“Did you finish off the graham crackers?”
Irritated at the interruption of my favorite cop show, I looked up to see Pete pointing the empty box at me like a Bible in the hands of one of those street corner pundits down by campus. Pete’s not a big guy, but with one foot forward and his shoulders and jaw set, he looked ready to fight over this.
“Not me,” I said, my hands coming up between us to distract him from the crumbs on my T-shirt. “It must have been Carla.”
That diffused his wrath. Carla was a Theater major and far better looking than a guy like Pete could hope to hold on to. He had told me just the night before over beer that he knew she would get bored and move on, that he just wanted to enjoy the ride. I was not convinced, though. I thought he worried about it more than he wanted to admit.
He narrowed his eyes at me and I tried not to feel those crumbs burning like guilt on my chest. He shifted his attention to Feynman and Schrodinger, his twin gray cats, sprawled together in their wicker basket. I turned back to my show, wondering what clue I had missed that had all the lab technicians jumping around like a family of paleontologists discovering a T. rex bone in their backyard. Then I heard Pete say something strange.
“Guys, did Tim eat the last graham crackers?”
I started to say something, but Pete was watching Feynman and Schrodinger. I expected to find myself scrutinized by enigmatic feline stares, but they were staring at something only cats can see. As far as I could tell, they didn’t notice the question. Or Pete. Unless an ear twitch counts, or maybe a slight movement of the whiskers. Pete nodded.
“Next time, Tim, just throw the box out and add it to the shopping list, okay?” He went back to studying in his room before I could retort.
I looked back at the cats, and one of them met my eyes, timeless, but I’m never sure which is Feynman and which is Schrodinger.
Pete gave his cats the Magic 8-Ball treatment more and more often over the next few weeks. Who finished off the roll of toilet paper without changing it? Who put the empty milk carton back in the fridge? Who left those dishes in the sink? Sometimes it was me, but not always. Sometimes the cats were right, but not always. Carla thought it was cute, and she asked their opinions on broader issues of politics, the campus social scene, and even class selection for next semester.
I tried to write it off as one of those quirks that couples develop. It seemed like a good sign, a shared joke, even if Pete took it more seriously than she did. Or at least, Pete actually blamed me whenever the cats judged me guilty.
Toward the end of the semester, I lay collapsed in my bed when a pounding fist on my bedroom door jolted me to something like consciousness. I ached from too much caffeine, still sleep bleary and surrounded by chemistry texts in the light of my nightstand lamp, trying to puzzle out why the sound of electrons changing valence shells made me think of thumping on wood when the fist started up again, this time accompanied by a voice.
“Open the damned door, Tim!”
I started toward the closet before waking up enough to direct my stumble to the right door, jerking it open. I didn’t get a word out before Pete spoke again.
“Is it you?” He forced words through a voice harsh with tears and fury. His jaw trembled like his white-knuckled fists, which were barely restrained at his sides.
“What. . . .”
“Are you fucking Carla?”
My stomach fell through the floor, taking with it the last vestiges of my sleep. Carla had been around more lately, showing up before Pete got home and watching television or studying. Sometimes she rehearsed in Pete’s room, or sat in there making phone calls.
“Answer. The. Question.”
“Pete, I swear I never touched her.”
“She just dumped me,” he said, and the tremor that started at his feet now reached his voice, “for someone else.” He closed his eyes, then fixed his dilated pupils on mine. “Tim, if I find out it’s you. . . .”
“I swear to God, Pete. It’s not me.” He stood there, staring, and only moments from swinging those fists. “Ask the cats!”
“Ask Feynman and Schrodinger! They’ve been here the whole time. They’ll tell you I never even looked at your girl.”
Curiosity cracked its way through the haze of fury. He tilted his head in a shrug and stalked off the find the cats. I didn’t dare move. I had just started wondering when my heart rate would slow when Pete came back down the hall holding our jackets.
“Buy an idiot a beer?” he asked with a sad attempt at a smile.
I let out a breath and took my jacket with my own attempt at a reassuring smile. As we walked through the cool, midnight streets toward the pub around the corner, I said, “I’m glad you have honest cats.”