New York |

Come When You Call Me

by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

At eight o’clock in the morning, Alyssa shows up at Danny’s apartment door with a stack of bright yellow flyers. He has not seen her in three months, since the day she moved out. Two new wrinkles appear between her eyebrows; new creases fold around her mouth as she looks past him into the living room. Her cheeks have grown sharper, her shoulder bones more prominent, her hair longer and darker and not as well kept. She is more beautiful now, although in a dangerous, unpredictable way that Danny is not sure he likes. She wears a batik sundress, one he remembers, a favorite, and large copper disk earrings that look painfully heavy. Sweat collects along her forehead, and he can smell the amber coming off her skin. She uses a real stone, kept in a little wooden box, which she rubs across her wrists and neck every morning. He has searched for her scent in the grocery store, on the subway, on dates with women he never calls back. No one else smells like her. “I’m here to find him,” Alyssa says. She holds up a flyer. The cat’s fat face stares out at Danny. Below, Alyssa has listed the details in neat bullet points: Tabby. Male. Two years old. He notices that she has put down his address but her phone number. Down the hall a door creaks open and bangs shut. The wrinkles between Alyssa’s eyebrows deepen. “You’re wearing your bathrobe,” she says. “It’s Saturday.” She sucks in her bottom lip. She doesn’t have to say the rest. While he slept, she made flyers. Obviously she has always loved the cat more. He opens the door wider and steps back. “Come in,” he says. She glances behind her, along the empty corridor. At the end the dusty staircase waits. He imagines her walking up purposely, self-righteously, planting each sandaled foot squarely on the next step. She could have phoned ahead so that he would have been up and ready. He reaches for a flyer, but she doesn’t let go. The paper threatens to tear. At last she gives in. The corner comes away wrinkled. She chose an odd picture. The cat looks angry, pugnacious. “When did you make these?” Danny asks. He called her at eleven last night, waiting until he had checked every possible location – under the bed, behind the futon, on the closet shelf, even inside the kitchen cupboards - twice. When she heard his voice, she almost hung up. He knew what she expected, for him to be drunk, desperate, the way he had been in those first few weeks, begging her to come home, cursing her out, saying he loved her, over and over. Repeating the phrase into the dial tone, his eyes squeezed shut. The memory shamed him. “Don’t hang up,” he said. “It’s the cat.” “The cat?” “He’s missing.” “What?” Alyssa said. And then, as if he had planned it, “How could you?” Now she turns and begins walking down the hall. “Get dressed,” she says. “Ten minutes. I’ll be at the diner.” *** Stacy, Danny’s former lover, gave them the kitten two years ago, for Christmas. She brought him wrapped in a dishtowel, hidden inside a shoebox, carried on her lap all the way from New Jersey. Without a word, she smiled at Danny and set the box on the living room floor. As the kitten crawled out, Alyssa dropped to her knees in the empty space cleared for the Christmas tree and held out a tentative hand. The cat rubbed its chin across her fingers. “When I saw him,” Stacy said, “I thought of you.” “Yes.” Alyssa nodded slowly. “I can feel it.” Above Alyssa’s head, Stacy met Danny’s eyes. The week before he had taken her out secretly after work and bought her white wine in an overheated bar. They sat with their knees touching while he talked about Alyssa and the void that had floated between them since she lost the baby. With each passing month, the emptiness grew in density, overwhelming him with its weight. Stacy listened with her chin slightly cocked, her eyes lowered, the same expression she used to wear in bed when, nervous after they made love, he talked and talked to fill the silence. After the second glass of wine, he forgot himself and leaned toward her. She leaned back, reminding him, ordering him, “You go home to her.” That year Danny and Alyssa never bought a tree. A fight broke out at the Union Square market: Alyssa couldn’t make up her mind, and Danny grew frustrated and stormed off. She called his name, but he didn’t turn around. He remembers clearly, childishly, thinking, “I am not going to turn around,” and walking in the growing dusk to the subway stairs, starting down into its depths, when, suddenly, Alyssa whistled. The sound was high and piercing, cutting above the traffic on 14th Street and the orchestral version of “Good King Wincheslas” piped in by the holiday market sound system. Passersby cast her odd looks, but she kept whistling, one long, tuneless note after another, until he returned to her. He grabbed her wrists to stop himself from covering her mouth. “What are you doing?” he said. She shook back her hair and laughed. “I had to get your attention somehow.” “I’m not a dog. I won’t come when you call me.” “Funny,” she said and stepped back, slipping out of his grasp, “that’s exactly what you did.” She walked past him, leading the way across the lot. Hating her, with no other option but to stand there in the cold, he followed. Throughout the season, the empty space remained - a reminder of their futility. *** The diner was their place. Across the street from the apartment, it was perfect for grabbing coffee and a bagel on the way to work or slowly dissecting a mushroom omelet on a lazy Saturday morning. They went after movies and late at night on the way home from parties, eating burgers and fries to soak up the alcohol. For the first month after the break-up, he stayed away, fearing the looks of pity or disdain from the waitresses, the gossip in the kitchen. But he missed the convenience and soon found himself going back. When Shandra, who had taken down their orders countless times, smiled at him politely, as if he was a stranger, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief. No one cared. He had overestimated Alyssa’s significance here, and if here, then where else? As he poured too much syrup over his pancakes, he began to think that he would be okay after all. Now as he crosses Broadway, he sees Alyssa seated in the window. She is talking to the waitress, a young woman with long, black hair. He can’t make out the woman’s face – is it Eva or Jasmine? Alyssa will be complimenting earrings or a necklace, a shade of lipstick. She’ll reach out to touch Eva or Jasmine’s wrist, a gesture Danny used to find endearing until he came to understand its real motivation – need. The waitress is gone by the time he arrives, but two cups of coffee sit steaming on the table. “Thank you,” he says as he slides into the booth. Alyssa does not respond. She props her chin in her cupped palm, her elbow resting on the flyers. On her thumb she wears a large silver ring, the stone turned inward; her lips move against the turquoise in little, absent-minded nibbles. He follows her line of vision to the tracks above Broadway, the idling subway cars, and pictures the people inside, sitting on the orange plastic seats, waiting for the jolt forward. His legs go rigid; his hands tighten around his coffee cup. “Have you told Stacy?” Alyssa asks. “Stacy?” He has no way of reaching Stacy. He deleted her number from his phone, unable to stand the temptation, or the rejection. “No.” Alyssa looks down into her cup, then back out the window. The train is pulling away. “I didn’t mean to lose him,” Danny says. “No, of course you didn’t.” “He always made for the door.” “I remember. You should have been watching.” “I was.” He can’t tell her the truth, that after she left, the cat receded slowly from his consciousness. He forgot to feed him, forgot to change his litter, forgot to watch out when opening the door. Payback came in the form of vomit in the bathtub, shit on Danny’s bed, shredded curtains and clawed chairs. Escape was inevitable. Alyssa nibbles at her ring. Below the subway tracks, in the shadowed underpass, a skinny, shirtless man smokes a cigarette beside a shopping cart loaded with soda cans. When the light changes, the man tosses his cigarette on the ground, looks both ways, and careful as a child, pushes the cart forward into the street. “I shouldn’t have left him,” Alyssa says. Danny still finds evidence of her in the most unlikely of places – a hairpin on top of the refrigerator, purple nail polish buried in the sock drawer, an index card with a recipe for banana bread tucked into the pages of the dictionary. He positions himself in the middle of the bed but by morning has rolled back to the right, his side. “Then why did you?” he says. Alyssa reaches across the table as if to take Danny’s hand but stops inches away. Her fingers curl around the salt shaker. “I don’t know,” she says. “I guess I didn’t want to take him away from his home.” *** They never gave the cat a name. Alyssa refused, believing animals shouldn’t have names imposed upon them by humans. She also believed that humans shouldn’t seek pets out; instead they should be patient and let animals find them. “But he didn’t find us,” Danny reminded her. “Stacy bought him.” “No.” Alyssa shook her head violently, her hair swinging across her face. “You don’t understand. He found her so she could take him to us.” Danny didn’t argue further. He liked this part of Alyssa, the part that talked about spirits and energy, magic and fate. The part that still believed in the good of the universe. The cat renewed her, at least for a while. She delighted in his antics: the invisible prey that chased him across the living room; his frenzy over a dangled piece of string; the way, when overly tired, he threw himself at doorframes and clung to the wood. She seemed to relish being woken up at five in the morning by a cat on her chest, demanding to be fed. She picked him up, cradling him like an infant, and padded into the kitchen, where Danny found her hours later drinking tea and watching the cat luxuriate in the window. She accused him of being jealous. “You don’t like that he makes me happy and you can’t.” She was right. Danny sat rigid in his desk chair and watched as she stroked the cat’s stomach. He chose his words carefully. “You use him as a replacement.” Her hand froze, but she did not look up. “We could try again,” he said. “I’m not ready.” “When will you be ready?” “Never,” she said. “Maybe never. How about that?” And then she repeated the word, under her breath, her hand lingering on top of the cat’s head, as if imparting a blessing. Two days later she announced that she was leaving. *** The lack of a name now seems neglectful. Danny imagines strangers looking at the flyers and then away, thinking that the owners must not be too heartbroken if they hadn’t even bothered to give the cat a name. Alyssa walks ahead, the flyers clutched to her chest. Danny follows slowly. He likes watching her move down the street, separate yet familiar; at this distance he can pretend that she still belongs to him, that they still belong to each other. Her sundress shows off her shoulders, the curve of her hips. The batik fabric swishes around her narrow ankles. At the corner she stops and holds a flyer up to the streetlight, above a poster for a Spanish language radio station. Danny reaches around her to attach the tape. She steps back, bumping into his stomach. “Sorry,” she says, and without thinking he cups her shoulder blade in his palm. His thumb follows the groove of her bone. She twists her neck, looking up into his eyes. She smiles. “Danny,” she says. “No.” He drops his hand. An old woman pushes her laundry cart toward them, and Alyssa steps back, widening the space between their bodies, allowing her through. Danny stares after the woman’s hunched form. She is unraveling - holes riddle her blue cardigan, strings float from the hem of her patchwork skirt. Her flip flops slap her dirty heels. “Ma’am,” he calls. “Have you seen this cat?" He points at the poster. “Anyone? Have you seen my lost cat?” Alyssa gives him a scathing look. The light changes, and she crosses the street, leaving him behind. He waits until she is halfway down the next block and then dashes through the yellow, sprinting up on to the sidewalk to the blast of car horns. “Don’t make a mockery of me,” she says as he falls into step beside her. “I wasn’t.” “Don’t do it again.” At the next streetlight, he keeps his distance as he attaches the tape. They make their way up Broadway, past his apartment on 125th, up to 130th, and then down the other side. She crouches, peering underneath cars, and he goes through the motions, stooping beside her, seeing only shadow. Sweat sticks his shirt to his skin, and he feels dirty, grimy. He never even wanted the cat. If he hadn’t called Alyssa, she would never know. She kneels down beside a van and softly clicks her tongue against her teeth. Danny stares off into the distance, where the street dips into a valley before rising up again, a paved series repeated over and over until, eventually, the land evens out and gives way to nothing. They are on an impossible mission. “This isn’t going to work,” Danny says. Alyssa stands, her feet catching on the hem of her dress. She grabs onto the van’s side mirror and looks up at him, her face flushed, her hair a mess. “Do you have a better idea?” she says. He whistles one long, high note. “You whistle for dogs,” she says, “not cats.” But she joins in. Together they whistle, squinting against the sun. The subway rumbles overhead, drowning them out, but she keeps going. She whistles until she’s out of breath, long after he has stopped.