Shortly after she turned 70, Celeste discovered that she was suddenly, remarkably, no longer allergic to cats.
“This happens,” her allergist said without resentment or skepticism. “We can’t explain it. Probably has some relation to a change in hormones.”
Her husband had been a cat lover when they met — and she watched him give away his cat for her sake. After that sacrifice, there was little she could refuse him. They had a reasonable marriage, two children, and no surprises until Charles, three days after his retirement from Blue Cross Blue Shield, announced that he wanted to be a woman.
“What’s with men suddenly wanting to be women?” Celeste wailed through her phone to her best friend. “Is this some kind of fad?”
“Of course not, dear.” Her friend spoke gently. “There have always been men who wanted to be women and women who wanted to be men. But there was never the space for it, if you know what I mean.”
Now that Charles was gone, deep into his celebrated new life — the children threw him a party — Celeste had plenty of space. So she bought a cat. Talk about a new life! Charles had been generous in their settlement and so she was able to afford a nice apartment on the west side of the park. The cat, a white Persian, was a pugfaced pedigree with dainty feet. She had gotten it, fully grown, from a famous breeder. “That’s what they do,” she explained to her best friend, “it’s like American Idol, you know: they select several cats to train for the shows and then only one or two make the final cut. Mine was cut. I don’t mean cut cut — he still has his balls, so I have the option to let him breed, if I’d like.”
His name was Bernard, never Bernie, never Saint. He spent much of his day in the window that overlooked the park. It was a splendid view. Whenever he spied a bird — sometimes the hawk that lived nearby — his tail would twitch manically, then he would vocalize. Celeste called it his aria, though it sounded more like caterwauling.
“Bernard, do you understand that back in the day, the mere sight of a cat would make me weep? And then I would itch all over? And then my throat would close up?”
She would say such things often, amazed that her life could change so abruptly, so dramatically. It emboldened her. She got a stylish buzz cut, which made her look butchy. She got certified to teach hot yoga. She went to many art openings and walked home with impunity on darkened streets. It seemed she had nothing to lose.
But then — just like that — she got cancer of the esophagus. Of the esophagus! She wasn’t a smoker and had never been a heavy drinker and infrequently ate spicy-hot foods. So, it didn’t make sense.
Two years later, she was a survivor but without her voice box. Now she had an electrolarynx that made her sound like a robot. Though she hated it, she was grateful for speech, except now she was loath to say much to anybody.
Bernard didn’t like it either. He flattened his ears at the sound of her new voice. It wasn’t her voice, after all. But Celeste was still Celeste, right? And the cat knew this, could smell her smell, could recognize her face.
She texted her best friend: “I can’t be timid, I can’t let Bernard see my fear. I have to approach him boldly as I would approach a lover. LOL. Confidence wins the day!”
“Bernard loves you,” her friend texted. “We all love you!”
One morning when Bernard was on his window perch, he began to caterwaul, tail twitching. Oh, how he wanted to fly!
Celeste wanted to fly too. Without thinking, she began to vocalize with him, modulating her electro-chords to a certain pitch that seemed to move Bernard to greater expression. His yowls — an animal call for transcendence — could have been the cries of a penitent Tibetan monk. Together, Celeste and Bernard sang, Celeste with her eyes closed, her head buzzing. It was hard to say how long they did this, so deep was their musical trance. But then the apartment door flew open and she turned to see the super staring at her in amazement, a confounded uniformed cop behind him, and a crowd of neighbors in the hall, everyone straining to behold what had become of her.
Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, and many others. He is the author of four books, most recently Missile Paradise, a novel, which the Library Association of America named a “notable” book of 2017. He directs the Good Contrivance Farm Writer’s Retreat in Maryland.