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The Chinese Cats

Recalling a friend, finding her identity in her early 20s.

I remember one woman, several years ago. She was a Chinese Jewish Gypsy (“a Chinipsy!” I said), magazine beautiful, but hated herself. Her depression was totally self-contained, self-confirming, and very entertaining.

“I just deserve to die,” she would say.

“Oh yes, you're the most terrible person who ever lived.”

I know.

She had been to Yale, and worked for Haitians with HIV. Her cats had Chinese names, and I made fun of her for it.

“How are Po-lo and Ma-mo?” I said, botching their names.

“Oh my God, fuck you.”

“You are so culturally legitimate, man. You have Chinese cats.”

“I hate white people,” she told me. “All of them. I hate white women who do yoga.”

“Why them in particular?”

“I need a reason?”

I've seen some bad cases, but she had the messiest apartment I'd ever seen. I can visualize her fridge exactly, completely filled to the cubic centimeter with half-rank food, the sink piled three feet high with old dishes. I went over once to watch her clean, after her roommate, an ex-boyfriend who was tormenting her by sleeping with other women in a demonstrative manner, had pitched a fit about the place. She believed that trees had souls, she told me, working through a pile of magazines as tall as herself.

“They do, huh?”

She shook her head at me.

“I suppose when you've been to Yale, you'd know things that those of us in other classes don't.”

She gave me a look of pure hatred. Soon after, she went to San Francisco to work with autistic children and “truly be a lesbian.” She called two months later.

“Oh, God, if I tell them that I changed my mind—”

“Huh?”

“I mean, I met this guy—”

“Wait, so—”

“I mean, I was hanging out with radical lesbians.”

“Wait, and you didn't tell them you were uncertain?”

“No, I mean, I didn't have to shave my head because I'm ethnic. They'll hate me.”

“I doubt anyone will hate you. Dismiss you, maybe.”

“Come on, this isn't New York. I'm in trouble.

I laughed. “Is your boyfriend nice and white?”

She moaned to say “yes.”

We went out for lunch once. “I've decided to be attractive to women,” I said.

“Just like that?”

“Yeah, I figure it's up to me. It's a choice you make.”

“Well, it's working,” she said. “Whatever it is you're doing.”

I looked at her for a long moment, but it was acknowledgement, not an invitation: a pleasant moment. “Yeah, I guess it is,” I said. I'd had a number of polite incidents in bars, nothing that stuck or went anywhere, no hurt feelings. About right for me at the time.

We must have known each other for a year, but I never knew her real name. She'd renamed herself with some sort of Eskimo denomination, and once when I was over I found an envelope with her real name, and she asked me to forget it, told me she wanted to be a new person with me. So I did that.

She came back to New York from the West Coast and called me, living in her old apartment for a month or two. “I've changed,” she said. “Remember how I used to be humiliated by my boyfriend? How he used to rub it in my face that he was with other women?”

“Sure.”

“Well, he really wants me back, he told me over and over, and I just flash my breasts at him when I see him, and say, come on.”

“And?”

“He cries.”

“Do you feel powerful?”

“I feel awful.” But yes, she did feel powerful. Soon she went back out to California to be with her new boyfriend.

In her new life she easily forgot me, and she's lost from my world now. I hope she thinks of me every few months, like I do of her. Knowing her was a pure pleasure, a unique kind of love that exists somewhere between affection and entertainment; every conversation was sure to bring out new depths of self-loathing and new secret beliefs, new scandals in which she'd implicated herself sexually and emotionally. I think she felt the same way about me, strangers in each other's world, fascinated.

But her email doesn't work, and Google doesn't know her: her name returns only a list of villages in Greenland. Perhaps someday I'll hear the ring and hear her voice, for while she went on her way, I am still here: same address, phone number, email. It would be nice to know how it turned out, to revel in the spectacle, and feel that warmth towards another soul bridged by time and phone lines.


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