“Finding Cat”

For Sandy 6/30/01-7/27/10

Pulling into the intersection on Route 1 of her hometown felt strange and yet somehow familiar, like trying to swim the backstroke after a full year on solid ground. Catalina hadn’t been home since the previous Christmas—and only on her mother’s insistence that it might be the last time she’d see Tal had she come back now. Tal had been old—at Christmas he had hardly moved off his giant pillow in the living room, raising his head every so often if he thought someone was going to stroke his belly or scratch behind his ears.

Her mother had called her a few days before, crying.

“Cat, honey, I hate to do this to you but—“a giant sniffle interrupted her mother’s words. “—we’re gonna have to put Tal down. He’s in too much pain, sweetie, and it’s just—it’s just—not fair to him to keep him alive any longer. He hasn’t eaten in three days.”

Cat stiffened on the other end of the phone. She could feel the little hairs on her arms stand up straight. She coughed.

“He’s—he’s had a good run.”

“Will you come home? Will you come home for the weekend? I just don’t think—I don’t think I can face it if you’re not here.”

“I’ll check my schedule, Mom, things are really hectic at work right now.”

“It’d really mean a lot to him, honey, to have you there, I think.”

“He’s just a dog, Mom. He won’t know the difference.”

Catalina heard her mother crying through the phone. She groaned.

“Mom—shit. Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I should be able to make it back Saturday morning.”

“Okay, sweetie. Thank you.”

And so here she was, pulling into the town she had grown up in, to see her dog off into the next life. It felt strange. She had a pile of papers on the seat next to her, work that had followed her across the Massachusetts border into Maine. She had taken the job at Bank Boston straight out of college and had been working there ever since. It had never really been what she wanted to do, but it paid for her apartment with views of the Charles and Saturday morning shopping excursions on Newbury Street. Her job bored her to the point of numbness—she could hardly bring herself to explain it to anyone else without becoming drowsy—but it allowed her to live a comfortable life. She would come home from work exhausted, crumple onto her expensive leather couch in her custom-made suit, and usually fall asleep before she rustled up the energy to crawl into her own bed.

As she idled in the left-hand turn lane, waiting for the green arrow that felt like it would never come, she tried to make herself get worked up about Tal. Tal was sixteen—incredibly old for a dog, especially a golden retriever—and had been in Catalina’s family since she was eight. Catalina was an only child, and when she was little Tal had been like the sibling she never had. Afternoons walking through the wood paths together in the spring, going to the beach in the summer, watching Tal’s nose get covered with tufts of snow while he leaped around the yard in the winter. Now it was fall—Tal’s last season. But as hard as she tried, to achieve that bone-crushing sadness she remembered feeling when her father left, when Danny Matthews had broken up with her senior year of high school—she could not. The light finally flicked to green, and still her eyes were dry.

The house, a little yellow colonial with white trim, had not changed much since Catalina stopped living there six years ago. The faded wicker chairs still sat on the porch, the same welcome mat lay at the foot of the door, the same wind chimes tinkling through the open kitchen window. The leaves on the trees in the yard had turned bright yellow and orange, but still clung to their branches. It would be a few more weeks before the front lawn was covered in a blanket of broad leaves already fading to brown.

When Catalina got inside her mother was dusting off the random collections of items that had gathered on the bookshelves in the living room over the years. A miniature alabaster grandfather clock, a set of tiny glass shoes, a hand-painted vase filled with dried flowers. Catalina’s mother was paused in front of a set of pictures of Tal at various ages. She had cupped her hand over her mouth, her eyes creasing at the corners, the duster in her hand hanging limp at her side. Catalina couldn’t bring herself to move closer or make a noise for almost an entire minute, watching her mother in her silent, solitary grief for a death that had not yet occurred.

A breeze came in through the window and rustled the chimes in the kitchen, throwing her mother from her daze and causing her to look in Catalina’s direction.

“Cat! Oh, Cat, you’re here!” her mother adopted a quick smile and rushed into the hallway where Catalina stood. She wrapped her in a hug that she seemed to need in order to keep standing.

“Where’s Tal?”

Her mother pointed to the backyard. “I thought it’d be nice for him to have some fresh air and sunshine, you know, before…” The last words of this utterance were muffled as her mother put her fist to her mouth to prevent from crying.

“Did you make an appointment at the vet?”

Her mother nodded. “For four-thirty. Although apparently they’re doing a lot of vaccinations today and we might have to wait a little while…” Catalina had already begun walking toward the screen door at the back of the house.

Tal was lying on a giant blue and green madras print pillow on the brick patio, half-shaded by the giant umbrella in the center of the glass table nearby.  He looked painfully old, decades older than he had at Christmas. His fur looked almost white, all the pink in his nose completely gone. He lay sprawled out, with his head leaning off the pillow and onto the grass, tail moving ever so slightly up and down against the patio. He lifted his head lethargically when he heard the screen door slam behind Catalina and her footsteps making the stair boards creak.

“Hey Tal, hey buddy,” Catalina said in a voice she reserved only for him. It sounded funny now, coming out of her twenty-four year old body.

His tail began to wag slightly faster at her voice, but nothing like it used to. Catalina remembered when standing too close to a happy Tal could mean a painful bruise on your leg or even getting knocked over. Catalina crouched down and began to rub Tal’s tummy, staring out at the backyard. When she was younger it had seemed a vast expanse of grass and trees. Now it seemed like a little patch of dirt with an old wooden swing set in the corner. The shrubs that lined the yard had created a fortress, a private world within the walls.

“That was all a long time ago, wasn’t it Tal?” Catalina whispered, scratching behind his head.

“Do you still like corn in your salads, honey?” Catalina’s mother had come out onto the patio carrying several plates of food. It was still warm enough to be outside in jeans and a light sweater.

“Uh, sure,” Catalina mumbled, still petting Tal.

Catalina’s mother set down a salad made with corn, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and avocado, a few slices of thick oatmeal bread and two glasses of milk.

“I’m not really that hungry, Mom,”

“But this is your favorite!”

“Yeah, when I was sixteen.” Moments like this, Catalina couldn’t help herself. She knew she was being hurtful but she couldn’t make herself stop.

“So how’s work going?”

“It’s fine. Busy. Lots of accounts to manage.”

“And do you like it, this banking thing?”

“I’m really good at what I do.”

Her mother’s mouth creased slightly. “That’s good, honey. Do you see much of Dana? Or Taryn?”

“Not really. We all have full-time jobs, so no one really has a lot of free time.”

“I worry about you sometimes, Cat. I don’t want you to burn yourself out.”

“I’m fine, Mom. I can take care of myself.”

“And are you dating?”

“No—yeah—I don’t know, kind of.”

“ ‘I don’t know, kind of?’ What does that mean?”

“I mean I’m kind of seeing someone.”

“Who is he?”

“Investment banker at a firm we do work with.”

“So is this guy your boyfriend?”

“Not exactly.”

“How, ‘not exactly?’”

“He’s just not, Mom. Things are more complicated than that now.”

“I’ll tell you, there are very few things about your generation that I understand.”

Catalina rolled her eyes. “That’s fine, you’re not expected to.”

“Are you sure you don’t want more salad?”

“Seriously, I’m fine. I had a huge breakfast before I left.”

Conversations like this were the reason Catalina rarely came home.

“All right. I’m going to put the food away and then we should go over.”

Catalina whipped around to look at Tal, basking in the sunshine, old and decrepit, but still, somehow, without a care in the world. She was suddenly stricken.

“I can’t.”

Catalina’s mother turned around, halfway up the stairs with the bowl of salad in her hand and the two plates balanced on her arm.

“What?”

“I can’t do it. I can’t be there. I’m gonna stay here and wait till you get back.”

Catalina’s mother’s face fell. She looked terrified for a split-second, and then composed herself.

“Okay, honey, whatever you need.”

Catalina did not move from the chair as her mother reemerged to pick up Tal and put him in the car. Her cheeks were wet with tears.

“Time to say goodbye, Cat.”

“I did, I did, I already did.” She just wanted her mother to leave.

Her mother stood there for a second, holding Tal in her arms and the pillow in her spare hand, staring at Catalina for a few moments without speaking. Catalina couldn’t bring herself to look up at her, but knew her face would be creased with resigned disappointment.

“Okay, honey,” her mother whispered, almost inaudibly.

Catalina gripped the arm of the chair when she heard the tires of their old Volvo pulling out of the driveway. The muscles in her face tightened, she shut her eyes—but nothing else happened. She stood up then, and walked over to the swing set, complete with a baby swing and two regular swings, the wooden seats flat and weathered. She sat down in one and began to drift slowly back and forth. She closed her eyes momentarily, letting the afternoon breeze ruffle her eyelashes. She could almost see it, the way it had been when she was young, all vast and wonderful.

“Woww. So that’s what I’m gonna look like.”

Catalina’s eyes flew open and she nearly jumped out of her seat. Standing before her was a little girl wearing striped leggings and a baggy turtleneck sweater with little brown boots. Her long wavy brown hair was pulled to the side. She was staring intently at Catalina, taking in every piece of her. She looked oddly familiar.

“Uh, who are you?”

The little girl started laughing hysterically, leaning down toward the browning grass, clutching her side. Her hair spilled out, shimmering in the sunlight.

“Who am I? You don’t remember this sweater? This is my favorite sweater.”

Catalina stared at her, utterly confused.

“It’s me, it’s Cat!”

“So we have the same name?”

“Sheesh, I didn’t think it would take you THIS long. I’m you. When you were eight. Cat. We’re both Cat.”

“Did my mother put you up to this?”

The little girl rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“Look. My name is Cat Burke, I’m eight years old, I’m in Mrs. Conroy’s third grade class, my favorite color is blue, and I have a crush on a kid named Danny Matthews who lives down the street. I was born on August 12th, 1988.”

Catalina stared at her in disbelief. But once she looked harder, she began to see things. Her eyes, the freckles on her nose, the birthmark on her hand. She was looking at herself, at eight years old.

“What the hell,” she mumbled under her breath.

“Ooh, can we say hell now? I say it sometimes when Mom and Dad aren’t listening, so I don’t get in trouble.”

Catalina’s chest constricted. Her father had left them when she was thirteen years old. Eight-year-old Cat didn’t know.

“Okay. I am going to assume you are a stress-induced hallucination. You are a product of my imagination.  So what exactly is it that you’re doing here?”

“I was sent here.”

“By whom? To do what?”

“By The Universe. To save you.”

“The Universe.”

“Yes. The Universe thinks that you are dangerously close to the point of no return.”

“The point of no return.”

“Of losing me forever. Of forgetting who you were. Who you are. Gosh, I sound all cool saying it like that. Grown up, and stuff. The Universe told me to say it like that.” Cat pulled a note card out of her pocket with things scribbled in cursive on it.

“So what you’re saying is that’s a note card from The Universe, then.”

Cat nodded. “Instructions and stuff. Cues. Lists. Lines. You know.”

“This has to be some kind of sick joke. Does it tell you anything about the future? About your future?”

Cat shook her head. “Nope. I’m just supposed to take you with me today, remind you of things. I’m allowed to ask questions, though.”

“But, wait a second—I don’t remember meeting my twenty-four year old self when I was eight.”

“I guess it works! The Universe said I’m going to forget all of this forever when I go to sleep tonight. You won’t.”

“This is ludicrous.”

“Oh, one more thing—”

“Yes, please, really, hit me with one more entirely impossible thing, by all means.”

“It’s 1996.”

“Shut up.”

“It is! It’s October 14, 1996.”

Catalina whipped her head around. The backyard was covered with leaves. The trees were almost bare, their long fingers curling up toward a bright blue fall sky.

“Do you remember anything special about today?”

Catalina shook her head. “I don’t think I remember a single thing from 1996.”

Cat laughed. “I think that’s why I’m here.”

“Jesus, did I really talk like this when I was eight?”

“Mom says I’m prekishus.”

“Prekishus? You mean precocious?”

“Precocious. Right. That’s what I meant.” Cat rolled her eyes.

Cat leaned over and grabbed Catalina’s hand, pulling her off the swing. “Come on, we’ve got a lot of places to go. And—” she picked up the note card and began to read from it, “—today I can talk to you without anyone else seeing or hearing. Cool, huh?”

“Just fantastic,” Catalina replied.

Cat sprinted into the kitchen, Catalina following behind. Despite being convinced she had fallen off the swing and hit her head, or slipped into some sort of grief-induced stupor, she couldn’t help but be curious as to what lay inside the house.

Catalina saw her mother in the kitchen, preparing some sort of elaborate lunch. Her hair wasn’t gray, and the lines around her eyes and mouth had disappeared. She was thinner, younger, and more alive. Catalina let out a tiny gasp.

“Cat, sweetie, do you want to help Mommy cook?”

“Yeah!!” Cat squealed, pushing up the sleeves of her sweater and running to the sink. Catalina watched herself putting ingredients her mother cut up into a saucepan on the stove to be sautéed.

“I want to be a cook when I grow up,” Cat proclaimed.

“You can be whatever you want, sweetheart.”

Cat beamed, sneaking a cherry tomato into her mouth. She turned around to look at Catalina.

“I’d almost forgotten I wanted to cook. I haven’t thought about that in years.” Catalina scratched her head, trying to remember.

“You’re not a cook? Darn. What’s your job?”

“I work in a bank.”

“Ew. That doesn’t sound fun.”

“I mean, it’s work, it’s not fun.”

Cat pulled a face. “But there are people who are cooks for their jobs.”

“Yeah, there are, but it isn’t very practical.”

“How come?”

“What I mean is, you don’t make very much money.”

“But you get to have fun all day! I don’t know about you, but to me cooking is the most fun thing ever!”

“Yeah well, no offense, but you’re eight. You don’t know anything about the real world. The fun stops.”

Cat looked at her then with a sad, almost pitying expression on her face. Catalina felt like a jerk. Had she really just told her eight-year-old self that all the fun in life was over?

Catalina stared at Cat. She couldn’t think of even one thing that she did on a regular basis that she considered fun. She couldn’t imagine feeling the way Cat felt about cooking about anything. What had happened along the way? How had she lost that fire?

“I called Mrs. Matthews down the street and told her to send Danny over for lunch!” Catalina’s mother turned to Cat, who immediately resumed stirring the contents of the saucepan.

“Moo-ooom!” Cat groaned, throwing her hands up to her face. “That’s so embarrassing!”

“I thought you liked Danny, honey?”

“I DO, Mom, jeez.” Catalina saw her mother grin, her back to Cat.

“Danny Matthews, huh?” Catalina grinned at Cat.

“You remember him?”

“Of course I do.”

“Ooh! Does he get to be my boyfriend? Does he kiss me?” Cat asked eagerly.

“Am I allowed to tell you any of this? I don’t want to ruin things.”

“I’m gonna forget it all anyway, remember?”

Catalina considered. She remembered nothing of seeing her twenty-four year old self at eight. She had no idea at that time that Danny Matthews would be her first love, that her father would leave them, that she would work for a bank after graduating from college.

Feeling a sudden and strange affection for her younger self, Catalina motioned for Cat to come closer with her finger. Cat jumped off the stool near the sink and scurried across the kitchen to stand next to her.

“Yes. Danny Matthews kisses you for the first time when you’re eleven, in Sarah Evans’ backyard during a game of flashlight tag. He takes you to senior prom and you wear a yellow dress.”

Cat’s face lit up, scarcely seeming to believe what she was hearing.

“Really??”

Catalina nodded. “Mhm.” She smiled, lost in revelry. “It’s wonderful. Danny was the only boy I’ve ever loved.”

“The only one? But you’re twenty-four!”

Catalina’s eyes were still far away, lost in memories of the beach in the summer and open car-windows on the bridge to the island and Danny’s dark curly hair. She nodded wistfully.

“So you don’t have a husband?”

Catalina laughed. “No, no I don’t.”

Cat frowned. “Oh. What about a boyfriend?”

Catalina shook her head again, kneeling down so that she and Cat were eye level.

“Things get a lot more complicated after this, Cat.  Things aren’t as easy as they are now.”

“Are things bad? Are things bad later?”

Catalina pursed her lips, unsure how to respond. But at that moment, Danny burst into the kitchen, beaming. His dark brown hair hung in ringlets that nearly covered his eyes, leftover freckles from summer splattering his nose. And those green eyes, nestled into his little eight-year-old face.

“Hi, Cat!” Hearing his voice still so high-pitched nearly sent Catalina into a gale of laughter.

Cat blushed. “Hey, Danny.”

“All right, kids! Time for lunch!” Catalina’s mother had laid out quite a spread on the kitchen table. Danny scurried into a chair, kicking his shoes off as he went. Catalina noticed Cat was now nervous, shy. He had been the last boy she’d allowed to make her that way. It flashed to her then, the lightning-like, blinding pain she’d felt, sitting on his front stoop that night in August, a week before they both left for college. He couldn’t look her in the eye as he held her hand absentmindedly and fumbled through explaining that he didn’t think long distance made any sense, even though that’s what they had decided to do in June. She had felt every bone in her body crack, every vein burst, every piece of flesh burn. But she had sat there, unmoving, silent, frozen. And in some ways, she’d remained that way ever since.

Catalina shook her head, out of 2006 and back into 1996, when she and Danny were only eight and unaware of what lay before them.

“I can’t wait for the fieldtrip to the lighthouse on Tuesday!” Danny exclaimed through large bites of peanut butter and jelly.

Cat nodded. “It’s gonna be really cool.”

“And we all get to go together! So you’ll be there too even though we’re not in the same class!” Danny beamed at her. Cat blushed. If she squinted hard enough, Catalina could almost remember that day, the lighthouse day. Danny would sit with her on the bus on the way there but get teased so badly about Cat being his girlfriend that he would ignore her for the rest of the day. Catalina grinned as she remembered crying behind some rocks until they left, and Danny running over to her house after they returned, apologizing and wanting to play. Things hadn’t really been that simple, even then.

“Wanna play outside?” Danny asked eagerly.

“Yeah!” Cat agreed, leaving half her sandwich uneaten on the table and rushing after Danny toward the back screen door. Catalina followed behind slowly, watching them from the porch as they raced around the backyard, pretending to be spies or cops and robbers or whatever else they felt like. Catalina watched as Danny chased Cat, and then as they tripped over each other, falling into a pile of browning leaves and laughing in that hysterical, endless way it seems only children can.

“Danny! Daaannnyy!” Catalina heard Danny’s mother’s voice calling from down the street. Danny lifted his head up, groaning.

“Ugh. I have to go home.” He looked over at Cat. “Last one to the front yard is a big sissy!” They both jumped up, sprinting out the side gate toward the front yard, pushing each other and laughing. Catalina could feel it emanating from the two of them, the love that would build and build until it was full-blown, until it was that all-consuming first-time, high school kind, until it was big enough to break her into pieces.

After a few minutes, Cat came running back into the yard, flushed and beaming.

“He’s the best, isn’t he?”

Catalina nodded. “The very best.”

“And he really gets to be my boyfriend?”

“Yep.”

“So what happens? What happens to us? Where’s Danny now?”

Catalina’s face fell. She hadn’t wanted to tell her this.

“You break up. You break up before you leave for college.”

Cat’s face fell. “Oh.”

“Sorry.”

“Are you still friends?”

Catalina remembered the fall of her freshman year at Boston College, how Danny would call and call, wanting to talk, wanting to be friends, wanting to see her. He had been at UNC to play soccer.

Cat? It’s Danny. Again. I really, really wish you would talk to me. I’m so sorry about how I handled things in August…I really fucked up. Can we talk about this? Shit, I really miss you, Kit-Cat. Please call me.”
One by one, Catalina had ignored every phone call, deleted every voicemail. Something in her had broken that night in August, and she couldn’t allow herself to risk going through that again. She wouldn’t survive it. She hadn’t spoken to Danny since.

“No. No we’re not.”

“Why?” Cat looked distressed.

“Sometimes people just….grow apart.” Catalina looked over at her. “But don’t worry, you’ve got lots of good things before that happens.” She felt suddenly protective, like it was her job to save eight-year-old Cat from all of these things, even though she knew she couldn’t.

“Cat! Cat honey!” Catalina’s mother was calling from inside the house.

“What, mom?!” Cat yelled back, rolling her eyes. Catalina laughed. So not everything had changed.

“Time to come in for dinner!”

The sun had sunk below the half-bare trees, setting the streets aglow with chilly light. It was the first time in years that Catalina had looked up at her own house and thought it felt like home. Lights were still on in the kitchen, peeking out the windows. She could hear the wind chime, the one that still hung in the kitchen window today, from the street.

She settled into one of the armchairs in the living room, a room connected to the kitchen without a door. Cat helped her mother begin to cook dinner. Tears began to glaze her eyes as she watched, how happy, how sweet, how alive Cat was. How had she forgotten this girl? How had she left her so far behind?

The front door creaked and Catalina instinctively turned to face the sound.

“Becks! Cat! I’m home!”

Catalina’s stomach dropped to the floor, and she could feel beads of sweat forming on her forehead. Her father was still young, still smiling, still there. His sandy hair swept off his face, long tan trench coat unbuttoned to reveal a crisp navy suit.

Cat sprinted into the foyer from the kitchen.

“Daddy!!!”  Her father set down his briefcase and opened his arms just in time for Cat to leap into them, burying her face in his shoulder. He spun her around three times before setting her back down on the hardwood floor.

He crouched down so that he and Cat were eye to eye. Catalina could hardly breathe. Watching the expression on both of their faces was almost too much to bear. Cat was so happy, so blissfully unaware. Her father was so full of shit.

“I got something for you, kiddo.”

Cat’s face lit up.

“George!” Catalina’s mother hissed. She was leaning against the doorframe of the kitchen, still holding a ladle. “Not before dinner.” She glared at Catalina’s father.

“Rebecca, come on…” her father pleaded.

They both stared at each other, unflinching. There it was—the tension that would unravel everything. She looked at Cat, completely oblivious, still holding onto her father. Catalina wanted to warn her somehow, to prevent her from feeling the flying terror when she realized her father had left for good. She only had five years left.

Catalina’s mother rolled her eyes and stomped back into the kitchen. Her father turned back to Cat.

“What’d you get, Daddy?” Cat’s eyes were wide.

“Let me get it from the car. Wait right here— close your eyes. And don’t open them till I say! Promise?”

Cat smiled and nodded, placing her hands over her eyes.

Catalina watched, unable to tell if she was disgusted or jealous. She dug back, as far as she could, to when she was Cat’s age, when she and her father had been close, had been almost pals. Before the sadness, before the hate, before the numbness.

And suddenly, it came to her. This day, this night. She suddenly remembered why it had been important, why it had been special. Her hand flew up to her mouth. She watched as Cat waited in the foyer, unaware of what was about to come through the door. Catalina waited in silence. She wouldn’t ruin this for her.

Her father strode back through the door, holding a box. Catalina strained her ears and could almost hear it.

“Ready, kiddo? Open up!”

Her father placed the box before Cat, who eagerly unfolded the lid. Catalina almost couldn’t look. Cat squealed.

“A puppy!!!!!!” Cat reached her hands into the box and pulled out a tiny golden puppy, only weeks old, and cradled it in her arms.

“I thought you could use another buddy around the house, in case Danny can’t come over to play and I’m not home.” Catalina wondered bitterly if he had already begun to plan his flight from their lives.

“What’re you gonna name him, kid?” Catalina’s father asked Cat, who hadn’t taken her eyes off the puppy.

“Cat! After me!” Cat exclaimed.

Her father laughed heartily. “You can’t name a dog Cat, sport.”

“I want him to have part of my name! So we’ll be best friends always and never leave each other.”

“Lina? Catal? Ina?” her father joked.

“What about Tal?” Cat asked, nuzzling his nose.

Catalina’s parents looked at each other, shrugging. Catalina had entirely forgotten her reasoning for giving Tal his name until this very moment.

“Sounds good to me, honey,” her mother said.

“Whatever you want, kiddo. It’s your dog.”

“Can I go play with him??” Cat asked, looking at her father.

He nodded. “Go ahead.”

Cat brought Tal into the middle of the living room and Catalina followed, trying to tune out the sound of her parents arguing about dinner in the kitchen behind them.

“Can you believe this??? A puppy!” Cat was elated, glowing from ear to ear.

Catalina nodded, smiling, unable to take her eyes off of Tal as a puppy.

Cat rubbed his stomach and let him crawl all over her.

“Tal is the best dog in the whole world. I had almost forgotten how cute he was when he was a puppy.”

“You still have him??” Cat asked, incredulous.

Catalina nodded. “He’s sixteen now.” Catalina couldn’t bring herself to tell Cat that right now, in 2012, Tal was being put down. She just couldn’t.

“Wow.” Cat breathed.

“Cat,” Catalina began, feeling the tears gathering again.

“Yeah?” Cat asked, still looking down at Tal.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

Cat looked up. “What is it?”

“Daddy—” Catalina began, “Well, the thing is, Daddy—” Catalina looked at Cat’s expectant expression. She faltered. There was no reason to tell her this. Even if she wouldn’t remember.

“Daddy loves you. Remember that. Even when it’s hard to. Just remember that.”

Cat looked confused. “Okay…” Catalina was crying now.

“Just promise me, you’ll remember—it’s not your fault. Nothing that happens is your fault.” She sobbed out the words, words she wish had been said to her, words she wished she even fully believed. But somehow now, protecting this beautiful eight-year-old child from what was about to happen to her seemed crucial.

“Okay. I promise.” Cat scooted over toward Catalina and handed Tal to her. “You wanna hold him? Maybe that’ll make you feel better.”

Catalina cradled Tal as tightly as she could to her chest.

“Hey Tal, hey buddy,” she whispered into the puppy’s ear. “How are you? How are you doing? Did anyone ever tell you you’re the best puppy in the world? Cause you are. The best puppy in the world.” Her tears melted into his impossibly soft fur.

Tal squirmed out of Catalina’s arms and leaped across the floor back toward Cat.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Cat said firmly. “It says here on the note card.”

Catalina looked up into Cat’s eyes, deep brown and familiar, laughing. She leaned her head down into her lap, wiping her eyes. “I think you’re right.”

But when she lifted her head back up to look at Cat, she was gone. So was Tal. There was no noise in the house and as Catalina spun her head around she realized that while she was sitting on the floor in the living room, it was the living room of the present.

“Jesus,” she whispered. “What the hell?”

Everything was back to the way it had been before Cat had arrived. Maybe she had imagined all of it. But somehow, Catalina felt like it had to have been real.

She was suddenly stricken. “Tal!”

Catalina leapt up from her place on the floor and sprinted out to the driveway. She could still see the Volvo puttering down the street. Either she really had just hallucinated the entire thing, or no time had passed at all while she was in 1996. She was wearing tight jeans and a sweater, but she sprinted as quickly as she could, yelling at the top of her lungs toward the car. The fall wind whipped through her hair as her legs pumped beneath her. She could feel her entire body, moving, breathing, working. She was panting hard. She couldn’t remember the last time she had run like this. As the Volvo inched toward the corner in the near distance, she began to move faster, push harder. She had to get there. And just as it slowed to a stop at the intersection with Main Street, Catalina caught up.

Bent over, heaving, she banged her fist on the window. Her mother jumped in the front seat, startled.

“Mom, Mom,” Catalina panted as she opened the door. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m coming with you.”

“Are you okay, honey?”

Catalina was crying. “Mom, I just—I want to be there. With Tal. With you. I’m sorry.”

“Oh Cat, it’s okay! Hop in sweetie.”

Catalina flinched slightly, thinking of eight-year-old Cat in the living room, playing with puppy Tal, while she slumped into the backseat, cradling the head of very, very old Tal.

What separated them? What made them different? What had she managed to lose of herself since she was eight? It felt like everything. It felt like somewhere along the way, everything she had wanted, everything that had mattered, had been forgotten, tossed aside. Perhaps that had been why it had felt so odd, spending the day with Cat—as if it were some old friend she used to know rather than a younger incarnation of herself.

They pulled up to the vet’s office a few minutes later. Tal was shaking. Catalina’s heart felt like a stone sinking into her stomach. He had always hated the vet, ever since he was little. He trembled beneath her hands in the seat next to her. He didn’t even know.

Catalina led him gently on a leash into the vet’s office. Her mother had already gone inside to check him in. Catalina moved slowly, realizing with every step just how little time Tal had left. His last breathes of fresh air. His last glimpses of grass, sky. His last sniffs of whatever it was that was so fascinating in the bushes at the entrance to the office.

“Come on buddy, it’s okay.”

This whole thing, all of it, was so cruel. She was leading him blindly to death, blindly to the end of all things. He didn’t know. He blew past all of his lasts, unaware.

The nurse at the front desk was an older woman who had been working there since Catalina was Cat, and looked pained when Catalina led Tal in.

She covered her mouth with her hand. “Gosh, doesn’t it seem like a second ago he was just a puppy?”

Catalina nodded, biting her lip. “You have no idea.”

“He’s a great, great dog,” She had walked around from behind the desk and bent down to give Tal a goodbye pat on the head. “You can go ahead and have a seat in the waiting room, they should be ready for you in just a couple of minutes.”

The waiting room was filled with wooden benches and bins of dog toys to keep patients occupied while they waited for their appointments. Today it was filled with pets and owners. Catalina looked around sadly. How many were here for simple check-ups? For vaccinations, for teeth cleanings, for baths? Tal didn’t stick out at all. Besides the slowness of his movement, he was like any other dog there—there would have been no way of knowing he was panting his last slow pants.

Catalina’s mother seemed to have gone into denial, casually flipping through a dog magazine.

“How can we do this to him?” Catalina said in a hushed whisper, not even sure anymore if she had ever stopped crying.

Catalina’s mother looked up. “It’s over, honey. His time is done. Sometimes you need to know when to cut things loose before it just becomes a string of unnecessary suffering for everyone.”

“But what if it just brings on more suffering? What if you can never really understand why and you never see them again and you blame yourself and it ends up causing you hundreds of other problems? What if it’s like that?”

Catalina’s mother looked at her strangely. “Are we still talking about Tal?”

“Did you tell Dad about this?”

“Cat.” Her mother was suddenly stern. Her father fell firmly under the Things That Are Not To Be Discussed category, along with money, religion, politics, and the Yankees.

“It’s a fair question! He bought the dog, remember?”

Catalina’s mother looked distinctly uncomfortable. Catalina could hardly remember ever discussing her father beyond the acknowledgement of his leaving eleven years before.

“Catalina, you know very well that your father and I don’t speak.”

“I don’t know anything about Dad anymore,” Catalina mumbled under her breath.

“Can we just—can we just not talk about your father right now? Tal doesn’t have much time.”

“We don’t ever talk about Dad! We never did! I came home one day when I was thirteen years old and he was gone. And you didn’t bother explaining things until I was almost grown up. And I know he got a new job overseas and thought it would be too hard to see me all the time, but that’s not good enough! We just pretended like he had never even existed. What do you think that did to me? I was so young. I was too young.”

Catalina’s mother had tears in her eyes. “Cat—I—why are you bringing this up now?”

“Because this is exactly what’s happening to Tal, right now. He’s being completely blindsided, led into something he doesn’t know is coming that will end everything as he knows it.” Catalina was trying to whisper, but other owners had begun to look over in their direction.

“Oh Cat, Cat…” Catalina’s mother’s anger seemed to have broken, she was now looking deeply pained. “Sometimes people…they just mess up. They do the wrong thing and it hurts everyone around them. I can’t make excuses for your father. He made his decisions. He tried his best to love you, honey, he just didn’t know how to do it right.  Sometimes people just…they just can’t do things halfway. Your father loved you so much, sweetie—but once he couldn’t have you all the time he couldn’t stay. It was too hard.”

Catalina was all at once struck with the selfishness of this and at the same time the familiarity of it. She nodded slowly. “I want to hate him for that, but in some way I guess I kind of understand why he did what he did. Not when I was thirteen, but maybe now.” She realized then how similar she and her father were.

“Tal Burke?” a veterinary nurse had stepped out into the waiting room, looking directly at Tal, Catalina, and her mother.

Catalina stood up, feeling the weight of lifting her own body off the bench. Each movement was one closer to the end of Tal’s life.

Tal shuffled along, panting a little, but looking as happy-go-lucky as ever. Catalina remembered thinking when she was little that whenever Tal was hot and began to pant, his pink tongue flapping out the side of his mouth, that he looked like he was smiling. Her mother had explained to her that this was simply a function of cooling off, but Catalina had held fast to her interpretation. She looked down at Tal and stood by it now—though he had no reason to smile and was probably just hot—he looked content, peaceful. She liked to think of him that way.

The room they were led into was small and square-shaped, with white walls and a metal table in the center. With each passing second Catalina was less and less sure she could do this. Every cell in her body was telling her to sprint from the room, to avoid having to face this, to hide and pretend that nothing was happening. But she looked down at Tal, sluggish and serene, and knew that she had to stay. Her father hadn’t been able to do it for her, but she needed to do it now. For Tal, for Cat, for herself—and for the hope that the last two would become one.

“So if you’ll just get Tal up on the table here, and try to get him to relax.”

“What’s the procedure for this, exactly?” Catalina’s mother asked, who looked terrified. Catalina suspected she was asking questions about the process in order to prolong it.

“We’re going to inject Tal with a euthanasia drug. After a couple of minutes, he’ll drift into a comatose state and eventually pass, as painlessly as possible. Normally I’d sedate him first but he doesn’t look like he’s going to put up much of a fight.”

Tal had laid down against the leg of the metal table, still panting slightly. He looked up at Catalina and the look in his eyes was like a plea. It felt like an icicle blasting through her chest. How could he die here, like this, on a metal table in a room with blinding white walls? She felt shivers all over her body and the distinct sting in the hollow of her cheekbones that she knew was the harbinger of tears. Sucking back a sob, Catalina knelt down and lifted Tal gingerly, placing him on the metal table.

“Shh, good boy, good boy. Just stay right there for me. Gooood boy.” Tal settled himself onto the metal table, leaning his head on his paws and letting his eyelids flutter a little. It was almost as though he was already drifting away, opening wide, accepting what was to come, floating peacefully into a deep sleep.

“There you go. Just keep him relaxed.”

Catalina’s mother joined her, holding Tal from the opposite side, stroking his faded fur.

“I’m going to give Tal the injection and then you’ll have a few minutes to say your goodbyes.” The nurse stepped forward, holding the syringe in her hand.

Catalina clutched Tal as tightly as she could, burying her face into his side. She couldn’t watch the injection. She couldn’t see it all ending. All she could do stay with Tal, and keep holding on until he was gone.

Catalina and her mother both looked at each other, films of salty tears blurring their vision.

Catalina’s mother went first, sniffling in her quiet way.

“I love you, Tal, sweetie, and I know that you’re going to a better place, where your legs aren’t tired and your eyes aren’t bad and your heart isn’t old.” She paused, wiping her eyes and burying her face into his fur. “God, you’ve stayed right here, right by my side, all these years. Always. Even when everyone else left. I love you enough to let you go, honey. Goodbye, Tal, my sweet, sweet dog.”

Catalina looked up at her mother. Her face was scrunched up in pain, the lines around her eyes creating riverbeds for tears. Catalina took a deep breath, trying to hold it together to speak.

“Jesus, Tal, I can’t believe this. I can’t believe—” And she was lost, swept up in her own sadness. “I’m so sorry, Tal, God I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I almost didn’t make it today, and I’m sorry I haven’t been as good to you as I should have. I’m sorry I—I’m sorry I left.” She heaved, her entire body racked with sobs. “I’m so sorry I left you, buddy. I should have come back more…I should have come back to see you. You were my best friend—you were the best friend I ever had, since I was little. You deserved—you deserve someone better than me.” Catalina sniffed, wiping her face. “I love you, Tal, I love you so much.  Remember me, wherever you’re going—your name is part of mine, so we’ll be—” Catalina tried to remember how Cat had put it earlier, “—best friends forever and never really have to leave each other.”

She curled her fingers up in Tal’s shaggy hair, holding on as tightly as she could.  She couldn’t let her mind linger on any one thought for too long—it hurt too much. She just cried, and cried, and held on.

She heard the nurse step back, into the corner.

“He’ll have just a few minutes left now.”

Catalina and her mother were sobbing together, chests heaving against Tal. Catalina could feel his heartbeat slowing, feel it all coming to a gradual end. Each beat came farther and farther apart, until Catalina felt it shudder to a halt.

She sucked in a sharp breath that felt like thorns in her lungs.

“He’s gone,” the nurse half whispered from behind them. Catalina heard her begin to pull on surgical gloves and knew that she was at the edge of what she could take. But she held on. She pushed aside the instinct deep in the pit of her stomach that was telling her to turn and sprint from the room and keep running until it was all far behind her.

Catalina’s entire body heaved, racked with sobs. She couldn’t inhale quickly enough to catch her breath. Every muscle inside her was constricting—it felt like her heart might stop.  Her lips peeled back, jaw tight and wide, like she was screaming but now the noise was from sucking in rather than pushing out. It hit her over and over, all the things Tal would never do again, all of the moments from which he would now be absent. She could have other dogs, but no dog would be this dog, that had grown with her, that had been in irreplaceable part of her childhood, that had been by her side through all the shaping moments of her early life. This dog, this soul, this Tal—was gone forever.

“All of what comes next is fairly unpleasant, so if you want to leave the room now and check out, that’d probably be best. He’ll be all ready to be buried by tomorrow morning.”

Catalina’s mother nodded. They had decided to bury him in the backyard, under the oak tree in the corner that he had loved to sleep beneath when he was younger.

Catalina squeezed his lifeless body one last time, whispering in his ear, “I love you more than anything, bud.” It was unfathomable to imagine that she would never again feel his soft fur up against her leg under the dinner table, never open the door to hear his paws scraping against the hardwood floor on his way to greet her. The empty space he had left behind was palpable.
Catalina and her mother walked silently to the car after they’d completed the necessary paperwork. She felt numbness seeping into her bones. Soon it seemed all the emotion that had brimmed to the surface with her visit to Cat and Tal’s death would simmer back into their remote corners in the recesses of her chest.

In the car, neither of them cried. Catalina’s eyes slid out of focus, and she was still. She couldn’t think, couldn’t move.  She just froze, silent, staring off into the distance. They pulled up to the house a few minutes later, but Catalina was not ready to go inside.

“I’m just gonna take a walk, or something,” she mumbled as her mother opened the front door. Her mother turned around and nodded, looking dazed.

The sun was beginning to fall behind the trees, illuminating the negative space between their branches, charcoal black silhouettes now against the sky. The street was quiet and empty. She stood in the middle of the road, in front of her house, and threw her hands up over her face, sucking in a ragged breath. Everything she was feeling, was just too much. Aching loss for Tal, regret for Cat, and the confusion of the present that was whirling up around her like a tornado.

“Cat?”

Catalina’s entire body froze, every cell aware of the pitch, the tone, and the timbre of the sound she had just heard come from behind her. She was terrified to remove her hands from her face, but knew she couldn’t continue to stand in the middle of the street covering her eyes. Slowly, as slowly as she could possibly manage, she let her hands fall, and then turned.

Standing there, ten feet away from her, in the street in front of his house, was a twenty-four year old Danny Matthews. His brown hair, which had been long and curly in high school, was now closely cropped to his head. His skin was still the color of chestnut, dark as ever, making his light green eyes stand out. He was looking at her like he was staring at a ghost, and she understood the feeling well.

Catalina didn’t know what to do, she just stood there in silence and stared at him, coaching herself to remember to breathe. Seeing him again was all at once terrifying and calming and elating. She felt all the old stirrings in the pit of her stomach.

“What are you doing here?” Catalina spit out, before she could think of anything better to say. She realized too late it sounded accusatory. “I mean, it’s a random weekend in September.”

“It’s Lizzie’s seventeenth birthday.”

“Oh,” Catalina had almost forgotten about Danny’s little sister, who had been just a kid when Catalina had known her.

“What about you? It’s been what, six years now?”

Catalina stared at the ground. She couldn’t explain herself now, after so much time had passed. Everything seemed silly.

“I—I—I…shit, Danny.” Catalina put her face in her hands. She had no idea what she could possibly say to make any of this better. “God, I am so sorry.”

His face changed entirely. His eyes were deeper, his jaw retracted a little, his mouth hanging open slightly. She didn’t need to say anything more than that but it seemed that he understood the weight it carried. Seeing that look in his eyes brought her back, pushed her over the edge. She cried freely.

“Cat? Are you okay?” Danny asked, stepping hesitantly toward her.

In that moment, although they hadn’t spoken to or seen each other in nearly six years, Cat felt like she was back again in the time when Danny was an irreplaceable part of her life. Explanations for so many things, like where she had been, what she had been doing with her life, why she hadn’t returned his phone calls, seemed unnecessary.

“We had to put Tal down.” Her voice cracked and faded into a high-pitched whisper halfway through. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep crying like this before she dried up entirely.

The space between them suddenly didn’t exist and in one swift movement Danny had wrapped her up in his arms and cradled her head into his shoulder. It felt like Catalina hadn’t really come home until that precise moment.

Catalina looked up at the sky, darkening blue and adorned with clouds, and felt a swooping breeze come through her hair. She could feel Tal, feel him there, in the wind. She shut her eyes and she could more than just imagine him standing at their feet, rubbing his nose up against her leg, his tail beating heavily behind him. She kept her eyes closed and let herself feel his presence, let him be in this moment with her.

Catalina almost felt like Cat again, like the eight year old she had lost, who had loved Tal and Danny and her father with abandon, who had wanted to be a cook and who had smiled all the time. She could feel that Cat there too, floating down from the sky and settling into her skin, so seamlessly that it was unlikely anyone noticed but Catalina.

Danny cupped the back of her head, gently smoothing her hair. “It’s good to have you back, Kit-Cat.”

On Grit and Grace

During my three-quarter creative writing sequence my junior year I hit a major rut. It was in the first few months of the course, one designed specifically for writing majors that involved writing, workshopping, writing, workshopping, workshopping, and more workshopping. My professor and I had a meeting to discuss the latest short essay I had turned in, a lyrical piece about the state meet for Nordic skiing my freshman year of high school, an essay in which I spared no details in describing the snow, the rhythm of the skis, and the soaring elation crossing the finish line. But all it really was, all eight pages of it, was a lot of elegantly crafted sentences without any grit. “It’s beautiful, but boring,” was the blow I was driven by my professor, a man who seemed to repudiate bullshit from the very core of his being. Likely seeing the look of sheer terror and paralyzing self-doubt that had instantaneously plastered itself across my face, he elaborated. He explained that in life, there are sometimes moments of pure, uncomplicated loveliness, moments he called Moments of Grace. He meant grace, I think, in some sort of secularized version of what the dictionary describes as “a divinely given blessing” or “the free favor of God.” The race I had detailed in my essay, though certainly a physical struggle, was a description of a triumphant moment that contained no “heat,” as my professor referred to it. Heat, literarily speaking, entails tension, conflict, and more often than not, pain or discomfort—be it emotional, psychological, or physical. Moments of Grace, he explained, are rare and beautiful, but if you want to grab people, if you want your writing to reach out and touch your readers, you have to write where it hurts, write where things weren’t easy or simple or immaculate. And luckily for me, I realized that there were a lot more of those kinds of moments to draw from than there were Moments of Grace—which, of course, is what made the latter so rare and so remarkable. But the trickier, more nuanced moments are the ones from which we glean all of our best material.

I was recently talking to a friend who is in the middle of one of those, one of those moments of challenge and strangeness that we all go through from time to time. She was struggling to make the most of it, to try not to allow herself to slip into a state of total disillusion and discontent. An experience she had perhaps expected to swirl into some sort of montage of Moments of Grace had in fact become something far more complicated and at first glance less satisfying. Talking to her, I was reminded of a quote I had stumbled across in an old issue of Outside Magazine from an interview with Anderson Cooper. It had struck such a chord with me that I had decided to cut it out and save it, and was able then to share it with my friend in the hopes that it would help her as it had helped me. The interview addressed Anderson Cooper’s travels to Africa when he was younger, a trip during which he contracted malaria:

“You weren’t necessarily happy on that truck in Africa. But there is something deeply happy about those difficult experiences. People routinely say, “That was the greatest experience of my life.” It’s a strange alchemy, the way miserable things are turned into good memories.

When you are hospitalized with malaria, it’s not so great, but in retrospect, yeah, it was the greatest thing ever.

But if people haven’t had those experiences, they’re afraid. They think, This is going to suck.

It’s OK if it sucks. Of course it’s going to suck at times. But it’s also going to be exhilarating and invigorating, and it’s going to quicken your pulse in a way it’s never been quickened. And you know what? Not everything has to feel good. That’s sort of a revelation–at least it was for me. You should go through it. It should suck. It’s not all about enjoyment.”

And while perhaps what my friend was experiencing may not have been as dramatic as a bout with malaria in Africa, the principle of what Cooper is saying can be applied to almost any seemingly difficult or less-than-ideal situation. Often people only pay attention to the immediate experience of something, to what they are getting out of it moment by moment, and forget that sometimes what you can draw from the experience afterward is actually more important. My friend may not have been loving every single minute of what she was experiencing, but what we gain after going through moments like that is often more valuable in the long run than short-term enjoyment.

When I first arrived in Coquimbo, Chile the summer I was sixteen, I was immediately plunged into a moment that seemed about as far from grace as I could get. I had traveled many hours to a city that I had never been to before and where I knew no one. I had been banking on the fact that being a year ahead in Spanish classes back in my high school would put me in an optimal position for communicating with my host family and my classmates, but had been devastated to discover on my arrival that as far as classroom Spanish went, I really was not in Kansas anymore. It was as if I had been practicing reading Dr. Seuss and suddenly someone had thrown me headfirst into James Joyce, nodding all the while and saying, “Don’t worry, it’s the same basic idea!” Chilean Spanish was classroom Spanish chopped up, heavily laden with herbs and spices and blended at about a million miles an hour. What came out of other people’s mouths was something I barely recognized, let alone understood. Suddenly all of my confidence and preparation seemed to drop to the floor along with my uncomprehending jaw. For the first two weeks I struggled to communicate with my host family and my classmates at school, finding my jaw aching from smiling and my neck sore from nodding, but feeling as though I wasn’t actually making any progress. I was intimidated, isolated, and starting to let myself spiral into an unhappy place of resignation and defeat. The great thing though, about traveling to a country thousands of miles away from home for the summer is that you can’t just run back home when things get hard, you can’t just give up and get out, you have to keep waking up every morning, keep going to school, keep listening, keep talking, keep moving, and keep trying. I had no option but to grit my teeth against the frustration and push through it.

During my last week there, there was an end-of-program ceremony for all the exchange students in the area, and each of us had the opportunity to stand up in front of the group, made up of students and program staff and say something about our experience in Chile—in Spanish. Something that would have terrified me only six weeks before was suddenly an exciting opportunity to share everything that I had learned, and when I stood up to talk I did so with confidence and pride, and spoke clearly and with little hesitation. Afterwards I was sitting in the kitchen of my host family’s house having onces, the Chilean evening meal of tea and toast with avocado, and telling them about how I had gotten up to speak to a whole room of people in Spanish and how nervous I’d been about it at first, but how it hadn’t actually been that bad. I realized as I was telling them the story that it was all just coming out, easily, without me having to struggle or stumble over the words. And that moment, in itself, was my own little Moment of Grace.

What I realized after talking with my writing professor was that there is actually no such thing as a pure Moment of Grace, or at least not one that exists in isolation. Often Moments of Grace are actually products of prior struggle, of pushing and wrestling with and working through. To get to those Moments of Grace, to really be able to even have them at all, we have to go through the hard stuff, the trickier parts. Sitting in my room in my host family’s house those first few weeks in Chile was wildly unpleasant—I was terrified and crippled with feelings of inadequacy and just wanted the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible. But the challenge and complicated nature of that moment forced me to push on, to struggle through, to dig deep. It is in the moments of difficulty that we realize what we are truly capable of.

My fellow graduates of the class of 2012 and I may soon find ourselves in moments of difficulty. We will be starting new jobs, moving new places, making new friends, taking on new responsibilities, reaching new levels of independence, and it is safe to say that within all of that the Moments of Grace may be few and far between. We may start to long for what we had before, for that easy comfort of an established community, for the soothing rhythm of routine, for the safe comfort of familiarity. But the best thing we can do to brace ourselves for what lies ahead is to not forget that there is so much value in experiencing things that scare us, that intimidate us, that make us nervous. There is so much merit in going through moments that aren’t pleasant or easy or particularly magnificent. It is hard to see that in the thick of things, but it is essential to getting us through it.  The Moments of Grace will be there, but they will almost certainly be hard-won.

“You get nothing from being comfortable,” I wrote in another essay for my writing sequence. My professor underlined it twice and scribbled in the margin: You know it. Now internalize it.