Fall is coming. I find myself walking past East City Park, daydreaming of trouser socks. A hot Americano in a blue ceramic cup. This morning, I am working from my desk. The leaves outside my window have begun to turn, but in a way that seems unnatural—as in, burnt orange at the edges due to heat and smoke, in this sense literally burnt. They rustle in this finally-breeze: the sound a crispness more like crumpled paper than North Idaho in autumn.
Inside the window: on the ledge above my books, one air plant is thriving. The other is quite dead. I haven’t thrown it out yet—less because I have some hope of its return than because it was a gift from a friend who has since moved to Seattle, and the little gold-ridged pot reminds me of her [me visiting in April when she still lived in Spokane; drinking coffee and eating wheat toast with smoked salmon, radishes, and butter; our nearly-matching striped pajama pants a happy accident].
Re-potting isn’t like me. I have the most un-green of thumbs. Still, something about today and this new nearly-autumn-almost-chill moves my fingers into weak and skinny roots, into rocks and dirt, until the last gasp of air plant—browning, limp—falls into the trash. In its place, I scoop the little body of a succulent I’d purchased—frivolously, earnestly—at a writing residency in Port Townsend, Washington, last summer. The same residency where I’d met the friend who gave me the now indecorously interred air plant.
Yesterday I broke my favorite green wine glass in the sink.
It seemed like it should be bad luck, but then the day was rich.
I am not a very superstitious person—but suddenly, I wonder
about breaking other things.
Several weeks ago, I went to the dentist to pick up a night guard: clear plastic apparatus molded in the same shape as my gums and teeth. To stem the grinding—finally, at thirty-two, after several years’ suggestion. At first, I did not make the connection: the way the dreams unfurled darker, stranger, once I started wearing it to bed—
All of this revolves around my body. This dream, the narrative, too vivid, bright—more real than bone. Teeth are barriers. My mind assaults the bone to keep from feeding on itself. Plastic does not work the same. The dentists warned me: this thing inside my mouth won’t stop the grinding. It only mitigates the damage. I do not want to lose my teeth. I also do not know if he and I share understandings of this word: DAMAGE.
Evening. A chill that hits my shins. Skips the ampleness of thigh, then centers, pinned, against mid-spine. Spreading like white paint along each rib-cage wing.
I receive a text from B—the ex who now lives down the hall, who is now my neighbor—to say that he’s left wine outside the door. I didn’t ask for wine. I asked for packing tape. This because he is my neighbor, and we are trying to be friends, and I didn’t want to buy a roll of tape just to return these sunglasses that looked posh and elegant online but actually look bad against my face. It has been almost exactly seven months. I say as much via text—that is, about the tape; not about the glasses, or my face, or passing time. I say as much, and within minutes he is at my door, packing tape in one hand and his tiny blue-gray cat against his shoulder.
He knows I will invite them both to come inside [I do] and let her explore and sniff my furniture, my walls, my books [I do]. We talk about the tasting at the wine shop where he works, about the fruity nose on this year’s vintage of a stalwart Côte du Rhône. We watch the cat explore my closet, crevices behind the bed, beneath the couch. She saves the bed itself for last, makes as if to settle, then shifts her attention to the windowsill and perches there instead, observing from the inside out.
Once, when I was young, I dreamt I gave birth to a cat. I was fourteen, and I was inside the dream, which happened in my brain, inside my body.
Saturday. You and I. We meet downtown. We walk the Farmer’s Market. Get coffee. After two full years of friendship, and now two hot summer months of something we’re not quite sure how to name, this is the closest to a date we’ve managed yet. It is a perfect, yellow-gold, September kind of day. We decide to hike.
Stickers from the tall dry grass, clinging to my socks. The very fact of socks at all; remembering to bring a sweater; autumn. Even this seems resonant, somehow. The season. Change, and chill. You throw a leaf against the slime-green film of—what is it, anyway? Algae? Stagnant green that coats this silent pond, keeps the surface still—and nothing moves. You crouch to take a photograph, analog, black & white film, your father’s camera. You tell me stories of your father, of your mother, how they met. We walk in no particular direction.
I stand a bit behind and take a photograph of you.
Earlier, you took several of me. I’m never quite sure what to do with my hands in photographs that are supposed to be candid but aren’t. I wonder if you will develop them. If the black & white will pick up, as you say, all the shadows crossing over shades of brown and gold. September on the Palouse prairie. How you will remember me inside the photograph:
[flannel, turquoise, wind]
Cats have sharp little teeth.
I do not have a cat of my own. But I have welcomed marks—small rounds, surface punctures—along the skin between my thumb and index finger. The gnaws that sweet-hurt—that I often wish would stay until the morning. There is a pull, an almost-eroticism, about the challenge, and subsequent pleasure, of earning [winning?] intimacy with other people’s cats.
Correction. The qualifier was a lie. I know it, even as I write the words. These bites, the marks, aren’t almost erotic. Do I seek them out? These men with cats? The pleasure of the not-quite-puncture? The flash of skin or hurt or in-between-ness that is toothmarks, that is not my cat, that is seduction, that is the space between, before—
Cats can only move their jaws up and down, up and down. Not side-to-side. Hence the puncture; little sweet-hurt gnaw. A cat would not, could not, grind her teeth.
Perhaps, after all this, I’m just jealous.
What do cats dream? How? What if I am sleeping with a man, and that man’s cat, and said cat crawls onto my chest or curls against my stomach or the sleep-droop of my thigh, and we are both asleep and dreaming, and she purrs or speaks or moves her teeth—
I tell you all about the cat-birth dream. I ask if I’d already told you once before. You say, in fact, I hadn’t told you yet. About the dream. About the birth. About my love of polyester, and the fact that B’s cat [or yours—we’ll call you C—depending on the day, the twist and curl of time, of when I’m writing this, the skin of it, the taste of you against my lips and what it seems to mean] is also partly Russian Blue, is wholly small and gray and whole inside her smallness, seven pounds of small, and not a kitten even though he calls her one.
This seems important.
You and I, we talk about the tiny blue-gray cat. But then we stop. We’ve been friends too long, by now, and you’ve already heard too much about B, about his cat. When it comes to both of them, I’ve already pushed your boundaries. What I mean is this: it’s too late now, for us—for you and me—to be sensitive, to have secrets, without lying. Without holding something back. So we talk, but I don’t tell you everything. I let the conversation swerve into this wondering: about the cat-birth dream, about cat dreams in general, and what they mean. Because we are alike in many ways, you look it up. You find a lot of vague and inconclusive information, verging on cliché: about how cats are instinctually feminine, independent and aloof; about how pregnancy dreams in those who aren’t expecting have to do with anxiety around a project or decision, an effort towards “inner development.” No one on the internet seems to have experience with dreams where human women bear full-grown cats instead of kittens. I don’t say so, but I take some satisfaction in this—in my peculiarity, at fourteen; in my cat dream with a twist.
As if I could take credit.
What I also don’t say is that now—because I’m sitting with you, sleeping with you—the catalog of things this dream could mean expands. It’s insistence reaches into this: into you and I, into our present moment. Now the dream encompasses and echoes not only Russian Blue, but also orange Maine Coon: twenty pounds and shedding all over my ankle socks and blouse, curled against my naked thighs inside my memory of summer, white sheets damp with sweat and stained and you, reading me to sleep with Stephen Dunn’s Loves, waking me with you on one side, Maine Coon on the other, enveloped in a basement room that somehow stayed so cool long after August cooked the morning sun against the pavement.
Now the dream encompasses and echoes both of these, and more: the fact that you are you today—C—but once upon a time the you inside my mind was B, or even A [that first and biggest love], was simply he, or she [the blue-gray cat inside the inside of my dreaming teenage mind, inside my body]. That now there’s he and you and cat, and everything is multiple—her teeth, the way her mouth will open with so little sound and just a flash of canine, just a hint of speak and want and yes I know that it is you—still she bites at memory. Still she winds her tiny body into mine.
The last time he left town, B gave me visitation rights, but not the key. This time, all of it—the cat, the key, the half-full bottle of Rioja from another tasting—curls into a single, slender olive branch. I do not tell you this. I keep meaning to, but then I don’t. What would it accomplish? It’s not as if I owe you this particularity of truth [that is, not exactly; not when we aren’t calling ourselves anything, when what we say most of the time is that we probably should stop, that we are equally unready to invest, to do right by one another—], and no other reason seems quite good enough. Every justification I can think of pretends to be about transparency, but ends up [if I’m honest with myself] being about power. I don’t want this to be true. I don’t quite know why it sticks inside my mind as such. But it does.
So all I tell you is that B and I are trying to be friends. That we have tried before, and failed. I leave out my late-night visits to his dark apartment—visits where I pet the cat, and throw her silly little toys around, and hold her close, and sniff her fur until she wriggles free; visits where I sip a glass of wine, and look inside B’s fridge, his cupboards, and eat a covert potato chip, perhaps, the way I used to when I had permission. I leave out how the cat [and to a lesser extent, the wine] is something of a crux, a gauge, between us.
Gauge = standard of measure [also sounds like gouge—just one letter different—that is, “a chisel with a concave blade; an indentation or a groove made by gouging; or, to swindle.” From the Old Welsh gylph, “a beak, or pointed instrument.”]
You and I are up late, writing. I ask you how to spell gouge. In the moment, as I look it up, I am forgetting. My eyes are tired, my contact lenses dry and sticking, and I should have thought to take them out, to wear my glasses. We are sitting at the bar as I am writing this, mining definitions, iterations. You are writing poems. You say g-o-u-g-, and I am off, on the hunt. Hoping to find inside the thing I want to find—reference to an indentation or a tooth, and so I do, and so I laugh and slap the blonde wood of the table, then apologize immediately.
I know why, and I don’t know why.
Sorry. Such a damning, constant word.
You remind me of the time, earlier this summer, when you told me to look up bight—a bend or curve inside a coastline, oftentimes recessed. I remember that I did; I remember to remember how it resonates: with me, with bite, with toothmarks, with my gums and with the water near the piece of California land where I was born.
My teeth are sensitive: to sweetness, tart, and ice.
What I haven’t said, straight out: the why of it. That is, why it ended between B and I. It was my mind. Not in my mind, but actually my mind itself. The fact and curl of it. The way it funnels to my lips in waves and torrents, like a beach storm, and the torrents shoved and pummeled him, and he has always been, still is, so very much from Kansas; so completely land-bound. He once told me: you say a lot of things when you talk. He wasn’t wrong. After about a year, he stopped wanting to keep track. He told me: sometimes I just can’t.
It’s hard to hold the choice against him. What I resented was the bait and switch: the way he changed his mind—decided, after all, that spending time with mine wasn’t worth the work. Then again, inside a busy mind is not an easy place to be, and when the wind is clicking through the drying yellow leaves outside my window on an autumn morning, I feel soothed; but how was he supposed to know about all that?
To be fully seen and known: this is not a slight demand. And I was not only demanding; I was careless. I failed to take into account what it was I wanted relative to whom I was asking—failed, that is, to consider what my therapist might call “matters of capacity.”
B used to say, half-mockingly, half-troubled: I can’t read your mind. You can’t expect me to. I used to laugh, then nod. I’d say, Of course. Don’t be silly. I would never. This was a lie. I never told him what I used to tell my friend S —as she and I would talk, and drink our half-price Tuesday wine at the otherwise expensive restaurant on the corner, the restaurant with warm lighting and red brick and pretty window-walls so people walking by could see us from the outside in; as she and I would sit there in our nearly-matching jeans and soft black sweaters, splitting a plate of Spanish olives, wondering if it’s even possible to live inside a woman-body and ever not feel like an object in the world—that secretly, I did expect it. That secretly, I thought one’s close attention could be like clairvoyance. S understood. She still does. Like me, S wants to be known. Together, we bemoan, at times, our wantingness. We pay attention. We’ve learned each other’s tics. Like when I ask if she wants to go to a party and she says, “Oh! Maybe!” and I know immediately that this means she does not want to go at all, or else would rather stay at home in her pajamas. I do not feel disappointed. She does not feel pressured.
But B did. And so did I. And so I never told him this until the end. Until we were unraveling. I suspect it frightened him—knowing that I’d wanted, hoped for, so much more. It frightened me as well: because, for several months, I’d been unhappy, crying often, feeling anxious, hating how he kept on telling me to just relax, be easy. It frightened me because, before all this, I’d been in love with someone else for eight full years, and it had been a good love but a bad fit in the end, and so soon after that I’d met B. I’d wondered, and I’d wavered, and I’d caved; and then, so quickly, I’d demanded knowingness from him, from someone new.
What I mean to say is this: What if he had given it?
What I mean to say is, I’d been so busy wanting to be seen that I, myself, lost sight.
Once, you asked me: who are you, lying naked in a field?
I loved the question, but did not know the answer.
I replied: I’m scared. I’m scared. Unless I am a child, or inside a dream.
What shape are we—now, tonight?
An orange cat, more creamsicle than orange, tufts of hair that shed and ball on contact, somehow, even just in passing, and a purr that rumbles through this studio apartment—even pit against this sound of autumn breeze, the bass line thumping from downstairs, a restaurant closing soon and kitchen staff are turning up the volume. You and I are sitting, writing, talking [me more than you, which always renders me self-conscious: the way you then think I’m anxious, and I feel the way your thoughts are bending, and then I DO get anxious, and we sit and write and mostly it is good but all along there is this wire buzzing underneath the table—]
It is a new apartment [yours], and there are many new peripheries.
Scent of litter box, familiar. Tufts of cream and orange hair, increasingly familiar [but still less so than blue, than gray]. All the cabinets in your apartment have these funny latches on them—silver chrome, old-fashioned, noticeable against the bright white new of paint. You just moved in this week. I want to turn the latches, look inside the cupboards, know what kind of groceries you buy. I am a nosy person, curious. I know you are observant, so observant of me in particular—of my qualities, my tics, my would-be hiddens. Like the eye thing, darting up and to the right when I am nervous. How you noticed this before I noticed it myself, told me that you’ve noticed it for years. How I felt stripped down in the best way when you said it—as in, naked; as in, known.
Somehow, I feel that you would not be bothered, might even be a little flattered, to indulge my prying.
But the latches trip me up. They refuse to open easily, the way a simple knob might open, and it slows my fingers—pull of curiosity, of us-ness—so I stop. We, too, say that we should stop. What reason, then, to turn the chrome a little harder? Exert the pressure of my fingers down and to the left? Crack open some new thing within the in-between that is the two of us?
I haven’t worn the night guard for several weeks. Dreams come and go in strangeness. This morning, it is perfectly gray and rainy, just the right degree of rustle in the wet-bone branches. I want to hibernate. Curl in.
Porous boundaries plague me. Is this the converse of feeling like an object? Is feeling like an object always bad? Like a cat, her jaw confined to nothing but up-down, up-down. How she doesn’t even have the choice, the challenge not to grind—is this a limit, or a blessing?
I’m thinking that I wouldn’t mind containment if it clarified divisions between myself and other [at least right now, this moment—this is how I feel this morning, why I didn’t go to work today, why I didn’t want to be another body in a room with twenty teenage boys, feel them watching as I turn around to write things on the board]. But this becomes a problem if the container is created by somebody else. If I know its form and curl and edge too well.
Not long ago, I had a dream where I was lost inside my own apartment. In the dream, I was thirty-two. I was inside the dream, which happened in my brain, inside my body.
It’s not the cat-birth aspect of the dream, per se, that I hold on to—that feels particular to me. When it comes to cat dreams, I know that I am one of many. S told me that she had a cat-birth dream, back when she was pregnant with her daughter. And just the other day, my colleague K told me how she dreamt that she was pregnant once—anxious, worried, only twenty-one—then ran into the ocean, stepped into the waves, and gave birth to a kitten. I was so relieved, she’d said. I was like, ‘YES.’ Because a kitten was so small; it was something I could handle. Even my own mother dreamt of kittens: at thirty-two, newly pregnant with me, she dreamt I came out small and black and feline; dreamt me into something utterly unlike the fat and red and angry, gasping, two-week-late, ten-pound baby-self that came instead, at last, when she was thirty-three.
It’s not the cat-birth part that’s odd. What’s odd is how the cat was grown, and I was not. How whole and gorgeous her small cat-self was, and how her blue-gray hair shone sliver up against my coral dress. How some slight knowing still exists inside me, every time I think of this: that inside the inside of the dream, the two of us together—my grown baby-cat and I—rendered me impervious to stares and questions, to the gossip and the scrutiny I knew I’d face as soon as I stepped past the shower door, beyond the master bath and out into the world.
Lauren W. Westerfield recently read The Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno in a single, electrified sitting, as well as Motherhood by Sheila Heti (as an audiobook, while taking long walks). She is now alternating between Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art by Mignon Nixon and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit—a re-read, for teaching purposes—by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Lauren reads and writes in Moscow, Idaho.