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Love, Hope, and a Cat Called Babylon
“Hey Babe, how’s it hanging?” I call. This is my ritual, entering my apartment to the bundle of fur that immediately encircles my ankles. I look down at the funny twirling orange and cream mass and smile. “Hungry, Babe?” I ask the mass, who looks up at me with those soulful topaz eyes and gives me her best purr. Meet Babe, my cat. Her full name is Babylon, like the city in Ancient Rome. Don’t let that fool you, though; there is nothing regal or even sophisticated about Babe. She’s a fat fur-bag with legs, one who does nothing but eat, sleep, and beg for more food. But she’s my fat fur-bag and I love her more than anything.
A laugh sounds from the “kitchen” end of the small apartment. “You always greet the cat before me, Kay.” The nutty, honey flavored voice rolls at me playfully, and I can feel my smile splitting my face open.
“I met Babylon before you,” I retort, though this is really only a technicality. Then I sigh theatrically. It is my major, after all, I need my practice. “Hello, you!” I relent, laughing like always because now Babe is just going crazy since only I feed her. I haul out the bag of food with that adorable kitten on it, the one that makes you think awwwwww, and don’t you wish your cat were just like that? And I’m remembering the very day I got Babe. The day so cold I thought that Hell might just freeze over and wouldn’t it be strange if all those promises made under these circumstances came true?
Smiling to myself on that cold morning, I headed outdoors with a heavy parka and no fear of pain, a bright bounce in my step. I had a bubbly feeling about that day, with classes cancelled because the University campus lost power. It was my first winter in New York – the state, not the city – and I was finding that my trusty Birkenstocks were leaving my toes more than a bit past chilly. Chilly, yeah. I was in danger of them freezing right off. So I had sucked it up and bought a trendy-looking pair of fur-lined boots that weren’t as warm as they looked, but were at least better than sandals. Mulling over how to spend my first weekday free of classes, I wandered into a corner coffee shop and ordered and iced latte with chocolate. Screw the weather; I wanted something from a blender. I was sitting at the counter contemplating the cold when I saw it. “It” was a tiny orange puff of something that looked suspiciously like litter moving in strange spurts along the shoveled walk - blown by the wind. It took me a few moments to realize it wasn’t a bit of trash at all.
“There’s a cat out there!” I said to anyone who would listen, and when it seemed like no one had I rushed out into the cold. The puffball froze mid-jerk, and I saw it hadn’t been being blown, but was so stiff with cold it could hardly move. It’s eyes, I saw, were a beautiful shade of gold. Carefully, I scooped it up and nestled it inside the coat I had purchased the same day as the fur-lined boots and stepped back inside the warmth of the coffee shop. At once, the manager looked up from the counter in alarm.
“Miss, you can’t have a cat in here!” He said in the tone of a man who is shaken by the tiniest venture from tradition. I simply looked at him, begging him to forgive this tiny suffering creature for a few moments, but he shook his head, his pudgy chin quivering at the movement. “Please, Miss, some of my patrons have the allergies to such things! Please, you cannot have a cat in here!” By now the short man had worked himself into a tizzy, wringing his sausage fingers, his eyes begging mine as mine had begged his. Then I heard the voice for the first time.
“Aw, Lyle, that thing’s freezing it’s white mittens off man. Cut it some slack, will Ya?” The owner of the voice was a young blonde man, maybe my age or a few years older, who was leaning casually against the counter, steaming drink in hand. Lyle – the short, plump manager, shook his head again vehemently, looking on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Fine.” I said, exasperated. “I’ll go see if I can find a shelter for the freezing thing.” And with that, clutching the thin bundle to my chest, I walked out. It wasn’t long before I heard booted footsteps behind me.
“Don’t you think it’s a little cold for iced coffee?” It was the same voice, the man from the shop. It didn’t really seem to ask for an answer, I could tell the question had just been a conversation-starter. I looked at him curiously, why had he followed me outside? As though in answer to my silent inquiry, he shrugged. “I know where a shelter nearby is, if you want me to show you. I got a dog there, once.”
I returned his shrug, sucking up the last of my drink and tossing it into a nearby trashcan. I kept walking steadily. I decided to answer his rhetoric, even though his voice hadn’t asked. “I’m not really from here. I’m from Georgia.” I blushed slightly, knowing he could probably hear the accent in my voice, not southern but vaguely Irish, where my entire family was from, the voices I grew up amongst. “You know, land of peaches?” I continued, using the biggest stereotype I knew for my home state. Not that it lacks truth, it is just an over-generalization. “It’s pretty warm down there, so I never learned to like the hot kind. Iced coffee and sweet tea for me.” He nodded, as if in understanding, but I felt the silence was strange. Suddenly the reason hit me and I felt myself redden again.
“Kayla.” I said, sticking out my free hand. “Kayla Burrne.” He smiled and shook my hand, introducing himself as Sydney Parks. We stopped walking, and I got my first good look at Sydney. I realized that his hair wasn’t really blonde, but a scruffy brown that had been bleached not by dye but by long days under the sun. I remembered his arms from before he’d donned his jacket in the shop, softly muscled in a way that suggested him being stronger than he appeared, masked by a layer of comfort. He was skinny, but I knew from a glance he was never what my girlfriends would have called “ripped.” You only got ripped from working out at the gym, I knew. Sydney’s kind of muscle came from real, outside work. Still, despite his comforting appearance, Sydney’s company made me nervous, simply because he was a stranger. He cocked an eyebrow at me.
“What? Waiting for me to attack you?” he asked casually. I was glad the cold had already turned my cheeks red so he couldn’t see how much I blushed, how well he’d read my face. “Not going to happen, Kayla.” We were still standing on the corner. I realized we had walked nearly two blocks, and Sydney had had plenty of time to make any move he’d wanted. I felt myself relax a little. Go with the flow, I told myself.
“So Sydney, where was that shelter you mentioned?” I had been so focused on walking, I hadn’t stopped to think about my direction. He grinned at me.
“Well, first of all, we should start by going the other way.” His smile was infectious, and I laughed a little at my lack of thought.
“Let’s go.” I said cheerfully, and started off the way we had come. It was never meant to be.
We had walked five blocks and were just one more from the shelter when I heard the sirens. Then I looked and saw the smoke.
“What the…?” I said almost dreamily. Figuring this was Sydney’s neck of the woods, I turned to ask him what building it was that was burning. One look at his face, and I knew that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Maybe it was something in his eyes that told me. “It’s yours, isn’t it?” I asked quietly. The fire was coming from a peach duplex in the middle of a tiny development of such houses, identical except in color. He nodded, then sat down roughly on the snowy sidewalk. Even from where I stood, I could see that the entire top floor had been destroyed in the fire. I looked down at Sydney. “Your floor?” He nodded mutely, and I sat down by him. We sat for almost ten minutes, pants soaking through from the snow, listening to the wail of sirens that tried to save the bottom floor in vain, when he finally spoke. His speech stumbled, a jarring difference from the smooth amber voice I heard in the coffee shop.
“I had everything in there.” It wasn’t so much that he was speaking to me, more like he was speaking aloud. “Absolutely everything. My guitar, my clothes, my hope.” I looked at him softly, concerned by this last statement. Slowly, haltingly, he told me his story. How he had come here two years ago, as soon as he could get out of the city he was from. He’d been making a living, hiring himself out to whatever farm or shop needed him, playing whatever bars would let him as long as he didn’t drink anything. He’d been looking to work out arrangements for a more permanent job, but now what? That little top floor was his home. As he had said, it had been his place of hope.
“What do you do when your hope burns? When it burns up and it’s gone?” He asked me sadly. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t yet feel I had a right to be part of Sydney’s tragedy, this twenty-year-old farm kid who with the voice that now sounded like rough leather and broken glass. So I did the only thing I could. I carefully reached an arm around his shoulders, holding him there under my new, uncomfortable parka, his eyes staring down at my strange feeling boots. And as I moved, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. No, it wasn’t my heart breaking, though I had thought it might. It was that frozen cat, clawing its way out of my parka, moving freely at last. I looked at Sydney, then back at the cat. I saw, somewhere in me, that there was indeed hope, that it never really burns down. And that was when I decided that they were both coming home with me.
“What? No way.” That was Sydney’s first reaction when I told him I wanted him to stay at my place. “You’ve known me for, like, one hour and you’re saying I can stay at your apartment? Are you crazy or just stupid?” But he wasn’t trying to be cruel, and in a way I knew he was right and was relieved at his reaction. Not that it was going to change my mind.
“Neither.” I said firmly. “I’m a big girl, Sydney. I know how to take care of myself. Yes, this is weird, and don’t think you’re not going to have to pay for your own food if you stay long, but I just watched your house burn down. I don’t believe you could have faked emotion like that. Stupid as it may be, I trust you.” I smiled, trying to get him to see that I really did know what I was talking about. “I don’t have a lot or proper winter gear for up here, so maybe I could use your help. What I do have is an apartment that you can stay in.” He just looked at me and I realized where his concern was coming from. “With a bed and a futon,” I clarified. Then even Sydney had to smile. I took that as a yes, and we went to my apartment, animal shelter all but forgotten.
Sydney Parks, the name still tastes golden on my tongue, but you won’t catch me saying “boyfriend” very often; first off, because even considering the word is a very recent development. Second, because “boyfriend” is how other people describe it. You never really say, “Hey, wanna be my boyfriend?” It just sort of happens, and before you know it that’s what other people are calling it, and when he stops looking embarrassed you know it’s true. This process is especially true, I think, when your BF evolves from your roomie. I noticed that a couple of weeks ago, but I’m still not really sure what to call our relationship. Like it or not, I picked this guy up off the street. Isn’t that a weird basis for love?
For me this was an especially confusing process. I remember the first night he kissed me, thinking how remarkable it was that his kiss tasted like his voice sounded; like honey and almonds and smoky, amber-colored sugar. But did kissing Sydney, lovely as it was, make him my BF? I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure – and Sydney still sleeps on the futon. But now his voice makes me laugh as I pour cat food for Babylon, and before I know it we’ve eaten our dinner of ordered pizza and are settling in for bed. This is always the most uncomfortable time for me, wondering what he’s thinking alone on his futon. Sometimes, I feel bad for leaving him there, for doubting his affection for me. These times stir memories of Saturday nights – the time we always make sure we spend together, usually under the watchful eye of Babe – and how gentle he tries to be with me. I remember him wrapping his hand around mine; around the neck of the guitar he had to but at a cheap second-hand store along with all his clothes, teaching me to play Blackbird. I remember how when I stumbled and messed up the whole thing, he leaned down and pressed his mouth to that bone at the base of my neck. I remember how he rested there just a little overlong, not as if he was taking it for granted but as though he was grateful to be allowed there at all. Quietly, I slide out of bed and creep to the other end of the room.
“Syd?” I whisper, not wanting to wake him if he’s already asleep. He isn’t though, and he seems to understand just by the look on my face. He isn’t offended or angry like I feared. His face doesn’t smile, but his eyes do as he reaches for my hand and I carefully climb in beside him. It’s not as though I’ve never had a boyfriend before, but this is new, this heavy, warm, silent closeness. I feel his arms slide around me, the same soft, strong arms I noticed that day outside the shop, and before I know it I’ve turned in his grasp and pressed my mouth on his, purely because it feels like this is where it belongs.
He is kissing my cheek and then just holding me against him. I can tell from his voice that Sydney is not, but that’s okay, too. And from the way he holds me I don’t know how many other girls he’s held, but I can tell it’s not many. There is nothing arrogant or self-righteous about the way he moves his hands. I let myself be touched, because this is what I asked for and it is simple and wonderful, letting his hands hold me; my back. I can tell where this is going and I shake my head, lips catching awkwardly on his. Sydney pulls back, searching my eyes and maybe he sees something like fear, because he just nods.
“It’s okay,” he says again, and then pulls me tight, hands rubbing circles on my back. This is when I know, when the question of our relationship becomes clear to me. I realize, with the force of a thunderstorm, that Sydney loves me, is in love with me. And right then, him seeing my eyes and not pushing, just saying ‘it’s okay’ and holding me, I love him so much that I almost give him what he wants. But I don’t. I don’t because he saw my eyes and I can’t bear to hurt him by him thinking I don’t want it, because I love him far too much, I’ve realized.
“How did this happen?” he asks me in the dark. I know exactly what he means. How did we – two random strangers on a random street in urban New York – meet and fall in with each other so perfectly? What stars had aligned to give us this chance? I shrugged, glancing over to where a dark mass now occupied my pillow across the room.
“You could blame the arsonists,” I offered, “but that doesn’t seem too comforting. So I guess we would have to thank Babylon over there.” I smiled at my best furry friend, and then back at the face I guess everyone else calls my boyfriend. “You know why I named her Babylon?” I asked Sydney. He shook his head no.
“Well, I like to tell other people that it’s because of the city,” I begin, tracing one finger down Sydney’s right collarbone, resisting to urge to kiss it because I’m in the middle of a story. “That’s pretty much true. You know, that city was like the three of us, random cultures, conquered nations and traders and all sorts of weird people, all coming together to make one of the most beautiful places ever.” I look at him, smile halving my face and laughing a little now. “But the real reason? From the day I got her, I called her Babe. You know that.” My eyes will him to remember that day, less than a year ago. He is nodding now.
“Yeah, I remember, Kay. You just said ‘Hey, Babe’ when you looked down at her, and I was like ‘Babe? Like the pig?’” He laughs, seeing where I am going. I laugh in agreement. “And then you said, ‘No! It’s short for Babylon, like the city.’ Brilliant cover story, Kay, very nice.” He rolls his eyes at me, grinning. I take a deep breath. Time to make a leap.
“You know,” I say casually, “you’re going to get back problems if you keep sleeping on this old futon.” I am curled up against him now, facing away. His body tenses, and then relaxes again. Then I feel the familiar print of his lips on the base of my neck.
“Thank you,” he whispers, and I know it isn’t for the home, the bed, or any unspoken promise of what I’ll one day let him take from me. It is for my trust. I feel the lips curve into a smile. “As long as Babylon approves.” And speak of the devil, the fat fur-bag with legs herself leaps up, settling herself between our stomachs, purring. Sydney looks down at the purring lump separating us. “I can’t tell whether that’s approval or not,” he admits.
“I think it is,” I tell him, and then gather them both in my arms. It’s just the three of us; me - the misplaced Irish southern girl, and Sydney – the loud, loose-jawed urban-kid turned farm-hand who told me I kept his hope from burning. And then Babylon, the spunky babe who clawed her way out of my parka that cold morning to show us it never could, to bring us all together.