Issue > Fiction
Kelsey Rexroat

Kelsey Rexroat

Kelsey Rexroat is a copy editor and freelance writer currently living in San Francisco by way of New York City. She has written for The Atlantic, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Time Out magazine.

The Average Lifespan of a Domestic Cat


Joana stood on the subway platform thumbing through her phone with one hand and holding an empty plastic cat carrier in the other. She knew where to stand so that the doors of the last train car opened directly in front of her, but she could tell the trick wasn't going to secure her an empty seat this time—as the approaching train screeched to a stop, the passengers inside were pressed against the doors, and the crowd of waiting commuters constricted in anticipation of a competition just to get inside.

Joana squeezed past the last exiting passenger with the carrier held high in front of her, prompting glares as she snagged elbows and shoulder bags. She tucked into a spot by the opposite doors and returned to gazing at her phone. She had already started and then deleted six drafts in response to the email in front of her.

Ryan was breaking up with her. That he had chosen email as the medium to deliver this message after two years of dating had outraged her when she received it the night before. But he had anticipated her, with an explanation in the second paragraph saying he had tried to talk things out in person, but she kept dismissing his attempts to have a real conversation—one of the reasons he was ending the relationship in the first place. "I'm tired of feeling like my interests and opinions are a nuisance. I moved apartments to be closer to you, I listen to all your problems, I drop everything whenever you need me," he wrote. He ended with "I wish you all the best, but it's time for me to think of myself for a change."

Joana bristled at that last line. "If you had such important things to do, nobody was stopping you. Enjoy your precious video games," she wrote in one deleted draft. After a second glass of wine, she started instead with "I didn't realize you considered me such a burden to be with." In the most recent draft, she simply typed, "Okay, you've made your point. Let's talk." Deleted. Sometime between the third and fourth glass of wine was when she pointed her web browser to Craigslist and responded to an ad about adopting a cat from a rescue agency.

The jangly sound of a muffled pop hit distracted Joana from her phone, and she looked for the source. An older man standing in front of her was already staring in annoyance at the oblivious college-age girl bobbing her head to the beat of her offending headphones. Joana wondered when she stopped seeing young women as a whole person and started seeing only the smooth spot between their brows where vertical frown lines hadn't yet sprouted. She put her phone away and pulled out a book—a reliable off-switch for her swirling thoughts.

_____


Joana exited the subway in Ridgewood and pulled up a map on her smartphone to orient herself. She had only been to Queens a handful of times, and as she walked, she admired the tidiness of the row houses connecting the length of the block. Their steep staircases led up to brick facades that curved toward the street like castle turrets. The deserted streets were almost unnerving compared with the constant churn of pedestrians in Manhattan.

Joana jumped when a man's voice called out to her from a porch she had just passed. "What's in the cage?" She reflexively stiffened and didn't answer.

He yelled after her retreating figure. "I said, what's in the cage?" The query had turned scornful. Joana felt a pang of self-reproach for offending him, but it was immediately doused in a flood of annoyance. Why should he get to demand an interaction out of her, and then act insulted when she didn't engage? She kept walking.

Joana reached the correct address and rang the doorbell. Dawn, the woman with whom she had exchanged emails, welcomed her inside. Joana had envisioned the cheery but sterile environment of a veterinary clinic, but one look around indicated that the "rescue agency" likely comprised Dawn alone, operating out of her living room. The air inside was stale with a sour tinge to it, and Joana counted eight lounging cats in that room alone, occupying spots on the couch, the windowsills, and in cat beds in the corners of the room.

Dawn was a brightly talkative, heavyset woman in her mid-forties with gray-streaked waves of dark hair that fell midway down her back. She wore her weight uneasily like it was something that had recently been cinched around her, moving deliberately and with an expression of discomfort as she pointed out the one male cat and two female cats that Joana could choose from. All were shorthaired black cats with white splotches on their chests and feet.

"They're from the same litter. I rescued them when they were one year old, from a woman who was moving and was going to send them to a high-kill shelter in Brooklyn. They'd have probably been put down the very next day," said Dawn. She shooed a cat off the couch cushion and then eased herself down. "I've had them for six months now. They've never spent a day apart. I was hoping to place them all together, but ..." she trailed off, but Joana refused the bait. If adopting one cat was impulsive, adopting three at once would be pathological.

Joana made her way to each cat, feeling awkward under Dawn's gaze, like having a spectator on a blind date. She held her hand out for each cat to smell, and then stroked its back. The first female flattened its ears and darted away. The second one, the smallest, was receptive to the petting but felt bony and fragile under its silky coat. Joana preferred the solid heftiness of the male, even though he eyed her warily. She pretended to deliberate for a few more moments to avoid appearing too hasty, and then announced her pick.

"Hear that Jelly Bean? You're going to your forever home!" cooed Dawn as she scooped him up. Joana made a mental note to start thinking of a new name. The cat emitted a few piercing wails as Dawn negotiated his outspread legs past the carrier's entrance, but quieted once the door was shut.

"Do you think he's going to like me?" asked Joana.

Dawn waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, don't worry about that, he'll warm up," she said. "It might take a few weeks, but don't take it personally. Cats are just like that." She stretched out a pink-manicured finger and scratched under the chin of the cat curled on the arm of the couch, which closed its eyes contentedly.

"Not like dogs," continued Dawn. "Dogs love whoever walks in the door, for no reason whatsoever. Cats operate on a more transactional basis. Once he figures out you're the one putting food in his bowl, he'll come around."

Joana wrote a check for the $80 adoption fee and signed an adoption contract, and then thanked Dawn and edged toward the front door. She was anxious to breathe some fresh air. Dawn followed her to the doorway and surprised her by catching her in a quick, firm embrace. "Please let me know how he seems to be adjusting. Maybe send a picture now and then, if you could."

Joana assured her that she would, and cast about for something to say that would clear the look of pain that had clouded Dawn's face. "You're doing a good thing," she settled on. "These cats are so lucky to have you."

Dawn looked back at the remaining cats and frowned. "The problem is, they can live for 20 years. If they didn't live so long, I could save so many more."

_____

Joana walked back toward the subway station while the cat cowered in one corner of the carrier, forcing her to hold her arm at an awkward angle to keep the carrier level. She had forgotten about the man on his porch until she neared the house, but he seemed prepared for her. He was standing on the front steps with his chest puffed out and hands gripping the flaps of his jacket.

"Hey!" He yelled the words even though she was passing right in front of him. "What's in the cage?"

Joana calculated that ignoring him again would only escalate the situation. She paused, rested the carrier on her hip, and gave him a withering look. "Not that it's any of your business, but it's my cat."

The man gave one slow nod then raised his eyebrows. "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" He burst in a fit of hoarse laughter that doubled him over.

Joana rolled her eyes and continued walking. Behind her, she could hear the man still cackling to himself. "Je-sus Christ, act like she can't even answer a simple question."

The subway was still crowded on her way home, so Joana held on to a pole and set the carrier on the floor protectively between her feet. By the time she had walked the seven blocks to her apartment, her arms were aching in protest. She climbed the stairs to her third-floor apartment and let herself in, setting the carrier down in relief.

Following advice she had read online, Joana waited half an hour to allow the cat to adjust to the apartment's sounds and smells, then opened the carrier door and stood at a distance. After a few moments, he peeked out of the carrier and then slunk out, his head whipping back and forth as he scanned the strange surroundings. He spotted the entertainment console and dashed underneath it.

Joana sat cross-legged beside the console and tried to coax him out with soothing words and treats, but got only hisses in return. She sighed, pulled her phone out of her pocket, and scrolled through Ryan's email again. She pictured herself going through all the steps that she knew would get him back. Apologizing. Admitting she was wrong, promising to change. And then actually changing—planning her schedule around his, doing the things he liked to do, talking less and asking more questions. Every day they would both know that she was putting herself second so that she wouldn't lose him.

Joana stood up and put the phone back in her pocket. She left the treats on the floor by the console for the cat to eat once she was safely gone.

"Take your time, buddy," she said as she walked into her bedroom. "We've got awhile to get to know each other."

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