THE FIRST TO KNOW
There’s a little crick behind the house where the crawdads live and there are always frogs (Lizzie says they’re toads). I was about thirteen when I went back there and made best friends with a frog who I named Gregory. I was sitting on the bank with my shoes off, my feet in the water. This was something I did quite often because the water would stroke my skin and then head off somewhere else. I thought it was incredible.
Gregory came right up to me which is strange because that’s not usually something that frogs do. Usually they’re a little more shy about it. Even if they want to be near you, they’re scared.
Gregory came right up to me though and ribbited and I looked down at him and ribbited back. I was speaking his language and with that I could imagine he was speaking mine.
Gregory understood me. There was something in his eyes that told me. He saw my feet in the water and he could see the hunch of my shoulders beneath my t-shirt from peewee soccer three seasons ago. I was still small enough to fit in it and was waiting for a growth spurt I now know would never come. He saw my Adam’s apple bob up and down and he probably knew I was nervous. Not just to be in his presence, though that quickened my pulse, but to be here.
To be anywhere.
Gregory didn’t judge me so I laid down with my back on the soggy grass, my feet in the water still, and Gregory sat next to me. I told him everything. I told him about Sean at school and how I woke up in the morning with a hard dick thinking about him, just come off a dream where he was naked and so was I.
It was vulgar but Gregory didn’t say anything. I think that’s what I liked most about him. He was quiet but he didn’t leave. That’s something a lot of people do, I know now, when you tell them this kind of stuff.
The cicadas sang in the trees all summer long that year and they were singing that day, and the southern moss hung from above us, but Gregory didn’t have anywhere better to be than with me. He didn’t have anyone better to listen to than me.
I thought that was incredible.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
DO YOU WONDER ABOUT SECOND LIVES?
We adopted a cat after May died at the beginning of the year. It was January in Arizona which is to say it was like June back home and dry to boot. At May’s funeral everyone cried and the whole landscape changed. Rivers of our grief flowed through the valley that the cemetery squatted in, and on the way home, Jason decided we would go by the Humane Society.
May had always said that cats were the only ones who understood her, never called her a dyke or any of those things. Her family cats growing up were Oatmeal and Gravy, named by her at age 10. She said they’d always known, and they were always fine with it.
At first we didn’t know what to name the cat we brought home. We pulled out an old notebook of May’s and wrote down everyone’s ideas – Pickle, Spot, Orange. Nothing was good. We weren’t so good at naming cats, and decisions were hard in the fog of everything that day. And it was true that the cat was orange, and had a white spot above her eye. She was ten, had been a stray, picked up by someone and brought to a kill shelter, then rescued and taken to the humane society. She did not yield a name to us.
Eventually we took a cue from the calendar hanging on May’s wall with an X through the date she ended it, and named the cat January. January was a new beginning.
She roamed back and forth between our world and theirs. We installed a cat door so she could go out into the backyard, and she started to bring in all kinds of things. She had special gifts for each of us. She would bring twigs to Jason, leaves that had long since fallen from their branches to Jess. For me she brought a mouse, still twitching.
I named it February and the month changed.
Spring in Arizona is more of the same and each mouse that January dropped at my feet was given a name. I ran out of months and began to name them after gods: this was Zeus, almighty, as I swept him into a dust pan and carried him back outside, dropped him in the big black trash can behind the house.
The next mouse was alive so I named it Ares and set it free to fight another day.
We put an ad out for another roommate. The three of us couldn’t cover the rent anymore, plus we had to buy food for January. By April we had another person and she lived in May’s room.
But it was still May’s room and January spent most of her time there.
The new girl Annabelle felt like someone out of a teen novel, one I’d get at the book sale for 50 cents and devour in a day. She had long straight brown hair and worked at the movie theater. She came home smelling like popcorn and this was something that January liked very much.
The feeling was mutual. Annabelle spent most of her time at home brushing January, or playing with her, or curled around her as she slept on the floor.
I wondered sometimes about second lives and where Annabelle had come from. If you do something wrong or live just right, do you get to live again? Do you get to choose how?
By July Jason had decided to kick his old broken air conditioner to the curb and move back north to Seattle, and we needed another roommate.
January, why don’t you pay rent? Annabelle would ask from the floor, and January would yawn in her face, and Annabelle would press her lips to January’s head and whisper something the rest of us couldn’t hear.
I picked up another shift and we made ends meet for awhile but when September came around and nothing had changed, we found a fourth – again. Liza was 17 and her parents had kicked her out. She was scared and didn’t have much, but she got a job at McDonald’s and paid half her share of rent. I walked into the living room one night and Liza and Annabelle and January were all lying on the floor, sleeping, their chests rising and falling.
Soon Jess decided she’d rather live in California and barely make it there than here. So she left, too, and then it was only me who even remembered May.
Jonny moved in, a flamboyant kid fresh out of high school, and he tried to make it as an actor in Phoenix. It worked out the way it always does, but January, he said, January is my biggest fan.
And she was.
Eventually I moved out, too, but I left January with the house. The night before I left she brought me one last gift. I named her Demeter: the goddess of life and death.
Helen Armstrong is a queer fiction writer living at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Her work has been published in Cleaver Magazine, Catfish Creek, and Quiddity. She lives with her girlfriend, her cat Persephone, and several dying houseplants. Find her on the world wide web at helenarmstrongwrites.com and between the tweets at @hkawrites.