Día de Los Gatos (a Bedtime Story)

1.

This was the year we lost five cats: I think on some level that’s why Emilia asked me for the story, although at that point she didn’t yet know about Birdy. Mama, tell me the story about all the cats you ever had!

As soon as she asked I felt something inside me clench up against the request, wanting instinctively to protest—aww, but I’m no good at storytelling. Storytelling to me means making up brilliant and complex things, effortlessly. Anything less stirs the unhappy realization that I’m something less than creative when it comes to fiction, a genre I regard as the highest and purest form of creativity. What I’m good at, I guess, is description: less an imagining of what might happen, and more an artful documentation of how.

But when she asked for the story about the cats I relaxed, remembering that I’m good at telling stories about things that have actually happened. I suppose, on some basic level, that’s all storytelling really is: taking stuff that really happened, the raw material of the empirical everyday, and spinning it into meaning, poetics, what if. And conveniently for me, most readers (or listeners) will never know the difference between the raw and the refined, what you’re merely recounting and what you’re actually making up. Like Emilia, they won’t see the struggle that grounds the process of coaxing something new to fruition.

The story about all the cats I ever had—which is also, incidentally, a story of my loves, losses, and peregrinations—is a good one, one that I enjoy telling. But it must be prefaced by its most recent chapter, which is I think why Emilia asked for the story to begin with: to situate her most recent loss against the comfort of a kind of running tally. The story about the cats is an homage in the vein of “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias’s unlikely playboy ballad of my 1980s childhood.

What Emilia rightly recognized is that the ritual of memorializing the many cats we have loved and lost also leads us to an unmistakeable conclusion: that the future can only hold more cats. It’s kind of like The Last Unicorn, I explain to Emilia—a family cult favorite. If you try to possess what you love, you end up like King Haggard. He thinks he’ll be happy if he traps all the unicorns in the sea for his own pleasure, but instead he becomes desperate and decrepit. True happiness, which is also incredibly sad, is letting the unicorns run free even if you can never possess them. We let go of cats to maintain our capacity to welcome new cats into our lives, with joy and hope in our hearts.

So this was the year we lost five cats. Two foster kittens, ephemeral anyway, but all three of the big cats too, three of our constants, the ones who survived across state lines and breakups and the reshuffling of households—one disappearing into ether, the way cats do, and one struck by a car just a day after pavers lay fresh asphalt smooth as black glass, and one put to sleep.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about Birdy for awhile. We had to pull her out of the street, her small body stiff but still soft as rabbit fur the color of star-speckled midnight. There are other black cats who pass through our yard sometimes, and I had to check inside her mouth for the missing incisor that would confirm it was her and not one of these other cats, a spasm of horror running through me as I realized this would mean lifting her head to reveal the semi-smashed underside. But I had to make sure.

We withheld the news from Emilia as we did when Nigel disappeared, waiting for the raw shock to pass through our bodies like a stone, until it could be processed, folded, put away like socks into a drawer. Yet like a stone it has remained unknowable. How could she be there at 6pm, curled in the cove of my side as I lay sick in bed one evening, and by 10pm gone—and to where? How does that even make sense? A body, sure, a body is earth, like the hole we dug to lay her inside and then covered with grapevine. But Birdy was also a person, particular and unique. I know this as intimately as I know my own personhood, my own particularity in space and time. A body ends, a body is transformed into new energetic and material states, but how can a person just stop?

Before Birdy and Nigel there were the kittens, two dark-tipped Siamese, two dollops of cream we reclaimed from the neighbors to name after candy—Marshmallow, Milky Way. Henry standing there abashed, apologizing for the smell wafting intermittently from the trashcans. It’s because it has so many dead cats, he said, both embarrassed and matter-of-fact. With three female cats and no money for surgeries and no car to transport them even to the free spay and neuter sites, waves of kittens appear in their driveway, one late spring and another late summer, to Emilia’s delight—appear, and then disappear by autumn.

In the hopes of getting access to free vet care through a local foster program, we took in the sickest three: the two Siamese brothers and a little tabby girl, not four weeks yet, all of them with eyes crusted and swollen, fleas swarming their tiny faces.  The two Siamese were already lethargic, legs tucked under and chins drooping to the driveway: not a good sign, right?

But I couldn’t stop myself from springing to action. The manic, frantic energy that lies knotted inside me had begun to uncoil, spurred by a single thought: I have to save them!

It turned out like Pet Cemetery instead: the ancient proscription, the Stephen King lesson about never fucking with the order of things, lest you get what you want. Instead I seemed to recapitulate the folly of an entire culture carefully built on refusal, life against death, circles hammered into straight lines. I just couldn’t let it be. I was shocked by how fast the two Siamese brothers crashed after we took them in. Given my experience with other fosters, I thought that round-the-clock availability of wet food and kitten formula would fatten them right up or at least stabilize them until we could get them into the shelter’s free vet care. I kept waiting for them to perk up enough to give them a bath and good flea combing. Just a day later, though, I found them lying vined together in the small cardboard box we’d filled with pine litter, limp as rags. Still breathing but mostly unresponsive. I didn’t say anything to Emilia about it when we went to bed that night. But when she fell asleep I lay awake in bed, fighting a physical desperation to get up and do something. I didn’t know how to go to sleep when it seemed almost certain they would die at some point in the night.

Finally, at 1am, against all good sense—leaving Emilia sleeping alone in her bed, praying she wouldn’t wake and call for me—I got up, dressed hastily in t-shirt and gym pants, and rushed the kittens up the highway to the 24-hour animal hospital. I had to try to save them, I couldn’t let them just expire, however gently. One died anyway, rousing just long enough from unconsciousness, when the vet jammed a thermometer into his rectum, to cry pitifully, weakly. For days I could not dislodge that image from memory, nor the thought that because of my efforts to intervene, his last moments were panic and pain instead of the insensate stupor from which I’d wakened him. The vet tech returned him to me folded in a scraggly blue towel, to bury the next day. I got home at 3am and popped a Xanax to bring me down enough to sleep; fortunately, Emilia had slept through my absence.

2The other kitten they managed to wrestle back from the brink for $500, after a two-day stay in the hospital, but even then he wasn’t the same. When we brought Marshmallow home, Emilia and the crew of neighbor girls were delighted. They carried him around like a baby in carriers they fashioned out of aprons. They didn’t notice what I could see, that he was there but not there, something off or uncanny about him. He was vacant, distant, didn’t mew or purr, sat silent and unmoving when the other kitten—now named Tigre—batted at him in play. Didn’t play back, didn’t respond to touch. He was like a ghost already, exhausted and see-through. I felt vaguely guilty, like he was supposed to die that night too, curled up with his brother inside the makeshift litter box, except I hadn’t let him. Instead I had extended my credit line of borrowed time; I had left the house at midnight to light a candle, incant, count backwards, until he was back but not in the right way, not the way you wanted. He died a week later after a galloping case of diarrhea. By that time we had accessed free vet care from the animal shelter, and they took him in to try to stabilize him with fluids and medicine, but when I emailed and called the next day to check on him, they didn’t respond. And the following day they sent an email saying he hadn’t made it.

Milky Way I had brought back from the hospital wrapped in a towel, and we had buried him beneath a tangerine tree in the backyard, memorialized by a tile, on the front of which Emilia had drawn a shooting star. On the back she had markered an inscription that has already washed away. But from what I can remember, it said: You were young. We loved you.

Marshmallow never came home, by policy of the shelter. He seemed to disappear—just as Nigel, our big, striped, cranky old man cat, had disappeared a few months prior—with no trace for Emilia to mourn. Unlike the third kitten, Tigre, who lived, thrived, purred, grew fat and bad, bit and chew, the way kittens are supposed to. But Tigre was a foster and thus impermanent; and eventually, when she got old enough to spay, the shelter took her back to adopt out to a forever family. The day we dropped her off for her surgery, Emilia said her goodbyes without protest, but that evening she wept when she came home from a party to a kittenless house. I want Tigre-e-e-e-e, she cried over and over, until I had to put her to bed with hot tea. I want Tiiiii-gre-e-e-e-e! Two nights in a row she cried before bed. What can you say or do? You know what that experience is, to long for someone you love who is gone.

2.

That is the preface to the real story, which is the great memorial enumeration of all the cats I’ve ever had, these cats that fill us with such delight and anguish and consternation. This time I’m going to write it down, the bedtime story I told Emilia a couple nights after Tigre left, around the time of Día de los Muertos—a couple months after Nigel disappeared, a couple weeks before we lost Birdy, a few months before Rosa would turn to ash. Those five cats were just the latest in an ancient story that begins when I was just two years old, when my parents got me my first kitten, a stripey, orangey baby named Mello Yello, who ran away. There is a picture in my parents’ photo albums, of me wearing nothing but a diaper, watering the sidewalk behind our house with a green garden hose as the kitten pounces at my feet. There is a picture of me on a little rocking horse being surprised with a kitten from off-camera. On my face is indescribable joy.

3After Mello Yello came Figaro I, a big tabby named after the cat in Pinocchio, followed by Figaro II, both of whom “ran away”. That was the most common diagnosis my parents offered for cat loss during my tender years.

Next, when I was five, we got Butterball and Snowball, an orange tabby brother and his all-white sister. Butterball ran, but Snowball stayed, even after we moved from the city to rural spaces north, and became our official family cat for the next 13 years, until she died of cancer when I was 18. At that point I had already moved away from home and was living in Houston, going to college—I remember my mom calling me in my dorm room to tell me the news. My parents buried her in one of their backyard plant beds, marking her grave with a small concrete statue of a cat sleeping curled up, the sort you buy at yard art pop-ups on the side of the road.

4

After that there were no cats until I was nineteen, when I moved from Houston to Canyon Lake and was living with Brad in a tiny three-room apartment wedged beneath his parents’ house—which was built on a hill, with stilts holding up one end—for $150 a month. But when there were finally cats again there were many cats, quickly and in short order, as though the cat floodgates had been breached. First there was Cait Sith, named for a Star Wars character and adopted spur-of-the-moment from an animal rescue organization that had set up outside a pet supply store in a strip mall, to encourage exactly that sort of impulse adoption. Cait Sith was a beautiful, sleek tabby teenager—not quite a kitten, not quite an adult cat—but he had some emotional problems that he expressed defecatorily, pooping in Brad’s shoes or on his clothes whenever I was gone. It almost felt like there was some hostile male-male thing going on, since he never did it when I was around, only when left alone with Brad. Eventually Cait Sith took to hanging out in his litter box all the time, just sitting there like it was a warm sunny spot.

We decided that the smartest solution to this situation was to bring another kitten home to our tiny studio apartment to keep Cait Sith company. One Saturday during our two-hour break between lunch and dinner shifts at the Chinese restaurant where we both worked, we saw an ad for free kittens in the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. This was just before the advent of Craigslist, when people still advertised kittens in newspapers. So we called the lady and during our break went over to her house, our intention to adopt just one kitten, one of the white ones with the Siamese markings. But when we got to her house, she told us she’d managed to give away all the kittens from that litter save the final two, and were we very sure we didn’t want to take them both?

We named Gener, the Siamese, after Gene Ween from the joke/weed band Ween. The little black kitty we were persuaded to take we named Moops, after the “Bubble Boy” episode of Seinfield, which we watched every night at 10pm after the 9:30 reruns of The Simpsons. (“Who invaded Spain in the 8th century?” “That’s a joke. The Moors.” “Oh, noooo, I’m so sorry. It’s the Moops. The correct answer is the Moops.”)

Shortly after bringing Moops and Gener home, I heard something crying in the parking lot outside work one night as I walked out to my truck. The kitten was a potbellied little tabby, fur flea-infested and eyes swimming in boogers. Not very cute at all. So of course I ran back inside to grab a cardboard box so that I could take her home.

We named her Mips, to provide a mellifluous accompaniment to Moops’s own name. Moops and Mips, Mips and Moops and Gener and Cait Sith. Four cats, plus me and Brad, sharing a single twin-sized bed in a room that tripled as bedroom, living room and office.

As it turned out, Mips wasn’t very cute even after we got her cleaned up, but Moops and Gener were delightful, at least until their fur began falling out in circular patches from ringworm. In short order I developed such a bad case of ringworm—at its climax I must have had about 15 lesions from head to toe—that I even developed one on my scalp, thick and leathery and itchy as hell, which took months to heal and which left a scar that I still have to this day. My kid sister came over to see the cats one night during this time, and she too broke out in a forest of fungal ick.

Around this time, Cait Sith escaped the apartment somehow and ran away, never to be found—really, can you blame him? Years later, Brad finally told me he had found him in the street, hit by a car, but hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell me at the time, just as I would not be able to bring myself to tell Emilia about Birdy right away. The suspicious part of me always half-wondered if Brad let him out on purpose because of the passive-aggressive pooping, but Brad’s a cat guy, so my rational self tells me it was probably just one of those Lacanian things that makes of cats some kind of unattainable object of desire.

Not long after, Mips also got out and disappeared. And not long after that, Gener escaped. I found him later that evening, crying beneath the protection of a tree stump halfway down the hill that sloped away from the apartment. He was wounded and shaken and panting, with a gash in his side and a limp in one leg. As we lived in a mostly rural area on the banks of a lake built in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers, it was more likely that Gener had tangled with a raccoon or possum, some kind of wild, clawed critter, than with another cat or dog.

I was so relieved to find Gener—he was my baby, a friendly cuddly kitten with a toasted-white coat, dusty ears and tail, and big blue eyes. With such a close call, I figured we didn’t need to worry about him escaping again, but I was wrong. Somehow he got out again, and this time he didn’t come back. He hadn’t fully recovered from his injuries when he escaped the second time, and I had the terrible feeling that whatever had gotten him the first time had come back to finish him off.

With Cait Sith, Mips, and Gener gone, we were down to just Moops and needed to replenish our stock. Luckily we lived near an animal shelter, and one afternoon after classes I inexplicably found myself there, returning home with two kittens—a black-and-white Holstein-patterned male we named Moo Cat, and a tabby with white chest and paws and the cutest little face and pink nose. We named him N-Cat, since he made what we called, for some reason, “n-sounds”—small, soft, closed-mouth chirrups.

Moo Cat, the cat I had picked out for myself at the shelter, turned out to be a weirdo. He was aloof, not unfriendly so much as neurotic—if he could have worn thick horn-rimmed glasses, he totally would have. N-Cat, however, my impulse-adopt kitten, had totally captured my heart. I loved N-Cat.

The night he died, I was at my parents’ house in a different corner of rural Comal County when when Brad called me on the house phone and told me to come quick: N-Cat and Moops—herself still mostly a kitten, maybe four or five months old—had been roughhousing, and Moops had accidentally snapped N-Cat’s neck. I don’t think N-Cat is going to make it, Brad said, and I could hear him trying not to cry. Speeding through the darkness in my truck, I whispered Hail Marys all the way back home, praying that N-Cat would survive and recover. But when I got home he was already gone, and I cried and cried.

5After a four-month revolving door of cats, it was just Moops and Moo Cat for awhile, who at some point had acquired surnames: Moo Cat Malkovich and Moops MuPeep. I thought I would hate Moops after what happened with N-Cat. But soon I realized I’d been overtaken by a slow-growing love for her too, the cat I hadn’t chosen, the cat I had to be persuaded to take. Moops was talkative and smart, a fierce black kitty with claws long as sloth toes when unsheathed. Her green almondine eyes glittered with savvy: I remember the night we learned that she would play fetch if we rolled gum wrappers into little foil balls and flicked them across the room. Like a dog she would race for the ball, pick it up in her mouth, and bring it back to drop near my lap for more. Moops was amazing.

Y2K came and went without any of its dire predictions coming to pass. I spent that New Year’s Eve of 1999 trespassing with a sort-of friend on someone’s ranch in middle-of-nowhere Texas, trying to camp out in windy, almost-warm-enough weather, and then giving up and returning home, to my relief. In early spring, Moo Cat had an accident and broke two of his legs. As kittens, he and Moops had gotten into the naughty habit of climbing up inside the bedsprings beneath our twin bed, but as they grew in size, this proved dangerous. One day, unaware that Moo Cat was up in the springs, Brad—six feet tall and 200 pounds—sat down on the bed and pinned him, fracturing two of his legs as he wriggled his way out. Looking back on it, Moo Cat seems fortunate to have escaped a more gruesome outcome. Still, I remember reeling at the vet bill, $400 per leg—about one month of my waitress’s salary at the time.

As we entered high spring, our little household cat ecology started to feel pretty stable, and we began to let them outside during the day. Moops at the time was maybe nine months old. And though I was twenty years old, I had no real understanding of feline reproductive biology—or my own, for that matter. I had no idea that a cat just out of kittenhood could get pregnant. Moops, however, could and did, by a neighboring tabby piebald we called Moo Sith (since his patterning was bi-color like Moo Cat’s, but the colored patches were tabby stripes like Cait Sith’s).

Knowing we would soon have multiple cats in the house again was stressful but admittedly exciting. Moops incubated her kittens for just nine weeks, one week for every human month of pregnancy, and went into labor one night in July, water breaking against my feet as she slept burrowed deep beneath the covers with us. I carried her into the bathroom, where I had prepared a towel-lined cardboard box for her on the floor, and watched the birth from start to finish. It was fascinating to see each kitten emerge, four of them, all of them tiny tabbies. We named them μ2K, pronounced “Mew 2K” (since Brad was a Math major and it was the year 2000), Ralph Nader (since I was a Green Party devotee and it was an election year), Merp (to continue the alliterative and assonant pattern) and one more whose name I can’t remember, though probably it also started with an ‘M.’ Our plan was to keep them until they didn’t need their mama anymore and then find other homes for them.

Just a few weeks later, though, at the end of the summer before the start of my senior year of college, Brad and I broke up suddenly at my initiation. I moved out of the three-room apartment, and into a rented room in the nearby town where I worked at the Chinese restaurant. The owner of the house was a single guy in his 50s who lived at the opposite end of the house in a converted-garage bedroom, and he did not allow cats. So Moops and Moo Cat and the kittens had to stay with Brad, who eventually moved up to Waco to attend graduate school, leaving Moo Cat with his parents in the main house above and farming out the kittens to relatives and friends of relatives. Moops he kept—but not before she disappeared on him for a couple of months before he moved out, much to our mutual grief. We assumed she had met the same end as the other cats in our care who had gotten themselves free and never returned. One spring morning, though, Brad called me at home to report that, upon hearing a familiar meow outside the apartment, he had opened the door to discover that Moops had returned! His best guess was that someone had taken her in—but that, smart as she was, she found her way back home as soon as she got out, in a sort of Incredible Journey-style reunion. Like I said, Moops was amazing!

Now 18 years old, Moops still lives with Brad in Kerrville, where he teaches high school math. And I still feel heart-connected to Moops, the cat I couldn’t take with me, just as Brad and I have remained friends. Whenever we have occasion to talk, one of the first things I ask is: How is Moops doing? And Brad will say something to the effect of: She just got promoted again. Extra pay, extra benefits!

3.

I lived in the rented room in New Braunfels for less than a year, August through May, the time it took to finish my last year of college and graduate. From there I moved straightaway into San Antonio, where I lived with Francisco in the same neighborhood in which I had grown up. We lived together in a big old rickety unairconditioned house that had been converted into a fourplex, two upstairs apartments and two down. Francisco’s ex lived downstairs for awhile and one of his brothers across the hall. It was a whole new apartment and a whole new relationship that I was hoping would be the right one, and with it came a whole new universe of cats.

6

Francisco’s relationship with cats was a contingent one, with limited attachment on either side. There were cats that hung around the house, but they were mostly feral city cats, cats that hung around if food was put out and didn’t if it wasn’t. Sometimes he would bring the cats inside in an effort to see if any of them would like him, but he would feed them weird stuff: I have a picture, pre-digital, of one of these cats, a Halloween-colored tortoiseshell chowing down on a piece of roasted elote in his exposed back room. This cat I named Civilized Satanist, after an obscure cat-referencing Pavement song I had downloaded from Napster.

Who knew cats liked corn on the cob? Or cantaloupe slices, as we discovered with a cat we named Clint’s Kitty, a beautiful grey cat loaned to us for a couple weeks by the boyfriend of Francisco’s downstairs ex when he went out of town. Clint’s Kitty was sweet and affectionate, and I liked her so much that I decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask Clint if I could just keep her—he didn’t really want her back, did he? Actually, he did. His tone was unamused as we discussed it from a payphone during dinner rush at 410 Diner, where I worked a throwaway side gig as I waited for an Americorps stint, equally ill-fated, to officially begin. Clint was back in town and he kind of, like, wanted her back.

So Civilized Satanist and Clint’s Kitty didn’t work out, but we had a little more luck with Internal K-Dart (named for another early Pavement song and abbreviated “I.K.”) and Looper (named for the express bus route that travels Loop 410, which encircles San Anto proper). Francisco had seen this word once, lit up on the electronic marquee that crowns city buses, and become enamored with the evocative sound of it. As applied to our cat, this quickly was shortened to “Loop” or more often “LoopLoop,” an affectionate nickname chirped quickly in falsetto.

7Looper was one of Civilized Satanist’s kittens, a dilute calico—creamsicle orange, plain vanilla, and soft grey—with a mostly docile and friendly disposition. Francisco had taken her in when she was maybe eight weeks old, young enough to transition well to indoor cat life, but just old enough that she always retained a little bit of feral wariness. She was the first of my cats, though hardly the last, to have a speaking voice, a Mickey-Mouse-on-helium squeak apparently routed through my id. The joke turned on the irony of such a sweet cat expressing such rudeness and aggression in such a sweet voice. “Fuck you, I told you to feed my ass,” Looper might say as she sat patiently before us. Her voice wasn’t something I thought about. Like a medium in a séance, I just opened up my mouth and somehow channelled exactly what she was thinking.

I.K. didn’t talk—she was more skittish than Looper, one of the friendlier cats who hung around the house with Civilized Satanist. She adapted pretty well, although she did eat my blue parakeet, whose name was The Beastie Boys. One evening I came home from work at another restaurant job to find the cage knocked over and—no joke—unnameable little organs and feathers scattered across the floor.8

Francisco and I chased each other around the neighborhood—we broke up a couple months after I moved into the fourplex, and I moved into another fourplex down the street, where we got back together—and then we moved to California, where I had been accepted into a graduate program at UC Davis. We took Looper and I.K. with us, cat carriers up front wedged between us on the console, sedating them for the three-day drive across country to minimize their stress. We had gotten the pills from the woman who lived in the apartment below mine, who by night had very loud annoying sex with her boyfriend, but by day worked as a vet tech and was able to hook us up with some cat drugs.

I should mention, too, that when I lived in that apartment—an upstairs studio with hardwood floors, bay windows in the front room, deco tiling in the kitchen, freestanding tub, built-in laundry hamper that stunk like roaches, and a tiny tiny back room that I used as an office, which opened onto a metal platform porch and fire escape ladder—I developed a close relationship with some neighbor cats who lived next door. A large empty lot separated the house I lived in from the next house over, and frequently these two friendly orange adolescent cats would bound across the yard when called over. I named them Marx and Engels, of course. Marx had short orange fur and Engels was an orange medium-hair with a fat fluffy tail. I experimented once with bringing Engels up to the apartment, only to have him spray indoors, and that was the end of that.

After a three-day drive cross-country with our belongings, our cats, and a small U-Haul trailer hitched to Francisco’s sky-blue Chevy, we finally landed in Sacramento, California around midnight one night in late July of 2002. Exhausted and disoriented, we didn’t have the energy to look for another motel when the front desk clerk told us, upon inquiry, that pets were not allowed. We decided to risk it anyway, smuggling Looper and I.K.’s carriers into our motel room and shutting them into the bathroom so that they could finally eat, drink, and poop. To our alarm, however, the room smelled strongly of natural gas. In the ensuing confusion—Francisco running back to the office to report a leak while I cranked open the bathroom window for ventilation—I didn’t stop to consider how an open window might look to two 25%-feral cats whose sedatives had worn off and who had just spent the past three days doped up in tiny cages. Looper stuck around—she was probably only about 15% feral—but I.K. leapt out into the night, black fur melting into the unfamiliar back alleys of Sacramento, never to be seen again.

For a year, Looper lived with us as an only cat in our four-room, midtown Sacramento apartment. The following summer after my first year of graduate school, we moved to Davis itself, a small college town outside of Sacramento, taking over the lease on an apartment that a friend in my program was giving up so as to get the hell away from student fantasyland Davis and move to a real city. This apartment was also a one-bedroom unit, but with high ceilings and hallway, it felt very spacious.

And so, one Saturday summer morning on a visit to the Davis Farmer’s Market, I found myself lingering before the table of the Orphan Kitten Project…then asking if I could hold one of the tabby kittens from a cage behind the table. That day I would adopt Nigel, named for an early XTC song, who would stay with me for thirteen years, eventually moving with me ten times in almost ten years before finally disappearing without explanation. I have a picture of me taken on that day, snuggling an orphan kitten to my chest. I’m 24 years old, but I look like a kid in a blue Bart Simpson T-shirt, blue bandana tied around my head. I’m holding one of Nigel’s sisters, but I ultimately went with Nigel because he was the prettiest of the three tabbies, with the most distinctive striping. Looking back, I probably should have picked one of the others, given what happened with Looper when I brought Nigel home, and given that Nigel and I never quite got along after that.

I filled out the paperwork and paid the adoption fee that day, and a week or so later, after shots and checkup, Francisco and I went to the shelter to pick up our new kitten. The shelter turned out to be someone’s North Davis condo, which contained about 30 kittens, all of them running and jumping and chewing each other, plus one frazzled-looking woman who asked if we weren’t very sure we didn’t want to take two—you know, to keep each other company?

That’s how we ended up with both Nigel and Sasha, although something happened on the way home that would confuse me forever about Sasha’s identity. Back at the farmer’s market, I had noticed two lanky black kitten sisters, Sasha and Tasha, in the crate with the three tabby siblings. At the Orphan Kitten condo, when I agreed to take Sasha in addition to Nigel, the woman gave me the other kitten, Tasha.

“I think she gave us the wrong one,” I told Francisco in the truck, both kittens crated in the same box and ready for their new life back at our apartment. “Tasha was the one with the longer tail. Should we go back?”

“I don’t think it’s the wrong one,” said Francisco. “I think the one you thought was Sasha was actually Tasha.”

“No, but she gave us the one with the longer tail!”

“Yeah. Sasha was the one with the longer tail.”

“I’m pretty sure that was Tasha.”

9

Had the Orphan Kitten woman made a mistake, or had I? I would never figure it out.

The Nige and the Sash were huge hits with the mid-20s, female-grad-student set. One evening, two friends from my grad program came over to meet the kittens, and I distinctly remember how they rushed inside the apartment, screaming with delight. Within a few weeks, both of them had cats in their apartments too.

Even though he was the one who ultimately stuck with me, Nigel turned out to be kind of a bad fit for our household. Not long after bringing him and Sasha (or was it Tasha?) home, he started bullying Looper, who began spending all her time high up on top of my bookshelf. More alarmingly, she became withdrawn and started to feel lighter, as though she was losing weight. Looper had always been a quiet and gentle cat, and even though she was fully grown and had seniority, young Nigel would attack her while she was eating, muscling his way to her food. I thought this quite audacious and disrespectful, although I presume that some of this behavior likely stemmed from the chutzpah required to make it in a 30-kitten condo.

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Just a few months after we brought the new kittens home, Looper suddenly disappeared. We didn’t let her out regularly, so her only path to the outside was via the back porch, whose sliding glass door we often left cracked so that she could access her litter box and get some sun and fresh air. While it’s conceivable that she used the tree whose branches overhung the porch to make her way to the ground, it was still very strange and upsetting. It seemed likely that Nigel had driven her off. But her weight loss had been disturbing as well, and part of me wondered if she had been sick and wandered off to die. We put up posters with her picture all around the apartment complex and up and down our street, but we never saw her again.

After Looper disappeared, I found my affection for Nigel muddied by resentment, and my wariness only grew after he scratched me on the nose one day when we were playing—probably too rough, admittedly. By this point he was fully grown, a muscular man-cat big as a raccoon or one of those Russian fishing cats that have become internet memes, swimming around in bathtubs or dragging beheaded chickens or huge carp across some Moscow resident’s kitchen floor.

That was Nigel: you held him in your arms and felt an unpredictable, wiry aggression lying in wait somewhere inside his purring placidity. His id-voice was a scream-whisper, the way you might whisper if you were furious at someone at a funeral. “Nigel, do you think you could please stop making spicy biscuits now?” I might ask—spicy biscuits being the cute way cats knead their paws against you, only with too much claw—and in response Nigel would scream-whisper, “I SAID NO, DAMMIT!”

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Actually, my feelings about Sasha changed as well. At first I felt neutral about her, having only reluctantly agreed to adopt a second kitten, and being unsure if the kitten I adopted was even the right one. But then I remember there came a day when I was sitting on the living room floor and Sasha approached me shyly with her too-long tail and crawled into my lap. As I sat petting her, we looked into each other’s eyes, and I realized that we loved each other.

It was with Nigel and Sasha that I began to realize that my relationship to cats was not uniform or homogeneous but rather depended on their individual personalities. Just as I was a unique person with a distinct personality, so too were cats. And just as with relationships between people, each human-cat relationship was marked by its own particular emotional dynamic. I didn’t love all cats just because they were cats. And not every cat loved me. It really just depended on the cat.

My relationship with Nigel was a complicated one—jovial, but undercut with a latent hostility on both sides. Nigel was loveable and loving, but he was also aggressive, demanding, and domineering, and I didn’t fully trust him. If he was hungry and approached where I sat typing at the computer, he wouldn’t hesitate to rear up and bite me if I ignored him for too long. As he got older I didn’t even like to pick him up, because it felt like any second he would get tired of being held and push off of me with his powerful hind paws like a big mean rabbit, hard enough to draw blood. When I went out of town for more than a day or so, he would shit and piss all over the house.

Once, when I was living alone in the house in West Sacramento, I went to a conference for a couple days, cleaning the house before I left and arranging for someone to stop by to check on the cats once a day in my absence. Knowing Nigel’s bad habit, I made especially sure to close off the bedroom before I left. As I thought it might be, the conference was physically and emotionally draining, and when my flight got in after midnight, I wanted nothing more than to come home to my clean house and crawl into bed. But when I got home, I discovered the bedroom door standing wide open, and right there in the middle of my nicely-made, soft, inviting bed, I discovered a mound of shit swimming in a puddle of piss. It’s one of the few times I’ve been so angry I threw things—in this case my pillow, which actually I didn’t quite throw, but rather beat against the floor, repeatedly, before using it to muffle screams of rage so as not to alarm my neighbors. 12

My own hostility to Nigel came out in a kind of dismissive jokey attitude. “Nigel” became a kind of swear word, a scapegoat to invoke in the face of any misfortune, even in his absence. “Oh my God Nigel no!” I would utter aloud in exasperation when I dropped or broke something. Even a year after his disappearance, just last night when Ben finally figured out that the stinky smell near the sink was coming from a half-covered bowl of yogurt left to sit for days, my reflexive response was to mutter, “Gross, Nigel.” When Tupac’s “California Love” comes on the throwback station, I still insert Nigel’s name: Nigel-fornia…knows how to party. Nigel-fornia…knows how to party. In the cit-ayyyy…city of Davis. In the cit-ayyyyy…city of West Sac. Keep it rockin. Keep it rockin. 

13Finally, I would be remiss not to recall that in our West Sacramento neighborhood, we also developed a relationship with an affectionate orange male cat we named The Nub, given that he was a Manx with a stubby tail. The Nub was the kind of friendly, vocal cat who would trot across the street to say hello if you passed one other. He would rub against your legs and let you pick him up and cuddle him. We didn’t know who he belonged to, and we never knew when we would run into him, and we were quite sad when we realized we had stopped seeing him around the neighborhood some months ago: in my heart he joins the other friendly male orange neighborhood cats that I wanted to be mine but weren’t quite.

4.

My relationship to cats changed dramatically after Emilia was born. Before Emilia, I had taken my cats to the vet religiously each year for their checkups and boosters and bought them little treats at the store. After Emilia, I’m sad to say it was sayonara, cats. We ran out of time and patience for litter boxes and started to let the cats go in and out as they pleased. Contrary to my fears, they did not run away and seemed happier, actually.

When Emilia was one, the five of us—me and Francisco and the baby, plus Nigel and Sasha—moved away from the little house in West Sacramento where Emilia was born, leaving California to return home to San Antonio, closer to family. We moved into an upstairs duplex in a newly remodeled house that, looking back, was likely a harbinger of the powder keg of gentrification about to go off on that block. When we moved in, though, the street was still mostly working class and Mexican, like the rest of San Antonio. Our next door neighbor was an old guy, Mr. Puente, who walked around the neighborhood every morning hunting for aluminum cans to sell to the metal recycler down the street. Mr. Puente had probably ten to fifteen cats, which he fed in his driveway. He loved cats, and I got the sense that this was why he didn’t spay or neuter any of those in his care—that way, he could ensure himself a constant supply of fresh kittens.

Our own California cats adjusted well to the move back to South Texas, but a scant year-and-a-half after returning to Texas, I nailed a teaching job up in Lawrence, Kansas, and the five of us geared up to move again. I had worked very hard to secure a tenure-track position at a university, but when it finally came time to seize the brass ring itself, I found myself in crisis: through work networks I had met Ben and fallen in love, hard, and Francisco and I decided to call it quits for good. Though we were moving together, the plan was to separate households once we arrived in Kansas.

We lost Sasha amid the trauma of this move, just as we had lost I.K. a few years before en route to California. We lost her, in fact, the morning we set off for Kansas. That morning, I left the cats inside our empty apartment until the last minute, attempting to minimize their distress. Moving truck loaded up and waiting in the driveway, it finally came time to retrieve them, and with cat carriers in hand I ran up to the apartment one last time. Nigel was feeling mellow and let me crate him without incident. Sasha, however, was spooked after being shut up inside the apartment all night, and when I entered she shot past me onto the porch, dashing down the stairs and into our yard. She ran when I followed, slipping through the fence that surrounded a houseless neighboring yard, which was maintained by an absentee owner.

For thirty minutes we called to Sasha from over the fence, shaking a bag of cat food in accompaniment, but her refusal was absolute. With no way to enter the yard, no way to contact our neighbor, and Emilia beginning to cry in her carseat, we finally just had to leave. Before we did, Francisco dashed across to Mr. Puente’s house to explain the situation and ask if he would take her in. He readily agreed, and so it was that we left Sasha behind in San Antonio.

Where I live now is not far away from that duplex on that street in that now fully-gentrified block. Mr. Puente still lives there, surrounded not by llanterías and taquerías and vacant buildings but by ad agencies, architecture firms, acupuncture studios, juice bars. From time to time, I still see him walking up and down Nogalitos in the morning, looking for cans. I’ve thought before about dropping by to ask about Sasha, but I remember that churning sea of kittens in his driveway—living if they lived, dying if they died—and I hesitate. A bigger part of me doesn’t want to know what happened.

5.

Over the next three years I would move five more times, as I tried to figure out where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing with my life. Throughout this time Nigel was my only cat, moving with me from San Antonio to a too-large rental house in Kansas—I had signed the lease when Francisco and I were still together—and from there to my parents’ house for the summer while I did an internship in San Antonio, and after that back up to Kansas for the second year of my post-doc.

Despite my crushing panic and depression at the time around questions of vocation, location, desire, and political agency, I have fond memories of the house we rented in 14East Lawrence, a small blue Victorian with a tiny, single-room upstairs and a basement. It was shabby but cute, a rodent-infested, college-town rental house that had seen many a student in its days. Emilia and I collaborated there on a number of good stories about the microfauna of East Lawrence, from the cicadas that dominated the autumn soundscape…

…to the mice that ate the papier-mâché cicada mask we made for Halloween…

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…to Nigel himself…

16

…who also liked the house for its floor vents. Each cold morning, we would wake up to find Nigel smiling and purring in the kitchen, hunched like a bread loaf over his beloved “worm spot,” as Emilia called it.

Just ten months after moving into the little blue house in East Lawrence, we moved back to San Antonio. I had turned down the tenure-track offer and taken a job instead with the community group I had interned with the previous summer. I rented another cute little house, this time from my uncle, which was located right on a major freeway a block or two south of the Alamodome. The house was tiny—just a single front room, which I subdivided with a dresser to create a bedroom area, plus kitchen, bathroom, and sunroom—but just the right size for Emilia, Nigel, and me.

I liked that house a lot, but I didn’t want to live so close to the highway, and I was also completely bananas in love with Ben, whom I’d pined for my entire time in Kansas. So after a year in my uncle’s place on Hoefgen Street, we moved into Ben’s house, in the borderlands between Westside and Southside. It’s where I live today, four years later—the longest I’ve lived anywhere since leaving my parents’ house at 18.

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When Emilia and I moved in, Nigel joined a household that included Ben’s two cats, Birdy and Rosa, plus two small dogs. Rosa was a stocky tuxedo cat with a nub tail, and Birdy was a small, delicate black cat who had appeared to Ben when he was living in a cabin once in the Central Texas woods. Birdy had initially hid from me when I first began seeing Ben, but by the time I moved in, she and I had developed a special bond, the sort I had with Gener, N-Cat, and Moops but not with any of my other cats.

Rosa and I were cool but never particularly close—she was Ben’s cat, emotionally. Still, she and I agreed on a number of things, and I came to really appreciate her wry, biting wit, which eventually led to her promotion as editor of a sardonic twitter feed, The Rosa Report, which parodied a local website on city politics whose pro-development boosterism she found disgusting. She even flirted with running for Mayor or seeking appointment as City Manager, just for the lulz of it. Yes, Rosa had a wicked sense of humor.

Despite the full house, our cat merger worked well enough—that is, until Emilia and I took in a kitten, an impulsive decision made one May afternoon when, walking home from the bus stop, we spied a tiny kitten crying in a neighbor’s driveway, seemingly separated from its mama. We intended only to take him home for an afternoon and then return him, but after naming him Fluffernutter—after the peanut-butter-and-marshmallow-creme sandwich—it was a done deal. Fluffernutter’s name was a spin off from a roster of names we’d assigned to a litter of kittens we’d spotted once in someone’s yard while walking home from the store. These neighborhood kittens were all various shades of orange, in various permutations of stripedness and fluffiness, and we’d named them Gingersnap, Gingerbread, Butterfinger, Nutter Butter, Butternut Squash, and Garbage Cat—this last one because we encountered him eating trash out of a bin at the Ginger Kitten House.

Taking in Fluffernutter created havoc in our cat household. Rosa or Birdy or Nigel or some combination of the three reacted to their little interloper’s presence by spraying repeatedly around the house, no matter what we did; and eventually it got so bad that we had to throw all three big cats out of the house. For his part, Fluffernutter got less cute and more aggressive as he got bigger; his parting gift to us the evening we relinquished him to the Animal Defense League for adoption was to shit voluminously beneath Emilia’s bed.

After their eviction, our three big cats would never be solely indoor cats again: the difference it made in keeping the house clean was so immediately apparent that we just couldn’t go back to our pre-Fluffernutter arrangement. The trade off was that the cats’ health suffered just as immediately. Nigel and Rosa developed bleeding scabs on their noses and ears, allergic reactions to the swarms of mosquitos in our subtropical backyard. Birdy got hit by a car. And Nigel disappeared, just as Looper disappeared when we brought Nigel home. As with Looper, I suspect that Nigel’s health had been declining for a while, because the inflammation on his nose persisted even after a trip to the vet for a round of steroids and antibiotics.

Relatedly, there is one thing I feel very sad about with Nigel. A couple of years before he disappeared, he developed an eye infection that I ignored for weeks, telling myself it would clear up on its own. At the time, I was working a job that was so stressful it triggered a manic/depressive swing, for which I actually took myself to the hospital. During the couple of months in which the mania was ramping up, I could not slow down enough to take Nigel to the vet. I just kept working and pushing myself and telling myself that he’d probably get better on his own, but he didn’t. A couple days after I got out of the hospital, I was back at work—how could I possibly stop when that Thursday we had a life-or-death city council vote on the closure of a mobile home park, and Friday we had the opening of a major exhibit on fracking that I was curating—when Nigel’s eye began oozing green pus. Ben had to take him to the vet as I couldn’t miss any more work, having taken the entire week prior because of my own hospitalization.

Ben told me the news over the phone: Nigel’s eye was so badly infected it would have to be removed surgically, and the procedure would cost over $1,000. Just a week out of the hospital, I shook and cried at the news, the continued fragility of my emotional state coming into relief. I felt guilty for neglecting my cat, but also furious that Nigel was falling apart when I was just barely keeping my own shit together, and equally rattled by the terrible moral calculus imposed by the cost of the surgery.

After so many years together, and especially after neglecting his health, I felt I owed it to Nigel to get him fixed up, whatever the cost. And yet, I also resented Ben’s suggestion that treating pets as family was inviolable, such that considering the financial impact of intensive vet care on human family members, including one’s own self, was shameful. The idea of pets as family, with the same moral standing as children or self, felt like the luxury of people with resources—or, at least, with a distinctly middle-class disposition, given that I know many people without resources for whom animal companions are critical to their own wellbeing. But I thought of my mother, for instance, the daughter of tenant farmers: every spring, kittens were born on the farm, living if they lived and dying if they died, just as in the driveways of Mr. Puente and our current neighbors. It didn’t mean she and her sisters loved them any less or got any less attached. It was just a different relationship to animals, a different relationship to nature and to death.

The one option we had in Nigel’s case was to seek a second opinion, which we did, from a vet who was able to save the eye without surgery. But Nigel would forever after squint and leak from his injured eye, and afterwards it seemed that he never fully recovered his health.

The real guilt I feel is not so much that I did not act more quickly: my own unwellness at the time distorted my ability to prioritize and respond. The real guilt I feel is that, ultimately, I wasn’t as emotionally attached to Nigel as I was to some of my other cats. And though I can point to ways our personalities chafed, I ultimately don’t know why. Would I have worried as much about money if it was Birdy or Moops or N-Cat who needed expensive treatment? Would I have let Birdy or Moops or N-Cat go without treatment for as long as Nigel did? Wherever he went, I ask for his forgiveness—that I did not take better care of him, that we were not closer.

6.

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So Nigel disappeared last year some time in early fall, and then Birdy was struck by a car around the time of Halloween, just before Día de los Muertos. Somewhere in there were Milky Way and Marshmallow, the two fosters who died, and little Tigre. Then, the following spring, Rosa’s kidneys began to fail, an acute episode that seemed to come on suddenly, though it’s likely she was in decline for awhile. For the second time, one of my cats’ crises upstaged my own: Rosa crashed the day I miscarried an early pregnancy. The baby had stopped developing inside me weeks before, but I hadn’t learned about its death until the first ultrasound at 10 weeks. I carried it inside me for another week before my body finally initiated the physical process of miscarriage.

Ben was with me for the actual delivery, which took place in the early hours of the morning, but later that day he left for a trip out of town he had scheduled months before. My mom arrived to take over, and not long after, we noticed that Rosa didn’t look good—her fur was matted and dull, and more disturbingly, she was drooling dark, foul-smelling saliva. If I had been well, I would have driven her to the emergency animal hospital where we had taken the foster kittens, but I was so weak from blood loss that I couldn’t stand, and I needed my mom with me to help with Emilia. I couldn’t believe that, on top of everything I was dealing with, I now also had to figure out what to do about a cat who had waited to crash until her primary human caregiver was out of town and her secondary human caregiver was incapacitated.

I was terrified Rosa would die that night, but she lived; the following day, my mom dropped her off at the animal hospital so that I could get Emilia to school and drag myself to work, where I couldn’t even talk about what was going on with Rosa, much less the miscarriage, even as I was on the phone all day to arrange her care, back and forth between my mom, the vet, and Ben, who would be out of town for the next few days. It was just too many problems all at once.

I had been hoping Rosa had an oral infection, an abscess which would explain why she had stopped eating and grooming herself and was drooling stinky saliva. But when the vet called, she said Rosa’s labs were off the chart for creatinine, a waste product in her bloodstream that indicated advanced renal failure. I paid for one night’s hospitalization, and then my mom paid for another night and I paid her back, and Ben put the rest on his card and paid me back over the next six months.

When she finally came home, Rosa looked mostly okay, but after a week or so she declined again. Hoping to restore her quality of life, Ben tried taking her in regularly for subcutaneous fluids, but in the last couple of weeks, her hind legs went limp, she stopped eating and drinking, and periodically through the night she would cry out loudly, a strange yowl that sounded nothing like her regular meow. It was horrible to witness, and I can only imagine it must have been horrible for her.

Initially, Ben had resisted euthanasia as an option, not wanting to deprive Rosa of a chance to fight and recover. I remember telling him during this time that she had reminded me what powerful teachers beings can become when they are dying—here but not here, passing luminous from one state into another. But not long after, it became clear that there was no dignity in her suffering, and Ben finally made the decision to put her to sleep. I didn’t go with him to that last appointment, but her ashes came back to him not long after in a beautiful mahogany box that now sits on his desk.

7.

There is one final chapter in this long story about all the cats I ever had, which is the story of Peanut Butter, our present cat who continues the tradition begun at the Ginger Cat House of naming cats after fatty, salty or sugary snack foods.

We met Peanut Butter on the streets of lower Collins Gardens, the slightly nicer part of the neighborhood where I’ve lived without moving these past four years, and where Emilia’s dad bought a house a couple summers ago. Just as we chased each other around the block and then around the country, Francisco and I now live just a few streets away from each other, probably for life now. Once married, we’re now siblings of sorts, cousins.

One afternoon in late summer—back-to-school time, but still hot AF—I went to Francisco’s house to drop Emilia off for the evening. He wasn’t home yet, so Emilia and I killed some time admiring the many cats lounging in the front yard of Francisco’s across-the-street neighbor. Later I learned that his neighbor volunteered with a local Trap/Neuter/Release program and took a bunch of the cats home to live outdoors; all of them had the tip of one ear clipped to indicate that they’d been through the program.

That afternoon, one cat in particular stood out for me, a grey medium-hair kitty with some subtle calico markings and a big fluffy tail. She sat on the sidewalk, unfazed when I approached, and without struggle let me pick her up like a baby and hold her and look deep into her eyes. By the end of the afternoon we had named her Peanut Butter. I thought she was one of the prettiest cats I’d ever seen, and I wanted her, bad! Even though we still had all three cats back at home.

For the next couple of years, I would see Peanut Butter around from time to time, dropping off Emilia or picking her up. For awhile she would come over to Francisco’s front porch and eat the food he laid out for his own two cats, often staking it out and hissing them away. Rude! Then a couple of months would go by and I wouldn’t see her, or I’d see only the other ex-ferals—like Potato Chip or Mr. Bizness Cat—or I’d see her but only from far away, lounging almost 24/7 atop a blue city trash bin on another neighbor’s front porch.

After awhile I noticed that she didn’t look so good. Most of her tail fur had fallen out, with the exception of a little leonine tuft up top, and she had developed sores on her flank where it looked like she had compulsively chewed at herself. That spring Francisco asked if I would take her in, but at the time Rosa was sick, and it felt wrong to be thinking about replacement cats. But a couple months after Rosa passed, I talked to Ben about it and he didn’t totally say no, so one Sunday when he was out of town, Emilia and I went over to Francisco’s to get Peanut Butter. We grabbed her off of the bin where she’d become a garbage cat and stuffed her struggling into a box, feeling somewhat guilty when the garbage can owners came outside to watch and said they’d named her Miss Kitty. They didn’t seem upset that we had just showed up to seize her off their property, but I still felt bad. I mean, they’d named her—even though it wasn’t a very good name.

After flea medication, the sores on Peanut Butter’s flank healed and her fur grew back thick and tufty. As it turned out, I couldn’t bear to put her back outside to get all scruffy and scabby again—or worse—so she’s an indoor-only cat. Still, in her first few weeks with us she managed to figure out a way both to leave the planet and to cost us potentially thousands of dollars in vet care in the process. 19

One Sunday evening following a day spent at a Quaker meeting house, where Ben and I filmed a talk, I looked down from where I sat at the dining room table and noticed Peanut Butter smacking her lips around a piece of string that dangled from her mouth. When I grabbed at her to inspect, she bolted from me to the kitchen to finish swallowing whatever was in her mouth unmolested. A few minutes later, I looked down at where she had been sitting and saw the clear plastic lanyard that had hung around Emilia’s neck earlier that day, at the meeting house. I gasped as I put two and two together. The string from the lanyard was missing. That string that had been two feet long.

Googling “my cat ate a string” only upped my alarm, as the internet warned that string-eating cats risked life-threatening intestinal obstruction. By that point Peanut Butter had puked, but it was clear—no string. At the vet the next morning, they told me that while they could do an x-ray, it likely would be pointless as the string wouldn’t show up. An ultrasound might do it, and an exploratory endoscopy conducted by a cat gastroenterologist would be even better—though it would run $3-4,000. Crossing my fingers that the string would pass on its own, I opted to wait: if a few days passed and she was still doing okay, the vet said, she was probably in the clear.

A couple days passed and Peanut Butter still seemed perfectly fine. But right when I thought the window of danger had closed, she began projectile vomiting. I rushed her back to the vet, who again urged the endoscopy. When I confessed that I loved her, but that I was not willing to put $4,000 on a high-interest line of credit to try to save her, the vet suggested they do an x-ray anyway, which came back inconclusive, as originally predicted, and which I am still paying off. She then sent us home with instructions to feed Peanut Butter just a tablespoon or two at a time every few hours, and to keep checking the poop, keep checking the poop.

Fortunately for all involved, the small feedings worked. Or, at very least, Peanut Butter stopped puking. And though I checked her litter box every day for a couple weeks, nothing ever showed up. As far as I can tell, to this day she has not passed the string. Quite possibly her ex-feral, garbage-cat stomach broke it down and digested it. It was a Quaker string, after all, so we could be assured that it was a very plain and simple cotton string, without complicated elastic or plastic additives.

Peanut Butter has never quite gotten over the food desperation that served her so well on the streets, and four months later, she is only now beginning to understand that human contact is not just tolerable but even desirable at times. She is beautiful but distant, acquiescing to the wubz and the skritches—except when hungry, when she jumps away from your hand—but only very recently actually seeking them out. There is a basic reserve at her core that makes her feel far away and emotionally closed off. She’s like King Haggard’s unicorns, trapped in the sea for his pleasure, yet giving him no pleasure for being trapped. She’s like the Lady Amalthea after Schmendrick the Magician transformed her from immortal unicorn to mortal human girl in order to save her from the Red Bull: so beautiful and compelling that one cannot help but love her, but unable to love back so long as she retains any trace of magic immortality.

So that is the curse of loving Peanut Butter. She is my 29th cat, not including any of the neighborhood cats I loved but who never lived with me, like Marx and Engels, the Nub, and Mr. Skritches—the latter a gregarious tabby who let us pick him up one night a few weeks ago, walking home from Francisco’s. We look for him every time we pass by that house now, but we haven’t seen him since. Once, though, we thought we saw him at another house, hanging with another tabby promptly named Mrs. Skritches.

Sometimes I think the whole cat thing for me, or maybe for all humans, comes down to these silly names and the stories we hang upon them. I even have names already chosen, prefiguratively, for cats who have yet to cross my path: Double Double. Cheesecake Blizzard. Butter Brickle. In the silliness of the naming of cats lies the irony of an inter-species relationship entirely organized around persuading them to like us, to stay, in spite of themselves. In the silliness of the naming of cats we poke fun at that irony; we laugh at ourselves for wanting to persuade, wanting to be liked, wanting them.

20

 

 

by Marisol Cortez

 

 

Headshot-Cortez.jpgMarisol Cortez is a creative writer, community-based scholar, and cultural arts worker based in San Antonio, Texas. Her current projects-in-progress include The Bird Church, a poetry collection, and a novel entitled Luz at Midnight. Her creative work has appeared in Metafore Magazine, Orion Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and La Voz de Esperanza, while her scholarly writing has appeared in Cultural Logic/Works and Days, Local Environment, Green Letters, and other journals and anthologies. For more information on previous publications and current projects, visit her website at marisolcortez.wordpress.com.

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