Originally from Mexico, Selene Lacayo is a writer and translator living with her husband and three children in The Greater Philadelphia Area. She holds a master's degree in English - Creative Writing from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She was the 2018 Judge's Choice Runner-Up for the Write Michigan Short Story Contest. Her essays have been published by InCulture Magazine, the COVID-19 Community Stories of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Somos en Escrito, and Alebrijes Review where she recently became a staff writer. Her short story Amalgam forms part of The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia of 2021.
You can find Selene on Twitter @LacayoSelene and Instagram @SeleneLacayo .
I saw this documentary once about the cats that roam the streets of Istanbul. They belong to no one, but everyone cares and respects them. They take over any space that they want in the city, just like my cat does now in my apartment, doing her elegant stretches as if she was an avid yogi.
I found her one afternoon when I heard a faint meow coming from the alley behind the restaurants of Main Street. At first, I thought I was imagining things since the night prior I had watched the cat documentary, but as I slowed down, I heard the lonely meows more clearly. What I discovered was a gray furball whose eyes begged me to take her home. I cupped the little creature in my hands.
At the age of twenty, I knew nothing about how to care for kittens. Heck! I barely knew how to take care of myself. I had just recently decided to apply for pharmacy school after two years of coasting through college with an undeclared major. That was the first adult decision I had made in my life. The second, was adopting the furball that was settling down in the cradle of my hands. I named her Frida because of the peace she brought to my home.
Frida grew into a beautiful gray cat, complete with green eyes and a pink nose. She filled my apartment with joy and love. She was my entire world until one day after a group meeting for class, Anna and Nina asked me to join the book club they were starting. “It doesn’t have to be extra work, Sandra. Just fun books. What do you say?”
The glue of our trio was Nina. She was born in Brazil and still had that vibrant energy common in her part of Latin America. Her happiness was contagious, and everyone wanted to be her friend. For some reason, she chose the quietest people in the class to hang out with. “I like you two because you are serious about school and friendship. Anyone can come to a party if you invite them, but it takes a special person to come when you need them. You two are my chosen family,” Nina used to tell me and Anna all the time.
I accepted the invitation to book club reluctantly at first. Between school and being a barista at the local coffee shop, I didn’t think I would have time to read for fun. Soon, though, I found myself hosting, organizing book club events, and texting non-stop in our WhatsApp group chat. By spring break, we had added three more members. What started as a distraction from school, became a lifeline for all of us involved. We were there for each other in the kind of friendship that changes your life for the better.
Pharmacy school went by so fast, between Frida, classes, and my girls, that I didn’t notice when pulling an all-nighter for exams turned into week-long job-searches for us all. A few friends got married between the last semester and the summer after graduation. The rest, except for me, were in serious relationships. Their Facebook statuses seemed to interfere with our girls-only outings. Their thriving relationships were a constant reminder of my loneliness.
Frida knew to cuddle with me a little longer after every time I ended up as a third wheel. I wanted to have a serious relationship, but aside from the occasional weekend fun, I had not found anyone for a while. Besides, my hours at the pharmacy were not exactly conducive to dating.
But at age twenty-five, the social pressure of the recurrent question at every family gathering was unescapable: “Sandra, when are you going to find a boyfriend?” It really wasn’t that I wanted to have an answer for my family, but I felt incomplete. I had the degree and the job and now I wanted the next big thing for me: marriage.
Then I met Mike. It was the typical I-give-up-with-real-life-set-ups situation when I turned to an app. I talked with a few guys, Frida on my lap, before I said yes to Mike’s request to hang out. What started with a couple of burgers and a shared basket of fries on a park bench, turned into daily check-ins, and eventually many evenings watching Netflix, oscillating between his place and mine.
Frida was not too keen on my new relationship. She was jealous of me not spending as much time at home. I was certain she could sniff Mike’s apartment on me, because she hissed at him every time he came over. Which made Mike uncomfortable and not too enthusiastic about coming to my place.
Mike was all about me and I loved that. “I just want to dedicate my free time to the two of us, Sandra, hon,” he had told me from the very first few dates. Every time he picked me up, he would bring me flowers, really thoughtful gifts, or my favorite smoothie—the green one with all the fat-burning ingredients that he had gotten me addicted to. I couldn’t wait to introduce him to my book club girls.
But Mike was very shy, which is why, he said, he had not been in a serious relationship before, even though he was 35. I asked him to come with me to a few outings, but he would always decline. “Sandra, hon, I’m really not the social type. Go hang out with your friends for like an hour, but I much rather spend time with you. Just the two of us. No pets, no distractions.”
At the beginning my friends were thrilled to see me so happy. “Is that a new bag, Sandra? You are really investing your paycheck on you, huh?” Anna teased me at a brunch after Mike had given me a gorgeous handbag to celebrate our first month anniversary.
“Fancy gifts for a month anniversary? What is he going to get you for the year one?” Nina added to the banter. I could tell they were so impressed by Mike’s care towards me. I was happy showing off his gifts, especially because I couldn’t show him off just yet. I needed to respect his wishes.
“Introverts like me don’t like to be interviewed by a girl’s gang, you know? You understand, right, Sandra, hon?”
I kept making excuses for Mike, but everyone kept pushing to meet him. “You have been able to hide this mysterious man who keeps you even away from Frida most weekends, but you have to come with someone to my wedding. You are one my bridesmaids! I expect to see you both there, right girls?” Nina sent winks around the table as a way to seal the pact.
People in the documentary about the cats of Istanbul say that cats possess a sixth sense. That’s how they are so tuned into human emotions. Frida could sense I was nervous on the evening I had cooked a special dinner for Mike. “I hope he likes homemade gnocchi. How does it smell, Frida? I’m gonna tell him about Nina’s wedding.” I was trying to convince myself that I could ask Mike to brave his social anxiety for a day.
But Frida wouldn’t stop circling my legs and meowing a song of complaints. She could probably tell that I was nervous to ask Mike. Nina was one of my best friends and had been there for me every time I got sick, every time I needed someone to take Frida to the vet when I couldn’t do it. We even walked together at graduation, but for some reason, Mike had not even wanted to meet her. Not by herself in my apartment or at any of the many outings that she and Yoshi, her fiancé, had invited us to.
I wanted my friends to meet the man that I loved but loving him meant taking him as is. He promised me that after he was done with the current contract that kept him traveling so often, he would take us on a beach vacation at an all-inclusive resort. Taking care of me by showering me with gifts was his love language. I was certain he loved me just as much as I loved him.
The keys jingled on the door, which made Frida hiss, as she knew it would be Mike coming in. “Knock, knock! Sorry I’m late. I brought that sparkling water you like,” announced Mike as he kicked with disdain some of Frida’s toys out of his way—I always felt bad when he found the apartment so messy. “Something smells rather unhealthy here. What did you cook?”
“Oh… it is gnocchi. It is a family recipe. You have been traveling so much, I thought you would be craving a homemade meal… let’s treat ourselves!” Then I signaled to the candle-lit table with a big casserole emanating parmesan and basil steam. I thought it looked perfect, but something in Mike’s eyes made me think that I had messed something up.
“Sandra, hon, you know how I take my health seriously. You don’t expect me to overlook my diet for this, right?” he said as he pointed at the casserole that had taken me more than three hours to assemble. “It’s like you don’t want to be a part of my commitment to wholesome foods. Come on. Let’s go get a salad.” And with that he blew the candles at the table and grabbed my hand.
I was about to protest when Frida jumped from the top of the fridge blocking Mike’s way, hissing directly at him. “That cat is evil! I don’t know why she insists on making me feel uncomfortable when I’m here. You see this?” I couldn’t defend Frida’s behavior. She normally was peaceful and kind. I followed Mike out the door.
On the ride to get our salads I apologized to Mike. I felt terrible for not considering his lifestyle. After all, we had been dating for about four months. No wonder Frida was so uneasy. She probably knew that Mike would not like the dinner. She had tried to warn me, but I didn’t listen.
At the park, after Mike was in a better mood, he took a box from his sweatshirt. “Sandra, hon, I missed you this week. I thought a lot about the journey you started towards a better you, so I got you this fitness tracker. Do you like it?” I loved it. It was something I’ve seen before but couldn’t bring myself to buy. “Anything for you!” he said as he fastened it on my wrist. This is the way he showed he cared. I was sure he would come to the wedding with me, but I couldn’t ask him yet.
I RSVP’d to Nina’s wedding that evening with a text saying: We will be there!
The WhatsApp group text was getting out of control the closer we were to Nina’s wedding. Mike had asked me to put my phone away whenever we were together so that I wouldn’t get distracted by all the gossip. “There are so many pointless messages in that chat, Sandra, hon. I thought you told me they were your friends from book club, I would think they would be more intellectual… See? Another reason why I don’t think going to those social events is a good idea.”
Mike was right: in a day, I counted 225 unread messages. Did they not have a life? The constant messaging was distracting from the things that mattered, like him and I. I left the group chat.
My absence didn’t go unnoticed because two weeks before Nina’s wedding, she showed up in my apartment, unannounced. I had told her not to do that because of Mike’s shyness and all. Luckily, he was not here, so I didn’t have to force him to meet anyone.
Frida was overjoyed to see Nina at the door, she leaped onto her lap as soon as she sat at the kitchen table. “Hey, little furball! I’ve missed you too! Ever since your mommy has been with this mystery man, we see less and less of her and of you.” The very mention of the mystery man made me feel defensive. The passive aggressive talk had gotten to me.
“Well, he’s not that mysterious, you have seen him all over my Instagram,” I protested.
“Those overly curated photos where he’s always wearing a hat and sunglasses? Sure!”
“What is this about, Nina? Why are you really here? Did you just miss Frida, or do you have something to say?”
“OK. Let’s do this. Listen, Sandra, I’m worried about you. We all are. We were so close. We had a bond that we all thought went beyond book club. We trusted each other with everything and have been there for all the ups and downs of the last few years. But…” She paused there as if she was expecting for me to come sit down by her. When I just crossed my arms and looked at her in disbelief, she just proceeded. “But ever since you began your relationship with Mike, you have disappeared.”
“I knew you were going to make it about him. Why can’t you understand that he is a shy man with social anxiety who loves me and really cares about me?”
“No, Sandra. You are the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on. Have you noticed all the things that you’ve given up since you started this relationship? From spending time with us to even leaving Frida alone the whole weekend because, like you said, he feels uncomfortable around her. Around a cat? That is not shyness. He is controlling you! Hiding you from the world and he hides too. Have you wondered why?”
“Enough! You are jealous! You just think about your perfect relationship with Yoshi. You don’t understand and I don’t have to explain myself for choosing love over stupid outings!”
“And Frida? She used to be your world and now you abandon her because he tells you to? If you don’t want to be our friend anymore, just tell us. It would bring closure to the game we have been playing since… since you changed.”
“Everything is always about you, isn’t it? Why can’t you understand that other people have different needs and ideas? Maybe I want to focus on my relationship and health rather than your stupid text message threads…”
I regretted the words as soon as they came out of my mouth but then I saw my phone on the breakfast bar, Mike’s face was flashing on the screen and I needed to take the call. He hated it when I didn’t pick up.
The hurt look in Nina’s eyes as I placed the phone on my ear announced that our friendship had ran its course. She petted Frida on her chin as she placed her on the kitchen floor. Then without saying anything else, she left.
Mike had been right all along. The friendship of the girls from book club was nothing more than a distraction. I deleted WhatsApp from my phone and instead downloaded a few workout apps to focus on my health, like he had suggested. Frida had even taken an interest on my yoga-for-toning video trying her own version of downward facing dog below me on the yoga mat.
It had only been a week, but my clothes were fitting better. I decided to donate those that were too big. I was on a journey to a better me. As I organized my closet, I saw the plum bridesmaid dress that I would have worn for Nina’s wedding in a few days if we were still talking.
At that moment, Frida jumped on the dresser by me admiring the dress herself. With her sixth sense and her feline wisdom, she looked at me and purred as if to say: You already bought it. Reach out to Nina. I like her.
I was as driven to call Nina, as I had been to pick that little furball in the back alley the fateful night. The dial tone went off three, four times. As I was about to hang up, I heard Nina’s voice sweet and forgiving on the other side. “Sandra! I was hoping that you would call so that we could sort this mess. Yoshi and I really want to have you at our big day. You have known us from the beginning of our relationship. Bring Mike or come by yourself… I just want you there with me.”
And with that, I was back in the wedding party, forgiven as if nothing had happened. I breathed a sigh of relief as Frida jumped on my lap as her victorious sign of bearing witness to a friendship put back together.
I was sure of Mike’s love for me. He would show me by being my date for the wedding. As we hiked that afternoon, I asked him. Reluctantly, he nodded yes.
Nina’s wedding day arrived, and I was excited to be with her. Mike agreeing to come with me had all my friends very excited to finally meet him. His only request was that I didn’t join the rest of the wedding party at the salon so that he could drive me. “No need for social awkwardness ahead of the wedding, right Sandra, hon? I’ll come after I tie up some lose ends for work.”
Frida kept an attentive look as I applied the fake lashes and plum lipstick Nina had gotten for all her bridesmaids. She licked her right paw and groomed her face repeatedly. As though she was in the wedding party too. In a way, it was thanks to her that I ended up calling Nina, so she was a part of this wedding in her peculiar feline way.
The two hours that Mike had given me to get ready had passed and he still was not here. He didn’t like it when I called him, but I needed to be at the church in twenty minutes or I would be late. I texted him first: Honey, are you on your way? I’m ready! And I snapped a picture to corroborate that I was indeed waiting by the door.
Ten minutes passed and I hadn’t heard a word from Mike. I thought that perhaps he was driving or parking and couldn’t get to the text, so I called him. “I got your text. I’m almost there,” he said hastily before hanging up.
Frida looked up to meet my eyes as I waited by the door. She purred by my legs and then scratched the door almost saying: don’t wait for him. It’s Nina. Call an Uber. I dodged Anna’s where the hell are you? texts. I had just enough time to make it to the church before the procession started.
I spotted the white CR-V driven by Katia the app told me to wait for. I was about to get in when Mike started yelling through the window of his car, while he stopped it behind Katia’s. “What is this, Sandra? I didn’t leave my busy life for you to ditch me last minute!” I had never seen him this mad before.
Katia turned to me, “Coming or going?” My phone was buzzing with texts. If I didn’t leave then I would not make it to the ceremony. Mike kept honking and motioning for me to get in his car. I thanked Katia and shut the door to let her go pick up another client.
I ran to Mike’s car. After I put my seatbelt on, I expected for him to switch gears and for the car to move forward. Instead, he pulled over and began a screaming match of epic proportions. I had never been scolded the way he did then. “You are unbelievable Sandra. What the hell were you doing calling an Uber, don’t you trust me?”
“But Mike,” I interjected, “this is my friend’s wedding. I’m going to miss the procession. They cannot wait…”
“Who gives a crap about that wedding and your stupid little girl’s club, huh? You think that you matter to them just because you bought this cheap dress?”
“Mike please, don’t make me late. Let’s just drive there and we can sort this out. I promise you that…”
“Promise me nothing! We are done here! Get out of my car. There’s no point on driving anywhere, the ceremony is about to start anyway.”
“What are you talking about? You promised me! Nina is one of my closest friends and I… I should have gone with Katia.”
“Go with whomever you like or don’t go at all. Get out of my car…”
“Now!!!” Mike roared as he got out of the car to open my door.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. As I climbed the stairs back to my apartment, I checked my phone. There were twenty-six texts from my girls and a voicemail from Anna five minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start: “You know what, Sandra? Don’t even bother coming anymore. Forget about Nina, forget about any of us. I hope you are happy with that guy.”
Her words cut me, but I knew she was right… Why hadn’t I taken the Uber?
I spent the rest of Nina’s wedding day calling Mike. I wanted to know why he came so late, why he insisted I came in his car if he didn’t intend to drive me. All of my calls went straight to voicemail. I was too ashamed to apologize to Nina, to Anna, to anyone from book club for that matter. Broken and in tears, I fell asleep still dressed for the party and with my loyal Frida’s gentle licks on my hand.
The next morning, I still had not heard back from Mike but had many texts from book club. All basically telling me that I was dead to them. I deserved it. What I didn’t deserve was Mike ghosting me like that.
Still in my bridesmaid dress and with makeup smeared on my face, I ripped my fake eye lashes and got in an Uber to head over to Mike’s place. Frida saw me to the door approving of my decision.
knocked repeatedly to no avail. No sounds were coming from inside, so I picked up my phone and dialed Mike’s number for the thirty-fifth time since our fight. “Hello?” the voice of a woman answered. I froze and checked my screen to confirm I had dialed the right number. It was Mike’s.
“Hello? Hello?” the voice on the other side of the line insisted.
“Hi, I’m looking for Mike, is this his phone?”
“Oh sure, just a sec. Michael, my love, you have a phone call… no, she didn’t say. Caller ID just says vendor…”
I didn’t need to hear anything else. All these months I had been under his spell. Controlled by his wants. My head was spinning. I couldn’t resist the vomit that emerged from my stomach to free me from my stupidity and blindness.
He never wanted me. He only wanted me at his disposal. Suddenly I understood why he didn’t want me to call him, why we never went out in public unless it was for a hike or that quiet bench at the park, how he always wore glasses and hats to disguise himself. Was his name even Mike Johnson?
That weekend I lost it all. My friends, my fake romantic relationship, and my dignity. At least I still had Frida. As I sit here today watching her elegant morning stretches, I feel the type of affection for Frida that the people of the documentary about the cats of Istanbul feel for their stray cats. There is a true connection between their souls and ours. If only we would tune in to theirs more often.