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  • Writer's pictureSylvia Schwartz

Very Very Very Very Very

Updated: Mar 5


“Dear Linda, I am very very very very very sorry,” James scribbled in a greeting card — and not any variety of greeting card, but a Hallmark one, whose messages he normally would have thought overly sentimental but now thought wholly appropriate given the circumstance warranted flowers.

James also believed the repetitive use of the word “very” five times was such an original idea that, by the time he looped the giant letter J on the bottom of the card, his choice of a card became vastly superior to the ordinariness of mere flowers. Would her ex-boyfriend, Paul, in Chicago, have ever thought of this? No, he would have resorted to roses, and red ones at that, as if women weren’t completely tired of that cliché. The card James found had been crammed in a dollar bin, calling out to him with its shiny black bird gliding against a cloudless blue sky, symbolism for their relationship. Well, not how their relationship was now, exactly; things weren’t exactly soaring, upward, that is, but she could see this was where he wanted it to go, couldn’t she? However, the fact that the bird was a hawk and swooping down as if to capture prey may not have been the perfect choice. For hawks have been known to eat small cats, and it was Linda’s whining indoor cat, Muffet, that James had let outside. Muffet had yet to come back.

***

“I’m busy, Linda said into her phone, her legs flopped over the arm of her chair so that her calico dress draped over her cowboy boots, her favorite book on herbal gardening on her lap.

“Still?” James asked, sitting alone in his apartment. It had been almost a week, and he couldn’t remember Linda ever missing their Friday night movie night. He’d buy caramel popcorn. She’d get a kernel stuck between a back tooth. He’d give her a stick of gum to dislodge it. They’d go out for Chinese. James was a junior engineer who valued their rituals. He believed rituals, even after two years, were still enough to satisfy them both.

“But you got my card, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then what? Was it wet? Soggy? Because if the rain dampened the card, that would have dampened its message.”

“No, James, the card was not damp,” she said, sitting up straight. “What if we had kids —”

“— kids?! What are you talking about? You want to have kids?”

“No, I mean, maybe. Let me finish. What if you let one of them out?”

“Huh? Aren’t kids supposed to play outside?”

“Not without supervision.”

“But cats aren’t like kids. They don’t want supervision.”

“I’m not talking about cats.”

“Then what are we talking about?”

“Responsibility.”

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly!”

She hung up.

She doesn’t think I’m responsible? he thought. In line for a promotion at Dresden & Waller. Diligently saving money, knowing Linda’s teaching salary didn’t bring home much. They were young. No need to rush things. What did she want?

He called her again.

“Linda, don’t be like this. I said I was sorry.”

“James, I need time off.”

“You’ve got the whole summer off.”

“I mean with us. I need to think. I’m going to Chicago to see my mom next week.”

“You can’t think here?”

“I’m sorry, James.”

“Hey, only one of us is supposed to be sorry. Or just one of us at a time. Then the other is supposed to forgive. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. So, don’t be sorry. I don’t want you to be sorry about anything or do anything to be sorry about. You won’t, right? Let’s not talk anymore about being sorry—”

“—James, can you stop talking? Stop going on and on for just a moment.”

Linda put her book on the end table, walked to her window, and looked at the Colorado sunset, her phone against her ear. James sat on his couch without moving.

“You used to like that about me,” James began. “Told me after talking all day as a teacher that it was kinda funny how I could go on and on without interruption. I do it less and less. Now only when I’m nervous.”

“I know, James. But I gotta go. Love you.”

Then she hung up.

***

After two nights of restless sleep, James came to the realization that what Linda really wanted was another cat. He walked into the shelter, proud of his decision but not prepared for the shelter’s zoo-like smell. It was one thing to have a girlfriend with one cat, quite another to enter a world aromatized by hundreds of them, along with dogs, parakeets, hamsters, rabbits, and even mice (which made no sense to him since he always got rid of them; though, to be fair, his were neither cute nor white.)

For a moment, he pondered whether Linda would like a mouse; after all, isn’t this what cats bring home to show their affection? Mice don’t shed. They don’t eat much. He watched a seemingly content mouse going round and round in its cage. It was almost meditative. The more he thought about this white mouse, the more he thought it was the perfect make-up gift, making him envision make-up sex, which after a few blissful moments left him guilty since it was his wanting uninterrupted “non-cat-scratching and mewing outside the bedroom door” sex that had gotten him into this predicament.

No, a cat was better. A cat and a mouse? He couldn’t think. The cacophony of animal noises, each species communicating from their row of cages in their native tongue, was almost deafening and contrasted oddly with the humans who shushed, ooo’d, and awe’d while speaking in a pseudo-baby-talk language of their own. The place reminded him of a giant horse barn, even though he had never been to one, with its mixture of straw and cat litter that fell from rows of cages and scattered across the plank wood floors. James had never owned a pet, too big a commitment, although he hadn’t expressed this to Linda; he wasn’t a complete fool.

Across the room, a door with a sign read: “Playpens for the Young at Heart.” He ventured into this room staged with two large playpens at opposite ends: one filled with puppies, one with kittens. Two young girls in oversized white lab coats handed kittens or puppies to prospective owners.

He addressed one lab-coated girl near the kittens and, with arms stretched wide, said, “Do you have anything bigger? Something big enough to fend for himself.”

“Oh, you mean a cat?”

Then she escorted him to a giant cage where cats slept or perched on a multi-tiered carpeted dwelling. One cat eyed him from a corner. What if a new cat doesn’t bond with Linda? Linda’s cat certainly hadn’t bonded with him. No, a kitten was better, but wouldn’t it grow up to become a cat and get out again?

“Uh, what about a puppy instead?” he said, walking over to the puppy pen. Having never owned a cat or a dog, James could not fathom that a person might be a dog or a cat person. After all, vets didn’t care for only dogs or cats. They treated both. Besides, a dog could protect Linda. The more he thought about it, the better that choice became. A dog would run up to greet him versus a cat scurrying under the couch to hide. A dog would lick his face and make him smile, versus a cat scratching his hands until they bled. A dog would curl up at his feet to show affection versus a cat running under his to trip him. With the idea of a dog planted firmly in his mind, he couldn’t help but go one step further. What’s better than one puppy? Two, of course, so they can play together. Now that’s thinking responsibly.

***

James wasn’t prepared for the amount of work that caring for two puppies entailed. They didn’t seem to understand that they were supposed to pee on the newspaper in their cage. At night, they whined until his heart broke, sending him out to purchase an alarm clock, which one chat thread said would calm them by simulating a mother’s heartbeat. It didn’t work. He dragged the cage beside his sofa, where he slept with one eye open.

Every day, he’d dash home at lunchtime and leave work early to feed, walk, and play with his puppies. He enjoyed how the soft, furry puppies jumped and ran around before tiring out and nuzzling against each of his thighs when he sat down to watch TV. He set the game on mute, not wanting cheering crowds to agitate them. He called them Puppy One and Puppy Two, imagining that he and Linda would name them together. He smiled at the idea of surprising her. Women love surprises. He could hardly wait.

***

“Another week?”

“There are some things I need to help Mom with while I’m here.”

“Are you sure that’s all?” he said, suddenly realizing Paul was closer in proximity to her than he was.

“What do you mean?

“Did you go to Chicago to see Paul?” James blurted out, wondering if he should fly out right now to confront Paul to tell him it was over between him and Linda. How could that guy not know this? Of course, with Linda there and not here, James could understand how Paul might get confused. After all, James was confused. Why was she there and not here?

“James, I’ve been meaning to tell you something.”

Did she tell Paul about the missing cat? Is he planning on getting her a new cat, because that wouldn’t be a good idea with two new dogs. She would have to return that cat because she was with him now, not Paul. Well, of course, not at this very moment.

“And this is something you have to tell me from Chicago? You know I’m not good with bad news over the phone. Are you okay? Is your mom okay? I don’t care if Paul is okay.”

“Everyone’s fine.”

“Then what? Tell me. I can take it. I mean, I think I can take it.”

“Muffet came back.”

“What?”

“I should have told you before I left,” Linda said, sipping matcha tea. “But I didn’t think you’d understand. A coyote could have eaten Muffet. I needed to take her someplace safer. That’s why I gave her to my mom.

“Whew, not Paul then?”

“Paul? Why would I give my cat to Paul? Paul is a fish person,” Linda said.

Puppy One jumped onto James’s lap and licked his cheek.

“Now, Linda, you don’t actually believe people are strictly fish, cat, or dog people, right? I mean, people can change, or they don’t have to change because maybe they were always both a cat and dog person—or even a dog, cat, and mice person.

“A mouse person? Who would ever want to be a mouse person?”

“Someone might. They come with their own wheel.”

***

The night Linda flew back to Denver, James drove over to Linda’s rented house more nervous than excited, determined to be the man she wanted him to be. Someone she could count on to always understand. He brought a simple gift. One he had thought long and hard about. It was so perfect, he wondered why he’d never considered it before. James gently carried it from his car to her back kitchen door, the same door he had let the cat out, which fueled dread. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she doesn’t realize how much he loves her? After knocking rat-a-tat-tat lighter than usual, kitchen lights came on, footsteps approached, cafe curtains parted, and the door opened.

Before Linda had a chance to say anything, he thrust his arms out with his gift and said, “Welcome home.”

“It’s a cactus,” Linda said.

“Oh, Linda, I knew you’d like it. It hardly needs any water, so if you had to go somewhere and forgot to water it, it would probably be okay. Except, of course, I could always come over and water it for you — if you wanted — if you wanted to give me a key to your place, that is, not that you have to; I mean, it’s a plant, not a dog — I mean, a dog needs constant attention; but, then again, a dog can also be the right kind of attention. Have you ever thought of yourself as a dog person, Linda?”

“What?”

“I mean, I know you’re a cat person and all, but dogs are nice, too, don’t you think? Would you like a dog, Linda, because I got two and I couldn’t bring myself to take them back? They’re in my apartment. I can run and get them, so you can see -- so you can see how much someone can love a dog even though a dog is a really big commitment. You can see that, Linda. Can’t you?”

Linda smiled. He knew he had chosen the perfect gift and was very very very very very happy.


Originally published by Edify Fiction and featured in their anthology.

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