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Dear Jack

Rating: PG-13

Neither the cat nor I missed you while you were gone.

It's worse than that. We danced the visitor-gone dance, flinging our feet (and paws) with particular glee. You remember the dance -- the one you do after shutting the door behind a difficult visitor (like a family member)? You hold your breath for 120 seconds then deadbolt the door, race to the bed, leap on to it and jump, twirl, bell-kick and prance, singing all the while, "she's go--onnne, she's gooo-oonne."

Seems like there should be no urge to do it after your live-in lover leaves for a four day family visit, Jack. Seems like a bad sign to me. Seems like instead, the cat and I ought to have hung our heads and wandered slowly through empty rooms, adjusting furniture legs and smelling pillows. Staring out of windows and saying to ourselves, "only three more days until he's back. Pull yourself together; you can handle it." The cat, by the way, has resumed her old habit of dashing unexpectedly across the floor as if being chased by a mad pack of cows. It's good to see her up to her old freakish ways.

Do you remember how sick we made her this summer? For three straight days we drugged her and she huddled in her blue plastic cage, staring at the dashboard through the grid of the cage's door. Poor stoned kitty with paws tucked under her and pupils blackening her eyes. All that way from your Brooklyn row house, down through Virginia, into the Carolinas as the heat deepened and vowels grew more syllables. By the time we got here to coastal Georgia, she was parched through and through. Weakened, vomiting, she staggered on her striped legs and threw up on the Motel 6 carpet. Hasn't she bounced back, though? And come to appreciate living in the place where birds fly to in the winter.

Haven't you and I been bounced, though? We left the crisp, hectic streets of New York that carry our sarcastic friends who plan each and every second. And we landed in this slow, humid place where tree branches reach out in crooked angles that drip with smoke colored moss, dropping so low it tickles the top of your head as you walk under it. It's a ceilinged city here, where the sky's light is filtered through green-gray lace. No, we were not prepared for the hanging moss or the branches that are so like bony, grabbing witch's arms. For the lush green squares every few blocks with their old stone statues and bronze plaques. For the river's rotten smell which rises from the dusky water and leeches across the streets of the old city.

Like the cat, you like it here. You walk to your art school. Each step brings you a little closer to your MFA. You thought that living under both magnolia leaves and sea air would be just the thing for your work. Isn't it odd, though, that you do not dye your fabric in petal whites, grass greens, or robin's egg blues? Instead, your textiles weave: brown for the river, silver blue for the sky, almond for the pavements and rust for the cobblestones. They keep you busy, those subtle colors, mixing them, imagining how they will pattern into cloth. You come home with threads caught in strands of your hair and chin stubble.

Yes, it's true: even I have grown to like this place where the stillness of the river and the air's silence echo my moods, ping-ponging my emotions away and then back to me. At work, I wear a net over my curls and listen to the other counter girls compare notes of hair products and stylists. When I get home, I paint my nails to look like theirs -- black, scarlet, hot pink. Their nails are plastic, but mine are hard and grow into elongated ovals a half-inch from my finger tips. None of the girls believe that they're natural.

I, too, walk to work, through the fudgy air and over clumps of moss. The first month we were here I couldn't walk without stopping to touch the fallen clumps. They looked like wig hair, damaged and knotted, but felt like duck feathers. It annoyed you, all my stooping and stopping along the way to whereever we were going. Aren't you glad I've cut out all that moss stuff now? I work now. 25 hours a week on the line at Georgia's third-ever Pearson Cafeteria. I carry long, flat trays of fried catfish, biscuits, cornbread or baked sweet potato balls, all for $.99 a dish or $4.50 for five. I watch as my arm muscles puff and looseleaf paper vein lines run between from elbow to wrist. The girls on the line like me. I am gung-ho on my job, running to the store room for extra coleslaw, first to volunteer to cover an hour of Anita's shift when she has to take her kids to the doctor. They call me "the white girl" or "hey, Big Apple." Only Vanessa and Anita have been up North before, when they visited cousins and aunts in New York. Neither of them liked it very much. I tell them, neither did I. "Didn't you say you stayed there for six years?" they ask.

I have to admit that I never really paid this much attention to the cat before you, Jack. I adopted her in her six month of life. I was in the fourth month of a staggering bout of depression, having just moved to the big city from my small, cozy college town and not a clue what to do next. The cat had just reached adolescence and stood gawky on her skinny legs. No longer cute as a button but lacking the swagger of an adult cat. I took her in with assurance from the rescue adoption service that I could return her. "We'll give you two weeks," said the woman who brought her, all no-nonsense in short brown hair, a sweatshirt and jeans. "Fourteen days and then she's yours for good. Okay?" She gave me a hopeful smile, but her eyes said it's getting late, I have three more cats to deliver and two kids to feed dinner. "Okay?"

The next day, as I shut the door to go to work, she stepped into her litter box and squatted. I couldn't bring myself to close the door on her while she did her business. I didn't want her to think I was rejecting her feces. I think I also thought, what a pain in the ass. In New York, I tracked the hours I was gone from home. Before I left each morning for my temp/bookstore/cafe job, I'd give her the estimate, "Okay, only 7 1/2 hours today. You'll be fine." A friend once told me that, for puppies at least, sleeping with them counts as giving them quality time and attention. Do you think that's true for sleeping with humans too?

In big, bright discount stores, I am small. During my off hours, I drive up and down the commercial strips that ring the downtown, weaving in and out of lanes and honking at wrong-lane turners. I park our little car in vast lots full of pick-ups, sports utilities, mini vans and sedans. I walk through the automatic doors and blink into the reflection of flourescent lights off white linoleum floors. Crisp, neat signs proclaim the aisles' contents. But, I am discombobulated at first. I forget where which store keeps what. K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Target. Sometimes, I go to all three in one day comparing prices on scotch tape, razors, vitamins, or toilet paper. I defy the concept of the discount store, buying one or two, never more than four things at a time. To remind myself that I'm still new at suburban shopping. To have things left to do.

Sometimes, when I get home, I show you what I've bought, and sometimes I just put the things away before you've seen them. You never question why the toilet paper never disappears or why we have an endless supply of scented candles. It's the least I can do. It's your parents, really, who pay our rent here. I am a kept woman, really, if I think about it as I mount each stair to the apartment, a plastic bag hanging from my wrist. I smile at the cat and hiss when she comes to greet me at the door. I put my keys on the key hook and walk into my room without calling "hello." I know that you hear me but won't come out of your room to talk until it's time for your cigarette. Then, you'll drop in on me on the way to your smoke. Tell me what the cat's been up to. You'll train your eyes on me and not the assortment of shopping bags in my room or the advertisement pull-outs from the Sunday paper stacked against the wall.

A good idea to have separate rooms, we both agreed, locked together in the U-Haul's cab as Virginia became North Carolina. You could have your fabric and yarn scraps scattered from carpet to bed to loom. Both of us sleep much better alone we admitted, and anyway didn't we feel regal then and make some clever jokes about conjugal visits?

Usually, I put my things away and then follow you bird-like into the living room to watch you smoke. I tuck my knees under me and sit opposite you on the soft cushions of our Salvation Army orange velour sofa. I wait for you to ask me about my day, giving you at least three questions about yours. I hold my breath and dance in circles in my head. Then I can't help it; I blurt out a story from the line. Something Anita said which strikes me as strange but probably typical Southern. Your head nods in perfunctory interest. You eyes wander away. I have insulted your adopted home, kin. It is not strange to you. You belong to whereever it is that you are.

In this verdant city where you can feel, if not see, water all around, where tape peels off the walls and the stores dedicate entire aisles to mold cleanser, I am drying up. Only twenty-five minutes away, the Atlantic Ocean spreads out toward Europe spitting drops of water that hang in the air all year long. Still, at work, I drink the whole time I'm on the line. The line girls suck their teeth at me and say, "You and your water." The more I drink, the thirstier I am. My flesh cracks into spider webs criss-crossing my roughened skin. I clip coupons for extra thick body lotion and rub it in twice a day, but in the morning, there are still skin flakes in between my sheets.

So that's what you're missing by not touching me anymore. By not running your hand along my sandpaper abdomen and my bark-like bottom. You have the soft-as-silk coat of my cat curled against you as you sleep. Your room is warmer, so she stays with you at night. I sleep without either of you in my itchy dry skin. In my dreams, I dredge up long forgotten faces from elementary school and Girl Scout troops. I wake up and their names come to me from some far-off corner of my brain. I forget what it was to press my nose into your neck and breathe in your smell as I slept. I forget how your heavy arms would reach around and clutch me during the night -- your big hands like bear paws, clumsy and slow. I forget how it was to lie next to you in my unairconditioned Manhattan walk-up, a thin layer of moisture between us slowly dampening the sheets.

Do you remember the night before you left? We sat together on the orange cushions. You smoked and I watched. We exchanged cat-of-the-day stories. Outside, darkness hid the trees and grass and there was only the smell of the river to situate us. I interrupted you mid-word and blurted, "Maybe we should have a baby while we're here."

I said it because it had just occurred to me that we might run out of things to say about the cat. That we could swaddle a baby in your earth-toned textiles and wheel her across the old cracked sidewalks and through green-lawned square after square. I saw how angry it made you. Your mouth drew into a tight line and your cheeks reddened at my audacity. Impossible for you, after so many months, to become drone to my queen. I hadn't meant it like that -- hadn't meant to jump in and ripple the still Southern river that we've been tubing down, inch-by-inch, toward an unseen ocean. You reached out a hand and I thought you might slap me. Instead, you patted me on the top of my dried-out hair and got up to finish packing.

Now that you're gone, I am sitting still. I cancelled my shopping plans and am out of fresh sponges as I write this. The cat and I are watching the birds swoop and glide outside the drafty old windows of the living room. Cardinals, bluejays, finches. They craft their winter nests in the highest crooks of the sinister branches. It's wonderful to us -- how they find places above the dripping nets of gray-green moss, where the sun will reach them and the moss will neither tickle them nor catch their feet when it's time to fly.