“If we can figure out why turtles never die, each human being could potentially live to a thousand. One thousand isn’t forever but it is a long time.”
Sam tells me this and looks at me expectantly, the way that children look at mothers, the way that I look at Sam when I want something simple, like a kiss.
I tell Sam to fuck off. That I am never going to die.
We sit in the animal hospital where there are pictures drawn by children on the walls. This is eerily sweet. Our cat, Jugbug, is getting tested to make sure she doesn’t have a brain tumour. Jugbug woke up that morning with one pupil bigger than the other. The first thing Sam told me when he saw Jugbug looking like that was, “Shit. I had a dog who looked like that. It wound up being a brain tumour.”
I never owned a pet as a child. My mother believed that it was wrong to own an animal. She hated how organizations were always asking pet owners to spay or neuter their cats and dogs. “I don’t believe in hacking off an animal’s genitals.” Nothing would console her. Even when you said something that most people agree with, such as, “It’s for their own good—it’s cruel to let animals reproduce that can’t be taken care of.” She would always answer, “Is that the same for people then?”
When my mother and I walk the narrow steps to my grandmother’s apartment, the stairs creak, even though hardly anyone uses them. But the elevators always get stuck and we don’t want to get trapped in one again. At first they wouldn’t let us take the stairs. We asked and they told us they lock the stairwells so that the old people don’t try to use them. We were told that most of them don’t walk right to begin with, and they don’t want to run the risk of being sued if anyone gets injured falling down the stairs. My mom made a big stink, and the director of the building changed the rules for her. She thinks she won the war, but I can see how the staff treats us now. They think we’re both troublemakers. They mutter under their breath when they see us coming twice a month. The kinder ones give me a look of pity as I cross into the foyer. They know how difficult it is for me to be here, to be the one with the steadier hand as we climb up the stairs.
Lots of people in the home were refugees, but we felt like we were the only real refugees because of where we came from. Most people think we left Eastern Europe to escape the Holocaust, but the truth was my grandparents were in Cuba before the Holocaust happened. They just felt guilty that everyone else died back there. My grandfather never talked about it until he was on his deathbed. He’d let tiny bits and pieces of his own guilt escape while he was talking to the African nurses about where they came from. He had never been to Africa. He had just done his research. “Are you Igbo?” The nurse would look at this small, shriveled Jewish man with a heavy Spanish accent, surprised. “Yes. How did you know that?”
Grandpa only smiled and my mother and grandmother shrugged. No one asked him too many questions. We liked and did not like talking about the past because it was painful for all of us. This meant we talked around things a lot. We’d let the emotions build until we just said hurtful, cruel things to each other.
The knowledge my family had did not make us better people, even though we sometimes tried to feel as though it did. It just made us heavier.
We get home from the vet past midnight. Jugbug is fine. Healthy but furious. With all of us. She growls in the corner. She shits on our rug.
I wondered how long animals’ memories are.
If cats can remember which direction is home, then certainly they can remember the day they were surrounded by humans, stuck with needles, surrounded with rubber gloves.
I wonder if this will permanently change her.
That night when Mom calls, I tell her that maybe she should get a cat. Jugbug already seemed more lively and grateful than a few hours before. Food, sunlight, water—all these things seem to be enough to make her happy.
“Who knows what cats like?” Mom said.
Sam agrees that it’s important not to anthropomorphize animals, not to think of them as having an emotional life, which is similar to our own. He tells me that cats are domesticated so that they behave like kittens, even when they are full-grown adult cats. That’s why they knead at you. That’s why they coyly purr and play. I tell Sam that it’s not like they have a choice in the matter.
He just nods because he doesn’t believe in free will, and the truth is that I don’t either—even when I’ve wanted to most. Jugbug crouches against the wall and chases a light that spins around the room, flickering bits of dust and colour. My impulse is to say that Jugbug is motivated, even moved, by the colours, the way I often am, but the truth is that cats can’t distinguish colours the way we do.
Grandma saved the books in Hebrew and Spanish that my grandfather left her but she never reads them. The women in my family never did. My mother always felt that for women, the journey is never external, in the same way it is for men. She felt that for women, the change was always private, interior, discreet. When I was sixteen, I didn’t have much to offer in protest. My own body was constantly betraying me and my mother consistently advocated a traditional attitude toward travel, toward religion and toward love. She taught me that women naturally and necessarily had a strong and deep connection to babies, kitchens, the land.
But the truth was I never felt connected to any of these sort of things. I didn’t want to be a housewife. What I wanted to be was an astronaut. Late at night, in my room, what I dreamt about was space; all that cold, dark air. No constellations. Just skeletons of stars. The enormous, empty universe.
I tell my mother I like having a cat even if that means I have to make choices like removing its reproductive organs in order to prevent it from having kittens which I wouldn’t have the resources to take care of, or cutting off its claws because even though that’s its only source of defense, because I would rather it not scratch me.
Mom says that’s selfish of me. She could be right or she could be wrong, and either possibility scares me. Sam says I’m doing just fine—that it’s normal to be selfish about things you want. Mom says I am just seeking validation, but what I really want is truth. I ask Jugbug, “What do you think motivates me?”
The first thing Sam ever shared with me was a poem he had written about a girl he used to love. I was fascinated by the story. How he said she liked biting. That she had a history of sexual abuse. Her dad used to touch her when she was young. She taped her nipples before she went to meet him. I got upset when I first heard the story. I didn’t understand how it is possible to keep going back to someone who hurts you that badly. But I kept asking about it.
This was after I first started working as a pharmacy assistant at CVS. My friend got me the job. She liked it because it paid well and because it was difficult to find better work for college grads during the recession.
Sam had a prescription for Vicadin. Together, we used to get high on painkillers. We were very smart about it, which made us think we were a lot better than the cokeheads and pacifier-sucking, e-swallowing club kids. We stayed in our basement. We drank plenty of water. We fell asleep in each other’s arms. It was almost romantic. Once, Sam tried to medicate Jugbug, so she could join in the fun too.
“How much do you give a cat of a human drug?” I asked.
“We can do the math. Use her weight and the guidelines. We can cut the pills.”
“Now who is anthropomorphizing?” I asked.
Jugbug’s eyes go back to normal. Sam is happy. But I can’t shake the feeling that something is still wrong with her. Sam asks what the problem is and I say, “I want a new cat, a less damaged one.”
“But Jugbug is better.” Sam says.
I get the idea to kill Jugbug during one of our benders. It started as a joke. Then Sam and I both started to take it really seriously. I write a list on yellow lined paper, with little doodles of cats dying all over the sides, poisoned, hung, microwaved.
“What the fuck were we smoking last night?” Sam asks when he looks at the pictures. He tears the paper into pieces, destroying the evidence.
“Who are we hiding it from?” I ask Sam, “Cats can’t read.”
Sam takes the fragments of our art and runs them under the sink, smearing the ink, before tearing it up further. “We are hiding it from ourselves” he tells me. Like me, Sam always had a penchant for melodrama.
A year after my grandfather’s death, my mom tells me she is lonely and scared and confused. She says, “I think what I need is a mom.” We both laugh at this, aware of how silly it sounds.
I don’t go home as often. When Mom asks me to call my grandma, I want to tell her to jump off a bridge. Every kind thing I do, I do grudgingly. I guess that’s not really kindness at all.
“I’m just an angry person,” I tell Sam, deliberately lilting my words, as if it is a question. Sam just listens and doesn’t deny or confirm the statement.
That summer I let every single plant in my house die. This was after the flies came: big, meaty black things that clung to all the curtains. We don’t know how they got there. Sam and I sprayed the entire apartment. For two weeks after, we kept finding dead flies and picking them off the floor.
My heart feels too big for the world. Sam says that it’s normal to feel that way, but I don’t trust him. We watch the History Channel in the dark and cling to each other as we watch a tabloid-type show about the wonders of the world. Each temple feels like a part of me is breaking in two. I don’t understand why we love civilizations like this—the ones which celebrate the powerful that were built on the backs of those who were weak. Sam says maybe it’s a problem of identification, and I tell him it’s obvious which group of people I identify with.
We have a shower curtain, which has a giant map of the world on it. Sam switched it around so that the map is inside, rather than out, so that we can study a little geography every time we take a shower. Since we are different heights, we tend to learn about different parts of the map. Sam gets the Northern Countries and I get the Southern ones.
On Thursday, after we bring Jugbug back, I take a shower and think about the places I could be and I think about the place I am now. When I get out of the shower and see Jugbug passed out on the floor of our apartment, I start to panic. “Maybe we should have just put her to sleep,” I tell Sam, but I say it as if I am asking him. “We love Jugbug,” Sam replies. “We need to care for her.”
“Is that what love always means?” I ask Sam.
When the God of Abraham asked for him to kill Issac, Abraham knew faith meant learning not to ask questions, looking away from things we do not understand in order to process the things we do. Ambivalent, eternal gratitude for everything just as it is. This kind of love is never enough to make me happy.
When I am at work, I’m a different person, competent and contained. I really come to enjoy my job at the pharmacy. I love my little white lab coat. I love the refined sense of precision I have measuring out pills.
When we discover Jugbug under our car, she is limp, like a baby, an extreme version of who she was—completely helpless. “That’s how we all are, really,” I say.
Sam wants to give Jugbug a proper burial because he likes things to be proper, spiritual. This is the first time he tells me he believes in God. I ask him what that means and he says, “a drive towards stability, order, and beauty in the universe.”
I don’t cry at Jugbug’s funeral, any more than I died at my grandfather’s. I remember the whole family there in their little black clothes, a sea of red earth and white faces. I did what was asked of me. I ripped my clothes when I was told to. I put my hand on the shovel to scoop earth in.
Sam is angry when I tell him the entire thing seems pointless. He takes it personally, like I just don’t want to give a burial to a cat because I think it’s childish. He fills her grave with the things she liked that were of this earth, her squeaky mouse toy, her torn blanket, her pieces of string.
He tells me this is what it means to grieve.
When Grandpa died we comforted ourselves by saying he could have gone a lot of other ways. Burned in ovens. Drunk in a lonely Cuban jail cell.
In America, opportunity means one day I will get to walk to my own mother’s room in an old people’s home. Maybe my daughter will do the same for me. And maybe it won’t be quite as painful for her to turn away from our primitive familial anxieties about that stretch of space between earth and heaven, in favor of the kind of bland secularism of American life, where everyone gets a clean bed and a small, honourable way to die.
It wasn’t enough to feel safe, but it was better than the alternative.
Three weeks later, I am on the way back from visiting my mother. She gives me Tupperware, yellowed with age, stuffed with pieces of mango, with little wedges of avocado, portions of rice and beans. Once, as a child, a friend came over and told me we ate like poor people did. My friend couldn’t understand it. “Aren’t Jews rich?” she asked me.
I am thinking about this and not the road when I spot it on the horizon. Alone off the road is a bird, small and delicate and injured. I don’t know what to do. At first it looks pathetic, but the longer I look at it the more I think it looks brave. I’ve always liked birds, too. The way they seem so light and free up there in the air.
I go back to the car to look for a box, and all I have is my mother’s Tupperware, so I take the biggest one and empty rice and beans all over the ground. I use a stick because I don’t want to touch the bird. I try to move it into the container, which is easier than I thought it would be since it is so light. Then I turn right around and drive back to the vet’s and bring it to them.
The vet calls me to tell me that the bird was put to sleep. They usually kill the smaller ones that are less likely to survive. It is too expensive to keep them.
Later that night, I wake up crying. Harder than either Sam or I expected. “You really wanted to save that bird,” Sam said, holding my body against his.
I can’t sleep any longer, and neither can Sam, so we sneak outside to skip stones on the river. The ripples start small and angry, and end up huge, empty pointless things. We watch this pattern over and over again. It makes us very tired and eventually we go back inside and go to sleep.
Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at George Washington University and American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The St. Petersburg Review, The Rumpus, South Loop Review, Dragnet Magazine and she is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. She has been twice listed as a finalist in Glimmertrain short story contests. Her work appears in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women.