It happened one Saturday afternoon while walking down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope: I actually stopped at the animal-rescue table. I picked up a black-and-white kitten looking squashed and sad in its too-small cat carrier just to give it a few moments of attention before sending it back to the auction block. “Can I hold it?” I asked. “It’s a her. You want a cat? ” “Oh, no,” I said. ” Noooo way.”
The last time I brought home a kitten was when I lived in Iowa City (circa 1993), and it had been a disaster. The kitten peed on my then-husband’s newly laundered shirts. Though I allowed my husband to believe he had broken my heart by insisting we return the kitten, I was secretly relieved. Unbeknownst to him, I had begun locking it in the basement when its incessant crying or pawing got on my nerves.
Now, living a much more hectic life in Brooklyn, I wagered that I was even less patient and more selfish than I had been a decade ago. Plus, visions of a cat box, cat-food smells, cat hair on my black everything, a cat constantly turning figure eights around my calves with its ingratiating flank-rubbing-well, none of it was appealing.
“How old is she?”
The rescue woman yanked open her mouth.
“Look at her teeth. She’s three years old, not a kitten. She’s a kind of midget or pygmy. She won’t get any bigger.”
Hmmm, I thought. Perfect size for a small N.Y.C. apartment. But still, not my apartment.
“Could you foster-mother her for a night, at least? She’s afraid of the dogs.”
That sounded safe enough. The dogs looked mangy and mean; the cat was clearly unhappy. In a moment of Angelina Jolie–like beneficence, I agreed.
A week later, she was still in my apartment, and now she had a name: Catbaby.
She had grown on me. She slept a lot, and the flank-rubbing was sort of sweet, up to a point. And she really was small-more like a teenager cat than a kitten, but still, fetchingly wee. During that first week, I looked down at my little Peter Pan and decided to name her after a race horse named Catbaby, whose picture I had cut out of an old issue of The New York Times Magazine.
“I’m not saying you’re staying, but you have a name,” I said to her. “Now go curl up into a ball and let me be.”
Despite her darling sleeping poses and wonderful purring sessions, I was still experiencing those familiar moments of being extremely irritated. She was cute, but not so when she ran over my head at 7 o’clock in the morning to be fed, for example. I felt like some of my old boyfriends had felt about me: I liked having her around when I wanted her, but not 24/7. I put a note on the door of my building and figured I would offer her to the people closest to me first-my neighbors. A nice gay man from the fourth floor knocked on my door and, after some haggling (I had to promise him she wouldn’t grow any bigger and that I would split the vet bills with him), we had a deal. It was understood that on weekends when Tim was on Fire Island or out of town, I would take Catbaby in. And nights when I needed an animal presence in my small apartment, he would graciously offer her to me for a night of cuddling.
“This is like a Hampton house-share,” Tim said, “only we’ll share the cat.”
Eventually, I told my therapist about Catbaby and the custody situation.
“And why did you name her Catbaby?” she asked after a period of therapeutic silence.
“After a race horse,” I said.
“I mean, she’s small, you know, like a baby. And she’s a cat. I had a picture of the horse on my refrigerator. It seemed to fit.”
Silence. Then the knowing smile and nod that I’ve come to understand means, “Analysand, you cannot fool me.”
I sighed and continued: “Storm Cat is a famous stud, and there’s a tradition of naming thoroughbred offspring using references to the sire’s and mare’s names. So, you know.”
More silence, and then this:
“Have you thought that maybe she’s a stand-in for a real baby?”
In fact, I had thought of it, and it scared me. Tim and Catbaby and I were mimicking a family. Tim and I talked of the cat as if it were our child. We sat around like giddy new parents, admiring our perfect little wide-eyed creature-only ours was covered with short hair and had claws.
“Did she eat today?” I’d ask.
“Did you notice that thing on her ear? Do you think it’s normal?” Tim asked.
“Do you think she recognizes us?” I wondered.
“Isn’t she precious? Look at her now. She’s gotten inside the shopping bag!” Tim shrieked.
“Look what she’s doing now!” I shrieked. “She’s coming out of the bag!”
What was wrong with me, I wondered? Why, at 37, was I only able to handle a quarter of a cat? Had I become such a selfish, urban creature that I required absolute and total freedom in order to express myself? People all around me had children-one child, two children. Some of them even had cats and children. They lived in small apartments, too. Now confronted with this jerry-rigged familial concoction, I was horrified. Oh my God, I wondered, will I ever have kittens?
But, eventually, I came to a different conclusion (call it a rationalization) about Catbaby, reminding myself that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I decided that Catbaby is not a stand-in for a baby. Because, in fact, Catbaby is nothing like a human baby. For example, she’ll never become more complex. She won’t grow, acquire language or learn to stop crawling around on the floor. We’ll never tearfully send her off to college. Catbaby is static. Most days, she stares into the bathtub drain for hours at a time. The same broom still scares her no matter how many times she sniffs it. The highlight of her life is when I turn on the kitchen faucet. I want more than that from a baby.
Catbaby is here, rather, to soften me up for motherhood, if not simply to break me in for some basic adult-on-adult cohabitation. Last fall, I dated someone totally inappropriate but cuddly enough. He wasn’t interested in Catbaby. He got that glazed look when I mentioned her-the same look I got when he talked about baseball, in particular the Pine Tar Game of 1983. He didn’t like cats and was far too young to think about having children. Yet I was more receptive to his subtle signals of interest than I might have been; with Catbaby purring in my lap two nights out of seven, I’d become more sensitive, perhaps even a bit more human. Though that relationship went nowhere, Catbaby is still here, both wearing me down and expanding my senses. In fact, she’s sleeping right next to me as I type this, one paw draped over her plum-sized head, and I am filled with love.