It was after one of their crying jags, when the Kleenex pile grew in the middle of the floor in between their holding each other and talking, that he made a fist and touched her softly in the middle of her chest and looked deeply, soulfully into her. She offered the gesture in return, and they did that many times afterwards, but he always felt that maybe he was holding his fist a little more earnestly than she was, that maybe her fist did not mean what his did when it touched her. When he left her apartment that day, he carried all the used tissues with him, saying that one day they would burn them together.
He kicked the leaves with great exaggeration as he walked, bringing each foot as high as his waist in an attempt to get the entire forest airborne. It couldn’t be autumn, not officially, until he did that at least once, he’d told her. That Sunday he walked alone through Lincoln, looking for the perfect leaves. He’d driven 45 minutes because he’d remembered them being spectacular there, and he wanted to send her the best ones he could find. After she moved to Colorado, she said she missed the smell of the leaves most of all. The box he packed for her was filled with the yellows and reds of his walk, each leaf hand-selected from the ground. He wanted only the moistest and most colorful ones, imagining how she would slit the box open and press her face into it, the smell of their love overfull and carrying her back to him.
At first she thought it was arthritis. One week it was nutmeg week, when she put nutmeg in everything so she’d manage to ingest the entire cup that her healer said would help her knee joints. When it didn’t work, she moved on to Chinese herbs, which, when she cooked them, smelled so bad that she had to open the windows even though it was winter. And then, when he visited her, they went together to bee sting therapy, where the healer held the wings of each of 11 honeybees and pressed its abdomen into parts of her knee, leaving its throbbing stinger hanging there like a living zit. Her knees didn’t improve after the swelling stopped. That visit, they broke up again. At least, he thought they probably did. It was confusing because they lay together in bed with all their clothes on the afternoon before he left, “hugging,” but they had not had sex the whole time. Is this what friends do? An hour before she had to take him to the airport, he was moving against her almost imperceptibly – he really thought she wouldn’t notice — but finally she said, “do you want to fuck me?” and he said yes. He didn’t know if that meant that she did, too, but she enjoyed it and you didn’t have to ask him twice.
Years later, after the Lyme progressed and the spirochetes had nearly flayed her alive from the inside, her mother arranged for friends to “sit” with her to alleviate the isolation. She could no longer use the computer because the electromagnetic frequencies felt like fire burning every vein. The longest email he’d gotten from her in the last year consisted of five words – “hvng pty hrd time here” – after any number of one-word responses to his by-then sporadic emails describing his new life with wife and kids (“hugs” being the most usual reply). So night after night, in the darkened room, with Mish-Mash purring in his lap, he sat in the stained baby rocker after the kids had fallen asleep and gathered her to him. He held her hands, mostly, and she smiled at him, and he felt her warmth flooding him, and felt that he was helping her, that he had become her newest therapy. Sometimes they were in her small Denver backyard, him holding his arm next to her face so she could follow his finger pointing into the branch where the Northern flicker was calling over and over, seemingly for the sole purpose of evoking deep wonder in her. Other times he made passes at her, stroking her hair, touching her, wanting her, but he always held back because he knew she couldn’t tolerate stimuli and he was afraid she might feel him, even from 2000 miles away.
He would say prayers at the service, of course, even though he knew none. He’d just make something up for the sake of the kids the same way he made up stories for them every night before bed. He’d talk about what Mish-Mash meant to him, what a good kitty she was, and then he’d ask them if they wanted to say something. The way they’d sobbed in the living room when they heard the news, he figured they’d need some closure. Today, though, he carried her into the back yard alone. He set her down and opened the blanket, fold by fold, until he could see her head, her orange and black calico markings still beautiful. How strange, he thought. It was unnerving, her stillness. He focused on one of her whiskers, watching it very carefully, sure that it would move at any moment. He imagined her running.
As he dug the grave near the woods at the back of the lot, he heard the susurration of oak leaves overhead and stopped to watch the sunlight dancing over her fur. Even though it was already November, the oaks held their leaves. They would hold them, stubbornly, through snowstorms. They would hold some of them even until spring, the last of them twisting and flapping with the March winds. As he placed the cat carefully at the bottom of the hole, he started shoveling dirt onto her, and he thought of the box of leaves he never sent.