by Diana Hamilton
Calvin placed their palms on the marble-adjacent countertop and tried to push themself up, getting just one knee on the surface next to the sink. Their eventual goal, of course, was to get both knees up, so that they could reach the orecchiette (a better pasta than the shittier one positioned on a lower shelf, easier for a shortish fattish person to reach without the aid of gymnastics).
In doing so, they slipped—they had forgotten that the counter was still covered in spilled oil from the birthday cake Odette had made them the night before—and hit their head. The fall was not hard enough to cause worry, but enough to hurt, and to produce a noise (both the head’s own thunk and Calvin’s panicked vocalization) that brought their roommate into the kitchen. Odette established they were uninjured before making a little fun of them and easily reaching the pasta from her position on the ground.
They proceeded to describe their days, each in enough detail to reassure the other no one was mad at anyone, but not in so much detail as to give the impression either was committed to having a whole conversation. While one filled a pot with water and salt, the other listened to a story about an email that accidentally included the subject of its criticism among those cc:ed. While one prepared the pre-roasted pumpkin, turning it into a puree with leftover tomato sauce and red wine, the other listened to a story about an unusual bird one had seen on the best tree in the nearby park. One put away the clean dishes while the other sat on the non-oily side of the counter, describing her efforts to locate a jumpsuit that could be worn both to a wedding and to an office; the ideal material would resemble silk in its sheen, but would be washable and thick enough to withstand a cat’s claws. One bagged up the recycling while the other tracked down a good picture of an elephant hanging out with an owl they had seen on the internet earlier that day.
Somehow, the pasta came together, and they talked enough that they both forgot to orally assess the meal. They had cocktails before switching to straightforward tequila, and they stayed in the cramped kitchen, unsure of the other’s motivation for staying—so as not to commit to the night’s extension by moving, together, to another room, or so as to commit to it definitively by not risking becoming aware of the time? Things went on in this manner. Odette newly believed a friend might be interested in sex, and she recounted the non-purposiveness of this potential lover’s recent text messages, which implied a desire to stay in touch for touch’s sake, even when out of content; she wanted feedback on her impression of the texter’s intent. Calvin brainstormed ways to begin a letter explaining, to a former friend, their reasons for the friendship’s annulment. Odette described the worst work she’d seen in an opening that week, a painting of a blurry dove perched on an in-focus can of soda. They had now been chatting long enough to give up on trying to be interesting. Calvin lost track of their focus, pausing for a minute, and realized that, a few moments earlier, it sounded as if Odette had said, under her breath, “such a Garfield.”
They cut themself off mid-story to move a bit closer to her. “What did you mean, just now, when you said I was ‘such a Garfield?’ ”
Odette settled against the back of the stool where she’d been perched, and her face couldn’t decide between laughter and annoyance. As she said “Nothing,” both eyes closed, one a bit more tightly; her upper lip tried to pull into a smile on the left, but the bottom revolted.
Calvin tried to remember what they had been saying when they registered the delayed comment. Was it about the friendship? Was Odette annoyed with their self-serious account of a moral obligation to cut ties with abusive men? Or did the comment come in response to their having seconds, then thirds, of the strange squash sauce? “No, seriously,” they tried again, “You said I was like Garfield. Why?”
“I didn’t say that.” Odette turned her attention to her phone, and Calvin hoped this meant she had been distractingly watching images of her friends auto scroll throughout the conversation, which might mean the comment was directed at someone else. But if it wasn’t about them, why wouldn’t she say so?
“What did you say, then?” It had to be about their eating. They knew it—Odette judged not just their lack of control, but also the way their indulgence made her own consumption look comparatively restrained, encouraging her to incur whatever risk excessive “carbohydrates,” one of her particular fixations, posed to personal beauty and health. She always blamed Calvin for her own behavior.
“I didn’t say anything.” She was avoiding their eye contact; she was pretending to be interested in reorganizing the fruit bowl, a silent correction to their spaciness, which often led them to put the alliums and citrus in the same receptacle despite her having warned them that this results in the faster decomposition of both lemon and shallot.
They posed a few alternate theories. She might, they offered, have meant James Garfield, perhaps thinking of the giant cheese he had received from the people of Cheshire Massachusetts as a gift for celebrating his presidency. But Odette reminded them they had the president wrong—the cheese in question was Jefferson’s, and it was carried across the snow to DC by sled a full 30 years before Garfield was born.
“Please,” they insisted, “I need to know,” now begging, at least reassured this neediness promised no resemblance to the orange cat’s coldness. “Just tell me how I remind you of Garfield.”
She laughed, opened the fridge to grab seltzer, and announced that she was going to bed.
“Can I have a hug?”
Odette tried to pull away, but they were accustomed to keeping their embraces a minimum of sixty seconds to ensure a full release of oxytocin.
“Is this how Garfield would hug?”
In the morning, Calvin had a list of questions ready to use to push Odette to account for her comparison. They put the water on the boil and felt for the shape of the sounds aloud—gar field, garrr feeeel-duh, giraffe heel, tarheel, graffiti heel, far afield, ugh, ur, eel, duh, airfield, ordeal—trying to identify possible misheard words. Many seemed plausible, but there were none that would account for Odette’s caginess. They ground the coffee, shaking the grinder to compensate for its dulled blades, thinking about the result of their late-night research. Odette might have been referring to the neighborhood in Pittsburgh, since she’d gone to college there, right? But they did not know enough about that city to guess what the reference would imply. They unfolded the filter, considering a semantic chain that might tie them together: Odette the roommate ︎︎︎ Odie the dog ︎︎︎ Garfield the cat ︎︎︎ Hobbes the cat ︎︎︎ Calvin of Hobbes’ friendship ︎︎︎ Calvin the roommate. But this placed Odette closer to Garfield than it did Calvin, and it would be unlike her to make a joke out of their name. They dumped the grounds from the grinder into the top of the device and considered the likelihood that Odette might think of herself as Jon; while Calvin was the lazier and the more difficult of the two, they were also the more earnest, the more awkward, the sadder. They poured some water over the top, briefly settling, again, on the conclusion that she had meant to simply call them fat. They waited for her to come into the kitchen.
When she did, they handed her a cup. They decided they’d have more luck if they took an indirect route to the subject and asked, “Can I tell you about my dream?”
Odette did not initially answer, either because she was angry, because she hadn’t had enough coffee yet for conversation, or because her hoodie was obscuring headphones that drowned Calvin out. They shared the poet Bernadette Mayer’s belief that “dreams are a sort of introduction to sociability and meant to be told and shared at the breakfast table,” but since they had asked permission to proceed, they weren’t sure where to go in response to the silence.
A full minute passed, but when Odette looked up from her phone to say “sure, go ahead,” she had the unworried tone of someone who had responded immediately.
“I was sitting in my rocking chair, holding a beautiful orange cat. In the dream, this had been my cat for many years: I knew how he liked to be pet, how to rearrange my legs to produce a more appealing lap for him to sit on, where his purr would resonate most forcefully with my thigh, etc. I was looking in his eyes and telling him how much I loved him.
“Suddenly, he began to take on a new form: the fur on the top of his head grew longer, as if he were going to become a lion, but at the same time, his body elongated, stretching out the fur to turn into a human chest hair. In short, he became a very hot 30-something redheaded dude, but my arms were still wrapped around him. And the embarrassing part is that I was so turned on. I put my hands on his neck, almost like I was going to scratch him behind in the ears, and I continued to coo my little sentences of adoration while I kissed him, now on the mouth instead of the top of his head. It was a great kiss; I was sure we were about to fuck. But he pushed me away and explained that he couldn’t: in becoming a human man, he was someone new, and he did not feel all the closeness I felt from years of spooning in the morning and watching movies on the couch at night. I was a stranger, and my intimacy was presumptuous. He asked for space, and I woke up.”
Odette laughed, muttering the kind of thing people say when they want to express indirect doubt: “Wow, you remember your dreams in such detail.” She left for the living room, and they followed, still waiting for her to further break the conversational fast. Normally, at this point, she would draw their attention to the fact that their own cat was stretched out in a particularly elegant pose in the sunlight, but today she wouldn’t want to encourage Calvin to keep describing their oneiric bestiality. They waited instead for a “what are you up to this weekend,” or an invitation to walk to get additional coffee. The latter eventually came, and they put on their shoes and located their keys and wallets with the minimum language required to set out.
Calvin saw the walk as a renewed opportunity for resolution. As they waited at a stoplight, they offered further interpretations for her to confirm or deny: “Was I complaining about my job too much last night? Is that what made you say it—that I sounded like Garfield moaning about Mondays?”
“Like, was I a Dilbert-Garfield or a Garfield-minus-Garfield Garfield?” It was best to accost her on a walk, where she couldn’t casually pretend to be headed to her room.
“What the fuck, Calvin.”
“You know that old project, where someone recreated the comics but removed the cat, so it seems like Jon is having an existential crisis?”
She looked, for once, genuinely exhausted. “Yeah, let’s go with that,” she growled. “You reminded me, in one of your drunken monologues, of a project I didn’t yet know exists, wherein Garfield is deleted from the cels to give the impression that Jon Arbunkle is depressed,” she said, decisively, “because that’s how I would feel if you were deleted from the comic strip of my heart.”
“It’s Arbuckle,” Calvin corrected.
“You said Arbunkle,” they offered, pedantically, “as if you find Jon avuncular.”
“Look.” They tried adopting a more serious tone, since Odette normally gave in if it came to the point of anyone’s real sadness. “I know you think it’s silly that I’m bringing it up again, but you also know that the fact that you’re working so hard to avoid telling me what you meant is making me even more obsessed. Why not just answer?”
Odette and Calvin had reached the door of the café. “So you can move on to the next obsessive spiral?” She knew they were incapable of public fighting if it would hold service workers hostage. “Why not just calm the fuck down?”
They felt their throat tighten and, recognizing that involuntary onset of tears, let the door close between them. While Odette approached the counter to order, they walked quickly in the direction of the park.
They felt sure they understood, now, that it was not that they could almost be a redhead themself, if their parents had tried a little harder, or that they consumed too much lasagna, or that they had teased her too much—it was simply that Odette, like Jon, regretted “adopting” them as a friend. They spent an hour on a bench, looking at studio apartments on their phone, and did the math on how quickly they could afford to move out. They gave up when the phone died. ■
Diana Hamilton is the author of God Was Right and The Awful Truth.
Thumbnail: Bill Traylor