I know it has been forever since I have posted. I have been completely tied up with a project. I decided to put up this short story I wrote a long time ago, the third Wendy story, a follow-on to Scotch Hangover and When She Knew. I know: I shouldn’t have used the cat as a plot device in two stories in the same series (so said my writers group), but that’s what I wanted to do so oh well. Hope you enjoy.
The sound of clinking silverware, the glow of the candle in the middle of the table, and the fact that a man was gazing at her from just beyond the candle’s low, flickering light brought to Wendy’s mind a familiar, if hazy, recollection.
Wendy was on a date.
Probably anyone else would have said that she and Matt had been dating for a while, starting with their first lunch together at work. But lunch during the work day between a marketing manager and engineering director who had a project in common was not romance, despite the overtones. After a few weeks of hints and suggestions, they’d finally fumbled their way to making Friday evening dinner plans.
By the mellow light of the candle, Wendy noticed that Matt looked considerably more attractive than he did under the fluorescents at the office. She sure liked him well enough but she didn’t know what else she felt for him. After all, she’d been working with him for over a year and hadn’t considered him romantically until he’d shown interest in her. Now she wasn’t sure if that was because he wasn’t really her type or because she’d been hung up on her ex-boyfriend. She’d been mourning the death of that relationship for almost two years.
“Do you know what you’re going to have?” Matt asked.
She would have ordered the veal but she didn’t know where Matt stood on the matter of slaughtering baby cows. Anyhow, everyone knew not to order veal on a first date.
“I’m thinking of the rainbow trout.”
“That looks good. I like trout,” Matt said as he closed the menu and laid it on the table. “But I’m going to have the veal.”
Strike one, Wendy thought.
The waiter came to the table and they placed their orders, with Matt tacking on a couple of appetizers they hadn’t discussed. Both were calorie-laden items that Wendy pictured going directly to her hips. A man should know better than to order such food for his date.
“What do you have planned for the rest of the weekend?” Wendy said.
“I have to work tomorrow. I almost always go into the office on Saturdays. You?”
“I’ll probably catch up on a few things at home. But I like to leave Sunday pretty much free to do what I want, like go hiking.”
She meant to leave this statement as an invitation. If things went well tonight (which was looking less likely by the minute), she envisioned them climbing the scenic but teeny foothills that weren’t too far from her house.
But he quickly put the kibosh on that.
“We’re having an event at church this Sunday. Kind of a community thing after mass.”
She winced, she hoped not visibly.
“Do you go to church every week? It’s so beautiful this time of year. I’d hate to be stuck in church when the sky’s the type of blue it is in the fall.”
“Eternal damnation doesn’t take the weather into account.” He winked, but she wasn’t sure if the joke was about his religion or her lack of it.
She wanted him to elaborate. No. What she really wanted was for him to throw his head back and laugh the way he did when he knew he’d amused her. But there was no flash of his smile and no explanation about how he went only because he liked the music or to use the time as an opportunity for quiet contemplation.
Instead, he moved in closer to the candle and spoke seriously. “You don’t go to church?”
Wendy shook her head.
“You mean, you don’t believe…?”
Was he actually asking this question? First veal and now religion. Didn’t he know anything about anything?
“Do I believe in…what? In something I need to pray to? In a religion that keeps track of my sins on a scorecard?”
She knew as soon as the words came out that she’d been way too blunt and little bit nasty, much more than she’d intended. But Matt didn’t seem to take offense. Instead, he smiled serenely.
“I know what you mean. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense to me either. But life without God makes even less sense. Do you really think all this happened by accident?” He gestured around the room, but he seemed to be pointing to the entire earth. “I don’t believe that seems possible. I believe in God.”
Strike three. You’re out of here.
Wendy gulped her wine. The date had just officially ended; she could afford to get a bit of a buzz on. In fact, getting a little drunk might be a good idea.
“Are you one of these people who believes that God has a grand scheme? That people live and die because God decides when and where everything will happen?”
Matt surprised Wendy by reaching across the table and putting his hand over hers. This seemed completely out of character but she could see that the topic of religion brought out the passion in him. She wanted to pull her hand away but she was too embarrassed by how that would come across, although she was equally embarrassed by allowing it to stay there. She made a promise to herself that once he took his hand away, she would be sure to keep her hands on her lap and out of his reach.
“To a certain extent I do believe in what you say, Wendy.” He looked into her eyes with the warmth that was the main thing about him that she’d found attractive. Until tonight.
Despite this turn of events, she still liked him, and admired the fact that he was being so reasonable in what could have been a heated exchange.
“But how can you? How can you think there’s someone—a person, if you will—up there, pulling strings?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes you just have to make a leap.”
“But…” Wendy started on what would have been a rant, then thought better of it, shook her head and looked away from him. “Forget it. Never mind.”
“I know. I’ve been in enough meetings with you to know it all has to make sense to you. But does everything have to be like that? Does everything you believe need to be justified by logic?”
The appetizers arrived just then, which Wendy hoped would provide a new topic for conversation. If not, she would use this break in the action as an opportunity to steer the subject toward work matters. When the bill came, she would pay it or at least insist on splitting it, maybe even keep the receipt to show him she’d always viewed the dinner and their relationship as strictly business.
She picked up her fork and prepared to stab at the fried calamari Matt had ordered. Matt had already had a piece on the end of his fork and pointed the morsel at her.
“Well?” he said.
“You didn’t answer.”
“About whether there’s anything you believe in that defies logic.”
She looked at him, studying his earnest expression. A part of her wanted to give him what he wanted, wanted to submit to the vulnerability in his eyes. But the gulf between them was too great.
“No, Matt. There’s nothing like that. Nothing I can think of.”
His face registered what she read as profound disappointment. She felt a brief pang of regret, a fleeting desire to prove to him that she had a soul and convictions as deep as his. But it was better this way. She was sure of it.
He ate the bit of squid off his fork.
“Did you have a chance to see Roger’s new release?” he said. “Very elegant. And right on time. I think you’re going to be happy with it.”
On Monday, it was eight o’clock by the time Wendy got home from work. Her cat greeted her at the door, yowling to be fed. Cats are strange, Wendy thought as she reached down to stroke its silky, white fur. She really didn’t get the whole cat thing. She especially didn’t like the way Gretl seemed to view her as prey, often pouncing on her legs when she passed. “She’s playing,” the cat people explained to her when she complained about it. But she hated the beast’s sudden movement and the painless but threatening feeling of its hard teeth against her skin.
She hadn’t really known what she was signing up for when she’d taken in the cat. As was often the case, she’d leapt in without thinking it through. And now, she figured she was stuck with the thing for the next ten years or so, unless it wandered into the nearby woods and met an animal with sharper claws and more lethal teeth.
Sometimes when she came home to the cat and its unfathomable ways—the water bowl whose contents were splashed all over the kitchen floor, the runner that had been dragged out of its position in the center of the hallway and covered with white clumps of hair—she half-wished that Gretl would just disappear.
She fed the cat and sat down to a manufactured dinner she’d zapped in the microwave. After she finished scraping the last morsels of the miniscule meal from its plastic tray, Wendy retired to the living room to read the newspaper. A comforter was draped over her lap. Just as she was settling in, Gretl appeared at her feet, looking up at Wendy with giant, yellow eyes. Wendy recognized the tightening of the cat’s muscles that indicated it was poised to jump, so she moved the newspaper off her lap and held her hands out of the way. Gretl leaped onto Wendy’s lap, landing on the spot with the precision of a tightrope walker. The cat pushed its face into Wendy’s cheek, its purr rumbling like a piece of construction equipment. Wendy giggled as the buzzing pile of fur sought to meld its body with hers. She scratched the cat’s head with her nails, watched Gretl close her eyes, reveling in ecstasy.
The friendship between Wendy and Matt had definitely cooled. They still ate lunch together sometimes, but it seemed to Wendy that continuing to do so was part of an attempt to deny that the friendship had ever been on a romantic trajectory. Their meals together were only in the cafeteria and the subject matter always revolved around work.
Although the construction of the barrier between them had been Wendy’s desire from the moment she found out about Matt’s religious bent, she felt unsettled by it.
“The religion thing was a deal buster,” she told her friend Kim during a phone conversation shortly after the date. “There was no point pursuing a relationship after I found out about that.”
“Nobody’s perfect, Wendy. You’ll never find anyone who exactly matches what you’re looking for. You can’t really know what’s right for you, anyhow.”
“But I do. Believe me, I know.”
“Do you keep track of it all on a list or something?”
Wendy laughed, but acknowledged to herself that she really did have a list, if not on paper then pretty solidly inscribed in her mind. Didn’t everybody? Anyhow, she’d already given Matt enough leeway. The man prescribed by her list would have his own friends; a man who had no friends tended to be too reliant on her and resisted socializing with her large circle of friends. She also found that a man’s friends—both the quantity and quality—reflected his own warmth and likeability. Matt, though, apparently socialized only in the hallways of work. Wendy had continued to pursue the friendship with him even though he lacked this key quality. So it wasn’t as if she was completely inflexible.
“Well, anyway, that’s that.” Wendy said this with finality, except that she realized as soon as she said the words that she’d used the same resolute tone and those very same words many times before in conversations with her other girlfriends. In fact, she’d devoted hours of phone time to the subject of how Matt was all wrong for her and how she was glad to have ended it before it really got started.
Kim picked up on this. “You sure are thinking about this a lot. As they say, ‘I think thou doth protest too much.’”
Maybe, thought Wendy. But she couldn’t understand why. Was it because she actually liked him, this kind soul who, until the chill-producing date, had been so appreciative of her? Or was it simply because he was the only man in years that she’d had in her sights?
She didn’t know. But she knew she would struggle with it, both privately and publicly, until she figured out the answer.
There was a surprise guest at the team meeting on Monday. Tom Gillian, VP of Strategic Marketing and Product Development (the latest reorg had lengthened his title considerably) was there, looking decidedly out of place in his Brooks Brothers suit. With the exception of Wendy, who tried to walk the line between looking like the denizen of the sixth floor she worked on and the more casual style of the engineers she spent most of her day with, the members of the team were clad in jeans and an oddball array of tops, ranging from faded tie-dyed tee-shirts to polo shirts that were spotted with stains. Matt, as the manager, usually dressed a hair more conservatively than his people. His shirt, tee or otherwise, was always unwrinkled and in good repair.
Today, he was wearing the hunter green long-sleeved ribbed tee that was Wendy’s favorite. She could recite the shirt’s assets by heart, having found the same top in the Eddie Bauer catalog. One of its best features was how it hugged Matt’s chest and well-formed upper arms. Whenever he wore the shirt, she wondered how he developed and maintained this physique, if he had a regular regimen at the gym or if this form came naturally. She started to picture him at the gym, the muscles beneath the cotton shirt tensing into hard bulges as he worked his pecs.
While she surreptitiously evaluated his upper body, she suddenly sensed that he was looking at her. She raised her eyes to his face and they made eye contact. He smiled at her, then tipped his head in the direction of the man in the suit and raised his eyebrows in a question. She gave her shoulders a subtle shrug.
The rest of the meeting participants had gathered around the table. Matt was ready to start.
“To what do we owe the honor, Tom?”
Wendy noticed that these VPs had a way of owning the room regardless of whose meeting it was. The amount of space he was taking up—his chest puffed out like a rooster’s—was distinctly male. She could sense Matt’s reaction to him; his territory was being invaded. You don’t have to be an anthropologist, Wendy thought, to see that there were two rams in the room, preparing for battle.
“Good morning, Matt,” Tom said with forced joviality. He had a leather-bound notebook in front of him which he did not open but mindlessly stroked its surface. He looked at Wendy and nodded his head in her direction. “Wendy.”
She nodded back. “Tom.”
He sat up straight, so his head was higher than everyone else’s. “You’re going to need to change the schedule.”
Wendy’s eyebrows came together and she opened her mouth to object. Before she could say a word, Matt caught her eye and shook his head. He leaned back in his chair, rested his intertwined hands across his belly, and regarded Tom with a look of amusement.
“By how much?” he said.
“We’ve got a key customer who needs it ASAP. You need to bring in the ship date by a month.”
There was a lot of movement in the room. The engineers were agitated. Wendy could feel her face getting red. If Matt hadn’t given her the signal, she’d have exploded, even if Tom was the VP. There was no give in the schedule, not if they didn’t want to destroy the sleek product they’d spent countless hours designing and refining and that required every minute of time they’d allotted to development and testing. Besides, she knew there was no such thing as a customer that couldn’t wait a month for a new release. Even if they managed to kill themselves and deliver the product as Tom was requesting, the customer would probably leave the CD sitting on some drone’s desk in its shrink-wrapped package for a month until the next scheduled training session.
Matt smiled slightly. He opened his notebook and looked to Wendy. “We’ll need to discuss this. Wendy, do you have your copy of the features list?”
“I sure do,” she said, using the same light and friendly tone as Matt’s. She opened her notebook.
“This is going to take us a few minutes, Tom,” Matt said. He turned his attention back to Wendy. “So what do you think? What can go?”
Wendy got it. She studied the list. “Not sure. Tom, we have this new feature that’s on Roger’s plate that’s taking close to a full month for development.” Matt handed Tom a copy of the features list so he could follow along. “Number 16. If we scrap that, it wouldn’t have a ripple effect on the other features and Roger would be freed up to work on something else. There’s your month. The other way to go would be to eliminate a handful of the enhancements, say—” She scanned the paper in front of her. “E152, um… E63, 64 and 65 and, let’s see… E97. Matt, does that look like that would do it?”
Matt shook his head. “We still have to take QA into account. What if we include… E84?”
Wendy looked at him and nodded. “I hate to lose that. But that makes the most sense.” It was all she could do to keep from laughing. They were decimating the product and being so reasonable and earnest about it, Tom couldn’t raise an argument. She could see his mouth opening and closing, opening and closing.
By the time the meeting was over, they’d agreed to bring in the schedule by a week, a week Wendy knew they’d slip, which meant they’d ship the product on the original schedule. The concession was a joke, but it allowed Tom to walk away with a perceived victory. She knew he’d simply finagle to get his hands on a pre-release version anyway, so he could deliver the product to the customer and say it was there on time.
What a great meeting, she thought as she started to put papers back into her folder. She would have blown it if she’d gone head-to-head with Tom. Matt had been brilliant.
The rest of the team vacated the meeting room while she and Matt remained to collect their papers.
“Good meeting,” she said.
He gave a little laugh. “Yeah. You were great.”
“I was great? You were great.”
He laughed again. “I guess we’re members of the Mutual Admiration Society. Let’s call it a draw. We were a great team.”
Wendy felt her heart leap, a wildly inappropriate feeling for the office. Matt was looking at her with the tenderness that had originally endeared him to her. Her cheeks flushed. She wanted to say— No. This was all wrong. God, Matt suddenly looked so attractive, the way he was looking at her.
“I’ve got to go,” she said, closing her notebook. “I’ll see you next week.” She gave a quick wave and walked briskly out of the room.
Friday night, Wendy got home from work and changed into her play clothes. She was meeting Kim for dinner and a movie. Usually, Gretl was waiting for her at the back door when she got home, but the cat was not there.
When she returned home at around midnight, Gretl still had not shown up. Wendy opened the sliders and stood on her deck, making kissing sounds that echoed in the silent night. “Gretl!” she called softly. She searched the dark yard for the cat’s white profile. But the cat did not come.
The next morning, Wendy woke early. Gretl, having been out all night, would be ravenous. She came downstairs and looked at the back door. No Gretl.
Fine. Don’t come home. That cat was a big pain.
She opened the slider and called out, “Gretl! Gretl!”
She left the slider open and poured out some food into the cat’s bowl, expecting her to come running in at any moment. Sitting at the kitchen table, she ate her own breakfast, read the paper and drank her coffee, all the while keeping her eye on the spot where she expected the cat to appear.
There was still no sign of Gretl when she went out on her morning jog. During her run, which she usually used as an opportunity to disappear into her thoughts and revel in nature, she kept her eye out for any sign of a white animal.
When she got back to her unit, she went around to the back and searched the yard as far as the woods. At the edge of the woods, she called out the cat’s name, squinting into the thicket for any hint of the animal, perhaps a bit of fur caught on a low branch. But there was nothing.
She returned home and took a shower. “Where’s my cat?” she said out loud as she dried herself. It was noon by then. She didn’t know much about cats, but she knew Gretl and, in the months since she’d taken her in, she’d learned that it was unthinkable that the cat wouldn’t come home for more than 24 hours.
As she looked out the window at the backyard, a sense of panic suddenly came over her, bringing tears to her eyes. It was all too strange, she thought, because she didn’t care about the cat, not one bit.
Another hour passed. Wendy was trying to get through some work at the kitchen table, which was nearly impossible while she so distracted by thoughts of the missing animal. She couldn’t help but picture her beautiful cat lying in the woods, torn to pieces, an unrecognizable pile of white hair. She closed her laptop and started to cry.
Just then, she heard a mew and saw Gretl darting across the vibrant green grass toward Wendy’s porch. Wendy leapt out of her seat and opened the screen door. The cat ran in, heading directly to its food. It attacked the bits in the bowl, crunching furiously. Nothing about the cat’s appearance explained its long absence.
“Gretl! Where were you? I was so worried!” She patted the cat while it ate, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Don’t do that. Don’t you go away like that again.”
She pulled the cat away from its food despite the danger inherent in that, and picked it up, nuzzling her cheek in the cat’s fur. “Don’t go away again,” she repeated, purring the words into the animal’s neck.
The tears wouldn’t stop. She opened her eyes wide when she realized that the tears might have to do with something other than the cat.
“I’m so stupid.”
She put the cat down and it bee-lined back to its food.
“I’m so stupid, Gretl. How could I be so stupid?”
She grabbed her bag and keys, then got in her car and headed toward the office.
When she drove up to the building, she saw Matt’s car, one of only a few cars that was parked in the vast lot. She raced into the building—stopping to scrawl her name in the security guard’s log—tore up the stairs, and then fumbled with her key card to gain access to the Engineering floor.
The only light in the long hallway came from Matt’s office, at the corner at the end of the hall. She walked briskly toward his office, still out of breath from the two flights of steps she’d taken at Olympian speeds. Finally, she was at his doorway, holding the sides of the door jamb, catching her breath.
He had been facing the window, his back toward her. He turned when he heard her panting at his door, clearly surprised to see her.
She had stopped crying during the car ride, but as soon as she started to speak, she could feel herself choking up again. She fought to keep the tears down.
“I…” She was still catching her breath.
“What is it Wendy?” Matt said, his brow furrowing with concern.
She shook her head vigorously from side to side and started again. “I believe in ghosts.”
He opened his mouth and she shook her head again.
“No. I don’t…that’s not it. I…I can feel the souls…of people, you know, after they die.”
“I don’t understand.”
She pressed her hands against her stomach. “When someone dies, like at their funeral or something…” She dragged her hands up her body, over her chest, until they landed near her neck. “I can feel them…ascending. Like I’m a vessel. They go through me on the way…to…wherever. I believe that.”
“You believe that?”
She nodded. “Yes. I know it happens. I can feel it.”
He studied her, looking a bit dazed. His eyes followed the path her hands had taken up her body.
“Wow,” he said.
She smiled and wiped away a tear.
“I know. It makes no sense. It’s utterly ridiculous. But it’s true. It really happens.”
His face relaxed and he looked at her with so much kindness and empathy, Wendy felt like something inside her would break. He stood up and went to her, moving toward her until they were face-to-face. Then he brought two fingers to her cheek and wiped away her remaining tears. His other hand reached out to hers, dangling at her side. He touched her palm gently with his fingertips.
“Lunch?” he said.
She nodded, and squeezed his hand in hers.