Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Story of Angry Cat - part 2

When I moved to New York in 1996 in a spasm of ambition and romanticism from which I am only recently recovering, it was to go to school. No cats allowed in the dorms. I dropped her off at my sister’s to live, and didn’t look back for almost seven years.

This does not speak well to my character, I am aware.

In the meantime I graduated from school, got married, moved into a relatively decent apartment, and made enough money to think about taking care of an animal. Which is a good thing, as my sister, and her pets, had had enough. Honey got along with other animals about as well as she got along with people, that is to say, not very, and her continued presence at my sister’s house made trouble for all concerned. Not to mention the behavior problems of having been abandoned by the only person she really even sort of liked in the world. I still feel a stab of guilt when I think of how her very simple kitty brain dealt with knowing that she had a person, even if she only vaguely remembered him, and that he was gone.

After a conversation with my sister where she made it very clear that the cat was coming to live with me no matter what, I had her shipped from Las Vegas to Newark, a trip which, I’m convinced, almost killed her. She was packed into an airplane and flown for hours across the country in dry air. She was dehydrated, terrified, and exhausted when I finally picked her up at the cargo shipping section of the airport.

As I drove with her over the bridge to Newark airport, windows rolled up to block out the stench of the chemical plants, she climbed out of the container, stuck her head in my mouth to smell my breath, settled down on my chest, and began to purr contentedly.

And thus began our real relationship.

Her time away from me, and my time away from her, had given us both an opportunity to grow up a little. To call me a “late-bloomer” emotionally would be an understatement, but I had, in her absence, learned a little bit about putting someone else’s needs above my own. We began to get along, somewhat. She was still loud, and skittish, and touchy, afraid of her own shadow, and in all ways almost the opposite of a cat. But she could also be gruffly affectionate, sweet, and she seemed to have a genuine talent for being a stolid, loving presence when you felt sad. She was opinionated, picky, and had no problem sharing her disdain for whatever it was that had pissed her off today. It was a bit like living with a grumpy little old lady who never left the house, and who would occasionally express her displeasure by peeing in a corner.

I realized what a jerk I’d been for most of her life (not to mention much of mine), and I tried to make up for it by being as kind and gentle to her as I could. I gave her wet food, which she adored. I tried to play with her (which annoyed her) and gave her toys (which mostly confused her), and just generally tried to make her as comfortable as possible.

She was smart, had a huge personality, and was her own cat. I had her for another eight years, through a separation, a catastrophic move, a drug problem, a couple more bouts of religious mania, a divorce, and a remarriage. She started getting slower (but no less obnoxious), in the last year or so.

Then, seemingly overnight, her eye swelled up so that she looked like Popeye. At first, it was cute, and we rubbed it (which she liked), and made fun of her, called her “winky.” Then, we took her to the doctor, and they said, “Oh, that? Yeah, that’s cancer. She’s too old and little to operate on, so your best option is to keep her comfortable.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, as they were actually quite nice.

We pampered her as much that she would allow, and she still yelled and stalked around the house like she owned the place, so we held out hope that it might be an infected tooth. But it never really got better. And then, very quickly, it got much worse. Over the course of a day it went from “a little swollen and not really that uncomfortable” to “really, truly terrible and awful and pitiful to look at, and kind of painful.”

It was time, so we took her back to the doctor. They offered to take a clay impression of her paw, “You know, there’s a lot of kids in this neighborhood, so it’s mostly for them. But you could have it done too!” they hastily reassured us. We declined.

They gave her the first shot, to put her to sleep, and she settled on my lap for a moment, and then, for a moment, it was like she wanted to get down and take a walk, which we talked her out of pretty easily. She then lay down and began breathing deep and slow. The doctor discretely left the room, and we pet her, and cried. Her paws twitched as if she were walking, and we discussed where she might be dreaming she was, and if she was having a good time. Seeing her so relaxed, we seized the opportunity to touch her paws and her belly, and play with her tail, and stroke her fur, in ways that she would have deemed to be entirely inappropriate while she was awake. We laughed a little at the small irony: the only time she was ever really relaxed to be a cat, in the traditional sense, was when she was just about to be nothing at all.

After the doctor came back in, he injected her with a syringe full of purple liquid, and she breathed deeply, and then was still. And that was the end of her.

She was difficult, and ornery, and angry, and almost entirely humorless. I loved her very much, and she saw me through some very difficult times. She is exactly the cat I deserved, and I hope that, in the end, I had learned enough about being alive to be a good owner.

Because that’s really the thing. I needed to learn about being alive to be worth a damn to her. And, like most things in this life, it took me a long time to get it. I’m pretty dumb for being such a smart guy. Mostly it was learning to take things as they are, and trying to remember that others are more important than me. I’m still learning. I hope I’ll have it figured out by the time I see Honey again.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Story of Angry Cat - part 1

Siamese Dream was released on July 27, 1993, per Wikipedia. I mention this because this was the thing I remember most about the day I got my cat. Not that I don’t remember getting the cat, because I do, very clearly, but I also remember that Honey was a surprise, and that my plan, that day, had been to get a copy (on cassette, no less) of the new Smashing Pumpkins album.

Now, you’d think that that would definatively date the start of my relationship with her, but you’d be mistaken. I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy the album on the day it came out. In fact, I probably bought it several months after it came out, possibly used from Zia Records, which was the record store where almost all my friends worked at one point or another in the nineties. So suffice to say there is some ambiguity about how long I’d had her, how long she was alive, and, really, the exact nature of our relationship. Because nothing about my life at that time, and certainly nothing about that cat, was particularly normal.

My friend Chris lived in a second floor apartment overlooking the Greyhound bus station in downtown Tucson. From one window, to the east, you could see the usual parade of homeless men and women, prostitutes, junkies and runaways that congregate around the no-man’s-land of a bus depot. Out the other window looking north stood the venerable Hotel Congress, with its old brick facade. The club downstairs, a gathering place for a particular type of Tucson denizen that today we’d call “hipsters”, had a certain cache at the time. We’d go back to Chris’s place after a show and people watch out the windows late into the night , observing the hook ups and the fights, checking out the scene and making fun of the crazies and the drunks, both career and amateur.

We were also, at that time, trying very hard to become rock stars. As Bryan Adams said, we had a band and we tried real hard, and while Chris was driven, focused, talented, and optimistic, I was ambivalent, insecure, going through a manic religious phase while simultaneously struggling with a compulsive sexuality, and almost always depressed. Couple this with the fact that we lived in the town that had been “The Next Seattle” for so long that it had become a bit of a joke, and you can see that our plans for world domination weren’t very well thought out. Chris put up with my erratic moods and strange obsessions pretty well, and seemed to look out for me. So when my cat at the time ran away, he was concerned.

Part of his concern stemmed from my already delicate mental state. In 1992, through a combination of excessive intake of hallucinogens and severe depression, I’d decided to drop out of school, and then proceeded to have a bit of a breakdown. I’d only managed to get somewhat back on track through the good graces of my parents, who had agreed to help me get back into school if I lived where they said. Where they said was an RV that they’d parked in a trailer park on the northwest side of town.

It was spartan, to put it mildly: fifteen feet long, ceiling not even high enough for me to stand, baking in the summer, freezing in the winter, and water came in through a garden hose hooked up to the back. To make sure I didn’t get any funny ideas, my parents had installed a set of special, handmade fuses that they had then removed, so there was no chance of me driving it away. It had no phone, so any time I wanted to make a call, I had to use the pay phone at the trailer park office.

On the one hand, it kept me out of the elements and made sure that I had almost literally no distractions from my studies (though I managed to find some anyway). On the other hand it was a singularly dark, depressing, unpleasant place to live, and my already isolating tendencies were exacerbated by distance from my friends and lack of means of contact. I was lonely, raw, and already felt that I had made a hash of my life. So, like you do, I got myself a cat.

Animals are usually smarter than people, and she, seeing the lay of the land, promptly split at the first opportunity, never to be seen again. I couldn’t even tell you her name.

Chris and and his girlfriend, Denise, probably my best friends at the time, were concerned about my precarious emotional climate, especially after the cat ran off. Now, Denise befriended a little old lady who lived down the street from my old place near the University, and when the little old lady’s drug dealer son told her that they had kittens to give away, Denise had seen a perfect opportunity to help a friend. She and Chris picked out a kitten and presented her to me as a present. To circle back around, it was in Chris's small apartment over the Greyhound station that I met the other half of what was to be the longest relationship of my life.

The cat was small. Tiny, in fact. She’d probably been taken from her mother just a little too soon, and she was furious. She pooped in the box they were keeping her in, and she mewed at the top of her little lungs. She had, even then, a considerable voice. I was, to be frank, a little intimidated by this bundle of fur, and it was not a case of love at first sight on either end. I was pretty sure I wasn’t ready to take care of a kitten, and the kitten had a list of demands that in no way included this giant klutz of a man picking her up and trying to (indignity of indignities) pet her. We were both pretty sure that this arrangement could only be temporary.

I had picked up a copy of the new Smashing Pumpkins album earlier that day, and I was much more eager to hear it than I was to nurture this angry new spark of life. On the way home from Chris’s in my friend’s car, I blasted the new record over the protesting yowls of the cat until my friend gently suggested that the excessive noise might be scaring her. I was irritated, but relented, and took her back to the tin can of a trailer that I called "home."

We adjusted poorly to being roommates. She was demanding, slept on no schedule I could discern, attacked me with needle sharp claws and teeth while I slept (under the guise of “playing”), pooped and peed wherever she felt like it (the carpet had to eventually be torn out completely, so thoroughly had she and I managed to destroy it - hey, she wasn’t the only messy one who lived there), and yowled with a relentless, irritating voice that was more screaming baby than cat. In a fit of what could only have been romantic blindness, I had named her “Honey,” after the Van Morrison song “Tupelo Honey,” but her name was, and could only have been, “Cat”.

I, on the other hand, was in and out at all hours, an indifferent (to put it mildly) housekeeper, and kind of a jerk. When she attacked me, I would throw her off the bed, often launching her several feet down the RV. To the list of my transgressions you may also add: getting her high once by blowing marijuana smoke into her ears, not always changing her litter box regularly, and buying the cheapest cat food I could (because I was poor).

On the other hand, she was a bit prickly, herself. When I tried to be affectionate with her, she would only accept certain types of affection. Scratches behind the ear were acceptable, as were pets on her back, but woe betide the fool that attempted to touch her belly or paws. He was lucky to come back with a hand, and it would definitely be bloody. She was, as they say, feisty.

We just didn’t know how to get along.

Not that she got along with anybody, really. Her relationship with my girlfriend at the time was problematic. After taking a nap on my bed (always a difficult prospect - the full sized bed took up the entire back third of the RV), my girlfriend woke me up in irritation.

“She sat on my head,” she said, indignantly.

“The cat?”

“The cat sat on my head!” It was no nice move either. This was the action of a jealous woman, who showed her contempt for her rival in the only way she knew how. The fact that, when we were alone, she usually avoided me, meant nothing. It wasn’t that she wanted me all to herself, as much as she didn’t want anyone else to have me.

We existed in this state for years, living around each other and trying to let the other one be. She didn’t seem to like me much, and I was too self-absorbed to really be much good to anyone. But everything was going to change - I had decided to become... an ACTOR.

Come back tomorrow for Part II - Angry Cat Boogaloo