Erika Swyler

In my cramped Manhattan apartment my heart beats in time with the blinking light on my answering machine. I rush to it, a secret part of me hoping it’s Noah telling me he’s coming for a visit. Instead, it’s the landlord. His cracking, accented voice tells me that a cat has become stuck in the walls. I briefly ask myself if it’s just another ploy to move me out of my apartment so he can raise the rent for the next tenant. I turn a skeptical gaze to the walls and their hundred years of uneven whitish paint—they remind me of the surface of Noah’s eye, the bad one. I wonder how the cat got in and why it can’t find the way out. Work is being done on an adjoining building to the east, so it must have gotten in a crawl space and been sealed in. And this is a New York City building—it’s got rats. I wonder if the cat can live off the infestation.

Saturday night, curled alone in my sheets, and I hear the cat clawing at my bedroom walls, but I tell myself it’s the rats. I put my head under a pillow to try and block out the clawing sound. The kitten begins to cry—I decide that it’s a kitten now, soft, covered in fuzz, gradually being pressed to death by the mass of wood and plaster. To make my world seem larger, I open my bedroom window—it faces west, though even if I crawl out to the fire escape and stand tall, I can’t see California.

A regular mewing whimpers me to sleep. I dream of Noah, alone in Los Angeles, sitting in his low-ceilinged apartment, sweating from the heat. He draws a map to send to me—an elaborate escape route. Like the ones we’ve sent back and forth for years, since the day my brother introduced us. Noah uses a fine black pen, like that of an architect, etching thin lines across a rough white page. It begins with a small N, tunneling out through the mountains and hills around the San Fernando Valley. Once surfaced, the N appears at a defunct section of Route 66. It hitchhikes to Missouri, where the N sneaks onto a train to Philadelphia, catches the Chinatown bus to New York where it meets up with an elegant-looking J—J for me, Jillie. I wake alone, my cheek pressed up against the wall. I can feel the kitten scratching.

Noah hates my city. It’s because of his eye—the one he lost before I knew him. He has no depth perception, only the memory of having a world that isn’t flat. He stumbles sometimes, going down a flight of stairs. He says things don’t look different now because he remembers what it was like before his world went flat. But long corridors frighten him. I can tell this from the slow, shuffling steps he makes and the sound of his shoes dragging across floorboards. He hates the curving stairs to my apartment, and its railroad-style layout, how you can’t get to any room without walking through another. If I told him about the kitten he’d say, “What do you expect?”—he believes in the doors and solid walls of Los Angeles. He believes in cement and poured concrete.

Noah smells nice, a combination of a kind of exhaust and the way dirt smells after it rains. I smell him sometimes, when he’s not there, while I’m walking past a bus or escaping a downpour.

I can’t stand his Los Angeles, the too-brightness of the afternoon sun, the sameness of the women and the men, the fact that nothing has a basement. I hate his apartment, because it has no above or below; it’s just simple cement, painted a tropical shade of pink on the outside, none of it older than 1973. Cathedral ceilings don’t exist in his section of town. There are only tiny rooms with ceiling fans. There is no familiar clanking and hissing of steam radiators. Yet, in his apartment I love him terribly as he stands by the window, the morning light softened by the smog, filtered through the dirty windowpanes.

On my side of the country, I have been making cards for Noah, maps and collages, connecting our worlds with bridges. I sketch them, paint them, clip magazine pictures. The bridges are out-of-place, stand-alone structures, taken out of their cities. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge now connects Brooklyn to Santa Monica; the Verrazano Bridge joins Central Park with Mann’s Chinese Theatre; the Brooklyn Bridge spans the entire United States. At one end there’s always a small J for me. Sometimes it reclines on a cutout picture of a bed; sometimes the J walks a dog; sometimes the letter J itself sheds tears, depending on how much I miss him, depending on how often I see his one good eye when I close my two.

In my kitchenette, on Sunday morning, I make a cup of coffee. I did not sleep well. A thumping noise echoes from the wall between the kitchen and my bedroom. The kitten must be able to smell my breakfast. The coffeemaker seems to rattle. I bend down and put my hand to the wall, trying to figure out where this cat is, to see if it feels me through the plaster and the paint. I try to talk to it, thinking of all the silly things people say to cats. I coo; I call it Pretty Kitty. I settle on that whistling sound through the teeth—half hiss, half shush. Psswsswsst. I hope it hears me. I think that knowing I’m there might calm it down. If it calms down, maybe it can find a way out. These are old buildings; there must be a way out.

I touch Noah’s letters—the stack that rests precariously on my tiny breakfast table. I run my fingertips along the corners, feeling the gentle wearing of the paper. I have touched them until the paper has become part of me and I part of it. The oil from my skin has softened the edges.

The J stole a small airplane and arrived at LAX. The lovely J drove the Brooklyn Bridge across the country, perched just so on the roof of a Cadillac. The N swam in the Pacific; the curving serifs paddled the waves. The N waited patiently at the Ferris wheel in Pacific Park. On the bottom of a card I used my most graceful script to write I miss you. I’m on my way. Four days—a stamp and four days’ time secures the passage of my J to his N.

Six months ago I went to him. In his apartment we tried each other on once more. We looked each other over, as we do each time, to see what is different and what’s still the same. The lines on his palms were deep and cracked and thick like animal paws—the same. His fingernails had grease under them—the same. When we are together, we fit like pieces of a smashed mirror, broken bits lining up, creating an imperfect image, fitting yet not fitting at all. He loved my strange little toes. He kissed the webbed skin between each of them. The stubble of his beard scratched them. In return, I looked at his bad eye. The eye is under a black patch. He can flip it up with a finger when he wants. Noah asked me to do it with my toes—my big toe flipped up the patch and revealed skin that looked like lumpy putty. A long gash split the lid down the middle with a scar that looked like the cracked crown of a bread loaf. The lid drooped; with my toe I pushed it up. What was left of his eye was dull and almost milky—no, it was like etched glass: sandblasted. Wavy and rough, he saw nothing out of it. However, to me it was a beautiful thing. Next to it his other eye was so excruciatingly blue and normal that it was boring. The accident made him beautiful. The blue eye is bluer now because it is without compare. I imagine the bad eye as not a bad eye at all, but one with which he can see straight to my insides. He asked me to touch him all over with my toes.

His apartment is a sickly shade of blue that is turning to gray as the walls become covered with grease prints from his fingers. Noah is a mechanic. He’s written car grease all over my skin, leaving tracks of where he’s touched. My body is graying like his apartment walls. The edges of his door frames are filthy with fingerprints and grime. His room has worn into the shape and color of his body.

We have written each other across the country, through time differences and into each other’s cities and beds. Sometimes, the N stole a Cessna in Albuquerque and flew to JFK in two short stops. Sometimes the N snuck onto a ship that cuts through the Panama Canal around the Gulf, up the Atlantic, through New York Harbor and dropping the N off at South Street Seaport. Once the N took a ladder over the Rockies. J was trapped atop the Empire State building. N could not get to her. “Sorry, Jillie. I’m low on cash this month. I promise I’ll see you soon.”

On Monday, while peering through a crack in the plaster of my living room, I phone the landlord to ask if we can cut a hole in the wall to get the kitten out. He replies that he can’t do renovations without a permit from the city; our building has been landmarked. He says “landmarked” with such pride that I know my rent will soon be raised. I tell him that it’s not a renovation; it’s just a hole. He threatens my security deposit and slams down the phone. If I fought him, by the time I’d finished, the kitten would be dead. There is no option but to listen to slow starvation after it’s eaten all the rodents inside the walls. A day goes by; the mewing grows faint. The scratching grows less and less. It strikes me that I am living in a building older than Noah’s entire city.

There are no sealed-off crawl spaces in Noah’s apartment. It’s in a standalone building with no history to speak of. There is no basement—something about earthquakes keeps the houses from being dug too deep. There are no dying cats trapped in his walls.

This letter I am writing has the small J crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge with a tiny kitten. I won’t send it. I am waiting for a call. I wait for an N to break through the plaster, holding the kitten. I call his machine and leave a message. I can’t find the right thing to say, so I hold the receiver up to the wall. The faint echo of mewing crosses the popping, clicking telephone wires—2,825 miles to Noah.

I lie in bed, listening to the sound of the kitten, counting how long it’s been there. I count the scratches from the wall, I count the hours and minutes, then I begin counting other things. It’s been four months since I’ve seen Noah and six months since he was last here. I run my fingers over the sheets, I can feel the dent his body leaves in the mattress. Six months—one hundred eighty-one days.

After months apart, we were always out of tune. It was this way in New York; it was this way in Los Angeles; his bed or mine—though we could touch our wounds until they didn’t ache anymore. This is what made us appealingly disgusting—kinky.

I flipped his patch back down. He tried to suck my toe webbing. I squirmed away and stuffed my feet back into my socks. He said we could do it with the patch off if I wanted. I said I maybe didn’t want to do it at all, but he spent the night, as always. There was awkward lovemaking—full of knees and elbows—devoid of romance, but always making sure every inch of skin gets touched, sweated upon, devoured.

My last card traversed the breadth of the continent. Scrawled over the back were directions listing three major cross-country highways, cab directions, subway directions, major airports and carriers. On the front was a hand-drawn suspension bridge. At the top of one of the bridge towers is the elegant J.

In my bedroom, I am chipping away at the wall by the wardrobe. By Tuesday I have bought a chisel and a drywall saw. During the middle of the day, I start picking at a spot to the left of the radiator where I last heard the scratching. The radiators’ curling pipes are coated with at least thirty years worth of white primer and I have to bend sideways to get around it, my body forming a sideways J—a sideways J breaking through historic buildings and plaster older than I ever will be, for the sake of a starving cat. At the first strike of the chisel, I hear a soft thud as though I’ve startled something sleeping. I take this for an excellent sign.

The last time I saw Noah was in Los Angeles. Four months ago I stayed a week in his apartment. From the bedroom window, the hum of church bells poured in each morning beginning at 7:00 a.m. They counted the hours I’d spent with him. They measured the time I’d spent in that place and marked the hours passed learning our bodies. The back of his neck tasted like salt and vinegar. I thought of the sofa in the house I grew up in—Noah’s scent had seeped into the crevices of his body the way the couch soaked up the perfumes of girls my brother used to fondle there.

I looked up once to see him walking around without his patch. There was a dent in his forehead from where the elastic went. The patch drew a map across his face. It eroded a canyon into his forehead. His not-there eye ate up all of the light in the room. He said something to me. All I could see was that lumpy, uneven flesh. Rice pudding, cottage cheese, mud. His eye socket spoke to me. My own eyes followed it. Noah grabbed the eye patch and started to slide it on.

“Leave it off,” I said.

“All right.”

But he pulled the patch back on, and the moment ended—he doesn’t know himself without it. He looked like almost everyone else again; I felt tired and small.

The cards and letters have stopped. Noah and I sit in our rooms, writing notes we will never send. I put postage on some, the ones where J searches for N, the ones without maps at all, simply I’m sorry. They are never sent. We’ve lost each other in the architecture. Somewhere in the cables of suspension bridges, the curls of cloverleaf overpasses and the bending of skyscrapers, we’ve been trying to find our way across hours of miles, trying to find ways to prove that we are still living in the same country, while I continue to chip away at my apartment, working around the radiator pipes, pressing my ear to the wall, searching for sounds of the kitten. I can’t hear anything, save the wiggling of the chisel in the plaster. This scares me, so I work harder until I’ve made a hole just large enough to fit the drywall saw—it eases in and I begin to push and pull at it, plaster dust floating back, settling on my face. I saw back and forth vigorously, wondering if I’m too late. I can’t think of how long it’s been since I first heard the mewing. How could I have let so much time pass? As I saw away, the cut becomes an imperfect arc that wobbles with each thrust of the blade. I am sure I’m killing the kitten. What if it was sitting just behind the wall and I’d been poking it with the saw each time I moved? The plaster and drywall give way. I dig my fingernails into the chunk of wall and pull back. A gaping hole stares at me from beside my radiator. I reach my arm into the dark.

My fingers are met by the soft feel of fur. I snatch my hand back. Moments later the kitten stumbles from the hole in the wall. Its fur has turned gray with dirt and plaster dust. It is skinny and teeters on uneasy legs. I watch as it curls up by the warm pipes of the radiator and begins a gentle washing ritual. I move a box of books in front of the hole before running to the bathroom for a washcloth. I don’t know if it’ll let me hold it. I’m fairly certain this kitten’s going to scratch me, but I can’t leave it if it’s hurt. I grab some antiseptic for myself as well. I’ve now decided that it will scratch me; it’s inevitible.

I dart back to my bedroom, cloth in one hand, antiseptic in the other. I will save this cat! I slow my pace as I approach; I don’t want to scare it. I look to the radiator; I am too late—the Los Angeles-facing window by my bed is open. I crawl out to the fire escape, but the kitten has gone.

Erika Swyler also has fiction in The Green Flash and Semaphore Magazine. She is an award-winning playwright and a recipient of an InnermoonLit prize for best first chapter of a novel. Erika holds a BFA from New York University, and lives and writes in Brooklyn with her husband and a petulant rabbit.

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