Of Cats and Men

It was in the late summer, when the nights were getting cool and the count was nearing two-hundred thousand, that I got a call from home telling me that the cat was dying. I had been living in a frat house for six months on High Street, drinking and smoking through the peaks and troughs in cases. My mind was on the restrictions on darties, and it was almost as if I had forgotten I had a cat altogether. 


She was a 26-pound lump of fat and piebald fur named Anise, who, at 13, was nearing the end of her ninth and final life. She had been disheveled, probably arthritic, and liable to sporadic outbursts of meows of what was probably pain. Most likely she was suffering from heart palpitations and wouldn’t be around for much longer. So after some insistence from Mom and mutual concessions, I allowed Mom to drive me from home in New Haven to home in New Jersey.


That first day, I was unpacking my things into my childhood room, Anise waddled demurely into the room. She was as heavy as I remembered her. When I was eight years old and first met her, she had been able to scamper up the two flights of hardwood in my childhood home faster than my Spongebob-pajama’d self ever could. Now she could hardly saunter across the carpet. Months of drinking had given me a nocturnal circadian rhythm, and I found myself needing a mug of mint tea late that night. I sat with a YaleTM mug, acclimating to my kitchen after living in New Haven for half a year. Again, she waddled silently up to me with eyes wide like mustard-colored shooters in a game of marbles. I stared back at her, looking as seriously at her as I had those thirteen years ago when I’d first met her. Once child and kitten, now there was me, a nearly twenty-two-year old man, a boxer and financially independent, and her, a wheezing twenty-six-pound creature who had lived with me most of her post-kitten life. I tried to do CrossFit, drank Pabst, and stayed up until one a.m. She slept until one p.m., struggled to eat Fancy Feast, and hobbled around the same twenty square feet of the hardwood floors. We sat regarding each other quietly in the steady cicada-song of the evening, together for the first time in six months, and the last time in thirteen years.


While I sipped my tea, my thoughts drifted back. As a kitten, she had been sprightly and playful, an inquisitive spelunker of my cavernous childhood pillow fortresses. Now, her breathing was ragged and labored, her coat un-coif-ably disheveled in that way elderly animals’ fur grows, and her once amber eyes were flecked with spots of ruddy brown. Encumbered by her rusty joints, she could hardly stand; when she ate, it was in small bites, as if the metabolic processes cycling in her cells anticipated no longer needing the calories. Through all of the pandemic, I had felt myself, with my runs, my tolerance to Miller High Life and late-night FIFA, to have lungs too sturdy for any flu. But for the first time in months it finally sunk in that some part of me—in this case, this flabby, wobbling tiny part of me—could suffer more than fever and cough, viral or senescent.


On my second day home, she urinated on the floor, unable to get to her little litter box next to the seven-year-old washing machine by the garage. The day before, I had gone for a five-kilometer run, setting a personal record on the trail from Pauli Murray to East Haven. I had run it without a mask, and I went to dinner with a roommate in the open air, both of us sans K95’s. That had been when I had just gotten out of High Street, where other kids had chain-smoked their way through packs of Marlboros and five PM afternoon news reports. In an era of numbers and statistics, we preferred to count cigarettes rather than number of people in the room 


On my third day, I needed to head back to Yale. I took one last look at Anise on the stucco doorstep and drew a deep breath. My lungs felt clear from last week’s jog. Anise was ninety-one in cat-years—almost as high as my grandparents’ age in human years. It crossed my mind that my Grandmaman and Grandpapa who cheered at my Little League games, gave me a standing ovation at my high school graduation, bought me gelt for the nine days of Hanukkah, sent little checks for birthdays, taught me how to fly-fish— probably wouldn’t feel the way I did.


On my first day back, she died. My parents found her taking a nap for a concerning amount of time on a vent, where she had liked to lie down even in  the summer heat. I was planning to go for an afternoon jog that day, but then I thought of Anise, the fixture in the family photo; who slept as the self-appointed mantelpiece above the fireplace; the little animal whom, for thirteen years, I had chased in the backyard with neighborhood boys; who slept at my bedside when I was scared of the dark in second grade; all twenty-six pounds of flab and fur. I didn’t feel like going on a run anymore.

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