We have always had two—since that brisk October morning in 2004 when my partner said, “It’s time,” and it was. So why had I been stalling?
I loved animals, domestic and otherwise. I was the girl who walked all the neighborhood dogs, then begged to bring the class rabbit home on weekends. (Nightrider—a rabbit of his time.) I was also the girl who cried for a cat every day of her first nine years until at last my parents relented and let me name the black-and-white stray, put out a box with a blanket for him, and a bowl of kibble, and a few homemade toys. (Mittens—his name made him seem more cuddly than he was.)
“I just don’t want to get attached,” I said, driving us across town to the Pittsburgh Animal Rescue.
“Well, that’s quite a switch,” Angie replied, “since if Velcro were a person, Velcro would be you.”
We came home with them that day, littermates born in June and rescued in August. We joked they were Geminis like Angie. A whole family of Geminis plus me, lone Virgo who fretted about the future and organized things. We named one kitten after an island (Tybee), the other after a poet (Oliver). They were four pounds and five pounds, respectively—Ollie always larger. He was our big personality guy, with a little white fluff under his chin like a bow tie. Tybee his shadow, the loyal brother who followed him all of his life.
Years before, in Mrs. Du Pen’s biology class, there was a unit on relationships. Three kinds we had to memorize: mutualistic, commensalistic, and parasitic. I loved the teacher—perhaps some would say I was too attached—so I always raised my hand. I wanted to please her by saying the right thing, by always knowing the right answer.
Mrs. Du Pen stood near the chalkboard, in her dark tights and Doc Martens, describing different kinds of relationships for the students to identify. I kept raising my hand but never fast enough. When she finally called on me, her question was, “What kind of relationship does a human have with a pet—a dog or cat, for instance?”
“Commensalistic!” I declared.
Mrs. Du Pen looked surprised. Her hands slipped into her jumper pockets. “Are you sure?” Which should have been a nudge to reconsider, but I kept trying to rationalize.
“Yes! Because the pet is given a home and saved from a shelter, and it doesn’t hurt the human to bring an animal into her home—I mean, I guess unless she’s allergic.”
Why did I say it, and with such conviction, too? I knew Mrs. Du Pen was going through a divorce. I knew Mrs. Du Pen’s nose sometimes turned pink like a rabbit’s—or a woman who’d been crying in her lab before class. I knew also that Mrs. Du Pen’s favorite creature was a bright red parrot named Zeek, who was as foul-tempered and profane as only a bright red parrot named Zeek could be.
“I suppose in some cases, the relationship between a human and a pet might be merely commensalistic, but I think in most cases, it’s mutualistic, right?” She brushed her hands together, and the chalk-dust scattered like virga. “Everyone benefits when love is reciprocated.”
Under my breath, I muttered, “Sure—until love ends.”
That’s when she cupped her hand around her ear. The wedding ring was gone, I noticed. Her finger looked thin and bare. “I couldn’t hear what you said, dear.”
I shook my head that it was nothing, that she should move on, but for the rest of class, I could feel a prickly heat rising under my turtleneck sweater.
Everybody knew Mrs. Du Pen’s husband was a doctor who had left her for his nurse. Everybody knew Mrs. Du Pen’s parrot once bit her so hard on the cheek she had to get stitches. Maybe everybody knew I loved her, too, and not the way I was supposed to—not like a dream mom or a cool aunt.
How I brooded then. Who was Mrs. Du Pen to teach us about reciprocated love?
Angie and I had lived together nearly two and a half years when we brought our first pair home. “The jokers,” we sometimes called them. As time went on, it was hard to remember the days before Tybee and Ollie thundered down the stairs to greet us, before they stole our hairbands and pounced mercilessly on the chenille plant and mother-in-law’s tongues. Before our laps were always occupied with warm, purring bodies.
I’d think back to our first apartment on Garden Street in Bellingham, Washington. Were there really no cats sprawled before those capacious radiators, no cats crouched on the window ledge watching sea gulls congregate on the roof next door? No cats even on the cross-country move, peeking out from the way back of our Ford Taurus wagon? (Stella, we called her. She looked like a Stella.) Even our first apartment in Squirrel Hill—the landlord said “No cats,” but our neighbors had one, a fluffy tabby who lounged all day in the solarium, paws skyward, slow-blinking into the sun. We didn’t smuggle any cats in, but we didn’t renew that lease either.
Cats were the reason we moved to our first house in Lawrenceville. That lease had fewer restrictions. We worked long days and took classes at night. The need for two, you see, to keep each other company, to keep the mischief fresh. Our Keystone cats always waiting for us. Our Keystone cats, who became our Buckeye cats and then our Bluegrass cats. Ollie figured out how to stand on his hind legs and open the bedroom door. Tybee waited till we stepped out of the shower, then rushed in to drink the water pooling near the drain.
When does the moment come when you can’t imagine your life without someone? Are love and attachment synonyms, or part of a larger sequence? Do we progress from love to attachment, or attachment to love? And is it ever really progress when we know that loss is given? Not just foreshadowed—given.
When Angie and I moved to South Florida in 2012, our cats were eight years old. In veterinary terms, they were “seniors,” so we joked they had retired. Our Sunshine cats basked every day on the screened porch, and later, on the highrise balcony. They had shiny black coats that absorbed the sun. How they relished it. How we relished them. Our attachment was undeniable by then.
I don’t want to tell you the story of their deaths, devastating and inevitable as death always is. I don’t want to tell you about the first time we left our home with only Ollie in tow—“Tybee, you stay here; that’s a good kitty”—and how it ached to return without him. Tybee, running to the door, ears perked, eyes scanning the empty crate. We wondered if he understood this absence wasn’t our choice. We wondered if he blamed us.
But since I don’t want to tell you that story, I’ll tell you instead how I saw the little black kitten alone in a cage at Pet Supermarket on Valentine’s Day. The Humane Society had rescued this kitten near the casino in Dania Beach. They placed her with a family, but in just a few weeks, the humans returned her. Reason given: “Not enough time.” Note in file: “Kitten is spazzy.” Aren’t kittens spazzy by nature? Isn’t “being spazzy” kind of a kitten’s job?
I saw Tina (as we named her, short for Valentina and that auspicious day) before she ever saw me. It had been four months, and Tybee was lonely. He slept in the same spot where he last saw his brother, curled into the afghan, his face in his paws.
Such risk, we knew. Would a staid, twelve-year-old cat ever accept a spazzy kitten—even a Gemini, which Tina was? And would any of us ever love her as we had loved Ollie? Did the heart just keep making room infinitely, or would the day come when it simply ran out of space?
Concerns like these were precisely why Angie and I had titled our joint thesis defense Virgo Laments—and Gemini Says Get Over It. “Get the kitten,” Angie said when I called her. “It’s clearly a sign, and I don’t even believe in signs.”
Tina yowled outside our bedroom door until we let her in. Cats sleep here, she conveyed, with Ollie bravado, and forever after, they did. We bought her kitten chow and a separate litter box, but she wanted nothing to do with separate. Until his death, she ate Tybee’s senior food, used his easy-access senior box, followed him into piles of warm laundry the way a loyal sister would.
Tybee licked her head. Tybee cleaned her ears. For four years, he let her know the feeling was mutual.
“Sixteen years is a good, long life for a cat,” everyone says. They aren’t wrong, and yet. (And yet.) There is no such thing as long enough. We know this, we forget this, and then, some terrible morning in some tiny room, we are forced to remember.
I don’t want to tell you how, at the end, Tybee weighed the same as the day we brought him home from the Pittsburgh Animal Rescue. (Just four pounds.) I don’t want to tell you how the vet said tenderly, removing the stethoscope from his chest, “Your beloved has passed,” or how Angie and I held his warm body and sobbed till our masks soaked through with tears. I don’t want to tell you how I sat in the car weeks later, waiting for the young woman in Garfield scrubs to pass a second box of ashes through my window.
It was our worst déjà vu. Tina waiting at the door. Tina perched on the sill. Tina carrying the catnip mustache that had belonged to him.
“Do we do it again?” I asked Angie. “A whole new generation of cats?”
Tina pacing. Tina mewling. Tina hugging our heels, as though we might disappear, too.
Angie was somber but honest as ever: “Whatever we choose, we know it’s a win-lose.”
I thought of All Dogs Go to Heaven, one of the first movies my parents took me to see at the historic Admiral Theater. We sat in the back row eating cold popcorn my mother had buttered and salted at home. At first, the laughter, the music, the bright, cartoon world of Anne-Marie and her animal friends. Then, the turn: how I keened when Charlie didn’t survive—my first cinematic betrayal.
The credits rolled, the theater cleared, but I kept rocking in my chair. “Julie, he went to Heaven,” my father pleaded. “Can’t you find some comfort in that?”
“No, I can’t!” I was ten years old, too big to be making a scene.
My mother snapped her fingers in a way that meant pull yourself together. “Titles are clues. It’s not called All Dogs Live Forever.”
“His name is Wind,” Angie said, turning the computer screen to face me. “Good Karma Rescue in Fort Lauderdale just posted his picture.”
A black kitten with huge ears. A big dollop of white (triple the size of Ollie’s) like paint splatter across his chest. Keen, yellow eyes.
I won’t deny that I had stopped at Pet Supermarket on my way home from the human supermarket just the week before, hoping for a different kind of déjà vu. The young woman in the toucan mask unloading bags of birdseed said, “Oh, all the kittens from Broward Humane Society found homes this month. That’s one good thing about the pandemic—a lot of people have decided they have time and space in their lives for a pet.”
I nodded, not sure whether to feel disappointed or relieved. No cats waiting, no cats in obvious need. Then, I drove home, opened the door, and there was Tina—her longing and dismay as palpable as mine.
We decided to call him Beaufort, like the Beaufort Scale. He’s only three months old, so he won’t remember being Wind. He gusts through the house, tripping on the stairs like a clumsy puppy, sliding down the banister like an impish child. Beau steals all the Post-Its from my desk and prances around, trailing an ellipsis of colorful, crinkled balls behind him.
Our first Libra, Beau was born at the height of Hurricane Season in Miami. Only he and his littermate, Rain, survived. There’s a couple in Sunrise who have given Rain a good home. We swap pictures sometimes of our twin kittens, both sleeping with their left paws extended or sprawled on their backs, white belly-stripes exposed.
“Beaufort is a force of nature,” we say. “Beaufort is a tempest in a teacup,” we say. “Beaufort is the sweetest squall.”
He’s nothing like Tybee really, or Ollie, for that matter. He’s most like Tina, who tumbles with him from the bed to the floor, then races him out to the screened porch we call the catio—for obvious reasons. When they snuggle up together, like Tina and Tybee did, like Tybee and Ollie did, I always work the math: How many years do we have? At least a decade for Tina, likely more. Beau’s not even six months yet—he could live to be 20 for all we know.
“Look at these jokers,” we say. They’re young and healthy now, a couple of silky sprites. We can trick ourselves into thinking this will last, reimagine the title of the film, or simply put it out of our minds—that faintly ticking clock, that slowly prickling word—lifespan.
“Sometimes I think I should try to practice non-attachment,” I tell Angie. “Like in a spiritual way. Become a Buddhist maybe.”
“Good luck with that,” she smiles, and there’s a timbre in her voice that means, I love you, but you’re Velcro, remember. Teflon you’ll never be.
It was October 9, 2004. The date stuck with me because on the same day in 1988, I convinced my parents to open that first tuna can. “I’ll buy his real cat food with my allowance,” I pledged. “But he’s hungry now. Please—let’s feed him.”
When Angie said, “It’s time,” I knew she was right, but my nose turned pink like a rabbit’s—or a young woman who hadn’t made her peace with the way that nothing lasts.
“Why are you tearing up?” she asked. “Shouldn’t this be a happy day?”
“It is. It’s just—I know it’s so far in the future, and we have to live for the now, but if we bring cats into our lives, they’re going to get old and sick, and we’re going to have to live through their deaths. I haven’t had to live through anyone’s death yet.” Not even Mittens, who still patrolled my parents’ yard in his elder years, eviscerating rodents, dragging dead birds to their doorstep with pride.
“True.” Angie looked at me with her cornflower eyes. “But of course we’re going to get old and sick, too, and eventually we’re going to die, probably, hopefully, not any time soon, but—do you think we should call this whole thing off?
“I mean—that’s a terrible thought,” I stammered.
“We’re young. We could part ways now and do our best to get over each other. Otherwise, by the time these kittens we haven’t even adopted yet become geriatric cats, we’re going to be in too deep, aren’t we?” She laced up her boots with her beautiful hands.
“Marilyn Hacker,” I sighed, from the sonnet we both loved: “One of us will die sooner, one of us is going to outlive the other, but we’re alive now.” I reached for my coat and felt around for my gloves in the pocket.
Angie shrugged. “What can I say? Mortality bites.”
Tonight, on the high cabinet in our living room, visible through the sliding glass door, I can see the twin boxes, their brass nameplates—TYBEE, OLIVER—side by side. Angie sips her wine, and I sip my ginger ale. It’s our human happy hour after a long day on Zoom. Tina and Beau frolic at our feet. Every hour is happy for the cats who don’t know there’s a bell that tolls, a farm that’s bought, a bucket that’s kicked, a Reaper who grims.
Unlike death, love is not inevitable. But not unlike death, our awareness of love changes how we live.
It’s been so long now it’s hard for me to remember a past without Angie. Wasn’t she always there? Didn’t she sit beside me in third grade, rivaling mine for the best book report on Black Beauty or Island of the Blue Dolphins? Didn’t we dangle upside down from the monkey bars together, our soft bellies exposed? And didn’t she come home with me after school to play jacks on the driveway, gin rummy on the sprawling back lawn?
I swear I can see the early spring wind tossing her hair, the two jokers she leaves out of the deck, pinned with a rock so they won’t blow away.
“Is that your cat?” Child-Angie asks, pointing to the sleek black feline with four white feet peeking at us through the fence-slats.
“No.” I shake my head. “Not really.” I realize I love Angie even then, watching her pale hands with the bright green veins shuffle cards like an accordion. “Not yet.”
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