By Sean Wilkinson
I have a cat. I am not a “cat person,” per se. I’m not the kind of person who makes a beeline for the familiar smell of cat piss in someone’s house, arms outstretched and fingers waggling toward whatever needy, furry being is running figure eights around chair legs. I don’t seek out a cat’s attention and get in its face, cooing as if it were a baby. I don’t dislike cats in general, I just base my opinion on each individual cat. To say that you like all cats or dislike all cats is pretty much the equivalent of pet racism. Simply having fur, whiskers, four legs and a tail tells me nothing about any given feline’s personality.
That being said, I truly enjoy the presence of a good cat. A sleek, well-evolved animal, muscular and intelligent, intuitive and charming. Independent, with occasional bouts of lap time. Endearing and quirky.
I have just described the antithesis of my current full-time roommate, Cleo. Cleo and I met nearly 10 years ago, when I rescued her from a POW camp of a pet store on Forest Ave. and brought her to my first Portland apartment. She was charming and sweet, and had several endearing qualities. She had a certain spot in the house she would run to when I shook the catnip can, and she carried around a stuffed cat that was almost as big as she was. She was intelligent and affectionate.
When I left Portland four years later, Cleo moved in with my parents. I returned to Portland two years after that, but Cleo remained at my parents’ house until recently, when I moved into a new apartment (one without human or feline roommates) and my parents suggested this would be a great time to rekindle my relationship with my estranged cat. I don’t know what happened in the years we were apart, but Cleo is a very different cat these days. I suppose we both did some growing up….
Cleo is now like a needy, old, bi-polar woman with gastric issues.
She waits for me at the door when I come home. Either she hears me coming or she spends all day sitting at the door, counting the minutes, sighing little fish-breath sighs. As soon as I open the door, she immediately starts the leg weaves, even as I’m trying to shed my bag and shoes and keys and whatever mail I’ve picked up. I know that’s common cat behavior, but she has perfected the art of actually getting under the feet, so I have to do a jig around the apartment to avoid stepping on her brittle, old-woman legs.
I take some time to pet her, but this is a dangerous game. The safe zone extends from an inch behind her ears to three inches or so before her tail begins – just her back. No picking her up and rubbing her belly. No petting the tail. Don’t spend more than three seconds on the head, but don’t spend much less than three seconds, either. Too quick is almost as bad as too slow. Break any of these rules and Cleo unleashes a vicious barrage of skin-shredding swipes with her giant paws. Cleo is short, skinny – waifish, even – but she has freakishly large catcher’s-mitt paws. With these paws, she can let loose a Shock and Awe campaign of needle-sharp bloodletting. Then, ten seconds after an attack, she’s rubbing her head between my ankles again as if it was some other cat that wanted to bleed me to death.
On top of this, Cleo loves kicking litter as far as possible from the box. She loves to run back and forth through the apartment at four o’clock in the morning, accordioning the rugs into piles, knocking things over, and ending each sprint perched on my chest or my pillow, ears back, crazy eyes flashing in the dim light. I fully expect to find her poised at my throat one night, fangs mere inches from my jugular.
This all may sound old hat to other cat owners. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe I’m just a bad pet owner, because my patience is too low. Maybe I just don’t like cats after all, and I’m being unfair to poor little Cleo.
Well, listen to this and try to imagine yourself maintaining any semblance of patience….
Cleo is a puker. I think she enjoys puking. She spends much of her time eating her food as fast as she can, puking that food up, and then begging for more food. She also spends a great deal of my time that way. A cat occasionally puking is one thing. Hairballs are another story entirely. This is chronic, endless streams of chunky, juicy, steaming piles of what looks like lentil soup being spewed across my floor at least once a day – often two or three times in one night. And this barf only looks like lentil soup. It smells like what I imagine a seagull’s breath smells like: a fine blend of old, stinky animal flesh, fish guts, feces and rotten bits of trash stewed in a broth of bile. Sounds nice, huh? Now imagine bending over those piles to clean them up, sometimes three times a night. I go through a lot of paper towels.
I’m jealous of other people’s cats and ashamed to feel as though I’m not proud of my own. Is this how parents of sub-par children feel? My girlfriend and I were having dinner with friends at their house last week. They have a few cats, and one was just lounging near the table as we drank and talked. I stared at this cat, at its serene, sleek body, its regular-sized paws and non-crazy eyes. During the next pause in the conversation, I blurted, “You know how some people are ashamed of their family? No matter how much they want to love them, no matter how much they want to just accept their family for who they are… they’re just… ashamed?”
I had the table’s rapt attention, a forlorn look in my eyes, my tone having taken a serious, sharp turn toward melancholy.
“I don’t love my cat,” I continued. “I’m jealous of your cats. I’m jealous of everyone’s cats. I feel awful. I feel terrible, but… I hate my cat.” Everyone looked at me for a moment in silence. Then someone started laughing, and soon we were all laughing. They’d thought I was about to admit some dark family secret, some awful reason I was ashamed of my family.
I guess that gave me some perspective. After all, it’s a cat. It’s not a real person. I don’t hate her, but she is high maintenance. Sure, she may be a little extra work, but she has her moments. I do enjoy her presence in the apartment now and then. In fact, we have kind of a sweet, Odd Couple-esque relationship, minus the poker games and canned laughs. And if it comes down to it, if it gets really bad, I can always just drown her in a bucket.