Marlowe by Rebecca van Laer


We had just moved in together when we looked out the window and saw the black kitten on our back patio. He rolled around in the fallen petals of the Canada plum, stretching his belly towards the sky. But as soon as Jonathan opened the door, he startled, then disappeared under the hostas.

We left out kibble and water, and as the days drew longer, he spent more time out in the sun. By June, he wound his way around our legs, flopping over to his side when we reached towards him. He nipped at our fingers, but softly — he knew we meant him no harm. We named him Marlowe.

Should we bring him in? We hadn’t planned on getting a pet, but it seemed like he had chosen us. When I got home from work in the evening, he ran out to the fence and followed me to the door. He sat on the recycling bin outside our bedroom window at night, mewing. We shut the window and turned on the AC. In the morning, he was still there, curled up on the blue plastic.

In July, we went out with a kitty carrier. Jonathan shoved him in, and in the process, Marlowe bit his forearm, leaving a trail of blood.

The vet said he must be quarantined for ten days: he might have rabies. I drove Jonathan to the doctor. She drew a circle in blue sharpie around the wound. If the redness extends outside this ring, call, she said.

I started to cry. The poor thing would be alone in a metal cage, terrified. Would he forgive us when we brought him home? Jonathan told me, you seem more worried about the cat than about me. The wound turned from red to purple to yellow, but it stayed inside the circle.

We brought Marlowe home.

Outside, he had been friendly — inside, he hid. I could never seem to find him: he wasn’t under the couch, or the bed, or even in the closet. Had Jonathan left the door open? Only once I thought he was long gone did he turn up inside the back of the sofa, or sitting in the broiler drawer. We hardly saw him for six weeks. But then one morning, we woke up and found him curled between our legs.

Jonathan and I were still settling in. We fought about our chores, our shared expenses, whether or not Jonathan would come to each of my friends’ weddings in the fall. Sometimes, on my way home, I drove in circles around the neighbourhood — just to have the time where I could cry or scream.

We held a cookout on Labor Day. As evening came and our guests began to lounge in the living room, Marlowe darted forward from under the couch and bit a friend’s ankle. I found Neosporin and Band-Aids in the bathroom. The friend took it in stride.

After our guests left, Jonathan did the dishes while I swept. I’m worried, I said. He’s not turning out like I thought he would.

What do you want to do? he asked. We can’t take him back. We made a commitment.

As time went by, Marlowe, now a large tomcat with a thick, shiny coat, began to sit next to us on the couch, sleep between us, and let us scratch his head — although nothing below the neck was safe.

Most of our friends were attacked. They laughed at the little marks he left — nothing was as deep as Jonathan’s bite. Somehow, people found this behavior charming, and many told us they felt a special affinity with him. They must have identified with the misfit, the rebel.

I wasn’t charmed, though. One day, as I lifted him off the counter where I was preparing food, he struggled and latched onto my right arm, gouging me with his rear claws as I tried to lower him, drop him, anything. I screamed at the top of my lungs and had to restrain myself from kicking him when he finally let go, leaving an intricate pattern of raised pink with deeper, bloody indents from my elbow to my wrist. I slammed the battered hand onto the counter, crying harder. In that moment, I hated him.

I showed Jonathan what had happened when he came home, and he made me feel ashamed: he’s a wild animal. You shouldn’t have picked him up.

The day before our Christmas travel plans, he peed in our bed. We were supposed to board a plane to my parents’. We should leave him behind, I said, and see what the cat-sitter says. Jonathan disagreed. He drove me to the airport, Marlowe in the back seat: they’d go straight to the emergency vet.

It felt like fate that Jonathan wouldn’t be there for the first Christmas we had planned to spend together. There would be no family bonding — no fights at the airport, no arguments on the way home. Without WiFi for two hours, I sat with my thoughts, feeling a mix of tenderness and resentment for the cat and the man in my life.

As we landed, I learned via text that Marlowe was fine. No urinary blockages, no kidney issues. You could try getting a new litter, but it’s likely a behavioral issue. Xanax might be an option, the vet had said. The bill was $800 we didn’t have.

When I returned home, Jonathan told me he had decided Marlowe should move in with his parents. They had a yard he could wander safely. I agreed. Now, if things between us ended, we wouldn’t have to decide who would keep the cat, at least.

I thought I would think about him every day, that little shared fluff that had seemed first like proof of our love, and then a test of it. But I didn’t. A month later, I found a catnip cigar under the bed and took a moment to remember where it had it come from. Oh, Marlowe, I thought.




Rebecca van Laer is a writer and educator based in Brooklyn. Her work appears in TriQuarterly, Hobart, Electric Literature, and elsewhere; and she is the author of a chapbook, Don’t Nod (Long Day Press, 2018). She has taught literature and writing at Boston University, Brown University, and Baruch College, and holds a Ph.D. from Brown.


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