‘There is a fundamental difference,’ she said, ‘between dog owners and cat owners.
‘A cat owner is less possessive. You have to be. You have to be able to accept that they have a life away from you, a life you can’t be part of, a life you can know nothing about.
‘You even have to live with the knowledge that one day they might find something better than the thing they have with you. And if that day comes, they will be gone, without warning.’
‘So you have to care less? Love them less?’
‘No,’ she was vehement, ‘if anything you love them more. You just have to not try to possess them. All of this, by the way,’ she took a sip of wine, ‘bodes very well for you.’
‘I’ll never ask anything of you.’
I looked away. This made something inside of me sink, because I knew it was true.
Her name was Yolanda and she lived in a room above a shop. Traffic droned constantly from the street below and there was a dripping tap and a sofa that doubled up as a bed. A black kitten watched us lazily from the corner.
After a while, under covers, I pointed out,
‘But some people keep their cats indoors.’
‘That’s cruel. That’s like,’ she gave a hollow laugh, ‘like being married, I suppose.’
She said I had too much spirit to get married. Just like that, matter-of-fact, as though the very institution would suck the soul out of you, and everybody knew it.
She had red wine teeth, and cigarette breath, and dirt under her fingernails. And I wanted her.
In all the clichéd ways, she was different to what I had at home. Home was Beth, blonde and light; here was something dark, with tinges of red in its hair, like bloodstains.
I wanted to be away from home. ‘There’s this girl…’ I said carefully, my guilty tongue encircling her name. I made stuff up, about how damaged she was, so that Beth would think I was helping her.
‘She’s a student,’ I would say, affronted, when I was questioned for being late home. Moral high-ground? I owned it. ‘I have a responsibility,’ I said.
I didn’t have a responsibility to put my hungry hand up her skirt in the front seat of my car.
I am a mediocre teacher, and a failed poet. From time to time in the perfect home Beth and I shared, I would retreat into melancholy fuelled by coffee and the cigarettes she wanted me to give up. ‘I have my best ideas when I’m smoking,’ I would explain patiently, making biro swirls on reams of paper.
She, being practical, found my habits strange but tried to understand. On the rare occasions I managed to write something she would read it but always want to know the when, who and where. She interpreted everything literally.
She couldn’t fathom the urge that would draw me to the desk at night, to the notebook, and to the window through which I blew plumes of smoke and stared meaningfully at the moon.
What could I say to her? I once tried to sum it up: ‘it’s…an unspecified yearning,’ I said, ‘a hole no-one can fill…not even you.’
‘Pretentious arsehole,’ she had laughed, and pillow-fought me back to bed.
She was reality. Yolanda was a dream.
I thought I knew what I would do. I would do nothing. I would resist temptation. I would get married, cherish my wife and live my whole life, into companionable old age, with my secret regret, and a quiet sense of loss. All great fodder for a poet. And then one day, by a crackling fire probably, my wife would turn to me and dramatically say,
‘I know about her. I’ve always known. I’m sorry you’ve been unhappy, because I love you. I’m sorry I was never quite enough.’
And this would break my cold old poet’s heart, The End.
But that isn’t what I did.
It turned out Yolanda was damaged. She had seen more than anyone should have seen by seventeen. And she knew how to hurt people, in the way that only people who have been hurt themselves know.
We fought and made love in equal measure, always in her room or in my car. She was tough, sometimes violent, even when she cried. I was enthralled. I encouraged her to tell me her stories, tell me her pain, and it gave me guilty vicarious thrills. I drank her brokenness like neat spirits. My treacherous arms cuddled, consoled, and wanted more.
And I would drive home to Beth with her tears still salty on my lips.
When I told her, Beth was devastatingly dignified.
‘You could lose your job,’ she said quietly.
‘Is that a threat?’
‘How little you know me,’ she said, amazed.
She should have thrown me out, but she chose to leave. There was no drama, jus a bag, and a door closing, and silence. I marvelled at how little I missed the woman with whom I had spent seven years of my life. Her saline solution in the bathroom brought an unexpected lump to my throat, but other than that I felt free, exhilarated.
Of course, I thought I had somewhere to go.
I almost knew before I rang the bell that she wouldn’t be there, or wouldn’t answer. I rested my forehead against the door and listened to the echoing space behind it.
In the darkening alley a cat walked with black eyes, full of secrets.