One night, I had a conversation with a cat.
I had came home from a day of work, only to realise, as I stood in front of the door, that I’d forgotten to take my keys with me when I left my home. There’s a special kind of hopelessness when you happen to get locked out of your own home. It hits you that there’s a disconnect between your attachment to your home and the physical realities of your flat — doors, locks and all. You also feel incredibly stupid.
I decided to head to the void deck and wait for someone to come home. There’s a chess table at the void deck, so I sat there, thinking of the things you think of when you’re alone at night at the ground floor of your apartment block. It had rained earlier in the afternoon, so the air was particularly chilly. Chilly for Singapore standards, at least.
It was then when the cat strolled into the void deck. It had a brown and white coat of fur and a slender body that walked with the kind of grace you tend to ignore unless you’re really looking. It settled next to me, surveying the block intently with it’s large yellow eyes. Then it relaxed and started licking its paw.
A chilly breeze made its way past the void deck as the trees around the block sighed while shaking their heads in disapproval. I guess the breeze picked up my scent and sent it past the cat, because it suddenly sat upright as if it hadn’t noticed I was there previously.
It looked at me silently, and for a moment looked like it was contemplating something serious and deep, like the meaning of life or the weather.
“Would you mind?” It said in a deep voice.
“Yeah?” I replied. Somehow, I wasn’t at all surprised that a cat had just spoken to me. In English. I mean, of course a cat had spoken to me in English. What other language could it have spoken to me in, Mandarin?
“My back is really itching but my feet’s gotten rather stiff due to the weather.”
“Sure,” I said, reaching over to scratch its back. Because when a cat speaks to you in English to ask for a back scratch, that is exactly what you give it. The cat gave a satisfied purr, then stretched and slumped onto the floor.
“So,” it said without looking at me, “what’s up?”
“I got locked out of my own flat, so that sucks.”
“No, I was referring to your life in general. What’s making you blue?”
“You could tell?” I asked while scratching the cat.
“Oh, please.” The cat yawned. “Even the trees know.”
“Hmm, it’s a long and complicated matter.” I wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for a long conversation.
“Try me.” The cat’s yellow eyes were fixed upon me. It managed to look both sympathetic and murderous at the same time.
“Well, how should I put it?” I paused for a while, grasping at words to make sense of the dull ache around my chest. “I feel like there are two people living in my body.”
“Of course, go on.” The cat proceeded to lick its paw.
“One of them is a perfectly hopeless romantic, and the other a total hardcore realist. So I’d reach for the moon while expecting gravity to pull me down, knowing fully that the moon is really a cold chunk of rock that appears magical only when viewed from a distance.
“And when reality catches up, as it always does, both parts of me — the romantic and the realist — die a little.”
This really got the attention of the cat. It’s eyes became rounder (I didn’t think that was possible), and it sat upright once more.
“You know,” it said in its deep voice, “for a human, you possess really complex emotions. Matter of fact, you’re almost as complex as a cat.”
“Right.” I said, not sure whether I should have felt insulted or honoured to have been compared to a cat.
The lift of the apartment block ding-ed and an elderly man came out. He walked like a man who has defeated time, his slightly trembling left hand firmly gripping a wooden walking stick. His slippers sighed with every step, as if to announce to the world his steady progress out of the apartment block. I remained silent and looked away from the cat, afraid that I’d appear insane should the cat start talking to me.
The man’s noisy footsteps felt like an honest metronome, marking the messy, uneven passage of time. I imagined the colourless air particles vibrating with energy to propagate the sound of his slippers, and as his footsteps slowly faded away, how they grew tired, slowed down, settled back to their quiet equilibriums. Like two people who got tired of communicating with one another, the increasing stillness of the air particles conveyed a familiar sense of distance.
“Hey,” I said when I could no longer hear the man’s footsteps, “can I call you Itchy?”
“And why would you want to call me that?” Itchy asked while flipping over so that his belly faced me.
“Just thought it’ll be a cute cat name.” I reached to scratch Itchy’s belly.
“Whatever.” Itchy licked his paws before flipping over so I could scratch his back. “Can I call you Sad? It seems like a fitting human name.”
“You are most welcome.”
A breeze whispered its way through the trees and into my ears, as if to remind me of its presence. The breeze, with it’s insistence on being remembered, stirred up something inside me, like how it stirred the rustling leaves around the block that had fallen and yellowed and dried.
“Cheer up a little, Sad!”
“I’ll try,” I half-said to myself, “but it’s not easy.”
“Let me ask you something. Do you know what the Mandarin phrase for ‘happy’ is?” The way Itchy sat reminded me of a sphinx.
“Uh, it’s ‘开心’.” I replied, thinking to myself: Holy shit, this cat knows Mandarin?
“Exactly! 开心: literally, to open up your heart. You can’t be happy unless you start opening up your heart, Sad.”
“Well, I’ve tried doing that before.”
“I bled so much.” I laughed dryly. “What else was I expecting, though? Then again, maybe I should have given myself some anaesthetic before cutting my heart open.”
“You have to choose the right blade, too.”
“I had to stitch my heart to stop the bleeding.” I sighed. “Sometimes I still feel the pain where the stitches used to be.”
“There, there. It’ll pass soon enough.” Itchy tried to pat my hand with his paw but ended up scratching me instead.
“Well, Itchy, it’s my turn to ask you something. Do you know the Mandarin phrase for ‘sadness’?”
“I think it’s ‘难过’.” Itchy paused for a while, thinking. “Ah, I get it.”
“Yeah, 难过: a phase that’s difficult to get over.”
“Just find another person and you’ll forget your previous.” Itchy yawned while stretching slowly. “I believe that’s what you humans call a ricochet.”
“You mean a rebound?” I asked, thinking to myself that ‘ricochet’ sounds pretty apt, too. “I wish it was that easy finding another person though.”
“Why are things always so difficult with you?”
“Have you ever, as you’re drifting asleep, wondered to yourself what the tipping point of falling into sleep would be like? Like, at that exact moment when your mind slips into the subconscious, what sorts of things would run through your mind, and how it would feel like?”
“Not really, no.” Itchy shot me a look. “I just sleep.”
“Well, sometimes I do. And it’s paradoxical, because the more I want to find out about that moment, the more active my mind gets, and the harder it gets for me to actually fall into sleep.
“I think that’s what finding another person is like. The harder one tries to find it, the less likely one is to succeed.”
When I looked over, Itchy was already asleep, his head lying on top of his paws. Still very sphinx-like.
I guess there is a way to fall asleep without thinking too much.
Cover drawn and designed by me.