Every Night My Husband Behaves Like a Cat
Every night my husband behaves like a cat. He jumps off the bed in a graceful leap and lands on his hands and knees. Skulking in his plaid pajamas, he surveys our bedroom, eyes narrowed. Then he stalks off with feline arrogance.
He walks on all fours without the slightest inclination to straighten up. He usually goes to the kitchen. Surrounded by the dark jars of spices, he paws our wood cabinets, the still-damp dishcloth I hang from the oven handle after dinner, the bowl of grapes on the counter. Sometimes he knocks things over. The items he breaks invariably require painstaking clean up, though he drops them apparently without deliberation.
The first time this happened, we were a year into our marriage. We’d gone to Ikea to buy kitchen tools. He forgot his phone at home and managed to stray away from me seven times. I’d pick up a lime-green spatula and turn around to find myself talking to a wire rack. I had to navigate a maze of spring mattresses, reclining armchairs and sliding-door closets while calling his name. It was like a parent losing their child, but I wasn’t sure which one of us was which.
We were silent on the way back. The insides of my throat itched from calling for him. He looked outside, watched the trees slide into each other.
I took a shower that night. I dusted my body with talcum and lay swaddled in blankets like a marshmallow wrapped in a crepe. His figure rose and fell under the blanket near me.
Around two in the morning, my mind was wrenched from sleep as I heard a dull thump. As my hand reached for the space next to me, a second thump reached my ears. I leapt out of bed. I called for him for the eighth time that day, but this time my voice trembled in the dark like a line drawn by a child learning to write. I found him crouching in the living room. He was trying to climb the coffee table with his knees. My first thought was that I’m still asleep; the second, that I’ve married a madman; and the last, I’m going back to sleep.
I ran up the stairs, tripped on the fluffy white carpet we’d argued about where to place, and pushed my face under the sheets. There was hardly any air inside, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to breathe even if my face was above the covers.
I fell asleep eventually, fingers unclenching from exhaustion. I don’t know when he came back. But he was there the next morning, sleeping with his mouth open. I couldn’t find the courage to ask him about the previous night when I was making tea, nor cooking omelets, nor packing his lunch. I meant to ask by the end of that day, but the day dominoed into week, month, year, until I decided that my husband behaves perfectly normally otherwise, so there’s no need to call a psychiatrist, his parents, or anyone. Sure, sometimes he repeats dialogues with startling vehemence when watching House of Cards, and he can’t eat his food until he’s arranged all the cutlery right way up in the drawer, but I’ve put these down to quirks. It’s what any normal person would do.
He comes home early from work one day, all home loan payment, twelve percent interest and unnecessary spending. I say nothing. I give him a glass of iced water, a slice of carrot cake, a place to sit by the air conditioner. He doesn’t stop yelling, so I give him a cool cloth to hold to his forehead and go outside to water our bougainvillea - the pink, white, orange. The paper-thin flowers dance in the breeze.
That night, as he prowls down the hallway, I follow him with a lump in my throat. He pauses at the entrance of every room. I come to a sudden stop behind him each time, careful not to touch him. When he reaches the stained-glass window in the door between the hallway and coat room, he puts his fist through it.
I fetch the mop and the dustpan from the supply room. As I pick up the pieces of what was a painting of spring flowers till five minutes ago, I hum Little Miss Muffet. I feel the weight of expectation that was pressing down onto my cheekbones disappear.
He makes no comment when he opens the smashed door to fetch his shoes the next day, and neither do I when I kiss him goodbye. I make spaghetti with meat sauce and mashed potatoes for dinner. I stand in the humid kitchen with tomato puree bubbling under me. Tears mingle with the sweat on my cheeks. I wipe my face with a tissue and add sour cream to the potatoes, an ingredient he says I always forget.
Dinner that night is steaming food in pastel bowls and wine in delicate glasses. He eats slowly. He takes a second helping of potatoes and offers to refill my plate too, but I decline. I have a small cut on my thumb from picking up glass pieces. I’m afraid that soon he will break something I won’t be able to clean up. After dinner while he’s rinsing the dishes, I hide a duster, cleaning solution and the mop in the coat room, feeling as if a sixteen-pound bowling ball just dropped into my stomach.
The shadows begin to lengthen inside. I don’t turn the lights on, hoping my refusal to accept the onset of night would defer it. I hit my small toe against the edge of the coffee table while walking to the window seat. I sit cross-legged on a cushion and strain my eyes to read a copy of The Times I find lying on the sideboard. Before I can unscramble the first line, he turns the lights on.
I walk around the living room, then go upstairs. I do some yoga, read the prologue of Shutter Island, watch eleven minutes of The Simpsons. By 11:30 P.M. I’ve run out of things I can pretend I have to do before bed. I take a long bath – exfoliate, scrub, condition – and crawl under the covers.
At 3:10 AM I hear the familiar sound of blankets shifting, a body landing on the carpet. I follow him to the living room.
He reaches the coffee table before me, and as I walk in he’s nudging a vase his cousin gave us when we bought this house. I reach forward to catch it before it falls, but the smooth porcelain doesn’t meet my fingers or reach the floor.
He’s holding it in both hands.
He puts it back in the center of the table and turns to me. His eyes are wide and as clear as when he asks what I want to watch on TV or what toothpaste to buy at the store.
He’s never looked at me directly when he’s like this. I take a step back, then fall onto the sofa. He moves forward. I resist the urge to pull my legs up. I sit on my hands and watch him, the insides of my mouth turning to wafers.
He puts his head in my lap, his cheek pressing into my thighs. I bend to see his face; his eyes are closed. I pull my fingers out from under me and stroke his hair. He breathes evenly, not moving. At some point, I feel snowflake-soft tears dropping onto my pajamas. I keep brushing his hair, and we stay there till the sky lightens into peach.
Ashira Shirali is a high school student from Gurgaon, India. Her stories have been shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Short Story Competition's junior prize, the Adroit Prize for Prose and other contests. Her work has been published in Hobart (web), Jet Fuel Review, 99 Pine Street and elsewhere. You can find her reading with a cup of tea on most days.