small textlarge text

Kelle Schillaci Clarke

Me, Only Better

When the cats ran away, you shook a box of liver treats and called into the night for the girl-cat, but not the boy-cat, the one you’d discovered napping in its litter box when the lady said, have your pick. Who else but you would choose that one? When they ran away, you called out for the one you named Natasha. Why only her? It didn’t matter. Neither knew their names yet anyhow.

You left after breakfast that late summer morning to pick up cans of free paint offered on the side of the road. The king of useless freebies — defunct transistor radios, headless mop handles, ceramic animal amputees — you wasted entire afternoons among the dishware shelves at the Goodwill, slid callused fingertips across the rims of chipped ceramics at sidewalk sales, swiftly engineering ways each item might be re-functioned: another ashtray, a crooked vase, a part for the statue you were building to scare off the murder of crows that gathered daily on our rooftop for the afternoon monsoons. You were always so good with your hands. It was well past midnight when you returned, hauling in a fresh new batch of junk, but no paint.

While you were gone, I explored your collection of “other”— that smelly old tackle box, big and red and insulated, that you’d repurposed and filled with items you were sure you’d find use for some day: a rosary made of hand-painted wooden beads but missing its cross; a heart-shaped pouch made for a ring but filled with guitar picks; wires, once containing champagne corks, refigured into tiny chairs; a compartment of scout patches you didn’t earn; me, if I could fit in there.

The cockroaches gave you away when you returned, scattering from the porch when you pulled in, cutting the diesel engine and rolling over rocks. The shimmery puddle they’d made — a thick and muddy thing flecked shiny-metallic like an oil slick — dispersed in a swoosh, like the closing of a paper fan. A million glistening magicians disappeared all at once into crevices and baseboards, revealing our worn out welcome mat, which spelled out “welcome,” even to those who weren’t.

It got cold that first winter. Still, your feet slapped against the bare concrete while you strummed your guitar or painted through the night, keeping me awake beneath the thick, thrift store blankets piled on the bed we shared, but rarely together anymore. The blankets carried so many scents, from so many households, it felt like I was surrounded by strangers.

Connor wasn’t welcome, despite what our front mat said. But I knew when you’d talked him up at the indoor flea market that he’d show up at our door. All I wanted was for us to watch the Twin Peaks VHS tapes you’d found at a garage sale, so I climbed the ladder you built from boards and a borrowed chain saw and ducked into our bedroom loft, hoping you’d make the deal quickly and he’d leave. But the two of you stayed up until dawn, sharing the drugs he’d brought to sell you.

I drew in my Moleskin the visions I couldn’t describe in words — gruesome fleshy figures, bulbous and vulgar, that haunted me in the moments between awake and asleep. You were the only one I ever told. From then on, you gently nudged me every time I approached deep sleep. What are you seeing now? you wanted to know. Describe it, you’d say, when all I wanted to do was rest my tired bones.

Burgundy: the color of my jacket, my blood, my hair sometimes, the front left passenger door of your car. I met your mom only once, when we’d road-tripped to her bedside, days before the ruptured aortic aneurism triggered her massive stroke. Our hair was the same color, which surprised us both because she was so much older than you, and I, so much younger.

Connor was young, younger than me and half your age, strong, tall, and with a beautifully shaped and shaved head that made me want to lick it, the way one might slide a tongue over the smoothly ergonomic plastic handle of a mint green Gillette.

That last night, Connor took us to a club where you and I slinked into a booth, squinting in the vinyl seats, like insects out of our element. We took the gin and tonics he slid to us across the carved wooden bar, then he left to go somewhere I don’t remember. We sat sipping at straws, scanning the crowd, pretending to choose someone to take home with us; pretending any of them would. Everyone we chose looked like me, only better; me, from when we first met.

can’t understand why you’re with him, Connor said, taking your seat when you left for the bathroom and didn’t come back. You’re not like him, he said, his hand reaching for my quivering antennae, smoothing them gently behind my ear. Which isn’t to say you, too, weren’t once gentle, because you were. You were the most gentle of them all. I thought you made me interesting.

Let’s get another drink, Connor said.

I don’t know, I said. He asked me what it was I didn’t know, and I said, I don’t know, answering a question he didn’t ask.

Remember the time I lost you in the supermarket? I couldn’t get you to stop touching the avocadoes, so I wandered toward the mile-long aisle of breakfast cereal. Then you were gone. I emptied the cart and walked the two miles home in the dark. The car was there, engine cooled, the cockroaches already scattered and regathered. You looked surprised then happy to see me, as if I’d been the one to leave you. You held out your arms so I could crawl in. Look, you said, pointing under the sink. The girl cat had come back home.

➥ Bio