Chapter 16 - The Pain of Pets
I was sitting on the floor, my back against the wall while holding Oreo in my arms, both of us waiting to see what her best friend, Misti, would look like.
After our round trip to the suburbs and meeting Elizabeth, the artist who had created all the pet costumes, we returned to the café. As soon as we gave the box containing the new mystery suit to Lucy, she had asked me to keep an eye on her pets while she went upstairs with Misti. There was no doubt about it; not only these two had to discuss the lessons learned, and Misti would wear the brand new costume that none of us knew nothing about.
I explained what was going on to Oreo, Trixie, Meeka, and Vix, and now we were all looking forward to finding out what kind of animal would cross the lounge door in an instant. Asha and Accalia, who were not at the café today, would undoubtedly be pissed for having missed that reveal.
My understanding was that Misti would only wear this new costume temporarily until Elizabeth repaired her black catsuit. From what we've been told, it would take at least a week. So this situation was inclined toward a good question.
Once Misti got her black cat costume back, who was supposed to wear the new one? Me? I didn't think so. As Asha had told me, Lucy liked to use me as a swiss army knife. I didn't think she had any interest in turning me into a permanent pet, and on top of that, I didn't think I wanted to be one full time either. It was occasionally fun to help out, but I didn't have the profile to be a pet as good as the others.
I squeezed Oreo in my arms some more due to my febrility. For some reason, I never spent a lot of time with her in the past. She was an adorable black and white cat, and her black eye patch was just sweet. Outside her latex color, her mask was identical to Misti's.
Oreo was often the one ending up with a red collar around her neck, which meant she was either punished or needed rest. For some reason, she seemed the troublemaker of the group. Trixie also caused a lot of trouble, but she always seemed to find ways to get away with it.
But right now, Oreo was cuddly and calm even though she certainly would want to play with Misti as soon as she got back. Meanwhile, Vix was lying on top of Asha and Trixie, who quietly petted her.
And then, it happened. The loud door handle's noise startled all the pets, showing how alert they all were despite how quiet they were only a moment ago.
Oreo jumped off me and rushed to Lucy, and so did the three other pets. That was the meaning of my earlier thought when I said I didn't have the profile to be a good pet; I wasn't as spontaneous and naturally excited as them. Maybe if I were wearing a giant sloth costume it would fit my personality better... but still.
Right off the bat, Lucy scolded her pets, telling them to stand back before she let Misti in.
"Shoo! Shoo! Don't stand so close else you won't even be able to see anything. Come on, all of you, step back!"
Only half-listening, the petgirls walked back a bit, but they were still jumping in place.
"Alright, everybody. Let me introduce you to the new Misti!"
A small animal that we had never seen before shyly walked around Lucy and stepped in the lounge for us to admire. This must have been the loudest I ever been in my life, but I just had to let it out.
"...A CHEETAH! Awww..."
How incredibly adorable. It was another big cat like Asha. Her latex skin was of a beautiful tan color fading on a white chest and under-chin. A million little black spots covered her, and her face markings were just incredible. If she had been walking on her four, she would have looked like a real one; it was mind-blowing.
The other petgirls were probably in awe in the face of this new pet portrayed by Misti. Under normal circumstances, they would have jumped on her like a bunch of savages, but instead, they approached her slowly, carefully touching her with their paws. I could tell that they were in total admiration with the new costume, and for a solid reason, Elizabeth had created the most beautiful pet girl costume so far.
The next half hour has been really fun; Lucy and I helped Misti find the most cheetah-like poses, and she was very good at it. Her cat experience showed, but she was doing some new things that I had never seen her do before. We compared her sitting posture with cheetah pictures from the internet, and once corrected, we made Oreo the cat sit next to her to compare. I couldn’t get over how real she looked.
After our fun, Lucy and I let Misti play with her friends while we were having a coffee. They all knew she was the same girl inside, but there was a sense of attractive novelty in the air.
"Lucy, I love the cheetah costume."
"It's amazing, yes. It's so much better than the picture Elizabeth had sent me. She is so talented."
"Why... Why did you... buy a new costume?"
"Hehe... Oh? Do you want to know if it was for you?"
"No, Clara. Don't worry. It's not for you. As you know, Apricot left not long ago, so I can't really use more than five pets at a time while two are resting. It's a bit too much to my liking. I know you can help from time to time, but I don't think you'd have something to gain in doing that full time as they do. You are more MY backup than theirs. Because of you, I'm able to take some time off without worrying about them. You are so good with the pets, Clara."
"So, you are going to hire someone else?"
"Possibly, yes... But it's hard... It took me over two years to put this little group together. Most of them came to me. It's an extraordinary job, you know. It's a lifestyle more than a job, and I would not hire someone who doesn't need to be a pet."
Her use of the word need surprised me. I knew Vix liked being a pet because she wanted to hide her scars. Trixie also said that she was a pet for a reason without going into details. But everybody had problems, so I never associated the fact that they were playing pets directly with their problems.
"Yes. Take Apricot for example. She was just a very nice client, but one day, her parents told her that they were moving to another city for work and that they would leave her behind until she finished her college degree. She must have been very close to them because she took it very badly and felt abandoned even though she was a grown adult."
"No, Clara. It was not supposed to be a sad moment. Parents are just people, and they have to make the best decision for themselves. I think your parents are out of town too?"
"Yes, they moved out a while ago... It was too expensive here. But I decided to stay."
"See, you took it the right way, but Apricot didn't. So I decided to let her try to be a pet so she could escape her sadness for a while, but it was also a way to force her to spend time with people and listen to them. Apricot was incapable of listening. That was her main problem. While being a pet, she couldn't talk anymore, and listening was all she could do. It gave her an opportunity to understand that life is not all black or white just by hearing what people had to say without interrupting them."
"So... Apricot... Did she reconcile with her parents?"
"Yes. At some point, she restarted to call them and talked it over. And then, as you know, she decided to move back near them. She enjoyed her time as a pet with us, but she needed to move on. Her parents are just too important to her."
It was very rare that Lucy and I had an opportunity to talk like this. I had never really interacted with Apricot the doggy, but I was still sad when I heard about her departure from the café. Now that I had heard the full story, it made me understand how Lucy selected her pets and why I was probably not a good candidate to be a permanent one.
My life was not that great, but a lot of it was due to my communication disorder; it was the reason why I had a shit job and why my landlord had easily abused me with his incessant rent raises. But I was slowly improving, thanks to my rubber friends.
That said, Lucy was right. If I were to wear a pet costume all the time, it would take away my ability to talk, and then I wouldn't be able to work on my speech. It was preferable for me to stay out of costume and use the café as a safe zone to grow as a person.
Lost in my train of thoughts, I didn't see her coming...
Our little rubber cheetah was getting tired of being touched and inspected by all the other pets, so she jumped on me to seek refuge. But of course, that didn't work, and all the other pets climbed on Lucy and me.
"Girls! GIRLS! Stop! Why do you always have to do this? Aaah! You are crushing me!"
I guess this marked the end of my quiet time with Lucy.
This fantastic day had drained me. As soon as I got in my small apartment, I let myself fall on top of the bed and recalled everything I went through today.
I had a quiet morning with Vix, and then we delivered some of my belongings to the Cakes & Pets where Misti ripped the tail off her butt, causing Lucy to rage. I had to console my friend before Lucy sent her on an impossible errand, and I called off work not to leave her alone with that task. And then we met the creator of pets, Elizabeth, and also that scary girl named Kitty. We came back to the café and witnessed the birth of a brand new amazing cheetah costume. Following that has been my inspiring chat with Lucy before we got swarmed by the pets. When did my life get this adventure-packed? Before I met them, I stayed home reading books most of the time while avoiding the world.
There was no one with me tonight. Lucy offered to let me bring a pet home, mainly because I went an extra length to help Misti today, but I didn't feel like it. I had more items to pack in anticipation of my move, and the pets were not good at that.
But it was not the truth...
My earlier conversation with Lucy made me think hard, and now I wanted to do something that I had not done in too long.
No... I NEEDED to do something...
It was something I had not done since the day I went to the café for the first time, months ago. Why was this burden on my shoulders only? I was not sure, but it didn't matter anymore. I could do this.
I instinctively dreaded this moment, and I wasn't entirely sure why. I felt that all the massive life progress I had made because of the animal café would help me go through this. I would finally be able to show that I was as good as everybody else, that I could make friends, that I could be useful, and that I could love and be loved... and that I deserved all of it.
I had convinced myself that what I was about to do, this time, would be different... better... I was certain of it.
After pulling out my smartphone from my pocket, I dialed one of the rare numbers saved in my favorites. It didn't take long before a familiar voice answered.
"...Mom? It's Clara!"
"Claraaa! You didn't call in a long time."
It started as it always did; with a reprimand and a spike of anxiety. But this time, I could do this...
I could make things better... show her...
"...I'm... I'm calling now."
"I see that. Is there something wrong?"
"...N... No, mom... nothing is wrong, I just..."
"Oh, okay. So how are you doing? Are you still wasting your time working for that awful company?"
"...No... I mean... yes... but... Listen, I..."
"I told you Clara! You have to listen to me. You have to find something else. What will you do when you are older and want kids? You need to find a place that at least offers a pension plan. It's important."
"...I... Mom... I..."
"You know I'm right, of course. Oh, unless you started dating a rich boy?"
"...N... no... mom... listen..."
"Of course, you didn't. A mom can dream, right? But you know that you have to find someone eventually, right? You cannot spend your whole life alone. I told you a million times. You have to stop being this shy around people. You have to go out more and practice what the doctors told you, else you’ll never have a normal life."
My throat clamped shut... My lungs shrank... my anxiety skyrocketed... I wanted to talk... I wanted to talk to my mom. Why would she not listen to me? Why?
"Just take a deep breath, then smile, then listen to what people are saying, then think before saying something... You remember that, right?"
"See, if you don't talk, it makes you look awkward, and nobody will want to be around you. You have to start acting like an adult at some point, Clara, or else you're going to end up alone and miserable for the rest of your life. If you were putting some efforts into it, your father and I would have something to be proud of, but if you keep locking yourself up in your tiny apartment, you are never going to be able to talk like a normal person. What you are doing is not normal, Clara. You know that."
What was I thinking?
What did I expect from this call?
There was nothing else I could do about it now. My vocal chords lost all strength, my eyes welled up, my hands were shaking, I couldn't breathe. I called because I wanted to tell my mom about me. Good things. But I was, once again, easily overpowered by her who plowed through me using the power of words; a power I didn't possess. Why did I even think I was better at talking? Why did I think I had made progress? My heart rate spiked, the blood rammed into my eardrums, my lungs shrank even more. I was taking damages during this call as it was so often the case.
More than ever before, I regretted not having brought back a pet home with me tonight. I wanted to hold one right now; hold it so tight to feel safe, to feel better...
To feel loved...
My mother took my whole life apart and criticized every piece of it, leaving me with a feeling of worthlessness. She reminded me of how fucked up I was and how hopeless my future was. At first, I almost thought she was wrong about me, but her endless stream of arguments shattered the perception I had constructed of my new life.
The café... The pets... The progress I had made...
No... The progress I thought I had made.
All of this was just an illusion.
This phone call was proof. I wasn't any better at talking... I couldn't even communicate with my own mother or make her believe I was normal.
What did I think? WHAT DID I THINK?
A twenty-four years old girl calling her mom to tell her that she finally made a friend? How ridiculous. Telling her that I was working part-time at a café where girls liked dressing up as pets? How disconnected from reality could I have been? Telling her that I was good at talking with people who couldn't respond to me? Talk about a weak accomplishment.
The world around me was filled with normal people. People who could get friends with a snap of a finger. People who could date other people whenever they felt like it. People who could sleep with each other without wondering if the other person actually cared about them. People who could jump in and out of conversations as they pleased. People who didn't have self-confidence issues. Successful people wearing suits and ties who understood how human interactions worked.
I was none of that. I was the mere residue at the bottom of a cup of coffee poorly filtered. There was a very good reason why I had been alone all my life.
It was better that way.
When I was isolated, there was no illusion. My only obligation was to accept it.
After my mother ended this relentless reality check about my real worth or lack of, I looked around me... half of my stuff was already gone... I had told my landlord I was leaving... and I didn't want to move to the penthouse anymore with the pet. I had made a huge mistake thinking it was right to accept it.
I would no longer feed this illusion that my life could get better. With this communication disorder impeding my life, preventing me from having a normal relationship with my own mother, I knew my future would just be a neverending uphill battle that I would never win. Dreaming of good things would only end up hurting me more.
Getting closer to the pets would eventually come back and demolish me. Their love would demolish me the same way my mother’s love demolished me.
This feeling wasn’t something I was equipped to handle.
I had been tricked into thinking that good things could happen to me... but all of this, the café, the pets, my friends, my speech improvement... It was now clear that all of it had just been a pleasant dream that had turned into a nightmare.
"Clara? Oh my God! CLARA! Quick Misti! Call Lucy! Tell her to come here right away!"
"A... Asha! What... What is wrong with Clara? Why... why is she not moving?"
"I don't know! Call Lucy, HURRY!"
I was cold...
I was warm...
What happened to me? I felt so numb...
I wanted to wake up...
I didn't want to wake up...
This voice... Why was it calling me?
Nobody needed me... So why was it calling me?
This was abnormal... Nobody cared about me...
But this voice... I could hear it... Insisting...
I... I knew this voice...
I wanted to go toward it... I wanted to answer...
"Hey, hey! Don't move... You are okay. You're okay. Shhh."
"Don't worry, Clara. You are safe here. We are at the hospital."
My head hurt, my whole body felt poisoned, and I was nauseous. The room was all white, so was the bed on which my body rested. Sitting next to me, Lucy applied a cold compress to my forehead.
I tried to open my mouth, not too sure why since I had nothing to say...
"Shhh... Don't try speaking. It is unnecessary."
"That's right... It's just you and me here. No pets, no friends, no parents, no boss... Just you and me. And we are going to have a long chat about what happened to you."
Rolling my head to the side to look away from her, I knew exactly what had happened to me. How could she know? I messed up big time, and it was on me and on me alone. She probably just wanted to tell me how I ended up at the hospital; I didn't remember that part.
"It's okay, Clara. You don't have to look at me. Just listen to what I have to say. That's all you have to do. Then you can decide what you want to do after, because you can."
"Where to start? So, you didn't show up at the café for five days in a row. Knowing that you had to move out soon and still had stuff to bring to the café, we were getting pretty worried. You weren't answering your phone either. So I sent Asha and Misti to check on you after their shift. Asha still had the key to your apartment from that time you had to rush out to work.
Since you weren't opening your door, they let themselves in and found you in a very weakened state on your bed. In a panic, they called me, and I checked on you. It didn't take me long to find out that you had not been eating or drinking for the past few days. You were white as an aspirin. We called the ambulance to bring you here.
I was curious about this. It reminded me of something I had experienced myself a long while ago. So I investigated your case. We went into your phone, good things many of the pets had memorized your pin, and I found all the answers I needed.
I'm not going to pretend that you still have a job. Your boss fired you after two days, not showing up to work or answering your phone. Don't worry, I called him back and made sure he would pay you the balance of what he owes you, and I'll help you fill up your unemployment forms. I don't want you to go back there, ever.
But then it got more interesting, Clara. On the evening of your last visit at the café, you didn't want to take a pet home, which was unlike you. That got me curious. So I checked your call logs, and on the same night, you called your mother. An hour-long call."
No! No! No! I didn't want to hear about that! I wanted Lucy to stop talking! I didn't want to talk about relationships anymore. I didn't want anything else. I just wanted to isolate myself; hide from everybody and forever.
"Stop, Clara... Stay down! I'm going to talk about this, whether you want it or not. Don't make it more difficult than it is. It’s already painful enough as it is."
"I know you can't talk right now, Clara... and you know what? It's not your fault. I understand why it's so hard for you to talk."
"There... calm... calm! Don't fight me, okay? Just listen to what I have to say."
"Clara, I called your mother. I just said you put her name as a reference for a job you applied to, and she was overjoyed to tell me all about you, long and large. But it only took me thirty seconds to realize what kind of character she was.
So, you know what I think happened, Clara? I think you love your mother more than anything else in this world. But when I talked to her, I realized that she doesn't love you at all. She doesn't care one single bit about you, or at the very least, she doesn't know how. She went on and on and on about who you were and what your dreams and ambitions were... But not a single word of what she said about you was accurate. I know you, Clara, and the pets know you very well too, and what your mother had described to me was the child she would have liked to have... not the one she actually had. There was no love in her voice, just disappointment because you didn't fit what she wanted you to be. Yet, you wanted to love her as much as you could. And more importantly, you wanted her to love you back a thousand times more."
"...Bwaaaah! Baaaah! Moooom! Moooom!”
"It's okay, Clara... You have a million reasons to cry right now. Let it all out... I bet you'll cry for weeks to come. She broke you badly, so badly, and it’s very sad.
Do you know why it hurt so much this time? Why, when you called her, your world crumbled down to dust, and there was nothing you could do to stop this from happening? I'm going to tell you, Clara, and you will believe every word I'm going to say because you will know deep down into your heart that I'm right.
One day, you showed up at the café. What brought you there? It was that little voice inside of you, wishing to do something for yourself for the first time. Not just what your mother had told you to do. You and only you decided to visit us.
And when you got in, you were terrified. Terrified that everything your mother had told you about this world would be true. Terrified that you were making a big mistake. Yet, when I pulled you inside and forced you to interact with the pets, you fell in love. Vix, Meeka, Misti, Oreo, Trixie, Asha, Apricot, Accalia. You fell madly in love with them all, Clara. And guess what? They genuinely returned as much love to you. They became your real friends. And you felt it so intensely inside your little heart. You felt true love for the first time. A love you had never received before.
From that point on, your life skyrocketed toward something amazing. Everything was possible. You believed in something greater than yourself. You trusted people like never before. For once, you were not wrong about anything. Everything was right."
“BWAAAAH AAHH! BAAHAAAAH!”
"That's okay, Clara. Cry... Cry as much as you can. You HAVE to... Do it for yourself and for your friends.
I checked your call logs, Clara... I saw that you hadn’t called your mother a single time since you started visiting the café months ago and she didn’t call you once either. You knew what was going to happen if you did call her. You knew it, didn't you? You knew your mom would smash your happiness to pieces because you are not who she wants you to be. You feared that moment.
And the other day, when you finally decided to call her to share how much better your life got... How much happier you were... She shot you down. You were flying higher than ever before in your whole life... and she just shot you down so that she could keep pushing her twisted vision of the world on you again. Instead of flying with you as a loving parent, she shot you down like a duck.
You were flying so high that the fall was long, and the fall was way too hard to break. It demolished you. It demolished your mind.
Clara, you had a major mental breakdown... because you understood for the first time in your life... Your mother doesn't love you, and probably never will, no matter how hard you try to make it happen."
“BWAAAAAH! BHHAAAAH! LUCY! LUCYYYY!”
"Come here, Clara. Come here and let me take you in your arms. I love you. I love you so much, Clara. Choose me over your mother. Choose all the petgirls over your mother. We will help you. We will support you. We will love you as hard as you let us. You didn't dream any of it. The animal café is real, and it is where you belong. We are all here for you. We need you to be the real Clara. The one who has a huge heart and who would do anything for her friends. Our love for you is real. Choose love, Clara. For your sake, you have to!"
I heavily threw my whole body into Lucy's arms and gripped her shirt as hard as I could. With my face pressed in her chest, I screamed as much as my lungs allowed me to. The pain was unbearable. Every single word she spoke was true. She nailed it. Using brute force and hurtful words, she extracted the truth from my guts and put it in front of my eyes for me to see.
It hurt so much. Why did my mother have to be like this? Why couldn't she love me? What have I ever done to her to deserve this rejection? What did I do that was so terrible not to deserve her love?
It hurt! It hurt so much!