Cat on a Leash Review
by Maggie Tiede
I don’t know why I said yes when Tom asked me out. I wasn’t attracted to him and I couldn’t imagine why he would be attracted to me. My mother’s refrain when I was a child was pay attention, Ingrid! It holds true now and held true then. Tom had moved down the street a few months before, living alone in a basement apartment. I lived with my parents, but not shamefully: I was nineteen and there weren’t expectations, yet. Even for Minnesota, that winter was harsh. In November Tom offered to help my father shovel snow, which became a regular occasion. I would brew coffee for them, sitting perched on the kitchen counter while they sat at the card table. Tom told my parents he was looking for a new start, but he didn’t say much else. My father liked the quiet.
On the afternoon of Christmas Day, my mother sent me to bring Tom some of our leftovers: oyster soup, ham, sweet potatoes. I wasn’t sure which door to knock on once I reached his address. I double-checked the house number, hesitating. The stack of plastic containers was precarious but still warm in my gloved hands. From Tom’s basement window, he couldn’t have seen more of me than my boots, but it was enough. He emerged from a stairwell I hadn’t seen, to the right of the narrow brick house.
“Are you lost?” he said.
“I’m supposed to give these to you.”
“Ah,” he said. He walked quickly toward me, extending his arms to take the containers. “Do you want to come in and warm up?”
My house was barely a block away. “I think I’ll just go home,” I said. Pay attention, Ingrid.
His face fell. Even I couldn’t miss that. “All right,” he said.
“We can hang out sometime if you want,” I said. I wondered if he had friends. I pitied him.
“I’d like that.”
He must have stood in his driveway till I got home, watching me. Every time I looked back I could see him there. This flattered me in a way I couldn’t explain.
A week later Tom knocked on my door. My parents weren’t home, which seemed to embarrass him and in turn embarrassed me.
“It’s dollar movie night at the discount theater,” he said. “Wanna go?”
I thought about his face at Christmas. “Just as friends?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” He wasn’t looking at me. “I want it to be a date, I guess.”
I was grateful for the cold air, which excused my shiver. “Want to come inside? I probably shouldn’t hold the door open anymore.”
“Oh. Yeah,” he said, stepping into our mudroom. He peeled off his gloves.
I started the coffee and he sat down at the card table in his usual place. I sat next to him, adjusting the chair so we could be close and not opposite each other. Something came over me. I leaned in.
“If it’s a date, you should kiss me now,” I said. “I don’t want to kiss in the theater.”
He nodded like it was an ordinary request and unzipped his coat. His hands were cold when they touched my face. My hands were colder against his sweaty T-shirt. Our lips moved clumsily; I knew he was older, and had been expecting more experience to compensate for my utter lack. I bit his lip so hard I drew blood. He recoiled, standing abruptly.
“Thank you for the coffee,” he said, even though it remained un-poured in the pot. “I’ll see you tonight?”
I nodded, confused, tasting the blood inside my mouth.
The movie was something cute, a date night flick. It surprised me that Tom had picked it. While I squirmed in my seat he stayed very still in his, wholly absorbed. He reached for my hand while I watched two women share sips from a flask a few aisles over.
“Let’s go somewhere,” Tom said when the movie ended. We were walking to his car. I assumed he meant his apartment.
“I’ve never done this before,” I said.
“Who said we were doing something?” he asked. He opened the passenger door for me and I got inside. Freezing rain slicked over the windshield; the car felt steamy and I felt entombed. I asked where we were going.
“It’s a surprise.” He was driving toward downtown Minneapolis. He cranked the radio—the song was loud and full of drums. “Humor me, Ingrid,” he said, his voice straining to be louder than the music.
When we got downtown, it was late enough that ramp parking was free; Tom wiped the sheen of sleet off of the windshield before it could freeze solid. Then he took my arm in his and we walked outside. His surprise, the sex shop, seemed to spring from the brick walls of the next block without warning. Tom held the door for me, and as I walked inside, my shoulder brushed a rack of Christmas panties on clearance. The sound of those dozens of tiny jingle bells made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.
“ID,” said the woman at the counter. She was fixing an eyelash that had come unglued; she glanced from her compact mirror to Tom, sizing him up: steel-toed boots, denim jacket, a scar on his cheek. “You know what? Okay,” she amended, ignoring me. “But we close in twenty minutes.”
Tom nodded and rested his arm on my shoulders. He steered me toward the racks of lingerie, tangles of ribbon and lace confined in plastic wrap.
“Am I supposed to pick?” I asked. I felt like I was steaming alive in my sweater, pressure building under a lid.
“What about a sexy nurse?” Tom said.
“No such thing as sexy scrubs,” I said. I rested my finger on another package, a plain black set. “This one, then.”
Tom grabbed it from the shelf. Even unopened it looked flimsy: a lingerie set of a bustier, garter-belt, fishnets, and thong. We made our way to the counter; Tom’s foot tapped against the carpet as he paid in cash. The woman didn’t say goodbye as we returned to the sidewalk. Her eyelash still drooped.
At his apartment, he scooped me up and carried me down the icy stairs through the kitchen to his bedroom. It was dark; all I could feel was Tom straining to hold me, his breathing heavy. I could feel his crumpled quilt beneath me as he laid me down on the futon; could feel the movie ticket stubs in the back pocket of my jeans.
Tom flicked the switch and a lamp glared to life in the corner. “Do you want to put the stuff on?” he asked, tossing me the lingerie.
The straps and buckles were overwhelming. “Can you help me?”
He nodded, helping me unbutton my shirt. As I clasped the front of the bustier I could feel that it was at least one size too small; the panties were worse. I felt hogtied. But I could tell Tom enjoyed it. He looked hungry but blissful, like he was about to take a first bite of dinner. I braced myself for the pounce, the expected end to the evening.
Instead he crumpled to the bed beside me, stroking my side with one finger. He flicked on the light. “I want pictures.”
“Now?” I propped myself up on one elbow.
“Yeah. You look great.” The word was anticipatory; a deeply held breath. He was holding a disposable camera, the kind I used to bring to summer camp; I hadn’t seen him pick it up. “Stay like that,” he said, before I could say anything else.
I didn’t know what that was. I convulsed as the flash went off again and again.
Finally he set the camera aside. His mouth descended onto me—that’s all I could think of, descending, like I was in a chasm and he was keeping me there. He cupped my breast with his palm. I brushed him away, suddenly, sitting up.
“I think I should go home.”
“What?” Tom said, out of breath. I could see the erection in his jeans.
“I’m going to go home.”
“Yes.” I rolled out of bed, slithering my jeans over the fishnets; as I put my boots on, they ripped along the seam. I could feel them pool at my ankles.
“We can stop, Ingrid. Just sleep here. Please. It’s freezing.”
“I don’t think so.”
His gray-green eyes looked sickly in the light of the bare bulb. He didn’t say anything else, but he watched me put my clothes on, eyes lingering on my breasts, my thighs. He followed me up the stairs.
As I walked home—it was cold, it was cold enough that I could feel my eyelashes freeze and melt with my breath—he watched me from his driveway. This time I wasn’t flattered. I slipped quietly into my parents’ house, making my way to my attic room, crawling under the covers. Tom’s face became blanker the more I tried to picture it. When I thought about him, all I found in myself was guilt.
I came to breakfast the next morning to find my mother reading a magazine and nursing a beer.
“We need orange juice,” she said. “Do you mind?”
“Sure,” I said, pulling my coat over my pajamas.
I had to walk past Tom’s place to get to the store. As I passed I held my breath. When I stepped into the gas station, I let it out, then headed straight to the refrigerator case.
Then he walked in behind me. "Let me buy you coffee?" he asked, not even feigning surprise; all he’d ever done was find me.
"No thank you," I said. The juice was heavy and awkward to carry with mittens. I walked toward the counter.
"I’d like to go out again,” he said. He was standing too close to me.
"Ma’am, is he bothering you?" the cashier said. Her eyebrows knit together, vigilant.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “We’re friends.” I stepped up to the register with my juice, counting out quarters. I clutched the plastic bag and the receipt as she handed them to me, trying to beat Tom to the door. Instead he held it open for me.
"Let’s go to the movies,” he said, keeping pace.
"I'm busy tonight."
"Fine." He stopped walking. "Don’t think I don’t notice you’re a dyke.”
My heart thudded once and then seemed to stop, frozen solid. I turned to face him. "I'm not. I’m not! We’re dating, right?”
"It was one date,” he said. "So what. You’re my girlfriend now?"
I cringed. "You just said you wanted to go to the movies. That’s two dates.”
"And you said no."
"I'm going home. We can talk about this later." But I wasn’t moving. I’d stuck in place.
"Bye, Ingrid,” he said. He turned and started walking home before I could turn my back on him. His words were soft enough to be genuine, and they had just enough edge to be a taunt. I still don’t know which.
The next day I knocked on Tom's door. I could hear him inside, plates clattering. He must have been doing dishes. I knocked again.
He opened the door. "What?"
“I’d like to talk,” I said.
"I wouldn't, thanks,” he said. His apartment smelled sharp and sickly, like vodka and TV dinners.
"Tom?” I placed my hand on the door as he started to close it. "How did you know?"
"Know what? I'm making lunch right now. It's not a good time."
I took a breath. "You called me a dyke. How did you know?"
He shrugged as if the conversation was casual, but his jaw was wound tight. I realized I’d never asked about his scar, a sharp line bisecting his left cheek. "I’ve known girls like you,” he said finally. “They’re not cute. You’re not cute."
"That's a shitty thing to say."
"It's true," he said.
I shook my head, no, then shook it again, yes.
He smiled a flat smile, then grabbed a 24-hour photo envelope from a shelf and placed it in my hands. “You should take your pictures. I had them developed.”
Then he shut the door, leaving me on the outside.
I went home.
I climbed the stairs to my room. I opened the envelope, peeling away the first photo from where it was stuck to the others. In it, I was looking directly into the camera with half-lidded eyes, spread-eagle. It looked like a crime scene. I might as well have been strangled and dead.
You should have jumped at the chance.
The lingerie was tucked at the back of my sock drawer, where I’d shoved it after getting home that night, shredded, sweaty, spent.
In my heart was a terrible urge to destroy.
I carried the whole set to the bathroom, where we kept the bleach, and dumped it in the bathtub to soak. I expected the color to fade all at once, but it took time for the black to turn to a faded brown, dye swirling away into the bathtub drain. I watched it for a while.
Eventually I turned on the shower head to rinse.
The fabric disintegrated in my hands, and still I did not feel clean.
Maggie Tiede has worked as an ice cream scooper, dinner theater actress, small-town librarian, and intrepid reporter, but now they're just a freelance writer, writing tutor, and college student facing imminent graduation. They write about books on their blog, www.maggietiede.com, and are dipping their toes into Twitter, @maggietiede. They live with their partner in Saint Paul, Minnesota.