Short Story Friday: Cat People

942366_794657468005_1170412341_nMaria tried not to stare out the window as she idly poked her wilting salad with a plastic fork.  There were a couple of crows preening themselves on the bare branches of the tree outside, and the dark flash of their spreading wings was distracting.  But looking out the window would mean her head was turned away from the other girls, and she didn’t want them to think she wasn’t listening.

She wasn’t, of course.  This was the part of the conversation she tried her best to tune out, so that she could spend the rest of the afternoon focused on work instead of morosely playing with her phone on and off until 5:30, moving a few cards around in a Solitaire game before doing her best to will her attention back to the computer screen.

Brit wasn’t even getting engaged yet, but she kept talking about it.  She wouldn’t stop talking about it.  And that made the other girls feel like they needed to compete.  They’d boast about their boyfriends in terms far too romantic to be the truth, or warn each other about the pitfalls of spending years with a man who had basically been bullied into matrimony after one too many lunchtime conversations.  Maria wasn’t sure why that was an acceptable premise for a marriage, but it seemed to be something that the women were very proud of.

Maria would have preferred to talk about her cat.  He performed many of the same functions as the significant others the girls gushed about: he was someone to feed, someone to clean up after, and someone to have one-sided conversations with before falling sleep after forfeiting most of the blankets and a pillow or two.  He was someone to love when loving other people didn’t seem to be very effective, and she rather thought that she had the most stable and equitable relationship out of the bunch when she listened to the girls natter on.

But of course, she’d never say so.  Maria was one of those people, and she knew it.  She didn’t care, really, except when her quiet contentment with a bundle of pure, purring love made her feel lonelier than if she had really been completely on her own.  They pitied her for the uncomplicated, platonic joy that she cherished, and that hurt nearly as badly as the human rejection she had endured time and again when she tried to cling on to the messy, unsatisfying, confusing, and sometimes downright mean relationships that she was supposed to have.

She wasn’t supposed to accept that she could be happy by herself. Not that she really did accept it. Not just yet.  A little pearl of hope, too hard to be dissolved away completely, did little more than irritate the hollows in her heart as it rubbed and bounced and poked its angular edges into the raw places, and the scars sunk in a little bit deeper every time she failed to find a better version of whatever it was Brit kept going on about.  She just wanted to be happy.  She just wanted her hidden, homely happiness not to make her so sad.

So she didn’t listen to Brit anymore, and she didn’t talk about her cat.  She stared out the window at the preening crows and thought about sandwiches for next week instead of salad.  She liked roast beef almost as much as he did.  That would make them both happy, she thought to herself, chewing on a forkful of lettuce to keep a little smile off her face.  No one would bother to ask why she was smiling anyway, but it was habit by now to keep her thoughts to herself.  They never understood, and there was no reason to let those people see.