Rosa swayed on her barstool, letting herself be moved back and forth by the pressures of sound and crowd. The guitar was definitely a little shrill and slightly out of tune. She recognized this and accepted it with a small smile. She stood up and began making her way to the bathroom, trying to be invisible and insubstantial, slipping between groups of dancing people who had started drinking much earlier in the evening than Rosa had. The lady’s room door was locked, and her heart sped up a bit at the recognition that she would have to stand in the bright, narrow hall, totally visible. And maybe even have to make eye contact with some strange woman when she emerged from the restroom. “Public bathrooms are the worst,” she thought.
Then the door opened and a tall, unexpectedly pretty woman with white-streaked black hair came out. She gave Rosa a friendly, sympathetic smile and said something Rosa didn’t hear. Rosa returned a strained smile and made a nearly silent speech-like sound, making her lips move in a way that she hoped would satisfy whatever demand the woman was making of her, then quickly darted into the bathroom. The sudden change in sound and air and light made life difficult to negotiate for a moment, but soon she was drying her hands and checking her makeup in the mirror. Coming out, Rosa repeated the bizarre social exchange with another woman who had been waiting for her turn. She only made a half-hearted effort to make her way back, knowing that her seat had probably been claimed the moment she stood up. A brief wave of anxiety passed through her as she looked at the people around her dancing. Their arrhythmic swayings and hoppings had a disturbing alien quality that briefly made her skin crawl.
Without the anchor of a seat she was buffeted back and forth by the waves of sound, trying to remain soft and flexible, enjoying the experience of being obliterated by noise and human contact and surfing on the edge of panic. Looking up at the stage, she made eye contact with the lead singer and guitarist, a short, heavily intoxicated 30-something man in an ironic grey suit and fedora. A quizzical expression momentarily flashed across his features before his eyes found focus elsewhere. Rosa sought the eyes of the bassist next, but was distracted when she noticed a fuzzy black shape, like a dog-sized caterpillar, crawling up the wall next to the mixer. She didn’t bother looking around to see whether anyone else saw it. No one else ever did. The shadows of the band members, already elongated by the intense stage lights, grew longer and taller and split apart, until a shadow forest stood on the wall behind the stage. Tiny dark spots swarmed out of the forest and crawled up to the corner where wall meets ceiling and filled it in. After a moment, Rosa wasn’t entirely sure whether the corner had already been shadowed or whether the darkness filling it was just the tiny forest creatures.
The song ended and the singer announced a short break. Rosa instinctively followed the crowd leaving the dance floor, searching for a bare spot of wall to lean on. Finding none, she made her way to the bar. The bartender wore an extremely low cut top. For the third time that evening Rosa guiltily tried and failed to maintain eye contact while she ordered her vodka and cranberry juice, adding an extra dollar to the tip to make up for objectifying her. She was making her way through the crowd, looking for a good spot to stand, when she nearly tripped over a fluffy brown and black cat, who was itself weaving through the crowd. A man in skin tight jeans watched the cat’s progress toward the exit. Sensing something more interesting than the band, Rosa followed, quickly sucking down her drink and plunking the glass down on a table as she passed.
Outside the autumn air felt cold and dry, and the sudden silence of the late night street made Rosa momentarily dizzy. When the disorientation passed, she looked around for the cat. It was walking past an alley where a large lizard was rifling through a garbage can that had been knocked over. Something like a spider, toddler-sized and having what seemed like dozens of legs, crouched on a brick wall watching the lizard work. It glanced at Rosa for a moment but didn’t seem interested in her. She walked by, doing her best to move silently to avoid startling the cat. As they crossed another street Rosa noticed a pebble in the crosswalk, dark grey with a white quartz band around the middle. She scooped it up and kept walking. Now that she had the pebble she wasn’t so concerned about startling the cat. She caught up easily. The cat glanced her way but didn’t say anything, and they continued in companionable silence. Two blocks later Rosa realized they were very close to the river. Soon she saw the guardrails and the dark water and the long serpentine necks protruding gracefully from the water. She had spent many long hours watching and had never once seen one of them move. She looked down to see what the cat was doing now and couldn’t find it anywhere. Feeling slightly drunk and more than slightly disappointed that her adventure should end so quickly, Rosa decided to take a walk along the water.
She still had the pebble, so there was some hope for an interesting evening. Rosa watched her feet as she walked upriver, carefully avoiding the cracks in the pavement. A loud meow broke her concentration and she saw the cat hop onto the railing by the river to walk beside her. “Welcome back,” she muttered. “So where are we going?” The cat blinked at her and kept walking.
Rosa entertained herself as they walked by making up a haiku about the cat.
little secret cat
together we are walking
She didn’t think the cat would appreciate it, so she kept it to herself.
Rosa stopped walking for a moment to allow several steel grey snakes to slither by on their way into the river and nearly lost the cat as it hopped off the railing and trotted up a street. She had the feeling that they had almost arrived at their destination, and sure enough, the cat turned again and padded into an alley. Rosa followed to the end of the alley, where a large cardboard box sat surrounded by a low wall of broken bricks and chunks of pavement. The cat was nowhere to be found, but that was to be expected. Rosa quietly walked to the wall. She saw that there were hundreds of tiny stones and bits of bone and foil candy wrappers and bottle caps laying in drifts against the inside of the wall. Always respectful of rituals, she quickly searched her purse and came up with a tiny plastic fairy with only one wing, a metal button from an old girlfriend’s coat, a crushed up bluebird feather, and an acorn. None of those things seemed appropriate, so she skipped out the alley and half a block up the street to a bar and restaurant of the sort that closes at eleven pm. She peeked in their dumpster and quickly found a handful of bottle caps. These she carefully placed inside the rubble wall, equidistant from each other. When she was through, a voice whispered, “Come.”
Rosa opened the flaps of the cardboard box. Sitting in the bottom on a dirty greyish blanket was a small snake-like creature covered in a rainbow of brightly colored metallic feathers. The creature spoke. “I know you. I see you. Always the strange one. Always alone. I can help you, make you like them. Not-seeing, not-knowing. Here it is, the gift of giftlessness.” The creature moved to the side to reveal a tiny black stone. “Swallow it, yes, and then free from these unprofitable dreams.” Rosa reached down into the box, but the feathered serpent shifted to cover the stone again. “This is not a gift. I require payment.” Rosa thought for a moment, then pulled the grey pebble with the quartz band out of her pocket. She held it out, and the creature snapped it up and swallowed it. After a few seconds its eyes glazed and it settled down onto the blanket. A quiet little moan escaped its lips and it lay limp. The colors of it feathers brightened momentarily, then began slowly shifting. Rosa again reached down, pushing the creatures coils out of the way, and picked up the black stone. It felt just like an ice cube feels when you’ve held it long enough for the edges to melt away. It had a faint garlicky scent, possibly from being so close to the serpent. She walked back toward the river, looking at the stone and contemplating. It was true that she had often wished to be a bit more like other people. Being extraordinary was often very lonely. She leaned on the railing by the rivers edge and imagined how her life would change. Friends, a normal job, dating, not always being so awkward- her heart raced at the thought of it. The cat stood next to a garbage can, watching her. Rosa squeezed her fist, feeling the smooth coldness of the stone.
The long necks stuck out of the river, totally still. It was dark, but she was pretty sure she hit one. It was a really good throw. When she got back to the bar the band was still playing.