Claire’s hair made her sad. It fell out in black clumps every morning. After a series of blood tests, she was found to be in perfect health. She noticed a group of strands on her empty pillow and hesitated before unwrapping the towel from around her head. Her boyfriend Travis covered his eyes. She couldn’t be too sure that it was a coincidence, just something that he was doing to block out the sun streaming from the windows.
Claire threw open her suitcase. She had a job as a cat sitter. She stayed in other people’s apartments while they were away. The last apartment she stayed in had a grand piano. She would sit in front of it to wait for the sound to flow through her fingers, but it never did.
Travis had the apartment to himself most of the time and when he wasn’t working as a mechanic, he was at home. He said he liked the feeling of the remote in his hand even when there was nothing on TV.
There were people sitting out on the stoop of the apartment building where she had to watch the cats and when she got to the fourth floor there was already someone waiting for her, the door open a crack so that she could only see an eye.
“Hello,” she said.
Slowly, Claire’s client Marie pulled open the door. Claire saw that she was still in her terry bathrobe. Red plastic cups were scattered around the apartment. In the kitchen, empty cans of cat food were stacked and a fishy scent emanated from them. Marie didn’t look like she was planning on going anywhere.
“Come in,” Marie said.
Claire took a step inside. Marie shut the door. Claire listened to the click of the lock. Marie examined her. Claire readied herself for an insult, but none came. “Where are the cats?” she asked.
“Hiding,” Marie said. “Would you like something to drink?”
Claire nodded and followed Marie into the kitchen. The linoleum was peeling from the floor. A bulletin board hung on the wall with yellowed comics tacked to it.
Without asking what Claire would like to drink, Marie poured her a shot of vodka. “Cheers to our meeting,” she said.
“Cheers,” Claire said. “Where are you vacationing?”
“Usually when someone asks me to watch their cats, they’re vacationing.”
“Yes, I should get ready,” she said, but she sat down on the couch on top of a pile of magazines. “Have a seat,” she said.
“Do you want to show me the cats and tell me about their care?” Maybe Claire was being too pushy. She glanced over at the bookshelf. It was filled with plays. Claire thought of Travis again. He was probably just getting out of bed and lighting a cigarette. She wanted to be home with him. She was becoming more worried about holding onto him. Lately, when she became lonely during her cat sitting jobs she would call him. Sometimes he wouldn’t even call her back and she waited. Alone with the cats, she waited.
“What are the cat’s names?” she asked.
“Laverne and Purrley,” Marie said.
“Cute,” Claire said. So cute that she decided to believe that the cats existed, but the feeling that she had stepped into a questionable situation made her stomach rumble with anxiety.
Claire sighed. She was sure Marie had mentioned on the phone that the time of her leaving was to coincide with Claire’s arrival. What else had she said over the phone? Claire couldn’t remember. Travis had been playing music too loudly in the background. Maybe they had spoken about Marie’s sister in St. Louis or a younger man that she had met online who proposed a cruise off the coast of Florida.
“You know I’m not quite ready for the vacation,” Marie said.
“Does that mean you want me to come back later?”
Marie nodded. It was raining when Claire stepped outside.
“What are you doing home?” Travis asked her when she entered with a dripping umbrella.
“The vacation has been postponed,” Claire announced. She waited for Travis to embrace her with happiness, but he shut the door to the bathroom and she didn’t see him for another half an hour.
Marie opened the door so quickly that she might have been waiting for Claire. At that moment, Claire believed she saw a tuxedo cat dash off. Claire sat down on the sofa. They were silent for a while as Marie sipped liquid from one of her red plastic cups.
“You know, I once had prospects,” Marie said. Her voice shook as she spoke to Claire as if she was reciting a prepared monologue. “I was in school ready to be a famous director. Then I felt an emptiness gathering in my chest. Here,” she pointed. “It ruined me.”
The radiator in the apartment clamored as if there were small men hammering inside. Claire realized the apartment was hot but she felt suddenly too weak to take off her sweater. She pulled her sleeves up.
Claire took a breath. “I think I’ve felt this emptiness, too.”
“Maybe I’m the one who caused it. I’ve learned the only way to survive is to take other people’s energy. Your energy, Claire, is hard to pinpoint though. It’s impossible to take because I can hardly sense it.”
The one statement that Travis made that hurt her was about not being able to tell her age. Her disappearing hair confused people. It seemed to confuse even him. It wasn’t a chosen change of appearance like a haircut or a tattoo. He sometimes seemed not to recognize her.
“I haven’t done anything great in my life yet,” Claire said. She didn’t know if she should point out that for a job she was still feeding people’s cats and hardly squeezing by. Sometimes she made only $200 a month and had to live on the cans of tuna that she got for sale at the local grocery store. It occurred to her that this was a cat-like diet.
“You will though because you don’t have this emptiness, which only gets worse during the course of your life and then you are stuck alone. You can’t survive like this.”
Claire once threatened to kill herself. She had thought Travis was seeing another woman, wrongfully so, and then she had followed him one day and realized that he was just spending time in the local bar, playing one of the video games in which falling colored balls were matched. She had been embarrassed afterwards, but the fact that she could have been so worried endeared her to him.
Claire slid her shoes off and touched her bare feet against Marie’s shag rug. It reminded her of her grandparents’ house.
Marie soon poured herself another shot of vodka. She might have taken a different red plastic cup. They were all for her use, one within arm’s reach wherever she was in a room. “Do you want one?” Marie asked.
Claire shook her head.
“What is the weather like outside?” Marie asked.
“I haven’t been outside in so long. I get my groceries delivered.”
“But you will be going on vacation?”
Marie nodded. “You will help me pack my suitcase.”
Claire was supposed to stay for the whole week in Marie’s apartment. Maybe she should ask Marie about the payment in case Marie failed to pack her suitcases this time.
Marie began to talk about her friend Aaron who was her star in the plays she directed. He subsequently stayed in her house where she had fallen in love with him. He was from California and wore patchouli oil. They left together each morning for rehearsal. Most notably, he had played her swan in one of shows. His beauty was inherent.
Finally, Marie fell asleep, her cup tilting in her hand as if she had just sung herself a lullaby. Claire still hadn’t seen the cats. She stood by the door sweating. The lock seemed stuck. There was no way for her to get out.