Pheromones, by Clint Margrave

When their cat pissed on the bed, Glenn had been dreaming about titty-fucking Paulina Santos, a student in his Intro to Astronomy class last semester.

His wife Sid jumped up, yanked off the comforter, and flipped on the light.

“Glenn, wake up,” she shouted. “Cocoa peed.”

“What?” he said, squinting his eyes, registering something bad happening, before his fight-or-lay-in-cat-piss response kicked in and he sprung from the bed, hard-on sticking out of his pajama pants.

Sid didn’t seem to notice.

“I felt it with my hand,” she said. “It’s all wet.”

What time was it, anyway? He checked his phone. 5:37a.m. Right now Jupiter would be nearly halfway to the zenith. This whole Winter Break he’d been out photographing celestial objects on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and was hoping to get a good shot of the planet’s four brightest moons. But last night he’d stayed home. Sid had asked him to. They didn’t do much though, watched some television until Glenn crashed out next to her on the couch after two glasses of wine.

“The door was closed,” Sid said. “Poor thing was trapped in here.”

“Probably been holding it in for a long time,” Glenn said, contributing an obvious statement, as if he’d solved the problem, just to appear normal and not give away the retreating bulge in his pants. He felt guilty when he realized he’d been unconsciously cheating on his wife with a “C” student who had called the sun a planet all semester. But it wasn’t entirely his fault. They hadn’t had sex in almost three months, not since Sid stopped taking birth control.

Before they were married, she’d always said she wasn’t sure she wanted kids and Glenn said he was 99% sure he didn’t, but things had changed.

“Let’s just leave it up to fate,” she had said.

“We’re too old,” Glenn said. Of course, he’d meant she was too old, but you couldn’t say that, could you? They were both 42. And though technically, he wasn’t too old to deliver the goods, he felt too old to take on the responsibility. It didn’t help that the two times they did have sex afterward, he’d pulled out without even thinking about it. But he believed in reason, not fate, and they had a great life together. Summer traveling, happy hour when they wanted, paying for expensive things like a new telescope for astrophotography.

“Help me take these sheets off,” Sid said.

They stuffed the soiled comforter and sheets into the washing machine.

“What are you doing?” she said, when he cranked the timer. “It’s too early to turn on.”

She was right. They lived in a fourplex. Nobody did their laundry so early in the morning. This was unconscionable. He was just tired. And horny.

Luckily, the cat pee hadn’t soaked all the way through to the mattress. Glenn helped Sid put the new sheets on and then she reached for the earplugs off the nightstand, which she wore to bed ever since they’d moved into the apartment a year ago. They lived near a children’s hospital and on most nights, helicopters landing on the roof made it sound like Afghanistan. Whenever he complained about it, Sid reminded him some of those helicopters were saving children’s lives.

What was up with that dream? He didn’t really want another woman. He just wanted Sid. And specifically right now. He put his hand across her stomach and started moving his thumb in a circle. She picked up his arm and his vibe and gave them both back.

“Can you feed her?” she said.

Since they’d thrown Cocoa out of the bedroom, she’d been scratching and crying at the door.

Guess the earplugs were more selective than he’d thought.

“Goodnight,” he said, getting back in bed after feeding Cocoa, “or morning, rather.”

But when Sid didn’t reply, he turned on his side and fell asleep, dreaming nothing remarkable this time.

#

The next night Glenn set his telescope up on the peninsula. Winters meant less moisture disrupting his view of the sky, and a little later, he planned on pointing it at Jupiter for some pre-dawn photos. He still loved to gaze into the infinite. If you let your mind wander too much into it, you’d go mad. The vastness. The silence. The hundred billion stars within one galaxy of a hundred billion galaxies. He liked to blow his students’ minds by telling them more stars were in the universe than grains of sand on Earth. He preferred to work at a community college where he could teach astronomy labs instead of doing research. He still loved the sky and didn’t want to spend his life writing applications for grants like some of his astrophysicist friends. Their work was all indoors—analyzing data, writing reports—and they hardly ever stepped outside and looked up. Other friends had completely left the field, gotten married, had children, used their math skills to become CPAs or some other boring work to support their families. He’d lost touch with most of them since he didn’t have kids. They probably thought he was selfish. People always thought that about people without kids. Yet, the main reason he’d always heard for having them was that you needed someone to take care of you when you’re old. No, he’d never understood the selfish argument. On the contrary.

#

When Cocoa peed on the bed again the next night, Glenn had just come home. Barely dawn, the light in their bathroom glowed beneath the door, Sid already in the shower.

He’d been on the other side of the apartment, planning to upload some new pictures to his Flickr account when he heard her shout his name.

“She did it again,” Sid said. She was out of the shower now, naked except for the gray towel wrapped around her waist.

The wall behind their bed was wet and piss had soaked through his pillow. Sid explained how the cat had come in, turned her butt up to the wall, and started spraying. That’s when they realized they had a bigger problem than originally thought.

“Do you think she’s mad about something?” Sid said.

“What would she be mad about?”

“Maybe she’s mad at you.”

“Me?” Glenn said. “What did I do?”

“It was on your side of the bed. That’s where she sleeps when you’re not home.”

“Maybe it’s the litter box?” Glenn said. “Maybe we need to clean out the litter box more often.”

It’s true he didn’t do much about cleaning the litter box, usually leaving it up to Sid as some unstated rule since Cocoa had been her cat before they’d met.

“It’s not just peeing,” Sid said. “It’s pheromones. She’s marking her territory.”

Pheromones. He loved the word. Ancient Greek. Made it sound like a moon or a planet. Pheromones, the 28th moon of Uranus.

“On my pillow even,” Glenn said. “Terrific.”

Before this, everything had been fine between him and Cocoa. In fact, he’d come to consider her his own. He’d even joked with Sid they already had a child. They certainly treated her like one. If they could have taken her with them everywhere, they would have. He considered her his now as much as Sid did and always teased if they ever split up he’d fight for custody.

“Did we change her food or anything? Are we feeding her enough?” Glenn asked.

“Food has nothing to do with it.”

“Well, I don’t see what it is then,” Glenn said. “All she does is sleep all day.”

“Maybe she’s depressed.”

“Maybe you squeeze her too much,” he said. “Didn’t your friend tell you that squeezing a cat all the time can cause trauma?”

“That’s got nothing to do with it.”

Sid rolled her eyes. She had dressed by this time.

“Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Roll your eyes. It’s not like I’m the one pissing on the bed.”

They hardly ever fought. Sid wasn’t the screaming and yelling type.

Glenn watched as she poured baking soda on the soiled area, shaking it all over the wall, most of it falling into white clumps on the floor.

“My poor baby,” she said, picking up Cocoa.

#

The third time it happened, Glenn had been asleep when Cocoa climbed over him and lay down on the other side. At first, he’d thought everything was all right until he caught a whiff then jumped up, grabbed Cocoa, and lifted her off the bed, the wet spot on the sheet brushing his elbow.

All that night she scratched and cried at the door, until finally frustrated, Sid jumped out of bed and let her in.

“What are you doing?” Glenn asked.

“Keeping her out is making everything worse,” Sid said. “She doesn’t understand. I’d rather have her pee than listen to her cry all night.”

“Well, I wouldn’t.”

He scooped Cocoa back up, put her outside the door again, and shut it.

“What’s your problem?” Sid said.

“What’s yours?” Glenn said. “That makes no sense. She’s gonna pee again.”

“I have to get up early and can’t sleep. You’re on break.”

“I don’t see how you’re gonna sleep any better if we keep changing the sheets all night.”

“Shut up, Glenn,” Sid said. She grabbed a blanket and got out of bed.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll sleep with Cocoa on the couch.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Glenn said. He followed her out. She lay down on the couch and pulled the blanket over her head.

“Seriously,” Glenn said. “This is ridiculous. Come back to bed.”

She wouldn’t budge.

“For Christ’s sake, Sid,” he said. Finally, she agreed and stormed off to the bedroom.

But neither of them could sleep after that. Glenn decided he might know the best remedy and put his arm across Sid’s chest and pressed up against her. A minute later, she gave him his arm back.

“It’s too heavy,” she said.

#

The next morning, when Sid left for work, she didn’t bother to kiss Glenn goodbye, which he thought odd, but not unheard of. Cocoa slept on the couch. She lifted her neck to look at him. Poor Cocoa. He felt bad. But not as bad as he’d feel waking up in the middle of the night to clean up piss.

“Are you stressed, kitty?”

She came up to him at his computer desk and rubbed against his leg. She purred.

If this was stress, he surely didn’t know the meaning of it. Cocoa rolled over on her back and showed him her belly. She seemed fine to him. But when he went to pet her, she flinched and ducked away.

He decided to google How can you tell if your cat is stressed …but immediately noticed the autofill suggestions before he finished the sentence.

How can you tell if a girl likes you

How can you tell if a guy likes you

How can you tell if an egg is bad

How can you tell if a watermelon is ripe

                      How can you tell if a diamond is real

#

That night he went back out to the peninsula. A beautiful moonless sky. On his scope, he dialed up the coordinates for the Ring Nebula. Some 2283 light years from Earth, a nursery of stars existed, across millions and millions of miles, just a fuzzy blue and orange sphere in his eyepiece. Each of those stars would likely form a solar system. And to think there were billions of star nurseries. Just as there were billions of galaxies, or for that matter, billions of sperm. His own ejaculation could populate a galaxy. And yet, he didn’t even want one child. He should’ve been astro-photographing the Dumbell Nebula instead. Life was a miracle. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe life was common and ordinary and humans hadn’t realized it yet. Still, to think the universe had evolved the means to observe itself. To think the universe had evolved a species who could build a bed for a cute fluffy creature to piss all over.

#

Two days later, the packages arrived. Liquid sprays, new litter, Fancy Feast instead of Friskies, a collar supposed to have some calming effect.

“What’s all this?” Sid said when she got home from work.

“Remedies for stress,” Glenn said, opening a few more boxes. “Some of this stuff is probably bullshit, but it’s worth a try.”

Sid picked up a purple collar.

“It’s a stress collar. Supposed to have calming pheromones,” Glenn said. “And check this out.”

He held up what looked like a large light bulb.

“You plug this into the wall and it emits a pheromone mist.”

Over the last few days, he’d read all about the different types of pheromones. Those chemical messengers of meaning. The “Aggregate,” that functioned in mate selection. The “Alarm,” emitted by a member of a species when a predator attacked. The “Releaser,” which caused an alteration in the recipient’s behavior. The “Territorial,” which everybody knew, most common to cats and dogs, present in their urine.

“She’s tried to wear a collar before,” Sid said. “She’ll take it off in five minutes.”

“Well, at least I’m trying. We have to try something, don’t we?”

He handed Sid a spray bottle. They were supposed to squirt the bed with it. More stress-reducing calming pheromones. With all this stuff, they’d be the mellowest apartment in the city. He’d also bought some solution to drop on Cocoa’s food and all over her fur designed to make her feel safe. “SAFE SPACE for Cats” the bottle even said. For cats who don’t feel safe in their home as shown through urine-marking and aggression towards other animals.

Cocoa had never been aggressive. But she had definitely been urine-marking.

“How much did you spend on this?” Sid asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Glenn said. “I don’t want you to worry about any of it. I’ll handle things.”

“Glenn…”

“And if none of that works, I also bought this tape.”

Out of one of the boxes, he pulled a large roll of double-sided sticky tape.

“From what I read, you put these strips across the bed. A cat’s paw will stick to it and it’ll keep them off.”

Sid sighed.

“You’re missing the point,” she said.

“What point? What am I missing?” he said. “At least I’m trying to do something about it. What’s wrong with trying to solve this? Can’t just leave everything up to ‘fate.’”

“She’s depressed, Glenn.”

They both looked at Cocoa, asleep on the couch.

“She doesn’t look depressed,” Glenn said. “She looks well-fed and rested. Her life is great. She’s pretty damn lucky. What’s there to be unhappy about?”

“She’s acting out,” Sid said. “This is a behavioral problem. Maybe she senses something’s wrong.”

“Senses what? Nothing’s wrong. Besides, cats are independent,” Glenn said. “That’s why I like them better than dogs. Cats are low maintenance. They aren’t needy.”

“Cats are independent. But they still crave companionship.”

“I try to pet her, but she flinches.”

“It’s not about petting. It’s about knowing their human is there for them.”

“What am I supposed to do?” he said. “Have a conversation with her?”

“You could try, Glenn. Do you ever even try?”

“You want me to ask Cocoa how she’s feeling?” Glenn said. “It’s like communicating with an alien. How will we ever communicate with another civilization when we discover them?”

“Maybe she senses your resistance.”

“My resistance? To what?”

“Maybe she feels disregarded.”

“Now you sound like a crazy cat lady. Cats don’t have existential crises.”

“Maybe she doesn’t think you love her enough. Cats need affection. They like their humans to be in close proximity.”

“So you’re saying this is all my fault? That my relationship with Cocoa isn’t fruitful?”

“It’s your side of the bed, Glenn.”

“Okay, fair enough,” he said. “You want me to talk to her? I’ll talk to her.”

He got down on his hands and knees next to the couch and put his face up to Cocoa’s.

“Hi Cocoa,” he said, mockingly. “How are you feeling, Cocoa? Are you depressed? Are you mad at me? Are you lonely? Are you feeling a void in your life?”

Cocoa lifted her head up and yawned.

Just then the apartment started to shake. Another helicopter landing on the hospital roof. Another child’s life potentially being saved.

Cocoa jumped off the couch.

“See that?” Glenn shouted to Sid as she and Cocoa made their way to the bedroom. “I try to talk to her and she just leaves.”

But the noise was too loud and nobody was listening anyway.


Clint Margrave is the author of Salute the Wreckage (2016) and The Early Death of Men (2012), both published by NYQ Books. His work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, as well as in The New York Quarterly, Rattle, Cimarron Review, Word Riot, 3AM, Bartleby Snopes, decomP, Ambit (UK), as well as in the recent LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers by Red Hen Press. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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