Hello, My Relative

 
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Braudie Blais-Billie

Art by Kali Spitzer

 

Cleo can’t sit still. She crosses and recrosses her legs, bounces her knee up and down, tugs at loose threads trailing off her pocket linings and sleeves. When there’re no threads to yank or tear, her dry, cracking cuticles do just fine. Or else a pimple on her chin not yet ripe enough to yield pus, only clear lymphatic liquid and stinging blood.

Cleo is a cat sitter at Greenpoint Paws in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. On her walk from the G train, she passes well-dressed, married thirtysomethings and young nuclear families—all white and European, all neutral colors with clean lines and sharp haircuts and expensive accessories. Bound together by love and commitment. Cleo was in love once, too. So close to getting something special, but it was too bad. It didn’t work out. Her breath still gets caught in her esophagus when she thinks about Laura.

 

It was a Monday and Ponyboy was empty. Debs and Cleo grabbed a booth in the back, sinking into the velvet chartreuse cushions that gave the bar a swanky atmosphere. “Don’t say ‘swanky,’ dude,” Debs chided with a beer to her lips. Her skin was ashy and dull, but her glacier-blue eyes and mane of gigantic blonde curls made people do a double take. “Where are you from?”

Cleo crossed her arms. She didn’t expect her coworker to be so blunt outside their professional setting. “Um, Florida. South Florida.”

“Oh shit, like, Miami?” Debs’s eyes lit up. Her accent seemed New Jersey-esque.

“Yeah,” Cleo nodded vigorously. But in line with the newfound mission of getting closer to her true self she had to confess.

“I mean, not really. I’m from Hollywood, Florida,” she mumbled, darting her eyes around the wood-paneled room. A disco ball hung from the ceiling, reflecting nothing in the dim afternoon ambiance. Syrupy R & B dribbled from the sound system.

Debs looked confused.

“Okay, right. Umm, you ever heard of Fort Lauderdale? It’s close to there, but not on the beach. But it’s by a casino which is cool.” Cleo wanted to delve into the story of how, seven months ago, she won six thousand dollars playing blackjack and was finally able to escape that tiny, government-built house on the Reservation. The story was also about how she was on her way to becoming a famous Indian poet like Joy Harjo. But her mouth was too dry and she didn’t have anything to drink.

“Cool, cool. But you habla español?” Debs hit the h hard.

“I wish I could say yes but I took French in high school,” Cleo fake-laughed as she watched more confusion stretch across Debs’s face. “It’s because my mom is French-Canadian. She pressured me.”

“Huh,” Debs tilted her mane. “I could have sworn you were Spanish!”

Cleo had somehow avoided this conversation up until now. Maybe that was because she barely spoke to anyone for more than five minutes.

 

When she moved to New York City, she had found a studio apartment in Bushwick with a window that put her at eye level with the aboveground M train tracks a mere eight feet away. Her walls shook every twenty minutes, but the utilities were included and she had never-before-experienced levels of privacy (when the curtains were drawn). No small talk with weird roommates or the bodega guy or the librarians or even Greenpoint Paws clients. Just scribbling long-winded poems in her green Moleskine notebook, memorizing details of interesting people she observed on the subway rides, and reading in her bed. She realized Debs the Greenpoint Paws coworker was her only friend, and by that fact, her best friend for a thousand miles.

The muscle that humans used to meet new people had atrophied from her twenty-two years spent on the Rez surrounded by cousins and aunties and snot-nosed dickheads she went to Head Start with. The only new people she met were the many babies being born, and the non-tribal baby mamas and baby daddies who flitted in and out of Rez gossip and holiday barbecues under Chickee huts. Her educational career on scholarship at a small private school didn’t help; she’d been hanging out with the same people there since she was five.

But Cleo understood this conversation and the uncomfortable compulsion behind it. Her features were shaded, indirect.

“I’m Native American. Seminole,” she offered.

Debs’s shoulders shot back. “No fucking way, dude!” She smiled very big. “You’re the second Native American I’ve met this year. What are the chances of that?”

“Small ones,” Cleo said before concluding it was a rhetorical question.

“There’s this girl Laura from Upstate that lives in Bed-Stuy now,” Debs continued, ignoring Cleo and draining her beer with noisy swallows. “She used to book through Greenpoint Paws but she’s cool as fuck so I watch her cat on the side whenever she needs. She’s a scientist so she’s, like, always going to conferences and traveling and shit.” Debs raised her thin, penciled-in eyebrows. “She’s smart smart.”

“Do you know what tribe she’s from?” Cleo asked.

“I don’t remember. Mohawk, I think? You guys literally have to meet. Her place is sick.” Debs got up from the booth. “I’m getting another, you want anything?”

Cleo felt a thorny suspicion that this interaction was offensive but couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. Debs was just being helpful, so she decided to feel gratitude.

“Thank you,” Cleo said, bowing her head slightly, out of respect. She looked towards the bar, saw the partially filled bottles glistening in the golden hour like stained glass windows, communicating some important story. “I’ll have whatever you’re having.”

 
 

The next day, Debs didn’t show up for work. She often called out sick last-minute, leaving Cleo to pick up her gigs, which Cleo didn’t mind because it meant extra money. She was painfully aware of the dwindling amount in her casino-winnings savings account.

Cat sitting, to Cleo, meant visiting the ghost of someone’s inner world. The home became a ghost because it was no longer alive when the client was not there to exert force upon the objects, suck in the air, laugh or chew or cry. Everything but the cats she was paid to feed faded into the background, waiting for the homeowner’s return. But this was a pragmatic attribute of cats, she knew; their ability to exist peacefully in liminal, not-really-alive spaces. Cleo was in the middle of brushing Mochi—an overweight, male gray cat who suffered from dandruff—when Debs texted.



Hola chica here’s Laura’s number text her plssss



Twenty seconds passed.



I can’t make it this weekend and she wants to meet you!! Take over?



“Mochi,” Cleo whispered. “Should I?”

Before the cat could respond, she saved the contact and composed an introductory message. Laura responded within seconds, like she was waiting, phone in hand, for the text to arrive.



hi cleo ☺︎ debs told me all about you. thanks so much for doing this! takotsi is the sweetest boy, you guys will be best friends i’m sure. would you wanna stop by tomorrow night around 6 to meet and go over some housekeeping stuff? we can discuss details + rate.



“So far, so good,” Cleo updated the shedding Mochi. She waited a few minutes before texting Laura back, solidifying their first meeting.

 
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Laura’s building had a virtual doorman and an elevator. The lobby smelled like cleaning products and old cardboard. It was a large, newly constructed luxury building accented with enormous black sconces and spotlit hallways that felt more like a hotel than a Brooklyn apartment complex. Cleo shifted from left to right, cracking her fingers behind her back as she waited in front of unit 4B. At her feet, a coco coir doormat that read This Must Be the Place was pressed against the white door.

The door cracked open, spilling soft, yellow light and red tones into the sterile corridor. Laura grinned and leaned her protruding cheekbone against the doorframe before reaching her arms out for an embrace. She smelled like vetiver and coconut lotion. The unexpected warmth almost made Cleo cry.

“You must be Cleo. Hello, my relative!” Laura spoke in a performative, low-toned voice before rattling off a breathy, girlish laugh.

“Hello,” Cleo said with a flat face, unsure what to do next.

“I’m just fucking with you, girl. How funny is Debs? She threw us together because we’re the only Indians she knows,” Laura said through a toothy smile that was barely contained between a full bottom lip and a pronounced cupid’s bow.

It was hard for Cleo to look away from her mouth. Or say something back.

“Come in.” Laura scooped the frozen girl into her free arm and led her through the doorway with ease. She towered over Cleo at around 5’10”.

 

It took a few minutes, but Laura finally pried Cleo open with white wine and stories about her day in the lab. Laura floated around the spacious open-concept kitchen-dining-living-room area with the confidence of someone who had hosted a hundred dinner parties, her long, silky hair moving with her lanky body. She wore black painter’s pants and a cropped brown T-shirt. Laura used her small, black, almond-shaped eyes to lock in on Cleo, hold her in place like a lizard in amber. It would have been threatening if she wasn’t a star.

“I’m a researcher at Mount Sinai’s Immunobiology Center,” she tossed off casually while flipping a vinyl to side B. Japanese Breakfast’s airy vocals and sweet, buzzy guitars resumed. Laura continued, “It’s really fucking boring, so I just daydream about the bowls I’m gonna smoke when it’s over.” She poured herself some more white wine and plopped down on the navy blue couch next to Cleo. Turning her long legs towards Cleo’s rigid body, she leaned in and confided, “I’m just playing. I shouldn’t be complaining. This place is far from Rezzy, huh?”

“Where did you grow up?” Cleo’s voice cracked.

“I’m Tonawanda Seneca.” Laura brought her hand to her chest, her elongated fingers covered in tiny celestial tattoos and turquoise rings. She had a matching turquoise septum piercing. “I grew up about an hour from Buffalo on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation.”

“Cool.” Cleo looked into her wine glass. “I’m Seminole, so I grew up on the Rez down in Hollywood, Florida.”

Laura twisted her mouth. “Damn,” she sighed, “Debs told me you were Cherokee. Which… Of course she did.”

The women laughed. Cleo felt a tingle in her chest.

Before she knew it, Cleo had spent almost two hours at Laura’s place. The twenty-eight-year-old lived alone in the one-bedroom apartment, so the extraneous rhythms of other people didn’t interfere with their energized back-and-forth. Laura introduced Cleo to her big black cat and explained that Takotsi meant “cat” in Seneca. Laura was like that—she knew the names of common objects in her language, hung the Iroquois Confederacy flag over her bed, beaded her own powwow jewelry. She was only a seven-hour drive from her land, after all. Cleo didn’t even know how to spell the Indian name the medicine woman gave to her when she was a child.

The couch and record player and shoulder touching felt infinite. But Cleo could tell Laura was tired and that despite her unending charm, she wanted to be alone. Cleo excused herself, pretending to be late to meet someone for drinks in Bushwick. Laura didn’t have to know that she’d made it here by the skin of her teeth and that she lived her life as an urban hermit.

 

Cleo couldn’t sleep all night. She had vivid dreams of opening the door and finding Laura bloodied and murdered on the rug. Or else, she opened the door too wide and Takotsi ran through her legs and into the clown cars driving down the hallway. Her performance anxiety always manifested itself in strange ways.

She went through the drowsy motions at Greenpoint Paws—filing invoices, answering emails, administering medicine to the elderly Persian cat that lived down the street from the office. Around 4 p.m., her phone buzzed.



thanks again babe. ☺︎ lockbox combo is 8900



Cleo’s face flushed and she felt a little dizzy. She reread the text over and over again. She was Level Babe.



Ofc anytime ❤️ btw let’s do dinner when you’re back. I would love to hear about Phoenix ☺︎☺︎☺︎



She immediately regretted the excessive emojis but fuck it, she thought. “I am being authentic to my true self,” she said to the Persian lapping up his antibiotic goo.

 

Upon entering 4B, Cleo’s heart raced. This was different than the other gigs, and not just because it wasn’t on company time. Cleo had exerted her own force on some of these objects, sucked in this air, laughed a lot in this exact location. This was the ghost of Laura and Cleo’s inner worlds alike. Intertwined.

Takotsi stumbled into the kitchen in a daze, flicking his tail in interest.

“Cheehuntamo, Takotsi,” she chirped in his direction. She felt compelled to prove to him that she too could use her Native tongue, even if it was just hello. He arched his back and fell into her shins, meowing pitiful little attempts at persuasion.

Once Takotsi was fed and his water topped off, Cleo lingered in the kitchen. She stuck her fingertips into a jar of multicolored Nespresso capsules, imagining what flavor Laura liked best. She opened the Nespresso machine’s used-capsule container and saw a collection of metallic red. And what did Laura eat for breakfast that morning? Cleo heaved open the refrigerator door to see if Laura, like herself, was lactose intolerant.

“Oat milk,” she swooned to Takotsi, who was satisfied and licking his whiskers clean by his empty bowl. A bundle of cilantro wilted in a water-filled mason jar next to a carton of eggs and cold cuts and takeout boxes. “Your mom doesn’t do much cooking.”

Cleo checked the time: 6:38 p.m. She’d already fulfilled today’s cat-sitting duties with time to spare. She took a photo of the black cat and texted it to Laura: We all good ☺︎

A thought flashed through Cleo’s brain and her armpits pricked with nervous sweat.



How’s your Friday night?



She turned on the lamp near the couch and sat down, glaring at her phone’s screen. An eternity passed. Her right foot tapped on the rug. She brought her hair together into a bun and secured it with a hair tie. She took the bun out and shook her hair loose. No response. Takotsi meowed in front of the record player for attention.

Cleo stood and patted his head. “Excellent idea.”

She knelt before the mid-century media console and touched the vinyl cover spines. She chose a record with a picture of a yellow dog scratching its face in front of a pool. Domestic Fantasy by Hook-Ups, a band she had never heard of before. She pressed the play button. The first track was called “Cuck’s Delite.”

A chunky guitar rift ripped through unit 4B’s silence. The singer’s voice was layered and quiet. Cleo felt herself unclenching, forgetting about the text momentarily and melting into the album. She could see why Laura supported this artist.

Takotsi grew tired of the houseguest and galloped clumsily into the bathroom. The smell of shit and the sandy scraping of cat litter brought Cleo back to her body. She noticed Laura didn’t have a TV, only a wide, white oak bookcase packed tight with fat novels, colorful chapbooks, vintage magazines. Was she the perfect woman?

“Cat, ew,” Cleo screwed up her face. The cat shit smell was colonizing the kitchen-dining-living-room area. “Are you allergic to canned food or something?” Takotsi crawled under the couch.

 
 

Unlike the rest of the thoughtfully decorated apartment, Laura’s bathroom was bare. The building was a new development; Cleo was in awe of the unmarred white subway tiles and soaking tub and generous vanity mirror. But it wasn’t well-kept; soap scum accumulated orange and white crust along the porcelain surfaces and the mirror was speckled with toothpaste splashes. The sink was cluttered with beauty products and makeup in no apparent system of organization. Next to the toilet, Takotsi’s litterbox spilled gray specks of sand from its dark, stinky entrance. This place was for Laura’s eyes only.

Cleo peed with the door open so as not to interrupt the Domestic Fantasy listening experience. Then she cleaned the litterbox, scooping clumps and turds into a plastic bag with ascetic attention. She washed her hands with a bar of soap that may or may not have been for Laura’s face, dried them on a hanging body towel, and opened up the medicine cabinet. Unremarkable first-aid necessities, a clear baggie of loose tobacco (on-brand; traditional). The sight of deodorant reminded Cleo that she probably needed to re-up.

She uncapped the Dove antiperspirant and brought the chalky white substance to her nose. Beyond the baby powder scent, it smelled like Laura, a salty, smoky sweat that made Cleo’s head swirl. She had to collapse on the couch to recompose herself. A sweet, plucky track began to play and she closed her eyes to better hear it.

I won’t tell anyone about you, Hook-Ups sang. A sensation like hot water spread throughout her body, dripping down from her heaving chest to her sacral chakra that glowed orange like the diagrams. I won’t tell anyone about you. Cleo laughed and let her mouth hang open, touching her lips and thinking about Laura’s. She imagined what it would have been like if she’d been brave enough to lean in, that first night with the white wine, and show her how she felt. How she’d felt this from the first moment Laura welcomed her into her home!

I wish your world could crawl inside me, the singer wished. Cleo wished. The song finally faded into the next, but her eyes were pressed shut as she breathed shallow breaths and followed the hot water with her fingers.

 

“Phoenix was hot… boring,” Laura answered politely. She dabbed the corner of her mouth mechanically and placed her cloth napkin in her lap, looking down like she wasn’t sure what to say. The restaurant was cramped and loud.

“I’m sorry, it was what?” Cleo yelled across the two-person tabletop. She rubbed at the mustard smeared on her chin, regretting her burger order.

“Phoenix!” Laura forced a smile. “Boring!”

Laura’s eyes didn’t hold Cleo like they had in 4B, just sort of bounced around her face as if trying to decipher a poorly twisted balloon animal. Cleo’s hand flew to her earlobe, where she picked at a scabbed-over pimple. She nodded her head too many times.

“Again,” she said, trying her best to sound unaffected and casual. “So sorry for texting you so much.” She rolled her eyes. “I was out with friends all night and didn’t realize how drunk I was. I’m embarrassed.” Technically, Cleo had been out all night—she’d fallen asleep with Takotsi on the couch and didn’t get home until 4 a.m.

“Girl, please,” Laura softened. “We’ve all been there.”

It had been over two weeks since the universe brought them together. Laura had largely ignored Cleo’s string of messages, only thanking her for her service and agreeing to do dinner as a form of payment. Cleo knew she could have just given her the cash. Maybe Laura wanted more face time, too.

“I wanted to give you this.” Cleo reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded notebook sheet.

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” Laura offered an upturned palm.

“It’s a poem I wrote. Since you said you wanted to see my work, I just. Yeah.” Cleo pressed the paper into Laura’s hand, feeling the electricity of their skin-on-skin contact. Hot water.

Laura didn’t try to hide her alarm as she unfolded the sheet and skimmed the writing. A hard, ice-cold silence fell between them.

Finally, Laura spoke. “This is so sweet, thank you. You don’t have to do things like this, Cleo.”

Open-palmed slap in the face. Cleo’s cheeks burned.

“I wanted to see if you were free again this weekend. I’m visiting a… friend from grad school.” Laura picked at her beet salad.

 

“Takotsi closed his yellow eyes and turned his head away, as if to confirm that the alchemy bonding his cat sitter and his owner had indeed been fucked.”

 

Dressed in all black, Cleo was in mourning. She entered unit 4B and let her long maxi skirt drag across the tiled floor, collecting Takotsi hairs and apartment debris. The black cat slinked into view from the bedroom and stared.

“Cheehuntamo, cat.”

Cleo reached down to scratch his back, but he darted into the kitchen. She gave him canned chicken mix and fresh water but refrained from taking an update photo for Laura. It’s not like she was beholden to the Greenpoint Paws cat-visit policy here. That meant no one would fire her if she decided to eat a little snack or make a little cappuccino. She opened the mini dishwasher, snatched the largest mug she could find, and filled it with the red wine sitting on the counter.

“What did I do, cat?” Cleo paced around the kitchen, chucking acidic gulps down her throat. It made her wince. “How did I get it so wrong?” Takotsi closed his yellow eyes and turned his head away, as if to confirm that the alchemy bonding his cat sitter and his owner had indeed been fucked.

Cleo forgot that one bottle was around four big mugs of wine. She was onto bottle number two, mug number six. She found herself in Laura’s room, gripping the wine with both hands by the pink light of a Himalayan salt lamp on the nightstand. She slipped her socks under the goose feather down comforter, which released the minerally, vetiver-smell of Laura’s skin. An all-consuming urge to possess the beautiful Seneca scientist shivered through her spine like a bad taste. It scared her to think this way, so severe and colonial.

Drunk and sweaty, Cleo flung the comforter off her legs. To her left, a black Moleskine journal was tucked halfway beneath Laura’s second pillow. She stopped breathing.

“Fuck,” she exhaled. “I can’t, I can’t,” she shook her head side to side as if to ward off the anxious gurgle in her body. Cleo felt giddy knowing that the woman she admired kept the same exact notebook as her, wrote down thoughts too tender or undercooked to speak out loud. For this reason, reading said thoughts would be a violation she could never come back from.

If Laura was angry with Cleo or if she was, god forbid, seeing someone else—grad school friend?—Cleo rationalized that the answers were most likely in this Moleskine. The considerate moment of self-analyzation that would normally cushion Cleo from her rash decisions was dead somewhere beneath the pinot noir. She slipped off the band that clasped the hard covers together and thumbed through the pages—head bobbing and one eye closed—searching for a C-L-E-O.

There were a total of two entries mentioning her.

 

Laura recounted the night she met Cleo, describing her as a short, nervous, pretty girl who had a lot to say. Cleo touched the word “pretty” with her pointer finger. But the tone shifted on the next page.

I don’t know what to do. I feel some kind of responsibility for her wellbeing. I don’t think she has anyone out here. But it’s not fair to myself to take on that burden. I can’t be teaching her boundaries or getting stuck in awkward hangouts because she needs human connection. I am just one person! We’re strangers.

From an aerial perspective, Cleo saw herself slumped over the notebook in an all-white bed. It was like her consciousness had seeped out of her ears as a gas and filled the room. She read on.

I have tried my best and you can’t be friends with someone because you feel sorry for her. I am taking her to dinner on Wednesday. I will try to find a way to tell her she’s being inappropriate without making her feel bad about herself.

The words “feel sorry for her” were like searing coals in her hands but she couldn’t let them go. Tears squeezed out of her eyes and blurred her vision. Hot water. She threw the journal to the ground and let out an ugly, phlegmy howl that rolled into a sob.

“Why! Why, why, why.” Cleo cried and kicked her legs like a toddler having a tantrum. She wiped the streaming liquids—tears, snot, drool—from her face with her sleeve. The memory of Laura’s face when she held Cleo’s poem in her hand made her gag. She smacked the mug from the nightstand and it shattered on the floor.

Cleo surprised herself with a snicker, a savory sliver of joy zipping into view. She sniffled and her lungs felt raw, but she also felt a kind of abandon she’d never before allowed herself to feel. She was completely fucking out of control, and that seemed to be her true self. Cleo was in pain, yes, but she would survive. She would make it to the other side of Laura and Debs and Greenpoint Paws and the Rez. She reached for the Himalayan salt lamp and shoved it to the ground too. Just to see what it would look like. Takotsi watched, bug-eyed and alert, from the couch.

 
 


Braudie Blais-Billie

Braudie Blais-Billie is a Brooklyn-based writer hailing from the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Hollywood Reservation. She’s a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University.



Kali Spitzer

Kali Spitzer is a photographer of the Kaska Dena, Daylu, from the Kaska Territory, Yukon. She studied photography at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Santa Fe Community College. Her work has been exhibited widely, most recently at National Geographic Museum and the Heard Museum, and embraces the stories of contemporary BIPOC, queer, and trans bodies. Her collaborative process is informed by the desire to rewrite the visual histories of Indigenous bodies beyond a colonial lens. Kali is a recipient of a 2017 REVEAL Indigenous Art Award from the Hnatyshyn Foundation.



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