I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life. Under common law, this cat was my wife. I fell asleep at night with the warm, pleasant weight of the cat on my chest. The first thing I saw on most mornings was the foreshortened paw of the cat retreating slowly from my face and her baleful crescent glare informing me that it was Cat Food Time. As I often told her, in a mellow, resonant, Barry White voice: “There is no luuve … like the luuve that exists … between a man … and his cat.”
The cat was jealous of my attention; she liked to sit on whatever I was reading, walked back and forth and back and forth in front of my laptop’s screen while I worked, and unsubtly interpolated herself between me and any woman I may have had over. She and my ex Kati Jo, who was temperamentally not dissimilar to the cat, instantly sized each other up as enemies. When I was physically intimate with a woman, the cat did not discreetly absent herself but sat on the edge of the bed with her back to me, facing rather pointedly away from the scene of debauch, quietly exuding disapproval, like your grandmother’s ghost.
I realize that people who talk at length about their pets are tedious at best, and often pitiful or repulsive.
Such people post photos of their pets online, tell little stories about them, speak to them in disturbing falsettos, dress them in elaborate costumes and carry them around in handbags and BabyBjorns, have professional portraits taken of them and retouched to look like old master oil paintings. When people over the age of 10 invite you to a cat birthday party or a funeral for a dog, you need to execute a very deft etiquette maneuver, the equivalent of an Immelmann turn or triple axel, in order to decline without acknowledging that they are, in this area, insane.
This is especially true of childless people, like me, who tend to become emotionally overinvested in their animals and to dote on them in a way that gives onlookers the creeps. Often the pet seems to be a surrogate child, a desperate focus or joint project for a relationship that’s lost any other raison d’être, like becoming insufferable foodies or getting heavily into cosplay. When such couples finally have a child their cats or dogs are often bewildered to find themselves unceremoniously demoted to the status of pet; instead of licking the dinner plates clean and piling into bed with Mommy and Daddy, they’re given bowls of actual dog food and tied to a metal stake in a circle of dirt.
I looked up how much Americans spend on pets annually and have concluded that you do not want to know. I could tell you what I spent on my own cat’s special kidney health cat food and kidney and thyroid medication, and periodic blood tests that cost $300 and always came back normal, but I never calculated my own annual spending, lest I be forced to confront some uncomfortable facts about me. What our mass spending on products to pamper animals who seem happiest while rolling in feces or eating the guts out of rodents — who don’t, in fact, seem significantly less happy if they lose half their limbs — tells us about ourselves as a nation is probably also something we don’t want to know. But it occurs to me that it may be symptomatic of the same chronic deprivation as are the billion-dollar industries in romance novels and porn.
I’ve speculated that people have a certain reservoir of affection that they need to express, and in the absence of any more appropriate object — a child or a lover, a parent or a friend — they will lavish that same devotion on a pug or a Manx or a cockatiel, even on something neurologically incapable of reciprocating that emotion, like a monitor lizard or a day trader or an aloe plant. Konrad Lorenz confirms this suspicion in his book “On Aggression,” in which he describes how, in the absence of the appropriate triggering stimulus for an instinct, the threshold of stimulus for that instinct is gradually lowered; for instance, a male dove deprived of female doves will attempt to initiate mating with a stuffed pigeon, a rolled-up cloth or any vaguely bird-shaped object, and, eventually, with an empty corner of its cage.
Although I can clearly see this syndrome as pathological in others, I was its medical textbook illustration, the Elephant Man of the condition. I did not post photographs of my cat online or talk about her to people who couldn’t be expected to care, but at home, alone with the cat, I behaved like some sort of deranged arch-fop. I made up dozens of nonsensical names for the cat over the years — The Quetzal, Quetzal Marie, Mrs. Quetzal Marie the Cat, The Inquetzulous Q’ang Marie. There was a litany I recited aloud to her every morning, a sort of daily exhortation that began, “Who knows, Miss Cat, what fantastical adventures the two of us will have today?” I had a song I sang to her when I was about to vacuum, a brassy Vegas showstopper called “That Thing You Hate (Is Happening Again).” We collaborated on my foot-pedal pump organ to produce The Hideous Cat Music, in which she walked back and forth at her discretion on the keyboard while I worked the pedals. The Hideous Cat Music resembled the work of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, with aleatory passages and unnervingly sustained tone clusters.
I never meant to become this person. My own cat turned up as a stray at my cabin on the Chesapeake Bay when I was sitting out on the deck eating leftover crabs. She was only a couple of months old then, small enough that my friend Kevin could fit her whole head in his mouth. She appeared from underneath the porch, piteously mewling, and I gave her some cold white crabmeat. I did not know then that feeding a stray cat is effectively adopting that cat.
For a few weeks I was in denial about having a cat. My life at that time was not structured to accommodate the responsibility of returning home once every 24 hours to feed an animal. I posted fliers in the post office and grocery store with a drawing of the cat, hoping its owner would reclaim it. It seems significant in retrospect that I never entertained the possibility of taking the cat to the pound.
When I left for a long weekend for a wedding in another state, my friend Gabe explained to me that the cat clearly belonged to me now. I protested. This was a strictly temporary situation until I could locate a new home for the cat, I explained. I was not going to turn into some Cat Guy.
“How would you feel,” he asked me, “if you were to get home from this weekend and that cat was gone?”
I moaned and writhed in the passenger seat. “You’re Cat Guy,” he said in disgust.
It’s amusing now to remember the strict limits I’d originally intended to place on the cat. One of the boundaries I meant to set was that the cat would not be allowed upstairs, where I slept. That edict was short-lived. It was not long before I became wounded when the cat declined to sleep with me.
“You’re in love with that cat!” my then-girlfriend Margot once accused me. To be fair, she was a very attractive cat. People would comment on it. My friend Ken described her as “a supermodel cat,” with green eyes dramatically outlined in what he called “cat mascara” and bright pink “nose leather.” Her fur, even at age 19, was rich and soft and pleasant to touch.
Biologists call cats “exploitive captives,” an evocative phrase that might be used to describe a lot of relationships, not all of them interspecies. I made the mistake, early on, of feeding the cat first thing in the morning, forgetting that the cat could control when I woke up — by meowing politely, sitting on my chest and staring at me, nudging me insistently with her face, or placing a single claw on my lip. She refused to drink water from a bowl, coveting what she believed was the superior-quality water I drank from a glass. I attempted to demonstrate to the cat that the water we drank was the very same water by pouring it from my glass into her bowl right in front of her, but she was utterly unmoved, like a birther being shown Obama’s long-form Hawaiian birth certificate. In the end I gave in and began serving her water in a glass tumbler, which she had to stick her whole face into to drink from.
Sometimes it would strike me that an animal was living in my house, and it seemed as surreal as if I had a raccoon or a kinkajou running loose in my house. Yet that animal and I learned, on some level, to understand each other. Although I loved to bury my nose in her fur when she came in from a winter day and inhale deeply of the Coldcat Smell, the cat did not like this one bit, and fled. For a while I would chase her around the house, yelling, “Gimme a little whiff!” and she would hide behind the couch from my hateful touch. Eventually I realized that this was wrong of me. I would instead let her in and pretend to have no interest whatsoever in smelling her, and, after not more than a minute or so the cat would approach me and deign to be smelled. I should really be no less impressed by this accord than if I’d successfully communicated with a Papuan tribesman, or decoded a message from the stars.
Whenever I felt embarrassed about factoring a house pet’s desires into major life decisions, some grown-up-sounding part of me told myself, it’s just a cat. It’s generally believed that animals lack what we call consciousness, although we can’t quite agree on what exactly this is, and how we can pretend to any certainty about what goes on in an animal’s head has never been made clear to me. To anyone who has spent time with an animal, the notion that they have no interior lives seems so counterintuitive, such an obdurate denial of the empathetically self-evident, as to be almost psychotic. I suspect that some of those same psychological mechanisms must have allowed people to rationalize owning other people.
Another part of me, perhaps more sentimental but also more truthful, had to acknowledge that the cat was undeniably another being in the world, experiencing her one chance at being alive, as I was. It always amused me to hit or elongate the word “you” in speaking to the cat, as in, “Yooouu would probably like that!” because it was funny — and funny often means disquieting and true — to remind myself that there really was another ego in the room with me, with her own likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies and exasperatingly wrongheaded notions about whose water is better. It did not seem to me like an insoluble epistemological mystery to divine what the cat would like when I woke up and saw her face two inches from mine and the Tentative Paw slowly withdrawing from my lip.
I admit that loving a cat is a lot less complicated than loving a human being. Because animals can’t ruin our fantasies about them by talking, they’re even more helplessly susceptible to our projections than other humans. Though of course there’s a good deal of naked projection and self-delusion involved in loving other human beings, too.
I once read in a book about feng shui that keeping a pet can maintain the chi of your house or apartment when you’re not there; the very presence of an animal enlivens and charges the space. Although I suspect feng shui is high-end hooey, I learned when my cat was temporarily put up elsewhere that a house without a cat in it feels very different from a house with one. It feels truly empty, dead. Those moments gave me some foreboding of how my life would feel after she was gone.
We don’t know what goes on inside an animal’s head; we may doubt whether they have anything we’d call consciousness, and we can’t know how much they understand or what their emotions feel like. I will never know what, if anything, the cat thought of me. But I can tell you this: A man who is in a room with a cat — whatever else we might say about that man — is not alone.