I'm in the garden. I hug my knees as blades of grass pierce my bare legs. My cheeks are taut; every twitch of my face cracks dried tear streams in the unfeeling summer air. I listen closely. This must be her. No that must be her. No, not that. This.
But it's always a bee or a bird or the wind in the trees playing tricks on my mind. I hear steps rustling the grass, and I can swear they're hers, but they're not. Not yet. I remember that I have read that one is more probable to hear a sound if its source is visible. Psychology doesn't make much sense now though. The probabilities shifted; the sounds I’m hearing have no source I can see, no source I can affirm as real.
The balcony door slides. I unclamp my arms from around my body and look up. It's Shimo. She looks down at me, her wide black eyes gleaming in the direct daylight, and smiles as she speaks in perfect Lebanese words infused with a classic Bengali high pitch, "Lina habibte come in. She'll come."
I look around once more, then rise, my thoughts now wandering in a different garden.
Stray cats used to gather in my grandparents' garden. Each bunch had its own era. The Lucy Era. The Spot Era. The Caramel Era. The rest. All were Lucy's descendants, all family. She was my first. An ashy shade of gray, she walked more like a shadow than a cat except for her sickly yellow eyes. Spot was her son. He was identical in color but distinguishable by a set of slightly darker spots, one of which was distinctly propped at the joint of his left shoulder. Caramel, though his daughter, looked nothing like him. She was solid sepia, fitting in effortlessly in the soft golden sun of the Spring. Mama never liked me being near any of them.
"They're filthy. You'll get sick." I never did, but they weren't exactly squeaky-clean, to tell the truth.
I looked forward to Sundays, guiltily more to spend time in the garden than inside with family. Looking back, I see that at eight years of age, I learned the basics of relationship building there:
Observe. Lucy's favorite 'activity' was sitting at the doorstep. Spot was too energized all the time. Caramel feared flowers.
Understand. Caramel liked to sleep in a corner of the stairway landing. Alone. Lucy looked up and stared at you only if hungry. Spot settling down meant something was bothering him.
Communicate. Meow back if up for it. If not, petting and engaging in their games would do.
Give space. When they're feeling extra feisty.
Be open. Even to bites and scratches.
The sequence of eras came to an end. The frequency of the cat family's visits gradually dwindled. My grandparents died. Their house was deserted. I now wonder whether any of them ever came back; I wonder whether any cats live there at all. I did not see them anymore.
I sit on a green velvet armchair in the living room, an identical one in front of me. I stare at it, at the curves of the velvet's ornaments, somewhere between fleur-de-lys and acanthus, but rounder than both. I take a mental note to ask Amani, my sister. She must know what it is from some design course. I stare till my eyes hurt. I should probably put my glasses on. Or do they hurt because I cried? I don't know. A throb barges into the veins of my right eye to settle the debate. A thread stretches from my temple, its needle piercing through my eye. The thread coils around my eyeball, squeezes it then continues its way to somewhere at the back of my brain, somewhere I can feel but not describe. I cannot describe it to my doctor either. The thread is an electric wire. It pulsates. It shocks. It hurts.
Dr. Haddad says I have migraines and something called Raynaud's syndrome, a "comorbidity." He says it's difficult to treat cases like mine because the syndrome's treatment involves pills that dilate brain vessels, but dilated brain vessels trigger migraines. Fixing one ruins the other. The best way to live with them is to avoid attack triggers - certain smells, lights, sounds, variations in pressure or temperature. Each person has different ones. Stress is a common trigger, though. Crying is, too.
Dr. Haddad understands that I can't describe the 'headache' except by using metaphors. He can't either. Funnily enough, he's a migraineur too. He says he's heard it described as a series of explosions, a jackhammer left unattended, being stabbed repetitively behind the eye, a nail being driven into the temple by a hammer that strikes in an irregular pace, giving birth through the skull, a mouse gnawing at the space between the ear and the eye. All descriptions make sense, but none is all-encompassing.
He says it's normal that each attack's symptoms are different. Sometimes my speech is affected. I can't say what I think; unrelated or jumbled words come out. Sometimes I cannot form sentences at all, neither vocally nor in writing. This is called temporary aphasia. It’s an impairment, most commonly resulting from a stroke, that affects the production or comprehension of speech, the ability to retrieve the names of objects, or the ability to read. I get a little bit of each. Language fails me. I get stuck inside my body. Other times I lose part of my vision, or start seeing things that aren't there. The visual world fails me. My doctor says it's possible that I smell or hear things that aren't there too. I think this hasn't happened yet, thankfully.
I don't know when it started. I've been sensitive to light for as long as I can remember; the other symptoms appeared much later. Dr. Haddad says it can be something I've always lived with but just escalated over time. More often than not, he seems to know nothing for sure. I can't fully blame him. Emily Dickinson once wrote:
Pain has an element of blank
It cannot recollect
When it began—or if there were
A day when it was not.
My doctor warned me that attacks come unexpectedly even if known triggers were avoided. He left out that they bulldoze days on which they're least convenient.
I lay my head back on the armchair. I close my eyes, waiting for the pain to stop, waiting to be able to hear real sounds coming from the garden.
When I was 16, we moved. We had our own garden now. Soon after, a cat began frequenting it. Sarah, my little sister, used to feed her -- Picon mostly. Mama didn't like it then either. And then this cat gave birth and disappeared, leaving two kittens behind to grow outside our doors. Shimo named them. She didn't want to give them Bengali names. No, she wanted our little kittens to fit in the Lebanese cat community. Johnny and Jaafar. Female and male, respectively. Her intentions had hilariously backfired -- they definitely wouldn't fit in anywhere with those names. But they were the only names we ever used. A boy's name for a female kitten and an eighty-year-old man's name for her brother.
I didn't mind it. I was never good with names myself anyway. Lucy. Spot. Caramel. All so dull, expected, uncreative. I wasn't used to naming anything. My dolls were nameless, referred to only by description of hair and dress. My teddy bears were left bare of any identity. But I'd always intended to name them, I just couldn’t find the right names; the namelessness haunted me. Names are a funny thing, an ode to human nature. To name is to own, to name is to confine, to name is to commit. I was too indecisive for any. Sarah, on the other hand, was too clear-headed on this matter. All her dolls were called Adam.
I loved Johnny and Jaafar from afar either way. They were filthy too, less so than my former friends though. It didn't matter that much. By that age, I had learned the complications of relationship building outside the shade of my grandparents' vibrant garden. I didn't want to get attached to them. It was a good call. They, too, disappeared eventually. Jaafar first, Johnny next, and her children later on. They roamed the neighborhood, probably changing their headquarters from a garden to another as a change of scenery and an exercise of freedom. Mama was relieved.
I lift my head up from the armchair. If I open my eyelids only halfway, I can manage to move without making it worse. I call Mama. She's out with Amani.
"Mama..." My voice breaks.
"Mavi. We can't find her." I tell her what happened in the garden.
"Don't worry. It hasn't been long. Stop crying dear."
Only now do I notice that I'm crying again. The migraine will be ecstatic. As Mama hangs up, I faintly hear her voice addressing Amani.
"Ya allah. See? This is why. This is why."
The spring semester of my second year at university was quite difficult. Hell actually. I lived alone for the first time ever; my roommate and best friend went abroad for the semester. Home wasn't stable. I was struggling academically. The weird headache and fainting episodes became more frequent until I got diagnosed with migraines. But then came Myatcha.
I spent most of my days at my friends’ apartment. Adel was one of them, and Myatcha was his cat. Myatch (мяч) is Russian for “ball.” Adel added an "a" to the end to make the name more feminine. Had he heard about Johnny and her name, he might've happily been satisfied with Myatch. Myatcha's name suited her: she was chubby, always curled into a spherical blob, her tail thick and fluffy, as if electrified. Her eyes were wide, hazel discs with green circumferences.
She wasn't even close to being a traditionally sweet cat. She didn’t demand attention and even rejected it at times in favor of playing alone. She kept her distance; I don't think she realized how much she was loved. We were six college students, huddling in a living room almost every day just to watch her every move as she discovered, bewilderedly, that she couldn’t fit under the fridge anymore or as she stole bottle and pen caps and carefully hid them in a corner behind the couch. I believe psychology on this one: cats are therapeutic. In this part of the day, I could filter my thoughts. I could breathe. I'm afraid I have to say that I got too attached.
I had an open relationship with Myatcha. This was comfortable for me. I provided hair strokes, she provided purrs. It was morally valid. I didn't have the right to object to her polyamory; she could jump from lap to lap all day. I could leave whenever I wanted to as it was someone else's duty to feed her or clean her or take her to the vet.
I could leave guilt-free. Commitment-free. Often, I think of myself as a coward. Sometimes, I think it's the reasonable thing to do, wait till I'm ready, for a sign, for myself to feel more even if I don't know what it is I'm waiting for. I am too comfortable in the order of my life, in the mental space I’ve built for myself, so when I find potential in something or someone I put it on hold until some reason surfaces to convince me it’s worth messing with the order, worth renovating the space, and worth rattling the foundations. But what if I have reached the maximum certainty I'd ever get? How can I know? Other times, I think that it's not because I love too little to settle and commit and reveal. It's that I love too much. I fear the subsequent ruin.
It's probably why I don't give X a real chance. I can't commit to Yes, can't commit to No. I'll bore him soon enough. The light drains from his eyes before me, yet I still have the audacity to feel sad or angry when I sense that I've turned something so pure into poison.
The details of it don't matter. Not the how-we-met nor the phase of superficial contact nor the period of getting to really know each other. Here's the gist. I know what he feels and he knows I know. He's ready, whatever that means, and I'm not. And I've been in such situations before, but for the first time I feel more. There's an itch in my chest begging me to do something about it. But my skills fail me. I observe, I understand, I am an expert at giving space, and I have become open. It is communication that is the chink in my armor. I do not know if what I think I’m feeling is what I’m really feeling. I do not know how to communicate my jumbled supposed feelings into work or how to nurture a relationship without being sure that I actually want to do the work. I'm more "ready," but still more unready than ready. Does that make sense? The words I need are too viscous to come up my throat. Sentences coil around my tongue. I cannot describe it without feeling ridiculous. Love, too, is a migraine.
Most of the time, the dispute in my head ends when some version of myself declares that even if I were to commit, I'd do it wrong. I'd mess it up. I'd end up in my pajamas on grass with messy bed hair and stiff cheeks and a distant look and a desperate wait for something to get me out of it, something to save whom I've ruined.
I moved from Beirut back home to Ghazieh after the semester ended. Over the summer, Adel transferred to Canada. Myatcha now lives with his parents. I haven't seen her for four months except in videos that Adel receives from his sister and forwards to me. She left a fur-ball-shaped hole in me, on my lap. I wished she were mine. I wished I had a cat to introduce her to.
Sarah shared my wishes for a pet cat. She'd always been an animal person and our now empty garden echoed her desire.
We had this childish, overexcited conversation at lunch at home once at the beginning of summer. We exchanged ohs and would bes and amazings and cutes at the thought of having our own cat. Omar, Amani’s fiancé, was there, listening. A few days later, I went back home from dinner with friends only to find two white kittens on my bed. I squeaked. Omar got them as a gift for Sarah and me. A brother and a sister. Sarah was with them. With a flamboyant hand gesture, she pointed at the male and declared she'd already named him.
"After the Vikings character."
I laughed. "Why?"
"Because the character is assumed crazy, and our little Floki keeps jumping around like a madman."
"Floki. Okay! Sounds good, cuter than what it means."
"You get to name the girl."
I got to attempt to name her. I was learning Spanish at the time, so my thoughts were immediately channeled towards a Spanish name. Indecisive as I always am, I asked my language tutor for ideas a few days later. We played around with many, many names. He liked Delicia most and promoted it with a passion. Delightful or Sweet Delight. It fit her somehow. She was sweet, always calm, almost distant. But I wanted something a bit shorter.
Perla. I named her Perla. It took me two weeks to settle on it. A voice in my head kept rejecting it because I knew people called Perla and I didn’t like having to associate her with anyone. She just looked so much like a Perla, so soft and pureI decided to shut the voices up. It was good. Good enough. I successfully named something, didn't I?
It was rejected.
Amani called it an attempt at "bsayne class."
Sarah was a bit more expressive. "Ewww. All that thinking and Perla is the best you could come up with? So characterless."
And off went the certainty.
"I like it."
"It sucks. So pretentious."
"Tab what's a better one?"
"Floki's wife on Vikings."
"She's his sister, Sarah."
"Really! He calls her 'Sweet Helga.' It fits her perfectly!"
"It's so .... not cute."
"And Perla is?"
We spent a month calling her by different names. I stuck to Perla. Sarah insisted on Helga. Omar wanted to call her Panda for no fathomable reason. She was pure, rich white, her eyes, sad, fragments of blue crystal. Amani joked that she'll get a personality disorder if we kept confusing her like that. Then one day, we were all playing with the kittens outside and she made her own pitch.
"Mavi!" She knew random Turkish words. I did too.
"Ooooo I like it."
Sarah didn't get it. "What does it mean?"
"Blue. It's Turkish for blue," I said.
"It sounds good too. Try it. Ma-vi," Amani said.
I tried it.
"Mavi. Ma vie."
Sarah smirked and said, "Keep your puns out of the way. Mavi. Helga sounds better, but okay. Anything is better than Perla."
We tried to be faithful to "Mavi" but each one slipped once in a while to call her Delicia or Perla or Helga. The cuteness rush started to fade a few months in. We began to fight about whose turn it was to change the litter or feed Floki and Mavi or about where the headquarters for their litter-box should be. Mama made it worse. Every time we brought them inside, she'd complain about them shedding hair or about their hygiene or about the smell of their food.
It was difficult; we hated ourselves for not thinking it through. I couldn't read without being interrupted or learn my Spanish properly or go out without having to plan their day in such a way they wouldn't be alone for too long. Sometimes, we forgot to stock up on cat food. Responsibility was a hot potato we passed back and forth every single day.
I felt guilty for loving Myatcha more. But, I knew it wasn't true. I did not love her more; what I had with her was just so much easier.
Floki caught an eye infection as if to prove that we were bad pet owners. The vet said it was normal, not anyone's fault. I couldn't bring myself to fully believe that.
His left eye swelled to triple its size. He couldn't close his eyelids even when he wanted to sleep. Yellowness encroached upon it; it was dying. Blood no longer reached it even after the infection itself was cured. Floki was no longer in pain, though. Once, on the way back from the vet, he peed on me as he was recovering from anesthesia. The baby blue silk shirt I was wearing was practically ruined. Somehow, though, it made me smile. For the first time in my life, I partially understood what Mama meant when she said that mothers are not grossed out by their own babies' diapers. I just wanted to take a shower, change, then go hug Floki.
His sickness distressed Mama too. She asked for updates, made sure we fed them on time, and double-checked that we followed the vet’s orders. She never let him or Mavi near her, but she apparently had some sort of connection to them.
Her No-Pet rule was overruled only because Omar got the kittens as a surprise. She had set the rule when I was around six. Baba had received a bird as a gift. It was a goldfinch, a hassoun. Many years later, I found out that it had died. The narrative I was familiar with was that Baba took it away for a checkup and got it back a few days later. It was a replacement. A few months later, Amani was holding its cage and got it stuck in the balcony's glass door. The cage cracked open and our bird -- it had no name -- flew away. I told Amani I hated her. I cried. I swore never to talk to her again, and I didn't. After all, a week is forever to a six-year-old. Baba wanted to get another bird, a third one really, but what I’d believed would be the second. Mama refused. She said she didn't want us to live through this again. Loss was inevitable. She wanted to spare us the pain. No pets were allowed anymore.
It was around 11 in the morning. Shimo woke me up.
"Lina, Lina, there's only one kitten! I saw both five minutes ago, but now there's only one."
I got up and ran down to the garden. Floki was there. I meowed. I wanted to call her instead, but I didn't know which name to use. None came naturally. It was probably when I noticed this that I started crying, not when we asked all neighbors and got no help, not when Shimo searched the empty lands around our house in vain, not when I realized I was roaming the garden by the edge of the street in my aqua blue shorts and gray tank top, uncovered, without my hijab. I froze. I called Mavi. I called Perla. I even called out Helga. No answer. Shimo put plates of cat food in every corner around the house and garden, a few on the street too. "She'll surely come to eat. She'll smell the food even if she were lost."
She never came back. There were many theories about the reason. She might've gotten lost. She might've ran away with some other cat. She might've been stolen; a blue-eyed white kitten would sell anywhere. The Mavi I knew was too much of a coward to leave on her own. She was too young to elope. And all scenarios implied that we did something wrong, even if it were just not giving her a reason to stay. Sometimes I think it might just be that she was upset she was not properly named, not properly committed to, not properly loved.
Floki missed her for a while; he meow-cried at night, his shrieks tearing at the silence of the dark hours. He adapted soon though, just as he adapted to living with one eye. For a while, I was overprotective and didn't allow him outside anymore. But he got depressed, so I caved. He tamed me. I miss her still. I wish I never agreed on calling her Mavi. The sky, the sea, my jeans, Amani's dumbbells, water bottles, Microsoft Word, X's favorite color: they're all blue. I don't cry about it as much now. There's a cavity in my lungs though, missing notes in my voice when I try to talk about it. There are gaps in my vocabulary, something I cannot pronounce. Loss, too, is a migraine. Mama knew it all along, but she couldn't say it well. She has her own aphasia.
It has been three months. Two weeks ago, I got Floki a new collar. I had it engraved. "Flóki": the authentic Scandinavian spelling. We let him outside, and he doesn't leave. We must be doing something right, no? We’re putting in the work because we want to. Real caring was effortless, and caregiving became more so with time. We must've learned. We sure wish it didn't cost this much. Catsperiments. I regret that, sometimes, when I assess the right and wrong I do with him, when I think about the feelings instead of feeling them, X feels like an experiment too.
I'm sitting in that same green armchair now. Floki snuggles in my lap. He's heavy, grown up big fast. I can't help the fear that cooks up inside of me when I feel his love. It must be a side-effect of commitment. I might get used to it in matters not pertaining to cats soon. My skills are evolving. I might even relieve the itch in my chest. Baby steps. I stroke Floki's hair as he rubs his head across my arm. He raises his slender foot and aims towards his face to scratch it, but he can't reach the spot. Then in a graceful flutter of the neck, as his collar clinks against itself, Floki shakes his own itch away.
For now, so do I.
Lina Hassoun is fascinated by words and silences. In a parallel universe, she speaks 17 languages, has 21 degrees, and masters all the trades of Jack. In this one, she is a fourth year Civil and Environmental Engineering student at the American University of Beirut. She has soft spots for elephants, cinnamon, and lavender. Her favorite writing medium is pencil on table-tops.