Friday, September 30, 2011

Everyone Loves a Cat

"Thank you, thank you so much," my best friend Sara said, giving me a relieved grin.
"No problem," I answered. We worked together in the same insurance office. She and her husband Ned were taking off for a week's Caribbean cruise, and I had agreed to stop by her house daily to water her plants and tend her cat, Alice—a beautiful, lovable calico, she said.
But there was a problem: as cute and cuddly as cats can be, I was afraid of them. Not that I'd had any bad experiences with cats—I'd never been close to one. It was my mom who had transferred her anxieties about cats to me. A neighbor's cat had bitten her when she was seven, and she'd had to go through a series of painful rabies shots.
But I couldn't tell Sara I had some stupid phobia about cats simply because my mom had been bitten by one. I couldn't let Sara and her husband down; they'd been planning this trip forever. "Glad to help," I said. Besides, if Alice and I could cozy-up, maybe I could shake this unreasonable fear.
Monday after work, biting my bottom lip hard, I stopped at Sara's house. When I unlocked the door and stepped inside, Alice sat on the carpet six feet away from me. I froze. A beautiful, cuddly calico cat, indeed. White. Orange. Black. Her head tilted, Alice probably wondered, Who's this stranger? The cat swished her tail. I backed up. She stood and arched her back—and then bolted through the open door into the late afternoon sunshine.
By the time I kicked off my heels and cleared the front porch, a dog's barking sounded from the backyard. Oh no! As I rounded the back of the house, the next sight nearly grounded me: A black Labrador retriever stood quivering at the base of a willow tree. It's square head raised, the dog barked frantically at Alice, who crouched in the tree crotch eight feet up.
I stood with my hands jammed into my hips, wanting to die. What have you done now, Jesse?
"My fault," a male voice said behind me.
I whipped around and stared at a totally handsome man who appeared to be about my age—late twenties—with very sheepish blue eyes. My heart quivered. "Your dog?" I asked.
Nodding, he snapped a leash onto the barking dog's collar. "I'll be right back," he said. "Without Blackie."
The man and the dog disappeared into the house next to Sara's. Then the man reappeared lugging a ladder. While he positioned the ladder under the tree to climb up and rescue Alice, I explained who I was and what had happened. He said he was Jimmy Stevens, Sara's new neighbor. He'd just moved in. He hadn't seen much of Ned or Sara; they appeared to be a very busy couple. Jimmy was a lineman for the city; he'd climbed lots of trees and telephone poles to rescue cats. When he got to the top of the ladder, he sweet-talked Alice in tones so soft and low that I imagined they'd melt any female's heart, feline or otherwise. As he started coming down the ladder, Alice cradled in one arm, he called to me, "Here, take her."
That's when I broke into a sweat and started trembling. Really, in my entire life I'd ever touched a cat. I remembered my mom cringing and turning white if a cat even strayed close to her.
I swallowed and backed away from the ladder.
It's time to shake this unreasonable fear, Jessie.
By this time, Jimmy had reached the ground. "Take her," he said again. "I'll grab the ladder." When he saw me hesitating, he smiled. "She won't bite. She's happy to be rescued. Listen, she's purring."
I gulped. I was shaking. My arms inched out. Jimmy eased Alice into them, and immediately the cat snuggled close to me. I was amazed and almost tearful. I was holding—and now petting—a cat, who was, indeed, purring. Wait till I tell my mom!  But I was still shaking.
"You all right?" Jimmy asked.
"Fine. Just happy. And amazed."
"You seem a little shaky."
"I'll be okay."
Jimmy folded the ladder. "Look," he said, "after you finish next door, why don't you stop by my place? I'll show you around. Bring Alice. She can properly meet my dog Blackie—they'll be neighbors. They'll get along, I'm sure."
Something warm stirred inside me. I glanced at Jimmy's ringless left had at the same time he glanced at mine. "All right," I said. "I'd like that."
That night Sara called to see how I was getting along. Breathlessly, I told her the entire story—phobia, cat, dog, tree. And Jimmy. Sara apologized over and over saying Alice must've recognized me as a stranger, and that's why she bolted outdoors as soon as the door in the house opened.
"I'm glad she ran," I said happily. "Really glad. Jimmy and I have an awesome date planned for tomorrow night. And this weekend we're stopping—would you believe it?—at the Animal Shelter. So I can adopt a kitten."

The End
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

No Longer Strangers

I caught myself smiling at him again—a handsome, dark-haired, thirty-something stranger.
For three days we'd been crossing paths at Cedarwild Resort, exchanging shy smiles.
I sensed we were long ago friends who couldn't quite make a connection. 
Now I discovered he was sitting five tables away from me in the resort cafeteria, by himself. Who is he?
Pushing my chair back from the table, I plucked my floppy straw hat from my head, stood up, and strode toward him.
"Hi," he said, and smiled when I stopped at his table.
"Hi." I peeled off my sunglasses and stuck them into my hair.
He looked startled, his eyebrows bunching together.
I said, "I hope you don't think I've been following you..."
"We seem to keep running into each other, don't we?" he said, and stood quickly.
"I get this funny feeling—"
"That we know each other?" he asked, and pointed toward the chair. "Won't you sit down?"
"You were in the Cedarwild lobby," I said, "when I checked in Friday afternoon."
He cleared his throat. "Please sit down."
He pulled out the chair, and I sat. As he eased into a chair across from me, a slow, warm smile crept over his face. "I figured it out just now—this very second—it's the first time I've seen you without your straw hat and sunglasses. You broke my heart summer after summer, and you didn't even know it."
My head tilted. "I haven't a clue—"
"I'm David Prescott—you're Cathy. Cathy Connors."
My memory kicked in. David Prescott from Iowa!
I laughed and shook my head, hardly able to believe it was him. When we were kids, four or five families from different states vacationed every fall at Cedarwild in northern Wisconsin, enjoying two weeks loaded with fun before school started.
"I had a major crush on you every summer," he said. "I should've recognized you right away. All that copper-colored hair."
I felt heat rising in my cheeks.
"I'm telling the truth," he said. "I was in love with you. You stole my heart. But you were in love with Michael Lancaster. An older man."
I laughed. "Two years older. What a hero I thought he was. That was sooo long ago. What are you doing here now?"
"Spending time with Mom and Dad. They don't drive anymore, but they wanted to come back, reminisce a bit, and fish. They met a couple of cronies. They're playing cards tonight. And you? What are you doing here?"
"I'm with three girlfriends. We thought it would be nice to spend a week at Cedarwild. Something different. But my friends have marched off to the Indian casino to gamble. They promised to be back at five for dinner—if they didn't hit the jackpot." I glanced at my watch. "Nearly five now."
"You didn't go?"
"Not at all interested in gambling my money away."
He asked if I'd like to have dinner with him. This little gamble I decided to take—I agreed. We swapped stories while we ate. He was a forest ranger in Iowa. I ran a day-care center in Illinois. Neither one of us was married. We lived across the Mississippi River from each other, only thirty minutes apart. I found him easy-going and attractive. When we finished eating, he said, "Looks like your buddies are no-shows. Can I interest you in joining me down by the water to watch the sunset?"
I hesitated. "My friends—"
"Are probably spending their winnings."
I smiled and decided to gamble again. "You're right. Besides, it's been years since I've watched a sunset."
At the edge of a small quiet cove, I sat next to David on a dock, our feet dangling over the water. The sun slipped behind the pine trees and disappeared. In just minutes the sky turned orange, then crimson.
"Beautiful," David said. "That's one thing I learned coming here all those years as a kid—an appreciation for the beauty in nature."
We talked again. Then sat in silence for a while, except for a chorus of crickets and frogs, and a loon's haunting call. Gradually music from the Cedarwild Lounge drifted on the pine-scented air.
"The moon!" David announced. And there it was—a pale silver balloon, perfectly round, climbing higher in the sky. "Funny us meeting like this," he said, "strangers who knew each other in a different life. I never dreamed I'd see you again."
 The warm glow that swept through me didn't surprise me. "Life often hits us with little surprises," I said. "Some of them very nice."
"Hear the music? Would you like to go up to the lounge and dance?"
"I'd love to."
Rising, he took my elbow to help me up. I raised my head and gazed at his handsome face. His smile was warm and genuine. And then our hands, as if David and I were no longer strangers, grasped each other, and we ambled away in the moonlight.
The End
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