He could never have predicted how quickly his life would change, or how it would ultimately make him question his own emotions and even his very sanity.
One day, he'd been power walking down the brick sidewalks of Society Hill, one of the classier Philly neighborhoods. Tuned into his iPod, it took him a few moments to notice the cry of distress. At first, he thought it was a baby crying, and then he realized the voice was feline. Scanning around the immediate area with his eyes, he finally spotted a fluffy white cat, its face peering out from underneath an overturned sidewalk planter. The cat's eyes glowed emerald green in the darkness under the pot.
"How did you get under there?" he asked the cat, who made another yowling noise in response.
Gently, he lifted an edge up high enough for the cat to make its escape. Much to his surprise, instead of running away immediately, the cat rubbed itself against his legs and made a happy sound. He reached down and stroked its silky fur. Despite a little dirt from the planter, the cat was beautifully groomed; clearly not a stray. It was not, however, wearing a collar.
"Where do you live?" he asked the cat, half expecting a response. The kitty took a few light steps further down the sidewalk and then turned and stared at him expectantly. It wanted him to follow.
With a "why not?" shrug, Leo followed where the cat led. It walked gracefully down the sidewalk, doubling back every once in a while to rub on his legs again. A few blocks later -- about the extent of most domestic cats' rambling range -- the cat bounced up a few steps to a neat little brownstone.
"Is this home?" he asked. "You know I can't let you in."
The cat gave him a look that he could only describe as slightly bemused before it leaped onto the stone railing and then hopped delicately onto the window ledge. Whipping around in a circle, as if delighted to be home, the cat ducked inside the open window and traipsed out of sight into the depths of the apartment.
All smiles, Leo called, "Nice meeting you," after the retreating feline.
He was turning to go when a woman's voice called, "Hello? Is someone out there?" The light padding of footprints neared the front door.
In the pregnant moment that followed, Leo pondered whether he should pull a disappearing act like the cat.
But before he could, the door opened, and in the threshold stood a petite woman with shoulder-length blonde hair. She wore a simple wrap dress, and she was barefoot. Slightly out of breath, she asked, "Can I help you?"
Pulling his earbuds out, he stammered, "I followed your cat home." Inwardly, he shuddered at his own words and quickly added, "She was stuck under a planter, and I rescued her. Then, you know, I just wanted to make sure she was OK, so I followed her back here."
The corners of her mouth slightly upturned, the woman regarded him calmly with turquoise eyes. Then, wordlessly, she stepped back from the door, walked a few steps down the hallway and turned again to face him, beckoning with her eyes.
Even though it was only mid-afternoon, she opened a bottle of wine to thank him, she said, for his kindness. They sat in her front room for hours, he in an overstuffed chair and she with her feet curled under her, lounging in a slice of sun and pausing periodically to listen to the birds outside the window.
Leo told her everything about himself -- or everything that he felt mattered -- the same bullet-point overview of his life and career he'd given on countless first dates. She offered little in return but merely listened, sipping slowly, her whole being focused, it seemed, on his words. When, occasionally, he tried to pry loose some information, she batted his words aside with a quick snap of her wrist. "We can talk about me some other time," she said simply. "Today, I want to learn about you." He only learned that her name was Anna and that she'd lived here, "So long I could barely remember."
As day dipped into night, he asked her if she wanted to get something to eat. "Nothing fancy, dressed like this," he said, sweeping a hand over the exercise gear he still wore. "But it's First Friday in Old City. We could get some fish and chips at Rotten Ralph's and then check out what's going on in the galleries." First Friday was a monthly tradition in nearby Old City Philadelphia, where businesses and art galleries hosted special events.
Sliding off the couch and into some satin slippers, she said only, "I love seafood."
From that first chance encounter, their whirlwind romance bloomed. The next time he took her out, it was for a proper date. He wanted to impress her, so he surprised her with a dinner cruise on the Delaware. Declaring that she didn't like water, she spent the whole night grasping his arm tightly, which he didn't mind in the slightest. Except when a loud speedboat passed, and she dug her sharp nails in, as well.
Within two short months, they were spending every weekend together and nearly every night, as well. She told him he gave the best back massages of anybody she'd ever dated. No matter how much time he spent working the tension out of her trapezius, lats and lower back, she declared it was never enough.
He would have called it co-dependency except that she was fiercely independent, keeping her own hours and staying mum about her private business. When she wanted to spend time together, she'd call him or stop by his modest studio apartment on South Street. The few times he stopped by her place without warning, she was either out or simply ignored the knock on the door, although her cat, Polly, always regarded him quietly from the windowsill.
Although Polly sometimes followed him on the street when he walked by, running up to him and demanding to be petted, she kept hidden when he was visiting Anna. He chalked it up to feline quirkiness. He'd known enough cats to know that some of them have very particular rules when it comes to contact. Clearly, Polly only liked to be petted or held outside.
At least, that's what he'd been telling himself, until one fateful day when everything changed. Anna was primping in the mirror, and she licked the back of her hand before rubbing it on her temple to slick down a stray hair. That motion looked so... familiar.
He thought back to the time they'd spent together: How she'd always whip her head to look at any bird that fluttered by; how she had strict rules for their intimate moments: only on the bed, and no stroking of her legs or extremities. He thought about how, their first passionate night together, she'd left long scratch marks on his back. He thought, too, about her peculiar habit of balling up empty sugar packets and batting them between her hands whenever they had coffee. He thought about how she'd recoiled when he'd joked that he might get a dog, and how she'd immediately declared, "If you get a dog, I'm out of here."
These thoughts whirling in his head, he asked Anna, "Where's Polly? I haven't seen her in a while and I wanted so much to pet her a little before we go out."
Anna paused her grooming, thought for a second, and declared, "I'm going to use the bathroom. Maybe she'll come out while I'm in there."
Sure enough, a moment after the bathroom door closed, Polly sauntered down the hallway towards him, acting casual. He scritched her head for a second and then, muttering, "I'm sorry, but I have to know," he barged down the hallway and flung open the bathroom door. The room was empty.
His mind firing with the impossible thoughts that crowded in, like pinging bubbles of understanding bursting in his brain, he whipped around to see behind him, instead of the cat, his completely nude girlfriend.
As calm and composed as if she were fully clothed, Anna stepped forward, placed a hand on his shoulder, and said, "I think it's finally time that we talk about me."
Thanks to my kitty, Luke, for the inspiration. He tried to force his way into storytime with my toddler, Kung Fu Panda. The thought crossed my mind, "Why does he want to hear this book so badly? What if he really were a little boy, in disguise?"