By Ellen Lowry
He smelled like cats the first time I ran into him. I was carrying a box up the stairs when he brushed past me and my watch caught on his sweater. He could have quickly plucked the fabric lose, but he chose, instead, to remove the entire sweater as I watched in horrified silence. He then proceeded down the stairs without a word and left me on the landing, decorated with his feline scented sweater. I briefly wondered if I should have used a real estate agent rather than trusting a classifieds website.
I continued on with my box but stopped short of my apartment because my smelly neighbor had left his door standing wide open. It was a view I couldn’t turn away from. There actually were cats. I counted 6 of them. They were of various sizes and colors and appeared to be having a tea party in the middle of the living room. It crossed my mind that maybe they were stuffed, but then one turned his whiskered head and looked at me. He held a tiny teacup in his paw and slowly blinked his eyes, the way cats do when they’re indifferent to you.
The blinking cat was an orange tabby and was the largest of the six. He also sat at the head of the little table so I supposed this made him the leader of the strange group.
I stood there for at least a minute, just staring at the bizarre gathering. I didn’t really have anything to say, and it didn’t feel right to offer a “annyeong-haseyo” or “hi.” They were tea drinking cats, after all. Meowing wouldn’t have been right either.
I remembered that my neighbor’s sweater was still hanging from my watch so I put my box down and pulled the sweater loose. I wasn’t sure what protocol was in a situation like this, so I just tossed the sweater into the apartment, picked up my box and continued on to my apartment.
Then I heard it. “Well, that was rude.”
“She just stood there, like an idiot.”
“Maybe she’s more of a dog person.”
“I thought her sweatshirt was hideous.”
“It was hideous.”
I stopped in the hallway, and then slowly backed up until I was standing in front of the open door again.
“It was a gift from my grandmother,” I said dryly.
“Your grandmother has terrible taste,” remarked a white Persian who appeared to be eating a tiny strawberry scone.
“She’s dead.” Why did I tell these cats that my grandmother was dead? They probably never knew their grandmothers.
At this point, the large orange tabby slid out of his chair and sauntered across the room in my direction. He reached the sweater I had thrown on the floor and plopped his giant furry backside directly into the middle of it. He gave me a few lazy blinks and then lifted his paw and began picking at his teeth with his claws.
I pointed to the sweater. “That belongs to your owner.”
“He doesn’t own us. He’s our roommate,” replied the tabby, between his teeth picks. “We were here first, and then he moved in.”
“So you cats just lived in this apartment by yourselves, before he came?
“No. We can’t clean our litter boxes on our own. We don’t have opposable thumbs. Did you fail biology?”
“Who lived here with you before?”
“Sujin. She brought Sparkle Pants with her.” The tabby nodded his head toward a skinny calico that was furiously licking her nether regions.
Sparkle Pants paused, mid lick, and glanced at me then returned to her duties.
“Where did Sujin go?”
“She got married.”
“Why didn’t she take Sparkle Pants with her?”
“Her husband was allergic.”
“Oh.” I glanced over at Sparkle Pants and felt a twinge of sadness.
“Don’t feel bad for Sparkle Pants. She’s not the saddest case here. Do you see the hairless wonder over there?”
I glanced over at the ugly hairless cat that the tabby motioned to. One of its ears was missing.
“That’s Ji Won. He came here all the way from Jeju. He was some fancy New Year’s present for a CEO’s daughter.”
“Why is he here?”
“It turns out the daughter would rather spend her time painting glitter on her nails than taking care of Ji Won, so she tossed him out the window of her car one day.”
At this, Ji Won limped over to me and rubbed his bony body against my calf.
“Ji Won lived on the streets for a few years,” continued the Tabby. “He hung out in the alley behind a Korean restaurant and ate their leftover Kimchi. But rotten Kimchi isn’t good for cats, so now he’s deaf. He can read lips though.”
I looked down at Ji Won and again felt a twinge of sadness. I turned back to the Tabby.
“What is your name?”
“Tabby. My owner wasn’t very creative.”
“How did you get here?”
“I moved in with Seonwoo about seven years ago. But then Seonwoo met Yerim. And Yerim had Snowflake. And Snowflake didn’t like me. And Snowflake was prettier. So Seonwoo left me here with Soyoon when he left.”
“And Soyoon is gone now too?”
“Yep. She brought Pickles.”
“I’m Pickles,” said a fat black cat that was systematically knocking things off the table. Spoon. Plunk. Cup. Plunk. Cookie. Plunk.
I turned back to Tabby. “So how did you come to live with the guy I met in the hallway?”
Tabby tucked his front legs under his chest and lowered his furry body down until he resembled a neatly wrapped burrito.
“He moved in with Aaron Burr about a month ago.”
“The skittish fellow that thinks he’s part human.”
“I glanced over at the table and saw the cat that Tabby was referring to. He was sitting on his rump, like a human would, with his legs out in front of his body. His eyes were wide and darting about the room.
I gave a quick wave. “Hi, Aaron Burr.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t talk much,” continued Tabby, “on account of his owner being a pretentious schmuck.”
“He did seem kind of odd when we passed in the hall. And you’re sitting on his sweater right now. That means he’s running around outside with no top on.”
“Exactly. I don’t think he’s going to work out.”
At this, the white Persian left the table and approached the sweater. She placed her two front paws on the fabric and began kneading it like bread.
She glanced up at me and spoke. “We thought he would be a good fit because he was a loner. But then we found out why. Because he’s a schmuck.”
“Why is he a schmuck?”
Tabby continued the explanation. “He’s a tortured artist. But not a real one. He writes experimental music but it’s all crap. It made Aaron Burr skittish. Ji Won is lucky he’s deaf.”
“Wow. It’s really that bad?”
“The music isn’t even the worst part. He writes a blog on existential literature but I’ve never seen him actually read a book. He mostly just watches reality TV and documentaries about unsolved murders. All of this while traveling the world on his parent’s dime.”
“He does eat organic though,” interjected the Persian, “so I guess that’s good.”
“Yes, organic is healthier,” I replied.
“Things would work better with a woman here,” said Tabby, stretching his front legs out and opening his mouth to a yawn. “It always works better with a woman. And your sweatshirt is hideous”
I glanced around the room at the whiskered faces.
“Okay. Let me talk to the landlady.”
Ellen Lowry lives in Busan, South Korea. She teaches English at a small private academy near the ocean. This is Ellen’s first published story.