Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
We were only supposed to watch Tundra for a few months. Tundra’s owner, Jessica, promised that when she found a building that allowed pets then she’d take Tundra back. This sounded optimistic, but knowing Jessica as well as I did, I knew this was a promise based on a dream and good intentions. When Jessica had asked April, my fiancee, if she would mind watching Tundra until she could locate a pet-friendly building, I knew that this essentially translated into, “Do you want my cat?”
April was an assistant manager at the hair salon in Pacific Beach where she and Jessica worked. April and I lived in Ocean Beach on Bacon Street.
The first month that Tundra was in our care, April would give me daily progress reports of Jessica’s apartment hunt that always sounded a little too encouraging. “Jessica thinks she found a place over on Opal Street,” or, “The manager at the Sea Breeze Apartments is giving her a walk through tomorrow,” were two of her standard statements, with only the apartment complex or street name varying every few days. April clung to the idea that Jessica desperately wished to recapture the responsibilities of pet ownership as quickly as possible.
“That sounds good,” I’d say as I watched Tundra creep across the floor ever closer to the plate on our coffee table that held my tuna fish or sharp cheddar cheese sandwich. When Tundra would notice me noticing her, she’d stop her advancement on my food and begin to move her front paws energetically as if she had just discovered something on the carpet to play with.
Tundra was about four months old. She had green eyes and was very playful. She was mostly white, except for a few black spots on her sides, half of her tail, and at the base of both of her ears. Tundra was a character, and it didn’t take long for her to grow on me.
During Tundra’s second month with us, April’s progress reports of Jessica were no longer a daily occurrence. Two reports a week were now about the norm. Into the third month, the reports were reduced to one a week, and after Tundra had been with us for a third of the year April stopped the reports completely and accepted what I had known all along: Tundra was ours. I didn’t mind. My fondness for Tundra had only grown.
April, predictably, had been in love with Tundra since the first day. Elaine, however, was now only just beginning to tolerate Tundra. Elaine was the cat that Dottie, my grandmother (Dottie would not allow anyone to call her grandmother—or even mother for that matter, she said it made her sound old; when my mother and her two sisters were children they were all forced to call their own mother by her first name), had given to us a year earlier. Elaine had been just a tiny gray, green-eyed ball of fur that first day she came into our lives, so her earliest memories, up until four months ago, were of being the only animal in the house. The very idea of having to share her owners with another cat was something Elaine, undoubtedly, found insufferable. Perhaps Elaine hoped that one day, as mysteriously as she had appeared, Tundra would simply vanish. But her jealousy and unfulfilled wishes were things that Elaine would have to live with. April and I couldn’t put Tundra through the trauma of being given away again.
From the beginning Elaine wanted Tundra to know that she had been there first and was still the reigning queen. Elaine consistently treated Tundra as if she didn’t exist, ignoring her as easily as she would an empty food bowl. But Tundra was relentless and never stopped involving Elaine in her games. Tundra liked to hide beneath the stairs and then leap out at Elaine when she walked by. On other occasions, Tundra hid behind the geraniums outside, waiting patiently until Elaine strolled regally down the walk. Tundra would spy her prey nearing and then hunker down even closer to the ground. Only Tundra’s eyes would be visible through the geraniums’ stems as her back end wiggled in anticipation. Elaine now in her crosshairs, Tundra pounced, coming down on Elaine’s back. Elaine’s eyes bulged in surprise as she was pulled to the ground. Rolling together across the walk in a ball they came to rest near the front door. Tundra remained lying on the ground, Elaine, however, jumped immediately to her feet as she tried vainly to regain her composure. Tundra looked up at Elaine, not understanding why Elaine couldn’t appreciate her little joke. Elaine would glare momentarily down at Tundra and then stalk off, highly insulted.
Elaine snubbing Tundra, and Tundra trying to insinuate herself into Elaine’s life continued with no end in sight. But then one evening April and I witnessed a memorable moment. Tundra was hiding beneath the couch. Elaine walked by and Tundra’s paw appeared, batting at her ankles. Elaine looked at the paw as if it were a particularly unappealing brand of cat food. Then she did a remarkable thing, she began to bat back at the paw. Elaine’s cold shoulder melted away, and soon the cats were playing together beneath the couch. That day a friendship that rivaled sibling devotion was born …
… # 2 coming.