The tomatoes weep, surprised to have me find them here after all this time. They thought they were abandoned to the fruitflies and the metallic green beetles. I carry them to the kitchen windowsill where they can see the last of their siblings ripen in the tall grass. Pebble meows as she leaps onto the counter. I never used to let her up here. Now she twines behind the faucet to the window, twitching at the scent of the tomatoes, and we survey the yard together. “Should I weed?” I ask her. What I should do is take it easy, but the steroids my oncologist prescribed have me antsy for a project, and crabgrass is overrunning the patio, and I only get one free yard waste can pick-up a week, and soon enough I’ll be raking leaves, and what’s the point of a patio I can’t enjoy? Oh, I have nothing to do with myself since Kara moved into the dorm.
Something’s changed today in the tilt of the Earth, just enough to curl the edges of the apple tree’s leaves. Humidity, the acoustics of the air, the frenzy of insects and viridescence of the moss, all of it changes with the light. Crickets, who never know what to do when it’s overcast, shake all day and night. Cicadas castanet across the rooftops. The mosquitoes feast like they’ve never seen flesh. All bugs go harder later in their lifecycles.
It’s funny that we mammals pace ourselves in units of lifespans, but we relegate little things like bugs and plants to lifecycles as though they’re inseparable from the seasons of our planet. Or maybe that’s not funny; maybe it makes perfect sense and I’m just overthinking things. “What do you think?” I ask the cat.
Pebble sneezes and knocks one of the tomatoes into the sink. Its cracks gasp open and seeds like tiny teeth array in a grimace of betrayal. Half its body has been ruined by fruit-bugs in a pressure bruise from sitting on the ground too long. Now we’re wrecking the other half with our carelessness. “Well, that wasn’t too great,” I tell Pebble, but gently.
I never used to babytalk the cat, but when Kara left, Pebble started meowing at me, so I started acknowledging her, and it was the long-overdue reproachment that we both needed even if we didn’t want to admit it. I lift the tomato apologetically to the cutting board. “Not great,” I tell Pebble again, “not very nice.” She purrs and rubs her drooly mouth up my arm.
Mortal anxiety is the exclusive burden of humans—that’s our conceit, anyway. Isn’t that what makes us human? Do bugs know they’re going to die? Surely cats don’t know they’re going to die. They don’t have anxiety about the future. Pebble is twelve. She has lived more days than she has left—just like me—but she doesn’t give any hint she knows that. She just goes on being catty.
My skin papers when I smear on sunblock. In the past year, my hands and face have netted with lines, new moles, hemangioma specks the size of chiggers. Scabs, scratches, and bruises heal begrudgingly, leaving darker skin behind like shadows of injuries. If I had done better about protecting my skin when I was younger, laid out less on beach weekends with Rick, spent less time hatless at festival concerts, would my life be different today? Pebble sneezes at the medical smell of the lotion.
I’m even not sure I have anxiety about the future so much as preemptive grief. Maybe that amounts to the same thing. I think about dying. That’s what humans do.
I’m not sure Kara thinks about dying. Not yet.
Preemptive grief; is that a thing?
I wonder if Kara thinks about me dying. I need to call her.
Oh, it’s still summer all right. Sunflowers nod away into the afternoon, their posture bad and improbably gangly, like teenagers at a rock show. In the grass, the animals are in a street-fighting mood: cocky young robins glare at arthritic squirrels; they know damned well who ruined the last of the apples with their toothy bites. They run with the immortal energy of the next generation.
The cilantro, on the other hand, seeds the moment I look away. Zucchini vines wilt at the back of the yard. They know.
The morning glories, thinking themselves beyond harm’s reach, still braid the chainlink between the properties where nobody wants to be the one to weed. They bloom their technicolor for a few beardy bees—sweet old hippies dancing at a lawn concert. But the Earth has tipped. The moment the sun comes out they’ll wad like used tissues. Their time’s up.
I pull weeds from between the patio bricks until blisters raise on my palms. They come up in perfect pink cat toe-beans under each finger. The doctor told me not to overdo it and yet, here I am.
Rick took a whole summer to set these hundred patio stones into his carefully prepared foundation. We destroyed the shocks on our tiny Toyota ferrying these blocks from the landscaping supply-yard, destroyed our backs lugging them from the alley to the yard, destroyed the yard for the season preparing the site. Kara had been no help at all, complaining about the uselessness of a patio. Pebble drove Rick to near homicidal fits with her use of the grout sand as a kind of pop-up litterbox. I can laugh about it now. I wonder if Rick would be amused or irritated if I texted him a picture of Pebble washing her belly over his weedy stonework. But I haven’t talked to him since Kara turned eighteen, and I suppose that’s the way he wants to keep it.
Brown butterflies ricochet over the bird bath, its water going mossy with the tree droppings and the moths who have given up. Pebble leaps up for a luxurious drink of the dirty water. It’s her apple-leaf tea. She watches those metallic green beetles twiddle their endless, futile ripples in the middle. The beetles never reach the edge. But they go on spinning against death. It’s not denial, it’s just survival. Maybe they know how summer ends. Maybe we all do. Still, I scoop them out one by one with a leaf, and set them loose for another day.
I lie on the couch, fighting nausea and bracing for Pebble to leap onto my stomach. She used to be a lap-cat exclusively for Kara. Kara was a second-grader with missing front teeth and chipped glitter fingernails when she picked a gray kitten from the shelter. That first meeting, Pebble wrapping her forepaws around Kara’s neck in a desperate hug as if to say “rescue me” the moment she was out of the cage—I can see it in the soft lay of her skin over her leg bones even now. She found her little person.
Twelve years, I’ve shared a house with this animal who skittered dramatically away as if I might step on her tail. It wasn’t my fault; whoever had surrendered her to the shelter had traumatized her and made her afraid of adults. Rick didn’t care; having long pretended he didn’t like cats, he instead resented me for indulging Kara’s desire for a pet. Placating him, I pretended I was also indifferent to cats. But for the first few years I was actually insulted Pebble didn’t like me. Hadn’t I rescued her? Where was the gratitude?
Eventually, I reconciled to the fact that she only accepted affection from Kara. She was my daughter’s cat—that was that, and that was enough.
Yet here she is now, my uncomfortable comfort, settling between my breasts with a wheezy purr. “I have to eat something today,” I tell her without moving. The tomato is waiting for a toasted sandwich with a little salt and mustard and all the beautiful reasons for me to be alive. All these things that now taste like ash, followed by pills and water that will gurgle and bloat my belly for hours. Pebble fits perfectly right there on my chest. It’s like she’s holding me down. Keeping me from blowing away.
I wonder if Pebble misses Kara, if Kara misses Pebble.
I hope Kara’s having a good time on campus, flirting with all the sunflower boys and not feeding the stray cats that were hanging around the back of the women’s dorm during move-in.
I wonder if cats can smell cancer like some dogs do, if Pebble feels sorrier for me than I do for her.
I wonder if that’s why Pebble finally made up with me, because she knows about death. Because she has preemptive grief.
Perhaps the difference between a lifecycle and a lifespan is in the relationship of death to reproduction. A moth dies when it has laid its eggs. Cilantro is done once it has seeded.
A lifecycle is an identity of life with death. A lifespan is disaggregated from the seasons.
A lifespan is disaggregated from giving birth. I gave birth eighteen years ago and yet I’m still living. My daughter’s grown and yet my life goes on. Doesn’t it?
We humans are always raising ourselves above the cycles of the planet. That’s our first problem. Somewhere I have a book of existentialist essays that once crossed my eyes with constructions and deconstructions of mortality. Maybe I should locate an introduction to biology at the library instead. Rick would know, but I boxed up all his science books and stacked them in the attic years ago when he insisted he wanted Kara to have them. “Dad,” she huffed, “I have the internet.” Now she’s beginning a new, unwelcome collection of textbooks in college.
I wonder what Kara would say about what makes humans different than other creatures. Without her home to pull her phone out for instant research, I just go on chaining more questions together. What about elephants? Do they know they’ll die? Dolphins? Giant sequoias? How could humans be so certain of what other creatures know, anyway?
Humans can be so presumptuous and domineering. We’re only now understanding how lichens and mushrooms communicate. That’s what Kara told me. Fungi talk to each other. And here I am just talking to myself. Overthinking things like humans do. Do cats overthink things?
Oh, I need to go to bed. Steroids are no joke. I hope my insomnia means my cells are rallying for an assault, and not flaming out in my janky locomotive. What if they’re flaming out? I should not have weeded. Pebble winks at me like she told me so.
I eat a tomato slice bent half over the sink to let the seedy juice slide down the back of my hand, stinging invisible new cuts. Do tomatoes really cry? Are they bitter? Yet this one does not taste like ash; it tastes peppery. A thick-textured rearrangement of the molecules of the earth, fueled by the energy of the sun, this tomato has done well.
It occurs to me the human lifespan might be the culmination of millions of little lifecycles at the cellular level. My cells are dying, and this I do remember from studying biology, they’ve been dying at a higher rate than they’ve been replicating for a long time. That was my tipping point, my axial tilt, and I wasn’t paying attention. Of course I’m dying. I’ve been dying since that tipping point, just like the yard. My metallic beetles and morning glories and tomatoes have been giving in this whole time.
“Can you tell?” I ask Pebble and give her chin a scratch. She wheezes around a little drop of spit that dangles, vibrates, and falls right into the hollow at the base of my neck so precisely it’s as though that part of my anatomy was created for the purpose of catching geriatric cat drool.
“You’re ridiculous,” I whisper. But I lift her off of me gently so she doesn’t get spooked, doesn’t read more into it than I mean, doesn’t overthink it. We’re past that now.