Marion remembered having to shield her eyes and look away when Luke, her five-year-old son, thrust a watercolor of a black and white cat into her face. She hoped, at the time, that he wouldn’t paint one again, because otherwise she worried that she would turn out to be a terrible mother. Her husband put the picture on the refrigerator, much to their son’s delight, but later that night she had to force herself, with much effort and anxiety, to go near enough to the painting to take it down and bury it under a stack of magazines.
When she was young, Marion used to laugh at her friends who were afraid of the dark at sleepovers, or of bees when they’d fly into the classroom. She eventually realized, though, that she hated it when someone would mock her for her inability to walk into a house if she saw a cat in the hallway; she never laughed, now, when people let slip that they were afraid of flying, or spiders, or the number 13. She also realized that hiding a phobia is like hiding a physical abnormality — you can try, and you will try, but certain situations will inevitably make it impossible.
Sometimes she would laugh at herself, even. She would flinch at Garfield cartoons and avoid the room when Luke was watching “Tom and Jerry.” He took a liking to the movie Homeward Bound, which was even worse. Would it really have damaged the young audience so much to have had that stupid cat drown? But no, she told herself, her quickened heartbeat was worth it to spare the countless tears that children would have shed in return.
Luke grew up, and for whatever reason that dumb cat showed up in most of his pieces. All of them, maybe. Marion would try to turn her head and focus on something else, or squint until it blurred into another shape. One time, Luke’s girlfriend got him a black and white stuffed cat, and Marion didn’t want to go near her son while he was holding onto it. Irrationality, she thought, is when you avoid your own child because of the fake animal that he is holding.
She hid it from Luke for a while, but it all came out one day when he kneeled down to pet a neighbor’s cat, and she shrieked and jumped back. It had taken her by surprise. There was no avoiding that reaction when the cat creeps up that way — stupid cats, they either creep or they sprint, no loping or anything in between like dogs. They linger. They skulk. They sneak. Always negative movements.
“Mom, what was that?” Luke asked, with a questioning smirk on his face.
“It’s the—it’s that—that cat.”Marion squeaked out, covering her eyes and pointing at it.
“Mom, are you afraid of it?”
“Yes! Yes, I’m afraid, I’m afraid of the cat!” She turned and walked a few paces away. Luke got up from the cat and caught up with her, then put his arm around her.
“Would you mind if I’ve got some cat hair on my hands?”
“Don’t remind me.”
“So that’s why you always wince at my pictures, eh?”
“And it was easier to just keep wincing and not tell me why?”
“Do you know why?”
And that was it. I’m some kind of pathetic, she thought. Not that I can help it.