Through our bedroom window I observed him. The parted curtains billowed in the slight breeze: a fluid frame for a still tableau. It was an unaccustomed vantage point that made a stranger of my sleeping husband.
If not for the faint breathing, his tranquil bulk under the thin pale sheet could have been a piece of furniture, covered against dust in a vacated household. Or a mountain rising above the valley of my absence. Amid the strangeness and distance I felt a creeping maternal concern for his vulnerable form.
Is that how she saw me, all those nights, before I awoke to reflect her calm implacable gaze?
* * *
She came into my life as I was nearing the end of the hard mothering years – the physically hard ones, I mean; older children obviously bring their own set of challenges. I’d just about reached the end of the night wakings for my youngest, an easygoing boy who fell so deeply asleep while nursing that I could actually lower him into his crib without waking him. The crib mattress was so rock hard – per child safety standards – that I could never blame my other babies for refusing to lie on it. But there little Danny would remain, out cold, for more hours at a time than I could have believed possible.
Had he been a higher-maintenance baby, would I have noticed the white-and-ginger creature with the slightly elongated face who started turning up in my garden?
She was tentative at first: a keeper of respectful distances. I let the kids put out scraps for her at a certain hour of the day and she’d hold position, watching with calm sad eyes until the food was on the ground, emitting an almost-soundless staccato cry. Then she’d move unhurriedly toward the offered meal.
A nick in one of her ears testified to her having been neutered by the municipal veterinary service. That explained why she never gave birth during the time she spent with us. For her gentle, delimited friendliness I had no explanation. I speculated that she’d once been adopted, then abandoned, by people who’d moved away. That conclusion seemed compatible with her shabby-genteel demeanor.
She meticulously observed the boundaries we set for her. My husband was allergic and we couldn’t let her in the house. She honoured the policy without demur, contenting herself with the lairs we designated for her – an old chair with a ruptured cushion in a corner of the patio; a box of rags in the garage, as refuge from cold and wet. Sensing my husband’s ambivalence, she kept her distance from him when he was in the garden.
But for her, me and the kids the garden became the stage set for an intricate ballet, a delicate interplay of watching, approaching, abiding, retreating. Of knowing.
She would observe the children’s antics from behind a shrub, then flee when they noticed and started toward her, shouting and waving their arms. She was far too wily and deliberate to be caught, they too young and spontaneous to catch her. But if only one of the kids happened to be out there – and that one in a quiet mood – she’d approach, slink sinuously between the chubby legs, suffer her head to be bobbled, her throat inexpertly massaged.
The real bond, though, expressed itself in sleep.
We had a nice shady deck off the living room, furnished with second-hand rattan pieces that I’d tidied up and equipped with plush new cushions. To this oasis I regularly repaired on summer afternoons with Danny, after collecting him from daycare. I’d pour myself a cold drink, grab a book, and settle down on one of the loveseats, letting Danny nurse for the half-minute or so that it took him to fall asleep. I’d doze off myself, waking with a start and a crick in my neck: and there she’d be, splayed next to Danny on the loveseat, fast asleep, her ginger flank rising and falling in rhythm with my son’s pudgy toddler belly.
It was a ritual in which certain house rules were suspended. She knew I wouldn’t shoo her off the loveseat during these communal “catnaps.” She knew I’d preserve the gentle enmeshment, the telepathic mirroring, that bound her and my sleeping child. Sometimes the two would twitch in unison and I’d wonder if they were dreaming of the same thing. I’d had pets before who curled up and slept with me, but this seemed more deliberate and purpose-driven than a cuddle opportunity. It was about communion, or communication. It was about staking a claim.
* * *
My childhood cat died during my freshman year of college.
I came home for winter break prepared for Belle’s absence. What I wasn’t prepared for was the news of my parents’ impending divorce. I stood in the backyard, contemplating the snowy mound where my mother and father had buried Belle together. A whimsical little stone marker, carefully chosen by my parents in the midst of their divorce proceedings, seemed to proclaim the amicability of their breakup, and their emphatically unchanged love and concern for me.
The house was in disarray, or what passed for disarray with my parents. There were boxes of belongings, neatly stacked and waiting to be moved to the condos they’d already purchased in town – two-bedroom units so I’d have a comfortable place to stay with each of them when not at school. They were putting the house on the market. I had to camp out during this vacation in the downstairs den, as the upstairs bedrooms were being repainted. My mother apologized: the house would sell more easily with a paint job. I lingered for a while in my old bedroom with its carpet rolled up against a wall, my bed, desk and bureau enshrouded with old sheets to protect them from paint splatterings.
My dad took me out to lunch and my mom took me clothes shopping. Then I went back to school.
As it turned out, I almost never used the spare bedrooms my parents so solicitously filled with Ikea-ware. I didn’t care to either observe or obstruct their new romantic entanglements. I preferred to stick around the college town during vacations, renting cheap digs with other students, and working.
I graduated with a degree in a lucrative field – my parents’ influence had extended that far. Out of several good job offers, I accepted the one that would take me farthest from the region where I’d grown up and gone to school.
I started adult life without roommates but I wasn’t lonely, at least not at first. I worked hard and played hard, if you could call caffeinated BFF confabs, “playing.” I hiked with my besties in national parks and flew with them to tropical islands. I attended their weddings, one by one, until I was the only one left.
I worked more hours to fill up the time. I got a cat, whose mangled body I found one morning near the curb in front of my house; after that, I contented myself with hosting my married friends’ pets when they went away on vacation. Occasionally and perfunctorily I dated the men they tried to pair me off with. I was content for a time; but the social isolation got to me. I missed the sense of being reflected in someone else’s mirror, of being a mirror with something to reflect.
What shook me from my cocoon of inertia was Ron’s decisiveness. He calmly informed me we were getting married, and I couldn’t think of a reason to deny his claim. Sure, I was attached to him – more than to any other man I’d dated. His quietness let me breathe. It had occurred to me more than once that my father, a fast-talking lawyer with an opinion about everything, wouldn’t know what to make of him: a pleasing thought. Ron said, “We’re getting married,” and I stood for a moment, dumb and numb. A sudden image of him turning and walking away flashed before me; my heart lunged, and I lunged after it.
I happened to be between pet-sitting gigs during our courtship, so Ron’s allergies never came up. Once we became an established couple, I developed a kind of aversion to felines, as though in sympathy with Ron. I’d see one digging in a dumpster, some dirty scrawny thing with flapping mammaries whom I might once have pitied, and turn away in disgust.
The aversion lasted well into our married life, through our older children’s preschool years. When Tammy and Jake would try to make friends with strays that entered our garden, I’d shoo the creatures away with irrational annoyance.
Enter Ginger. I don’t know why she failed to elicit the revulsion that the other strays had, but there it was. We slipped into our comfortable semi-committed arrangement with little fuss. I trapped her and hauled her to the vet for shots, which she didn’t like but tolerated better than I’d have expected. Then she did something to me, and repeatedly, which I tolerated without knowing why: the dead-of night wakeup.
It went on for two or three years, any night the weather permitted.
She figured out, early on, where I slept. One night I awoke with the dream-dumb conviction that Danny, who lately had been sleeping through the night, was crying for me. I lay still and listened for a moment: silence. Then I saw her, looking down at me from the window next to my bed. She didn’t make a sound, perhaps hadn’t made one at all. It was her simple presence that had disrupted my slumber; her gaze. The telepathy that regularly put her in synch with my sleeping toddler had the opposite effect on me, pulling me into symbiotic wakefulness.
I gazed back at her. I wondered briefly whether she wanted food; resolved not to set a midnight-feeding precedent. But the resolve proved unnecessary; she accepted my immobility and seemed content just to observe me, night after night. Was it a small subversion of Ron, whose allergies excluded her from the house? He never noticed her presence, just as, like most men, he’d slept easily through the children’s night cries. He simply lay on the other side of me, his back to the little window-theater that played itself out again and again, a long-running show whose only spectators were the actors themselves.
At some point she’d jump down from the window and slip back into the night. But I wouldn’t fall back asleep, as I used to do fairly easily after night nursings. These visitations inaugurated an era of epic insomnia.
If you’re a midlife mom you probably know what I’m talking about – the mommy websites and bloggers are all over this phenomenon of wee-hour rumination and ensuing daytime exhaustion. I suppose I was no different from any other woman, panicking in the dark because I’d forgotten to sign someone’s homework, or because someone’s purple tights needed mending, or because there might not be enough bread crumbs left to coat the chicken cutlets. This was pretty standard stuff, I’m sure, and Ron’s serene obliviousness to it was also pretty standard. The piquancy lay in the nightly wake-up call that launched the ruminations.
I tried keeping the blinds down but found it didn’t help. I could still sense her presence on the ledge, catch the glint of her eye through the gaps of the blind. I gave up fighting and let the urge to ruminate consume me. My post-childbearing body was more my own than it had been in years, but my mind raced each night as though driven by some maniacal stranger.
And Ron snored on, a steady, peaceful hulk at my side. If he perceived my inner chaos he gave no sign of it, by night or by day. Did his assumption that I was the same person I’d always been, keep me in character? I’ll admit it was a comfort, having someone to prompt me through the script, hold up the cue cards.
The kids grew. Tammy and Jake rose up the elementary grades, became independent with regard to homework, grooming and such. Danny stopped nursing and napping in the afternoons, moved on to kindergarten. I took on more work hours.
And then a day came when Ginger didn’t show up for her afternoon meal, or our midnight assignation.
The first day and night of her absence I wasn’t concerned; when she didn’t appear the following afternoon the kids and I went calling around the neighborhood for her, in vain. Still I wasn’t too worried – she might be recuperating from an injury in some hiding spot. Maybe she’d been two-timing us with another family and had decided she liked them better? I didn’t want to think of her lying with her guts spilled out on some roadway. For the children’s sake I put the most optimistic spin on things that I could.
The first couple of nights I slept straight through till dawn – feeling gloriously refreshed, and as though I’d achieved something singular. One for the mommy bloggers! On the third night I bolted upright at the usual hour, though the window was empty.
Instead of lying awake, I got up, put on my robe, and padded through the silent house. I opened the door to the garden and slipped outside.
When did I ever see the garden at this hour? Everything was transformed; every familiar shape – tree, shrub, child’s plaything – had taken on an alternate identity, subtly different from its daytime self. I knew I wouldn’t find her, though I gave a few desultory whistles. I made a tour of the garden, which wrapped around the house. When I reached the back, I stopped at the window to my and Ron’s bedroom, and looked in.
My gaze slid to Ron’s enshrouded form, passing over the in-between space, my space, whose emptiness seemed to throb like a wound. I pondered my husband for a time from across that gash of estrangement. But slowly, by degrees, I began to include bits of the space in my gaze. Finally I steeled myself and faced it head on – the top sheet thrown to the side, framing or cradling a body-shaped crater; the indented pillow like a bowl from which ghostly chatter seemed to rise like vapor. I could make out snatches of the chatter, a frantic litany of cares and worries rattled off in a tinny, disembodied voice that sounded like no one’s I knew.
The curtains billowed and receded, billowed and receded like waves on a shore. The susurrating chatter died down. I retraced my steps, turned back into the house, my bedroom.
I hung up my robe, slipped back into the vacated space that fit my body perfectly but also felt cool and strange; after a few moments, it no longer felt strange. Ron stirred, turned to face me, eyes opened wide. For a long time we lay, watching each other watching.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
I grew up in a place whose human-scaled, walkable character I took for granted. Midlife found me living and raising children in an area designed around the car: cavernous garage openings and blank, unornamented facades. Seeing inhospitable streets from a child’s perspective shocked me into a new state of awareness.
When you start to look critically at neighborhoods master-planned to death, and at streets traffic-engineered for maximum “efficiency,” you gain an appreciation (or re-appreciation) of places that developed in a gradual, incremental way. You remember that before there were shopping malls surrounded by parking lagoons, there were main streets with buildings of different ages and sizes, creating a complex, fine-grained fabric that delighted the senses.
This kind of incremental, granular streetscape can accommodate sleek modernism here and there, but isn’t well served by starchitecture icons, which are often best viewed from a distance – like billboards glimpsed at 90kph.
Fine-grained urbanism doesn’t hijack your attention; it invites you in. You don’t view it, you live it – calling to mind Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum about architecture being an art whose reception “is consummated […] in a state of distraction.” We often think of beauty as something to be contemplated at a remove. Like life, though, beauty can be something that simply happens while you’re busy making other plans.
Julie Rosenzweig is a Jerusalem-based translator, librarian, good-urbanism advocate, and mom. Her work has recently appeared in the Jewish Literary Journal, Sasson Magazine, Literary Mama, and the Times of Israel, among others. More at: https://julierosenzweig.wordpress.com/