He’s here now. You can’t see him, because, well, he is now part of me. He clings to my back with arms wrapped around my neck—not in a chokehold—but rather a tight embrace. The embrace is a warning, though, that it could easily become a choke. I wonder why he chose me and if he’ll move on at some point. As time passes, his arms tighten slightly more.
He said hello at the dog park, but he didn’t have any dogs with him. But who was I to judge when I was there with a pet rabbit? Tony grazed the grass outside the gates where the disorderly dogs ran and played. He always preferred the wild Bermuda to even the most exotic prepared salad. The dog park was in my neighborhood. A calm space, lush with green grass, aged trees, and a long stretch of meadow, gated off where dogs could run to their heart’s content. A place where I could get to know my neighbors, in the safety of our shared surroundings. Almost everyone had a dog here, except of course, for me.
So this guy walks up to me, and he says hello and he doesn’t have a dog, but I’m distracted watching my rabbit. He says Tony is the cutest he’s ever seen.
“Thanks. He is the best companion I could ask for. He is even house trained! He uses a litter box.” I said this proudly, as though it defined the type of person I am.
He was impressed. He was new to the area and had taken a temporary residence nearby. He needed to know the best places to go and where to look for houses. Though he never told me what he did for a living or where he came from, or really anything about himself, I felt a strange closeness to him. He was a stranger that I knew well; someone that knew me, too.
“This neighborhood is actually quite nice. I live very close by. I know of a house for sale that is worth checking out.” I gave him directions to my street, because that seemed like the right thing to do, and I trusted him more than I could understand. Tony had grazed his way to this gentleman’s toes, nibbling nearby, and showing an incredible confidence and ease with him. I picked him up, scratching the fuzzy connection of fur between his brown floppy ears, as I said goodbye to my new familiar friend. As I walked away I thought it strange that I never even asked for his name.
By sunset, I was walking to my front door. My house was small, but appropriately sized for me. Red bricks comprised the body, matching the other houses on the street. Underneath each window hung planter boxes filled with herbs—a definite no crossing zone for Tony. The light from outside, now dim, coated the living room in a hazy aura as I entered. I bent down to put Tony on the ground and when I stood back up, everything looked different. As the sunlight continued to fade, I tried to recognize what exactly had changed, but everything looked odd yet nothing was out of place. The couch was still covered in plush pillows, wrapping around the living room, surrounding the coffee table. Picture albums were still on the bottom shelf of the table, and a single flower stuck out of a vase on its surface. The bookcase that rose up the wall, filled with trinkets and books, stood in the same spot as before I left. I walked in further and turned on the lamp next to the couch. It was all exactly where it should be, but everything felt mockingly unfamiliar. I curled up with Tony on the couch, and turned on the TV. I convinced myself that nothing was amiss. Living alone I often found myself overthinking the smallest things. A sound coming from outside, or the flicker of a light, could mean something more. But in the ten years I’d been on my own, it was never more than a trash can falling over or a bulb burning out. I usually found comfort in being home, nothing externally could harm me, and I was safe within its walls. At some point I drifted off to sleep, only to awake as the first wave of infomercials began. Tony and I made our way to bed, accidentally running into the couch, and sheepishly moving out of its way and into the bedroom.
Tony slept with his head buried underneath my neck. It must have made him feel safe, or reminded him of a rabbit-hole that his undomesticated ancestors lived in. He had done this since the day I brought him home from the pet store as a small bunny that fit the exact curve of my neck. That morning, I felt whiskers tickle me, but it was his sudden leap onto my chest that woke me up in a panic. Tony sat on me, staring down my face, with his nose scrunching up and down faster than I’d ever seen it before.
“What has gotten into you, buddy?” Just then the distinct smell of coffee fluttered by me. “I am so tired, my brain is actually dreaming the smell of coffee.” Another consequence of living alone, I often found myself in deep conversation with a rabbit. As a cat scratched my bedroom window, I realized that must have been what scared him, and scooped him up to hug him. “No kitty can get you, cutie pie!” I said in an annoyingly high pitched voice, generally reserved for any human or animal under 15 pounds. Still with the smell of coffee on my mind, I made my way out to the kitchen.
Now recalling how it all happened, this is where I get confused, because there he was in my kitchen, drinking my coffee and eating my breakfast. I hadn’t let him in, I thought. I hadn’t even given him my exact address. But there he was. He sat on my stool on the kitchen island, scooping up a forkful of eggs, my eggs, and eating them. He smiled at me an eerie smile of sympathy and control that made me realize, I had already lost this battle. He wished me a good morning and pulled out the stool next to him. He was a good looking man, but not particularly someone who would catch my eye. In fact, everything about him looked basic and familiar, someone I had walked passed in the grocery store hundreds of times. But there he was in my house, but I could only focus on how he got in, it never occurred to me to ask him to leave or even scream and call the police. He seemed too natural in my house, more so than I did in that moment and I found myself questioning my presence more than his. When did I let him in?
“Thank you,” I said in a daze as he poured me a coffee and left the remains of my breakfast for me to eat. He seemed proud of himself for reserving the last three bites. Had he always been there? Without a single word, he enclosed Tony in the bedroom and let in the black cat that had clawed its mark on my house. It was just Muffin, he calmly told me. I knew this cat’s name, but not the man who let him in. Was Muffin his? She was gentle and would never hurt Tony, he reassured me. I couldn’t tell if he knew the cat well enough to know, or if he knew me well enough to try and calm my racing thoughts.
I stood up hesitantly, “Can I take a quick shower?” it struck me as extremely peculiar that I was asking this stranger for permission to shower in my own home, but this house now seemed foreign to me. I felt as though I had stumbled into his house. This thought made me progressively angrier over the next hour as I got ready. “Who does he think he is, Tony?” My voice began as a shout, and then hushed into a whisper upon my realization that he could still be sitting outside of the room in the kitchen. Tony sat on the marbled counter top in the bathroom, staring at me through the mirror. He lifted one of his floppy ears in a gesture of compassion that I took as a distinct statement that something must be done. We decided the only answer was to make my home inhospitable. If this man wanted to live there so badly, I would make it a terrible place to live. I noticed an extra toothbrush next to mine, and threw it in the trash as the first act of my uprising. Stomping into the kitchen, my bravado returning, the air suddenly left my body as I looked around the entire house outside of my bedroom which had somehow shifted. Was I even still at home? The island seemed smaller, farther away. The living room now stretched longer, with my couch still wrapping around it, but in all the wrong dimensions. Two cats appeared from underneath the coffee table, one orange and the other calico. Different from the black cat from earlier. I shooed them outside, and regaining my composure, gathered all the pillows from the couch and piled them into the hall closet. With him out of sight, I took the opportunity to grab any item that seemed small and inconsequential, and stuffed it wherever I could. I busied myself with this rearranging until suddenly he caught the corner of my eye as he sat perched on the edge of the couch, looking through my photo albums.
The couch was next to go.
Over the course of the next several weeks, I emptied out my house piece by piece. First, it was the couch, of course, and then the coffee table. The bookcase, the television, the dining room table, and the lamp were all given away to friends and neighbors who were willing to take it in. My house became open, stretched out in its awkwardly changing measurements. I sat on the floor, victoriously outstretched on the tile—the rug having been taken out days before—I wiggled on the ground as though I was making a snow angel, laughing at the face I envisioned this man would have when he realized that there was nothing left. Just as I turned to my side, with a smile splitting across my face, reaching out for Tony, I realized my joyful victory had been premature. He sat there next to me on the ground eating a bowl of popcorn. He didn’t say a word about the missing furniture. It almost seemed as though he felt even more at home. It wouldn’t be long, though, I reassured myself. Eventually, he would have to leave. Watching him out the crack of my bedroom door, I plotted with Tony late into that night as six cats meowed outside the window.
Hope was what I clung to at this point. I didn’t know how I had let this man get so close, close enough to enter my home and make it feel strange, but I knew that I couldn’t let him stay. Part of me thought that I should get to know him, as familiar as he seemed, maybe we could have found humor in the miscommunication that had occurred. I considered finally asking for his name, asking who he was and why he chose me of all people. But then I worried it had already been too long, and he would wonder why I hadn’t asked him before. I couldn’t understand why I cared so much what he thought of me.
One morning soon after the house had been emptied, I woke to the smell of coffee and knew he was still there. I lifted my head and let it drop heavily against my pillow a few times as I whimpered a pathetic cry. “Why Tony? What can I do?” But Tony’s head wasn’t buried underneath my neck where I expected him to be. I frantically checked underneath the sheets. I checked the closet, the bathroom, and under the bed. That was all that was left in the house, there was nowhere else to hide. This man wordlessly searched the house with me in vain. He rarely left my side and always checked the same spot as me immediately after I checked it. He echoed my every movement only a second behind me. I walked with him to the dog park and checked Tony’s favorite areas of Bermuda. I asked some of my neighbors if they’d seem him, with his brown floppy ears and white tail. I showed them his picture, but no one had seen him. But this infuriating man, following me around, had now started finishing my sentences. But he’d get the details wrong. Tony didn’t have a white paw, as he said he did. Tony wasn’t last seen nibbling on a carrot. Slowly, with each neighbor, he would start sooner in the conversation with his mistaken details. He told Phyllis, from the neighborhood across the park, that Terry, his chipmunk, had gone missing. I filled in the truth behind him, a muffled cry that no one listened to. Phyllis just shook her head, offered us a freshly baked cookie, and closed the door.
As we walked back into the house, three cats ran by me. The thought of Tony, alone and scared, surrounded by cats broke me. Here I was, in my house. Devoid of my possessions. Searching for my rabbit. Encircled by cats. While this weasel put his arm around my neck and attempted to silently commiserate with me. I screamed. A guttural, blood curdling scream as a rage built from the bottom of my belly and into my arms as I opened the front door and thrust this man-creature out into the street with a kick of my leg. Shutting the door, locking it, dropping down onto my knees in a dramatic manner, mostly reserved for Broadway actors, I melted my face to my hands and tears filled my palms.
Not more than a minute after this theatrical display of aggravation, a rough, sand paper-like tongue licked my arm. That was when I knew for sure that I had lost. Slowly pulling my eyes from my hands and looking up, I saw him. There he was, holding his hand out to me. I attempted to barter with him, I’d give him anything if he’d leave. I’d give him the house and I would leave. He just wouldn’t be able to follow me. He said nothing and pulled me into a strong hug that I was too afraid to break.
That is where he has stayed since then. Always present, but never really there. Slowly tightening, but never choking. Always familiar, but never more than a stranger. We spend all our time together now. We rarely leave the house. The two of us together seem to spark too many questions that I can’t easily answer—or want to. I realize now that I never let him in, rather he was just a part of this house from the beginning or perhaps even a fractured part of me. He was always lurking just out of my view, but never far away, until the day he decided to emerge and take hold of me.