Rebecca Reynolds lives outside Boston with her husband and three boys. She received her MFA from Emerson College, where she won the Emerson Department of Literature fiction contest and was awarded a creative writing scholarship. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Redivider, Copper Nickel, The Boiler, The MacGuffin, The Cumberland River Review, and her story “The Principle” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She works in a group home with adults who have intellectual disabilities. Rebecca is currently putting together a short story collection.
Andy drives with his left hand on the wheel and the right on the shifter, his thumb pushing the button on the side of the stick as if he is fighting the urge to see what would happen if he dropped it into reverse. His Honda is covered in PETA and animal welfare stickers including one that says Kale yeah, I’m vegan! I am next to him, essential oil bottles tinkling at my feet. Aside from the dashes of gray in Andy’s hair, I could believe no time has passed since we were last in a car together, speeding toward the coast, nine years ago.
I was his wife then.
The summer after college, Andy drove me thirteen hundred miles from our Tennessee campus to my parents’ home in Maine, messing with the gearshift the whole way, so I guess it’s safe to say this is how Andy acts when he is nervous about having to do something terrible.
Andy’s boyfriend, Dennis, sits with their cat in the back seat. Dennis has a thick beard; back home in Sacramento he works as a veterinary technician. The cat is swaddled in a hospital grade blue and white striped blanket as if it were a newborn baby, and Dennis holds him like a football in the bend of his flannelled arm.
“We wanted Rudy to see everything,” Andy says, accelerating around a bend. His eyes flash from the road to me as he describes the bucket-list road trip the three of them have been on for four weeks. “Niagara Falls freaked him out a little, but he definitely appreciated Strawberry Fields.” Rudy, the cat, has a spinal tumor, as well as congestive heart failure. He wears a diaper and must be carried by Dennis in a Baby Bjorn infant carrier. He was originally Dennis’ cat; but Andy is all in, which I’d like to tell Dennis has nothing to do with him, it’s just something Andy does.
Andy and I started dating the week of freshman orientation. We married, just the two of us and not even a ring, at town hall a month after graduation. It was Andy’s idea, something that came to him at two a.m. when he was too wired for sleep, fixated on a problem of which I was still unaware. Marriage had made sense; Andy already spent his college summers by the ocean in Maine with me, getting drunk on coffee brandy, kayaking with my dad, and raking blueberries for a week in August so he didn’t have to ask his parents for gas money to drive back down south for school. I thought it was love that made him want to spend so much time with me and my family, but now I see Andy has an emptiness he tries to fill up with other people’s lives. And other people’s dying cats.
In the back seat, Dennis lifts the cat to his shoulder as if burping a baby. He strokes Rudy’s back and hums into his ear, Dennis’ dark beard blending into the cat’s fur. “You’re my good boy,” Dennis says.
Andy turns to me. “I’m glad you weren’t busy,” he says. A week ago, he messaged me on Facebook, explaining the odd request. Though I could think of excuses—my job, for one--I replied that I would be available. Part of me had been waiting nine years to see him again, to prove to myself that I hadn’t imagined our whole relationship. “I’d never be able to find the beach on my own,” he adds.
“Sure,” I say. “I haven’t been there in years, though.” It was a rocky beach down an unmarked road, accessible only during good weather. The steely water produced sea foam that dried in tufts and stuck to the bottoms of your feet; when the tide went out, the mud flats smelled of rotten eggs. I’d only ever seen dogs swim there. There was no shortage of more beautiful, sandier beaches in the area, but Andy and I preferred this one because nobody else did. Even on the hottest days, we had the place to ourselves. I read paperbacks in my bra. Andy would make cairns out of the largest beach stones, building towers that reached his chest. He tried to construct them solidly, to survive the high tide, though they never did.
“This won’t be easy,” Andy says, glancing at Dennis and Rudy in the back seat.
“No,” I say. But I am thinking more of myself, not the cat. Nothing about seeing Andy again is easy.
I turn away because I don’t want Andy to see the color in my cheeks. Though I hoped enough time had passed for my feelings to harden, I am still attracted to him. In college, Andy had the kind of looks that got him free beer at parties and convinced his professors to give him extensions on his papers. The plan, after our three-minute wedding, was for me to spend the summer with my parents, saving money, while Andy finished his overdue senior thesis and applied to graduate programs in Maine, and at the end of the summer he would join me and we’d find a place to live. But instead, Andy drove away and disappeared from my life.
He didn’t answer my calls or texts. In the evenings, after dinner, I would go to my room for half an hour, pretending to talk to Andy on the phone, so my parents wouldn’t ask questions. They weren’t thrilled with the marriage in the first place. It made me sick, the not knowing. I ate peanut butter cups compulsively, woke up in the night with my t-shirt heavy with sweat. When I finally did get a call, the night of my parent’s Labor Day cook-out, it wasn’t even from him. It was one of Andy’s friends, whom I vaguely recalled from a logic class we had taken together. Cody admitted he had been sleeping with Andy for most of the past year. He sniffled and coughed his way through, repeating he was sorry and they should have told me earlier and they didn’t think it would amount to anything, but it had. Andy felt awful, but he wasn’t ready to talk. I remember the smell of grilled chicken and bug-spray coming though my window, and how I laughed at Cody, thinking it had to be a joke. Cody kept saying, “are you okay Lynne? Are you going to be okay?” and I laughed until I cried, and by that time my phone had gone black.
Andy and I trade summaries of the past nine years: I talk about my job in the special education room at the middle school, and my dad’s heart attack scare. I throw in a boyfriend or two to deflect pity, though in truth there’s been too many to count, and none worth naming. After the break-up, my parents handled our annulment, their relief turning to solicitousness, telling me that everybody makes mistakes when they are young. But I hadn’t felt that Andy was a mistake. I loved him. It was the first time in my life I was completely and utterly wrong.
Andy rushes through a laundry list of past addresses and jobs. After six months with Cody, he moved west, away from his family and everyone he had known. He ended up at an organic bakery in Sacramento where he got a job making vegan donuts, which was where he met Dennis. “The first time I went over for dinner, Rudy peed on my shoes,” Andy says. Dennis shifts the cat onto his lap and nods in remembrance.
When we were together, Andy planned to obtain his doctorate in metaphysics. His father said it was a waste of money, but Andy wanted to be one of those cool young professors who makes cameo appearances at off campus-parties and organizes study sessions at coffee shops.
Now he is in school for animal aromatherapy.
“Essential oils are amazing stuff, just amazing,” Andy says. He nods at the bottles rolling around my feet. “I’ve seen lavender oil cure a nasty case of sarcoptic mange.”
“But not for cats,” Dennis says.
Andy rolls his eyes. “Okay, really? You just had to bring that up.”
Dennis makes a low, rolling giggle that clicks in the back of his throat. “Oh, honey,” he says.
Andy flashes me an embarrassed look. His cheeks are waxy and smooth, nicely bronzed. The shadow of hair below his lower lip is enough to remind me of kissing him. Afterwards, everyone asked me, couldn’t I tell he was gay all along? Wasn’t there some giveaway? The truth is we didn’t have a lot of sex, and when we did it didn’t seem as important as the place it brought us to, where Andy would fall asleep with his chin in the crook of my neck, his frenetic body finally still.
“Yeah, so, as it turns out most essential oils are toxic to cats, which okay, I did not exactly know when I signed up for this program.” Andy says.
“He thought he would learn something that could save Rudy,” Dennis says. He wipes his eyes. The cat yawns, exposing toothless black gums. “Damn, it was sweet.”
Andy reaches a hand back between the seats and touches Rudy’s blanketed back. Andy’s hands were always clean, his fingernails cut just above the quick and softly rounded, his touch warm and dry on my skin. Once, Andy touched me with the care he is now touching Rudy. The cat squirms and arches his back, and suddenly the smell of fresh shit fills the car. Andy cracks his window. “Poor thing,” he says.
“Here,” I say. “After the mailboxes.” We turn off the main street and bounce over puddles. Andy drives too fast, and the glass bottles at my feet threaten to break, but he shows no sign of concern. His face is bright, taking in the once familiar landscape. The scene strikes me with a sense of my own naivete, like looking at high school yearbook pictures and thinking, was that really me? The last time Andy and I were here, he built rock towers around me like bars in a jail.
There is a mist over the beach and grayness beyond. We come to an abrupt stop along the side of the road, Andy and I opening our doors and quickly escaping the stink of the car. The wind is sharp. Andy raises his bare arms into the breeze and grins.
“Awesome,” he says. Sea-weed littered waves froth against the rocks, just covering the mud flats. “It’s exactly how I remembered.”
Dennis takes several moments to put a new diaper on the cat, then emerges from the car with Rudy zipped up inside his thick, fleece-lined flannel jacket. Rudy’s small head pokes out above the collar. Andy dutifully lifts the back of Dennis’ jacket and latches the Baby Bjorn and pulls the cinch tight around Dennis’ waist. “You were right,” Dennis says, taking in the area. He rotates to give Rudy a view. “It’s beautiful.”
“Shall we walk?” Andy says.
The tide is out far enough for us to walk where the rocks have been worn to smaller pebbles, each one pushing into the soles of my tennis shoes. Dennis goes first, then Andy, and I fall back. The wind blows too strongly for conversation. We walk in silence the length of the beach, Dennis occasionally stopping to point something out to Rudy: a speckled juvenile seagull, a cargo ship passing across the horizon, the shell of a hollowed-out crab in a tangle of seaweed. Andy takes pictures with his phone. I stay out of the background. Last week, when Andy asked if I was able to join them in saying goodbye to their pet, it felt—much like finding out my husband was having an affair with his buddy—like a joke I didn’t quite understand. “Are you sure you want me to come?” I had typed back, trying to figure out exactly what was going on in Andy’s head. “I’m not exactly a cat person.”
“I’ve never been there without you,” he responded. “And don’t worry. Rudy is not exactly a cat.”
I follow them to a group of pines. Close to the trees, we are sheltered from the wind. Andy puts his arm around Dennis, and Dennis nods.
“We’re going to feed him, now,” Andy says.
Dennis takes a small zip-top baggie from his pocket and pulls out what appears to be a sardine, which he places on Andy’s cupped palm. Andy moves his hand under Rudy’s chin, pinching a piece of the oily fish between his finger and touching it to Rudy’s lips. “Come on, boy,” Andy says. The cat turns his head and flicks his tongue.
“Let me try,” Dennis says. Andy transfers the fish to Dennis. Again, Rudy refuses.
“It’s like he knows,” Andy says.
Dennis shakes his head. Rudy sneezes.
“Lynne, why don’t you try?” Andy says, looking at Dennis. Dennis offers me the fish.
“Oh, I don’t think he’s hungry,” I say.
“He might take it from you,” Dennis says. “With us, he thinks we’re trying to sneak him a pill.”
Feeding Rudy feels like unnecessary torture, for both the cat and myself. But I reach out my hand. The fish is still warm from Dennis’ pocket and it flakes apart in my fingers. Rudy sniffs it, and then licks. Andy’s face explodes with joy. Another lick.
“You’ve got the touch,” Dennis says.
Dennis and Rudy go down to the water, and Andy and I walk back to the car, my hair blowing in all directions. Inside the Honda, the absence of wind feels warm, though the smell of cat shit lingers. “Thanks again for coming with us,” Andy says. His hair, as always, is perfect.
“No problem,” I say. “Pretty normal way to spend an afternoon.”
Andy smiles, taps his fingers on the steering wheel. “Well, I know it’s weird.” He turns to face me, the smile dropping. “Driving cross-country for a cat. You probably think I’m crazy.”
I shake my head. Andy drove cross-country for me every summer and Christmas of college.
His leg jiggles. “Sometimes I feel crazy, I really do. Like if I pinch myself I’m going to wake up, and I don’t want to. We’re happy together, me and Dennis. He makes me want to be better.”
“He seems like a nice guy,” I say, which isn’t a lie.
“He’s taught me a lot,” Andy says. “I can’t believe I used to eat meat without even thinking about it.” He grins. “When Dennis and I met, I told him I was a vegan. And then I ran home and threw out all the meat and eggs and milk in my fridge.”
When we were together, Andy’s favorite food was clam chowder that he would buy in cans and eat with Ritz crackers, the way my dad did. “I’m sure Dennis wouldn’t care that you used to eat meat,” I say.
“Oh,” Andy says. “I’d never tell him.”
I laugh. “What? Why not?”
Andy lifts his foot to the seat and begins to busy himself with the laces of his boot. “It’s not important. This is who I am, now.”
“Okay, sure,” I say. Down by the water, Dennis crouches to pick something up, then tosses it into the waves. “Does he know about me?”
Andy pulls the laces tight and rubs at a scuff on the toe. A gust of wind whistles around the car. “I said we went to college together. I didn’t want to scare him, okay? This is about Rudy.”
Heat floods my body. The feelings I’ve held close are loosening, years of questions pushing through my skin. “Is that why you didn’t tell me about Cody? Because you didn’t want to scare me?”
Andy exhales. He puts his foot down and gathers himself, his hands on his knees. “I was going through a lot back then.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“And I’m sorry. I am.”
“I know.” He has said it before, during phone calls when all I could do was mumble, okay, okay. I’m not sure if he is sorry because he loved me or because he didn’t, or if it makes any difference. “Every memory I have of those years is like the build up to a joke I wasn’t in on.”
“There was no joke,” Andy says. His eyes widen. He pulls at his knuckles.
“But there was,” I say. “It just wasn’t very funny.”
“Oh, Lynne.” He puts a hand to my face, his dry palm cupping my cheek. I rest into his touch, the gentle warmth. The feeling is comforting. He leans closer, or at least I think he does, and I push off the seat and wrap my arms around him, my body leaning over the gear shift awkwardly, my toes knocking the oil bottles into each other. I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but it’s already too late. Andy lets me hold him. His soapy scent of hair gel hasn’t changed. He rubs my back, palm flat against my jacket, his head turned away slightly so that I can’t feel his breath on my neck. As I pull away, a strand of my hair sticks to the stubble under Andy’s lip.
I don’t speak. My cheeks burn.
“It’s okay,” he says. He removes the hair, no sign of revulsion or desire. If I had any questions about Andy’s feelings toward me, I don’t anymore. I look out my window. For several breaths, we are silent.
“Lynne, you were the only thing that got me through college,” Andy says, softly. “Your family, too. You have no idea what that meant to me, hanging out on the patio and grilling with your dad. I haven’t talked to my own father in five years, since I told him about Dennis.” Andy’s mom used to force his father onto the phone when she called Andy, and if I listened closely, near the receiver, I could hear her voice in the background telling Andy’s father to please just say something. Afterwards, Andy’s always-fidgeting body would go quiet, as if he had decided to leave it for a little while.
I turn back to Andy, my face still warm. “Why did you come here?”
Andy’s finger drops from the steering wheel to his lap. He rubs the thighs of his black skinny jeans. “I don’t know. I told Dennis I would find the right place for Rudy. The perfect spot.” He blows air through his nose and looks at me with eyebrows raised. “I mean, Lynne, I didn’t know where I was going, really. I just kept driving.” When he laughs, his eyes water. He blinks quickly.
Dennis has turned around and is moving up the beach, toward the car. I can’t see Rudy’s head from this distance, though I know he is there from the bulge in Dennis’ jacket. I imagine how warm and safe the cat must feel, hidden like that against another body.
“Dennis wants to get married,” Andy adds, suddenly serious. “When we get back.”
My smile becomes heavy, and I tighten my cheeks, trying not to let it drop. “Oh,” I say. “Congratulations.”
Andy wipes his eyes and exhales. “Yeah. I mean, I thought you should know.” He finds a spot on his jeans and picks at it with his forefinger.
“Is that what you want, too?” I ask, my voice small, as if the question is about us, as if I am still trying to figure out what it is that Andy truly wants. I wonder if Andy knows, himself. I can picture him driving across the country, telling Dennis the right spot for the cat is probably at the next town, the next state, and yet on some level knowing his only plan is to just keep driving. Eventually, he ran out of road.
Andy brushes something from his pants. “I think so,” he says. “I love Dennis. I really do.”
“I thought you loved me,” I say before my better sense kicks in, and then, realizing what I have said, I try to laugh. “But I guess that was different.”
Andy looks up at Dennis who is almost to the car. The wind has picked up, and Dennis’ beard is being blown violently to one side. I want to touch Andy but Dennis is too close, and Andy is too far away. The feeling is familiar, and sad. None of this is about me, really, and yet here I am, wanting to change the unchangeable. I probably should have ignored Andy’s message, let him think I no longer checked that account, that my life was too full and figured out for such things.
“No, not different,” Andy says, turning away from Dennis to look at me straight on. His attention is like the towers he built, curious but fleeting. “Love is love, Lynne,” he says. “It’s simpler than you think.”
“Well, it shouldn’t be,” I say, but Andy has opened the door to Dennis and the cold wind swallows my words.
They set up on a boulder not far from the car; it has a flattened top so Dennis can prepare the syringes without needing to squat on the ground. Andy asks me if I want to come, but I decline. Alone in the car, I run my fingers through the rat’s nest in my hair, anticipating the hot shower I will take when I get home.
The sky is growing pink. From my seat in the car, I watch Dennis carefully unzip his flannel jacket. Andy detaches the clasp of the Baby Bjorn and lifts Rudy’s body and pulls Rudy to his chest. The cat’s tail hangs in a crimped curve below Andy’s arms. Dennis fills a syringe. He leans to kiss the cat between its ears, then takes a front leg and injects the shot.
As Dennis prepares the final syringe of pentobarbital, Andy presses his face into Rudy’s belly. When Andy left me at my parents’ house, before he got into his car to drive away, he rested his chin on my shoulder and let my hair cover his face. I had hugged him back, trusting as Rudy, no understanding of what was to come.
Dennis administers the shot with professional swiftness. He secures the needles in a plastic container, and puts his arms around Andy and Rudy, hugging them both into his thick, flannel embrace. They hug so tightly that Rudy must already be dead, or else they would be concerned about suffocating him. Dennis’ shoulders are shaking. I am relieved to be in the car, removed from the emotion of the scene. Behind the two men, the sunset is spreading out over the water. The image is beautiful, and terrible.
They put Rudy’s body into a small quilted sack and lay the sack on the rock, and Dennis rests his hand on it while the sun melts into the water. Andy bends and begins stacking rocks, staring out to where the gray ocean meets the gray sky. He’s been as humane as possible, but my sympathies are with the cat. Rudy must have wondered what all the fuss was about, having to leave his home and travel around the country, from place to place. He couldn’t have known it was a one-way trip. He had been so loved, and there was never any reason to be afraid.