So Anya and I were reading in bed. Caught as always by the curve of her breast, I tried putting my arm around her. But this time her body stiffened, and I knew it was over. I wasn’t surprised. If it hadn’t been Torvald, it would have been someone else.
Sure enough, the next afternoon when I returned to the coffee shop and walked upstairs to my apartment, Anya’s possessions were gone. The only thing left behind was a black silk stocking trailing like a languid exclamation point over one of the open drawers.
Sitting on the bed beside the crumpled comforter, I felt the familiar hollowness accompanying the loss that had, over the past ten years since college, defined my life. The teaching degree that never led anywhere, a series of dead-end jobs and girlfriends who saw (why was it always so easy to see?) how much more I needed them than they could ever need me.
It had gotten so bad that I moved back to Chicago and went to work in my Uncle Henry’s coffee house. Actually my mother’s uncle, Henry was about 80 years old, a big shipwreck of a man with a broken nose, jagged scar across his left cheek, and hair the color of dirty wool tied back in a ponytail. He’d done all sorts of odd jobs but considered himself a poet. A self-proclaimed Zen Buddhist, he excused his frequent temperamental outbursts as merely “being aware.”
He’d somehow learned the coffee business and, in honor of the poets of his youth, started a café called The Beat Caffeination. Posters of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac (a coffee-to-go was an “on the road”) decorated the weathered brick walls, Square wooden tables with straight-back chairs and a small stage open late on weekends for poets to read their works. Troubled light from candles stuck in old Chianti bottles. As Uncle Henry would say, “You dig.”
He’d given me the upstairs apartment adjoining his: one room with a bed, chair, chest of drawers and a window looking out to the alley. Walls were spider-veined and murky green. He taught me how to be a barista and roast coffee beans. He shared disturbing Zen riddles, or koans, such as “If you see the Buddha, kill him!”
Behind the counter he would expound verse with a voice as loud and reverent as an imam calling the faithful to prayer. His presence alone made the coffee shop popular with the local literati.
Such was Anya. She walked in one autumn afternoon and sat at a corner table. About my age, she had thick curly hair, shiny like licorice. She wore a charcoal fleece that hugged her curves, a black skirt and gray stockings.
After bringing over her latte, I learned she was playing the role of Nora in a local production of A Doll’s House. We discussed Ibsen and Strindberg. Anya stared at me with eyes the color of gray slate, cold and distant. Even her smile couldn’t warm those eyes.
After that, Anya would stop by most afternoons. She loved to talk, mostly about herself. She spoke with an Eastern European accent, pronouncing each word as if it had just been born. She dreamed of becoming a great actress.
“An actress of the stage,” she’d insist. “Film isn’t really acting. You need to feel the energy of the audience – that special heat – to do really great work.”
I felt her heat, and it nearly drove me crazy. Day after day I found myself nodding at her remarks, until one day she was upstairs in my apartment, then in my arms. The next evening after work, I found her clothing had arrived, taking over the closet and chest of drawers. Her toiletries filled the bathroom and shower caddy. Yet everything in the apartment somehow looked right, as if Anya had been living there all along and I was a stray she’d picked up. In a sense it was true. I had been lost for so long, and now having her in my bed was a kind of redemption.
Like any religious experience, my faith grew stronger despite the
thing she said were a line from a play. Nor could she be bothered with mundane things like shopping and cooking, so I did all the chores. She began to see my weaknesses, especially how much I needed her, and exploited them with small, casual cruelties. Stopping in the middle of sex to say she was too tired and abruptly turning her back to me. Taking from my wallet whatever she needed. And bringing home a cat.
“Look what I found in the alley. Isn’t he cute?”
She put the cat down and, after taking in the surroundings, he sat on his haunches and looked up at me. The color of a freezer-burned Creamsicle, he was
fat-bottomed with a cauliflower ear. When he bent to lick his stomach, I was reminded of Uncle Henry.
“We can’t have a cat in the apartment.” “Of course we can.”
I thought my uncle would object, but after staring at the beast for a long time, he nodded approvingly. Maybe he’d found a kindred spirit that also had traveled on the road. Anya said that we (meaning I) would pay to bathe the cat and get his shots and then proposed to name him Torvald, after the male lead in A Doll’s House.
My uncle replied, “What the fuck kind of name is Torvald? His name shall be Rimbaud.”
“Rambo?” I asked.
“No, Rimbaud – the great French Symbolist poet, the enfant terrible who inspired Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Henry Miller.” He stretched his arms over the cat. “Thou art Rimbaud.”
Yawning, the cat walked to a corner of the room and peed. Uncle Henry smiled. “Just like Rimbaud.”
The cat seemed content to stay within the confines of the second floor – the two apartments and hall. He spent each day either taking long naps under our comforter or watching Anya and me the way a visitor at the zoo watches the monkey cage. He tried sleeping with us at night, but Anya kept pushing him off the bed until he left us alone. His visage was less the enfant terrible and more that of a Zen master, impassive and serene. And having asserted her will to keep the cat, Anya promptly forgot about him.
A week later, she arrived home after rehearsal accompanied by a man. He was in his mid-thirties with a large doughy body, stringy blond hair and a wispy mustache. He wore a torn plaid shirt, faded jeans and, over his shoulders, a green and red serape.
Anya introduced him as Federico, who had the role of Torvald in the play. She said he needed a place to stay until the end of the month (three weeks away) and had him put his backpack in the corner and spread his sleeping bag next to our bed. Then she said they were going for Chinese. They returned three hours later. I heard them murmuring for a long time in the hallway, before she crawled into bed. His body thumped like a corpse onto the sleeping bag.
But I was the one who felt dead. Federico’s arrival meant it was only time before there would be serial Torvalds invading my apartment or, worse, that Anya would leave with one of them. And, indeed, that’s what happened.
A week after he moved in, Federico was in the coffee shop ordering a cappuccino, when he and my uncle began arguing about the merits of Walt Whitman.
Federico made the mistake of calling Whitman “that overhyped queer boy.” Uncle Henry dragged Federico outside. Then going upstairs, he threw the other man’s possessions out the window, loudly reciting While Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d as Federico slunk away.
Two days later Anya was gone.
So here I was sitting in bed feeling sorry for myself. After staring at the silk stocking she’d left behind, I stretched out on the comforter, only to recoil as something slithered underneath. Rimbaud popped his head out. So she’d left him too. He jumped from the bed and walked past the open drawer, the stocking draped across his back being pulled after.
I kept Rimbaud because I didn’t have the energy to get rid of him. But, strangely, he began to fill the emptiness I’d felt at Anya’s departure. He’d jump into open drawers, as if playing fort, or chase after an old ball of string I tossed on the floor. He’d wrap his body around the scratching post and kick furiously with his back legs, or leap on top of the post and hold still like an ancient Egyptian cat waiting to be worshipped. At night he slept in the crook of my legs.
Uncle Henry also took a greater interest in me. We began having dinners together in the café after closing time. He’d cook pasta and open a bottle of wine, while I made a salad. The first meal we ate in a comfortable silence – so comfortable that Rimbaud walked downstairs into the café and jumped onto the table. Uncle Henry got up, went to the counter and returned with a bowl of cream. The cat ate his meal with us and, from that day, became a regular dining companion.
Staring at the cat one evening, Uncle Henry said, “Now here’s a spirit living in the moment and, therefore, at peace. I bet Rimbaud, being a Zen master, knows what his face was like before his parents were born.”
I replied, “I’m sure he knows the answers to all the koans.” “Do you know why I named the cat Rimbaud?”
“You said Rimbaud’s poetry inspired the Beat poets.”
“I know I said that, but it was really in hopes you’d grow some balls. In the opening lines of A Season in Hell, Rimbaud wrote of sitting Beauty on his knees only to find her bitter, and he cursed her. That woman … that Anya … anyone could see she was the kind men find bitter. Even the cat knew. Thank God she’s gone.”
But she wasn’t. Two weeks later in the late afternoon Anya returned. She pushed me back on the bed and we made love. Then she ordered Chinese food, which we ate – also in bed. She cuddled next to me, but I couldn’t help feeling bad about missing dinner with Uncle Henry and the cat. Anya made no mention of Federico or her leaving me, only that the play’s opening night had been a great success. All the questions I wanted to ask her, all the anger I wanted to vent – I couldn’t. Turning out the light, she nestled against me and we kissed. Her lips were bitter, and I couldn’t get the taste from my mouth.
I felt her slowly drift into sleep, when suddenly Rimbaud sprang onto the bed. He walked heavily over Anya’s thigh. Grumbling, she tried pushing him away. When he didn’t move, she kicked him hard, and he fell from the bed with a thump. He cried in pain and limped away.
Suddenly angry, I shoved Anya, until she too fell on the floor. I switched on the light and saw the shock in her eyes. They narrowed and grew cold. She waited. I saw Rimbaud in the corner nursing his wound. He was waiting too.
I shut off the light and closed my eyes. I heard her breathing quicken, then she hurried from the room, slamming the door behind her.
I let myself settle into the silence that followed her wake. Then Rimbaud returned to bed, settling in the familiar crook of my legs. Sometime during the night, I could swear that I heard the sound of one paw clapping.