The Cat's Meow

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

Let’s say you are 18, almost 19, living by yourself for the first time. You’re doing an internship in a small Ohio town and you are, let’s face it, pretty lonely.

You want to get a puppy. Your landlady, who feeds all the neighborhood stray cats, says no. So you say, “How about a kitten, then?” She says yes, that would be fine. You aren’t really a cat person, but a kitten sounds fun.

Your mother tells you that if you get a Siamese kitten, she will take it when you move back to the dorms after the summer is over. She’ll keep it for you until you finish college and can have the cat again. You’ve never had any particular inclination toward Siamese cats, but it sounds like a good deal so you search the for-sale ads in the local paper.

You find an ad: Siamese kittens, $40. You call the lady. She has one left. She lives out in the country, halfway up a mountain in a trailer. Your mother happens to be visiting you that weekend so the two of you drive out there and pull up and there are cats everywhere. There are also fleas everywhere. The lady hands you the kitten, who is adorable, of course. It’s a little girl, and she’s covered in fleas. She’s not yet eight weeks old. She’s needy and affectionate and you know you’ll have no problem falling in love with her.

You’re an intern, making hardly any money, so you ask the lady if she’d take anything less than $40. It’s the last kitten, so maybe there’s a chance. She says she’d take $20. So you write out a check for $20, having no idea that this is the best bargain you will get in your whole life, and the best $20 you will ever spend.

You hold the kitten while your mom goes into the 7-11 to buy some supplies. You’re unprepared for kitten ownership, so you need everything — food, litter, the works. You look at her and she looks at you. These are your first minutes alone with her. You wonder what you’ll name this little creature, and suddenly it occurs to you that her name is Eleanor, which is an awfully big name for such a tiny kitten. You trust she’ll grow into it. The name is a tribute to a friend and mentor from high school, and you don’t know this yet, but for her whole life, everyone will ask if she’s named after Eleanor Roosevelt or “Eleanor Rigby.”

You take her back to your tiny apartment built above the landlady’s garage. Your mother bathes the kitten in the sink and gets all the fleas off her. The kitten looks much happier now, even though she cried through the bath. You will soon learn that crying is something she does well, true to Siamese form. She will cry anytime she isn’t on your lap or on your chest when you’re lying down. She’ll cry the entire time you’re in the shower. She’ll be crying when you leave the apartment in the morning and crying when you return home in the evening. She’ll cry when you’re writing letters to your friends at the computer, and she’ll use her sharp little kitten claws to climb right up your pants leg to get where she wants to be.

The two of you spend the summer bonding. She sleeps on your chest right by your chin every night, meaning you learn to sleep on your back to accommodate her. She purrs when she’s with you, cries when she’s not. You start to feel a kind of love for her that you hadn’t imagined was possible to feel for a cat. There are weeks when money is tight and Tender Vittles take priority in the shopping cart, meaning your food is sub-par so that she can eat what she’s used to.

The summer ends and you make the long drive back to Iowa. She sleeps most of the trip. She is about to go live in your mother’s house while you finish out your time in the dorms. While she’s there, she’ll grow into a breathtakingly beautiful Siamese adult, and you’ll see her when you visit home. You miss her, but she sleeps with you on your visits.

After a year and a half, you move out of the dorms and she comes to live with you. She still adores you, and you adore her. Your roommate grows to love her just as much; everyone who meets her is taken with her. Another year and a half later, you move across the country to D.C., into an apartment your girlfriend rented before you decided to move too, and there’s a firm no-pets policy. You assure yourself you’re leaving her for only a year, and your roommate readily agrees to keep her for you.

Pulling out of the driveway, you sob — not because you’re leaving Iowa or leaving your best friends and your family or any of that. You cry because you’re leaving behind the cat you have come to love so much.

A year later you drive back to Iowa to get her. She yowls her Siamese cry the entire drive back to D.C. — 17 hours on the road and all night in the motel where you stop for the night. But you arrive safely, your sanity still barely intact but content to know that she’ll be with you now.

You can’t imagine this yet, but she’ll be with you for another dozen years, seeing you through a break-up and a new relationship and all sorts of other things. When you go through hard times, she’ll comfort you in ways that only a purring cat can. She’ll sleep on you or near you every night, sometimes on your legs, sometimes on the pillow by your head. Later in her life she’ll insist on being wrapped around the crook of your arm while you sleep, which is fine with you, because it feels so good to have her there.

She is beautiful and healthy and looks like she’s 2 years old her whole life, until one day she looks ill and you cancel a trip to take her to the emergency vet just in case something is really wrong. It turns out something is really wrong. After a week of heartbreakingly futile efforts to make her better and gut-wrenching decisions about her care, you acknowledge that it’s time to say goodbye. You spend a final night with her curled around your arm and in the morning you let her go.

You have never known such sadness. You don’t know when you will recover. You realize that this cat has been part of your life through your entire adulthood, and you hadn’t imagined that you would lose her so suddenly. You remind yourself that she was 16, a decent lifespan for a cat, and you try to focus on all the wonderful memories with her. But the house is quiet without her padding across the floor to sit on your lap and falling asleep is horribly lonely without her there.

You have never known such sadness. You don’t know when you will recover.

Kristina Campbell can be reached at kcampbell@metroweekly.com.

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