A cat lives in a photographer’s shop I pass on the way to work. Appropriately black and white, it sits in the window amid perfect couples, wind-blown and airbrushed glamour shots, and vintage sepia made bright again. She watches me as I watch her, wearing an expression common to cats, indifference bordering on disgust.
The shop is home, and the cat is there all the time. No matter what time of day, she appears alert to the exact moment I’ll walk by and sits ready to stare me past her storefront. Sometimes I don’t see her at first. Then, camouflaged like a porcelain knick-knack among antique frames, she surprises me by turning her head in cold recognition.
I’m a not a cat person. This cat gives me the creeps. Nonetheless, sympathy binds us. Our lives are not so different really. I’m constrained by my daily round trip and she by the walls of her owner’s business. She has her one perspective on the outer world, and I have my one set of eyes. The cat looks out from the detritus of her inner life, the sanitized and staged memories of the photographer. My memories are mine—and I hope less chintzy—but we spy the world from what we know.
Recently, I’ve been staying late at the school where I work. By the time I’ve finished, all my colleagues are gone. Some of the night shift may be trading anecdotes at the reception desk, and one or two stragglers might sit in the vestibule waiting to be picked-up by late parents, but the school is otherwise empty. No one hears me sigh out all the laborious hours or sees me swaddling myself to face Chicago January. Just out of the door, I start thinking about the cat, anticipating her at her guard post watching.
Up until the other day, she has been my last goodnight, a face to greet my regular retreat. But on a particularly windy, cold, and wet evening I walked past her shop to find her not awake or alert but curled in a black and white circle like a stole, her face altogether hidden.
I thought of stopping to rap on the window. It didn’t seem fair she should sleep when I was still awake. More than that though, a melancholy overtook me—I wondered what her sleeping meant, not just to me but to us, we watchers between our inner and outer lives. I felt unsettled, as if that cat’s sleep somehow made the world strange.
The literature I teach tells me mortality is humanity’s driving thought and obsession, but I rarely feel that. I did then. I pictured a time my wife, my kids, my mom, my brothers and sisters, my friends, and my colleagues might be sleeping. I might be sleeping. The photographs will still sit on the shelves, the world will still be outside the window, but who will bridge them? What will those images mean to those who stay? Can they mean as much?
All the way home the cat remained asleep in my imagination, and I returned with a different spirit. Everyone got a hug. I got a hug. We live.