No one answered the ad, and Nora felt glad about it. She discontinued the ad after three weeks, though part of her wondered what in heaven she thought she was doing. “You’re a hostage to fortune,” she told Rodolfo over dinner, carefully saving aside a generous piece of chicken skin for him. He loved that almost as much as he craved tuna. His answer was a cheerfully insolent meow, the feline equivalent of “So what?”
“Okay,” she said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
That night, she dreamed of Nicholas. Not as he’d been during his illness, but the way she remembered him before: lounging in his favorite easy chair, feet propped on the ottoman, listening to opera and conducting with one hand while he petted the cat in his lap with the other. At first the cat was Guildenstern, but when she looked again it was Rodolfo, eyes shut in pure feline bliss as Nicholas’ graceful fingers stroked the top of his head. The last thing she recalled as the dream faded was Nicholas smiling up at her, all the love in the world reflected in his eyes.
That smile stayed with her when she woke to faint purring and a too-familiar absence on the other side of the bed. An expected wave of grief rolled over and through her and then ebbed. A touch more quickly than she was used to, she thought, although it was hard to tell. An uptick in the distant feline rumble and a slight give at the far end of the mattress announced Rodolfo’s presence even before he managed a head-butt to her shoulder. “All right, I’m awake,” she said sleepily.
He leaped over the mound she made under the blankets, padded toward the head of the bed, and butted her chin. His whiskers tickled the underside of her jaw, and she laughed. Really laughed, as if for that moment there was nothing weighing her down. “Good kitty,” she said softly. “Nice, good, sweet, silly kitty.”
He touched his nose to hers, and she was briefly overwhelmed by tuna breath. She waved him away and sat up. “Okay, okay. You’ve made your point. Breakfast.”
She talked to Rodolfo as she dished 9 Lives Tuna-n-Egg into his bowl and then made herself oatmeal with fresh blueberries and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Nothing important, and of course he couldn’t really understand her… but there were moments, when she glanced down at him and caught his feline gaze, that he looked as if he did. After breakfast, when she took the morning paper into the living room and curled up in a corner of the sofa with it, Rodolfo trotted after her. In typical feline fashion, he waited until she sat down and opened the paper before jumping up into her lap. The thin newsprint crinkled as he settled his furry bulk onto it. He looked up at her, blinking, innocent cat’s eyes demanding that she pet him.
“Off,” she said, in a gentle tone that let him know she didn’t mean it in the slightest. She tugged at the paper, eased it out from under him, folded it and set it aside. One hand reached out to chuck his chin, then scratched around his ears. His motorboat purr started up, like a rumble of friendly thunder. Clearly, they were here for the duration.
After a time, she told him about the dream. Then more about Nicholas. How they’d met at a cocktail party thrown by a friend of hers, on the day after Christmas in 1955. How drawn she’d felt to the handsome dark-eyed stranger who listened so completely to every word she spoke. How they’d gone to their first opera together not even a week later, and couldn’t stop talking afterward: about the music, about books and films and art and philosophy and so much else. About his proposal seven months after that, with Fourth of July fireworks as a backdrop, and how she’d cried for sheer happiness. “Poor Nicholas, he looked so shocked, but I couldn’t get a word out at first. Not a word, I was that overcome. He was sure I was going to say no.” At some point tears welled up and spilled over, but Rodolfo kept purring and listening, and somehow this time the tears didn’t come with a bitter edge of anger. God, but she’d been angry. At the doctors for not making Nicholas better. At herself for how little she could help him. At Nicholas, for getting cancer and dying in the first place.
She ran out of things to say eventually, and simply sat in the silence with the cat in her lap. She felt wrung out but oddly rested, as if she’d set down a burden.
She leaned over and plucked a Kleenex from the box on the coffee table, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Then she eased a grumbling Rodolfo out of her lap, stood up and went over to the bookshelves that lined the far wall. One portion of them was devoted to CDs, mostly classical recordings plus the odd one out here and there: flute music of the Andes, Irish folk songs, an original cast recording of Hair. The one she wanted was halfway down the row. She slid it out, went to the CD player that stood on a cherry-wood side table across the room, and popped the disc into the slot. Then she went back and sat on the sofa, where a disgruntled Rodolfo favored her with an injured look.
“Come on,” she said, patting her lap as the music spilled into the air. Tosca, the RCA recording with Placido Domingo and Leontyne Price. She hadn’t listened to it since the first night of the last hospital stay, when Nicholas talked her into going home for some real sleep. When they thought he’d pull through again, be out in a day or two, three at the most.
She closed her eyes and listened, drifting on the music while Rodolfo settled in her lap. Thinking of Nicholas, how he’d smiled at her in the dream, how precious were her memories of him.