This is no. 114 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
There was a stretch between 2017 and 2018 when I offered myself up to watch any of my friends’ pets, allowing them to leave the city for a weekend or full week with one less thing to worry about and affording me the chance to pretend like I lived in my own apartment. A fair trade, in my opinion. I went into each pet-sitting gig like I would an artist residency: I planned to read books and make progress on my little stories. I vowed to go to bed early and rise in the mornings refreshed and ready to take on each day. I would be a Legitimate Creative Person. The animals would hold me accountable.
What watching pets gave me was time, yes, but it was mostly spent sitting and thinking, reflecting on the parts of my life I preferred to avoid, without the production of words. In the evenings, after eight hours at an office job and an hour-long commute, I’d sit on the couch, drink the bourbon I had been gifted for my services, and stare catatonically at a laptop screen or the television, working my way through a season of a comedy on a streaming service for which I had no account of my own. The bare truth of it is, I was deeply unhappy during this time. Existing in these cozy homes, alive with my friends’ personalities even without their physical presence, opened up too many comparisons. My life had struck a major chord of monotony. All around me I watched friends slide into new, exciting relationships, and I felt unmotivated to make any changes in my own lack of a dating life. I was frustrated in my writing, working toward a project but unable to see the other side of the muck. All I could do was pet a cat and spiral.
It was after this period that I arrived at one of my flash stories, “What You Missed While I Was Watching Your Cat.” The narrative follows a pet-sitter who wreaks havoc on his two friends’ apartment, rummaging through their belongings, renting out their bedroom. He loses track of the cat for days and loses a bit of his own mind.
The pets were all fine under my care, I should say. But the fear that something, anything could happen to one of them was enough to set my panic gears in motion. One night, while watching a friend’s dog, a thunderstorm came rolling over the city. He felt the change in the atmosphere; his tongue flopped out, eyes bulging. He hopped onto the coffee table. I would later joke to a friend that I felt like a single dad when his kid comes to visit once a year. Down for the fun times, but absolutely clueless when it came time to be there emotionally. With a belly brimming with bourbon, I Googled how to help a dog in crisis. I placed him in a security vest and wrapped him in a blanket, squeezing him firmly to my chest. Nothing calmed him. Eventually, he hid under the bed, panting, and I lay on the floor, one hand petting his side, the other over my heart.
I tried to write this exact moment into the fictional spin-off. It never stuck. I switched the dog to a cat, menacing and feisty, a little wilder, and capable of escalating the plot. There was no storm, but a disappearance. I decided to dig into absurdity, leveraging my own intrusive thoughts and handing them over to my uncouth narrator, an active participant in his own unspooling. What if I had served the cat beer? What if I made this apartment a playground for my every chaotic whim? What if I put up a listing for the apartment on Craigslist? What if, what if, what if? Indulging questions I could never answer in real life released a flood of narrative potential. The end result is, I believe, a more interesting story. The true circumstances were simply too mundane, not at all profound, even if I wanted them to be.
Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.Thumbnail: Stefan Ivanov