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pepe le meowsers
I still don’t consider myself a cruel person. But I did have a moment—or really, several—when I was ready to strangle that cat.
Zoe says that Pepe le Meowsers chose her. Her mom joined some mega-gym-spa that had just landed in our town. Zoe went for a tour and on the bulletin board she saw a note about a litter of newborn kittens that were available for adoption. It said if they didn’t find homes soon, they’d most likely be put to sleep. By the end of one fateful Zumba class, Zoe was caught in a herd of women, all doing cool-down squats around a plastic crate with five squirming tabbies. As she said, maybe it was just from overexertion, but when she saw how tiny and fuzzy and malleable these small creatures were, she felt faint. She literally swooned.
“I mean, what the what? I’m not even a cat person,” she reported to me twenty-four hours later as I sat in her basement. Actually, Zoe wasn’t talking just to me. She was declaring her newfound feline love to the world—perched on a metal stool in front of a sky-blue fitted sheet. I was holding her phone, filming her testimonial and trying desperately to stifle a sneeze.
“There was just something so primal and yet indescribable connecting us in that moment,” Zoe recounted. “I don’t know. All of a sudden, I was lying on my back and the whole gym was sort of turning this peachy-sunset color and fading away. And then…”
It was as if Pepe knew she was in distress. Apparently, he leaped over the side of the crate and risked his life tripping on a StairMaster machine, then scrambled up Zoe’s arm, gumming her face, pawing at her eyes. She still had the tiny pink scratches to prove it. Three jagged lines etched into her left cheek. She also had a splotch of blush on her nose and whiskers drawn on her face in what looked like navy eyeliner.
Zoe Grace Hammer and I had been best friends since our moms bumped into each other while pushing us in strollers. Or at least that’s how Zoe always relayed our past. She also claimed that we hid in the bathroom at nursery school and ate blue Play- Doh, but I have no recollection of that. I think that was either told to her or she made it up. Which I guess is the definition of anyone’s history, really.
I do not remember how Zoe and I met. Only that she was there, with her sparkling green eyes, already laughing. Waving her hands at me from across the room as the morning bell rang on our first day of kindergarten. She had already dumped out all the wooden blocks onto the carpet for circle time and was using the empty toy bin as a boat. Her first-day-of-school dress was a patchwork pattern of every color in the rainbow. It was also tiny enough to fit a doll.
“Come here!” Zoe beckoned. “I’ll save you from the storm!”
Even though I had no idea what she was talking about, I heeded her call.
Our friendship didn’t grow or evolve. It was instantaneous. While the rest of our kindergarten class made their introductions, Zoe nested me in her lap, trying to tame my curly hair into a semidecent braid. Two hours later, she presented me with a pact of undying bestfriendhood. Of course, I said yes.
I learned how to sing from Zoe.
I learned how to do a cartwheel from Zoe.
I learned how to melt broken crayons and sneak jelly beans in the sides of my cheeks from Zoe.
All vital skills that made my life feel more colorful and vibrant than ever before.
When Zoe came to play at my house, my mom liked to say that she “brought the party with her.” She always had matching Froot Loops necklaces or glitter tattoos that we had to put on right away. She would kick off her shoes and twirl me around and before I knew it, we were mixing ingredients for slime or having a naked dance party in my room or both at the same time. Zoe was pure electricity—darting and leaping everywhere, because walking was too predictable and slow.
To be honest, I preferred going to Zoe’s house—with a drawer just for Fruit Roll-Ups and framed Disney pictures everywhere. Her bedroom had so many pillows and ruffles, I felt like we would both float away on a unicorn sneeze or tumble into a vat of cotton candy. Everything was enchanted. Especially Zoe. She was an Irish firecracker, with stick-straight ebony hair that shimmered and huge eyes that took in everything. Her nose was barely bigger than a thimble. As an infant, she’d been the cherubic face of BabyFresh Ultra Diapers and made a buttload of money in some car commercial about antilock brakes. Also, she got to sing the jingle for IPopUPop microwave popcorn and traveled to fifteen states with the national touring company of Annie 2.
There was a whole photo album of her commercial work in her living room, but Zoe didn’t like to talk about it much. She once told me that the day she met me was the day she decided she was done running off to auditions and memorizing tap dance routines. She just wanted to stay home and be a plain ol’ kid, like you.
Which I chose to take as a compliment.
I’d always wanted to be Zoe’s twin, though I was far from it. Zoe came up to my shoulder—if I was slouching. Where she was petite and wiry, I was a mess of loose limbs. If I had to describe myself, I’d say I was mildly awkward with grand intentions. Mud-brown hair to my chin that was somewhere between wavy and unmanageable, a nose that took up too much face real estate, and a unibrow that was hazardous. I did like that my eyes were the same sea-glass turquoise as my mom’s. Also, that I wore mismatched socks on purpose. I was an avid recycler, and one of my teachers called my punctuation “exemplary!?,;”
But I longed to be more like Zoe. From the moment I met her, I did basically anything Zoe told me to do—sit, stand, lie down, roll over. At night, I tried to train my nose to slope up like hers at the very end. I practiced walking with my feet turned out to match her ballet strides and joined the track team briefly to literally chase after her. When we had sleepovers, I memorized the stripy patterns in her mint-green wallpaper, as if they could lead me closer inside. She started calling me Hank instead of Hannah, because she said it gave me more personality. I had to agree. Zoe was the sun, and I would gladly orbit her in whichever direction she chose.
Here’s a pathetic secret that I have no interest in holding on to anymore: In seventh grade, when I was developing faster than Zoe, I even shaved my lady parts, so we’d look the same down there. Which turned out to be the itchiest, most unrewarding experience ever.
Until maybe this moment.
It was the day before our first day of junior year at Meadowlake High. I hadn’t seen Zoe in practically two months. And now I’d walked into some situation that felt a little bit like cat porn. Zoe had on a loose gray tank top and what looked like the hot-pink polka-dotted short shorts that she wore for our first-grade ballet recital. Once upon a pirouette, I had matching ones too. (Just to clarify—I wasn’t in the recital, because it was by audition and I sucked at ballet. But my mom knew how much I wanted to be like Zoe and sewed me some facsimile short shorts out of retired bedsheets.)
“I just felt so alone and misunderstood until I met you, sweet Pepe,” Zoe declared now. “I really didn’t know how or if I’d even make it through this horror. You are my hero.”
Zoe tipped her head back and started kissing the animal all over his body. He squirmed and wriggled, and his hind legs looked as if he were trying to run a marathon. Then she cradled him like a baby and hummed a lullaby until his ears sagged. “Ooh, you see? He loves me too. He really does,” she cooed.
I know it wasn’t the cat’s fault. That thing was probably just as stunned as I was by all this smoochy-faced madness. I just felt allergic to everything inside this basement—the dander, the drama, the long watery gaze that Zoe fixed on this multicolored hairball.
To be fair, Zoe had a lot going on. She had been away basically all summer. First, she spent a month by the Jersey Shore with her grandparents, who were awesome, but they ate dinner at 5:00 P.M. and didn’t have a great Internet connection. While Zoe was wandering the coastline, her dad, Travis, moved out of their family house. I didn’t know much about his new place, other than it was twenty minutes away and next to a car wash. Zoe described it as “a beige coffin.” Then she went to performing arts camp, where she was cast as the scarecrow in The Wiz and made out with three different Munchkins. Alli (her mom) picked Zoe up on the last day of camp—the night after an “epic” cast party—and took her straight to a weeklong mother-daughter self-empowerment retreat in the Catskills that involved a lot of sage and a ginger juice cleanse that was “energizing, but in an angry way.”
I only knew all this because Zoe posted pics on a special secret Tumblr called Zoozoo4u. She was documenting all of her feelings about life, her parents’ separation, and those sexy Munchkins. It was supposed to be password protected so Alli and Travis couldn’t see it. Only, the password was zoozoo4u too, so that wasn’t much protection.
Zoe loved putting it all out there on social media. She’d even made an Insta account for the two of us called ZoenHank, where she put up pictures of us cheek to cheek or trying on granny glasses at the drugstore. I loved that she did this for us, but I never got into it as much as she did. Maybe I’d watched one too many scary movies about private eyes or online trolls. Something ooked me out about dumping all my thoughts into the ether for some interweb audience to behold. Yes, I was the last holdout from my grade, or my hemisphere really. And the only teenager I knew who owned a dollhouse. But still.
Even though we were less than an hour apart for most of the summer, Zoe and I had communicated mainly through photo captions and hashtags. She said talking would be “too intense,” and I wanted to respect that. Also, I didn’t have much to report from the home front. I’d been home doing my usual summer job for the past six weeks: arts and crafts counselor at the Y. The most excitement I had was one day when a camper almost choked on some googly eyes. Also, I went to the pool, and learned how to finger knit, which is just slightly less thrilling than it sounds.
Yeah, it was a typical boring summer until I got a text message from Zoe a half hour ago that said:
we’re home! wanna come by and meet my new lover?
The first thing I saw when I came over was a hulking green dumpster in the driveway and a lopsided stack of cardboard boxes next to it. Someone had scrawled TRAVIS on the sides of each box in brazen red Sharpie. The Ts looked so ferocious, as if they might eat all the other letters. Alli was humming while bent over a milk crate of cassette tapes, and I knew I should say Hi and How ya doing but I didn’t have all the words ready yet, so I stole into the basement through the side door.
All I could see was what was missing. The gray beat-up couch where we’d made forts was gone. So was the wooden coffee table where we’d spilled nail polish remover and taken off a blob of finish. And the red easel where I’d painted such childhood masterpieces as Upside-Down Rainbow, Upside-Down Rainbow 2, and Today, with Rainbow.
Of course, Zoe was the only one with any real talent in drawing. She drew me these hilarious stick figures with huge eyes, saying silly things like, Welcome to planet Marzoompf, may I take your coat? or Hey! You look like a fish I once dated. Together, we had plans to start an art gallery that also served potato pancakes. Or else we were going to write a book called Have You Seen My Nosehair Named Larry? (based on a true story). I was in charge of the writing and I still had all the pages in a purple folder in the top drawer of my desk at home. Zoe was in charge of the illustrations. Which—from the looks of it—were now in a dumpster.
Everything that had been in here was gone. There were no plastic bins of markers, Play-Doh, and decapitated Barbies. There was no Leaning Tower of Board Games on the shelves above the washing machine. What I missed most of all was the Powerpuff Girls drum kit and the disco ball … catching those last slips of streetlamp light when we convinced her parents to let us stay up just one more hour.
“What happened to the—?” I started to ask.
“I know, right?” Zoe said. “It’s just too sad.”
“Did he take everything with him?”
“Who? Travis? Ha!” Zoe coughed out a bitter laugh. “No. He has nothing in his new place.” She looked around the shadowy basement with a frown. “This is just Alli’s whole purging idea. Start over with simplicity or whatever that decluttering self-help guru she bought into on that retreat said.”
I felt like I’d just been purged of most of my vocabulary.
“Wow,” I said again. “That sounds…” I didn’t want to end my sentence with dismal, horrible, or scarring. But those were the only adjectives I could dig up at the moment.
“Ooh! But I did save one thing for you!” Zoe said. She ran to the basement stairs and brought back a lavender-colored journal with a glittery unicorn on the cover.
“My nana actually gave this to me a while ago, but you’re the real writer, so…” She pushed it into my hands. I felt bad that I hadn’t brought her anything.
“Thank you. I tried to make you one of those tie-dyed headbands, but it came out supersplotchy. But maybe we could … I mean, would it help if you stayed at my place for a few nights?” I offered.
“Oh, you’re the bestest, Hank. No, that wouldn’t help anything.” My face must have registered as insulted because she followed that up quickly with, “I mean, thank you. It would help, but there’s just too much going on here right now, including—bah!”
Apparently, Pepe had plenty to say. He was purring and batting at Zoe’s dark bangs like they were catnip. It looked like a horrible game to me, but Zoe had now transformed from sullen back into camera-ready pep. “I’m sorry,” she gushed. “I really do want to catch up about everything and hear about your summer, but can you just press PLAY while he’s letting me hold him? I mean, can you even believe the cuteness happening right this very second?”
She held up Pepe in front of me, so I could see his terrified, unextraordinary face. He yelped wildly, clawing at the wisp of air between us. “I mean, the stripes and the whiskers,” she explained.
“Yup,” I got out before sneezing three times in rapid succession. Zoe tucked the cat back into her chest and wrapped her arms around him protectively. “I swear I’d breastfeed him if I could. Did you know hundreds of thousands of animals go starving every day?”
I shook my head and rubbed my eyes.
“It’s so sad. The woman who brought the litter in is from the Ukraine and she was telling us these horror stories about how cats are abused there and left to roam … and while she was telling us all this, Pepe was just clinging to me, yowling. Like he could hear what she was saying. It was just so tragic.” Zoe’s eyes puddled.
“Got it,” I said with a cough. Not that I didn’t care. I just felt too short of breath and displaced. Zoe knew I couldn’t stand to be around cats. We’d even once promised that if we didn’t find respectable partners by the time we turned thirty, we’d move in together and adopt a Labradoodle, a ferret, or a baby—really anything but a cat. I guess that deal meant a lot more to me than to her.
“Ugh, you really are allergic.” She sighed. More annoyed than remorseful though. “Okay, we’ll be quick. Are you ready for your close-up, Monsieur Meowsers?”
Copyright © 2020 by Abby Sher