I have too many party dresses. It’s been that way as long as I can remember.
I’m an only child, the oldest grandchild and for years the only one. So, since I was small I’ve filled the role of fancy-frocked flower girl at wedding after wedding. I met Jimmy Cooper under a buffet table when I was three. I still remember the glisten of champagne punch in his whiskers and the scroop of taffeta as we hid in the tablecloth dark. Since then, he’s been my constant companion through other weddings, dateless dances, ill-lit bus stops, and countless tables for one.
He’s been my secret keeper, my sanity, my knight, my warm spoon. He’s been both my golden-eyed guardian and a steel anchor keeping me moored in an inscrutable sea. And now, I am trying to tell him goodbye.
“Coop,” I whisper. “Coop, wake up. We’re here.”
It’s been a long ride to the sanctuary, and Jimmy Cooper has fallen asleep on my shoulder or pretended to. He’s dubious. His once-soft ears are greying and coarse, scratching my shoulder with every bump of the bus on the country road. When I was a girl, he would only fall asleep after I had safely done so, but he’s been nodding off in the daytime lately. And we don’t talk as much since The Incident.
“Coop” I nudge again.
I heft his suitcase down the bus steps and he follows, coat and favorite hat in hand. Jimmy Cooper surveys the green pastures, the air so fresh and foreign to his city sensibilities. His leporine form is at once at home and unsuited to this place. He twitches his tail, annoyed.
“You said resort.”
“Retreat,” I correct. “We talked about this…”
The pooka sanctuary is 400 acres, replete with ponds and orchards and barns, large enough to give refuge to all the winged, horned, furred and feathered friends no longer imagined. I can’t see a one of them but Coop. I suppose they aren’t mine to see.
We stand in awkward silence for a long time. Then he places his paw on my cheek, where the scar is still tender.
“I can protect you,” he says. “That’s what I was made to do.”
“No you can’t,” I say softly.
I am trying to stay composed, but my face goes hot with the memory of that night at the Woodside Station. How the mugger wouldn’t just take my subway card and little cash and go. And how Jimmy Cooper could do nothing to stop him.
That night, the paramedic stood over me so close I could feel the weight of his bulletproof vest. I remember touching the Kevlar, hurt and confused, grasping for something real. It’s to protect us more from patients than the line of fire, he’d said with a smile, but you’re stable, right?
The paramedic’s name is Mike. He’s nice. We’ve gone out three times now—just this week for Chinese and a movie. Jimmy Cooper isn’t fond of Mike, though that was to be expected. Coop likes to be the one to read my cookie fortunes. He’s not ready for anyone else to do it. But I am.
We know each other so well, Coop and me, that we hardly need to say anything aloud. But I feel like I should justify my decision. I want him to say he understands, that he knows it’s time to go too, that he’s ready. I can’t bear the guilt.
“You’ll like it here,” I offer. “It will be peaceful. You’ll be…”
“With my own kind?”
“You’ll be able to retire and pursue your own comforts. You won’t be beholden to mine.”
“That guy…” Coop starts. If either of us smoked, this is when we’d light a cigarette. “That guy doesn’t understand you like I do.”
“That’s true,” I sigh. “He’s only human.”
Without Jimmy Cooper, life will be full of discomforts and disappointments. He never left dirty underwear on the floor or dishes in the sink; he never winked at pretty waitresses or let my tears go undried. I’ll have to talk to people in elevators and in stores and even subways. Or be alone with my thoughts. I will be bored sometimes and lonely often.
I set down his case and hold his hat while he smoothens his coat under a peach tree. We sit in its shade. Jimmy Cooper’s whiskers quiver in the breeze. He is quiet in concentration. He sees things at the sanctuary that I cannot see.
“It’s nice here.”
“Yes,” I try to smile, “it really is.”
“The other pooka here are younger than me,” he says. “Their children left them here when it was time. And, you’re fully-grown. So, I’d say, all things considered, we’ve had a good run and a longer one than most.”
My face goes hot again and I know that I’m going to cry. My cheeks are flushed nearly as red as my hair and the tears well up. I bury my face in Coop’s dark fur. It’s warm and familiar and smells, as it always has, of whiskey and clover.
“I love you, Jimmy Cooper.”
“I love you, too,” he says, stroking my tangled curls with his paw.
We sit under the tree, remembering. After a while, Coop falls asleep again. And I know it’s time to go.
I leave Jimmy Cooper there in the shade, with his hat and his suitcase, and from a distance he looks the same as he did when I was small. There’s still about an hour until the next bus comes, so I just walk alone among the fruit trees. When I reach the lane, I turn back to look, and my pooka is gone.
Listen to Jimmy Cooper, Jimmy Cooper on The Story Coterie podcast.