You’re probably unfolding this page and thinking, Gosh, what a terrible human being Cate became since then, and by that you’ll mean ever since you pushed the door open with a big box propped against your chest, put it on the kitchen counter, yanked a sheet off it like a street magician, and pointed to a gerbil that stared at us and squeaked. “This will help us,” you said. “Looking after him will help us.” You stroked my sweaty hair and I rolled my eyes. When I came back from the shower, you were feeding pellets to the gerbil and asking him who’s a good boy, lots of nodding, lots of smiling. I went out to buy something I didn’t need, like more eggs, I was always after more eggs back then.
Two days later, I can hardly put my yoga mat down and you lead me to the kitchen counter, where you’ve set plates on opposite ends, with microwaved rice and beans piled on them. You light a candle close enough to the gerbil that it stretches its paws trying to bring the orange glow into its cage. “Caring for Little Julian is good for us,” you say. “He is us, in a way, Julian and Cate. See?” What I see is that the gerbil keeps thrusting his paw at the candle and I wonder if his whole fur will catch on fire or just his paw.
A week later, I come back from my therapist and there are two heads bobbing at the gerbil, yours and Margaret’s. I see her chalked hair, fluffed up into a lair of some sort, a floral blouse with ruffle puff sleeves, and forearm tattoos whose writing has faded into scribbles. At night, while you’re meming on your phone and I’m trying to make sense of the tsunami-shaped damp patch on the ceiling, I ask who granny is and you roll away from me in bed and turn off your lamp. Mine’s still on, so I can see your back hair through the moth holes in your college shirt.
Fast forward a month and I come home from jogging and find you standing behind Margaret, against the wall, clothes still on but rolled down around the pelvis. As I look at your butt, forward, back, forward, back, I frown and think, “Wait, isn’t this the position he said was too busy for his taste?” And, “Wait, isn’t she the age my mother-in-law would’ve been today?”
I knew, right, then, that it was unfair of me to focus on her age because men have relationships with women who are generations younger than them and people wink at them, not frown.
I know it was unfair of me to yell at you that with her you were going to save hundreds of bucks on condoms.
It was unfair to broom you out of the apartment while both of you had your clothes rolled down, especially when Mr. McShae was out in the hall and we all know he stares, and unfair to keep the door locked while you thumped on it, asking for me to “release Little Julian into your custody.”
It was unfair to line the gerbil’s cage with your dress shirts before boxing your clothes and sending them to her apartment, where you moved in, right below mine.
It was unfair to send you ransom notes for Tiny Julian’s freedom, written with letters cut out from large-print Reader’s Digest magazines.
What was most unfair was the banging you heard above you a couple of hours ago. It started off as a cracking sort of noise, from my hammer pounding against the tiled floor, something that just happened because it was Friday and there was wine in the house. Then I took out Tiny Julian from his cage, for just a second, and he wasn’t swayed by my “Come back here,” meant to sound like you, and, what do you know, he slipped into the new cracks in the tiles. The schoolteacher from next door stopped by when she heard someone cursing at the pipes. I told her the drain was clogged up, because what else would I say, we had some wine, and after a while she went to her apartment and back she came, flopping around a plumber’s snake, goggled, like some sort of villain from the 1950s. She poked and thrusted into the pipes. The snake reached in as far as it could, so we shook it around for a while, then tested the drain and everything came out nicely, a smooth flow that showed that anything that had been dumped in there at some point and may have clogged up the system was gone. She rolled back her snake in silence as we stared at opposite walls, spent, and I wondered why I had never known how handy this schoolteacher could be. We heard squeaking from the cracks in the floor, and she said “Fucking mice,” and I said “Fucking mice” back. We threw tools into the cracks and one thing led to another and the banging started again, metal on metal. I’m sure you two will bob your heads up now, staring at the water damage on Margaret’s ceiling, and wonder how to get Tiny Julian back safe to where it belongs. Maybe Tiny Julian will crawl through some rusty hole in the wall and leak out of the building before you find him.
This is all unfair of me, I know, especially if Margaret has lived here a long time and I’m ruining her ceiling. I swear I can’t remember how long she’s been here—was she in our lives when Tiny Julian arrived and she seemed too unlikely for me to notice her, like the fake geraniums by the mailboxes? I’m not sure anymore, and I really don’t care. This note is just a heads up. Tiny Julian is on the loose and I won’t make an effort to catch him. Oh, and I can’t promise the pipes will behave as they used to.
Federico Escobar grew up in Cali, Colombia, and after living in New Orleans, Jerusalem, and Oxford, spent most of the past decade in Puerto Rico—Hurricane María included. His literary work has been published or is forthcoming in The Phare, Bending Genres, Passengers Journal, and Typishly. He works in education.