I'll Take What She Has
“I don’t want to be at the funeral for a cat. It’s ridiculous. And depressing.”
“She was a Himalayan,” I protested.
“Nora.” Annie shook her unruly brown curls at me, which only aimed them higher to the sky. “She was only a cat.”
“She was Tabitha’s cat. That is entirely different from being only a cat.”
“And look at the crowd.” Annie shook her head again, this time in disbelief. What appeared to be the vast majority of the faculty milled about outside the pristine white Colonial-style chapel on the campus of the Dixbie School, a suburban Boston co-ed boarding school for the moderately inept. We had all received Tabitha Hunter’s email detailing her plan for a full service with eulogy for Evangeline the cat and in loyalty to Tabitha, one of the most eccentric of our teaching staff, who also had deep ties both familial and financial to Dixbie, given up a gorgeous August afternoon to come together. Dixbie has many distinguishing features, among them the fact that the median age of teachers hovers near seventy. Tabitha Hunter, at eighty, though professing to be fifty, tips the scales in the geriatric direction, and on not a few occasions, parents on tours will ask if we don’t share our grounds with a retirement home. Tabitha is not our oldest teacher, but she is the most important. Her parents helped to found the school, and for lack of a better one, she serves as our mascot.
“Shall we go in?” Tabitha pronounced with her sumptuously articulated vowels. Unlike Annie, I liked Tabitha. “And darling,” Tabitha took my arm and pulled me to the side, allowing the rest of my colleagues to enter the chapel, “would you hold this for me?” She pressed a large silk bag with gorgeous red lions embroidered on a tapestry of orange, maroon, and deep purple into my arms. “I will be right back.” Then she hobbled down the narrow, tree-lined path in the direction of the main campus.
Annie, who’d already gone into the chapel, poked her head around the door and gave me a devastating look. “You’re the one who dragged me here and you’re not coming in? I don’t think so.”
I gestured to the bag in my arms. “Tabitha’s orders. I’m holding this for her.”
Annie stepped out of the chapel and came over to me. “Beautiful bag.” She lifted a hand and stroked it. “What’s it for?”
Annie drew in a sharp breath, stopping me mid-thought. “You don’t think? . . . Oh, my God. It’s the cat!” she squealed, and then covered her mouth. “She put the cat in there! That is so Tabitha.”
“Um.” I swallowed, feeling the bile rise in my throat. I’m not one to be squeamish under normal circumstances, but holding a dead cat, even in a lovely tapestry bag, was too much for me.
“I so wish I still smoked,” Annie said.
“It’s totally bad for you. And you’re breastfeeding. And you haven’t smoked for a decade.”
“All good points. Still, wouldn’t this be the perfect moment to light up? If we were in a movie, I’d be smoking now.”
“If we were in a movie, I wouldn’t actually be holding a dead cat. I’d be holding a bag made to look like it had a dead cat in it. Which would be much better. This is awful. Where did she go?” I looked along the pathway for Tabitha. A lone figure in black was walking in our direction but it wasn’t Tabitha. “Annie,” I whispered under my breath. “Look.” I pointed up the path.
The woman clad in black, with a sheer red shawl casually slung around her shoulders, strode toward us. In direct contrast to Annie’s wild, untamed do, her thick mane of gently waving blond hair rippled out behind her a la shampoo commercial. The kind where they succeed in making women look like their hair is rushing behind them in undulating tides, usually with the use of fans, lots of product, and airbrushing. Seeing a real, living breathing human being with that sort of style stoked the flames of my already raging inferiority complex.
“It’s her,” Annie said.
I’d like to say we didn’t stand there staring with our jaws brushing the ground, but we probably did. Cynthia Cypress had come.
“I hope I’m not late,” she said, stopping in front of us.
“No. We’re waiting for Tabitha.”
“Oh, how darling! I adore it.” She reached over and gave the bag an admiring pat.
“Evangeline’s in there,” Annie stated smugly, gratified to be the bearer of disgusting news.
“Well, we don’t actually know that. I mean, Tabitha only gave it to me to hold. She didn’t tell me what was inside. I guess it kind of does feel like a stiff cat body, if I really thought about it, but it could be any number of things. It could be--” Annie gave me her standard shut‑up look, and a well-practiced one as she’s known me since my fifth birthday, twenty-eight years ago. Over those nearly three decades I have availed myself of every opportunity to say stupid things. At that moment, instead of acting properly mortified for blathering on about feline rigor mortis, I started to think about my hair. Have I mentioned my hair--my limp, thin, mousy brown hair?
Cynthia shook her windswept tendrils in a graceful gesture of sympathy. “Well, it’s nice of you to help out.” Then she opened the chapel door and walked inside.
Being so caught up in the moment of deep hair analysis, wondering, truly wondering, how I could acquire the same buoyancy Cynthia sported, I didn’t notice Tabitha return.
“Bastards,” she said, taking the bag out of my hands. “They won’t loan me a shovel, won’t let me bury Evangeline on the school grounds. Not behind my house. Not next to the chapel. Not in the playing fields. Not even in the backwoods! I’ve lived and taught here for five decades! I essentially own half of this place. Absolutely unacceptable. I will bury her right here in front of the chapel and put in a grave marker of exceptional size. Who do they think they are?”
“Do you still smoke?” Annie asked, in her classically non-sequiturian way.
“I stopped when it was fashionable,” Tabitha responded without skipping a beat. She smacked her lips together and asked, “Why?” And then, as she didn’t care about the answer, she ambled away from us to go inside, turning only once to say, “Hurry up. I’ve got a cat to eulogize.”
Once inside and seated snugly up against Annie in a packed fourth-row pew, I employed great effort to keep my eyes on Tabitha, not looking once to find Cynthia Cypress.
Cynthia, the newest hire in the history department, would start teaching when the semester began in September. No one knew her, not properly anyway. As she had no teaching experience, rumor had it she’d been hired on looks alone (probably her Pamela Anderson rack and Grace Kelly face). I think she got hired because she married the head of the history department, and the only attractive man at Dixbie without a prescription for Viagra, David Hayworth. To me, he’s the David Hayworth. There is only one of him, and he married Cynthia Cypress and not, for example, me.
“No one knew Evangeline like I did,” Tabitha was saying from her spot up in the simple wooden pulpit, waving her arms gracefully in the air as though she were molding a statue. She had black hair--well, she didn’t have black hair, she probably had white hair or gray hair or no hair, but she wore her hair dyed black as a crow’s feathers and swept up in a French twist. She’d put sparkly combs on either side of her head, and not a hair shifted as she spoke. She looked the quintessential art teacher. “She had an extraordinary temperament, as far as cats go, but even among my many friends, she held a unique place. Why, she was practically a person. She had a habit of using the toilet. No litter boxes for a creature as elegant as she. And, as all know who visited us, she was especially delicate when it came to eating . . .” Tabitha carried on for what seemed like hours, holding forth on every singular virtue her cat had possessed until it seemed likely that Evangeline was the greatest being ever to have lived, Mother Teresa reincarnated into a shedding, twenty-pound ball of fur.
Meanwhile, I still hadn’t looked over my shoulder for Cynthia.
I could feel Annie rolling her green eyes next to me and sighing at Tabitha’s every other word.
“Don’t I have something better to be doing?” Annie whispered.
“Don’t be rude.”
Annie cocked her head sharply to the right. “Every time I see Cynthia Cypress I feel fatter.” I looked in the direction her head was pointing. Cynthia sat in the row across the aisle with the kind of posture you see only in yoga magazines.
I looked away and shushed Annie, irritated to have my focus shifted onto the one person I was attempting not to think about. Since I couldn’t bear to listen to Tabitha’s wandering cat monologue any longer, I decided to think about my friendship with Annie. It began during a time when Annie could have modeled for fat-camp pamphlets. As a kid she sported the sort of tumbling jelly-roll belly you usually admire on a porky baby. I knew her through the usual social ostracism that gets visited on all fat people, knew her through her struggles with the StairMaster (when she first got on, she couldn’t believe it didn’t move your feet for you), through the all-yogurt diet (and accompanying intestinal pains), and the special weight-loss-enhancing vitamins that resulted in a strange rash on her nose. I never did care, not then or now, how much she weighed. I am in no position to judge: Annie is robust and healthy, while I’ve got the figure of an asparagus stalk. And while she was emphatically an overweight kid, she’s a perfectly reasonable-sized adult. As a matter of fact, she’s a great deal prettier than I am, with the flattering curves I’d acquire only if I stuffed my bra and got myself one of those rent-a-bums that you add to your nonexistent backside so you look like you actually have an ass.
I was thinking all this, what seemed to me to be an entirely appropriate inner discourse during a dull cat funeral, when I was startled out of my reverie by the sight of Cynthia Cypress climbing the two steps by the pulpit onto the platform. For a moment she stood in such stillness, she looked like a mannequin. Then she opened her mouth.
Considering that I’d already spent time with a dead Himalayan in my arms, the wave of heat, nausea, and dizziness that came over me had a perfectly logical origin. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of an earlier conversation with Annie.
“Please come to the service,” I’d entreated. “It will mean so much to Tabitha.”
“Tabitha has ten other cats. What’s the big deal?”
“Five,” I said. “But that’s not the point. She’s an old lady without any family. Dixbie is her family.”
“You know I’ve never got along with her.”
“That’s because you’re both stubborn and outspoken. Besides, Cynthia might show up. Don’t you want a chance to talk to her?”
“You’re the one who loves Cynthia.”
“I don’t love her! I don’t even like her. I don’t even know her!”
“You love her.”
“You make it sound like a crush.”
“It is like a crush. Like the kind you used to get in junior high.”
“I didn’t have crushes on girls in junior high.”
“Yes, you did. Remember how much you idolized Tina Rupert?”
“Tina Rupert was popular! Everyone idolized her.”
“You made a special thing of it,” Annie said. And fine, maybe I had, but I hate the way Annie gets to point things out to me from my past like she knows me better than I do. We went to school together in Iowa from kindergarten through eighth grade, until her parents divorced and her mother moved her to Chicago. We had the friendship that only girls parted against their wills can have, writing hysterical, hyperbolic letters detailing how the world had ended with her move. I never found another friend like Annie, not in high school, not in college. All those years, I missed her. I pined for her. She was my original BFF, and being pathologically shy, I never did make another one. When she called to tell me about the opening in the English department at the Dixbie School, where her partner, Ted, had been teaching for three years, I salivated. After that, I applied for the job; salivating doesn’t get you very far (especially on paper). Once hired, I moved across the country, from rural Iowa to suburban Boston. Out of Iowa for the first time in my life at thirty-one, a fact I routinely try to hide as I’m well aware how small it makes me sound. By the way, I am not small, despite being narrow. I’m nearly five feet ten if I stand up properly, which I never do. Except in basketball, tall girls always finish last. Or maybe it’s just me.
“Anyhow, you don’t need to defend yourself to me,” Annie went on. “I know this is really about David.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because I know you.” And she did. She knew me, sometimes, better than I knew myself. I’d never had a sister or a brother to love and hate me all at the same time; I had Annie.
Cynthia, now standing in front of us, illumined by the strong afternoon light flooding in through the giant arched chapel windows, sang with such sweetness and soul, I decided if I were David Hayworth I would have married her, too. Her song ended and Tabitha’s loud, tremulous voice commanded us all to pray.
I took a deep breath and said a prayer for Evangeline. That she would have a good life in kitty heaven replete with catnip, lazy mice, and humans to scorn (no cat fantasy being complete without them). I prayed for Tabitha to quickly recover from her loss, that despite Evangeline’s irreplaceable, almost supernatural cat abilities, she might find a way to go on living happily with her remaining tribe of felines. Then I said the same prayer I’d been praying insistently since my thirtieth birthday, which, at thirty-three, meant I’d said this one a literal million times so that it no longer resembled a humble plea, but came out in my head like a demanding toddler having a temper tantrum because she couldn’t get what she wanted.
And in the middle of this petulant prayer, Cynthia started to sing again, a crushingly emotional version of “Morning Has Broken.” I ought to have cried. Tabitha Hunter did. Instead, I couldn’t stop wondering how Cynthia, who no one knew, got connected with Tabitha. Then finally, as she held the last note, and her creamy, bisque skin and pink cheeks glowed cherubic, I thought, shit, shit, shit--and really I never swear but it couldn’t be helped--she is beautiful and she can sing like an angel, too.