When the girl moves almost next door – across the way in our apartment complex – I lose my breath. Literally. She’s – well, gorgeous doesn’t begin to cover it. Long, incredibly rich black hair that you know just from looking at will feel like silk, and extraordinary eyes that I’ve never seen before – large, green, tilted, kinda cat shaped, really. The eyes are the first thing you see in the face, which is incredible enough on its own, with the perfection I’ve seen on film, but never in real life. Not too thin, either – she’s got cleavage that I’m trying to keep my eyes off, but failing. And young. Probably still in high school, maybe a bit older. A few years younger than me, but with looks like that, we can deal.
She’s moving in boxes and furniture, and even in this heat, she’s not sweating at all. I don’t question that. Instead, I gulp. The right thing to do, of course, is to go and offer to help. To pretend, for a moment, that she might actually want to be my friend. She won’t, of course, but I could have a few seconds of that before the word gets around, before she starts hearing about me and how I don’t really have any friends. Not here, anyway. On the internet, and a few hours away, sure. But not here. Assuming she doesn’t blow me off in the first place.
I watch her struggle in with a box. Oh, screw it. I’m just being chivalrous, that’s all. Which automatically means she’s going to put me into that “nice guy” category and we’ll never be more than friends, but, you know, just being friends with someone that good looking is something, right?
So I head over. “Need help?”
She’s so startled, she drops the box. I don’t know if it’s that she’s unused to talking to people, or expects she won’t get help, or what, but it lands, and the tape on it rips, and the stuff inside starts to slide out. Nothing much – I see what looks like towels and a few pots and pans. I bend down to help her stuff it back into the box, but she waves me away.
“Sorry about that,” I mutter, although I wasn’t the one that dropped the box.
“No, it’s cool,” she says, standing up after she’s sort of repacked the box. I’m staring into her eyes, thinking that I’ve never seen eyes like that, and I really haven’t – not anything that brilliant. Contacts, maybe? Man, I hope I don’t say something stupid about them.
“I’m Javier,” I say. “Almost a next door neighbor,” I add, waving towards my apartment, so she won’t totally think I’m just a freak who walks up and terrorizes women carrying boxes into their apartments.
“Oh,” she says.
I wait to think of something brilliant to say, but I can’t think of anything. Come on, I tell myself. You got past the introduction part. Now say something smart.
But I can’t think of anything smart to say, so I just repeat my first question. “Need help?”
It’s pretty obvious that no one else is helping her move things in, which suddenly strikes me as odd – usually, when people move in and out from these apartments they’ve got a few friends to help them out. I glance towards the parking lot and the rental truck sitting there. It’s a bit difficult to see, but it does look as if she’s got furniture inside.
“No, I’m ok,” she says.
“Sure?” I ask. “I’m not doing anything.”
She seems to consider for a moment, then holds out her hand. “Not sure,” she says.
I take it, and surprisingly, even though it’s August in Florida and she’s been moving boxes, it’s not sweaty or anything.
So we start unloading her truck. It doesn’t take long, and I realize that she was probably right when she said she was ok. Everything, from the bed to the couch to the boxes, is remarkably, incredibly light, easy enough for one person to handle. My mom and I have moved our couch and chair enough so that I know. I want to ask her how she found such a lightweight couch.
“Thanks,” she says, as we slam down the back of the truck. She wipes her hands on her jeans.
One of those awkward silences arises that I never know how to handle. I should say something, I know, but this is the part with girls that I always screw up, and knowing that is clamping my mouth shut. Luckily, after a few seconds that probably seem a lot longer than they really were, she says, “So, you live around here?”
I don’t bother to point out that I’ve already pointed that out. “Yes,” I say. “Over there,” waving my hand. I don’t mention my mother. For some reason, I don’t want to let her know that I’m still living with my mom. It’s just temporary, until I graduate from community college, but right now I only have one of those part time, sucky retail jobs, which isn’t enough to pay the rent. The only good thing is that it lets me work around my school hours. And it’s keeping me from ringing up the kind of debt some of my friends are getting from a full four year school. Sometimes I wish I’d just gone straight to a regular job, like Andy, but I can make more money with a community college or four year degree. Money. It’s an important thing, money. You realize that when you haven’t got any.
“Cool,” she says, as I try to think of something hot to say. Something that will jump me out of the “friend” category and into the “interesting” category. It’s hard, because I’m suddenly all too aware that I’m sweating, right through my T-shirt, even if she isn’t. Luckily, before the silence gets too awkward, a large black cat saunters up, and sits near her, staring at me. It’s a little unnerving, the way a really intense stare from a cat often is.
“Huh,” I say. I remember reading something, somewhere, about how one way to get a girl to like you is to get her cat to like you. Of course, that depends on the cat. I kneel down and put out my hand. The cat just continues to stare. Feeling weird, I stand back up. “I’m not sure your cat likes me,” I say.
“But she isn’t my cat,” says the girl smiling. “She’s my sister. My twin.”
I don’t say this out loud, of course, because the girl’s hot, and I’m not about to let her just put me on. “You have a twin sister,” I say, trying my best to imitate Darth Vader’s voice, and when that’s clearly lost on her – she’s probably not a Star Wars fan – “A biological miracle.”
The girl smiles down at the cat. “Well. I don’t know about biological.”
The cat just continues to stare at me, in that unblinking way that cats have. The silence grows. But it’s not an uncomfortable sort of silence, yet, the sort where you know you’re just going to have to break it by saying something unbelievably stupid.
“So,” I say. “Do girls with cat twins drink Starbucks?”
She grins at me. “You can try to find out.”
The Starbucks is just a couple miles off. We go there. She doesn’t say anything about my car, which is about one mishap from falling completely, but does have a kickass sound system, which I demonstrate for her. She grins. At Starbucks, I try to pay for us both, but she grins and hands over cash, and for some reason I don’t feel like continuing to push. Oddly enough, she gets plain, straight black coffee, while I end up getting the chocolate raspberry latte with extra whipped cream. It doesn’t seem, I don’t know, overly masculine or whatever, but she doesn’t say anything, and I like the thing.
And we talk. It’s awesome. She’s listening to me, Javier, and I’m not saying anything stupid, the way I usually do around anyone I don’t know well, or most girls, for that matter. And she’s laughing at my jokes. Not polite laughter when you realize that someone wants you to laugh, but really laughing. She’s doubling over and pulling her feet up in the chair. She’s got me telling more jokes and funny stories. I’ve never been this funny.
It’s all going so well that I don’t even realize the cat has followed us. I blink. I don’t remember the cat even getting into the car, much less following us in. In my experience – not much of it, I admit – cats don’t even like cars, or travelling, so how and why did this cat walk into the car in the first place? It must have been in the car; it’s too long of a walk for even a cat to run here this quickly.
And why the hell is Starbucks not chasing the cat out? They’ve got signs on their doors saying that the only animals allowed in are service animals for the blind and deaf. Sure, I’ve seen a couple women sneak in anyway with those little toy dogs stuffed in a shoulder bag, but at least those dogs are up in bags, only their eyes blinking. This cat is walking around the furniture, slowly, looking for the best place to nap. She finds one, by the girl, and curls up in a ball. And nobody in the Starbucks says a word.
Maybe this Starbucks just has a lot of animal lovers. I don’t know.
It’s probably a couple hours – maybe a little more – when the girl stretches and says that she’d better go home. We aren’t getting any looks from the place, but I offer to get more drinks anyway, just to stretch out my time with her. She shakes her head. She still has some unpacking to do, she says. And other things. We walk out and get into my car, still chatting. It’s not until we’re about a block away that I realize it.
“Crap,” I say. “I think we left the cat back there.”
The girl smiles a little. “Nah, she just wanted to stay a bit longer. Maybe pick up a guy later on, or something.”
“Um,” I say, not sure how I should respond to this.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “She can find her way back.”
“It’s three, five miles,” I say. Not to mention, I think, but don’t add, over a couple of busy roads that are not going to be too cat friendly. I make a U-Turn. “It’s no big deal. I mean, other than having to admit that we own the cat –”
“Nobody owns her.”
That shuts me up.
When we get back to Starbucks, the cat’s just waiting outside, sitting on the curb calmly. As I pull up, it walks up to the car. I open the back seat, and the cat jumps in and curls into a ball on the back seat.
“Smart cat,” I say, getting back in. “I’m almost tempted to ask it to put on a seat belt.”
The girl doesn’t answer that.
Once we get back, the girl and the cat head to her – well, I guess, their door. The girl turns to look at me. The cat doesn’t. “Thanks,” she said. “I had – it was a great time.”
I’m grinning. That might not be cool, but I can’t help it. “So did I.”
There’s a dead bird at our doorstep in the morning. Gross, I think. Already, a couple bugs are hovering over it, buzzing, along with the usual tiny moths in the air. I start cleaning the thing up.
When I look up, I see the cat staring at me. It – she – puts a paw up towards her mouth.
I find myself feeling a bit sick.
I’m even less happy when I find five dead lizards on the doorstep the next day. They’re carefully fanned out, in a pattern that I guess is supposed to resemble a star or something, and I’ve gotta tell you, it’s totally gross. “Fuck,” I say, out loud. I groan. I don’t want to clean this, but I know damn well that once my mother wakes up, she’ll make me clean it anyway, so I might as well get going.
While I’m scooping up the lizards, I look up, and see that cat watching me.
“Scram,” I say.
The cat just stares.
I don’t see the girl, or the cat, for another couple of weeks. When I do see the girl heading into her apartment in the afternoon, I hurry up. “Hey,” I say.
She doesn’t even answer me, or look in my direction, before slipping in. I see the cat at the window, looking out, but that’s it.
You’d think I’d have gotten the message, but somehow, I keep trying to see her anyway.
Maybe it’s because of all of those dead things that keep appearing at my doorstep – feathers, lizards, other things I really don’t want to identify. I’ve heard that cats do this sort of thing to show affection, and even though this is beyond stupid – I mean, I’ve never even seen the cat leaving the dead things there, and certainly when I have seen the cat, it hasn’t been particularly friendly – I’m letting myself hope.
It’s early in the morning, not quite hot, and I’m cleaning up some lizards when I hear her voice again. “Hey there.”
I cringe. Because as bad as it was to have a hot girl like that blowing me off, it’s even worse to have her see me trying to pick up dead lizards from my doorstep. “Hi there,” I say, trying to hide what I’m doing, which never works. “Just trying to clean something up,” I finally say, lamely.
“Oh,” she says.
“You’re probably used to this kinda thing,” I say. “Being a cat owner and all.”
She grins. “I told you,” she says. “I don’t own a cat.”
“Right. Right. Because the cat owns you and has convinced you you’re twins.”
She just grins.
I’ve got the remains of the lizards in a bag right now; I tie the bag and stand up, getting ready to throw it in the dumpster. She looks at the bag, and then looks at me, and something seems to darken her eyes. Disappointment, maybe, although it’s not like I’m good enough with girls to tell. But maybe she’s disappointed because she’s expecting to hear something from me.
“Say,” she asks. “Want lunch?”
I hesitate. “What is it?” I say, a little ungraciously.
“Tuna fish,” she says, and she runs her tongue across her lips.
That does it. I immediately agree, and we head out to the little park right next to the complex. It’s not much of a park – really small, and the playground equipment’s all rusty, but it’s got a couple of old picnic tables, and now, midweek, early afternoon before the schools let out, it’s pretty much deserted. She hands over a tuna sandwich and a Coke, and grins.
And for some inexplicable reason, I start talking. Really talking. Telling her, really telling her, about everything. About wanting to be a musician, a really good one, only the only instruments I was able to practice on for years were the crappy ones at the school, and sometimes a friend’s guitar or something. The way I’d first saved up money, bit by bit, for a guitar, a really good guitar, and the way I’d come home to find that my mom had taken the money, all of it. For rent, she’d said, but I’d seen the look in her eyes. It wasn’t the rent. The way I’d snuck out to a second job at Subways, not telling her about it. They way she’d looked at me when Subways had called to see if I’d work another shift for them. What I felt when I’d finally gotten a guitar, started to play, terrified that I’d started too late, that all the other musicians were already ahead of me. And how, after all that, last year, Mom had bought me Guitar Hero for Christmas, and given it to me, expecting me to smile and be happy. The way the guitar felt.
I don’t know why I’m telling her any of this. I mean, it’s only our second date. Or, hanging out.
But there’s more to it. I swallow. This is as bad as not having an instrument, as not knowing how to get the tunes I hear in my head down on paper or on a computer, not knowing how to get the different sounds in a band to work together and sound right, knowing that I’m going to be taking all of these practical computer courses at Valencia instead of music classes because they’re, well, practical. This isn’t as bad; it’s worse. It’s the way I look. The way I am. The way –
She’s been listening, up until then, but she cuts me off right there.
“Most musicians aren’t good looking at all.”
“You kidding me?” I say bitterly. “I mean, Tori Amos, the –”
“You think they honestly look like that? Or that they started looking like that? Come on. It’s all Hollywood. All makeup and surgery and shit. It’s not real. You wanna look like a rockstar, you can look like a rockstar.”
“But –” I swallow. I don’t want to say it.
“Sure,” she says. “You’re fat and ugly now.” Well. That hurts. I’ve got tears in my eyes. Whatever people might say, honesty isn’t always the best policy. “But that’s changeable, I’m telling you. Surface shit. Nothing more. What’s important is what’s there.” And she hits me in the forehead and on the chest.
“You been watching American Idol?”
“It’s a really stupid show.”
I can’t exactly argue with her there, so I take another route. “Every person –”
“You telling me that American Idol is the only way to go?” she asks. “How bout just recording your stuff and putting it up on the net and seeing what happens?”
I have to admit, the thought makes me feel chilled.
“I don’t have -”
“Oh, forget it,” she says.
I don’t know why that pisses me off, but it does. I forget that this is the first hot chick I’ve talked to, like, ever, forget that we’re actually friends. “How the hell would you know what it’s like?” I shout at her. “Being ugly and fat and all that. I mean, god, you stop people dead in your tracks. You haven’t a fucking clue what it feels like.”
Her face changes then. I can’t exactly explain how, but it does, shifting. Suddenly, she looks a lot less perfect, a lot less pretty. Those eyes glow, even more than they usually do, and I could swear that they actually swirl, the way they sometimes do in a horror movie, or something.
“You think I was always like this?”
From nowhere, that cat pops up, and arches its back, hissing.
It’s an absolutely gorgeous cat, as cats go.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah. I do. You’ve always been pretty, ever since you were two or three years old. You’ve always had people come up to you and offer to do things for you, or give you candy, or pay attention to you just because you’re pretty. You’ve had teachers smiling at you. You’ve had friends. You’ve had –”
It’s all choking up in me. It’s coming out, and yet I’m not really saying what I want to be saying.
“You’ve always had it,” I manage, although that’s still not really what I want to say. “You’ve always been gorgeous. You don’t have a clue what it’s like.”
Those eyes can’t possibly tilt up any more, but they do.
“You think so?”
Her hands extend out; for a second her nails look more like cat claws than anything else. She almost snarls.
“I wish,” she says. “I wish.” And then she really does snarl. I can’t explain how she does it, but it’s exactly like the shriek of an angry cat. Even her hair is standing up.
“You don’t know what we did to make ourselves look this way,” she hisses. “But I’m telling you, it wasn’t just Hollywood shit. That’s the stuff you can do. We didn’t have –”
But at that the cat is standing up, hissing. Well, more growling, and then it lets out a shriek, the sort you might hear from fighting cats, only this one is even worse than that, piercing, raw, actually painful. I slap my hands over my ears without thinking about it. The girl, too, seems startled. She opens her mouth, then shuts it again. The cat shrieks again. The girl nods. She looks back at me.
“Look, all I’m saying is you can change all that. Just – just don’t go to extraordinary lengths to change it, ok? Nothing wrong with Hollywood stuff. Stick with that. Not what we -”
And then she’s gone. Just like that.
It can’t be just like that, of course. I must have put my head down for a second or something – more than a second – long enough for her and the cat to run off.
Or so I tell myself.
And that’s it. I don’t see her, except in the distance, again, and whenever I do see her, and wave, she never waves back. The dumb thing, the really dumb thing, is I don’t have her number, or her email. Or even a name, to try finding her on Facebook or something. I have nothing except a couple of conversations, and her face. And knowing where she lives, and what her cat looks like. And hoping she’ll come by again, just to talk to me.
But she doesn’t.
Sometimes I see her on her porch, looking out. That’s when I wave, only to be ignored. Once, just as the sun was almost slipping beneath the horizon, just at that moment when light plays tricks on you, I almost thought I saw two of her out there, both lightly leaning against the porch screen, fingers raised up against it, almost as if she – they – were trying to claw their way out. It’s nonsense, of course. I wave again, but whether it’s the light, or something else, she – they – don’t wave back.
And then they’re gone, just like that.
You can’t always tell when an apartment is empty around here – most people keep their blinds down for privacy anyway, and behind closed doors, who knows? But I knew. I could sense it. Her apartment was empty.
“So, looks like those twins just hightailed out of here, huh?” It’s another neighbor, looking at the door, an older guy I nod to on occasion. He’s got a wife, or rather, had a wife, we think; we haven’t seen her around for awhile.
“Twins?” I say, a little shakily.
“Yeah,” says the neighbor, giving me a really odd look, as if I should know this, because I’ve supposedly been hanging out with the girl so much. Or, maybe, girls.
“I just knew one of them,” I say.
“Well, I’ll say that you didn’t often see them together. Just early in the morning, or real early in the evening, sunset, you know. I guess they had really different schedules or something.”
“Or something,” I agree.
“Anyway, they were a lot quieter than the last group.”
“Yes,” I agree, although honestly I can’t remember the last group.
She didn’t even say good-bye. Or, I guess, they didn’t say good-bye.
I don’t sleep well that night. I keep thinking I see a cat at the window, or something, but every time I look up, nothing. I wake up really late the next morning, after some weird dreams about cats and guitars and some unrelated stuff I can’t remember – pineapples, maybe. My mom’s still passed out, so I move around pretty quietly, feeling like shit.
She could at least have said good-bye, or something.
I make some coffee, decide to throw away the trash, and open the door, clutching the trash bag in my hand, see a pile of black feathers on the doorstep.
I head back inside, come back out with a small dustpan and some paper towels. I’m about to just start sweeping the whole thing up when I realize that the feathers are perfectly, completely dry, and something’s under them.
It’s a picture of two girls, identical twins. Maybe ten. Black haired.
Incredibly ugly. To the point that, if I’d passed them on the street, I might have averted my eyes. And yet – and this is the weird thing – even though they don’t look anything like the girl, I can somehow tell that one of them is the girl, grown up. Maybe it’s the nose or something.
Even if the girls in the picture have perfectly ordinary eyes.
I’m so involved in looking at the picture that I don’t see what’s below it for several seconds – minutes, really. When I do see it, I blink a little, and move the feathers that have drifted back on top of it away. I pick it up.
Pages and pages of blank sheet music.
When I pick them up, I can actually hear music dancing in my mind. And – the most amazing part of all – I think I know how to write it.