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The Stray

  I warn you, you’re going to hate me. You won’t want to at first. After all, you were the one to make the first move. I wasn’t interested. I was simply drinking my milk at the reception when you sat down next to me.
“No one drinks milk at a cocktail party,” you said. You were laughing, as if you’d said something incredibly witty and I was supposed to be charmed; I don’t know, fall madly in love with you right there, in the middle of the crowd.
“I wasn’t invited,” I said. Perhaps it was my fault. I was trying to be cool. I was so arrogant then. I even smoked cigarettes at the time. That night I’d smoked more than just cigarettes and I was pretty stoned.
I drank the rest of my milk, and smoked, and then you asked me my name.
“Vivian,” I lied. I’d always wanted to be a Vivian. I pictured her as mortally sophisticated, with perfect fingernails and a long, aquiline nose.
You smiled, showing off your beautiful teeth. “Vivian. It suits you. Why are you here if you weren’t invited?” you asked. You moved subtly closer to me.
“I’m hungry. I put smoked salmon in my handbag. I hope it won’t get mixed in with the chocolate truffles.”
“You put smoked salmon in your purse?”
“And some chicken and a few pieces of toast with Brie. I stuck them together so they wouldn’t get everything sticky.”
You didn’t know if I was serious or not. I could tell you weren’t sure. Was I lying? You darted a quick glance at my hands, resting on the table. Too bad for you, I had done my nails perfectly, my hair was clean, and my makeup was impeccable. You decided I was joking and laughed.
I went home and feasted on salmon and Brie cheese.
I was hungry. I was always starving then. I was living in a huge apartment with two gay men. I was famished all the time. If you’d glanced lower, at my feet, during the cocktail party, you would have known right away. My shoes were worn as thin as cigarette paper. I had to walk everywhere. I walked a lot. I was stoned quite a bit too. I stole marijuana and bits of hash from the two guys I lived with. They didn’t know - or pretended not to notice. I brought home beautiful boys for them to try to seduce, and they let me sleep on their couch.
Crash on the couch was the expression Ron used.
The beautiful boys were easy to find. They were young and nervous, just looking for something new. I could tell, by looking into their eyes, what they really wanted. If I scared them too much I took them home. Sometimes they stayed with Ron and James. Some left. A few quicker than others, sometimes angrily, or bemused. I didn’t care one way or another.
I hesitated about you. I was going to bring you home too. Ron and James would have loved you. You had such fair skin. Your hair was that uncertain color between blond and brown, I could tell you’d been tow-headed as a child. However, you were too old, I think. Your eyes were old. Something like that, and anyway, I was too tired. I had to get some sleep.
James says I sleep more than anyone he knows does. I curl up on the sofa in the book room, right in front of the big, bay window – and I sleep.
When I first came to the apartment, I slept for four days.
James was worried, but Ron kept taking my pulse and tapping my knees or something. He said I was fine, just too thin, and dirty.
James gave me a bath. How I hated that! He washed me all over, like a mother. He was firm though. He screeched when he found the louse, really screeched. Ron ran out to get a plethora of lice shampoo, flea powder, rinse, spray, lotion. The sheets were boiled and my clothes were thrown away. I cried bitterly, the lice shampoo stung my eyes and throat.
Ron cut my hair. He’s a hairdresser. He’s good.
Ron and James work together for films or photos. Sometimes movie stars would come right to the apartment. I took their coats for them. I’d show them to the dressing room and I’d make coffee or tea for them and carry it in on a tray.
James told me never to open my mouth. He said I was supposed to be mysterious. He dressed me in different, outrageous outfits. Once he dressed me as a slave, and once he had me serve the coffee in the nude. The client was a foreigner, with gold-plated fingernails.
I wasn’t nervous or embarrassed. I was mostly stoned out of my mind, I think. When the gold-plated fingernails reached out and tweaked my nipple I didn’t even blink.
“No, no, no!” James admonished. “Not touch.” He made a face at the client as if to say, ‘How can you touch that?’
The man gave me a hundred dollars.
It was not long after that incident that I met you.
You followed me home. I didn’t know it. You were clever at keeping out of sight, or I was more tired than I’d thought. A few days later I saw you on the street.
“Hello Vivian,” you said.
I was taken by surprise. I’d forgotten I’d lied about my name. I’d forgotten you, actually. “Hello.” I walked quickly. I was supposed to be buying some croissants for a client. She was a television star and it was early in the morning. She gave me some money and I was wondering how much the croissants cost, how much change I would give her, and how much I could keep for myself.
You walked along with me, step for step, and talked about the weather.
I listened vaguely. I was worried I’d turned the wrong way. At the corner, I asked you if you knew where the French bakery was and you took me there. You even offered to buy me the croissants. I accepted. So I kept all the money the star had given me.
You walked me back home. At the door, you asked me when we could see each other again.
The doorman watched us with no expression at all on his bulldog face. He didn’t even raise an eyebrow when you said, ‘goodbye Vivian’, and kissed me on the lips.
We met again. You were often hanging around on weekends. We went for walks. You thought it was cool that I lived with two gay men. I told you I was Ron’s cousin, an orphan.
You invited me to the circus one night.
Ron and James gave you the inquisition when you arrived, and I listened in fascination. I hadn’t realized you were a computer programmer. I didn’t even know what that was. It had never crossed my mind to ask you what you did, or where you lived. Your answers seemed to satisfy them, or maybe it was your charm. Your smile was devastating. I saw Ron glance at James more than once. They held hands as they showed us to the door.
“Have a good time!” they said, “be back at midnight!” James gave Ron an elbow in the ribs. “Call us if you have a change of plans,” he said firmly.
You were impressed. You kept telling me how great they were, and how much they seemed to care for me, and how lucky I was.
I just nodded. I was going to a circus and I’d never been to one in my life. I didn’t know what to expect. I was still acting sophisticated though, and blasé. I wanted to pretend I’d been to one before. You’d gotten us front row tickets. The show was so amazing I had to keep biting my tongue to keep from crying out. Soon I tasted blood. The circus thrilled me though; all the acrobats and trapeze artists stirred something in my heart I didn’t know I possessed. Everything was great, until the lion tamer act.
They set up the cage in front of us and the great beasts slouched out of their cages and into the ring. All those felines; I could smell them. I could feel them smelling us, smelling the crowd. They could smell and hear so much better than anyone could ever know. And they wanted to kill us. They hated and feared their trainer. They wanted to kill him, and eat him too. They wanted to rend him to pieces, to sink their claws and fangs into him and roll in his blood.
They wanted to kill me. I could feel it. I felt it like the rasp of their tongue against my skin. I got goose bumps all over and my hair prickled.
We were sitting so close, right next to the cage. The lions and tigers kept looking at me. First one, then another, and soon they were all staring at me with their unblinking golden eyes. I was terrorized. The trainer couldn’t make them obey him and the crowd started to murmur. The people all around us stared, curious. You laughed at first, but after a minute went by you became nervous too. The big cats began to growl and I got up and bolted.
The sound of the tiger hitting the cage was thunderous. People screamed and I tripped over someone’s legs. Popcorn flew all over in a sudden snow flurry. The lions and tigers hurled themselves at the bars of the cage and the trainer called out to his assistants. All was pandemonium, all was confusion.
Afterwards you became very scientific and explained, using long words, how the animals could smell certain pheromones and that my running away presented a visual stimulus to their feline brain.
I pretended to agree. I was still shaking so you took me to your apartment. I admired your paintings; you paint beautifully, by the way.
You wanted to make love to me. You were incandescent with desire.
That is one of Ron’s expressions and I love it. It fit you exactly at that moment. Your eyes were brilliant with fever and it got to me. We made love, slept, and made love. Halfway through the night I called Ron and James and told them not to worry. They were out. I left a message on the telephone answering machine.
The next morning you sent me home in a taxi. I was sore all over and so very tired. You kept calling me Vivian.
Back at the apartment, Ron and James were waiting. The message I’d left on the machine hadn’t worked, or I’d dialed the wrong number. They were worried because they thought I was lost, or dead in the streets. They scolded me until I fell asleep, a smile on my face.
They had found me in the street. They’d seen the dirt and bruises. They’d seen the fear. They had been kind and patient and were delighted at how quickly I’d learned to help them, and at how much the clients seemed to like me.
“Oh Ron, your cousin is such a little beauty! Why don’t you let her come over and we'll do a screen test? We can do a shoot, we’ll make her a star.”
One photographer had a camera with her and she took some photos of me when I wasn’t looking. The pictures came out blurred and strange. The photographer was upset and I refused to pose for any pictures or take a screen test.
Ron and James were proud of me, for some reason, for that. However, they hated my lies. They hated my endless evasions, so when I told them that I was moving in with you I think they were a little bit relieved.

You got tired of my lies and evasions too. You told me that if I didn’t tell you the truth you would have to let me go, you would ask me to leave you. But I love you, so here’s the truth. I’m telling it to you even thought you’ll hate me for it. Look me straight in the eyes now and listen to me.
I’m a shape shifter. One of the old ones. My mother was a were-cat, and I was born a cat but shifted one day in the street and I lost the ability to shift back. It happens sometimes to us. Our genes suddenly switch. Now I’m completely human.
Ron and James found me after four days of sleeping in the garbage. They used to ask me what happened. Why had I left my home, who was I, where was I from? I always lied to them. I never told the truth a single time. Finally they realized this and stopped asking questions.
Do you believe me? That’s why I can’t read or tell numbers. That’s why I’m so strange. I promise, it’s the truth. I’m telling you this because I love you, although I didn’t think I was capable of such an emotion. I love you; otherwise, I would have left, simply gone away. I’d just go find another home.
The big cats in the circus tried to kill me because they knew what I am.
The photographer had blurry images of a cat on her film.
Will you believe me?
Please? I need someone to talk to, now that I can't purr.

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