Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Beatrice

BY MATTHEW GALLAWAY

I first saw her at the vet, where I had taken Dante to be treated for ringworm. By this point, I had not only acclimated to the idea of adopting Dante, but even felt so disturbingly bereft by the small separation when they took him into the back room that I wondered if I might be approaching some line of sanity.

“Do I look insane to you?” I asked the receptionist.

“Yeah, kind of,” she answered. “Do I?”

Reassured by this exchange, I sat down to wait and was distracted by a small “adoption center” — a few cages, actually, stacked on top of each other — located near the front desk and in which I noticed another cat who looked strikingly like Dante, i.e., small and gray, with the same bottle-green eyes. I tried to ignore a nauseating certainty that like any obsession, my new one for Dante could be sated only by adding more to the mix, and so pretended to casually inquire with the receptionist about the cat, which I soon learned was a female; like Dante she was a “Russian Blue,” perhaps a year old, or slightly younger.

“And nobody’s adopted her?” I asked incredulously, as though the streets were not teeming with stray cats.

“Not yet,” she answered, and added that the cat in question had been brought in from a dumpster in Park Slope a few months earlier along with a litter of kittens.

“Where are the kittens?”

“They’re gone,” she shrugged. “Nobody wants a mother — she’s ‘used’ — and she’s a little stunted from having kittens so early.”

I expressed renewed horror at the callousness of the world.

The receptionist laughed at me. “If you’re so upset, why don’t you take her?”

“I might,” I said, trying to sound like I needed to be convinced. But in a gesture to my more pragmatic side, I resolved to take a few minutes to ponder the idea. I sat down next to an older woman in a disheveled trench coat; there were four carriers in front of her, all of which contained a cat, a silent chorus that seemed to give her every word weight and affirmation: “You really should have more than one,” she pronounced as she pushed her sunglasses up to the top of her head, where her silver hair was pulled back from a rather long face, revealing eyes the color of slate.

I was taken aback by how much this woman resembled my mother, as if she had not died twenty years earlier but had moved to New York to take care of cats. “How many — how many do you have?” I managed in what I feared might come off as needlessly restrained tone, if not paranoid, after deciding that it would be best to keep the conversation on point.

“Seven,” she spoke softly but also slightly rolled her eyes as if slightly mocking herself—or possibly me. “They’re my children now.”

“I can appreciate that,” I responded more affectionately, and then told her how I had come to adopt Dante. I considered how much easier it was to talk to this version of my mother as an adult and felt gratified as we spent a few minutes discussing cat food and—of all things—flushable litter. But then I remembered all of the things we had never said to one another, and unlike when I was a teenager, I saw no reason to hide anything from her. “I’m never having real children,” I said. “For obvious reasons.”

If my intent was to surprise her, her placid smile contained no trace of anything but acknowledgement; she clearly knew what I meant. “I think you’re being a little too literal,” she replied. “Parenting is as much about responsibility — and not just for someone else — as it is conception.”

I resisted the impulse to argue, to tell her that except for a few admittedly serious mistakes, I had been responsible, or at least as responsible as most people I knew. But the achingly familiar quality of her voice reminded me of when we used to discuss books, and I admired a degree of conversational finesse I realized was similar to what had brought me success in my legal work as a dealmaker.

“You absolutely should adopt her,” she continued. “She’ll bring you a lot of joy.”

I nodded. I felt that something had changed between us; she seemed so much less wounded and unhappy than in my memories, and I was encouraged by the idea that the same could no doubt be said of me. “What do you think I should name her?” I asked with a laugh, pointing at the cardboard sign attached to the outside of the cage. “She’s obviously not a ‘Mango’.”

“Given that you already have Dante, wouldn’t Beatrice be appropriate?” she proposed, using the Italian pronunciation.

“Beatrice,” I repeated hypnotically. I remembered how we had always shared a kind of intuition, and if I felt some regret at how frightened of it I had been as a teenager, as though she could see the hard outlines of desires I was just beginning to ascertain, I was now consoled by the thought that we were more like reflections of one another, able to follow where the other chose to walk.

I went to the cage, where Beatrice cowered in the corner and looked up at me with timid, wet eyes, much more fearful than Dante. Her face was also heart-shaped, but smaller and more angular, except for some very long and prominent nose whiskers that in the reflection of the light gave her the appearance of a walrus. She was really quite tiny and a bit bedraggled, with some of her fur matted down on the sides of her face and along her belly. Her tail, I also noticed, appeared to be only five or six inches long — perhaps half the length of Dante’s — with a little knob on the end, which though not raw or infected made me wonder if it had been cut off in what I imagined had not been an easy life. She covered her face with a paw, and I noticed that this too was misshapen; it looked like a mitten. I counted at least seven toes, including one that had an impressive nail in the shape of a lobster claw.

“Did you see her foot?” I turned back to my “mother,” who had pushed the sunglasses back down on her eyes.

“She’s polydactyl,” she replied, her tone still recognizable to me. “You get that in cats, but it’s good luck — I promise — take her home and you’ll see.”

At home, Beatrice proved extremely skittish, even after I made clear my intention to rescue her from the cruel life she had thus far endured. Picking her up was out of the question; she spent most of her time under the bed or in the closet while Dante roamed the perimeter of the bedroom and whined, obsessed with his new twin sister. When she emerged to eat or to use the litter box, he always stayed two inches behind her, as if he had never seen anything quite so extraordinary. Eventually, Beatrice — clearly ambivalent about the attention — lost patience and gave him a quick swat with one of her big paws.

“You kind of deserved that,” I remarked as Dante sulked past.

Over time, however, it became difficult to criticize Dante’s infatuation, given that I was only slightly less taken, if no more successful in my attempts to approach; not once did she allow me to touch her, nor did she like to even eat if I remained in the kitchen. The closest I could get in these first few months was to offer her a piece of cocktail shrimp or turkey breast — preferably from Zabar’s, and no more than one day old — which she would deign to receive after emitting a demure, plaintive meow, no louder than the creak of a door. If I was surprised to note the existence of such rarefied tastes in one whose life had to this point allowed such little opportunity for indulgence, in no way did I discourage her, as if to do so would have been to deny my own nascent appreciation of the same.

I liked to watch Beatrice yawn, a slow but fluid motion in which her mouth opened to its widest and most gaping point before easily closing shut in a most satisfactory manner. I was always astonished by how relaxed and seriously unproductive both she and Dante were, how ambivalent they felt about work of any kind, such as when I asked them to pick up their collection of strings and bottle caps before the cleaning service arrived. Yet while this and any similar request was met with a show of apathy that did not even rise to disdain, I never felt angry or irritated, when even their most tentative movements were marked by a subtle grace that was inspirational in light of the encroaching stiffness in my own joints. Sometimes when they galloped after one another down a hallway, they recalled the grandeur of a pair of wild horses on the open plain, but it was an action — given the shortness of its duration — that seemed marked by both a recollection of and ambivalence toward their hereditary past; in short, it reminded me of my own past, and brought with it a certain disbelief that I had ever lived it, and only a ghostly stab of pain across my hands or in the back of my eyelids would tell me that my life had not been a dream.

That Beatrice seemed to love the Cannanes more than any other band in my record collection was something I learned one evening by accident, when I knocked over a stack of LPs to expose A Love Affair with Nature. When I put the record on, I was pleasantly surprised to find Beatrice fleetingly brush past my ankle; a shadow of a motion, to be sure, but one that definitely qualified as a touch. A few seconds later I tentatively kneeled down with a thought to pet Beatrice and for the first time she allowed me to pass my fingertips along the outermost fringes of her silver coat, softer than a cloud, as she hovered at arm’s length like a mirage. This became a habit; whenever we reached the last song on the album, “Vivienne” — “there’s something about Australia, you want to kick it when it’s down/Just because it is a failure, doesn’t mean I’m leaving Newtown” — Beatrice, as if hypnotized by this spirit of resignation, would move close enough so that I was able to reach out and gently grab her tail. She always pulled away, but less in alarm than as if teasing me, and I felt the knobby end pass through my closed fist like a rope thrown to a drowning victim. Still, I was not disappointed when she paused and turned to look back, allowing me to stare into these green pools where — like Baudelaire’s urchin of the Celestial Empire — I did not fail to find the expected trace of eternity.

On another night, she allowed me to wrap one of my hands around her flank and to guide her next to my leg for a few seconds, so that I could feel the frantic beat of her small heart. She remained gently trapped like this for a few seconds before she grew claustrophobic and in her characteristic low crouch slipped away to jump off the bed and into the dark. Later, I woke up and rolled over just in time to see her disappear over the hilly terrain of pillows and blankets, while a slight coolness on my face led me to suspect that she had just placed a single delicate lick to the tip of my large nose.

A few weeks later, I noticed how thin she seemed when she appeared on the edge of the bed. “You know, you could stand to eat more,” I commented, and wondered if she had always been like this — and it was hard to know for sure, given that I had never really held her — or if she was in fact losing weight.

In response, she stared back with feline intensity, curious but dismissive, as if whatever I was saying, she couldn’t quite imagine the stupidity of it. Then she began to knead the fleece blanket, her green eyes demure and playful.

“Well, you don’t seem sick,” I commented, and felt reassured when she did not disagree.

But over the next week, I became more concerned. Though she arrived for meals, she rarely spent more than a few seconds at the plate — which she and Dante had always shared — before she walked away uninterested. A few more days passed like this, until on Sunday she retreated under the bed, ignoring all of my attempts to draw her out with her favorite food or toys; alarmed, I called the vet, who suggested that I immediately take her to the emergency room at the Animal Medical Center.

I hung up and went to the bedroom, where I sat down on the floor to address her: “Beatrice, we need to go to the hospital — do you think you could come out?”

She did not move, and her eyes were now dull and metallic like the heads of nails. Although she gave me no reason to think that she was at all amenable to the idea, I retrieved the carrier from the closet and brought it back to the bedroom, where she continued to sit under the bed in the dark, a silhouette with silver eyes. “Beatrice — please — you’re sick. Will you come out?”

She would not, at which point I relinquished control of my body and became less a participant than a spectator in the impending series of events. I went to the stereo and put on the Cannanes, after which I pulled down the cover from the bed and sat on top of the mattress. “Beatrice,” I called softly above the music and tapped on the bed three times, the signal I had used these past few months to entice her up.

I held my breath and she appeared; somewhat clumsily, she staggered out from under the bed and took a few tentative steps in her growth-stunted waddle before she jumped up to her usual spot. To my dismay she seemed even smaller and now trembled slightly, just like the first time I had seen her, trapped in the corner of her cage at the vet.

Still, her eyes were brighter now that she was out in the light, and I tried to reassure her. “Beatrice, this is going to feel like a betrayal, but you need to see a doctor. It’s probably nothing — maybe you have a virus or a summer cold.”

As I finished saying this, I lunged with my left hand—still quick from my years spent playing hockey in goal—and managed to scoop her up against my body as I placed my other hand on the scruff of her neck to hold her steady. Weak as she was, she could not escape, although she fought and screamed as I managed to slowly stand and place her, one leg at a time, into the crate. Though upset by her crying, I was thankful that she possessed enough strength for her scratches to have left three long rivulets of blood running down my left arm.

After setting her down by the front door, I ran to the garage to pick up the car. When I returned a few minutes later, Dante was sitting in front of her carrier, licking her paws, and I was relieved to see that Beatrice seemed calmer. After saying goodbye to Dante, I drove down to Broadway and then crossed east on 155th, which led past the public housing projects at the Polo Grounds, long considered one of the most forlorn examples of post-war architecture in the city. “We don’t like Robert Moses, do we?” I asked Beatrice in an attempt to distract her, but she remained quiet as I entered the Harlem River Drive and started south. “You picked a very good time to get sick,” I further pointed out in a vain attempt to cheer her up. “It’s Sunday night, so there’s no traffic.”

In less than ten minutes, I arrived at the Animal Medical Center, which — I could not fail to note with a mix of trepidation and relief — was right across the street from Sloan-Kettering. “You’re going to get the best doctors in the world,” I assured her, an assessment bolstered by the high-tech swoosh of the automatic doors and the small army of staff who greeted us inside. Nevertheless, it was hard to remain optimistic as I stepped into the inalterably dreary scene of a Sunday night at the emergency room; the waiting area was filled with sad-looking families and their even sadder-looking pets, along with an assortment of chairs, pay phones and vending machines.

I stepped up to the reception desk to explain the situation, and was soon provided with the necessary intake forms, which I filled out among the ranks of the downtrodden. Now and again I placed one of my fingers through the metal grate of her carrier, where Beatrice sat quietly petrified and shivering. From behind the reception counter, I heard people sobbing as vets delivered bad news.

Someone walked by on a cell phone, weeping. “Don’t worry,” I whispered to Beatrice. “You’re going to be fine.”

After fifteen minutes or so, we were led to an examination room for a preliminary consultation with a doctor, who shook Beatrice out of the cage and quickly grabbed her by the scruff of the neck as she fought to get away. “She’s very yellow,” he said as he folded back the inside of her ear. “When’s the last time she ate?”

“Uh — a few days ago?”

“It looks like hepatic lipidosis,” the vet explained. “If a cat stops eating for any reason, the fatty cells of their tissue can basically overrun the liver and shut it down.”

I dug my fingernails into my palms. “Why would she stop eating?”

“It could be anything — a cold, a change in food, depression.”

“A cold? Depression?” I took a second to digest this, restraining the urge to reason away such a ridiculous premise for liver failure. “Can you help her?”

“We can try,” the vet said in an efficient but superficial tone I found somewhat more comforting. “How old is she?”

“One and a half or so — I don’t exactly know because she was a stray.”

“That’s good, she should be strong.”

The vet left to complete the paperwork and gave me a few minutes alone with Beatrice, who now cowered under a small sink. “Beatrice, they’re going to fix you up,” I promised as I bent down beside her; as I spoke, I tentatively reached out my hand but withdrew it when she shrank away.

The following day, I returned for visiting hours and met with her “team” of doctors, who agreed that while the case was severe, the official stance was one of guarded optimism. The plan was to reverse the lipodosis by tube-feeding her until her liver kicked back in and began to function normally, which they claimed was by no means an unprecedented prognosis, particularly given her age. They had already placed her in intensive care, where I found her in an oxygenated chamber with a feeding-tube running through her nose, various IVs attached through each of her hind legs, and her head in one of those plastic cones that looks like an Elizabethan collar.

“Beatrice? Are you ok?” I whispered through the cage, and in response, she moaned a little bit and moved her eyes, which despite her obvious weakness the doctor said was a good sign.

But the next morning I received a call from one of the doctors, who told me that overnight things had taken a turn for the worse, and for no reason that anybody could figure out, Beatrice’s sodium levels — her “electrolytes” — had dropped to precarious levels. I immediately went in to find her completely unresponsive.

I asked one of the doctors what had happened. “Well, she was even weaker than I thought,” he shrugged. “But I had a specialist in this morning and she made some adjustments. Our most recent readings actually show her electrolytes heading back into the normal range, which is good.”

And by Wednesday to my great relief, her situation had stabilized; I was encouraged to find that she appeared a little stronger, and even stood up like a newborn foal when I greeted her.

“Dante misses you,” I managed to add, fending off any lurking doubt I felt behind this show of conviction, as if anything I could say to her could reverse the course of her sickness. “He would have come, but you know how carsick he gets.”

On Thursday morning, a doctor called to give the report. “She’s not out of the woods yet,” she said, “but she looks better. Her sodium has definitely stabilized and her blood work looks good, too, so I think I can remain positive.”

I drove down to see her filled with hope, but when I arrived — as if in a rebuke to this display of optimism — she looked worse than ever. In a panic, I tried to find someone from her team, but because I had arrived during the transition from the day to night shift, the only doctor to be found was an oncologist not familiar with her case. “Her blood work does look better,” she noted as she examined the charts. “Maybe she’s just tired.”

I sat with her until visiting hours ended at nine and then went home. “She was just tired,” I repeated to Dante. “It’s just going to take a little longer than expected.”

Then — the following morning — I received a call from the doctor, who relayed the news that things had in fact taken a turn for the worse; she was not just tired, after all; the new theory was that some sort of primary condition — cancer perhaps — had brought on the lipidosis, but they could only confirm this with a liver biopsy, a process itself that greatly lowered the prognosis for recovery.

“So what should I do?”

“I think you should come in if you can.”

At the hospital, Beatrice was crumpled and dirty in the corner of her intensive-care unit. Her rib cage heaved in and out with each breath and her eyes had grown foggy and distant. There was no question about what to do: I instructed the team to stop treatment; there would be no biopsy. I asked them to remove the feeding tube from her nose and take off her collar before they brought her into an examination room to say goodbye. When she was delivered to me, she looked destroyed, worse than drowned, even worse than the day before; her coat was greasy and covered with flecks of dander, her mouth and eyes were coated by thick gobs of something white and unidentifiable; her nose bled from where they had removed the feeding tubes and her skin hung off her ribcage and spine. She still had IVs in each of her legs, one wrapped in blue gauze and one in red. I felt the pads of her feet and they were cold and I wondered why they had wrapped the IVs so tightly.

“Beatrice,” I managed between deep breaths. “You’re covered in snow.”

She tried to stand, but could only totter a step or two before she collapsed against the wall; her eyes remained open but were dull and motionless, even when I showed her a golden bauble I had brought to remind her of home. “Dante thought I should bring this one,” I said, pointing to plastic flower, “and even though I know you never really liked it, I wanted you to know that he was thinking of you.”

I told her about everything that had happened during the past week; how Dante kept looking for her under the bed, and how none of the games we played would ever be as fun without her. I told her that I hadn’t been able to sleep without her saying goodnight to me. Beatrice raised her head a little as I continued, and I tried to sound less dire as I remembered the famous photograph of Candy Darling taken in the hospital with white roses just before she died. I placed a finger under her chin, and she shivered. “You don’t want to suffer anymore.”

Awash in helplessness, all I could think to do now was to restore some semblance of dignity to the most undignified thing in the world, death in a modern hospital. I took a small cloth brought from home and began to groom her; I started with her face, and as best I could I gently wiped away the thick saliva from her cheeks, the blood that trickled from her nose and the gunk from around her eyes; from there I moved down to her neck, chafed from the collar, and then progressed over her shoulders and down her side, where each one of her raspy and labored breaths continued to make her stomach rise and fall with a slight shudder. I cleaned each of her polydactyl paws and remembered how the old woman (who I continued to conflate with my mother) had told me that they were supposed to be good luck, and for a second I hated her. But then I reconsidered; maybe she had been right about Beatrice, which was why it was so difficult to think of losing her.

There was a tap against the window and I nodded before I turned back to her. “Beatrice — Little Bea,” I whispered, “it’s time to call the doctor in, ok?”

The vet entered with a hypodermic full of barbiturate, which he inserted into the IV of one her hind legs as I kneeled down and placed a hand over her tiny stomach and a finger under her head. “You’re going to sleep now, Little Beatrice,” I managed as the vet plunged the syringe and I looked into her dark green eyes for the last time, where a flicker of the aurora borealis appeared and then disappeared, and I knew that Beatrice was gone.

The vet left, and I felt baffled by her lifeless form. I picked her up and held her for the first and last time as great drops splashed out of my eyes against the floor. I considered her mitten-paws and cursed the cold and arbitrary side of nature, its complete disregard for fairness or worth in the choice of life or death, and I was reminded of 9/11, and how I had arrived at much the same conclusion, albeit by way of a cold analytical process that had nothing to do with the more visceral understanding I now felt. Along with this came a rush of hatred for life, if it meant having to die in a clinical hell so far from anything of comfort you had ever known, nor did I hesitate to acknowledge an even deeper hatred for those I was sure would belittle this display of grief from a very large man for a very small cat, probably just one of thousands that were dying all over the world at this exact second; I recalled a piece in The Times lamenting the money spent on pets with so many disasters in the world, as if one were the cause of the other. Nor did I forget to hate Chairman Mao and all of his communist brethren who claimed that love for animals was bourgeois and non-utilitarian; for that matter, I also hated the animal-rights activists just for being alive when Beatrice was not. And finally I hated the logical part of myself that agreed with all of them, and the accompanying sense of shame I felt at my incapacity to love anyone more than Beatrice. But a few minutes passed and as the crippled truth of this washed over me, it felt as pure as anything I had ever known, and I swore that as long as Beatrice was dead — and her tiny limp body, literally fifty times smaller than my own, proved it — I would not in million years forget her; this ability to remember, I knew, was the only faith I would ever believe in.

I tenderly placed her back onto the stainless steel table and covered her with a hospital-blue plastic padded blanket, so that only her head poked out from underneath. I thought of the many nights over the past year when she, in effect, had done the same for me, watching over me as I drifted to sleep. She had been so small, so fragile and ephemeral, really a most insignificant piece of the universe and in this regard — as I considered the futility I had experienced trying to save her — no different than me! Yet she had been aware and unstinting in her awareness, for was it not true that as much as I had provided for her — in the most practical ways — that she had also cared for me? Had she not also taught me patience? I thought of my mother and felt no anger or remorse; my grief for Beatrice, it seemed, was melting together with a previously unacknowledged one, which before this moment had always been qualified by some sort of condition or regret. My eyes felt like raisins and my head pounded, as though my body were an empty box. I touched Beatrice and tried to close her eyelids. I felt her mitten paws for the last time before I opened the door and took one final look back.

Requiescat in Pace little Beatrice,” I whispered, and in the reflection of the window I saw my mother; and it was really her, not just the old woman. She smiled sadly, benignly; it was an expression I had forgotten about, one she used to wear sitting on the edge of the bed, when I was already tucked in; even now I could feel her hand brush lightly against my cheek, sending me off into the world of sleep.