“I’ll leave you two alone. All we ask is that you only have one animal out at a time.” With a wide, Cheshire smile and a wave, she left.
In silence, I peeked into cages, feeling lost.
I liked cats, but I wasn’t sure I actually wanted one. What would I do with it when I graduated? Was it worth it for a boy? Was it worth it just to have sex? I mean, it’s not like there weren’t other options for losing my virginity.
I looked at Cade, who had his fingers slipped inside a nearby cage, petting a midnight black cat.
If I was honest, this wasn’t just about having sex, even if it had started that way. As much as I wanted Garrick, I’m pretty sure if I tried to sleep with him again, it would turn into a repeat of my first awkward performance.
“You know what?” I said out loud. “Maybe I’m not ready for a cat.”
I turned to leave, but Cade stepped in my way.
“Whoa. Wishy-washy, much? You haven’t even held one. Give it a chance.”
He opened the cage with the black cat and pulled it into his arms. He brought it toward me, rubbing at the cat’s jaw. I was eye level with the furball, and I could hear the engine roar of his purrs from here.
I took a step back, and tried to explain without really explaining. “It’s not that I don’t like cats. And really, I think I would enjoy having… a cat. But what if I get a cat before I’m ready? What if I choose the wrong cat? Or what if I’m bad at it… being a cat owner, I mean?”
God, how much easier would this be if I could say what I was really thinking?
Cade rolled his eyes, and pushed the animal into my arms. “Bliss, you couldn’t be bad at this if you tried.”
I could be bad at sex though. Knowing my over-active, neurotic brain—I could be completely awful at it.
The cat reached up and rubbed the top of its head against my chin. It was pretty adorable. Cade was beaming at me, and I thought… maybe Cade would be the better choice. Would I be so terrified of sex if I were having it with Cade?
The thought made me feel shaky, unsteady.
I passed the cat back into his arms, still unsure, but feeling a little calmer. I came to the line of cages, and searched for a gray one that could pass for a Hamlet. When I found her, Fate must have been laughing at me. She was hunkered down in the back of her cage, her large green eyes wary. I pulled the cage door open, and she replied with a guttural growl.
Of course… I would get the scary cat.
Over my shoulder, Cade said, “You’re not serious.”
If only I weren’t. But I’d told Garrick that Hamlet was gray.
“Sometimes, it’s the scary things in life that are the most worthwhile.” I told him. I’m pretty sure I’d read that in a fortune cookie once upon a time. That made it wise, right?
I reached my hands into the cage, prepped for a bite or a scratch or full on massacre, but as my hands circled around the middle of the beast, she reacted only with a low groan.
Cade shook his head, confused. “Why wouldn’t you want this one?” He pulled the black cat up close to his face. “He’s so sweet!”
In contrast, the cat in my arms was on full alert—her legs straight, eyes wide. I had a feeling if I tried to hold her any closer, she would maul me. I sat her down on the ground and she took off, hiding beneath a nearby bench.
I knew he was only asking about the cat, but I heard another question. One he hadn’t asked, not today anyway. And Cade was sweet, and the thought of being with him didn’t leave me immobilized with fear. The thought of being with him didn’t leave me with any overpowering emotion, actually.
That’s when I knew—
“Cade… I need to take back my maybe.”
I swear even the cats stopped their meowing. I could imagine their stunned silence. I wondered what cat-speak was for Oh, no she didn’t.
I wished he would react—scream, argue, anything. I waited for him to lock up like that cat, claws out, teeth bared. Instead, he walked calmly away and placed the black cat carefully in his cage, probably so we wouldn’t have more than one cat out at once like the lady said. That was Cade, always thinking about the rules. That’s how I’d always been, too, but I was starting to think it wasn’t how I wanted to be now.
His movement was mechanical, simple, precise. He pulled the cage door closed and turned the latch with a sharp snap. He kept his back to me as he spoke.
“Am I allowed to ask why?”
I breathed out. I owed him that much, but how could I tell him this? He couldn’t know. If I was going to do this thing with Garrick (which who was I kidding? I probably was), then no one could know. Not even my best friends.
“I… there might be someone else.”
This was stick-your-hand-into-a-blender-terrible. He wouldn’t look at me, and the heart in my chest felt paper thin, like tissue paper, which meant I was pretty damn close to heartless, doing this to my best friend.
“Things are still a little… complex. But I like him, a lot. I was going to wait it out, see if the feelings went away, so that maybe you and I could…” I trailed off, not wanting to put into words what I’d been thinking. There was no point. “But Cade, I can’t handle how things have been. It’s been less than a week, and I feel like I’m dying. I hate questioning everything I do around you, wondering if it’s okay, wondering if it crosses a line, wondering if I’m hurting you. I miss my best friend, even when I’m standing right beside you. So… I had to make a choice. And I need you in my life too much to screw us up. If I’d told you yes, and then my feelings for him didn’t go away… I couldn’t do that. Please tell me I haven’t screwed this up already. Please, please.”
He turned then, and I was startled by the hurt I saw in him. Cade’s face looked foreign with a frown. “I want to say we’re okay, Bliss. I need you, too. But I can’t pretend I wasn’t hoping this would go somewhere. I don’t know if I can do it. The truth is… you are hurting me. Not on purpose, I know that. But I love you and every second that you don’t love me back… it hurts.”
“Cade—“ I reached for him.
“Don’t, please. I can’t.”
The medicated smell of the shelter was suddenly overpowering, nauseating.
I asked, “Can’t what? Can’t be my friend?”
“I don’t know, Bliss. I just don’t know. Maybe.” The hint of bitterness in his tone was small, but it struck me like a slap across the face anyway. He walked out the door, and I sunk down on the bench, feeling frayed and burnt and bruised. My tissue paper heart was shredded.
I sat there, trying to puzzle out a way that I could have done this better. Was there any possible path I could have taken that wouldn’t have fucked this up so completely? Would telling him no straight out have been better? Should I have waited until the year was over and Garrick had left, and then tried to have something with Cade?
My mother had told me once when I was little and had a friendship fall apart that some relationships just end. Like a star, they burn bright and brilliant, and then nothing in particular goes wrong, they just reach their end. They burn out.
I couldn’t fathom my friendship with Cade being over.
Something nudged at my calf, and then the gray cat’s head poked between my legs. She pulled her whole body through the space between my limbs, rubbing against me as she went. She circled back and pressed her head against my shin. I reached a hand down, and she froze, flattening against the floor in fear. Slower, I moved until my hand pressed against her back, sliding along her fur in one smooth stroke. Her body relaxed, and I petted her again.
I eased myself down on the floor beside her. She locked up again, but she didn’t run. When I was certain she was comfortable with me, I picked her up in my arms. I pressed my face against her fur, absorbing the comfort she didn’t realize she was giving.
“Let’s make a deal, Hamlet. I’ll help you be less afraid, if you help me, too.”
By the time I had filled out the necessary paperwork, and had Hamlet housed inside a cheap cardboard cat carrier, nearly thirty minutes had passed since Cade had walked out to my car. Standing in the parking lot, I couldn’t find him anywhere.
I pulled out my phone, no text.
I looked on my windshield, no note.
I called his phone, no answer.
I called his phone again, straight to voicemail.
By the beep, I was crying.
“Cade, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to make this better. I Just want us to be how we’ve always been. God, that’s stupid. I know we can’t be. I know things can’t be how they were before, but… I don’t know. Nevermind. Just… let me know you’re okay. You’re not at my car, and I don’t know how you got home, if you got home. Just call me. Please. Let’s talk about this.”
A few minutes later, I was sitting beside my car in the gravel, my jeans smeared with dust, and I got a text.
I tried to call again, straight to voicemail again.
And as hard as I tried to feel otherwise, as hard as I tried to hope that we’d get past this… I already felt it. I felt burnt out.
Maybe it was the grief. Maybe I’d just finally gone crazy. Maybe I just didn’t have anywhere else to go. But when I got back to my apartment complex, I didn’t go to my apartment.
Hamlet in hand, I went to Garrick’s.
I don’t know what I looked like when he opened the door. I don’t really want to know. But he opened the door wider almost instantly, gesturing me in with no questions asked.
I’d never been in his apartment. I should have taken it all in or asked him to show me around. I should have said something, but the only thing on the tip of my tongue was a sob, and it took all of my energy, all of my concentration to hold that inside.
But even that wasn’t enough when his fingers tilted my chin up. He spoke my name, and I saw the worried look in those eyes. The tears streamed out of me like a cup overflowing, and I couldn’t control it, couldn’t breathe right, couldn’t explain.
He took Hamlet’s box out of my hands and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. He led me down a hallway almost identical to mine into a living room that was vastly different. It was filled with books, some in shelves, some in stacks on the floor. The furniture was simple, slightly modern, but not so modern that I hesitated to sink into the cushions of the black couch, snatching up a white pillow to hug to my chest. Then Garrick was beside me, pulling the soft pillow out of my hands, and replacing its comfort with himself. He pulled me into his lap, cradling me like a child, wiping away tears, brushing back my hair, rubbing at my back.
“He hates me,” I finally managed. He hadn’t asked, but his concern tugged at me anyway, tugged the words right from my mouth.
“Who does, love?”
Quick, short breaths puttered from my lips, little whimpers that I couldn’t seem to control.
“Cade could never hate you,” he said.
“He does. He left. He won’t even talk to me.” I dissolved into another fit of tears, and he just pulled me in close, tucking my head underneath his chin, against his chest.
He let me cry, murmuring things all the while. You’ll be okay, love. Things will work out. Calm down. Breathe, Bliss. I’m here. It will be okay. Whatever it is we’ll take care of it. It’s okay, love.
He must have whispered a thousand variations. But he never stopped trying, no matter how much I wasn’t hearing him. When I was finished crying, I was too tired to do anything else. I lay limply against him, doing nothing but breathing in and breathing out. And he held me still. Finally, a noise broke through the fog. A low, annoyed groan.