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Mrs. Amiti’s yard can be seen from Google Earth. There is not a concentration of one hue, but rather an attention to variety—black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, faded pink azaleas, and blue hyacinths. Dusty miller and pink phlox accent the higher growth. Topiaries in clay planters flank the short stairwell to the porch.
The house is an old Victorian bungalow in south Brooklyn, the same shade of green as the Statue of Liberty. In the late afternoons, Mrs. Amiti’s silhouette is visible in the living room window, angled toward a television in the opposite corner of the room. Ivory lace curtains dress the windows. When Charlotte enters the house, she often peeks toward Mrs. Amiti, but continues upstairs to her and Kevin’s apartment on the second floor without waving in greeting.
When Mr. and Mrs. Amiti sit together on the porch, side by side on a white plastic couch with a tie-on cushion, a stray gray cat often sits under Mr. Amiti’s arm. The cat is fat, like one large teardrop is held in the center of its belly. Mr. Amiti, whom Kevin calls by his first name, Skender, too frequently leaves out a generously filled bowl of dry cat food. Once, after it snowed, Skender deliberately let the cat into the house. A trail of paw prints in the snow ended at the front door. Skender opened the door an extra inch and the cat crept down to the basement, as if it knew to be discreet. “Don’t tell my wife,” he said to Kevin, smiling.
Kevin has rented the apartment on the second floor of the Amiti’s house for seven years. He told Skender, rather than Mrs. Amiti, that Charlotte was moving in with him, knowing Skender less likely to object. Kevin does not know the Amiti’s history in great detail, only that they moved from Kosovo to Albania to Paris to the United States. Mrs. Amiti is typically dressed for working in the mulch that tops her flowerbeds, wearing black cotton pants and a baggy cotton shirt, and beige rubber clogs.
A few weeks after moving in, Charlotte hired a pet sitter to feed her two cats, Grace and Randall, for a weekend she and Kevin planned to be out of town. The day before their departure, she knocked on the Amiti’s door to alert them that the sitter would be coming and going from the house. Mrs. Amiti was on the phone. She covered the mouthpiece with her hand, her expression suggesting that this occasion presented an opportunity she’d been awaiting, and said, “We will talk. I’ll be right up.”
A few minutes later, she knocked on Charlotte and Kevin’s door. “People can’t just come and go from here,” she told Charlotte. “This is a private house. Not a building,” she said, with some disdain.
“We are renting this apartment from you, and pets are permitted. Isn’t this our choice?” Charlotte replied.
Before moving in with Kevin, Charlotte had lived alone in an apartment that had parquet wood floors, large closets, and high ceilings; Charlotte had mounted curtain rods with glass finials on their ends, chosen a showerhead, and bought no piece of furniture that was made of particleboard. After she and Kevin became engaged, they chose to live at the Amiti’s because their house had more sunlight, and was closer to the subway. A few days before she moved in, Charlotte asked Mrs. Amiti if a queen size bed frame seemed too wide for the stairwell. Mrs. Amiti had not answered, and instead turned to drag a serpentine garden hose from the front lawn to the side of the house.
Uncomfortable, Charlotte had turned to go, but Mrs. Amiti nodded in Charlotte’s direction and said, “Bring the bed,” perplexed, as if the question had indicated the scope of change Charlotte might bring upon the house. Once settled, Charlotte framed and hung their wedding announcement in the small dining room, and bought a new spice rack and chrome bookshelves.
“I am sorry,” Mrs. Amiti replied, “but not even this one time.”
“We have no choice this time. But I’ll try to think of something else for the future,” Charlotte replied. When Charlotte next glanced at Mrs. Amiti, seated on the living room couch, the lavender and blue light from the television a space hole in the dark of the room, Mrs. Amiti was watching her, in return.
After a few months at the Amiti’s, Grace, a black cat with a patch of white at her throat like a string of pearls, fell ill. She coiled into a tight ball on the red-carpeted floor of the bedroom, instead of climbing onto the bed. Her breathing became labored, and she vomited frequently. The veterinarian said that she had cancer, and that a large mass in her abdomen was inoperable. Charlotte stroked the back of Grace’s neck with four fingers and whispered in her ear while the vet administered an injection that stopped her heart. After, Charlotte sat on a small metal stool in the examining room. Grace lay on the examining table, her eyes open and still, wrapped in a green felt blanket.
When Charlotte arrived home from work the next evening, Mrs. Amiti was standing on the slip of grass that borders the curb in front of the house, tidying the placement of the trash bins. As Charlotte approached the house, Mrs. Amiti said to her abruptly, “She died?”
Charlotte replied, “Yes, she did.”
Mrs. Amiti looked away, the skin of her face smooth, without the crease of any particular expression. “Well, I am sorry about that,” she eventually replied.
Soon after that, Skender took a walk and did not return when expected. Mrs. Amiti stood in her front yard, her eyelids heavy with worry. Charlotte considered driving to look for him. “Can I do anything,” she asked. Again, Mrs. Amiti did not look at her. “No, no, it is okay,” she replied. Charlotte walked upstairs, uncertain. Adeline, the Amiti’s daughter, knocked on their door. “I want you to know that my father has dementia. So, if anything comes up in your apartment, speak to my mother, not him.” He made it home. Each morning Mrs. Amiti threaded a string through his belt loops with phone numbers and a house key attached. It was getting cold. The next afternoon Charlotte helped Mrs. Amiti bring the large planters in the backyard to the second floor landing inside. A potted palm, a snake plant, a rubber tree, a spider plant, climbing bamboo with interwoven stalks and leaves that gape outward, like hourglasses.
Without Grace, Randall spent most of the day lying on his side. Charlotte soon suggested they adopt another cat, as a companion for Randall. She did not second-guess the decision until they ascended the Amiti’s front porch with a carrier containing Luke, a two-year-old male with a sharp white coat patched with strawberry blonde. When Charlotte brought Grace home, eleven years ago, Randall had been indignant. On the first day, Grace sat on the windowsill, neither exploring nor hiding, but sensing the air of a new place. Randall had hissed, his tale puffed like a raccoon’s, and chased her under the bed. He batted the floor around her paws when she tried to come out. Three weeks passed before he allowed her a wider berth.
Mrs. Amiti sat on the couch on the porch with the coupon section of the newspaper and a glass of ginger ale in a Waterford crystal tumbler. She squinted at the cat carrier, and Charlotte quickly walked upstairs. The next day, Mrs. Amiti knocked on their door. “The rent will go up,” she said.
“Why,” Kevin asked.
“The market value has increased,” she replied firmly. Bringing a new cat into the house had again breached unspoken boundaries.
A few weeks later, the oven in their apartment breaks. Mrs. Amiti lets a repairman in while they are at work, and leaves the door ajar. Luke darts out. Kevin later finds him in the basement of the house, in an exposed wall of pipe, trembling. Luke’s claws dig into Kevin’s shoulders as Kevin carries him upstairs.
Now, Luke vigorously grooms Randall’s face, his back, and even his paws. Randall lifts a paw, but Luke does not stop, and soon they fight, the older cat and the younger wrapped in what looks like a hug but is instead an unwillingness to yield. There is a hardness within that does not permit it. There may have been that one time that Luke leapt onto the couch to paw at Randall and, instead, lay down beside him with paws extended, but they did not once bow their heads, sigh, nor yield in recognition.