The Nature of the Beast
I found the magazines one weekend when Jack was winter camping. I'd been looking for the letter he'd just received from Stella, his ex-girlfriend, which we'd both agreed I shouldn't read. Prior to me, Stella had been the undisputed love of Jack's life, the topic of pages and pages of his most passionate prose. Though married now and living back east, Stella had no compunction about writing long and lovelorn letters to my fiancé. The fact that she'd been equally faithless when she was Jack's girlfriend did give me a little comfort. I soothed myself by recalling tales of her many blatant infidelities, and contrasting them to my own example of unwavering devotion. Still, I'd hoped that our engagement — several months old by now — might curb Stella's correspondence. I liked to think of myself as tolerant, confident, and progressive. Stella's boundary-crossing made me feel just the opposite: narrow-minded, jealous, and insecure.
A month earlier, Stella had called Jack in tears. His first collection of short stories had just hit the bookstores, and she was dismayed that her name did not appear in the acknowledgments. Sitting just a few feet away from Jack as he reasoned with Stella — within earshot of her inappropriately tearful voice — I decided to ignore the issue altogether. This was an important time in Jack's life: his first book, the beginning of his career after years of hard work. I did not want to dampen his happiness. And I could even, to some degree, understand how Stella felt — watching Jack achieve his goals long after her exit from his life. Jack's romantic dedication ("to Eve, my only Muse") clearly marked me as the winner. While she whined about the acknowledgments, I reminded myself that I, not Stella, sat beside Jack now — sharing his good fortune, his home, his two cats. His future.
Still. It was hard not to be curious. "Why bother?" Jack said, when I asked if I could read Stella's latest letter. "It doesn't mean anything to me, and it's just going to make you angry." I agreed, recognizing Jack's words as rational and mature. When his friend Tony arrived Friday morning to pick Jack up, I bid him good-bye with the purest intentions. I watched them drive away, then headed to work — Stella's letter the furthest thing from my mind.
That day turned out to be particularly grueling. At my desk in the district attorney's office, I spent the afternoon trying to convince a well-dressed, well-spoken woman, who asked to be called Mrs. Lloyd, not to return home with Mr. Lloyd — who'd just been released on bail after blackening both her eyes. If I had ever suspected that spousal abuse was limited to the lower income brackets, its victims uneducated, this job had taught me otherwise. Four years before I'd taken the position as a victim's advocate, considering it a possible segue to law school. At the time I hadn't imagined any crimes were actually committed in our picturesque university town. Every window in the Pearl DA's office framed a view of the Rocky Mountains, making the utilitarian building seem more like a resort hotel.
But while Pearl lacked its share of murders and back-alley stabbings, it had no dearth of domestic violence, and thanks to the college, there were plenty of acquaintance rapes. My job provided ample stimulation and frustration — as much if not more than a career in law, without the accompanying debt and pressure.
Now, in response to my gentle but persistent prodding, Mrs. Lloyd took the safe house address, her silk blouse rustling as she reached, but said no thank you to a ride. "My car's right outside," she explained, smiling through swollen lips. She promised to drive directly to the shelter. With Amy, the other victim's advocate, I watched through the window as Mrs. Lloyd met her husband in the parking lot. Standing against a backdrop of blue skies and mountains, the couple embraced.
Then she handed him the keys to her BMW.
"Eve," Amy said. "I think we need a martini."
That night, when I crawled into bed, my brain slightly fuzzy with gin, I remembered Stella's letter. But the sheets smelled comfortingly of Jack: that good mix of sandalwood soap, cotton bond paper, and worn flannel. And finding me alone in bed, the cats had curled up companionably. More than a year after I'd moved in they had barely accepted me as their own, but were always very affectionate in Jack's absence. Beatrix slept politely at my feet, while the more brazen Pip took Jack's place, cuddled against my chest with his head on Jack's pillow. I smiled. Who cares about Stella, I thought. I fell asleep slowly, able to enjoy the vague loneliness, knowing that Jack would be home soon.* * *
Saturday unfolded more gently. In the morning I met a friend at the autumn farmer's market and went for a long run by Pearl Creek in the afternoon. Weaving around the cheerful crowds on the bike path — college students, strollers, everyone looking healthy and happy — renewed my faith in the town's wholesomeness. At home, I refused to be upset by the message from Stella on our answering machine — her second call in just over a week.
At dinnertime I picked up videos and take-out Chinese, and never entertained a thought of disturbing Jack's study. I'd already erased Stella's message, deciding not to mention it. That, I thought, should be duplicity enough. I concentrated on remembering my place in Jack's heart, my permanence in his life. Long-gone Stella, I reminded myself, was not a threat.
But by Sunday morning the temptation and opportunity became too much to bear. I knew Jack would keep the letter — he kept everything of an emotional nature, not necessarily out of sentimentality, but for possible use in his writing. I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, and still wearing pajamas, let myself into Jack's study.
The first thing I found, as I crawled under Jack's desk on my hands and knees, was an enormous dead magpie — its wings spread and its neck broken. The bird undoubtedly had been murdered by Pip. Jack's cats each had a hunting style as signature as a serial killer's. Fat, long-haired Beatrix was meticulous and persnickety. Spare, rangy Pip was savage and hedonistic. I could always tell when Beatrix had killed a cricket because its left leg would be missing, while Pip's crickets turned up half-eaten with their little heads crushed. Unlike Beatrix, who preyed almost exclusively on insects and small rodents, Pip's trophies ran the gamut, including other unfortunates as startlingly large as this magpie — ravens, pigeons, even an occasional rabbit. If Pip meant to make a gift for Jack, the animal would be left — pristine as a stuffed teddy bear — on the floor at the end of our bed. Usually he presented Jack with his larger kills, and we often awoke to corvid or rabbit corpses proudly laid at our feet. Beatrix, on the other hand, would provide for Jack by leaving mice on the back doorstep. If she wanted the animal for herself, she would either eat the entire body, down to its tail, or roll her victim on its back and eviscerate it. To our later horror, we'd stumble upon the gleaming mouse guts on our lawn or living room rug, the tiny torso gaping as if a miniature cardiologist had wandered off in the middle of open-heart surgery. Pip never left mice for Jack, but always treated himself by eating their heads and immediately vomiting — leaving a doubly revolting mess.
I crawled backward, away from the dead bird, without considering cleaning it up. Though I usually rejected gender roles, disposing of corpses struck me as a man's job. Besides: Jack's cat, Jack's study. Clearly, the onus of the dead bird belonged to him.
I stood up and slid back the closet door. Though Jack claimed to be hyper-organized, the haphazard placement of boxes, shoes, sporting equipment, and piles of manuscripts suggested otherwise. The first half-open cardboard box I peered into contained his tuxedo, dusty and ringed with tufts of cat fur — a favorite napping spot for Beatrix.
Underneath it lay a more solid, heavier box which — below a few bank statements and university catalogues — contained a naked woman.
I sat back, vaguely surprised. At a glance, the woman in the photograph looked comical and unreal: gazing up at me with smug triumph, apparently disdainful of my baggy flannel sleepwear.
The letter from Stella still my foremost mission, I pushed the magazine aside. Beneath it lay another, and another, and another — an impressive and lovingly frayed collection. I couldn't help but smile, the way I might at stumbling across a little boy's stash of Snickers bars. Jack's penchant for pornography did not exactly come as a shock. One of the stories in his book, an anecdotal piece that had also appeared in Granta
, hilariously detailed an attachment to commercial smut.
But while I knew he'd enjoyed this literature in the past, he'd led me to believe this indulgence was behind him. In fact, Jack often complimented me by claiming he hadn't "perused" a magazine in the two years we'd been together. What's more, Jack had promised that his collection had been tossed into the Dumpster just before I moved into this very house.
I sat back and let the cardboard flap drop shut, feeling suddenly dirty and ashamed of myself. Not only for breaking Jack's trust and rooting through his belongings, but for asking him to throw out the magazines in the first place. Who was I to police his primal inclinations? Couldn't a demand like the one I had made (subverting a relatively harmless fetish) be likened to a kind of psychic castration? Why be so controlling? So shrewish?
Poor Jack, I thought. I returned the bank statements and university catalogues to their pathetic attempt at camouflage, then carefully balanced the tuxedo box in its original position. The only magazine I'd seen — the one on top — had some vaguely exonerating data printed to the right of the sneering bimbo: February 1989. Obviously, the magazines in Jack's closet were long-ago favorites, no longer needed but still too precious to discard. What if I left him? What if I died? Surely, Jack was entitled to some sort of sexual security blanket.
I closed the door to his study tightly, resolved to develop a more generous heart, and a more open mind.
Excerpted from Of Cats and Men by Nina de Gramont. Copyright © 2002 by Nina De Gramont. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.