Tuesday

Leon, unabridged and bittersweet

Apparently, you don't get to choose much in this world. Not even when, where and how to grieve those closest to you. All I get to choose is how I remember that grief. And what I do with it. 

(This is exactly the moment, at 8:26 pm on Sunday, October 15, 2017, when I receive the call)

I'm writing about the movie Adaptation. What it feels like to be back in that place where the line between lovely fairytale and crushing reality starts to blur. Those original late night thoughts continue to curl around me like incense smoke. Smoke that I trace in the shape of an eight. The shape of infinity. Ouroboros. The snake eating its own tail. But how can I go on writing about this right now? How can I go on trying to describe the actual feeling of having the delicate cover that normally separates stone-cold reality from madness, fact from fiction, slowly peel away during a movie? How can I go on trying to figure out why I keep dreaming about her? Her, but not her. Her, crying when I'd expect her to be laughing. Who (or what) was she crying for? Her impending loss, or mine?

You see, right now it’s 10:04 pm on Sunday and I just got back from one of the worst drives of my life. Maybe the worst moment since I walked into this same house, at roughy the same time, on January 30 of this year. The worst day since I got the phone call about Tigger, who also died on a lonely Sunday night, on the Summer Solstice. The same day (the longest of the year) that you ran away and came home, Leon. Those 115 days between that day and today seem painfully short. Too few days in between to have just walked into the altar room to lay your frayed and ragged collar - with its standard-issue yellow SPCA chip tag next to your custom-engraved grey/blue bone one - on top of your picture frame, lit one of those pregnant Sri Sai Flora sticks and traced infinity over you. Too soon to have joined the rest of the dead. Four out of nine, not counting the two I've lost track of. 

So why am I not breaking down? Why wasn’t I bawling when I first got the call, at 8:24 pm, from the strange woman and her 438 area code number, asking me if Leon was my cat. Of course he's my cat. Why else would you be calling? I must have answered so nonchalantly, having fielded enough of these phone calls on your behalf to no longer make such a big deal out of them. Remember when I had to come pick you up that one Friday night? Of course you don't. 

She must have been taken aback, wondering how she was going to break the news that you were gone. Is that what she actually said? I think so. “Leon is gone.” I repeated the word gone and added a question mark at the end, asking her to clarify. What do you mean, gone? 

Are you his owner? Is Leon a big, beautiful grey cat? I asked her why she was asking. Of course he was my mine, big and beautiful - although to be fair, I thought to myself, he's more cream than grey, a very uniquely striped specimen indeed, with deep blue bulging eyes that often scan their surroundings with blurry humming-bird speed. And when you grab him and bring him right close to your face, not only could you feel the massive weight of him (not that he was fat, maybe a little when he came from the SPCA) but you could actually feel the humanlike sigh he let out - half elated, half accepting. Do you live close by, she continued? Is this some kind of a joke? Then she started to get emotional. She repeated that Leon was gone. That Leon was dead. That she had his collar and that’s why we were talking on the phone. “What do you mean dead?” I demanded, my voice sounding thin and somehow detached, like one of us had the wrong number. She explained she couldn’t stand to be the one who have to tell me. Tell me what? I asked her where she was. She asked me if I was far. I let a fuck slip by. I asked her to tell me what she meant by dead and gone. She told me she had found him in the street while she was walking her dog. That she lived in the neighbourhood. That she had pushed him over to the sidewalk because nobody else had. That she would wait for me to come by. When would I be coming by? Fuck. I exhaled loudly. Fuck. I mumbled something about leaving now. I told her I'd call her once I got there. I didn’t thank her for calling. I didn’t thank her for letting me know. I didn’t ask her for any more explanations. Not if he was still breathing. Not if he was wet. Or cold. Or stiff. Or crushed. Not even if she was a hundred per cent sure it was my Leon. Our Leon. When I hung up the phone, she was still talking.

It bothered me that I wasn’t crying yet. It bothered me that my voice wasn’t even shaking as I shared the news with my brother, making it a little more real. All I could think about was grabbing a black garbage bag and making sure my doors and windows were closed so none of my other cats could go out. I only thought about driving there. Perhaps if there was any chance I might actually throw up and be sick on the way, or maybe when I’d finally see him. My head continued to swim in its lingering Sunday hangover. I thought about the strange and unsolicited warning a young author from Chicago had given me over email, telling me to stay safe this weekend, even though I had never given her the impression that my life was ever in any kind of danger. I put on my black Burton hoodie, even though it was still unseasonably muggy out, something the afternoon's near torrential rainfall had done little to alleviate. I thought about how soaked Leon would be, and whether or not that would be a good thing. I wondered if he’d be flat like a pancake. If his body would be twisted. Or if he’d just look like he was taking a long nap, the way he often did when I’d find him sprawled out on the pink futon, his paws and two large canines exposed, not a care in the world. I drove out. I noticed my left leg was shaking uncontrollably. No tears. But at least it was something. 

The streets were empty and the air coming through the vents was ice cold, even though the AC wasn’t on. It reminded me of the weather the day my marriage fell apart, strangled by too many secrets and invisible clammy hands. I didn’t play any music on the way. No Kendrick. No Radiohead. Nothing to set the mood. Just the sad silence of a Sunday evening against my windshield wipers. And my dull thoughts. The growl in my stomach. I visualized, bracing myself for the worst. I also entertained the minute possibility this could all be some kind of giant misunderstanding. I didn’t entertain that thought for very long. More than anything, I thought about what was going to become of one of my story’s main characters. The unexpected symbol of my salvation. My hope. My beacon of light through the darkness. Was he really gone? And if he was, what was I going to do with his body? His memory, I could cherish. His soul, I could immortalize. But what about his physical body? That’s what I thought about most of all. Where would I bury him? Would the hole be deep enough? Was there any chance we could cremate him in this rain? How long might it all take? 

I witnessed two near-accidents on the way. This is how cats die on the road. Except nobody gets out to check if the cat's okay. It’s almost always a hit and run. No-fault insurance. Injured cats are discovered, comforted and reported by fellow animal lovers. People who feel the pain of those whose numbers they dial, putting themselves in the terrible position of having to break the news to somebody that could have been them on another day. I've been on both ends of the line. It sucks either way.

When I turned left onto 8th Avenue, I braced myself - like I do any time I see a garbage bag or strange object in the middle of the street. I stopped the car right in front of Cantors but didn’t see anything. Figured I might as well park. My brother got there at the exact same moment. He got out without saying much. We started to walk back toward Cantors. That’s when I started crying. There were very few people on this planet whose presence alone could make me sob - my brother was one of them. It was like muscle memory for me. Emotional kindling. I made sure to walk a little in front of him just to avoid breaking down completely. Still no sign of Leon. At least it wasn’t raining hard anymore. We didn’t say a word. Still nothing. I decided to call the lady. She answered the phone and asked if I was Leon, realized what she was saying and asked us where we were. She seemed more distraught than I was. Maybe she was thinking about the table’s being turned? Maybe she was quietly hugging her dog and counting her lucky stars, the way other people’s tragedy always seem to make you do. ‘Not me, life. Not today!’ She mentioned being closer to Denis Papin. Could I see her? Not yet, but I turned around and started walking back that way. 

I guess my brother hadn’t heard me tell him she was the opposite way, because he was still searching behind the cars in the parking lot, tenderly. My brother had texted me that morning, reporting that Leon wasn't around. But then the sly fucker had managed to train us not to worry about him. Was his bowl empty? Yup. Okay, all good then. Probably went out roaming again. He'll be back. 

Daddy was calling. I ignored his calls. Once. Twice. I answered the third time, slightly annoyed, dished out the news in ten seconds flat and quickly hung up. Just like I had done with my mom, who called me as I was I getting into my car, asking me what happened. Like I knew. We walked past the neighbours and saw a woman emerge from behind a large truck, possibly next to that little metal shop I had visited the first time Leon had gone missing. That first day of Summer. The woman was short and stout. Her poodle stood beside her. She reattached his leash and asked if we were the guys. I nodded, tearing up. Follow me, her nervous body seemed to say, as she pointed awkwardly to the other side of the street. We crossed over to the front of the building we had thought of buying not too long ago. She said something about how we must have loved him, given his fancy collar. But her voice stopped mattering when I finally spotted him. 

Leon was sprawled out on the sidewalk, soaking wet. His face was frozen in a hideous wince. Resting on his left side, nearly all his right teeth were bared and exposed. His eyes were open, but I could no longer make out the blue in them. His left paw seemed to hang at a weird angle under his head. Like he was having the worst kind of sleep. Stuck in some perpetual nightmare. It confirmed that he had died a painful death. That this world was indeed heartless and cruel. That you test your own shitty luck as much as you make it. That much I could make out from his half lit resting patch of sidewalk. My eyes went blurry, the way they are going blurry now. It became hard to focus. The refraction of the light through tears and scratched lenses was probably a blessing in disguise, shielding me from any more detail. Making it less real. The beautiful ivory fur that had covered his broad, Doberman's chest (a chest that never slimmed down, even when he did) was now a dull, street rat grey. He looked emaciated, the way cats do when you give them a bath. Except he didn’t look clean at all. His tail was all scraggly. “It’s not him, Rob. It's not him” my brother said matter-of-factly. He was right. But maybe he was also trying to reassure me so that I wouldn’t lose it, the way I had when I held Angel on the sterile metal table, while the vet gently plunged liquid death into her. I had cried out as her eyes went glassy. But there was no moment of release now. Tears pooled on my glasses and streamed down my face. A lump in my throat. Nothing more. All I could think about was getting him into the garbage bag. I didn’t even notice the woman leave, although she did apologize again before doing so. I removed his collar before doing anything else. We both cupped his rigid body as gently as we could, my brother by his haunches, me by his head. There was no bend left in him. His beautiful coat was no more. We struggled to fit the mouth of the industrial-sized garbage bag around him. We got him in.

We walked back to the Mothership. The garbage was already out, and every last one of those bags looked hideous and suspect to me now. My brain cried for a quick solution. I looked up at the sky, shook my head in and sighed. It felt like something to do. My brother double-bagged him, then asked me what I wanted to do. I mentioned burying him, knowing I’d have time to justify the symbolism if I could just get through this moment. Right now? But he knew better than to ask twice. I picked up the bag. Leon (Leone di Cairano, as my grandmother had unknowingly baptized him during one particularly entertaining rendition of the great family story) had always weighed a lot in my arms. Maybe it was the thing I liked most about him, even more than his gentleness. All those times that I'd find him loitering back there in the yard, waiting patiently after another night out, I'd call him toward me. He’d give in and approach me with his wobbly strut and his tiny whimper - too tiny for his stature - and quietly allow me to pick him up and carry him inside, only really starting to protest as we got toward the front door. Once inside, he’d follow me up the stairs, wait for me to punch in the code and hop in as soon as the door had cleared. He'd still have to clear Chillum, of course. But he always managed. Within twenty minutes, he’d be back out - like Dino in the Flintstones.

But now, he was somehow heavier. Dead weight. I held the bag and let the weight of him sink in. My brother opened the fence and I carried him into his old stomping ground, Leon nothing more than a stiff form in a gleaming back bag, hoping nobody would be around for this. Max was there. I went straight for the shovel. Max followed me out and insisted he do it because I was close to him. I told him it was fine. That I was fine. That this was life. That I needed to do this. That I wanted to do this. I wanted nothing more than to do this, smoke a cigarette and go home. And write, of course. And watch as the snake continued to eat its own tail. 

Under the vines we found a soft empty space. I plunged the shovel into the moist, loose earth and dug a hole in no time at all. I made sure it was big enough and deep enough to comfortably house him, without struggle. My brother insisted it was, then I dug a little more just to be sure. I was trying to open the bag. He insisted on placing the entire thing inside and then tearing it open. And there was Leon, again, filling up his final resting spot. Leone di Cairano, looking like one little rat only. Mowed down at three, before his prime. I asked my brother to turn his body so his back was against the concrete wall. It didn’t seem right any other way. I wondered how long he’d take to disappear. I told him not to cover him just yet. I wanted to touch him one last time. I pet him and scratched under his chin in the dark, imaging him closing his eyes in his rehearsed response. I started to cry again and my brother left, taking the light with him. I didn't even say the word goodbye. I guess I had gotten my fill of those. I did not want to let this one linger. I patted down the earth around him. I smoked half a cigarette, thought about taking a walk back to the scene of the accident, then decided against it. 

I was weary of giving this death any more meaning. It would have only made things more painful.

Sunday

candlelight

My dreams of her are always pleasant, and seem to snuggle up for entire nights now.

This last one started in a neighbourhood that vaguely resembled St. Leonard. Except that all the triplexes, normally stacked neatly like faceless dominoes, were now separated by vast peaks and canyons. Like a row of broken teeth set along a decaying gum line. A street fighter's smile. Perhaps the unsuspecting mouth of a long dormant volcano. We were up in the clouds. But the plush pillows floating above us were pregnant not with rainwater, but fire. You only really noticed when their hundreds of thousands of soft blue tongues hit the ground, with the dead calm of a sneaky December snowfall carpeting the cold pavement before dawn. And every little fire-flake hissed where it landed. A satisfying sound. The soothing sizzle and swoosh of flame on damp earth.

I knew I had reached her house. That she was home alone. I also knew that we did not know each other very well - not very well at all. She answered the door before I could bring myself to knock and flashed an awkward come-in smile. I followed, head down. I don’t remember exactly what we spoke about. Her dad’s favourite card games, maybe. My dancing? I stood in the hall while our conversation carried her, like a deep river current, from room to room. At times it swallowed her completely. Whenever she resurfaced, I'd smile stupidly. Like I was meeting her again for the first time.

Time inhaled deeply and then exhaled slowly. Years passed through our words. And when we went back out front to watch the fire clouds. I suddenly wanted nothing more than for the two of them, my dear friends, to finally meet her. They had been waiting patiently. Their matching eyes squinted with approval, as the candlelight night continued to rain down around us.