Back the Way We Came: Part Two

Illustrations by Kara Pyle

What then is freedom? The power to live as one wishes.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero

     To hell with everybody who is not us.
— Ray the cat

Another gorgeous morning. Another normal day. The clouds were normal clouds, the highway was a normal highway, and the only abnormal thing was Yusuf racing towards California with a back-from-the-dead cat in the passenger seat, humming along to Taylor Swift songs.

            Ray’s fur sagged off his slender body. He periodically coughed up blood, bones, teeth. When he yawned, flies flew out of his mouth.

            As black asphalt rolled under the Honda Civic, Yusuf kept picturing how Laura looked on their first date: boyish in oversized plaid, short black hair, acne dusting her chin, and talking incessantly about the joys of coding and how her anti-sexism app would change the world. If that memory wasn’t love, what was?

            Outside, the flat Midwest gave way to the Rocky Mountains. Crisp blues and sombre greys seeped into Yusuf’s blood. He wondered when Laura and Rostein had started sleeping together, and how exactly an intelligent man could not notice that his girlfriend was banging his boss. Also, Yusuf wondered why he couldn’t stop wondering whose dick was straighter, whose back was hairier, and if Rostein ever used their toilet.

There was confidence in forward motion, plunging ahead at breakneck speeds. It was only when the interstate emptied and night’s cloak fell that Yusuf listened to Ray snoring softly and wondered if any man had ever felt more alone.

***

On Tuesday, they drove past a tennis club in a dry suburb of Salt Lake City — everyone wearing white like it was Wimbledon.

“Laura always wanted to play tennis,” Yusuf said. “I never bothered.”

            “Relationships are like tennis,” Ray replied, pawing down the music. “Everyone starts out tied at love, but only one of you wins in the end.”

“You’re a dating expert, huh?”

“All cats are.” One of Ray’s ears had fallen in his lap. He kept batting the dead flesh between his paws. “Here’s the plan: We go find Laura. Tell her Rostein is dead and see how she reacts.”

“What if she cries?”

“Turn around and come back home.”

“Just like that?”

The cat nodded. “If she cries, then she loved your boss and you’re a sucker. But if she doesn’t weep, we’ve got something to work with.”

“That’s a terrible plan.”

            “You haven’t heard phase two. If Laura isn’t in love with Rostein, you say you’ve found a bunch of new funding for that sexism app she dreamed up. Tell her you’ve got a million bucks waiting for her in Toronto, thanks to a last-minute venture capitalist looking to invest.”

Ray caught Yusuf’s dubious look. “Fine, we’ll tell her you inherited the money from a great aunt she never met. Wow, don’t like that either, huh? Okay, say you won a million playing a scratch-and-win.”

Crows circled over the car. Yusuf rubbed his eyes, accidentally veering into the right lane. Horns blared behind them.

“You want me to lie.”

“Love is the biggest lie of all,” Ray replied. “Once we get Laura back home, you quit Unfinished Purrfection. Can’t be working under the guy that cuckolded you. Apply for a job in a fine-dining restaurant, something nice — line chef, if you can get it. Show Laura you can make a living and she’ll put you through culinary school. Cooking is one of the original professions. It’s primal, like family.”

Sirens wailed in the distance.

“Even if all of that worked out, how are we going to get a million bucks?”

The sirens were close and getting closer. Ray eyed the rear-view mirror. “One dollar at a time, I suppose.”

***

“Canada, huh?” said the enormously thick highway patrolman. Yusuf resisted an irrational urge to reach out and grab the cop’s gun. “Care to explain why there’s a dead cat on your passenger seat?”

Ray lay supine, mouth ajar, eyes rolled back — looking about as stiff as week-old bread.

            “He’s just sleeping.”

            “Son, I’ve been huntin’ since you were suckin’ on your mama’s tit, and I know a corpse when I smell one.” The cop leaned back to readjust his belly. “Surprised they let a dead cat through the border. Care to explain why you came all the way down to Utah just to bury it?”

            “We’re heading to California to win back my girlfriend. Well, ex-girlfriend.” Yusuf sighed. Talking about it made him feel lonelier. “She was sleeping with my boss.”

            The cop leaned close enough to share the coffee stink on his breath. “Be honest, son. Is that your boss’s dead cat?”

            “I told you he’s not dead, just sleeping.”

            A semi blasted past, spraying them with hot air.

            “I’ll let you off with a warning, but pay more attention to the road,” the cop said. “No more swerving, and it’s none of my business, but why are you chasing down someone that cheated on you?”

            Yusuf looked up. “If you love someone, you never give up.”

            How he loved her! Yusuf loved everything about Laura. Her body, thick-hipped and slim-shouldered. Her off-pitch, screechy laugh. Her irrational love of Adam Sandler movies. Most of all, he loved being in love with her. It was a rope binding his life to some semblance of meaning. It was the cornerstone of his self-esteem.

“Well, shit, I was in love once.” The patrolman smiled to himself before handing back Yusuf’s licence. “I got a shovel in the trunk. Let’s bury that funky feline before you end up with maggots on your front seat.”

            “Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary.”

            But the cop was already halfway to the squad car, whistling a hunting tune.

***

Honestly, Yusuf should’ve known that Laura would leave. He had been alone since his dad died in junior high and his mother took off with a golf pro two years later. For him, loneliness was easier to bear if you leaned into it. The key, he felt, was to change as little as possible. Same house, same car, same job, same clothing style. Consistency wraps around you like a hug, if you let it.

            Laura had dreams. Big plans. Silver-plated ambitions. In her wallet she’d kept a picture of Mark Zuckerberg and on the back written ONLY BETTER. When Instagram unveiled its new logo, she said it was very nice, but her anti-sexism app would pick a logo and stick with it. Maybe a cartoon penis with a red X over top. Yusuf remembered her saying that. He remembered admiring her loyalty.

            For years, Laura had talked about moving to a bigger tech market. For coders, Palo Alto was Mecca. The last straw that prompted her to apply to Google was probably back in May, when Yusuf got drunk and watched porn on her laptop, accidentally downloading malware that wiped her entire computer clean. A few weeks later, she disappeared to visit her mother in Boston for a week. Or so he’d thought.

            Still, that Utah state trooper had a point. Why chase a bird that’s flying away from you? Because having a loving-if-momentarily-disloyal partner beat having no partner at all. And because a good-but-flawed relationship seemed better than being alone. Yusuf had opened his heart to Laura, had invested time and energy into their coexistence. He had been a loyal, loving boyfriend. A perfect partner. Starting over with someone new seemed about as likely as Ray’s return to life.

            If Yusuf sensed there were limits to his own greatness, if maybe his own relationship flaws stretched beyond insufficiently supporting Laura’s career ambitions, he knew enough to not dwell on these suspicions. Start down that road and a man could lose all sense of himself. Better to stick to the facts: he had been a great partner. And if Laura could apologize and recommit, the relationship would be saved. It was obvious. And, because of that obviousness, a white heat began to stoke inside his chest.

***

“I’m sorry, all right? You know that wasn’t my idea.”

            The Honda Civic was racing west, the concrete outskirts of Reno coming into view. Curled in the passenger seat, Ray coughed up dirt and a few shiny pieces of his digestive tract. A sour milk stink wafted through the car. The cat hadn’t spoken or meowed since the cop laid Ray in a deep hole and covered him with clay, dirt and rock. As soon as the patrol car left, Yusuf had dug Ray up with his bare hands, pleading forgiveness.

            Silence. Not a peep as they exited Utah, crossed northern Nevada and approached California. Hail pelted the car as it shot along I-80. When Yusuf got hungry, he pulled into fast-food places along the interstate. When Yusuf was tired, he slept in the back seat. Ray stayed in the front, sleeping or doing the New York Times crossword with a pencil clutched in his teeth.

            It wasn’t until the outskirts of San Francisco that Ray meowed and scratched his claws against the passenger window. “I need to take a leak.”

            “Not until you say you forgive me. I’d never have let the cop bury you if I didn’t think you’d survive.”

            “You think I’m mad at that?”

            “Of course.”

            “Haven’t you been listening? Life is winner-take-all,” Ray snapped, shaking his head, sending fur flying across the seat. “That means not saying sorry. That means lying to Laura, robbing a liquor store, or burying your pets and family in the dirt if the need arises. Morals are a con created to give the real predators a head start.”

            “That’s pretty dark, Ray.”

            “It’s the law of the jungle, human. When Rostein calls, try to keep that in mind.”

            “Why would Rostein call me?”

            “Because the fool’s feeling guilty,” the cat said with total certainty. “After all, he did screw your girlfriend and kill your cat.”

            Lightning flashed in the sky, shining Ray’s reflection in the rainy window. Yusuf shivered. Define crazy: talking laws of the jungle with a back-from-the-dead pet.

            “What if that cop was right?” he asked a moment later. “What if you are really dead? What if I’m losing my mind?”

            For the first time in fifteen hours, Ray smiled. “Then Laura is in for one hell of a surprise.”

***

Was Ray right? Was narcissism the key to the good life? Yusuf was still pondering the nature of existence when his cell rang. They were passing a Dunkin’ Donuts and, a second later, a liquor store. Fumbling for the phone, Yusuf was tempted to pull over for a box of French crullers and a bottle of Jose Cuervo. Maybe ask Ray to drive. Cats couldn’t twist a steering wheel or reach the pedals — but cats couldn’t talk or do crosswords either.

            Life was full of strange miracles. Yusuf wanted to tell this to Laura.

            See how I’ve changed, he’d say. I now believe in miracles.

            The cell rang again: Rostein calling. There were two options: scream at Rostein for sleeping with Laura, or pretend to know nothing. Yusuf’s head ached.

            “I’m not coming into work today,” he said into the phone. “Feeling sick, so call Phillip.”

            “Actually, I’m closing Unfinished Purrfection down for a while.” Rostein’s voice sounded off. “I’m at the airport right now, heading for a little vacation.”

            Beside him, Ray listened with his one good ear, frowning. If you’ve never seen a cat frown, it’s an evil look. Hearing Rostein’s voice made the shame of the affair sink deeper. Yusuf pictured his former boss whispering dirty nothings into Laura’s ear. He pictured Laura whispering them back. The two of them, whispering and giggling and loving each other silly. One hand on the wheel, Yusuf exhaled as fresh anger bubbled and boiled inside his chest.

            “I know about you and Laura,” he snapped. “You hear me? I know.”

            “How? I mean, who’s Laura?”

            “My girlfriend, you piece of shit. Ray told me everything.”

            A beat passed. When Rostein spoke again, the doctor’s voice had softened. “Ray’s dead, and I’m so sorry about that. I feel terrible about taking him from you too.”

            “Actually, he’s not dead, and when I get back to Toronto, I’m going to bury you in the fucking dirt hole that he crawled out of.”

            “Are you threatening me?”

            In the passenger seat, Ray hissed as a maggot crawled out of his eye.

            “Goddamn right.”

***

San Francisco was as much an idea as a city. Crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge, Yusuf was disappointed to find that the city streets were not lined with self-driving cars, that robots were not delivering mail from door to door. The air didn’t crackle with genius. Not one hoodie-wearing billionaire in sight.

            Putting on a heavy metal playlist, Ray directed them up along the bay and down Charleston Road. Yusuf had never seen a Google campus before. It looked like a university, only newer, nicer and cleaner. The men and a few women – but way, way more men – exiting and entering the buildings looked neither impressive nor unimpressive.

            Lowering the window, Ray sniffed. “She’s not here.”

            “Should we wait? Maybe go find a staff directory or something?”

            The cat sniffed again. “325 Berry Street.”

            On Berry Street, Ray directed them to a two-storey house on a corner. It looked nice. A family home. They pulled in behind a forest green Prius, killed the engine and waited. For the first time, Yusuf started to consider how Laura would react. He’d driven across the continent uninvited. Rostein was on his way. There was either a talking cat or a dead one in the passenger seat.

            Ray’s left hind leg had torn free of its socket and now dangled lifelessly over the lip of the seat. The cat’s right eye was bulging and bloodshot.

            “You okay?”

            “Prime of my life.” Ray said. “You going in or what?”

            “What if she thinks it’s creepy that I drove forty-odd hours to find her?”

            “Who cares what she thinks?”

            “I’m serious.”

            The cat shook his head, a teacher with a student who refuses to learn. “It’s probably creepier to sit parked outside the house, isn’t it?” 

            Touché. Yusuf stepped out of the car — right as Laura flung open the front door. She wore denim shorts and a blue top that he recognized. His heart stopped. He had gone with her to Yorkdale mall to buy that shirt. It still looked brand new. Clearly, a quality cotton.

            “Hey there,” Yusuf shouted with a giddy wave, though later he’d pretend that he said something much more clever or interesting. Anything at all, really.

            Halfway to her car, Laura stopped. Looked back at the house, then waved. Her hair was up, and there were tired bags under her eyes. She looked more angry than happy and, for a brief moment, Yusuf wondered why he’d made the trip at all.

            “What are you doing here?” she asked, reading his mind.

            “I came to get you back. I love you.”

            She laughed. “Not again.”

            Yusuf looked at the car, where Ray’s nose was pressed to the glass. “Rostein’s dead. Car crash. I know you were sleeping with him.”

            Laura blinked. Her fingers covered her mouth, but she didn’t cry. She did not cry!!!

            “You know.” Laura’s house keys dangled in her hand. “I guess we’d better talk inside.”

            The inside of the house was plain but spacious. Lots of natural light. Laura made him a K-Cup of dark roast and they sat at opposite ends of her kitchen table, Yusuf sipping loudly, Laura methodically biting her nails.

            “Listen, about Gene,” she said. “I need you to know that I never —”

            “Let me talk first,” Yusuf interrupted. “Since you left, it’s been crazy.”

            He was halfway through explaining how Ray had reappeared at the empty apartment when a familiar voice cut through the ceiling.

            “Enough already.” Feet thudded down the stairs, and then Rostein filled the doorway. “Ray is dead, and this story, this whole trip, is not appropriate. It’s unhealthy. Laura, tell him what you told me.”

            “Now isn’t the time,” Laura whispered.

            But Rostein was already going. “She never loved you, okay? We’re going to get married.”

            Yusuf looked at Laura. “Is that true?”

            “What do you expect, Yusuf? You don’t care about anything. Not your job, not me, and definitely not yourself. I should’ve been honest with you a long time ago.” She glanced at Rostein. “I’m not sure if I’ll marry this idiot, but at least it’s a possibility.”

            “That was the old me. I’ve changed. Ray coming back alive showed me things.”

            Laura frowned. “Did you just say coming back alive?”

            “He was dead. Maybe he still partially is, I don’t know. But he’s also alive and he can talk and he’s showed me a few things.”

            They were giving him crazy looks.

            “I’m not insane. He’s in the car.”

            “I believe you,” Laura said, in a voice that clearly did not believe him.

            “Well, I don’t!” Rostein was shouting now. “How many times do I have to apologize? I’m not perfect, but that cat is dead. D-E-A-D.”

            Perfect? It didn’t take a perfect person to not sleep with another man’s girl. Channelling his inner Ray, adrenaline rushing his system, Yusuf crossed the room and punched Rostein square in the face.

            “That’s for Ray, and for sleeping with my girlfriend.” Pain shot up Yusuf’s hand. He turned to Laura. “I’ve never hit anyone before.”

            “What is wrong with you?” She pushed him back against the oven. “Asshole.”

            “No, I deserved it,” Rostein shouted from the floor.

            “Shut up,” Yusuf said.

            “I’m agreeing with you!”

            “I said shut up!” Yusuf replied, booting Rostein in the balls.

            His ex-boss whimpered. Faced with Laura’s fury, Yusuf didn’t feel jealous or smitten in the way he’d expected. Mostly he felt tired. Tired of chasing this person, of treating her as the only way to avoid feeling alone. Yet as long as Laura was around, Yusuf knew he couldn’t stop chasing her. Some broken part of him felt compelled to win her back, even after the betrayal — or maybe because of it.

            “Listen, Ray has this whole plan. If you just listen —”

            “Ray’s a cat. Do you hear yourself?”

            “He’s my best friend,” Yusuf said, and the truth of the words rolled down his veins. For the first time since his dad died and mother left and the world crushed all of Yusuf’s dreams, he felt a little less alone. His best friend in the world, his only real connection, was a talking zombie cat trying to teach him how to live. This made Yusuf feel alone yet protected, exposed yet loved.

            “You know,” he said, “relationships are like tennis. There can be only one winner in the end.”

            “Who are you?” Laura’s face was stone. “I don’t recognize this man.”

At which point, Rostein staggered upright, cupped his testicles with one hand, and punched Yusuf in the face with the other.

***

“That went perfectly,” Ray said as they merged onto the highway, rushing east. “How do you feel?”

            “Let’s see: Laura hates me and I’m now broke, jobless and alone.”

            The cat nodded. “Which is exactly where you need to be.”

            “I love you, Ray.”

            “Stop being a softie,” the cat smirked. “Remember: sometimes you’ve got to burn down the forest before new growth can sprout.”

            Yusuf pictured Laura’s face puckered in hatred and disgust. It was over. He let that reality flow through him as they approached the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge.

            Soon California gave way to Nevada, which surrendered to Utah’s red-clay mesas and yawning dusks. They could see the Rocky Mountains stabbing the sky. Ray coughed and his last good eye popped out of its socket. His tail twitched uncontrollably.

            “Are you okay?”

            “Stupid question.” Ray stared at Yusuf through eye sockets that looked like caves. “Don’t look so sad. We’re all born a bloody, terrified mess. In the end, we go back the way we came.”

            Yusuf turned back to the highway. “I love you, Ray,” he said again.

            “Right back at you.” The cat curled into a ball, blood spotting the seat. “You don’t need me, though. You know that, right? Out here, it’s every cat for himself.”

***

In Nebraska, Ray fell asleep and didn’t wake up. Yusuf pulled off the interstate. He shook Ray, shouted, screamed, but the skin cracked and tissue crumpled wherever he touched it. Flies buzzed around Ray’s body, so Yusuf wrapped the cat in a T-shirt and gently set him in the trunk.

            Alone, the I-80 stretched out. The A/C roared. With every paved mile east, Yusuf could feel Ray’s words and ideas seeping into his DNA. He didn’t feel alone.

            For the rest of his life, Yusuf would periodically see Ray in his dreams. The cat would always be half-dead, coughing up blood and organ bits, appendages falling off. Sometimes Ray would spend the entire dream giving life lessons. Other times he’d claw Yusuf’s shin and laugh. In one recurring version, they went to McDonald’s and ate raw Big Macs without the bun. But all of that came later.

            In Toronto, Yusuf stepped back into his apartment. It felt eerily quiet. He set out a bowl of cat food just in case Ray reincarnated again. The next morning, the kibble still sat untouched, so he got dressed and drove to George Brown College to pick up an application for culinary school. The semester had already started, and he watched through a window as baby-faced students cracked eggs, whisked batters, deboned ducks.

            “Tuition is approximately nine thousand dollars per semester,” the admissions clerk had said. “We accept all major credit cards.”

            Yusuf did not have nine grand. On the other hand, cooking was one of the original professions, Ray had said. Primal, like family. Stepping out of the building, Yusuf watched two squirrels dart across the grass and up an oak tree. He inhaled, exhaled, inhaled again. What would Ray do right now? When one squirrel leapt onto the back of the other, Yusuf had his answer.

***

Unfinished Purrfections lay dark when the Honda Civic pulled up. The clinic’s door was locked and the blinds were shuttered, but inside that building was an office, and in that office was a safe. Yusuf knew the security code. Rostein would be in California for months. There was a crowbar on the passenger seat, a dead cat in the trunk, and a man who’d never felt more alive.

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