A GOOD PERSON by Jacqueline Heinze

I spotted the cat streaking by the moment Kyle yelled, “Watch out!” It was bolting across the street in front of my car, into the path of my oncoming, front-passenger tire. I hit the breaks. I heard a thud. Shit.

“I think I hit it,” I said.

I pulled my Prius off the road as much as I could, but the street was lined with parked cars. The car behind me had to go around. As it did, crawling at a snail’s pace, I spotted its passengers: two elderly people staring at me bewildered, mouths agape, struggling to determine why I had suddenly stopped in front of them.

“I hit a cat, okay. I think I hit a cat, so…” I said as I climbed out of the car and waved them along. Shit shit shit.

Kyle, my husband, sighed and got out too. “I don’t think you hit it,” he said.

My tween son called from the backseat. “I don’t think you did either, Mom!”

But I had heard a thud. I looked around. There was no cat on the road.

Searching for the cat, I began to scour the area, peering under cars and into front yards of homes that lined the block. In the quiet summer evening, I listened, too, for soft cat cries. Where were you, cat? Where had you gone?

A man walking his dog approached. Not only was I poking around under bushes and peeking behind mailboxes, I was wearing flips flops and a bathing suit, a wet towel wrapped around my waist. We had just come from the pool.

“Are you looking for something?” the man asked curiously.

“I’m worried I hit a cat,” I answered, glancing over someone’s fence.

“Oh, no,” the man said more kindly than I had anticipated. He assured me the cat was most likely a stray. He lived on the block and said his neighbors with cats kept theirs inside.

“Oh. Good,” I said. Still, I was worried about the cat.

Kyle had returned to the car and pulled it up the block 15 yards to where he could safely park.

“I really don’t think you hit it,” he called. I could tell he wanted to get home.

The man with the dog walked toward his front door. “I’ll keep an eye out for it anyway,” he said and went with his dog into his house. Down the street, Kyle climbed back into the car.

I stood alone on the sidewalk in my wet towel. I didn’t want to leave but I didn’t know how to stay. The cat seemed to have vanished. My family was waiting. Reluctantly, I flip-flopped down the block to my car and we drove up and over a small hill, the two-minute drive back to our house.

The next morning, I thought about the cat. I thought about the thud I’d heard after I’d hit the brakes. I imagined some person finding the injured cat and taking it to the vet and receiving an astronomical estimate for whatever surgery was required. I imagined that person choosing to put it down instead, to avoid the cost of the surgery, but then still having to cover the euthanasia fees. Guilt gripped me.

“I think I’m going to post on Facebook,” I said to Kyle. “Like in the neighborhood group, about the cat.”

“Why?” Kyle asked.

“Because if it is injured or dead, it’s my responsibility.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“It’s still my responsibility.”

“Well, I wouldn’t post about it if I were you. I think that’s a mistake,” Kyle said and left for work.

I tended to get our little family into messy situations, especially involving animals. Thinking I was doing good and saving a needy creature, I once accidentally stole our neighbor’s cat, believing it was a stray. Another time I intentionally sort of stole our other neighbor’s dog, believing it was neglected. Both situations turned our quiet lives upside down and wreaked havoc on our family. All to say, I got why Kyle wanted me to steer clear of strays.

Also, I knew as well as he did that social media was a toxic wasteland teeming with character assassins. By admitting that I may have struck a cat with my car, I was opening myself up to any kind of condemnation. I could be accused of speeding (I wasn’t) or of not paying attention to the road (I kind of wasn’t, actually). I could be lambasted for leaving the scene before locating the cat or for not alerting all the neighbors, besides the man with the dog. I could be chastised for only posting to the neighborhood Facebook page and not also on Nextdoor or some animal activist group I didn’t know existed. Had I even yet donated to multiple no-kill kitten rescue centers to offset my negligence? My possible murder?

Despite the risks, I couldn’t shake my shame. I opened the neighborhood Facebook page and drafted a post that reported the story factually and concisely: I feared I had hit a cat the evening before at the intersection of Oak Grove and Townsend. I had looked for the cat but couldn’t find it. If anyone came upon an injured, or deceased, cat that matched the description I gave, I’d like them to contact me so I could be responsible for whatever happened to the animal.

I had never posted to this group before. Truth be told, our house sat on the border of this Los Angeles neighborhood, and because our son had not attended the local school, I had never felt fully part of the community. As someone who craved community, this sense of not belonging weighed heavily upon me. In this situation, though, my anonymity might be a good thing. I hit “post” and waited for whatever bad news would come.

Responses poured in. Positive responses! In total, the post received 127 likes, hugs, cares, and hearts—way more than most of my personal posts. But what really drew my attention were the profusely complimentary comments:

Thank you for caring and trying to find it.

Thanks for being a caring neighbor.

Restoring my faith in the good ones by posting this.

I just want to echo others who are applauding your sense of accountability.

Thank you for showing us what a good neighbor looks like.

You’re a good person.

I laughed, first in a gasp-like way, out of amazement, my anxiety instantly quelled by this unexpected turn. Then, I laughed heartily, almost maliciously. Oh ho, I couldn’t wait to come up with a clever way to rub these comments in my husband’s face. He had told me conclusively that I should not post about the cat. And now look! People were publicly declaring me a good person! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Wait a minute, though… what? As quickly as my laughter had erupted, it ceased.

Me? A good person? I was a good person? Oh. No. I was not a good person. I mean, my first response to being told I was a good person was to imagine with delight how I would humiliate my husband. Not a good person. The night before when I was kind of zoned out while driving right before I possibly hit the cat? That’s because my kid was droning on endlessly about a stupid video game and I was bored out of my mind! In fact, I couldn’t wait until my son, my only child, left for sleep-away camp for two weeks so I got a break from hearing about Fortnite. There was more. Sometimes I bought food in single-use plastic containers. I occasionally bought books on Amazon. I was behind on some GoFundMe donations. I loved to gossip about a screwed-up ex-friend of mine. The list went on!

I panicked. This label “good person” brought with it an enormous amount of pressure. I’d have to masquerade around town as this “good person.” How was that sustainable? Surely I would crack and roll my eyes at someone in the inconceivably slow-moving line at our local post office. Why couldn’t they decide if they wanted stamps before getting to the counter? No question I would soon lose it at the guy who refused—refused!—to pull further into the Trader Joe’s parking lot, forcing us all to wait in a line along Colorado Blvd. There was always a spot. Always. Just pull forward, for the love of God! Or, worst of all, the greatest sin to commit in this neighborhood, I’d walk my dog in the summer and his paws would burn on the hot sidewalk. I’d already been rebuked for this once. I didn’t stand a chance. I was bound to be found out.

“Oh! That woman?” they’d say. “She’s not a good person! She’s a fake and a phony and very likely a cat killer!”

I didn’t respond to any of the comments. To reply with “Thank you so much,” felt self-satisfying. To present as self-deprecating—Who me? Nah…—felt worse, as if I were begging for more praise. I chose to stay quiet, stew in my own discomfort, and simply keep checking the post to see if any cat information actually did come through. It did not.

A few days later a post appeared on the neighborhood Facebook page complaining about people setting off illegal fireworks weeks before the Fourth. “Ugh, yes!” I wanted to respond. “I hate these people who upset our pets and disrupt our sleep. WTF is wrong with them?” But that didn’t seem like something a “good person” would post. Instead, I slipped back into anonymity, where I would attempt to be neither celebrated nor canceled—just exist as my complex self, sometimes good, sometimes not, forever flawed, and always trying to figure it out.

Jacqueline Heinze resides in Los Angeles where she is a writing coach and an instructor at UCLA Extension. Her personal essays have appeared in The Tishman Review, Hippocampus, The Watershed Review, Lunch Ticket, and others. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University.

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