Yesterday was my last day at the National Archives. It was a good contract—lucrative and reasonably interesting. Archives are fascinating. Archivists less so. I could say more but I won’t.
My contact at the Archives was a well-intentioned post-grad named Maggie. Maggie was still young enough to labor under the impression that people actually want to know how you are when they ask you. The stories I’ve heard…. Crazy mom, lame boyfriend, her cat. Oh, Jesus, her cat. I know more about that cat than anyone should. When Fifi starts pissing on your bed, it’s time to put her down. That’s all I’m going to say.
Anyway, Maggie and I had arranged to have lunch on my last day but a gaggle of archivists caught us on our way out the door. They were all set to celebrate someone’s promotion and wanted to know if Maggie could come. I was not included.
It might have been awkward, but it was actually a relief. I was peopled out. A sandwich and CNN was just about my speed. Sadly, it was not meant to be. Maggie, poor Maggie, agonized over the etiquette of ditching our lunch until the archival queen bee said, “she can come too”.
By “she”, of course, she meant me.
I’m not what you’d call a sensitive person, but that annoyed me. It’s not that I need validation. I don’t. But I was standing right next to her marbled ass when she extended the invitation. She could’ve addressed me directly.
Unimpressed, I met Zelda’s eyes. Zelda is my mountain lion. We’ve always been together. When I was a girl, she was a cub. Now that I’m a successful thirty something, she’s a fully-grown puma. This sort of thing runs in my family—my mother has a cheetah named Richard. Now that they’re in their golden years they bustle more than run but they’re happy just being together. It’s like that with Zelda and me. Content to be on our own….
Anyway, I was about to address Martha Lynn (like a professional adult) and graciously decline, but Maggie jumped in and accepted for both of us. So. In order to avoid an international incident, I went. At least they were going to a Greek place. Zelda loves Greek.
That’s how I ended up trooping down the street with a gaggle of archivists. Well, not exactly with. I walked with Zelda behind the main group. (That’s our favorite place to be). It was actually kind of sweet the way they marched along in pairs like kids on a fieldtrip. Seems like going out to lunch was a big deal. See? Totally sweet.
It took us awhile to get there, but we finally converged on the restaurant like a biblical plague. There were a few stiff smiles (reservations had not been made), but the staff shoved tables together while the archivists dove for seats. I waited for the feathers to settle and took a seat at the end. Zelda curled up at my feet.
Here’s the thing about Zelda. She’s impossible to miss, but you have to attention, and most people don’t—pay attention, that is. For most people, the world ends at their frontal lobe, which is pretty fucking limiting. Not that I’m complaining. It’s relaxing in a way. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s a person’s self-interest.
Anyway. Moving on.
Waiters hurried out with flat bread and olives, (which were delicious), all the while avoiding the long, tawny tail sticking out from under my chair, (which was interesting and much appreciated). Meanwhile, the conversation rolled on, fueled by retsina and the thrill of being out. I closed my eyes and let the chatter turn into white noise. Meanwhile, Zelda thumped her tail and made due with olives while we waited for her lamb.
At this point, I was getting concerned. Zelda has a punctual appetite and she gets cranky when her food isn’t equally punctual. Her food, in this case, was taking awhile. I kept giving her flatbread but, in the end, you can only do so much. Right? It’s not like I could make the kitchen move faster. So, the conversation flowed around the boulder of my presence while Zelda wuffled grumpily into my shoe. I bent and stroked her ear. She finds that soothing. Poor, hungry thing.
“So, what’s next?”
I looked up. Martha Lynn Baxter was staring at me with her shiny button eyes. No adult human should have shiny button eyes.
“Sorry?” I said, smiling pleasantly.
“What’s next,” she repeated, leaning back in her chair. “What are you going to do?”
“About what?” I asked.
My face slipped into neutral. Normally, I’d have answered with charm and grace, but I was tired and I didn’t feel like doing what I normally do, which is pass for a nice person.
“Oh, well,” she said, recalibrating her approach. “You know. About your contract being cancelled. It’s not like positions grow on trees.”
“Oh, gosh,” I said, smiling like oh, gosh is something I’d ever say and mean. “I guess I’m fucked then.”
Martha Lynn’s face froze as the gears in her head rewrote what I’d said to match my tone. It was like watching a Microsoft update. Under the table, Zelda’s stomach growled. I checked the breadbasket. Empty. No sign of the waiter either. I bent and gave her a pat.
“Actually,” I said, smiling again, “I like consulting. I’m sure it worked out for the best.”
Zelda rose and prowled around the table. Then she rounded a corner and slipped under the tablecloth.
“Sure,” Martha Lynn said, smiling her simian smile. “You can get away with that kind of thing when you don’t have kids to support.”
“Yep,” I replied, bored with the bait. “Nice change of pace.”
“Oh,” she said. “From what?”
I can’t even describe the look she gave me. It was like someone had flipped a switch on her face. Total curiosity. People tended to talk.
“I worked overseas,” I replied, and glanced at Zelda, who was sniffing Martha Lynn’s fantastically ugly clog.
“Who did you work for?”
“NGO,” I said, giving the standard answer.
Beneath the table, Zelda licked her chops. I shook my head. She ignored me and bit Martha Lynn’s foot clean off. Ms. Baxter leaned in, completely unfazed.
“Sorry?” I asked.
It’s not like me to drop the conversational ball, but having swallowed the foot whole (though not the clog), Zelda was gnawing at Martha Lynn’s meaty calf. I hadn’t see her eat that enthusiastically since she was a cub. It was really kind of sweet.
“Which NGO,” she repeated, oblivious to the animal chomping on her leg.
“You wouldn’t have heard of it,” I said.
“Why did you stop?”
“Burn out,” I replied.
Zelda continued to munch, two legs in and going strong.
“Burn out, huh? My cousin works for the State Department and he swears that if someone claims to work for an NGO, they’re really CIA.”
She gave me a gotcha look and jerked in her chair as Zelda gnawed at her belt. She settled back down when Zelda made it through.
“Yeah, I’ve heard the same thing,” I replied. “Couldn’t really say.”
A retinue of servers suddenly appeared, and a waitress put Zelda’s lamb on the floor. I murmured my thanks and nudged the platter with my foot. Zelda probably wouldn’t want it now. Maybe for dessert….
Across the table, Martha Lynn Baxter attacked her risotto while Zelda nibbled at what I could only assume was her beautifully marbled back. A few minutes later, Martha Lynn was gone. I reached over and tried her risotto. It was excellent—subtle, creamy, perfect. I made a mental note to order it next time.
Oblivious to her presence, the department head nudged Zelda with his shoe. Zelda licked her chops. I looked pointedly at her lamb, but Zelda smiled her big cat smile and bit him. Then she cocked her head, as if she were calibrating her approach. I shrugged and took another bite of risotto.
After gobbling up her second course in three happy bites, Zelda proceeded around the table, purring as she went. Incidentally, mountain lions are the only big cats that can purr—they’re exceptional that way. I always thought that was nice.
Zelda’s whiskers stood out from her face, as if to salute her meal. As she ate, the din of conversation grew quieter, more peaceful. I could finally hear myself think. I poured myself a glass of wine and ordered dessert, still not full though I’d finished my moussaka and all of Martha Lynn’s risotto. I’d just polished off my baklava when Zelda ambled back. The table was empty. She sighed, fat and happy. I signaled for the check.
After paying the table’s tab—it was only fair—Zelda and I collected our things. I was absolutely stuffed. The waitress came by with Zelda’s lamb wrapped to go, but neither of us could look at it so we offered it to her bobcat, whom she introduced as Mel. Then they thanked us and we left. I hadn’t eaten that much in ages. I must have been hungrier than I thought.
Malin James is an essayist, blogger, and short story writer. Her work has appeared in Bust Magazine, MUTHA and Thought Catalog, as well as in anthologies for Cleis, Sweetmeats Press, and others. She believes in using sex and psychology as lenses through which to examine our cultural assumptions, identities, and relationships, both to ourselves and to each other. Read more at malinjames.com