The Leaving Song

5qt

The time-traveler’s wife was one of my favorites, one of the first productions I ever staged. Less a wife and more a friend, but it didn’t matter. Love doesn’t change based on what name it’s given.
The room is dark, some buzzing sounds, some lights. The Professor is humming a song, preparing the machine, ‘We’re going to see Prometheus,’ he says. ‘Unless you had something else in mind?’
Let’s stay here.
He shrugs. He busies himself about glowing panels meaning nothing. Humming his song,
La la laaaaaa, la la laaaaaaaaaaa.
Who do you love, hm? Who do you love?
You know, I say, the boring bits are the best. That’s what you don’t get to see. Each day a new place, new people shining lights, but here. Here. It’s quiet and there’s music and just you and me. We can stay here, light candles, and you can tell me what professors tell.
‘Like what?’
‘What was it like when you were young?’
That song. La la la la la.
‘The leaving song,’ he says. ‘My mother hummed it.’
I see the problem.
My mother hummed it,’ he says. ‘When she woke me up. I woke up that song. Getting ready for school, La la la la la. She dressed me, half asleep. I woke up to that. My clothes would already be on. She’d be feeding me cereal while I tried to stay asleep.
Tell me a normal day.
A normal day?
A boring day. Where nothing happens. Something boring. That’s what I think is most exciting.
A normal day.
I wake up. Look for my glasses. Check my messages.
Who leaves you messages?
My mother sometimes. She did. I saved some she left, the ones I didn’t want to listen to and now. It’s silly. I listen to old recordings, you know. I was too busy to listen to those long messages then, when she was here. But now that she’s gone, when she says, I’m just calling to see if you’re okay. I’m coming to see you soon. I know she won’t, she can’t come see me. You know. A normal day, I’d get up, go to school.
What’s a boring day that you remember? A memorable regular day.
An interesting boring day?
Sure.
Well, hm. I had a cat. A stupid thing.
Alright, that’s boring. Go on.
I liked the cat. I got him from a flea market, in one of those little chicken pens. Two other kittens were in there, I could only afford him. I’d move into a house with a girlfriend, she was nice, but her mother never wanted me there. Not unless I married her. So I asked her to marry me, couldn’t say it. I never said it. I wrote a questionairre and handed it to her along with the expensive box. If you’ll be my wife, look at the writer and smile and open the box. She smiled and nodded, and we got engaged. It didn’t last long. I worked too much. I worked too long. She wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t happy she wasn’t happy. So I got our cat, Walter. Walter was a long-haired cat. She loved him. She loved me for a while.
I moved out, she stayed. I took the cat, the cats. Walter and Elton. But I moved to a new area, an area they didn’t know, so I had to keep them in a pen, to protect them, to make sure they had food. But they had a cage. And it reminded me of that chicken pen they had them in at the flea market. I talked to a friend and he agreed to take them in. I remember walking in the sun. It was hot, carrying that pet-carrier with my cat in it. I took him to the guy’s door. And a little girl ran out and said hello and started looking at the kitten. What’s his name? Walter. I like it. And the other one? The other one was loose, an experiment for freedom. I figured if Elton could survive outside, Walter might be able to. So I left Walter with them. He seemed fine and I said goodbye.
You said goodbye to a cat.
Yeah?
No, what did you actually say? Saying goodbye doesn’t say what you said. What were the words?
Well, it was years ago. I said, You’re going to be safe and healthy. They’re going to take care of you. I patted his head and kissed his head. And I said goodbye. Goodbye Walter. I talked to the father. I told him what he ate how he acted, everything he needed to know. Gave him advice. I hoped I’d never hear from him again. I did though. About a week went by. Elton stuck around the house and I thought he was safe. He’d come in and sit on my lap. And he’d go out during the day. He seemed safe. A week later, I got a call. Walter had escaped, afraid of the rain. He was always afraid of the rain. So he ran out into it. I drove over. It was night-time. I looked for trailers. He’d hide under my couch, so I thought he might hide under a trailer. And he wasn’t far away, wet and under a trailer. I got a towel. Took him home, dried him. And let him stay inside with me. He shit all over the place. The house smelled terrible. So I let him out during the day at first, brought him in at night. But he wanted to go out. To do what he wanted to do. So I let him out… He came and went and he was safe for a while. He disappeared a year or so later. I don’t know what happened. Whether he found a new family, whether he met another cat and found a new house, somewhere to eat.
If only he had left you messages. You could listen to them.
The professor laughed. Well, he says. I don’t have messages. I have a recording of me trying to prod him into talking to a cat of a friend of mine, over the internet. And he meows and meows, the rolling r sound like the Russian roll. Brrow! And I do listen to it. Stupid.
How long ago was that? The professor … I didn’t know how old he was. He could have been an extremely old-looking middle-aged man, or a younger-looking old man. In his forties, for sure. How long ago? 19 years. And I thought, the best case scenario is he died.
What did you do, then, the last time you did see him? How ridiculous. Do you remember the last time you talked to him?
He laughed. That’s 20 years ago, he said. As though he were embarrassed, to speak with warmth instead of hurried humming, a lullaby that deadens the present by deflating the past. The story he told me was different than he told it.
His version:
I got a cup full of food to get him in at night, at least to come in at night and be safe from the night. From other cats. He got in fights. So I fed him and he went to the bathroom, I emptied his box and got ready for bed. I sat down at my desk to listen to my messages. He jumped onto my lap and settled, purring while I went through my answering machine.
Your mother called?
He didn’t remember. I pressed him.
Think! I say. Nobody just knows shit automatically. Thinking leads to knowing. Sometimes that can lead to understanding. Think. What did she say?
She didn’t say anything. It was a long tape, she didn’t know it was being recorded. So I just listened to hear breathe, and sip her tea, changing channels. I heard her laughing, I don’t remember what she was watching. Then my dad came in or my older brother, I don’t know. They found her asleep and turned off the phone and hung it up.
Have you listened to it again?
The silence? I knew he had. He had. He lay in his bed, I could see it. The last night laying there listening to the actions in the background. His mother would laugh, some stupid show would play on TV. She’d change the channels, settle in on an old favorite. And by the time she started snoring so was he as it played in the background, he imagined his cat there because of that recording, a reflection really, and he could hear his mother in his sleep still humming the leaving song and he trails away, dreaming of waking up ready for school.
Good-night, professor.
Good-night, Renette.

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