Back the Way We Came: Part 1


“You do facelifts, right?” asked Mrs. Rodriguez, clutching a terrified tabby in her arms. “Because Whiskers’s forehead is looking really saggy.”

“It’s five grand for felines,” Yusuf answered.

“Seven, if you’d like the cat to stay overnight,” added Phillip.

On TV, the plastic surgery clinics looked glamorous. There, doctors’ Ivy League degrees hung on oak-panelled walls. Procedures were booked months in advance. CoverGirl receptionists offered you sparkling water flavoured with lime. Nobody barked or whimpered. Nobody ever got bit, clawed or worse.

Did Yusuf wish he worked in a clinic like that? Abso-fucking-lutely. Instead, he worked at Unfinished Purrfection, Toronto’s only cosmetic surgery clinic for pets. Here, the waiting room smelled of lavender but the back rooms reeked like a Guatemalan YMCA. Yusuf made $16.85 an hour to insert catheters, administer anesthetic, and assist in everything from facelifts and tummy tucks to Botox and liposuctions.

“Mommy’s going to get those ugly wrinkles out of Whiskers’s pretty little face,” continued Mrs. Rodriguez. “You’re looking so old. You’re embarrassing Mommy.”

From her arms, Whiskers gave a high whimper like a kettle about to scream.

***

It was the end-of-day staff meeting, and the land line rang. Phillip handed over the phone.

“Yes?” Dr. Eugene Rostein said into the receiver. “Oh, that’s very unfortunate. No, no, I understand.” Rostein hung up and looked at his two bored technicians. “That was Allergan’s Toronto rep. I’ll need one of you to bring your cat in tomorrow.”

“I don’t have a cat,” Phillip said.

Rostein frowned. “Really? You look like you’d have three cats at least.”

“My wife’s allergic.”

“Wife? Wow, I did not have you pegged.” Rostein tapped the desk. “Here’s my problem: we’ve been invited to test Allergan’s new cheek augmentation silicone, but my volunteer subject just dropped out.”

Yusuf’s pulse quickened. He had a cat and Rostein knew it.

“The product is already Health Canada-approved,” continued the doctor. “We obviously can’t use a paying client, so one lucky cat gets the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“Absolutely not,” Yusuf said.

“Beauty is symmetry. It’s balance. Your cat is lovely, but he’s got a face as puckered as a lemon. With fuller cheeks, he might win a cat show.”

“I’d rather shoot myself in the face.”

“Hyperbole is the wit of the weak,” Rostein replied, exhaling a pained breath. “Boys, our business is not exactly booming. Pet plastic surgery is a cutthroat game and, sadly, I can no longer afford two full-time technicians.”

Yusuf felt time stop. Earth halted on its axis.

“I’ll bring in a cat,” Phillips blurted first, and Yusuf hated him for it.

“I thought your wife was allergic.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Eyebrow cocked, Rostein glanced across the desk. Yusuf had a maxed-out Visa, overdue cell bill and nothing in the bank. Losing his job was not an option, so he clenched both fists until the knuckles cracked, until the tendons burned.

Then he let go.

***

Growing up, Yusuf dreamed of being a bad boy. He was going to grow a mullet, wear a leather jacket, sport a nipple ring. Now Yusuf was thirty years old, with unpierced nipples and a closet full of khakis, venting his impotent rage on the steering wheel of a Honda Civic. How dare Rostein pressure an employee into plastic surgery, Yusuf thought. How dare Rostein inflict that pain on Ray! Did the good doctor sleep at Yusuf’s feet every night? Did Rostein lick the tears from Yusuf’s cheeks when Laura broke his heart?

Furious and fuming, Yusuf had a sudden urge to go find an elementary school and give them some real talk.

Kids, he’d say, when you grow up, nothing will end the way you hope. Your dad will drown in a hot tub. Your mother will run off with a linoleum salesman. You’ll slice up house cats for a living while the dumbest guy in the class runs a thriving real estate firm. You’ll fall in love only to take out the recycling one day and discover that she has secretly leased an apartment in San Francisco.

Best case scenario: land the dream job, meet an adoring partner, buy a mansion next door to Drake, and you’ll still wake up, swallow a handful of Lexapro and ponder the point of being alive.

***

Gentrification was a virus. Some days, it felt like the entire GTA was turning into a giant Club Monaco ad, which was great if you were young, rich and beautiful.

Yusuf was not young, rich or beautiful. Home was a cramped one-bedroom on the fifteenth floor of a shiny glass tower along Queens Quay West. Inside, Laura was painting her toenails and watching Dragons’ Den. Magenta, chartreuse, neon orange — each nail got a different colour. Laura thought the variety made her look wild and spunky. He thought it looked immature. Of course, since Laura had announced she was leaving, everything she did had become a metaphor for why she sucked.

Yusuf shut the door as a black cat leapt into his arms. Ray. The slender Bombay licked his chin.

“I missed you today, buddy.” Ray’s yellow eyes blinked back a message that Yusuf did not understand.

Dragons’ Den cut to commercial. When they first met, Laura was an HR specialist by day, coder by night. Her dream was to create an app to help combat sexism. The app would be programmed to recognize commonly used words and phrases. Any time a misogynistic comment was made, the phone buzzed and a message popped up to suggest less offensive terminology.

Yusuf thought it was brilliant. No venture capitalists agreed.

“Unmarketable,” one called it.

“Sexism doesn’t really exist anymore,” mansplained another.

“You’re too attractive to be a programmer,” the final venture capitalist told her. “Say, what’s that buzzing noise?”

Undressing, Yusuf forced himself to not see the half-empty closet, the cardboard boxes and Rubbermaid crates lining the walls. Somewhere inside those boxes was Laura’s signed offer from Google’s HR department in San Francisco. Yusuf wanted to burn it, to tear it up, to staple it to his bare chest and say, “See? Now you have to take me with you.”

“Don’t start,” she said a few minutes later from the kitchen, toilet paper stuffed between her toes. “You know this job is a big deal. It’s Google.”

“You wanted to change the world, remember? Now you’ve gone corporate.”

“Says the man who cuts up pets all day.”

Ray sat on the kitchen table with a hind leg raised, cleaning his butt. He looked up and meowed.

“Rostein is making me bring Ray in for surgery tomorrow.”

“How can Eugene possibly make you bring Ray in?”

“He just is, Laura, all right? And did you just call my boss by his first name?”

Ignoring the question, she flopped onto the couch as Dragons’ Den resumed. There was a time when Laura talked about how angels existed, how all people were inherently good, how climate change and sexism and every other global problem would soon be solved. Now she bragged about stock options and addressed medical professionals by their first name. How could one person change so much? Yusuf hadn’t changed at all.

“I can drop Ray off tomorrow,” Laura said. “I’ll do it on my way out of town.”

This was how love died: with a courteous gesture.

***

Next morning, Mrs. Rodriguez was all smiles. Whiskers looked resigned, or mad, or hungry, or nothing, because who knew what a cat was thinking? The sight almost made Yusuf tell Laura not to bring Ray, but what was Phillip doing right now? Applying for a job at Booster Juice?

Hating your job was a luxury afforded to people who had one. So Yusuf prepped the surgical room, covering the table in a paper cloth and disinfecting the instruments with chemical spray. Finished, he set Whiskers on a warm towel, stroked her neck and administered a shot of ketamine to sedate the cat. Then he placed an intubating mask over her face and cranked the anesthetic.

Fears flooded into Yusuf. What if the drugs gave Ray a heart attack? Pneumonia? Permanent paralysis?

“Watch what you’re doing,” Rostein said, shutting off the gas. “That much isoflurane could kill her.”

Together, they waited for Whiskers’s heart monitor to beep. It beeped.

***

How to face-lift a housecat in five easy steps:

  1. Place an IV catheter and administer anesthetic.
  2. With laparoscopic instruments, make small incisions to the forehead near its temples.
  3. Sever the skin from the connective tissue and then yank upwards.
  4. Cut off any excess skin.
  5. Lay the remaining skin back down and suture the wounds closed.

The entire procedure took forty-five minutes. Yusuf’s back waxing lasted longer.

“Whiskers looks ten years younger,” Rostein said, handing the still doped-up cat back to Mrs. Rodriguez. “Come back if you want us to remove those unsightly belly rolls.”

***

“Laura is late,” Rostein announced a while later, as though it was Yusuf’s fault that ex-lovers didn’t prioritize punctuality.

“She’s not my girlfriend anymore.”

“Good riddance. Women are nature’s glory, but marriage is man’s cone of shame.”

Pondering what Laura’s app might have thought of that remark, Yusuf checked his phone. “She’s coming.”

“Correction: she’s arrived.”

Laura smiled at them. How beautiful she was in black lululemon; how badly Yusuf would miss her. He had no friends, no family. Only threadbare connections bound him to this world. Up close, he saw a fresh white collar around Ray’s neck with skulls embroidered in black thread. A goodbye gift.

In the operating room, Ray’s back tensed and his ears shot back, but he didn’t run from the surgical table. Stroking Ray’s coal-coloured coat, whispering sweet nothings, Yusuf slowly filled a hypodermic needle with ketamine.

“Don’t worry about that,” Rostein said, sweeping into the room. “I can take it from here.”

“You sure?”

Rostein glanced at Ray. Cat and doctor shared a look that Yusuf would replay and dissect a thousand times over the next few years.

“We’ll be fine,” Rostein said slowly. “I missed lunch, so why don’t you order us some KFC?”

***

Laura was texting in the waiting room. She pocketed the phone and they stared at each other. Even now, her cheekbones intimidated him. For five years, they’d shared dreams, swapped fears, laid the foundation for a common future. Here was the moment to apologize. Tell Laura that, yes, a job at Google could not be turned down. True happiness required accepting the gap between adult reality and childhood dreams.

Yusuf would try harder. Be better. People don’t change, but Yusuf could change. Instead, he stayed silent and stiff as Laura leaned in for an awkward, ass-out hug.

“We both need this,” she said. “I can’t be your security blanket anymore.”

“Let’s at least try long-distance.”

“You couldn’t make an effort when we were living together. Now there’s going to be a continent between us.”

“If you leave, I’m not coming after you.” He flushed. “I’ll forget you ever existed.”

“Jesus, are those really the last words you want to say to me?”

Yusuf sniffed, too proud to cave. “Ray hates his new collar.”

“It’ll grow on him.” Laura reached into her bag. She shoved a twenty-year-old bottle of Scotch into his hands. “It’s a gift, but don’t drink it all in one night.”

***

On the KFC app, Yusuf watched the two twelve-piece bucket meals inch their way towards the clinic. Draining a second coffee mug of Glenfiddich, he was hunting for napkins when Rostein’s voice echoed down the hall.

“Are you alone?”

“Permanently,” he replied.

“Why don’t you lock up and call it a day? I’ll let Ray rest and bring him home later.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Just do what I tell you and lock up,” Rostein shouted, and Yusuf flinched. Rostein never yelled. Even when threatening unemployment, Rostein used a calm, soothing voice to bend the staff to his will.

Outside, a fair-haired delivery guy rapped on the door, a pair of family-size KFC buckets in his hands. The waiting room smelled of grease as Yusuf paid and then flipped the clinic’s Open sign to Closed. The fries tasted undercooked. In the surgical room, Rostein was pacing frantically around the surgical bed. Urine was puddled on the linoleum floor.

“Stay back!” shrieked the doctor. “In fact, get out of here.”

“I just want to see Ray.” Yusuf leaned in for a closer look. “Wow, he looks like a panther.”

“You like it?” Rostein paused. He sounded impossibly flattered, as if he’d been waiting years to hear those very words. “Okay, now leave the chicken and go.”

Halfway to the door, Yusuf looked back. Ray’s eyes were closed, the heart monitor turned off. Yusuf was used to seeing pets asleep on anesthetic but Ray’s body looked very still. Very, very still.

“Oh my God! Did you kill my cat?”

“Shut up!” Rostein screamed. “Shit!”

Ray’s fur felt warm. Yusuf shoved his fingers into the neck, searching for a pulse.

“I’ve already tried that twice. Oh, why did you give him so much anesthetic?”

“Wait, you’re blaming this on me?”

Hand to his mouth, Rostein mumbled, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” and, raining tears, rushed out of the office.

Alone, Yusuf slumped beside the surgical bed, a palm over Ray’s soft chest. He couldn’t look at Ray. He couldn’t look anywhere else. He really wished the clinic didn’t reek of fried chicken.

***

Hours later, Yusuf wrapped Ray’s body in a towel and slid him into an old shoebox. He bought a gardening trowel from Home Hardware. The apartment complex didn’t have a yard, so High Park was the best place he could imagine burying a beloved cat.

The park was dark and filled with shadows. A small oak tree grew near the lake, away from the bike paths. When the hole was dug, Yusuf set the box down, swept in dirt with the blade of his shoe and patted it flat. But there was nothing to keep raccoons or foxes from digging up Ray’s body.

He didn’t know what else to do. He Googled the phrase How to bury a dead cat. Immediately he regretted it.

“Just so you know, Ray, it was Rostein’s fault.”

Standing over the grave, Yusuf swore he heard hisses cut through the night. Feral felines judging him from the shadows. Then he drove home to get drunk.

***

Yesterday, this apartment belonged to a decent-looking couple with an adorable pet. Now it was the home of a creepy single guy who had helped kill his own cat. He swigged Glenfiddich straight from the bottle and watched reruns of Dragons’ Den.

“Ray’s dead,” he said aloud. “Rostein murdered him and now I’m all alone.”

If this were a movie, Laura would burst through the door right then. She’d squeeze Yusuf into a full-body hug. When she’d stopped repeating, “I’ll never leave you,” he’d lead Laura to the IKEA sofa and make couch-shattering love that neither would ever forget. The sort of sweaty, noisy, convulsive sex that Yusuf knew he was capable of but never had the energy to try.

But his life wasn’t a movie. Instead, he woke at midnight, drunk and topless on the couch, a muted episode of Breaking Bad playing on TV. Weird noises echoed out from the bedroom, like a chalkboard being scratched again and again.

He rose and gripped the wall for balance, a little scared. What is a man? A lonely fool drunkenly investigating mysterious noises in the dark. The bedroom window was open. A cool breeze tickled his nipples.

“Hello?”

He flicked on the light to find a load of folded laundry sitting on his bed. Laura, you saint. He pressed his nose into a folded T-shirt and sniffed the lemony scent. Out the side of his eye, Yusuf saw someone — no, something — scratching the window screen.

A cat. It had the same silky coat as Ray, the same pale nose, same embroidered collar. Not Ray, obviously, but damn near identical. And that collar?

“What are you doing here, little guy? Looking for something to eat?”

He opened the window and the cat scampered straight into the kitchen. An unhinged giddiness rushed through Yusuf’s system at the sight of another living thing inside the apartment. The fridge light hurt his eyes. Blinking, he reached for the milk.

“I’d murder a piece of chicken,” announced a soft, sharp voice. “And none of that Fancy Feast junk, either.”

Yusuf looked over the refrigerator door. The cat stepped into the fridge light, dirt in its paws and tears in the fabric of the collar. Blood stained its front teeth. The left ear dangled half-connected from the rest of its head.

“I had to fight off a raccoon in the park,” the cat continued. “Worked up an appetite.”

Though he’d never heard it before, Yusuf recognized that voice. “No,” he said, “it can’t be you.”

“In the flesh,” Ray replied. “My cheeks better look fuckin’ great.”

***

Years ago, whenever Laura mused about the existence of angels, Yusuf had dismissed it out of hand. He called her crazy, naive, silly. There were no angels, no ghosts, no bearded men rising from the dead. Humans were soulless sacks of blood, tissue and bone. To believe in life after death, he said, was to believe a cow really could jump over the moon.

So, as Ray wolfed down leftover chicken, Yusuf fled. He needed time to think, to sober up, to formulate a plan. Slamming the bedroom door, he lay atop the sheets, closed his eyes. Suddenly it was three in the morning and the cat that looked like Ray was perched on the IKEA dresser, watching him.

“You can’t be him,” Yusuf said, wiping away sleep crumbs. “I buried Ray myself.”

“Yeah, you buried me.” The cat leaped off the dresser and onto Yusuf’s lap. “And now here I stand. Problems have a way of circling right back to where they started.”

“This isn’t happening. You are not real.”

“Right, I’m not real and you’re not going bald. It’s all a dream.”

“I’m not listening to you.”

“When you wake up, I bet your dick will be bigger too.”

“Fine.” Yusuf sat up. “Let’s say you’re Ray. How are you talking? How are you even alive?”

The black cat looked down at his dirty paws as though they might offer an answer. When they didn’t, he shrugged. “They say that jellyfish could live forever if predators didn’t eat them.”

“You’re no jellyfish.”

“Neither are you, so dry those eyes.” Ray’s breath smelled like vomit coated in burnt hair. One of his incisor teeth had fallen out. “It’s time to go find Laura.”

“She’s gone, Ray. Laura is gone and I’m all alone.”

“Not true. You’ve got that self-pity to keep you company.”

“She was perfect and I lost her. I’ll never be able to compete with Google.”

“Not just Google. You know she was sleeping with Rostein, right?”

“What? No! What?” Yusuf wasn’t making sense, but couldn’t stop. Deep down, he sensed the cat was right. “I don’t believe you.”

“She was, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.” Ray bounded off the bed. “Love is a long-term game. Let’s see if we can’t win Laura back.”

When Ray scampered out of the room, Yusuf pulled the covers over his face. He didn’t cry. He didn’t freak out. He cupped both testicles, wondering what Laura was doing right then and what the hell was happening to the world. Also, did the TV just turn on? Was Ray watching CNN?

All night Yusuf lay under the sheets, fully dressed, folding and refolding his hands. In the morning, he found Ray sitting in front of the TV, watching cable news and coughing up blood.

“Time to get our show on the road,” Ray shouted during a commercial break. “This little pussy is going to teach you how to live.”

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