(This is the third installment in a multi-part short story. You can read the entire series, to date, here.)
By early afternoon Sarah had unpacked her kitchen. Crumpled paper and empty boxes were spread all over the floor, but the cabinets were full. She made herself some soup for lunch, and ate it with crackers and cheese, sitting at the little table in her bay window. The fog had burned off and outside it was clear and sunny. She cracked one of the windows a little. It was still cold.
She looked down on the street. Cars passed back and forth, people on foot and on bicycles. Despite all the activity, it was surprisingly quiet. A woman walking down the street caught her eye. She was wearing a fitted black coat with a hood that hung down her back. She had glossy black hair that glistened almost blue in the sunlight, and it fell straight to her shoulders, cut into heavy bangs above her eyes. There was a slash of deep red lipstick. She stopped in front of the red lacquered door of The Women’s Room and pulled a key out of her pocket. As she unlocked the door, the black cat darted across the street and wound itself around her ankles. She reached down to pick it up, and carried it into the shop with her.
Sarah carried her lunch dishes to the sink and began to rinse them, but she heard a noise behind her, and when she turned it seemed the crumpled paper on the floor had been moving. She couldn’t quite tell. She went back to the dishes, and again there was the rustling sound, and this time when she turned she saw some of the paper just settling back down on the floor. She stood there with her back to the sink and watched a ripple run under the pile of paper, as though a cat was playing in it. A cool breeze raised goosebumps on her arms, and she remembered that the window was still open. She closed it, and began to gather up all the paper and flatten the boxes. She had moved three times in the past four years, and each time, it seemed there was more packing material when she was done than there was when she started.
She stuffed all the paper into a trash bag and put it near the front door. Just as she set it down she thought she heard a little trilling sound behind her. “Sorry kitty,” she said. “We’re all done with the paper.” She felt self-conscious talking to a cat that wasn’t there, but the ghost cat didn’t seem to be going away, and she felt like making friends.
She stood the flattened boxes against the back wall of her bedroom closet, although she had second thoughts as she did this. She was hoping that San Francisco would be her real home, but the one thing she had learned in all of her moves was that good packing boxes were worth holding on to.
It didn’t take long to unpack her clothes. Her business wardrobe was still on hangers, carefully folded into boxes. Her casual clothes were going to have to stay in the packing boxes until she could make a trip to Ikea for a chest of drawers. Another thing she had learned in her moves: Pay to take the things you love, but sell the rest before you leave.
After her apartment scouting trip, when she had found this place and signed the lease with Michael, she went back to Minneapolis and cast a critical eye on her furniture. Finally, she decided to take only her little dining set, the beautiful antique couch that had been her grandmother’s, and the iron bed that made every place she lived feel homier.
Michael had said that Golden Gate Park was nearby, and she decided to set out on a walk. She grabbed a jacket and stuffed her cell phone and keys into her pocket, along with lip balm. On her first trip, when she was here for her job interview, she had bought a small map of San Francisco from the honor bar in her hotel room. It was a fancy little thing that folded up and snapped shut, but she’d found it useful. It listed most of the major landmarks and was easy to read. She spread it out on the counter and studied it. It looked like she only had to walk a few blocks west and then a few blocks south to reach the east entrance.
She carried the bag of crumpled newspaper to the recycling bin in the driveway, stuffing them down to take up as little space as possible. Then she looked around. The black cat was there, watching her, sitting placidly on the sidewalk, its eyes amber and unblinking.
“Hey, kitty,” she said. The cat walked over to rub against her shins.
“Remember, I’m the one who’s not going to pet you.”
The cat looked up at her and and made a chirping noise, then turned and walked across the street, toward the little shop with the red door. On the other side of the street, it sat down and looked back at her, twitching its tail.
Sarah felt compelled to follow the cat. She looked both ways before crossing the street on the diagonal, walking toward it, but just as she approached, the cat turned and darted into the open door of The Women’s Room.