To Lolita, my cat.
My steering wheel has ears. Two furry black triangles the size of Dorito chips. The dash is flat, with carpet, and deep enough to support a small passenger. There’s no hood or anything sticking out since the engine’s in back. All I’m trying to get at, really, is that I’m right on top of the road and my view of the tree-lined highway is wide open, except for a half circle of plastic and the long body of a small passenger who lies up there with her head against the glass.
Nice and cool, the small passenger means to say, or is it let me the fuck out?
You should know, I warn her, there’s no end. We’re on this ride for the rest of our lives.
What I like to do sometimes is pet the air just above her back, causing her to bristle and mix her fur with the phantom fur of an equally small passenger who came before her. An effect that chills my hand, even years later. Then, like clockwork, that shiver sends my head to the right, to the empty passenger seat, tick-tock, time to make sure the V-shaped coffee stain is still there, which it is, of course, always, and I’m pretty sure the fabric will remain depressed on either side of it, forever, where the eager legs of my first riding partner bounced up and down over so many butt-numbing miles.
Just us now, I tell her, but don’t think they’re not ingrained. Surely we wouldn’t have gotten this far without them.
What the ad said:
1985 VW Vanagon Westfalia Wolfsburg Weekender edition.
All it means, man, is no oven and no sink but it’s got the pop-up tent and fold-out table, Corey said over the phone. Curtains all-the-way-around.
What color? I said.
Why don’t you come see.
But I’d already given up…
Yesterday was a different story. I was in Santa Cruz at Paula’s Diner eating Eggs Benedict in an old Volkswagen bus, also named Paula. Paula’s insides had been scooped out and replaced with picnic seating and I was in there going on and on and on about about how this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Like I’ve heard people talk about these hippie buses or whatever before but I had no idea they were so, um, livable inside, I was saying, my tongue lubed up with hollandaise and milk. I mean somebody could basically stay in here, ya know, keep moving, life on the road. I don’t have a place right now, I could do that.
That would be sooo cool, Kylie said, dreads swaying.
When we got back to Morro Bay I started doing the online research. It wasn’t pretty. A huge commitment, a money pit, more a way of life than a form of transport, owners confessed on the Westfalia.org online message boards. Like an abusive relationship. Get used to being on your back, one guy said. The very active online forums, I might add. A cult car. Plus it turned out the preeminent Vanagon restoration and parts dealer in all of North America was only three miles away, called GoWesty. What fortune, I thought, before I found out that the cheapest humdinger in their hand picked fleet of fully rebuilt, meticulously groomed Vanagons was listed at 50K.
Unreliable, rare, and in such high demand people were forking over a year’s salary for one. To be clear, a lot more than a year’s salary for me. I pulled in maybe half that working as an online copywriter, a job I was already doing remotely and could keep doing anywhere with wifi, theoretically, which is why the idea of living in a van had seemed feasible to me in the first place. Theoretically. Before I found out the real cost.
So like I said, fuck it, I’d given up.
Then overnight that dirty dog Corey had the nerve to list his 1985 VW Vanagon on Craigslist. A Happy Camper’s Wet Dream, he said. Four blocks away. Could I be so lucky?
The outside was dirty brown, rust & tan, like Desert Storm, Corey joked, even burns a little oil.
Is that bad? I said.
No no, not a big deal, all these old vans lose some, he said. Just keep an eye on her levels and put more in before she dries up completely.
He was doing that salesman-y thing of acting like the item in question was already mine, and, on top of that, adding to the myth that all transportation was female.
Get the male consumer used to the the idea of something being his, then, if he loses it, he’ll experience intense disappointment, especially if it’s a girl, Sales 101.
Well he wasn’t subtle.
Is it open? I said, going around to the sliding door on passenger side. A big honkin door.
Forgot to close that, Corey said.
I’m not sure how I feel about this brown, I was thinking. Brown and tan and beige and not that clean inside either. But then Corey made some motion with his wrist and popped an elbow out of place and sure enough the roof shot up. Oh snap. An upstairs. A lofted tent and sleeping platform. I’d seen pictures of this setup online but it was way more impressive in person.
Super comfy up there, man, he said, punctuated by two brow lifts.
Does it run? I said, standing my ground.
Out on Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, everything slowed down. Mainly the car. The ocean at my side, sun on my neck, traffic piling up behind, Corey saw me nervously checking the rearview—
She loves sixty, he said, but that’s assuming you’re on level ground, or going down. On the climb you gotta be easy, might max out around thirty-five.
Chunks of sea salt pelted my lips. Boy was I lapping it up.
Expect cars honking and semis up your ass but you just tune them right on out, he said.
I nodded, brushing the hair out of my eyes—must’ve gained six inches since I got in the driver’s seat. Stubble tingled too.
Good, cause she’s all about taking your time. Takes more time, it seems like, than she does gas.
Don’t know what I said back, if anything, seeing as all my attention was on the smooth waves unrolling outside my window. A lemon cake with Smurf frosting dusted in conch. My window.
I’d seen enough, was hooked, but one question remained. Money. Something I hated to bring up with drool running down my chin, but what the hell, what could I say—
So the ad said eight. 8K. A hell of a lot closer to what I could afford but still a few K’s out of reach.
I like it, I really do, I told him, after we were back and he was showing me how to check the fluids, but it’s a little out of my…
How’s six then? he said.
Shit, this could happen.
Start with a price well above what you want, then slash it, catching the potential buyer off guard and making them feel like a fool not to accept, Negotiating 101.
Thank you! Thank you! I’ll do it, I said, grinning like a billy goat on grass. I was high on the ultimate drug. Consumerism. Impulsively buying something you don’t really need. In this case, buying not only cool car but the possibility of a whole new life. A life unbound. That’s right, this car is going to change my life.
So why you selling it? I asked, finally, post-handshake, his wife looking on.
We had another kid, he said, pointing at the empty car seat that had appeared on the porch while we were gone. So there’s the money, and, well … that’s it.
I was back with check-in-hand when I noticed the sliding door on the passenger side was open again. Instilled with a new sense of entitlement, I marched right over and grabbed the handle, fully intent on slamming that mother shut. Out of nowhere, though, Corey intervened.
His hand planted on the edge of the door, he began to speak, calmly. Listen, there’s one more thing I should tell you about this van before you go…
From Mile One there was the Siren, riding shotgun, a psychedelic folk singer who moved from Russia to the Land of Opportunity at 15 and fit the mold of free spirit like a leotard. She didn’t even let me get to the part about the fold-out table before asking how soon could I pick her up. I honked twice outside the shabby Hollywood address she’d given me and a gypsy fox with mermaid hair and keyboard appeared. This, she said, it’s yours?
The Siren used the sliding side door but had trouble getting it to close.
Bad door, she said.
Gentle but firm at the end.
That’s what he told me, this guy Corey. Be gentle but firm with it at the end.
It landed with a flat smack and bounced back.
Waaayyy too hard. Allow me. I’ve got you.
I asked the Siren along because I knew someone like her could never say no to a good road trip, especially not in something like this, so I thought maybe—maybe if I got her alone and buckled-in, maybe there was a chance at least she’d remember what it’d been like between us that day on Venice Beach. A month back. The serpent and the walking stick. Show me the way. One moment I’m alone, wide-eyed in a sea of people listening to her sing … next thing I know I’m waking up to whispers in my ear. How do you think the sand feels? A real life Siren, by my side, but somehow forever distant.
Three days into the trip, one state east of California, and I was already about to give up on the notion of some grand romance developing between us. Being friends was fine. Less stressful that way. But then nature stepped in.
I know this sounds weird, but if we take our clothes off, it’ll actually be warmer, I said to her, as we spooned and shivered on Ernie’s fold out bottom bed. It was early March and we’d been sunbathing weeks ago, so I’d only packed one light blanket.
Body heat, I explained, and skeptically she went along. We were naked and cold. Desperate. I don’t feel my butt, she said. Well I do. Helps if we move up and down like this, I said, shifting my hips, keeping as much skin to skin contact as possible. Oh sure, she said, holding firm and letting me do the bulk of the work. You are cold, oh my god, I said, taking her chest into my hands, scissoring the ends between my fingers. You’re freezing, she said. I rubbed my hands together in front of her face, real fast like starting a fire. Then I licked a couple fingers behind her back. The secret is us getting the two warmest parts of our bodies to touch, I said, pushing my wet hand down along her stomach while simultaneously prying apart her knees with my foot. Getting warmer.
It’s doing something, she said, reaching back between her legs and grabbing the first thing she could find. Yeah, that’s it. The heat came out in spits and claps from where we were joined. Hot orange whips colliding and coiling around our waists. Crack. Dancing by the fire. Pop. The motion itself had a mechanical nature to it. This is how pistons work. The harder I push, the more energy we produce.
I fought through a tangled mess of hair and bit down hard on back of her skull. Hard enough to make a point. She pressed both hands into the seat, lifting and turning us onto our knees without slowing the heat-making movement. We were one well-oiled machine. Steam evacuated our mouths, salt bubbles formed over all the invisible pinholes in our skin. I gathered her hair into a tangled ponytail and twisted my wrist, locking the grip, holding on as long as I possibly could. Just two animals doing what we had to to stay alive, and once we were done, that’s exactly what I told her.
You’re funny, she said.
The heat would fade but we’d stirred up enough juice to last through the night. The one blanket we had was bunched up at our feet. As long as my toes are covered, I said, I don’t get cold. Her eyes were closed, every breath, followed by a hissss.
It would all look so alien in the morning, I thought, lying awake. Every night we went to sleep among the stars, but each day, so far, the sun had come up and told us we were right back on Earth, but someplace new, uncharted ground, surrounded by grass and dew or dust and cactus or commuters buzzing by on their busy ways to work. What’s the rush, guys?
This time it turned out we were parked on a figure-eight dune buggy course in the desert. New Mexico? I popped the lens cap off my camera for the first time and took pictures of burning sand at sunrise and the Siren behind the wheel. She rubbed both eyes with clinched fists like polishing binoculars. Morning cobra, you wanna drive?
The warm, dry air and flat land put me right back to sleep. When I woke up I leaned over to check the speed. 70. He loves sixty, I had told her several times.
I know how to drive, she said.
A red dot over the squiggly line symbol was flashing.
How long’s that been on?
You smell something?
You peed yourself, the Siren said, cackling. She could be oddly crass sometimes, possessed by the great trickster spirit.
It’s blinking, you can’t see that?
She clicked her tongue.
Just pull over.
As we slowed down I could see smoke pouring out of the back, where the engine was, and once we came to a full stop, I noticed a puddle of toxic looking green ooze accumulating under the bumper.
Driving when a car overheats, I said, that’s how you really fuck up the engine.
I want chicken, she said.
You don’t even eat meat.
How to wake up from a bad dream:
Find the smallest, darkest place to hide. A closet is ideal, but getting in a fetal ball will do in a pinch. Close your eyes, stop breathing, wait for all sound to fade. Whatever you do, don’t move. Nobody can see you if you stay totally still. Then, right before you run out of air, you’ll wake up and see it was only a dream. God, what a relief, your whole body will say.
I saw myself coming to on Matt’s couch back in Morro Bay, laptop glowing, Craigslist flashing in my face. Happy Camper-Happy Camper-Happy Camper-Happy— I slammed it shut and went back to bed. Only a dream, what a relief—
Do something, the Siren said, pushing my shoulder, trying to rock me out of my balled-up position in the backseat. I spoke face down in the fabric.
The van, I said, groaning. I knew there was something wrong when I got it. It’s been leaking all these fluids and one repair shop told me the engine probably needed to be replaced but I said fuck it and drove to LA anyway and everything seemed okay so I thought maybe I could get to Austin at least. I mean why not, already paid for it. But now we’re stuck, sorry about that. Why were you going so fast?
The Siren got out and started to crawl underneath.
Don’t do that, I said.
It’s all wet.
I sat up and collected whatever water we had to pour into the coolant reservoir. Should get us back to the shop, I said.
On the way we passed this sign:
TATUM – POPULATION 601
Good news, water pump has big leak, the owner’s son said, so that’s why it overheated, water done drained out. Nothing to do with the Siren going a few miles over, he assured us. Bad news?
Few days before we can get one … mom’ll have to get it in Lovington.
They can’t deliver it?
Mom works at the bank there, saves money her picking up parts.
So we’re stuck?
You got an RV park across the street, he said. Free. He said we could stay in the van until the part came in. Convenient.
The first night was bitter cold and the Siren had no interest in using the body heat method of warming up. In the morning she said, hey, don’t we need a sleeping bag?
I’ll see what I can find…
Tatum’s economy kept alive two gas stations, one grocery, a diner, and the aforementioned auto shop.
Food only, the checkout lady told me, you go to Lovington for that stuff.
How far? I asked.
Back at camp the Siren was singing and playing ukulele.
Furry little balls, running from the rain. Furry little balls, won’t go down the drain. Hair balls, why you all the same?
I noticed a scrawny, knotted-up tabby cat sprawled out in the backseat of the van.
Who’s this? I said.
A space invader, the Siren replied.
She shrugged and kept playing.
So no sleeping bags at the grocery store, I said, but I’m thinking about riding my bike to the next town.
Furry little balls, tangled in the mane. Furry little balls, don’t you got a name?
Kind of far, though, so you sure we…
She nodded, strumming along.
Yeah twenty miles each way.
Will that take long?
At first I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of biking several hours in the desert sun to make sure the Siren and I never had to have sex again, but hey, I told myself, what a great opportunity to redeem yourself for that sad display yesterday. Take charge. Be a man—
Do the math. Three in the afternoon … 22 miles each way … back by six, I told her, my calculations based on an estimated average speed of 15 miles per hour plus breaks and shopping time. Okay, I’m off, see you soon.
In reality, I was lucky to hit five mph. My tires were flat and the side of the road was thick with gravel and rubber scraps and sand. A camel sprinted by.
Water ran out 30 minutes in, so I took my chances on a irrigation spigot on the edge of someone’s farmland. Went down like wet rust. Not to mention my road bike with it’s slick wheels and one speed was not made for this. Could walk, but at this rate the store would be closed before I got there. Could turn back, but then I’d be a failure. Around sunset a day laborer with a truck picked me up. Bealls, ah, si, he said. Gatorade? Hell yes.
The next challenge was getting the sleeping bag I picked out to fit in my backpack. It wasn’t the most compact bag, but it had deer on it and I figured that might make the Siren smile.
And this headlamp, I told the checkout girl. I’m on a bike.
She winked. What about these?
That’s a surprise.
I sat on the curb for half an hour eating Subway and trying to reshape the fat roll into a long skinny tube. Finally, I said fuck it and tied it to my back. The narrow straps dug at my collarbone and the forehead beam bounced with every revolution of the tires. The path was empty and black except for the spotlight one foot ahead of my front wheel. The additional weight combined with a slight uphill grade and the isolation of darkness made it seem like I was pedaling in place. Going nowhere slow. Losing ground.
A distant porch light was my North star, and I couldn’t be sure if it was getting closer until I passed it. Then the damn thing started following me. Make that two of em. Twinkling. Right on my ass, honking.
My cousin saw your light go by, thought somebody might be biking out here, he said. Needed beer anyway.
Tatum, I said.
Midnight when he dropped me off—
30 miles biking, 14 miles hitching, two spontaneous instances of hydration, and one crucial impulse buy. The headlamp. Would’ve never made it on my own.
And there was the Siren, playing guitar.
Got it, I said, lifting the misshapen roll over my head like a gorilla … and there’s deer on it.
She lowered her instrument.
The sliding door was open, so I exhaled and hurled the bag inside.
Something darted past my feet.
The cat, she said, going after it without so much as sniffing the bag.
Wasn’t even cold that night, leaving me with only one move left.
The next day I told her I had a surprise from the store.
For the cat, I said, handing her a package of miniature mice with neon butts.
It’s wild, she said.
The cat didn’t know what to do with the plush rodents or their bright behinds but that didn’t change my plan … see the Siren had grown attached to the tough feline because she had love for all strong-willed creatures and appreciated their instinctual natures, whereas I too was getting attached, but for me kitty represented something that could bind the Siren and I together, indefinitely, which I wanted, I knew, even if I hadn’t stopped to think about why. This cat was my only hope.
How’s Tatum, I said, for a name?
Furthermore, I figured there was connection between the two of us making love, breaking down, and a cuddly animal showing up a day later on our floor mat. Inspired conception or true love manifested or something along those lines. Like a sign.
We’re taking Tatum with us, I said, once Ernie was fixed. This rare bit of directness on my part caught the Siren off guard.
We can do that? she said.
Let’s ask … Tatum, how do you like it here?
Nothing to eat and everyone I know is dead.
Kitty was ours. Two nomads and a baby, making our dusty way through Texas, some family. If it stuck.
My steering wheel has ears. During the day they stick straight up, twelve o’clock, but after dark they slide clockwise, striking two-thirty or three. The small passenger lies on her side, spread out like a tiny person. Nothing upsets her—not the potholes I can’t see to avoid, not the rumble strips I drift into on purpose, and not even the mega trucks screaming by our window close enough for me to high-five. I watch her belly, counting each minuscule breath. One, I touch her back and she squeaks like a rubber ducky. Two, I sing and she spins her head around 180 degrees just to roll her eyes. Three, her tail spasms, dreaming. Four, I start asking the tough questions.
Do you hate moving? What would you do if we saw mothercat again? Would you even recognize her? I really hope so, but I don’t know. It’s been three years and still I have no idea how you think, compared to me. You keep to yourself, in that way we’re alike, but that doesn’t mean you got it from me. Is it even possible for you to have a meaningful existence now that I’ve taken away your ability, your will, to reproduce? That was basically your whole reason for being, but not anymore, and not for me either. My idea is to keep seeing new stuff, keep meeting new people, keep readjusting the way I think right up until the very end, always stay open to new ideas. But does that make any sense to you? Are you capable of personal growth like that? I mean how often do you ever stop and truly reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve done? Or could you ask me the same?
Hey wake up, I say, you gotta see this.
The small passenger yawns. What, she says, insects?
Snowflakes, every single one is different.
Every single thing is different.
But this is one thing you would’ve never seen in Morro Bay.
What’s Morro Bay?
Part of your past.
Oh, she says, pawing the glass. Pesky instincts.
Welcome to South by Southwest, Austin’s annual music, film, and free shit sponsored by Pepsi festival. Now with a female companion who wanted nothing to do with me and a feral cat who wanted only to be freed. Not exactly South by as I remembered it. I remembered it being the absolute best thing about living in Austin…
For years SXSW signaled to me the end of another mildly depressing winter and the beginning of one more fun-loving summer. Time for tank tops and swim shorts and for me to grease up my trusty single-speed and race off alongside my best buds, mooning the poor saps idling in their cars, saluting the hordes of outsiders clutching for dear life their precious lanyards, having one hell of an excuse every morning to leave the house before noon. Hallelujah. Some people spent weeks leading up to SXSW plotting their big adventures on complicated, color-coded spreadsheets and RSVPing to so many showcases they couldn’t possibly keep up, but I saw early on there were no wrong turns. Planning was for the birds. Everywhere we went we were offered another new and thrilling set of bands we were already familiar with, if not by name then by common washed out sound, plus top notch scenery, Deerhunter vamping at the bottom of a rock face, The xx pulling spare chords out from under a rolling French lawn, Sharon Van Etten’s frail yet searing vocals at St. David’s being the only thing between a plaid-fitted congregation and God. Top that off with regular doses of free food and booze, breakfast tacos, Lonestar lunches, vodka-infused sweet teas all afternoon, and, like I said, very special thanks to Seagate hard drives, the name plastered on a pair of promotional sunglasses I got handed on the way in. When had I become a walking, talking advert for digital storage, and who cares … what a small price to pay for such a bright, sunshiny series of lovely days. In short, South by Southwest was X-mas for twenty-somethings—maybe Hanukkah, eight or eleven days and nights of gift getting, musical entertainments, and of course, grownup debauchery. Compare that to now…
Sober, blind, I followed the Siren around town like a dog whose owner dropped the leash and kept walking. Excuse me, think you’re forgetting something … I could run off, ya know. Would you, please. I’m so sick of dragging you along.
I knew the Siren wouldn’t go near the oily T-zone of 6th Street, Red River, and the Levi Jeans complex next to I-35, so I didn’t suggest it. I didn’t suggest anything. What do you wanna do? Where do you wanna go? Who do you wanna see? My only refrains.
Our first day was spent with the stroller-pushing classic rock crowd on South Congress. Day two, she decided, was a good time for a photo shoot with her sister, who lived in Austin. Go ahead, I said. I’ll stay here and finish up some stuff for work.
You have a job? she said.
The game was called how far could the Siren push me from convention before I said no. But I was unbeatable. I had the spirit of a tumbleweed. While everyone I knew scrambled around town trying to get their fill of corporate brisket and Kanye, she said why don’t we swim in the runoff down from Barton Springs. Oh how refreshing!
On the third day she practiced ukulele for three hours outside a cafe, while I wrote nonsense in a notepad about a cat in the van, wears his hat in the sand, making friends with no hands, and other cringeworthy stuff. Still, it was kind of fun.
Tatum needs to go to the vet, the Siren said, after we’d been settled a few days. She has fleas and I saw her puke.
A baby girl, the vet informed us, in case you didn’t know. A teen girl, actually, a tough nut, playing gracious host to ear mites, fleas, lice, worms, and malnourished too. Other than that, though, she’s in fine health, and so sweet, no feline HIV or anything too deadly. Good you guys nabbed her when you did, else she might’ve starved.
I’m really glad she turned out to be a girl, I said, not sure why.
She was always a girl, the Siren said.
The rest of the week followed the Siren’s routine of morning yoga and music rehearsal in the yard and eating peanuts until we stored up enough energy to ride bikes to some obscure performance space suggested by one or another of her friends.
Our bodies occupied the same space, approximately, but her mind orbited a distant planet. I, on the other hand, was stuck on the two-dimensional plane known as here, she said, pointing at the ground. Then she brought up the relative age of my soul.
Such a young soul, she said, definitely your first lifetime.
We’re the same age.
I know … crazy.
South by was about to be over and that exchange was as close as I’d come to challenging her. The only item left on our shared agenda was her closing night show at Flipnotics. The Siren’s sister was coming, and it was understood that afterwards she’d help transfer what few female belongings remained in my van over to her care. We hadn’t directly discussed custody of the cat, but she had mentioned Yanna was allergic. On the way there the Siren asked me would I mind filming. I’d love to, I said, finally being thrown a bone.
This was the only the second time I’d seen her play in front of others. The first being Los Angeles. And because I’d had such personal access to her since then, to her voice, her emotional whims, even her body once, I felt like I stood apart from the crowd. I figured if I could listen to her through their ears, second hand, then maybe I’d be able to see how it worked, her spell. And I’d be free.
I watched the whole show through the camera’s eye, hearing only what I could pick up from the audience. It was working. I locked in, but not like before. The zoom feature gave me an opportunity to focus on one aspect of her being, opposed to trying and failing to take in the overwhelming whole. Her stage presence, too much for one frame. I shot 30 minutes of close-up footage without moving off her knee.
At the end everyone was standing, bumping elbows and hips. I zoomed out and panned the room, knowing exactly how they felt, like they’d just been granted unfiltered access to the master stream. She’d brought them in. Could they possibly stay this connected all the time, they all wondered. Anyway, I’d done my part. Time to say goodbye.
I’ll keep the cat, I said, if that’s okay.
I was thinking, the Siren said, what if we kept going, like on tour?
Really, that was all it took? Why break free with nowhere to go.
I remember the blues music and more daiquiri than water and also she started to really appreciate what had become my signature style of shooting these zoomed-in, impressionistic videos of her shows, staying an entire song on her ankle, or elbow, tracking the length of her thigh, landing finally on her toes, always bare, until the big finish when I’d get no more than a passing glimpse of her long, classically-trained spider monkeys positively molesting the Casio’s cheap plastic keys. Whatever it was that’d come over her here in Voodooville, I knew not to jinx it by asking. Much as I wanted to.
You did good, she said, reviewing the camera. They’re weird—
But those hands, did I mention? Those hands were something else altogether. It was as if someone had stretched flesh pantyhose over porcelain bones. They carried weight. Had resonance. Ran independent her body and spread out like stars of the sea. Soft in the palm, tips cracked by finger-picking an old guitar.
Like you, I said, a werefox.
One time, at Neutral Grounds coffee shop, I made the mistake of trying to hone in on those fingers of hers during the first song, called Spiritual, and the camera shut off and wouldn’t cut back on for a week.
You’re funny, she said, reaching over and squeezing my neck. Hot damn. Now we were getting somewhere.
Mandeville, Louisiana, Fontainebleau State Park to be exact. Our sleeping bag spread out on the ground in all it’s deer-lined glory, the Siren wearing an oversized sweatshirt of mine. Nothing under, is there? I said, tugging at the fabric. She shrugged and I took the slight bounce in her chest as a clear signal to proceed. Let’s have a look…
By the time the officers arrived on the scene, the sleeping bag was buck-side down and the shape of my head was visible only through the horizontal stripes on her shirt. My shirt. They weren’t fooled by the optical illusion.
Get outta there, said a firm female voice.
I wiggled free. Oh, sorry, hi, is something…
This is a public park, you see the kids over there, the lady cop said. Her partner, a guy about our age, pointed out a woman not fifty feet away pushing a stroller.
We weren’t actually—
Where you from? the guy asked the Siren.
I said from where?
I live in Brooklyn, she said.
You? The lady looked at me.
California, I guess, or there, I said, nodding at Ernie.
Hippies, the guy said.
The Siren and I looked at each other and smiled. So?
Any drugs or weapons in the car?
No sir, just a cat.
You said a cat?
Yes mam, we broke down in New Mexico and gave her tuna and she never left.
Well that’s something.
At this point they were grinning, so I loosened up.
You wanna see it? I said. His name is Ernie. The interior is pretty cool, there’s this pop-up sleeping part and a table and closet and—
You two seem fine but you can’t be like this in public.
We weren’t actually— (we were)
It’s okay, you’re not in trouble, just make sure next time you find someplace private, the lady said, flipping shut her notepad.
Where do you get something like that? the guy asked, talking about Ernie.
From another time.
They wished us luck.
Something about it being daylight, with witnesses, made it feel so much more real than before. Less romantic, but in a good way. Not some frost-induced fever dream we’d wake up from shivering. This was daytime. We were alive. Let’s move. Maintain our momentum.
Detour: Nude swimming in the Mississippi during a thunderstorm—
And just when you mean to tell her that have no love to give her then she gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover.
Destination: Music City.
First, though, we’d need gas. At the station I’d lift my shades, I’d slip out the side door—where the tank was—and, like I always did but with more confidence, I’d slam that giant piece of heavy sliding metal shut behind my back. I’d do all this while humming along to a Leo Cohen tune the Siren liked to sing—
And you want to travel with her and you want to travel blind and you know that she will trust you because you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
I knew something was wrong the moment I let go of the handle. The door landed with a dull thump, not a crisp latch, not a latch at all. The thump was followed by a series of cries, cries I’d never heard on stage or elsewhere.
She had been reaching out—
Now Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river. She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters.
I can’t play again, was the next thing she said, after why the fuck did you do that. She buried the injured hand in her armpit. Tears formed—
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor. And she shows you wear to look among the garbage and the flowers.
It was an accident, I’m so sorry, I said, but it didn’t help. She had a problem with people apologizing too much. Passivity being one of our society’s less endearing tendencies compared to back home. Compared to Russia.
She hadn’t told me much about her childhood because I hadn’t asked. All I knew of the Siren’s history began when she landed on American soil—first to Chicago, where she did some modeling, waitressing, then to New York City, where she attended liberal arts school and taught herself guitar and got acquainted with Indian healing ceremonies upstate, while she was also finding inspiration in the ageless sound of the Dead and Dylan and Marley, just to name a few I knew, on her way to coming up with a sound all her own, as much as one ever can, a sound that had roots more in Greek Mythology than in American Folk, if you ask me, but anyway, it’s all connected, she would’ve said.
Her hand looked like a tomato. Let me see, I said, approaching slowly, crouching like I was closing in on a wounded animal. And I was.
Away, she said.
Look, I’m so sorry, I kept repeating. But sorry doesn’t do shit. A stall word. Ice, I said, finally. Let me get some ice. Then I’ll find an urgent care.
What a long and cloudy car ride but who knows about the weather. I kept my mind busy putting new words to old tunes, something the Siren said all musicians did. But they’re not lyrics, she told me, unless you sing.
She was in the backseat, petting on the cat’s feet. Me in the captain’s chair, scared to look back there. Turn on the radio, no way, wouldn’t dare. Doling out health advice, think the cat’s got hair lice. Tour’s over, let me out. Hold on, bout to find out…
After a brief examination and an X-ray, we got the news that it was only a deep bone bruise, nothing was broken, and she could go back to playing as soon as the swelling went down, thank god. Unfortunately, our celebration was cut short when we got back out to the van and discovered the cat had either vanished or squeezed out the sunroof somehow. Great.
Commence wandering around a concrete car garden peering in drain pipes and following tire tracks to nowhere. Like buzzards, circle the same smelly dumpsters until fed up. Whistle, shake the dry food, do the lost cat dance.
My wrist went numb, I got cotton jaw, the exhaust fumes were going to my head. You hear that? I asked the Siren. Here what? Phantom howls or psychic cries, maybe my stomach begging for a treat.
There, under the hummer’s oil pan. There she was.
Tatum hopped aboard Ernie, nonchalant, catlike, acting as if nothing had happened. And, I suppose, even though it was easier for me to say than the Siren, nothing really had. Nothing serious. Nothing lasting. Nothing we couldn’t get past, the three of us, together. These things happen on tour. Heck, this probably ain’t even the worst thing that’ll happen. Let’s go!
Just fucking leave! the Siren screamed—
Richmond, VA, the other side of the country from where we started. Not bad. Made it all the way here before have a real fight, to Starlite bar, before having things get personal and ugly between us. Flanked by bronze statues of civil war heroes on horseback, yelling at each other in the street. Oh my. It was two in the morning and we were fifteen minutes from where my parents lived.
And things had been good recently really good. We visited Hunter S. Thompson’s childhood home in Louisville, left a trail of avocado skins and pistachio shells along the Appalachian Highway, parked overnight in church lots, truck stops, or in any old patch of grass far enough off the homestead we could find. We were having sex like two people who liked each other—every day in mostly the same way. All in all we’d fallen into a comfortable routine, and if I had to guess, that probably drove her bonkers.
You want me to leave you on the side of the road in the middle of the night? Drive away with you on the curb holding your guitar? Wave goodbye in the rearview, turn up the music to drown out the voice in my head, show up at my parent’s house with a cat and a story, like, yeah, so I know I told you there was another person with me, a musician girl, lovely, nice, spiritual, but see we were wasted just now and got in this big fight and I left her downtown. Yes, obviously I drove, that’s how I got here. That’s what I’ll tell my mom.
You can leave Tatum with me, the Siren said.
She kept calm, talking slow. I’m not mad, she said, I just can’t be around you. All you have to do is go.
And what are you gonna do?
I’ll be fine, I’m not you.
I won’t leave the cat.
She begged. She broke down. She was yelling and covering her face. This is what I mean, she said, you’re too pussy to do anything on your own.
One hour earlier we were sitting at the bar and she was joking about me never getting emotional, friendly at first. Don’t you ever get like mad? she said, swaying, knocking me with her shoulder.
You don’t even get drunk, she said. You act the same.
I took a gulp of beer and attempted to save face by falling head first into the bar. Buh-uh, I feel lipe dunk.
You don’t care about things, she said. What do you care about?
I care about—
Don’t say me.
And you don’t laugh, you snort. It’s ugly.
I put my palms up. I surrender, I said, smiling.
See. That. you always get the same look on your face, that grin. Like you’re not sure, or confused, you’re a dumb puppy.
I took a big sip of beer.
You know what’s funny? she said.
You do it when we’re having sex. I hate it. You smile the whole time.
No I don’t.
I swear, you’re always doing it. I have to close my eyes.
Let’s go, I said—
There the Siren lied spread out on the sidewalk for awhile, still and peaceful. She didn’t move too much or fight when I finally lifted her into the backseat. And half an hour later we were home.
3AM: Tea time with mom. They discussed painting and music and spirituality and displayed a wider range of feeling in one hour than I had the entire trip. I sat back and marveled. I was exhausted.
4AM: In the room where I jerked off for the first time the Siren came around. Perhaps meeting my mom and seeing how warm she was had given her hope at least I had a similar capacity for emotion. That, or she was horny. I got behind so she wouldn’t see me smile. She put her hands against the wall and I stared at a Buffy the Vampire Slayer poster pinned above her head. Once More With Feeling, it read. I thought about the last episode of Season 5 where Buffy saves the world and her sister by throwing herself into a portal to hell with the most beautiful, spare piano music playing. I cried the first time I saw it—
Keep going, the Siren said. Now wasn’t the time.
The next day the Siren played a happy hour show in town. Mom, Dad, and even my Uncle came. Mom was taken with the Siren’s passion, she said, but wished she could understand more of the words. Dad compared her to Joan Baez. Uncle Bob nodded in agreement. I’m impressed, really, Bob said.
You have such a strong spirit, my mom told her after the show, and you’re really pretty. The Siren blushed. We said goodbye to my family. She was beautiful, but it was her voice and complex energy that turned people into heart-drunk followers, not so much her looks. Take me for example…
With little more than a few songs and some pot, she’d gotten me to turn a weeklong roadtrip from LA to Austin into a meandering cross-country Cat Song & Love Tour set to end with a gig in Brooklyn—the Siren’s east coast homebase. She was set to play Pete’s Piano Bar on April 17th, my sister’s birthday of all days.
My younger sister Ashley lived in Manhattan with her boyfriend. Can you believe I’ve gone my whole life and never once been to New York? I told the Siren.
I believe it, she said, watching the trees go by.
Northward. No hard feelings. Boy were we sailing.
Chicken or Beef? that was the question. The bulb flickered but if I squinted hard enough I could make out the sign:
Almonds and Spicy V8 was mostly what I ate while we were in motion, but sometimes, sometimes at gas stations in the early morning or convenience stores late at night, I couldn’t help but stare longingly at the giant images of fried flour wrapped warmly around beef. Visions of plucked wings crusted over in their own spicy skin haunted my protein deficient mind. The Siren was full vegetarian, almost, and anything too fast or processed made her queasy. I did my best to keep to a similar diet. Except sometimes.
Anyway it was late, 1-something, when we stopped in front of the 7-11 in Washington DC.
I’ll get the coffee, the Siren said from the backseat.
I was basking in the glow of corn taquito imagery two times the size of my head.
Then, before opening the sliding door, she asked me something—
Yeah, I said, reflexively, drooling—
I remember the familiar sound of the door grinding down its gritty rail.
Dirt and sand and cat food and god knows what else collected along that rail. Little crunchies.
Back the other way, flying fast.
The grinding noise always got my attention when I wasn’t the one making it. I could’ve sworn I said—
But it was too late to stop the door’s incredible momentum.
Instead of landing with a satisfying snap, the door hit dead into something soft and shock-absorbing. A silent thud was produced. A sonic boom. It bounced back, the door did.
I don’t have her, I said, in a whisper.
I remember an ultra high-frequency squeal, a sound my ears could barely register—
That was followed immediately by the Siren’s swallows of oh my god no I thought you had her.
Sobbing, the Siren’s.
Dull wheezes like a weed eater in ankle-high grass, Tatum’s.
The cat was curled up in a tight ball at my feet. I have no idea how she got to the door and back so fast without me noticing. But she wasn’t going anywhere now. She was breathing, though, I could hear. In spurts.
All my fault, I told the Siren, who was in shock. She couldn’t look. And It was my fault, but what did that matter. She’d been the one holding the door when it crushed into our cat.
I closed it so hard, she said, eventually. I felt—
I should’ve had her, I said.
You said you did.
Did I? I’m so—
Nevermind. Not this time. This time I had to do something. Show some prowess. Find a vet.
Too late, she said.
It’s not, this is a big city, there has to be one…
A Golden Retriever was on his way out, head bandaged, alone.
Cold lights and slick floors inside. Icy. Someone named Patty at the desk. Can I help?
We were closing the door, I said, it was an accident, she tried to run out, our cat, we’ve been traveling, she got caught in the door, it’s this big sliding door, her stomach, I said, holding my belly, it hit her here I think. I started to turn back toward the Siren for confirmation and quickly changed my mind—
Fill this out, Patty said. The doctor will do an X-ray. The Siren was sitting on the floor with Tatum in her arms like a baby, rocking.
They took our cat back. We waited. Everything was black or white. Strong enough fluorescents could take the color off a popsicle. But at least doing paperwork felt numbing somehow—brought us back to reality, grounded us. It was something practical to do. Or was it? Nothing we did now would have any effect on the outcome. So we waited.
You can come back now.
She’s definitely sore, Helen the Vet said, and in pain, but she should be fine, nothing’s broken.
Are you sure? I said, looking at the Siren first.
Yes, but there is something else.
I think she’s pregnant, the vet said.
I knew it, the Siren said, perking up.
We should do an ultrasound, though, make sure.
Before we could even begun to process this interesting new development, the lady vet was telling us about how we could leave—um, what’s her name again, Tatum, that’s right—overnight and they’d take care of everything.
Take care of what? the Siren and I wondered at the same time. Then the room burst into flames and the vet’s already pointy ears turned full-on horns. Oh—
Take care of it.
Don’t worry, it’s a simple procedure, we put her under, inject blah blah blah and then we just blah. Ta-dah.
I had stopped listening. What threw us was how she presented it as the default choice. For a second we weren’t sure if keeping them was even an option. Then it hit me—
Wait, were they, could they’ve been, um, messed up by the door? I asked.
Helen of Hell said she had no idea. Possibly, yes, but that’s not why I suggest aborting.
Her position on this matter was rooted solely in the harsh socio-politics of feline overpopulation, she explained. You have no idea how quickly these guys multiply. One fertile cat can give birth to as many as fifteen kittens per annum.
Annum? the Siren wondered aloud.
We’ll figure it out, I said.
An assistant came in and put the goo on Tatum’s belly.
Easy, I said, she’s sore.
It was hard to tell at first what we were looking at, but eventually we made out a few distinct balls. Blurry, undefined balls, but definitely some ball-like entities.
Relatively early in the pregnancy, Helen said, but her best guess was between three and five fluffy little embryo’s budding in there. She didn’t use the word fluffy, of course. A little over two months was a typical gestation period, she added, while I mulled over the timeline…
So she’d gotten knocked up right around when we found her. It’s even possible, I deduced, that when the Siren and I first had sex, the day before we found Tatum, these kittens were conceived.
Congratulations, I said to the Siren, with a half grin. We got ourselves a litter.
My steering wheel has ears. By now they’ve heard it all. I haven’t had an original thought in days. The highway has a way after a while of making us both see things the same. Dot. Dot. Dot. Eventually time rolls flat and the grass turns brown and every hill gets past its peak. Middle America. The small passenger wants my attention, apparently, so she’s up on all fours with her mouth open, eyes in slits, her back arched to the ceiling in what I call classic Halloween pose. She starts lecturing me about how we’re nothing but puppets.
I shrug, exaggerating the motion, as if someone’s pulling my strings.
You know what I mean, she says, we have no control, nothing changes.
I take my hands off the wheel, the car drifts into the center lane.
You’re not funny.
Okay, I tell her, I know it feels that way sometimes because you have such strong instincts telling you what to do, but there is no master, if that’s what you mean, no big plan, not that I see, no absolute truth and therefore no theoretical limit to what we can know. All we have is curiosity. I see the way you look at things, you’ve got it, and you know what they say about curiosity and small passengers such as yourself. Forget that. They’re trying to protect you, for your own good, sure, but actually what they’re doing is keeping you from thinking more like us. The next logical step from curiosity is questioning, which leads to needing answers, bringing us to god and science and books and maybe trusting our gut, back to instincts, but we don’t actually have to answer anything, definitively, now do we? Nothing being set in stone, can you dig that? All we know is what we know so far. Now I admit, there’s beauty in way you think, hunt-sleep-eat, survive, but I’m here to show you there’s more to life than getting by. There’s the effect we have on each other’s minds. Not biological, but psychic. That’s how we make sure this ain’t the end of the line. Not just by mating. Impregnate my mind. I push you, you push me, we all push each other to see things in a way we never would’ve on our own. We go on and on that way and we can’t help but grow. That is unless we’re alone. You see?
You know what mouse tastes like? the small passenger says.
It tastes like you’ve had your ovaries and uterus cut out of your stomach and all the hunting and killing and ending of other animal lives you do is pure evil but you can’t not do it because everything inside says you have to, instincts, as you say, even though you know, deep down, where the hole is, that the only reason your body wants so badly to kill and feed is so you can have babies and they can have babies and your kind can carry on. See it is biological for me. Before the operation mouse tasted like children soaked in honey. It tasted good. Now there is no taste.
Too loud. Or was it not enough shade? Why don’t we drive out to Rockaway Beach, the Siren said, but I have practice later so let’s go from there—
No fucking way, this spot is fine, I’m done moving, I wanted so badly to say. Instead I whined. Do you even realize this is an old car and we’re like going around in circles in the busiest place in the world and it gets overheated and will maybe blow up if we get stuck in traffic too long, which we will, of course, because this is New York. Then what?
I got friends here, she said.
I sighed. Driving in the city sucked, for sure, but it hadn’t actually been so bad I could take a hard stance. Frankly, I was surprised how not all that terribly bad it had been to get the Siren and her new drummer boy from Williamsburg to his rehearsal space in Bushwick. Forget parking though.
I’ll drop you guys and look for a spot, I said.
Soon, not quite yet, but very, very soon, I swore to myself, I would say no more, soon as I got my bearings. Then again you need each other, you live together, you have a pregnant cat. So much to take in at one time—
Relax, the Siren kept saying while I drove. But really, that was it, you should turn around.
Are you serious?
I hadn’t felt this helpless and anxious since the day we began this crazy, mixed up journey…
Day one, Venice Beach. We got out to the beach in time to see the sun go down. I wanted so badly to speak her language. If it’s this dark here imagine what it’s like out there, I said, motioning over the horizon with my finger. She was busy watching the birds stab at the remains of waves. This is right where we left off last time, I said, trying to find out where I stood.
Last time we were at the beach, remember, we caught the bus right before sunset, barely missed it.
I was so stoned that day, she said.
Right, me too.
At that point it wasn’t too late. I still had options:
1: Let myself get swept out to sea with the rest of the bird food.
2: Follow the Siren willingly to the ends of the earth.
3: Stay put, bury my head in the sand, hope I already had all the—
Wake up, the Siren said, let’s go find some music.
Number two it was.
Not until now, driving around Brooklyn, months after that night and not long after we’d arrived in the city, did I think back on that choice. Was it even a choice or had the Siren made up my mind? And was there anything wrong with that? Also what made up hers? The way I see it, she needed a ride, I needed to expand my mind, and so we traded time. Seemed fair to me.
Here we were looking for a parking spot near a reggae club the Siren said I just had to check out. This is it, I would tell her tonight. Thank you for taking me as far as you have, really, you’ve changed the way I see so many things and I would not be here, you know, here in this city or like here up here without you. But this is all I got for now. Coast-to-coast ain’t bad, right. I just can’t keep up. California’s better for me, for now, but maybe one day we’ll meet again on a similar far out space—
Before I could say any of that she spotted the most lovely expanse of open curb I’d ever seen. Two car lengths at least, plenty of room to go head first.
So eager to snatch it, I swooped in. Crunch. Did we hit something? the Siren said. Yeah, a parked truck.
No sir I don’t have insurance, exactly. The guy had the nerve to approach my window wearing a ballcap. Go Mets. He was in the fucking thing when I hit it.
Course you don’t, he said, blowing hot air in my face.
So what do we do then? I said, genuinely not sure.
He reached for his pocket. You don’t do anything.
I picked up half of the call … 6th and Berry … By the bridge … Big brown van, you know, the hippie kind … Yeah, still here … How long? … Thanks.
That’s it, I told the Siren. Did I ever tell you I don’t even own this car?
It’s not yours?
I didn’t take it or anything, I just never went to the DMV office to do the paperwork, so technically, no, it’s not mine, and I don’t have insurance so that means they’ll tow it and I can’t even get it back because it’s not in my name.
And you’re drunk, the Siren said. Will they search it?
Why, you have weed?
She was sucking her lips.
The guy was back at my window. On the way, he said.
What’s so funny?
Good question, sir. Was I mad, deranged, a sad clown? Nothing, I just smile sometimes, I swear, ask her.
I don’t give a shit, he said. I got your info, do what you want.
My head was shaking, my hands pounded the wheel. Helpless, soon to be homeless. I don’t know at who but I was mad. See this!
How does it feel?
He went back to his shitty old truck, which was a complete piece of shit, by the way, whether I added one more dent to it or not. That was a fact. What the fuck difference did it make. A Ford or some shit. The Siren petted Tatum and stared out the passenger window, nothing to add. You can leave, I told her.
Like a complete unknown.
And how easy it would be for her to walk away.
To be on your own.
Her whole life wasn’t tied up in some stupid van, that was me. She had a few things—guitar, keyboard, one pair of black pants so ripped you could see her ass in them—great pants, I had to admit, but nothing she couldn’t carry or replace on down the line. And the cat, of course, she’d take Tatum. She knew people here. She’d let me tag along, maybe, like a rolling stone, but how long could that go on. How long before she was off on her next journey and I was left sticking up my thumb, no direction home.
The minutes went by, the one Dylan song everyone knows playing in my head, before finally, I did what any reasonable adult would. Begged that fucker. I wiped the smile off my face, slammed the door shut, and strolled up to his shitty old shit truck.
Sir, we gotta work this out. That’s our home, you see, that van, I’m telling you, everything we got is in there, and it’s not just me, it’s the girl and a cat too. Has to be something we can do.
He bit the tip of his tongue and adjusted the ballcap.
Do you know the song Like a Rolling Stone? I said.
I’m scared, man. I just got here. I can’t do this, not on my own.
Two hundred, he said. But you should hurry.
I ran to the nearest ATM and prayed I wouldn’t come back to flashing lights and a breathalyzer at the finish. All clear. They were late. Crisis averted. Again.
Hello New York!
How does it feel?
We woke up the next morning naked. Delivery trucks loading beer to the left. Hydraulic lifts on the right. Backup horns. Where are we? I asked, looking out the windshield at the gray body of water that separated us from the most impressive skyline I’d ever seen.
That’s the East River, said the Siren, and over there, the Williamsburg Bridge. This is Brooklyn, that’s Manhattan.
For another week or two I continued to drive us around the city like a nervous worm. I tried making it work. Soon? Near here? You sure? What about parking? Every time I asked a question, I saw the belt tighten around her neck. She hated it. My weakness. Why can’t you just, I don’t know, know, I could feel her thinking.
God this itches, she said, tugging at the belt.
Take it off then, I said.
You driving, I don’t think so.
Done with what? she said.
Done moving around, we’re gonna find a place to park today and that’s it. We’re staying there. No more trips to Queens. No more studio bullshit. No more video shoots. I’m done.
You said we could use the car Friday for our show.
What show? I said, taking my hands off the wheel.
Webster Hall, she said, calm down.
Fine, fuck, sure, then we’re parked, for good, I mean it.
Your car, she shrugged.
Friday came and they played, but watching her with a band was not the same. Her songs needed space. Space was actually like the key element, as far as I was concerned. Now the violin and drums muddied up her vocals. They were her songs. For a time, I even thought they’d been mine.
Seeing her play with others made me think how it might not be so hard for me to slip away after all. What was I? A casual observer, a tagalong, one of those burrs that attach themselves to animals as a means of disbursement. Grow already.
It goes without saying she felt the same. She would’ve long since ripped away my presence like a scab and flicked it into the wind had it not been for a few very real, very practical things we had in common. One cat and one bed, namely. Not a whole lotta love.
The show was over, the van loaded. Want me to drive? the Violinist said.
Why not, I said, giving the drummer shotgun and leaving the Siren and I in the back. Just be easy, I said, he’s old.
Don’t worry, dude, I do this all the time.
Do what exactly?
He was a stud behind the wheel. Of my ride. He moved through Big Apple traffic like we were in one of those old racing games where the horizon is fixed and cars just sort of materialize up ahead. I stopped watching. I focused instead on the engine temperature gauge. Half-full when we left but steadily on the rise, going up as we encountered more traffic. Then came the bridge—
Dead stop. Three-quarters.
Even the Violinist was out of ideas. Rush hour, he said.
I don’t think I’d so much as looked in the Siren’s direction, let alone spoken to her. All eyes were on the instrument panel when I finally said, mumbled that is, side-mouthed, you were good … kind of still figuring out how to play together, I guess, but it was cool hearing your songs with more going on … different, though, I’m so used to it being only you … weird, not weird, just, you know, the vocals were harder to hear, like my mom said that time, but still good, really good, I liked it … sounded fine.
The van stayed still and I kept on rambling. We were in red.
Got a neat video, too, I think, mostly your hands, but also some tight shots of people’s ears, you know, like listening, hearing I mean, thought it was a neat idea.
The needle was ready to snap off any second now and the van smelled like hot piss. The engine boiling over, for sure, or the cat. I couldn’t watch. For the first time, I turned to the Siren.
Silently, and who knows for how long, she’d been crying.
Anya, what’s wrong? I said, putting my hand on her knee. She jerked away.
I can’t do this anymore, she said, resting her forehead against the window. I knew exactly what she meant.
I know exactly what you mean, I said.
She wasn’t mad. She was deflated. It had gotten to be a major drag, this whole thing. The fantasies of the road were over. There’d be no abandoned barn waiting for us upstate where she could play music and I could write, while our coterie of cats multiplied. She had called it Barnia, one time, a sweet thought, but the sad reality was a tiny room in Bushwick we were supposed to move into the next day. That was real. That, we both agreed, could not happen.
Smoke poured out from under the back seat where the engine was. Hey man, I think the car’s getting hot, the Violinist said. What should I do?
Now you ask. Cut the heater all the way up and let’s hope traffic gets going soon, I said.
The heater, really?
Yeah man, I said, it’s a pretty common thing to do.
Whatever you say, boss.
That bought us enough time to cross the bridge. I’m not sure where Anya slept that night but it wasn’t in the van. She never slept there again.
A few days later I was moving Ernie from one side of Bedford Avenue to the other for street cleaning, every Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30 to 11AM. Something went pop and the wheel locked. Power steering was out. It was a sign:
My lawn, my backyard, my living wallpaper, McCarren Park where I made my home in the van on a lovely expanse of Union Avenue curb. Prime real estate. Rent free. I slept in the van’s pop-up loft, only a thin sheet of canvas separating my head from life on the street. Home, but hardly alone. Anya still came by regularly to say hello to our restless, expecting cat. Sometimes I was there, sometimes not, but I could tell she was inside when the sliding door wasn’t fully shut.
The mere sight of her irritated me. I was bitter, felt used. I was being unfair, I’d later realize, but hey, this is how it goes after things fall apart. Do you really have to come by so much? I wanted to say, but again, I didn’t. I didn’t say shit. We had the cat to consider, who, surprisingly, she’d let stay with me.
Queen needs her nest, Anya said.
Queen needs her rest, I added.
She laughed and told me about a modeling gig she had coming up in the Grand Canyon. I’ll be gone a few weeks, she said.
Awesome! I said, maybe a little too excited. I mean, cool, good, good for you.
Home and on my own, imagine that. To everyone in this monstrous city, I was a complete unknown. Could be whatever I wanted and not one thing more.
If other people were fate, then I alone am will. I say who I am and how I feel.
I say I feel good!
On this day I’m an explorer, a gonzo tourist, a guy who takes his coffee black and his bagel everything. Thank you Sally! My window at Dunkin Doughnuts looked out on a busy corner with subway access and I looked out the window. Soon, I’ll join those suits and stockings and boots and head underground carrying my ticket to freedom, too. Everyone moved with such purpose, such places-to-be attitudes. Surely they had people to see. Inspiring, but also kind of intimidating. Was there anywhere I had to be? Anyone dying to see me?
To my employer I was AWOL. To the real park squatters I was a clean white boy with a two-story vansion. To my sister I was in dire need of a shower and shave. To the guy assembling RC skateboards in his loft over Bedford Avenue I was a gateway character. Anyone ever told you you look like Jesus? he asked. To the Hispanic family barbequing outside my den, offering me tacos and soda, I was someone they could do something nice for, and so they did. To my de facto peers, the peapods of stylish glowworms writhing on my extended lawn, drinking wine, giving the frisbee a go, I was all but invisible. A ghost.
So even if the answer was no, I didn’t care. Not today. Today, I had a plan. Do all my favorite things. Hit a used book store, explore a new branch of the library, then, maybe, if I was up to it, catch a flick. But mostly just walk. Walking is the only way to see a city.
I downed my coffee, hit Sally with a sharp farewell salute, and doubled back to the van on my way to the L to make sure Tatum had plenty of food in her dish.
Nice and fat, girl, looking good. Call if you need anything. As for me, I’m off to 14th Street, Union Square. Strand Books, then, who knows! See ya later.
A buck for a book, Ulysses, four-fifty for a cup, green tea, plus tip, the trickle down effect. Throw in a free urination at some midtown library, a nice one shaped like a castle, and I was back in business. Circle back to Union Square Cinema. One ticket for the new Wes Anderson, please, I said to the girl at the counter.
I sell popcorn, she said.
You know, I’d rather keep walking anyway, I told her. I’ll have the small.
And I was on my way. I headed down Broadway, leaving a trail of buttery kernels behind, thinking in the back of my mind I’d keep walking south until I ran out of land. See if I could see the famous statue through the haze. How could anyone stay still in this city. So many smells, so much noise, so many people. A current carried me through the streets.
I criss-crossed through the living streets going south east until I could see the Williamsburg Bridge. I had a decision to make. Independence or Democracy. Follow the crowd of costumed protesters coming over from Brooklyn or go my own way. Where’s everyone heading? I asked the hot dog vendor.
Prolly the financial district, he said. Wall street.
Oh. Before I could make up my mind, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach, right behind the belly button. More like a thumping. Come back, come home, the vibrations told me. Apparently, I was needed at the van. I made my way across the bridge, nodding with encouragement at anyone who passed going in the opposite direction. We all had places to be.
Tatum must’ve waited for me to get there because the very moment I slid open the door she waddled back to her nest of Mexican blankets and began labor. Come to think of it, maybe she’d been in labor for some time but had waited for me to start the actual birthing process.
Either way my backpack wasn’t even off when a shiny bubble formed on her rear end. Like a slimy see-through toy holder. Having read all these horror stories about kitten mortality, I was afraid of what might be inside. I was prepared for the worst—aware of it anyway.
I’d read online that it was not uncommon for newborn kittens to get wrapped up in the umbilical cord and suffocate. Also, the queen, under extreme stress, may neglect to bite open the protective membrane each baby’s born into, again, causing suffocation. Human intervention, should one be present, was only recommended in emergency situations … cutting the cord or releasing the newborn from its sack by hand, may be necessary, but be warned, any direct contact with the infant and you run the risk of leaving on it your unnatural scent, which may cause in some cases the mother to ignore her newborn should it survive.
Between stillbirths, lack of oxygen, dehydration, and fading kitten syndrome—which has to be about the saddest sounding thing ever—somewhere between 1-in-10 and 1-in-3 non-orphaned kittens, kittens with a mom, die before they reached two months old, according to Manhattancats.com.
On top of all that, there was the god awful thing with the door to factor in. I couldn’t find any data in regards to what slamming a 100-pound door on a pregnant cat’s abdomen did to survival rates. What about brain damage?
Imagine being the mother and having every last body in your litter come out pulseless. DOA. She would have to have known something was wrong beforehand, right? I don’t know, nobody had written about it—
When the first bubble dropped, I froze. I was peaking over the back seat into the delivery area at a creature so tiny and snow white, a little blind mouse. The hair was slick with shiny black & orange spots, a calico, tricolor, meaning she was a she. 99% of calicos are girls, I’d read.
At some point I had begun to cry.
Call it shock, call it humility, call it free will giving way to fate, but whatever it was, this whole thing went well beyond me. This peanut had been inside Tatum’s belly, and now she was here, now she was home. Welcome, sweet girl.
Tatum was a real pro, too. She ripped open the sac, bit off the cord, and gave baby a few good hard licks before moving on to the next. I was so fixed on the stunning calico, I didn’t even see the perfect miniature of mothercat plop out. But sure enough, there it was.
A scruffy gray tabby, noticeably larger than the calico, a boy, I assumed. Why hello to you, too, mister mumbleface.
I fell asleep after that. Yes, really. Tatum seemed relaxed and calm after delivering the second jelly belly. Everything was under control. Nothing I could do. At least I was here. What a draining day, the sun had gone down.
I woke with the heat of creation on my face and a chorus of baby birds chirping.
A whole pile of damp, squirming fur back there. And Tatum. Momma, basking in the morning glow, looking wrung out like a dishrag but as radiant and wild-of-hair as ever, her proud torso corralling her furry little balls. She made each one feel warm and secure. One, two, three, four, five extensions, each attached at a nip.
Her haul included white & gray twin runts, a harvest moon kit-cat with an orange shimmer down its back, and the two I’d met the night before, calico and tabby. All alive. All well. Chirp-chirp-chirpin away.
I got to watch them open their eyes for the first time. I watched as they grew from thumb worms to full palm, as they piled on each others backs and crawled from their nest to explore the rest of their home on wheels, as they worked up the courage to leap from the van onto the sidewalk to greet people passing by. Being in such a visible location, it wasn’t hard to find kids who would beg their parents to let them adopt one of these cuddly little critters once they were old enough to eat solid food.
And so I watched, as one by one they went bye-bye, until the day in late June when only a sweet calico and her tabby mother remained. Finally, I said my last goodbyes as Anya carried Tatum off into a house with a nice backyard. Then we hit the road, Lolita and I, heading west, poised like never before to grow.
My steering wheel has ears. And those ears, of course, belong to you. Lolita, the small passenger, light of my life, proof absolute there’s so much more out there than me. See we’re lucky, you and I. We don’t have to try too hard to survive. What’s hard for us not doing what comes too easy, not staying still too long. You will see, I hope, someday, that moving is the only way for us to be. We gotta keep going, like the Siren always said, or else we shrink. We drive on forever until we die.