The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

CW: pet death

“So, are you going to get a new cat?” my coworker, Bridget, asked. Her eyebrows rounded and the gray streak in her hair glowed in the harsh fluorescent light.

A mixture of impatience and grief constricted my throat. I had come so close to getting out the door. My computer was off, and I was on my way to the kitchenette, hands full of the dishes I’d dirtied over the course of the workday. A bowl and a plate balanced on top of a coffee mug. The strap of my messenger bag, filled with textbooks and prototypes of a project that was behind schedule because I’d taken an unexpected day off, dug into my shoulder, and I began to sweat under my winter coat.

“Well, she only passed a few days ago. I haven’t really thought about it.”

My words came out in an awkward lilt, a relic of my customer service days when I was forced to mask annoyance with politeness. I knew where this conversation was headed. Several other sympathetic co-workers had felt compelled to tell me stories of their pets’ deaths today.

“I remember when my Lucas passed. He hadn’t been well for a few weeks; the vet said it was probably a kidney infection. Anyway, I was on the couch watching TV. He got up on my lap like he usually did. I probably watched two or three shows before I got up. I stirred a little—that usually gets him up—but he didn’t move. Then I nudged him and realized how stiff he was, how cold to the touch. He had passed right there on my lap.”

A hiccup rose in my chest. Peering down the corridor into the kitchenette, I calculated how offended my coworker would be if I just walked away, or if dropping my dishes right now would reset the conversation or force me to listen to more memento mori stories. Instead, my mind flashed to three days ago. Daphne lay in her Darth Vader bed in the quietest corner of the living room. I shook a bag of treats as a greeting, which usually elicited a few meows and as much excitement as a sick 19-year-old cat could muster. But something was different. Her front legs moved to lift herself, but her hind legs stayed folded up against her white belly.

I emerged from my memory to find Bridget imploring me.

“Are you okay?”

I put the dishes down on the nearest tabletop. The room was empty, excepting the two of us. Screensavers on every computer showed lava lamp bubbles bouncing within the confines of the screens.

“What? Yeah, I’m so sorry about Lucas, but it was sweet that he came to you for safety in that moment. How long ago was that?”

“Maybe fifteen years? I’ve had three cats since. Ginger died at the vet, but she was older, like your kitty, so we had time to prepare…” She continued, but all I could do was wonder how she could possibly prepare. There is no preparing.

“She’s malnourished and dehydrated,” a young vet had said three days before, her white coat and purple Vans too bright in the beige room. “I had a hard time finding her pulse. What were you thinking about her care tonight?”

Daphne lay on the examination table wrapped in a white towel. She was so quiet; visits outside the house usually made her mewl. The vet tapped a clipboard with a pen as I looked at my partner. Muzak fogged the room.

“We’re prepared to let her go.”

Back at work, Bridget placed a hand on my arm. I didn’t know how long it had been since she’d stopped telling her story. Her mouth pinched with concern, and she held out a box of Kleenex decorated with Minions, their smiles and popping eyes looked sinister.

“I’m so sorry. Probably the last thing you want to hear right now are stories about death,” she said.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

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Daphne and Apollo

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I’ve come to love the silence. When I was human, noise always meant Apollo was around. With him, silence was in short supply. Even his smile was loud.

We met in the pool. That’s not a euphemism or anything: I was a competitive swimmer. He claimed he was training with Coach Gattis, but I wouldn’t have put it past him to have nabbed an extra pair of swim trunks from an open locker.

When I finished my laps, I put my hands up to my forehead and wiped the chlorinated water back from my face. I opened my eyes and his white teeth gleamed in front of me, like glare reflecting off the sea.

“You’re Daphne. Hi,” he said, offering me his hand to shake. I’ll admit I was attracted to him at first. The shadow of beard that circled his full lips. The sheen of his dry hair— he obviously hadn’t been swimming. The oyster shell necklace that perfectly set off his olive complexion.

I ignored his hand. “You’re in my way.”

“That is unfortunate. I suppose my best course of action, then, is to extricate myself from your path.” He turned away from me. A midday sun shone bright between his shoulder blades. He grabbed the ladder with both hands and flexed his biceps, then he slowly stepped up, revealing a slick, black Speedo with a small thunderbolt pattern. He turned his head to the side, slant of nose, jut of chin. “You didn’t ask, but I’m Apollo. I’ll see you around, girl.” His laughter filled the natatorium like someone playing a vibraphone.

I know. Ridiculous.

For the next few weeks, he’d catch up with me either in the pool or in the parking lot of the gym. He always started with flattery. Lame stuff that still felt good, even though the lines were obviously practiced. One day he said “I’m going to start calling you Sharpie, ‘cuz you extra fine.”

“Dude. If that’s the best you got, you need to recalibrate your suavé.”

“I can’t help it, luscious, that swimmer’s body of yours drives me wild.”

“You have to know by now that I’m training for Rio.”


“The Olympics. You know, 2016? The only relationship I’m looking for right now is with a gold medal.”

After that he wouldn’t let up. I guess he thought I’d challenged him and he wasn’t the type not to accept. Every time he saw me he’d tell me about some new girl he was seeing. Then he’d say something like, “You know, I wouldn’t have to bore you with these stories if you’d just give me a chance. I’d treat you like a goddess.” Why couldn’t he just accept that I wasn’t interested? After about a month of that syrupy crap, I asked my dad to step in.

Dad came to the gym and cornered him in the locker room. Told him to leave me alone. Most guys would step off after that. My dad’s pecs stick out in front of him like the prow of a ship. Plus he has this goatee that flows from his chin like a river, biker-style. But Apollo just shook his head and said, “I can’t. She’s the only one that got away.”

The next time I saw Apollo he convinced me to go down to the basement for a steam. Once inside, he gave me a laurel branch made of gold. Told me it was his promise to quit playing games. He seemed sincere when he slipped out of the wood-tiled room, so I didn’t listen for the click of the lock.