cats do. What’s your problem?”
“I don’t like it when they stare at me like that with those bug eyes. Especially that one.” He points to Ernest. “I don’t trust him.”
I won’t admit it, but Ernest does have an unnerving look about him. I think it’s because he has chubby cheeks. I’d never seen a cat with chubby cheeks before. It makes his eyes look weird and enlarged.
“You don’t have to trust them. They’re cats. They’re not going to attack you. Cats just look at stuff.”
“Oh yeah?” He moves his plate aside to make room for his laptop. He opens it, pulls up YouTube, and types in Cat Attack. “Watch this.”
I lean in close to him, resting my chin on his bare shoulder. He smells like coconuts and Irish Spring. His skin is soft with t-shirt tan-lines, and his bronze arms rest against his pale and muscular torso.
The video plays in slow motion: on screen, a young man sits on the floor by a Christmas tree, opening a gift. He rips shreds of wrapping paper from a large box. It’s a Play Station. And in this moment of recognition and sheer joy, from an off-screen corner, a black cat surges into the frame. Its ears press to the back of its head. It lets out a low, guttural growl. It leaps upward, latching onto the man’s jugular, claws piercing his neck. The man yells for seconds in slow time, and grabs the feline and jerks from left to right, the tail striking his face. Falling into the tree, he scrapes the cat off and tosses it out of shot.
“Wow.” I say and I can’t help but laugh.
Rob is serious. He looks at me, ready to challenge my next word. “That’s terrifying,” he says.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before, but I’m certain that neither Honey Badger nor Ernest would ever do such a thing.”
Ernest jumps up on my side of the couch and sits on my lap, facing Rob like an Egyptian statue.
“I fucking hate cats.”
He gets up and takes our plates to the kitchen and returns with two beers. I’m rubbing Ernest’s head. His eyes are closed, and he presses his paws into my gut, purring.
“I don’t understand how you loved those hermit crabs with such devotion but not these cats. Is it because cats have nipples? Are you adverse to mammals? I’m trying to understand.”
“Now, wait a minute. Devotion?”
“You were devoted to those hermit crabs, Rob.”
We lost our last hermit crab a year ago. I used to watch Rob, every evening, clean small pellets of poop from the sandy crabitat. He’d sprinkle sea salt into one water bottle cap and filtered water into the other. Save scraps of meat for them. Let them climb his arm and perch his shoulder while he sat outside, staring at the palm trees against the night sky.
Rob reaches for the remote and presses mute.
“Magellan was my service crab.”
We’d won two hermit crabs at the Dade County Fair, four years ago. When we broke up for a couple months, Rob took the crabs, Magellan and Mavis, on a road trip through Florida to Kansas and Alabama, visiting his army brothers. He buckled the plastic crabitat onto the passenger seat of his Crown Victoria, but forgot to separate the crabs when Magellan began to shed his exoskeleton. Mavis devoured him. That morning, Rob called me on the phone and told me he’d had to pick bits of Magellan’s dismembered body from the grains of sand, an eyeball stem beneath a shell. Magellan was his favorite. Rob and I got back together soon after he returned from his road trip. Shortly after I moved back in with him, Mavis The Murderer molted and doubled in size. Rob crafted her a new crabitat from a wooden milk crate. We awoke one morning to find Mavis gone. She must have dangled, upside down, from the top edge of the enclosure and snipped a hole through the thin wire mesh large enough for her to pull her bulky shell through. I had reassured Rob then, that cats don’t eat hermit crabs. We mused that she made it across the two busy roads to the beach. I’m certain her new shell protected her as she tumbled down the five tiled steps from the apartment door. It’s been a year since Mavis escaped, but Rob harbors a lingering sadness.
“Yeah, I miss those crabs.”
And I think, how tender he is in this moment, sitting next to me in his Army shorts, chest exposed and the lamp light shadowing the valleys of his neck and collarbone.
Honey Badger jumps down from his book-tower and stretches. “Hey black cat,” Rob says, “come here and let me pet you.” Honey Badger blinks and approaches. Rob reaches out to stroke the top of his head but he stops just out of reach and sinks to the floor, splaying the white tiles next to the paper bag I’d left out for him.
“Hey, fuck you,” says Rob.
“Scratch the bag.”
Rob scratches a finger across the paper bag, and Honey Badger nosedives it. The bag slides towards us and rustles and jerks, changing shapes, a black tail thrashing about.
The next day, when Rob arrives home, Ernest is sleeping on his back on the La-Z-Boy with all four paws in the air rhythmically twitching, dream-running.
“Hey, handsome.” I say, greeting Rob at the door.
“Hey, pretty lady.” He scoops me up in dirt-stained arms, and I hear sand sprinkling the floor, spilling from his soiled pockets.
“I’ve been digging holes all day.”
Ernest, still on his back, chin to the ceiling, stares at Rob.
“Hey there, shit stain,” he says to Ernest. He walks to the bedroom and tells me about his day as he undresses. I follow him and linger in the doorway listening to the language of archeology. He explains solution hole ossuaries and oyster middens in the bedrock. He pulls a turtle bone from his pocket and places it on the dresser, drops his shorts and slides by me to the bathroom. I turn, take a couple steps forward and peek behind the bathroom door. I like to watch Rob bend over and turn on the shower. Honey Badger is sleeping, curled up on the toilet mat. He opens his eyes to the sound of the faucets creaking and lifts his head when the water surges. Rob tests the temperature and turns.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” The question startles me. But Rob’s staring down at Honey badger, cupping his groin.
Honey Badger lifts his ebony face, setting his jade eyes on Rob’s naked body.
“Sorry Rob, you have an audience,” I smile. But it goes unnoticed.
“I don’t like Honey Badger staring at me like that.” He gets in the shower, and Honey Badger relocates from the toilet mat to the shower mat. His pointed black ears and large black head press against the frosted glass.
“Oh, get over it,” I say, “You’re scared, are you?” I retreat to the couch. Admittedly, Honey Badger is large and quite ominous. I over feed him.
“God Dammit, Josephine, no. I’m not scared. I told you, I don’t like it when they stare.”
I’m watching TV when the shower stops. Rob’s voice startles me.
“Get out of here.”
A low, guttural growl emanates from bathroom. Honey Badger hisses. I hurry to my feet. “Stop it!” I call into the sound of things tumbling from the shelves above the toilet.
“God dammit. Get the fuck out of here.”
I hear a slap, like a hollow drum. Honey Badger darts through the door, skitters on the tiles and jumps out the window.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Did you hit him?” I can feel my eyebrows raise and the deep crease in my forehead that my mother warns me of.
“I was trying to pet it, but it swatted and bit me. Little bastard held ground so I threw soap at it and it jumped up the shelves, knocking shit over. So, I smacked it off the shelf.”
“Rob, why would you do that?” Tampons scatter the floor, my fancy moisturizer smashed, glass and cream everywhere.
“This is my house. My territory.”
“It’s a fucking cat. You sound like a crazy person, you know that? Look what you’ve done.” I feel the vein in my forehead throb.
His shoulders drop. “I’m sorry, Jo.” he says, stepping out of the bathroom’s narrow doorway. He’s still wet and a towel hangs on his hips.
I step back, and grab the broom from the closet next to the bathroom. My hands are shaking.
He looks at me with pinched eyebrows, “Do you really think I’m crazy?”
That evening we walk to the canal and sit on the seawall, dangling our feet. Low rise apartments and streetlights toss colors on the dark water.
I don’t want to be the first to talk. But our beers are half empty. He’s my companion but so are the cats when he’s away. “Listen.” I say, “I know you don’t like the cats, but I didn’t like the crabs.”
“I know you didn’t,” his voice is calm. “I’m not asking you to stop letting the cats in. And, I don’t hate them. The other day, Ernest and Honey Badger kept me company while I worked on my truck.”
Rob pulls a joint from his pocket and looks me in the eye, “I like it when they act like dogs. I just hate it when they look at me. I know I need to get over it, but I don’t know how.”
A wind comes off the water and rises through the palms, but he manages to light the joint. I watch the embers flare as he inhales.
“Did I ever tell you about the dead man in Baghdad whose lips were eaten by cats?”
Rob has been my lover for six years. I encourage him to talk about the war, but I’m never prepared for it when he does. “I don’t think I’ve heard that one.”
He looks across the canal and takes another long hit.
“Packs of wild dogs roamed the streets and hordes of cats, nasty fucking animals, scavengers. We’d always find bodies on patrol but I remember one in particular because his lips were chewed off.”
He’s getting stoned and energized, talking with his hands.
“Our interpreter told us cats go for the lips first, and the Lieutenant and I wondered, why the lips first? They must have looked good to the cats, easiest to chew.”
I’m locked in his narrative, despite the images he sears to my mind, and make a conscious effort to relax the muscles in my face.
“We called the dead man Mr. Smiley because all his teeth were exposed so he had a wide smile. I see him clearly in my head. Lying face up, arms at his side. His stomach was bloated because he’d been dead a while and your internal gas blows you up.”
He hands me the joint and continues.
“But cats won’t eat through clothing, just the exposed parts. The cats gnawed his fingers too.” Rob stops speaking for a moment, claws his hand and shows me his knuckles. “All the skin on the man’s knuckles curled back exposing bone. I’m sure if his asshole was hanging out they would have eaten that too.” He swigs his beer, draining the bottle. “There were loads of fucking cats crowding the body. Small, scraggly ones with matted fur and chewed off ears. One didn’t have a nose. They watched us. Staring at us. All those eyes on our every move. They were waiting for us to leave so they could keep eating.”
“I guess all animals have to survive.” I don’t have the right words. They all feel inadequate. I scoot closer to him and take his hand, rest my head on his shoulder. We let his story settle on the dark water. The current is strong and the palm trees bend in the wind.
“I’ve seen some fucked up shit, if I think about it. I don’t like to think about it. But sometimes it comes back involuntary. I’ll be putting gas in the truck or waiting in line somewhere and all it takes is a smell or gesture to take me right back. The smell of burning trash instantly transports me to Baghdad.” He pulls away.
“Do our cats remind you of those hungry-lip-eating-Baghdad-cats?”
“They were true feral cats. Not these Miami Beach fucking cats.”
We walk back in silence, holding hands. The wind moans coming off the water and nudges us along the small street, loosening palm fronds and blowing up flurries of dried bougainvillea. Honey Badger trots up the sidewalk to greet us, and Ernest jumps from a bush. They follow us up the pathway with tails erect like antennas.
Rob slides the key in the door. Looking at the cats, he shakes his head, “Come on, Fuckheads.” The cats bolt through the door, and I follow him through the threshold into the apartment.