Melissa met Richie on a Friday night four and a half months before her 30th birthday. She was buying toilet paper at her local bodega when he came in and bought three bags of cat food, a lighter, and a bottle of Drano.
“You must have a lot of cats,” she said.
She didn’t mean it in a derisive way, implying that it was strange for a guy to own that many cats. It was just a reasonable conclusion to draw based on the number of cat food bags he was buying. Accidentally insulting men was a habit she’d picked up back in grad school, when she had to critique many of their MFA theses. But she had long since dropped out of that program, and Richie didn’t seem like the artsy type. He stared at her forehead in a dead-eyed, coldly dispassionate way, which she liked, and he was wearing a Band-Aid on his shapeless bicep.
Richie did not take her observation as an insult. Or, if he did, he showed it by turning toward her and suddenly mimicking her expression, which was one of endeared bemusement.
“Yes, that is true,” he said.
The next week they ran into each other at the bodega again. This time, he bought six bags of cat food.
“Hey, it’s Toilet Paper Girl,” he said, by way of greeting.
“That was a neg,” she said, more disappointed than offended. “Don’t bother trying because it’s not gonna work.”
“But you are buying toilet paper, aren’t you?”
“I am also buying hand soap.”
“Gotcha,” he said. He turned away from her to pay for the cat food, and she figured they were done. But when he said, “Toilet Paper Girl, give me your number,” she decided to cut her losses.
He sent her cat photos. She awaited them eagerly, as they presented a welcome break from dispensing financial advice, and no guy had ever sent her cat photos before. Big orange tabbies, shy American Shorthairs, unimpressed Himalayans. One night, she was complaining about having to dredge her roommate’s hair out of their original prewar drain, and he offered to buy her some industrial cleaning supplies to eat through the grime. She said she didn’t know how to use them, so he came over with a bevy of harsh liquid abrasives, as well as a toolkit for reinforcing her IKEA bookshelf and hanging her two framed Saul Bass posters. He set all these things at her feet along with a single rose.
“Wow, you have so many kinds of industrial cleaners,” she said, taking the rose into the kitchen.
“Yes, I bought them just for this.”
She looked for something to use as a vase for the rose and found a mason jar, but then realized she would have to trim the stem with a butter knife. Upon seeing her struggle, he offered her the jackknife he kept in his shoe.
“You can keep it,” he said. “You can keep all this stuff.”
It was a weird gift, but a gift was a gift. It certainly heightened his mysterious aura. In retrospect, she thought, maybe it would have been wise to question why he was trying to get rid of so many harsh liquid abrasives. But she didn’t want to stop to ask. He always smelled of antibacterial lemon, a scent she supposed was meant to cover the smell of kitty litter that would have otherwise followed him everywhere like an unsexy cloud. Right? It was as reasonable an explanation as anything else.
Before she understood what she was doing, she invited him to stay for dinner.
She went back to Michigan for the holidays to visit her family. During the week, Richie texted nonstop; she learned the names of his cats, but still wasn’t sure how many of them there were. They had “good kitty names” for when they behaved well and “bad kitty names” for when they acted out of turn. There was something uncouth about a man in his late twenties saying “kitty,” but she chose to ignore it. Anyway, she enjoyed the steady stream of cat photos. The cats all looked healthy. If a guy could manage to hold down a job and keep his seven cats healthy, she figured, he’d probably also make a good dad.
“When will I get to meet them?” she asked.
For Christmas, she ordered him a custom mug from CafePress that said #1 Cat Dad on it in bold black letters. He bought her a Pusheen hoodie that she wore every time she saw him. As a result, he started calling her “kitten,” which she found retrograde and disgusting, but she loved his tackiness, because it meant that he needed her to correct it. That made her feel sophisticated and socially adept by comparison. She imagined him thinking, look at this amazing display of savior-faire. I bet she’d throw such great dinner parties if given the chance, especially now that her shared two-bedroom in Woodside is so clean.
Their rapport was undeniable. The cat photos graduated to cat videos, cat Snapchats. He was a man of few words, but clearly, what he couldn’t figure out how to say, he made up for in daily verbose profusions of feline photography.
Despite the steady influx, she worried that he was stringing her along. He hadn’t even asked after her New Year’s Eve plans, giving her even more reason to worry. “Business trip,” he said, by way of explanation. She was miffed. Sensing that, possibly, he followed up with a question of his own.
“What are you doing for V-day?”
It took her a minute to realize what he was asking. And when she did, she forgave him. She sent him a cat photo.
In response, he asked her if she knew what the punishment for killing a cat—on purpose or by accident—was in ancient Egypt.
Death, he said.
Yikes, she said. That was his other fascination: Not only did he have an endless store of cat photos, but he also had an encyclopedic knowledge of cat history and cultural significance. He was even an expert in cat biology without ever having set foot inside a veterinary school. A true autodidact if there ever was one.
The night before they met for their Valentine’s Day date, she had strange respiratory symptoms. They almost resembled a violent panic attack, but she knew she couldn’t cancel on him. She wanted him to know she really liked him. She liked him so much that it gave her panic attacks. So she bought a new dress and waited for his knock on the door, as planned.
He was late. When she opened the door, she was surprised to find him wearing a cheaply made fur coat. It was matted in places, tatters hanging off the sleeves like Spanish moss. He held out another bodega rose, which she accepted.
When he had asked her if it was all right if they had the date at his house, she gave him what she hoped was a cold “sure.” But he seemed to have put some thought into the dinner, having thrown a tablecloth over a card table and lit some candles. She smelled some kind of stew cooking and cut him some slack. His apartment was spotless. There weren’t even any dishes in the sink.
He pulled out a seat for her, which she pretended to appreciate. Mid-way through the quiet meal, his eyes lit up. He looked as though he were just about to tell her something very important, but it was just another item of cat trivia.
“The first people to domesticate cats were Mesopotamians farmers—not the Egyptians, as many people think, although they revered them tremendously.”
She had learned about Bastet in AP Global over a decade ago, and was about to say something to that effect, but Richie waved his hand. “Let me finish, please. Thank you. Then there was Bastet. Sometimes depicted as a cat, sometimes as a woman with a cat’s head, Bastet was the goddess of the home. But the Egyptians were hardly the only ancient culture that valued their feline brethren.” Suddenly, his eyes narrowed. She thought they might have even glinted. “Imagine that. Having the head of a cat. And a tail! You’d be perfect.”
“I mean, you are perfect. My dear.”
He laughed nervously as he stroked her hair. He’s seeing someone else, she thought, more exasperated than sad about this revelation.
They went to bed. Around three in the morning, she woke up to find him licking her arm.
She tried to remain calm. Slowly, she peeled his head away from her elbow.
“This really isn’t my thing,” she said, still holding his chin away from her body. He apologized profusely and rolled over, only to start up again within the hour.
“What the fuck?” Her shock was genuine. Idiosyncrasies aside, she really had thought he was a decent person. “I just told you, I don’t fucking like that.”
“Yes you do, my creature.”
He smiled, dipping his head slightly and looking up, so that his entire face appeared squashed—almost feline.
“Stop being weird,” she said.
“I can’t,” he said. “I want you to meet the others.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t feel threatened!”
“Look, I know we’re not exclusive, but I’m not poly and I don’t—”
“Shhhhh.” He put a finger over her lips. “Come out, come out, my familiars!”
He’d started using that nickname for her a few weeks earlier. She found it patronizing and objectifying, but she hadn’t said anything, figuring that it was just the wages of emotional labor. She found she could ignore virtually anything if she tried. In fact, when the fur-covered men and women crawled out of the cupboards, closets, and dumbwaiter and began hissing fiendishly through their titanium alloyed teeth, she thought they were the radiator.
“Why do you think I own so much industrial solvent and cat food,” he whispered.
“You like to clean,” said Melissa.
“We can talk about this in the morning.” She settled her head onto his chest once more. His heart was pounding.
“No, we can’t! They’re angry! You’re in danger!” He seemed to be close to tears.
Finally, she looked around. But she didn’t say anything—she was completely dumbstruck, staring at their yellow eyes, wondering if she was asleep and having a nightmare. How much did she really know about CBD oil anyway?
“Who are these people, Richie,” she said in a barely audible voice, fearing the answer. She wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening. But beside her, Richie laughed.
“Come closer, friends!”
At first, she couldn’t see the half-cat half-woman crouched right in front of her. A gleaming yellow eye glinted — but it wasn’t a cat’s eye. Her fanged mouth appeared to be forming the words, who’s this bitch?
Against her better judgment, she looked behind her. Richie was gone—or at least, missing from her line of sight. But when she looked down, over the edge of the bed, she found him wobbling on all fours, wearing his last pet on his head like a coonskin cap.
“Join usssss, Meow-lissa,” he hissed. “All of us. Become one with us—the cat people!”
Later, she would not even remember hearing her own screams. She only remembered lunging for the heavy, dead-bolted door, nearly ripping it off its hinges, one of the plumper ones clawing at her leg, throwing herself into the stairwell and running down the grimy stairs, not stopping until she got all the way home, which no longer seemed quite far enough. She wanted to move to the Falkland Islands. Only then, she thought, would she ever sleep again.
The next few months proved her wrong. As it turned out, it was easy to avoid Richie as long as she avoided their shared places. Sad as she was to give up her favorite bodega, it was much more economical than breaking her lease. For the first time in her life, she felt, truly, like a self-sufficient adult.
She hadn’t blocked him, thinking it better to monitor.
“Is that Cat Guy?” her friend Jasmin had asked once, when they were out getting drinks. She hid her phone under the table, but it kept buzzing.
Sry wrong number
its all fake neway
its for a movie
Oh come on
If you did not want to be worshipped as a half-human-half-cat, you wouldtn have gone out with me.
Taking the hint, Jasmin turned away, concerned but willing to respect her friend’s privacy. Melissa was grateful. She could barely believe she had gone out with such an erratic guy for as long as she had, and she vowed never to settle again. I’ll get back on the apps tomorrow, she promised herself. I’ll try them all until I find someone I really, truly like, someone I don’t have to make excuses for — and, most importantly, someone who doesn’t want to turn me into a cat.