The first cat to ever claim me as his own found me in a ground floor, one bedroom suite with a roommate and her cat: young, tuxedo, super long-haired (the cat, not the roommate). We were both nursing the pain of breakups (the roommate, not the cat). My roommate’s breakup was far more serious than my own. She’d lived with an older man for several years and had found herself suddenly out of that relationship with an undergraduate degree to finish and no where to live. I’d had a brief, albeit very creative and romantic, cross-country escapade with a childhood friend that had predictably ended in tears and also, coincidentally, needed a place to live.
She was the first woman I ever saw drive stick. We’d met in what were her English major, and my English minor, requirement courses, become friends and she’d offered me a ride home one day in what was then her boyfriend’s car. It was a low, fairly sleek, mid-engine sports car that hugged the road with a noteworthy sensuality and she loved to drive it. Her real laugh had a lot of childhood in it and her relationship to the world was a strange combination of brazenly full-bodied and almost clinically intellectual. Crazy, seeking, damaged, and creative in our own particular ways, the sharing of a one bedroom apartment did not work out well in the end. But, it was really lovely for a while. Truly. Lots of late-night drinking, giggling, and sisterly solidarity. And, in that time period she helped me get a part-time job at the same health food market that employed her. She worked cash, I worked in the deli.
Not always on the same shift, we nonetheless had similar buddies at work and the whole market was youthful, a bit edgy, and more than a little saucy. Inappropriate humour was often a glorious contagion that spread from aisle to aisle, through deli and meat department, out back to where people had their smokes, then in and over to the register lines until only the briefest of eye contact would set off in-joke laughing fits. The cocktail of youth, untapped multiplicities of intelligence, flirtation, and desires that flowed through that store was heady. It was also a totally alluring and completely illusory kind of safe. On the whole, though, it was a very fun, and pretty good, place to work and my roommate and I both worked hard while trying to finish our degrees and recover from our romantic transitions.
One day, we were talking at our tiny kitchen table in our tiny kitchen when we heard cat kibble being crunched around the corner. The sound was noteworthy because my roommate’s luxurious tuxedo cat was, at that exact moment, sitting on the table between us cleaning herself with her special brand of refined impudence. My roommate and I looked at each other, looked at the cat between us and, eyes a bit wide, wondered who and/or what was munching on kibbles around the corner.
Slowly, we got up and tip toed to get a better look. Hunched over the kibble bowl was a rather greasy looking short-haired cat with an almost greenish hue. Immediately sensing our presence, the animal filled its cheeks with kibbles like an overzealous squirrel, ran back to the open sliding door, and across the low balcony. Under our continued scrutiny, this sneaky feline spat the kibbles on to the pavement, away from the building out in the service lane, and then ate them at his leisure. I’ve often reflected on why this canny cat had stayed in our eye-line. It was as though he understood the technical nature of trespass and knew that once actually out of our suite, potential punishments would be less likely and/or severe. The lane was, after all, public property and who was to say where the kibbles had been procured?
Our word against his.
In any case, this interloper got into the habit of stealing our resident cat’s food whenever the balcony door was open. There was no screen and we did leave it ajar so that the tuxedo could get out should she wish. We did what we could to avoid ongoing drama with this newly met nocturnal predator as we were obviously not sure if it was friendly. This state of semi-détente went on for some time.
In the deli where I worked, you had to periodically “face” the deli meats. This typically meant cutting decent slices off of the ends so that all the meats looked more fresh and bright – pink if appropriate – than dull. Those severed end pieces were mostly just thrown out but, at a certain point, I started to put them in a bag and bring them home. I didn’t think much of the choice as I made it. I just did it. That greenish, greasy, thieving cat’s form flashed in and out of my mind and I bagged those meat ends. The first time I offered them up in sacrifice to the street cat’s appetite, I cubed them into a brown, conical, Duralex bowl on the balcony. I backed away to the other side of the sliding door and caught site of the thief. Cross-legged on the floor, blocking entry to the sliver of open patio door, I waited for the meat to make its olfactory move. The cat eventually approached the bowl and devoured it.
I’ve never seen a cat eat so much, so quickly. Almost immediately, that anxious, may-never-have-a-next-meal digestive system had yarfed it all back up. I could only think that the nitrates and salt were probably a bit hard on his poor guts, but I still tried again another day. And another. I learned that if you got too close to him while he ate he would loose an absolutely terrifying battle growl and never miss a bite. I saw the nicks and scarring on his ears from the many fights he’d had and obviously survived if not won. It took a while for the creature to realize that the whole bowl needn’t be swallowed in one gulp, but this understanding did eventually dawn. I insisted to all and sundry, while this meat-end food train proceeded on its tracks, that “NO” I did “NOT have a cat now!”
The next thing I did, of course, was put an old, runky sleeping bag out on the porch and I bought the cheapest cat kibbles I could find (because I did NOT have a cat dammit!) and put those in the brown bowl instead of the cubed meat ends. Green & Greasy started to sleep in the folds of that ragged mess of sleeping bag. Right near that bowl. In short order, he could be found there for whole swathes of the day and night.
One day, mid to late summer, the balcony door was open, tuxedo cat was out on a romp. I had wound my way to a summer semester study haze and went to lay on the sofa for a nap. It was a hand-me-down from my parents. Dark beige, it had a scalloped shape to its back and a pattern of large, dramatic birds in darker, more elaborate colours. I woke up in the fetal position with the no-longer-stray cat curled up in the dip of my waist as it curved back up into my hips. I always imagine how it looked from a front view. The arched backdrop of scalloped birds and beige, the greenish, greasy curl of cat, the fetal position of tired, heartbroken young woman…
That cat loved me with a devotion that was rather breathtaking. No matter the few cat loves I have had (and continue to enjoy) since I met him, most of my best and favourite “cat stories” are still his. He was so unique. Unique of voice and style and expressions of love. He made a five-year-old blow gaskets in his mind and exclaim:
“The cat said ‘now’ Mommy!! The cat said ‘NOW’!!!!”
Once he had a home that cat flat-out refused to go near even the hint of an open window or door for years lest someone make him live outside again. He hugged me with front paws around my neck, hind paws around my middle, and nuzzled my ear. A claw trim was for my new cat friend a sinuous and stretchy visit to the spa, whereas for tuxedo cat (and most other cats I’ve known) it was a violation and an act of war. The only other humans to whom he deigned to show affection were my sister, my mother, and – eventually – the first man I chose to live with.
For years, that cat slept wrapped around my head and seemed to love it when I held him like a baby. Sadly, he brought fleas into that first home we shared, and they transferred to the tuxedo who was no where near as amenable to her flea bath as was he. Picture two young women, mid-summer, in puffy winter coats and thick rubber gloves holding the poor, furry girl until all that long, black and white fur was soaked with medicinal shampoo and clinging to her body. So much beauty brought so straggly and low. Luckily, time and air restored her dignity and new-at-the-time medicines helped break the flea lifecycle so we eventually sorted ourselves out and learned to live together until we didn’t anymore.
After that roommate and I parted ways I had one more roommate situation implode (the woman renting the rooms in her apartment was conniving and rather awful it turned out) and then my befanged and greenish cat and I wound up living first just the two of us and then with the man who would become the father of my only child. That amazing cat was with us for the first few years.
Every day, he herded us to sleep and if we took too long brushing our teeth he yelled at us in 20-30 second bursts of strange, irritated cat poetry (we timed it once, it was impressive). After his own night ritual of kibble, water, a trip to his box, and a little bath, he slept between us, under the covers, with his head on the pillow. I woke to his furry little face every morning while he lived and I still keep a picture of him in a tiny cluster of unassuming family photos in a dusky corner of my home. I’m not one for too much “stuff.” It’s more cluttered in here right now than I’d like, actually, and still looks spartan compared to a lot of homes I know – particularly as regards photos of loved ones. I don’t know why, but I’ve never kept portraits or vacation pictures around in any obvious way. It’s like I don’t want to be stared at, perhaps? Most of the art on my walls is abstract… Expressionist… But, I will still sometimes take out the photo of that amazing cat and show it to people.
He was one of the greatest loves of my life thus far. And, frankly, there haven’t been many. And, I still don’t know who chose whom, nor will I ever be able to comprehend how many people in the building where we met casually told me that “oh, yeah, he’s been around the building for years” and had never done anything about it. It turned out he’d already been neutered, too, and the vet to whom I finally took “my cat” guessed he’d been abandoned or misplaced on a move and just stayed close to the only place he knew, cleverly finding ways to feed himself without even having to fully own his predatory instincts.
Cubed meat yarfer.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot, lately.
I keep thinking about how often, even when I do a lot of stuff in a day, I never, ever feel like I’ve done enough.
On good adulting days, I berate myself for not being creative enough.
On good creative days, I berate myself for not being a better adult.
I’m sure there is some broader lesson to be learned about how I’ve obviously internalized a benighted notion that being an adult means not being creative. An idea, I should emphasize that I would fight to the death outside of any arena but my own mind. I know (I mean, truly know), even if I struggle to live it, that there is no human anywhere who lives a life without creativity. Life is inherently, unavoidably creative. Though I’ve done a fair bit of research that softens the fire and would probably prove me flat-out wrong in my assumptions if I kept digging, I still rage at the Enlightenment for choosing to put creativity in a damned metaphysical box marked “ART” instead of leaving it loose and marking it as one of the fundamental physical forces in the universe.
Come to think of it, I’m angry that physics and metaphysics have ever been considered separate but, whatever… Even if I could learn to accept that my personal adult path is indelibly woven with creativity and therefore spare myself the constant self-battery, I’d probably still never feel like anything I ever do is enough.
If nothing else I would still, absolutely every single second of every day, berate myself for not making enough money and creating enough lasting security for myself and my share of my son’s life. I would – over and over again – watch myself hide in fear from the beauty of fledgling ideas that sneak into my life; watch myself, filled with doubt, hesitate to work for/from my own worth so that I can contribute and serve and grow.
And, lately, I just keep thinking about chance and opportunity, about ideas and choice, connections and relationships. I keep thinking about how that cat chose me every bit as much as I chose him. Maybe I made the first real overture of friendship. But, he literally broke into my home to get on my radar and my overture of friendship wouldn’t have meant anything if he hadn’t reached back.
We were each other’s opportunity, gift-wrapped in the shape of an open door and a chance to give a damn, a chance to care.
And, I didn’t hesitate.
I fussed and pretended that I wasn’t making the choice I was making. From the second I saw him scuttle out to the lane – before I even knew he was a “he” – cheeks filled with another cat’s kibbles, I had chosen him and I never looked back.
I showed up.
I kept showing up.
And then he chose me too.
And became one of the most enduring and deepest loves of my life.
About seven years later, the day we had to put him down, it was like he knew and was utterly relieved my partner finally made the call to the vet. There was no way I could have made that call despite knowing it was the right thing to do. That cat had been hanging on until *I* was ready. He’d barely been able to sit still for days, just wandering and wandering around, yowling and mostly blind. After the call to the vet, he curled up into the polar fleece vest I was wearing and I zipped it up around him. He stayed there, close to my heart and peaceful, until we had to leave. I’ve lived 20 more years and moved more times than I can easily count since that day. No matter the culling of stuff I’ve done before each of those moves, I still have that fleece in a bin in a closet. I don’t like clutter and attachment to “things” but I haven’t yet been able to part with it and I’m not sure I ever will.
And, I’ve been thinking about that too. I’ve been thinking about all the different kinds of choices we make when presented with opportunities for connection and the attachments and reminders that grow from those choices and connections. I’ve been thinking about how there is no connection without loss and that there is no real living without connection. It’s not a groundbreaking thought, I know, but there is so much that lingers in our lives and in the fabrics – fleece and otherwise – of who we are based on what we choose to care about and what chooses to care about us in return.
So how do we choose to show up for more? How do we teach ourselves not to hesitate? To recognize fear without letting it lead? To try more, fail more, do more, succeed more?
The trick, I keep thinking, is to transpose this embodied power to choose, that brought me one of the most beautiful relationships of my life, into other areas of my life.
An idea, for example, ephemeral though ideas are before they find a body to house them, is every bit as much a living thing as a stray cat. When we choose the idea and give our time and creativity to it, in even a half-assed non-committal manner (meat ends and a terrible sleeping bag on a porch), it will sometimes choose us back. It will cling to whatever we’ve offered, seed itself in that soil, until everyone and everything has surrendered to whatever the connection might yield (a cat curl on a sad girl’s hip). To choose to give ourselves with commitment to the ideas that grace us with even a glimmer of what they might truly hold within them… To meet them in the fullness of what they are and see them through no matter that they bring fleas or inevitable sorrow wrapped in fleece, is no less a surrender to relationship than the one I made to that amazing cat.
And, I just don’t know why I can’t seem to follow through enough on my connections to ideas… Why I can’t recognize that they might need my attention, care, and love as much as did my first cat.
Again, there is embodied knowing here that I should be able to transpose. I know how to choose connection and love no matter what it might cost me. I do. I’ve done it more times than with that fabulous cat. I just need to be able to do it more. I need to be able grab at beautiful relationships in all their forms when they steal into my house and whisk back out again bearing pieces of my life to consume at their leisure. I have to trust that what sneaks into my life and invites my attention and care is almost always worth at least attending to with a good, hard look and some creative wonder.
Even without the wasteful habits of self-loathing and self-battery, I simply know that I can make more real connections than I do. Forge more. Connect more. Live more. There are always so many opportunities skulking around my life and mind and heart… But they aren’t really skulking are they?
They are invitation and incantation.
Pure love and its lures.
The path forward to doing more really is right here in this story of how I met the first feline love of my life. It’s in the way things find and choose us and how we find and choose them. It’s trial and error and yarf and infestations… It’s drenched and bedrggled fur… It’s winter coats in summer and newfound medicines…
It’s seeing and being truly seen by all the marvellous gifts and facets of the damn universe, feline and otherwise.
And, it works.
When we show up, it works.
We make new connections.
We help and are helped.
We fail and succeed.
(And fail and succeed.)
(And fail and succeed.)
We grow and are grown by the thieves we meet, the chances we are given, and the choices we make.
And in the name of that fierce and loving cat, and the love I still feel for him with his greenish hue and glorious fangs and battle-scarred ears…
I must choose more.
I must choose to berate myself less and to say “yes” more…
My dear sweet cat, wherever you are, please forgive me when I inevitably fail at this too.
I promise, though.
I am going to hold all you taught me close and bloody well try.