I started “Diametrically” in mid-2012 with the intention of using it to track the broadening of my geographic horizons. Over a period of about two years, I worked in New York City, studied in London and Oxford, and lived on campus in Princeton, NJ. My travels have slowed to a stop since I began a new job, but recently I’ve found something else to explore with my time.
As an unmarried 20-something living in a sterile suburban apartment, I predictably got a cat.
The inspiration was Ribsy, my longtime boyfriend’s 14 year-old feline — a quiet, regal, and independent peanut-butter-and-chocolate confection (or tortoiseshell, for the unimaginative or those who lack a sweet tooth). She is asleep more often than she is awake, and she has the charming habit of grasping your hand between her dainty front paws to give you a firm signal: it is time to scratch my chin. Ribsy is a cat who is clearly aware that people used to worship her species as gods.
Last summer Ribsy suddenly took to using me as a human bed, my eyes turned into cartoon hearts, and I promptly hightailed it to a local adoption event and took home with me an 8-month old grayish-brownish tabby kitten with a white belly and paws. I named her Céline, after the French fashion house responsible for the wildly popular luggage tote, filled my family-free living space with toys and treats and kitty cushions, and decided I was going to raise myself a Ribsy Part II.
Except Céline was a nightmare! Where Ribsy was imperious, my new kitten was merely impish. For the first month I felt trapped in my home with a wild creature. She nipped toes, ruined shoes, pushed things off countertops, bent blinds, left angry red scratches up and down my limbs, and even ventured into the toilet bowl at some point and was kind enough to thoroughly splash the floor on her way out.
And then she got tapeworm. Or more accurately, she came home already hosting one, having caught it from a flea while living with her foster mother and four or five other cats. It’s not unheard of, especially among cats that come in contact with other animals or the outside, but to me — a horrified first time pet owner — discovering the symptoms was tantamount to being told my home needed to be tented, quarantined, and irradiated.
More experienced pet parents told me to wait it out, and that she would grow up and calm down. It’s been exactly four months now, and while she’s grown up, she sure as hell hasn’t calmed down, attested by the fact that I haven’t slept straight through the night since I brought her home mewing in her little aqua blue carrier. Like clockwork she plops across my neck and shoulders at about five in the morning, purring and kneading until I scratch behind her ears. Occasionally I wake to the sound of things clinking and smashing in the kitchen and have to stagger out of the bedroom to see what has been knocked over this time.
But I love it. A couple weeks ago I woke up unable to breathe because Céline had lovingly settled her entire body over my face to announce the coming of dawn and hence her breakfast time. Breakfast, by the way, no matter how expensive or natural or “filler-free,” isn’t always something she will touch. I have filled her bowl only to see her give it a disappointed sniff and reject it for two days in a row…but then I have also seen her hork down a quarter cup of the same damn thing on a different morning.
She is an idiosyncratic creature, both predicable and unpredictable and charming in her own good-naturedly destructive way. Before leaving for the office today I found she had finally succeeded in her four-month mission of freeing several slats of my living room blinds from their connecting cords. If or when I move out of this unit, I am about 107% certain the entirety of my deposit will go towards new window coverings.
Sometimes she’s so bored that she’ll relieve me of the possession of an entire roll of paper towels, and she’ll use its remains to shower my kitchen floor in super-soft, hyper-absorbent, quilted confetti. Other times her own tail is amusement enough, and if I am alert I catch her spinning in little circles trying to trap it in her mouth. (Of course she never succeeds.) And toys? The greatest things ever — especially the catnip mouse she lost under my fridge while batting it around like a puck in a one-cat game of hockey, as well as its replacement, a catnip fish that met the same fate in less than half the time it took the mouse to disappear.
I use the term “toy” loosely here. Céline will make any old object a toy, especially if it is your adamant wish that she leave it alone. The upside of this is that even my trash will be her treasure: a Modcloth box from November, which once read “Amazing! Gorgeous! Adorable! Fantastic!” now pitifully reads “able! Fan” after being chewed to pieces, and all three of her cat teasers (little toys dangling from a stick by a string) are now just sticks…not that this makes any difference to her inextinguishable curiosity. The downside, on the other hand, is obvious. Rest in peace, living room blinds.
My boyfriend likes to say this cat is “not exactly the brightest bulb,” which seems corroborated by the fact that she often can’t find a toy after having just seen me set it down somewhere, as well as the fact that she’s a year old and still hasn’t quite figured out how to use a scratching post. (Do I spin it? Do I bite it?) But my god, is she crafty. She lies in wait for me to open my closet door and bolts inside simply because she knows she’s not allowed in. She stalks across the kitchen counter and plays with the dish rack when she thinks I’m sleeping. She pulls open the door to my freezer when I’m not looking. In fact, I didn’t know she could scale my refrigerator until I found her casually perched on top of it, swinging her tail back and forth and reclining against the blender I thought was safely out of reach on top of the Whirlpool. I have never seen her sit on my electric stove, but I know she does, because every evening I come home to find a fresh layer of gray and white hairs standing out against the glassy black surface. She also curls up in my bathroom sink — I have seen the furry evidence.
More annoying than the unstoppable climbing is Céline’s endless scratching, scratching, scratching, and biting, biting, biting. Among the worldly possessions I have retired or will soon need to retire: an upholstered piano bench, assorted sweaters, a pair of Paige jeans, a stuffed toy raccoon, a hoodie, a pair of pajama shorts, and patent leather flats. I shudder to think what the underside of my box spring looks like. In the middle of the night I hear the telltale snagging sounds of claws dragging along its surface between the wooden slats of my bed frame. Frankly the sound of fingernails on chalkboard would disturb me less.
What has come out of all this, though, is remarkable and rewarding.
On a more basic level, living with a restless animal in my home has conditioned me not to think of the destruction of material things as loss. Say the cat tears up a pair of jeans — so what? The “value” of those jeans is questionable at best, their material entirely replaceable, and their existence overall less crucial to my daily life than the living, breathing, fluffy four-legged roommate who has simply repurposed them as a chew toy. She has forced me to adjust my perception of the worth of household objects relative to that which eclipses it: the worth of herself as a household companion.
She does slap me awake with her paws every other morning and then proceed to drape herself across my shoulders like a fuzzy heated scarf. But it is not an interruption. Rather, it’s a stubborn, repeated affirmation of her desire to be around someone. So is the way she leaps onto me whenever I lie down with Netflix on my phone, the way she curls up at my feet if I’m vertical, and the way she follows me from room to room as I go about my daily routine. If I leave the bathroom door open, she’ll find her way onto my lap while I’m on the toilet. If the door is shut, it’s only a matter of time before a little paw slides underneath it, pink paw pads up.
Ribsy does not often bestow nose touches upon humans. She’s an old and experienced cat, and not only must each nose touch be earned, she seems to have a weekly limit that exists independently of how much you deserve one at the moment. The two of you could be having a moment, but if you got a friendly nose touch two days ago, you might not get one now. Céline, young and trusting and open, gives them freely. She will trot across a room at full speed to tap her cold, wet nose against yours. And again.
They say we project emotions and motives onto our pets — that we read their behavior and expressions to suit our needs, and that cats and dogs are not fond of us, exactly, but fond of the opportunities we present for food and shelter. That could be true, who knows? I am not an animal behaviorist. But there is value in that emotional projection nonetheless. I am not yet gloomy enough about the world to suggest that our pets may not actually love us, and that consequently the love we give them is silly or misguided. Instead I would suggest that in the absence of concrete knowledge re: animal affection, we should do ourselves a favor (and thus our pets by extension) and allow ourselves to project that love we so long to see, anyway. Only good can come out of it.
At my weakest point in November I considered returning Céline to her foster during the tapeworm ordeal. Last night I spent an hour and a half calming and cleaning her while she panicked and bolted around the apartment, dragging her bottom across the carpet every few steps to rid herself of dangling excrement. I was fond of her even as I picked droppings off the floor and tended to the cat with a wet wipe. The version of myself that lives with her now is a very different Me from the one who couldn’t handle the thought of a worm infection a few months ago, and that is a positive development.
I am never alone in the evenings. Céline and I have a nighttime winding-down routine: we lounge around, we browse my social media, and we whip out Amazon instant video or Netflix as we lie in bed. (She responds to live-action, not so much to animation.) When the lights go out she wanders the apartment and takes a few minutes of alone time to howl in the darkness. Even now I’m not entirely sure where she prowls during that time. Around midnight she tires of solitude, and I hear the cushy sounds of tiny feet on carpet rapidly approaching from the door to the side of my bed, and SPROIINNGG! Céline leaps up and is back, ready to resume her role as feline neckwarmer through the night…or at least until sunrise, when it’s time to pat my face until I wake. It’s clear we both prefer each other’s company to being alone, and for me, that’s enough, and it is worth the trouble. (And the wet wipes.)