Last fall, my sister found Freeway, aged four weeks, wandering along the emergency lane of a Los Angeles freeway. At six months, he not only fetches bottle caps but has developed the habit of trying to walk on his hind legs.
I find a cinnamon-colored strand of fur, black-banded, poking through the sleeve of my sweater. Another cat hair; I had hoped I’d gotten them all out of my life. They turn up now and then, little strands of wildness among towels in the cupboard, under couch cushions. I brush them up quickly and throw them away, feeling nostalgic and guilty. Each hair I encounter reminds me. Not long ago I took my latest cat to “put down.”
It’s guilt that prompts the quotation marks around those words. The bald truth is, I had the cat killed. As I forced him, tensed and flailing into the arms of an “animal technician,” I reverted to a behavior from childhood: imaging the cat and I were psychically connected, that he could feel my love for him and was calmed by it. He wrapped his muscular, clawless paws more tightly around the cardboard carton and glared. I cried then, and the office clerk who handed me the forms to sign said, “It’s okay, dear…. Are you okay to drive home?”
It was the right thing to do, I was told by vets, humane society personnel, my mother, my shrink. I couldn’t find him another home. If I let him loose in a nice neighborhood, he’d starve or die mauled by a car or another animal.
I named him Edward because the empty, fur-covered husks tipping his paws reminded me oddly of Edwards Scissorhands, Edward because he seemed aristocratic and feeble, a sickly prince. In playful moments I called him Kittykins or Mr. Furpants. He was Ruddy Abyssinian. Writer Jan Morris calls the Abyssinian cat the sexiest creature in the world. Edward would have been gorgeous if he had all his fur. Long ears, as tenderly thin and succulent-bodied as artichoke leaves. Slender bodied, long of leg. His coat was ticked with a wild creature’s pale sherbet orange overlaid with spicy gold, red and brown; a more subtle and harmonious version of my living room carpet. Black hairs clustered at the points of ears, nose paws, and tail. His pads and nose were the rich, deep orange of fine leather goods.
Edward, however, was neurotic and scabby, prone to skin irritations. Declawed by a previous owner, he attended to his itches with his teeth, flinging damp flecks of skin, dried blood, and clumps of soft fur all over the apartment.
Months of failed strategies (cortisone and antibiotics, twice-weekly baths with special shampoos, herbal rubs, powders, sprays) and months of vet bills led me to the decision to give Ed up. Inquiries yielded no results. One day I suspended all emotion and crammed him back into the cardboard box in which I’d brought him home from the animal shelter last July 11. Waiting for Edward to be processed and brought out to me, I had watched the solar eclipse from the shelter parking lot.
Ed and I never bonded the way I had with previous cats. Preoccupied with his discomfort, he couldn’t long tolerate to be petted, to sleep — content and curved as an embryo — with his silky flank against my cheek, to chase strings or spiders. At the best times, he was a compact bun on the arm of the couch, slit-eyed, one ear cocked to the television. But a twitch in his tail and he leapt up and jerked his head around to nip himself, teeth clacking audibly into his own flesh.
Occasionally, Edward would permit me to place a bottle cap or champagne casket on his head. He would stand there, paws demure, looking proud of his hat. He stole pens from me and hid them under the couch. He sat upon my thigh and pressed a paw against the word processor’s keyboard: ghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhggggggggggggggggggggggh.
We were closest in the bathroom. He managed, with the little prompting, to learn how to open and shut the medicine cabinet, though not in sequence. What he liked best was to stand on the bathroom counter and stretch up to the window. This is a position cat lovers thrill to; the animal looks so like a little man, a fairy tale creature. Tom Kitten, Puss in Boots. First, Edward put his front paws along the tile ledge, which was level with his chest. Then he walked them up the wall to the towel rack. If he craned his neck, he could see out the window. He stared out at the canyon, alert for the rustle of birds. If you stood behind him, you could run your hands down his warm tube of body, rest your chin on the top of his head. He would lift his nose and butt his head against your neck, slide it along your chin adoringly, return his gaze out the window I acquired Ed because I missed cats, deeply, childishly. This love of cats is a kind of sickness. It goes way, way back. The fierceness of it when I was a child was such that, holding a kitten, I was hard pressed to restrain from biting it, twisting it in my hands. The delicacy and innocence of that wispy cloud of fur, the tiny beseeching voice, were unbearable.
It was an embarrassment to me and to others, the way I used to drop to my knees cooing whenever one appeared within 50 yards, screeching, “KITTY!” from a car window, in a voice suddenly an octave higher. See a cat, regress instantly. I resisted only the most many and diseased-looking animals.
Before Ed, I had been catless since the breakup of a relationship in which my ex-boyfriend, lips compressed with bitterness, hissed, “Don’t even think about asking me for the cats!”
I have had a lifetime of cats. They are little memory markers, signifying love affairs, apartments, jobs. The move to San Diego. Elizabeth and Tinkerbell, last vestige of home, who ran away during a rest stop in Los Angeles. The house on Winona. Mr. Mouse, a grey tabby kitten so flea-ridden he developed anemia and had to have blood transfusions. With S., there was Jupiter, another sickly grey tabby kitten given us by a house guest. Artistic and Swiss, P. had sensed that our house “needed something.” The people at the animal shelter and not wanted to sell P. this kitten, had told him something about sickness that he, bad in English, didn’t understand. Jupie managed to run us up quite a bill before he succumbed to kidney disease. S. went home to France shortly thereafter. A communication problem.
The last boyfriend and I raised two cats from infancy. They were part of our lovers’ rhetoric. Our strolls at dusk were “cat walks.” He’s keep tally of how many we saw, his joined the game and gave me enthusiastic reports whenever he’d spotted one (the basis of our only real rapport).
The boyfriend was completely at our two cats’ beck and call, sometimes seduced into feeding them four meals a day. Every attitude they struck delighted him. The two cats stretched on their sides, thin as dinner mints. “Flat cats!” The two cats sprawled awkwardly, stone asleep, on the floor. “Look, they fell from the sky!” The two cats running restless circles around his legs at feeding time. “Fur sharks!” Before he set the food on the ground, he would hold their bodies together side by side for a minute like a team of horses. “Matching cats!” The white cat trotting purposefully to the window to stand sentry. “Safety cat! Civil Defense cat!”
When the boyfriend played his harmonica, one of the cats would leap to his lap and try to slide her mouth between the instrument and his lips. The other would attack her. Though neutered, he would mount her and mock intercourse, biting into her neck until she screamed. Locked inside the apartment alone, they left us battle scenes: tufts of fur in the green shag carpet, lamps overturned, books knocked from shelves.
The first nights the boyfriend and I spent together, the cats were being conceived: their mother, a flatulent and complaining calico named Piewacket, howled for sex outside my bedroom window. a month later, Piewacket slept between us, the hard lumps in her belly making us giggle. The litter produced five kittens, who squirmed and squealed in a cardboard box lined with eucalyptus leaves as a preventative measure against fleas.
We kept two, the monster and the runt. The cats bound us together — sometimes literally, pinning our bodies into the bed with their weight on the covers. Waking in the middle of the night, we had to kick them off to make love.
Zézé, slender and white, had a faint black toupee between her ears. The pure white rectangles of her sides were canvasses the artist boyfriend could not resist; often she meandered around multicolored with chalk stripes he'd given her. We named her for a Brazilian actress, Zézé Motta. Like Motta, we saw her as a savage princess, full of tricks and given to exotic tastes. She slept atop a high stool in the kitchen. She was partial to lettuce and spinach leaves, which she pulled with her teeth from the vegetable crisper if the refrigerator were left open. Proud huntress, she brought us tributes of cricket, mouse, and sparrow through the hole she tore in a window screen.
I once commented to the boyfriend that we should train Zézé to leap through the circular aerial on the television; she listening from her perch atop the set, stepped through the wire circle, paused, and looked at us over her shoulder. She drank copious amounts of water, but only from clear drinking glasses. If we carelessly left on the shelf above and behind our pillows, we risked being awoken by a thump on the head as a glass fell and doused us.
Zézé disappeared for days at a time — was rescued, weak with thirst and meowing in her plaintive Chinese voice, from a neighbor's garage, from a crevice between two fences, from the 20-foot-high center of a palm tree at 2 a.m. She scaled the screens of second-story bedroom windows. The boyfriend liked to cradle her in the crook of his arm. She batted soft paws at his finger stroking the meringue peaks of her furred stomach. "Zézé, monkey cat..." He closed his lips over the tips of her translucent seashell ears to warm them.
In Zézé's kittenhood, we kept a close eye on her. Standing in the kitchen one dinnertime, I had turned on the oven and was leaning against its door when the boyfriend asked, "I wonder were Zézé's gone to"
Somewhere behind and below me, I heard two faint thumps.
The boyfriend's eyes met mine. "My God!"
I turned and wrenched open the broiler drawer. There, hunched wild-eyed to the left of the broiler pan and the gas flame was Zézé. My left hand grabbed at her front legs while my right one reached up for the oven dial. The boyfriend's hand came down on mine and we turned it off.
Zézé backed away from my hand toward the flame, cringed, and pawed frantically in front of her. The flame clicked off. No room to pull her out over the side of the broiler pan. I leapt back; the boyfriend took over. He pushed his hand against her side, and she leapt through a circular hole in the metal to the left of the broiler drawer. The smell of singed fur rose up rank. Zézé's whiskers were curled and blackened like a cartoon villain's. Smoke wafted off her back. I threw her in the kitchen sink and turned on the faucet. She sat there complacently. The boyfriend lifter her from the sink and cradled her in his arms. We dried her with kitchen towels. The odd thing was, her muscles weren't tensed. She was utterly relaxed. Little white cats are strange that way.
With no scientific evidence for the claim, I believe there are character traits distinctive to cats of certain colors. King Golden Pleasure, violator of Zézé, was an orange-striped tom. Left unneutered, these cats are bullies among their own kind. Castrated, they're wimps out of doors but tyrants inside. With humans, orange-striped toms are spoiled babies, sweet and burly.
He'll put up with anything. Sleeping croissant-shaped on a bed, an orange-striped tom can be lifted and set down elsewhere without disturbing his sleep. He can be placed in a paper bag, or dressed in doll's clothes, or held, meaty legs outstretched, to be displayed like a wine bottle to friends.
Orange-striped toms I have known: Tom and Cheddar and Russell and Blue — Kingo's twin, struck down on a Clairemont residential street and laid to rest in a StrideRite shoebox, into which his howling brother tried to crawl.
Adventurous but stupid, the orange-striped tom is often tragically fascinated by cars. Kingo wanted atop a redwood fence next to my parking space for my return home from work. As I swung my Buick LeSabre into the spot, he'd jump onto the hood and ride it, legs wide and slightly bent, into position. Then he would walk up the hood to the windshield, around the corner to the driver's side window, and wait there until the door opened before leaping to the ground.
Reading the Sunday paper in the living room one day, i heard a strange scrabbling noise outside the window. It wounded like cat claws on car metal. looking out, I saw Kingo hanging by his neck from the slanted forward end of the Buick's partially opened window. I screamed. A neighbor, hosing down his truck nearby, ran over.
The rescue was a three-person operation. One to support the body and hold it still; one to frantically tug at the locked car door; one to fetch the keys from inside the house, unlock the door, start the ignition, and roll down the power window. Other than a sore throat, the cat exhibited no signs of injury.
Perhaps the experience made him more determined to conquer the mystery of the car. Not long after this incident, I had driven about two blocks from home when I noticed a peculiar, Eiffel Tower-shaped shadow on the car's hood. I stopped, set the brake, and got out. Kingo was planted on the car roof, legs braced like a surfer's.
The same cat made a practice of following us when we'd walk the three blocks to the liquor store. He was hit one hot midnight while bounding joyously ahead of us across Monroe Avenue; bounced off the inside of one of the car's tires, took off running, disappeared down the alley.
The boyfriend and I split up, jogged in opposite directions around the block, yelling the cat's name. He came home half an hour later. Ran straight in, up the stairs, and collapsed on his side, dead-eyed, legs straight out and trembling. The fur on his paws was stringy with blood, the claws were completely torn or worn off by the spurt of adrenaline that had carried him over the asphalt. The moans coming out of him with his breath sounded human, but he looked like a little machine that had short-circuited.
We wrapped him in towels, put him in a wicker laundry basket, and ran red lights all the way to the emergency clinic. I steered with one hand because I couldn't take the other off his shivering side. I drove in bare feet, sweating and sobbing hysterically. Tomasina, Tomasina, don't die. The boyfriend was terrified of me that night.
But being an orange-striped tom, Kingo had no internal injuries. His pelvis was fractured. We had to keep him confined in a pen made of purloined milk crates in the corner of the dining room floor until his bones healed. We fed him baby food through an eye dropper. For months afterward, he refused to eat anything but Gerber's strained turkey.
Orange-striped toms are excellent comforters. they are attracted to abdomens churning with menstrual cramps, faces stained with tears, and laps remaining stationary before desks for any length of time. Their thick-furred bodies seem to generate more heat than those of other cats. Their purrs are deeper, their meows more robust and demanding. While my father extracted redwood splinters (souvenir of sliding down a neighbor's fence) from my five-year-old buttocks, childhood companion Tom stayed close to my hot ear. I pressed my saliva-stranded open mouth to his stomach, inhaling that good smell, faintly fishbreath, faintly musk. He gripped my parents' bedspread with his claws and purred.
If any fault is to be found with the orange-striped tom, it is that he tends to dig his claws in too deep when kneading human flesh. he can also be unpleasantly clingy, wanting to chew on hair, suck on ears and sweaters with sexual fervor. While kneading blankets, Kingo, vulgar as a dog, would curve his back and thrust his pelvis, displaying a tiny penis that looked like the pimiento in a cocktail olive.
If while you are engaging in sex a cat insinuates itself between your sweaty chest and your partner's, it is most likely an orange-striped tom. I awakened once from an erotic afternoon dream to purring in my ears and the sensation of my scalp being massaged by tiny, rhythmic needles. My nose itched with fur, my hair was tangled, my right ear was soaked with cat drool. My college roommate's pet, Russell, sharing my pillow. How long he had been doing it, how responsible he was for the sensations in my dreams, I don't know.
Black-and-white cats, the ones that make you think of Holstein cows, have something buggy in them, some genetic twist. Bojangles was the star of a cat circus once connected by my aunt, sister and self in my grandmother's back yard. Breaking a long twig from a willow tree, you could run along, trailing the stick just above the ground behind you. Bojie raced after it, leaping over the longer blades of dark green grass. You stopped suddenly and swept the switch up into the air. Bojie lept after it, twisting elegantly in the air. We estimate he sometimes achieved a height of two, three feet off the ground, one paw extended upward with Olympian grace.
Sabina was the surrogate child in my relationship with an alcoholic. His beverage of choice was Budweiser beer, purchased in economical quart-size bottles. The twist-off metallic cap from such a bottle could be thrown across the room, flashing and making a pinging noise on impact. Sabina would run for it, pick it up between her teeth so that it covered her nose and upper lip, a masquerade pig's snout. Then she'd trot towards you, piglike, and deposit it delicately in your outstretched palm. Unfortunately, a visit to a low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic erased this behavior from Sabina's mind.
Quatro formed a seemingly lustful attachment to my sister. When she dressed, he sat in the room watching her. When she slept, he slid under the covers alongside her body, brushed his thick plume of tail over her stomach and thighs. When she held him in her arms, he patted paws on her mouth and cheeks, claws sheathed, purring damply.
But the clearest evidence of Quatro's unnatural desire was in his jealousy of my sister's husband. If the man left a shirt or jacket on bed or chair, Quatro left it fur-covered and claw-punctured. If the man left his guitar leaning against a wall, Quatro knocked it over. If the man was alone in the house with him, Quatro incessantly howled for food and demanded to be let in and out of doors. ("That's funny," my sister would muse on hearing her husband's complaints. "He never acts like that when I'm around....")
Quatro's greatest triumph was to wait until husband and wife were deep asleep, then spring through the air and land squarely on the man's chest, claws out.
Quatro, to the husband's disguised relief, did not adjust to a change in residence and disappeared.
Last fall, my sister found Freeway, aged four weeks, wandering along the emergency lane of a Los Angeles freeway (hence the name). At six months, he not only fetches bottle caps but has developed the pitiful and grotesque habit of trying to walk on his hind legs.
He first exhibited this tendency at four months. Telephone reports did not convince me. On a recent visit, however, I was walking across the living room when I saw the car rear up and toddle towards me. The cat's spine, long and supple, swayed snakily in the air. The forepaws, curled to the chest, jerked upward like spastic's. Freeway took five rapid steps before he pitched forward to the ground. "See?!" My sister crowed.
I am reminded of all these things. I think about my dreams in which cats drown in floods, are mutilated, sewn up inside cushions, subjected to bizarre surgeries without anesthesia. I think about all the cats I have known and remember the times they were not mine, when they were wild cats, galloping in for meals with cold, ruffled fur smelling of smoke, untouchable.