There is always a haze of some kind inside the apartment now. The light pushing through grey curtains, motes flung from the fingers of the ceiling fan. Bacon overcrisping in the cast iron. The little bit of smoke that leaks from the in-unit laundry. An essential amenity for hard workers. He has not been outside in many days.
His cell phone rings.
“Is this Mr. Hugo?” says a woman’s voice. “We’ve been—”
“No,” he says, and hangs up.
His cat sleeps each night in the space between his knees. He lays still in the halfdark—the neighbors across the way keep their living room lights on at all hours of the night—and listens to the other cat chewing on all his various cords. Sometimes even the cookbooks. He does not love the other cat, though he cannot bring himself to give it away. It feels like a small victory over the other cat’s former—true?—owner to keep and provide for it.
One day, when the sun is reflecting perfectly off the windows on the other side of the courtyard to form a clean circle of orange on the far wall of his apartment, his friend convinces him to walk out to the park. He leaves the apartment in sunglasses and a hoodie and a scarf. Like he’s in disguise. The cats don’t even rush the door when he opens it to leave. They are watching the orb of light. It is the only thing they can do together peacefully.
The park is hemmed in by bent trees and one-way roads that terminate in blind curves. His friend has dyed her hair yellow. She sits on a pink blanket halfway down the hill, watching a child pour soapy water into a sewer grate.
“That’s a change,” he says, seeing her hair, and sits down. There is much else going on in the park. A soccer game and a man dancing with his hat for money. A birthday party around a stone picnic table. Sunbathers. A first date—they’ve forgotten a blanket, and instead squat with their butts on their heels. Dogs are chasing rats in the ivy. Someone is climbing a tree to retrieve a dying balloon.
“How are you?” asks his friend.
“There’s just not a lot going on.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way, you know.”
“It doesn’t have to change either,” he says.
A golden retriever the color of paper falls out of the birthday party. A cord of synthetic rope trails behind and, as a child grabs the rope, the dog’s legs begin to pump, its eyes wide. The child’s forehead meets the concrete sidewalk in a cloud of blue chalk dust. The dog runs towards him and his friend, bounds into the space between them. He reaches his left hand out and the dog places his fingers gently between its teeth. Almost smiling, both of them.
“What a good boy,” says his friend.
“Come on, Rocky!” calls a man with rolled sleeves. He’s at the edge of the birthday party. He’s only turned the top half of his body; the lower half is still focused on the birthday party. “Rocky, be good,” the man with rolled sleeves says.
The dog’s tongue covers his knuckles. He reaches for its ears with his other hand. A light scratch behind. This is, he realizes, the best thing to happen to him in weeks. And what can that be but depressing? Sitting in the park, sweaty, hacking through dull conversation. He will blow it all up. Give away the other cat. Let it out in the street. It’ll make its way. He’ll pack up everything in the apartment and drive to Paris, Texas. Get a job at the soup factory and buy a single-story ranch house and pretend that that’s where life started. He won’t tell anyone that he’s leaving. He’ll just disappear and let everyone wonder where he’s gone. He’ll hint in conversation with his friend that he’s thinking of killing himself. She’ll be the last person in his existing life that he speaks to and over the next few months she’ll become the living symbol of everyone’s loss. Oh, I hear she was the last to talk to him. Yeah, she said he wasn’t doing great. Kept talking about how he’d been walking to the bridge over Rock Creek at night and just staring into the lights. Oh, you know what that means. He will haunt all of them, even the people who only tolerated him, even the acquaintances. They’ll bring him up in job interviews without prompting. People will wonder about him. They’ll commemorate his disappearance, think about how they could have been better friends. If only we’d included him. Oh! Oh! And he will live happy and alone or, even better, with an improved group in his orbit, somewhere else, and he will think back on this time and all these people and say: it was necessary for where it got me. They all had some use, in the end. Even the other cat, wherever it is.
He scratches behind the dog’s ears again. He puts on a serious face. Not sad. Resigned, he thinks. A face that’s made a decision.
“You know what I’ve been doing at night?” he says to his friend. He tilts his face away from her. Someone who really meant it probably wouldn’t be able to stare.
The dog’s jaw closes.