Gwen was gone again. She claimed she was painting on the beach, but it had started to rain. I knew she was on the phone with Bella. When I say on the phone I mean texting, or maybe facetiming, which always makes me think of two-timing. People Bella’s age can’t just put the phone to their ear and listen.
Gwen’s daughter stood at the glass door looking out at the dripping palms. Yellow-brown fronds drifted like abandoned kayaks on the surface of the pool. The hotel’s website said the pool area exemplified Old Florida. This was both true and not, depending.
A gray cat crouched under a chair by the pool’s edge. It was trying to make itself so small it would not get rained on.
“I want to go get that kitty,” the child said. Her name was Thalia. Silent h. She was nine. Her default facial expression was the blankness that precedes panic, but the panic never arrived. She knocked on the glass with a sharp little rap. The cat flattened its ears.
“You can’t bring cats into hotel rooms,” I told her. “Besides, cats are tough. They can handle a little rain.”
Thalia’s shoulders drooped as they always do when she feels denied. It’s a shrug minus the initial upward thrust. Gwen does the same thing. They have the same lank brown hair and wispy build, too.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Gwen contributed to the making of Thalia, but somewhere out there is a man who masturbated into a cup and now here she is. Gwen and Thalia call the donor Oni, which is short for Oniemi, a Greek word meaning “to be useful and bring joy.” According to Gwen, Oni plays the French horn and is a licensed chiropractor. These are, to my mind, neutral value traits, neither good nor bad.
I didn’t know Gwen back when she was sperm shopping. She was with Laurel then. I met Gwen at a concerned citizens meeting about the emerald ash borer when Thalia was six. Gwen and Thalia were pale and helpless in those days, after Laurel left, eating nothing but gluten-free cereal and sleeping in the same bed. If they didn’t feel like getting up in the morning, they didn’t. Sometimes they were still in their matching cupcake pajamas when I came over to make them dinner. I thought hearty homemade stews would help. I imagined us all cross-country skiing and swimming out to the raft at Ring Lake. I admit I was in rescue mode. I admit it was not wholly rational. And yet: Gwen and I worked for a while. Later I was too fond of Thalia to leave.
“I want that kitty,” she said again. “Can I please, please go get her?”
“Sure,” I said. “Go ahead. Give it a shot.”
Her face twitched in surprise.
Thalia did not like wet or dirt or uncertainty. The most time she ever spent outside was one doomed half-season of youth soccer two years ago. She hadn’t understood why she never got the ball.
“It’s because you don’t run fast enough,” I’d explained. “Run faster and you’ll get the ball.” Simple cause and effect. Gwen had scolded me for shaming Thalia, but I’d only wanted to sow a little boldness in her. A girl needs that. I know from personal experience.
“I don’t have a raincoat,” she told me now. “Mama didn’t pack one for me.”
“It’s a warm rain,” I said. “Go get the cat. Bring it on in here.”
Thalia examined her knee. She scratched some blue polish off the nail of her big toe. She jammed her feet into her yellow plastic flip-flops.
“Here I go,” she said. She was still waiting for me to stop her.
“Ok then,” I said. I tipped an imaginary hat.
She slid open the glass door to the pool area and sidled partway out, as if testing the effects of rain on the human body. Her head was still in the room.
“If you want that cat, go get it,” I said.
She inched cringingly the rest of the way outside.
Near the pool a hotel maid in a wilted blue uniform stooped to clear away a sodden towel left on the rain-darkened cement.
“Hola,” she said to Thalia.
“Hola, como esta?” Thalia said. That she used the formal made me proud.
She glanced back at me—fearful but defiant—then squared her little shoulders and walked the perimeter of the small pool to the chair where the cat sheltered. Its gray striped fur was damp and matted. It let out a single mew as she approached.
“Here kitty,” said Thalia. “Come, kitty.” She knelt and extended her arms. The cat arched its back, hissed, and ran off, settling a few feet off under another chair.
Thalia slumped back to the room.
“No luck?” I asked.
“It ran away,” she said. She sat down on her bed and started poking and swiping furiously at the screen of her iPad.
“Sometimes you try things and they don’t work out,” I said.
“When’s Mama going to be back?” she asked.
“Not sure.” It occurred to me that Bella was closer to Thalia’s age than mine.
“It’s snowing at home,” I told Thalia. Maybe I was still hyping the vacation. She was watching The Great Supermodel Search on her iPad.
“I hate my hair,” she said. “I want it long.”
I lay down next to her on the bed and peered at the little screen. The potential models all had long hair. I was with a model for a couple months my first year out of college. She had sharp hipbones.
“I like your hair the way it is,” I said.
“I’m going to grow it out. I want to be able to braid it.”
I was probably going to miss most of the growing-out.
“That’ll be great,” I said. “I had braids when I was your age.” I ran a hand through my hair, feeling for the wiry evidence of new grays.
When I was nine, my braid was as thick as my wrist, the color of honey. Its weight on my back had felt like a friendly hand. It whipped behind me when I rode my bike.
“Maybe I’ll grow mine out, too” I said. “We could both have braids.”
Thalia squinted down. My hair, past or present, did not interest her as much as the onscreen models.
“Can we get a cat of our own when we get home?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ll have to see what happens.” I wondered if, without me, Gwen would stop Thalia’s violin lessons. She didn’t believe in making Thalia practice if she didn’t want to.
The cat was still under the chair, glaring out at Old Florida.
“Wait here,” I told Thalia. The models pranced down the catwalk.
I let myself out and slid the door closed behind me. The rain wasn’t as warm as I’d expected. I stalked around the pool.
“You’re coming with me,” I said to the animal. It blinked slowly, with a kind of cool malice.
I crouched, reached under the chair, grabbed the cat beneath its front legs, and dragged it from its shelter. I never realized cats had armpits. As I stood up, the animal dug its back claws into my stomach. I heard my T-shirt snag and a line of fire ripped across my stomach. I extended my arms so the cat’s legs dangled in the air, still working furiously. Snapping its head to the side, it bit my wrist again and again as I walked. I felt the teeth puncture my skin.
“Fuck you, cat,” I said.
The closed door was a problem I hadn’t anticipated. I needed at least one hand to work the latch. I slung the cat over my shoulder like a hateful baby. It sank its front claws and teeth into my shoulder while trying to tear my soft abdomen open with its hind claws. I wrestled the door open. I tore the cat off me and tossed it into the hotel room. It landed on all fours with a soft thud.
“There,” I said.
Thalia looked up from her show and saw the animal. She looked at me then back at the cat, who sat, fired one ratty hind leg forward at an improbable angle, and licked its paw. Watching this, Thalia’s facial muscles shifted very slowly—I could see them laboring beneath her thin skin—into a smile.