Cat Mask
Michael Seymour Blake


I find the cat mask at a dollar store. Hardly a mask, the thing is just a snout and two ears covered with black and white acrylic fur. It’s all held together by a plastic band that runs up the bridge of your nose and then wraps around your head. Long whiskers stick out of the snout in crazy angles. I slip the mask on, start browsing around the store.

A kid starts staring at me in the cereal aisle. His mom is busy looking around. I let out a muffled “meow” from behind the cat snout. The mom, startled, looks me up and down, then drags the kid away. She says, “Don’t talk to strangers,” as she pulls him. I hiss beneath the mask.

Dollar store cereal is awesome. You have Super Bran Flakes, Captain Munchy, and my personal favorite, Fruit Boulders—crunchy, sugary, multi-colored, striated spheres of greatness. The Fruit Boulders mascot is a short, skinny cat with disheveled fur who is perpetually holding a bowl of cereal, his eyes popping out like, can you believe that I’m about to eat this shit?

I grab the Fruit Boulders and prance to the register.

The cashier rings me up, not even glancing at my face. I walk out with a free cat mask and my box of cereal. Great deal. Meow.

I get home and Renee tells me we’re out of cereal. I say “think fast” and throw the new box at her. She drops it and calls me an asshole, then asks what’s with the mask. I had forgotten it was on.

“It’s just something I bought for fun.”

“Well, take it off. You look like an asshole.”

“Asshole, asshole, asshole,” I say. “Is that all you can call me?”

“Fucking asshole.”

I take the mask off.

Years ago, Renee and I went on an “NYC tourist” date. Pretending we were visiting from London, we explored the city as if for the first time. Central Park, Statue of Liberty, bus tours, all the typical stuff. We ended the date with a trip to the Empire State Building. At the top, Renee took my hand as we looked over the clusters of buildings below. She leaned in close, kissed my ear, and said, “If our love somehow materialized right now, it would be so big this entire goddamn island would sink.”

The other day, she told me our love could fit inside the palm of her hand, and that’s just where she wished it was so she could crush it and be rid of it for good. Meow. Renee opens the cereal and pours some into two dirty bowls, then we go into the living room.

“Turn on the TV,” she says.

I turn it on and we watch five straight hours of something or other. She leans on me a little and I nudge her away. I reach out and try to hug her and she tells me to stop. We sit about as far apart from each other as you can get on a love-seat.

“How was work?” She asks during a commercial.

“Cool,” I say. Cool. Work was most certainly not cool. Work was anything but cool. Work was warm and sticky. Work was a muggy summer day and no pool in sight. “How was that root canal you had?” “Cool.” I stare hard at the TV, sure that it will create some kind of electric shield around me, vaporizing all attempts at interaction.

I don’t really know how to do this, I think. How do people tolerate each other? Meow. That night in bed, I nudge Renee a little because I’m feeling lonely. She just mumbles and snores. She’s topless, lying on her stomach. I can’t see it, but I picture the birthmark on her left shoulder blade. Its name is Sam. Was Sam. We laughed about Sam a lot, would even include him in post-movie discussions.

That was a long time ago. Now Sam is just a dark, blobby stain balancing on the topmost edge of bone protruding from Renee’s back. I get up and start navigating the apartment via the light of my phone. I find the cat mask, slip it on, prowl around, inspect things. I see a cockroach and swat at it. I press my palm on its back and hold it in place. My fingers look impossibly long in the gloomy dimness, nails poking out well beyond the calloused tips. I glance around the living room, still pressing the struggling cockroach down. Sighing, I let the cockroach go, catch it, swat at it some more. It wiggles free and scuttles away into a crack. I crawl under the table. It’s a tight fit. Maybe I’ll take a little nap, I think.

“What in the fuck are you doing?”

I jolt up and bang my head on the table, which falls over with a crash. The world comes into focus. I’m awake. I’m in the living room. It’s morning. The table is on its side and the plant that used to be on top of it is now on the floor. Dirt everywhere. Renee presses her middle and pointer fingers against her right temple—classic annoyed-Renee move.

“Are you kidding me?”

“Morning,” I say.

“I have to go to work. Clean this shit up and take that stupid cat mask off, asshole.”

“OK,” I say.

She leaves and I clean the shit up, but I don’t take the cat mask off. This is America, and I can wear a cat mask in my own damn place if I want to. Meow.

I skip work and read a book for a few minutes, but I can’t make sense of the words so I toss it on
the floor. In the bathroom, I see a little stain on my pink nose. I lick my thumb and try to rub the stain out. Satisfied with that, I decide why not give the whole thing a washing? I take the mask off, wet sections of it with my tongue, and polish with my fingers until the mask looks dewy and clean, then I slip it back on. Sitting by the living room window, I watch cars and people go by. That gets boring so I decide to go see what’s happening in the kitchen. My knees ache from crawling across the hardwood floors, dirt and grime form gritty layers over my palms. The dimly lit stillness of the kitchen only holds my attention for a short while. I try to open one of the cabinets below the sink, but my fingers slip. The door slams shut with a wooden ker-plunk! The sound sends me darting into the bedroom and under the bed where the air is cool and silky-smooth and I’m protected from the weirdness of the outside world. I nap on and off for a few hours. This is my cave. This is my domain.

I’m very sleepy. My phone rings. I hop on the bed to take a closer look. It rings a lot. Sometimes it’s work calling, sometimes it’s Renee. Expressionless, I wait until the phone stops ringing and stare at it for a while. Then I mosey over to the closet and drag my nails down the course wood of the door, rolling my eyes with pleasure. Around 6:30 PM, I take the mask off with some effort, feeling a vague magnetic pull as it leaves my face. On the couch, I run my fingers down the deep grooves the straps have left in my itchy, sore skin. Renee comes home.

“I’ve been calling you all day,” she says. “Did you take off?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Not feeling great.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re getting out of washing dishes. Tonight’s your night.”

“Will do.”

I always say “will do” when I know I will, in fact, not do. Asshole.

She puts her purse on the entryway table, does a double-take at me. “Why are your pajama pants so filthy?”

Feigning confusion, I brush the lint and string and dust off the knees and shins, then hit her with a grin like, pajama pants, am I right?

“I’ll make us some cereal,” she says, half-shaking her head. “Do me a favor and cut your damn nails.”

“Meow.”

She stops short as she heads into the kitchen. “What? What did you just say?”

“Nothing.”

“Asshole.”

I sit on the floor and Renee takes the couch. We watch TV, Fruit Boulders crackling in our bowls. She maneuvers a heaping spoonful of cereal to her mouth, and docks it home without incident. Slurping, chewing, and crunching, we blink at the flashing screen. The wet, lip-smacking sounds make me grit my teeth. I turn the volume up.

“Thank you,” she says. “The sound of your chewing was driving me insane.”

I finish my cereal in small, meticulous bites, keeping my lips locked bitter-tight during mastication—the absolute worst way to enjoy good food. I stand and stretch and yawn, go see what’s happening in the bedroom. Renee calls after me, her tone suggesting I better have a great excuse for abandoning her mid-episode. I roll under the bed and poke my head out. She calls me again. I don’t make a sound.

I can hear a commercial end, then the show is on again and Renee forgets about looking for me. I’m asleep under the bed in seconds.Later, the box spring utters a creaky sigh as Renee sits, waking me up. A surge of energy hits me so hard that I roll to my feet and sprint into the living room to jog around in circles. I break off and run into the kitchen, then back into the living room. Losing my footing on the corner of the rug, I tumble to the floor with a THUH-THUD. I scramble to my feet and bolt into the bedroom and dive onto the bed, heart pounding. Renee asks what the hell I’m doing, but I just lay quietly until she nods off.

The next night, Renee gets home and finds me on the couch again. I tell her I’m feeling a little better, but my words are a muffled and I realize I still have the mask on. My pajama pants are filthy from crawling around all day. She doesn’t say anything, puts her purse on the entryway table, slogs into the bedroom. I walk in and find a space next to her splayed out body on the bed.

“Sorry,” I say, mask in my hands.

“I don’t have the energy to care about that right now,” she says, “I’m too exhausted. Go ahead
and wear it if you want.”

I put the mask on, nudge myself into a comfortable position, and settle in.

A group of kids bursts into laughter somewhere nearby, their voices echoing and fading into the distance.

“I can’t stand Susanne anymore,” Renee blurts out.

I jump at the sudden noise, but play it cool and pretend I’m just stretching.

“And most of the billing department sucks, too. I worked three hours overtime today and wasn’t even clocked in for it. This job is killing me.”

I listen to her all night. Sometimes I nuzzle into her neck, other times I blink at her stupidly and she laughs. While talking, she pats my head. She runs her fingers down my back. She even clips and files my nails. It feels nice.

It takes about a week straight of wearing the mask for the inflammation on my face to subside. My phone, its battery long dead, gathers dust on the nightstand. I forget what the ringtone sounds like.

Work gave up trying to contact me before the battery went. I bet all the voicemails they left are not pleasant. Maybe one day I’ll listen to them. I don’t miss work. Not at all. I don’t miss the grocery store, the subway, parties. I like watching the world through the window and chasing the occasional fly when it gets inside. I like sneaking into the closet and hiding there for a while. I like naps. I like how each afternoon around the same time, Renee and I lay on the bed together and she talks and she holds me tight and rubs my back and kisses my nose. One day, Renee comes home and tells me she has a surprise. She brings her purse into the living room, plops it on the table, takes something out of it.

“Hope you like it,” she says, eyeing the can now sitting in front of us.

I look the can over. Tuna Pizza Mash. On the label, a cartoon cat wearing sunglasses seems to be having a great time eating a dripping, cheesy, fish-covered pizza. A faded, orange dollar store sticker covers the ingredient list. I sniff at the can. Renee peels back the lid, and I dig in, tongue scooping clumps of salty tuna goodness into my mouth.

Where’s the pizza flavor? I think. Then it hits me, those sneaky bastards worked it out as an aftertaste type deal. Well done. Well done. Meow.

That night, Renee calls my name and asks where I am, knowing full well exactly where I am and what will happen next. This little ritual has become our new norm. I crawl out from under the living room table towards her voice. On the way, I lift the mask off my face and then ease it back into place. I feel it resisting, feel its need to merge with me, feel my own desire for an eternal bonding of skin and plastic and fake fur, but I can’t allow that to happen. The mask and I must exist on the verge of permanent fusion. One day, sooner or later, Renee may want to try it on— then, the mask will be hers for a time, and we will go on like that, passing the mask back and forth, playing our roles the best we can. That’s how we survive. That’s how we learn to tolerate each other. I stand by the bedroom door, staring into the darkness. I creep up to the bed, roll over next to her.

“Hey, asshole,” she says, running her fingers through my hair. “You know that I love you,
right?”

The words enter my mind and lose their meaning, knocking around until I forget them. They are just sounds now, strange sounds, soothing but ultimately empty sounds. She caresses my back, careful to avoid my ribs on either side—I don’t like them being touched. She lets her hand rest on my neck, her fingers rubbing delicate circles around my ears. Small fingers with a lot to say. They are trying to tell me something. I listen closely. Head resting on her chest, I start to purr.



Michael Seymour Blake’s work has been published at or is forthcoming from Entropy, Paper Darts, and People Holding, among others. He has painted various murals around NYC, including one which was prominently featured at Silent Barn in Brooklyn, home to the new Mellow Pages Library. He lives in Queens, NYC.