Saturday, August 6, 2016

Scaredy Cat, or Brelpuff and Me

We had been living together for a few months when my husband insisted on adopting cats. I knew this day would come, though I had been putting off the issue. I married a crazy cat lady in the form of a young man. Fusion, as my husband likes to be called on the internet, had been cat sitting since his teens. He regularly watched cat videos on Youtube, and knew all the Japanese names of his favorite felines.
I was a bit hesitant because I have never lived with pets, besides the dog that barked in my face when I was four and made me cry. The best I could do in the days before I knew Fusion was to allow my landlady's three cats to come in and out of my room. (One named Papageno liked to remove the chicken cutlets from my sandwiches and eat them. He had to be fed in the closet so he could not steal food from the other two cats.) I got comfortable enough that I was willing to live with a few of these creatures, knowing that my cat whisperer beau would be able to take care of them.
Soon Fusion brought a cat back from the adoption shelter near our apartment. Her name was Jackie. She was a dilute calico with gray, brown, and reddish patches of fur, beautifully plump, with searching eyes. We offset her fur with a sparkling purple collar and bow tie. She was comfortable with Fusion and me from the start, happy to be pet, especially on the top of her head, and she enjoyed staring out the window, or as we called it, "watching TV." She would sit on the bed and allow me and my husband to use her body as a foot rest. She quickly became part of our household.
But we were expecting another cat. I was so comfortable with one that I was hesitant to add another. Why not just leave things this way? But the deed was already done. The reason we didn't have the cat yet was because this cat was so skiddish that no one at the adoption shelter could catch him.
Two weeks later, Puff arrived. He was a long and slender Egyptian Mau, black and brown. His skiddishness was at first replaced by fear-induced paralysis. His heart raced in his scrawny chest as Fusion put on his skull and bones collar and plaid bow tie. After that, it became impossible to touch him.
Perhaps I was premature in re-naming him Brelpuff after one of my favorite musicians, Belgian singer and songwriter Jacques Brel. Brel has always been known not only for his great music and lyrics, but also for his sense of adventure, for buying his own Polynesian island and flying a plane around it. I have one of the latest biographies of Brel and it is named for one of his songs: "the adventure starts at dawn." I have long admired the courage of the small buck-toothed Belgian and relished my opportunity to name a pet after him.
And yet even looking in Brelpuff's direction seemed to make him nervous. He would stare back at me with intent eyes. If I even leaned toward him, he would dart the other way. He is difficult to find in the apartment because he finds secret spaces to hide in and he is there for hours. A family friend, who ran the adoption shelter when these cats were there, spent a long weekend feeding our cats, and he did not see this cat more than once. The cat has a patch of hair on his back that is thinner than the rest of his coat. We think he bites his hair out due to fear.
It has been over three years since Brelpuff has been living with us. Little has changed. He still runs away if I lean in too far and won't eat if I move toward him. He still has that thin patch of hair. He is still scared of everything and everyone. The difference is that he is more open to being pet, at least by Fusion. He squirms in some mysterious combination of fear and delight as my husband rubs his back and bottom.
But what is remarkable about this cat is that he seems to have no memory. As far as I can tell, he does not retain information, or learn anything. My husband and I have spent three years proving to him that we do not want to hurt him. He watches Jackie, who regularly licks him clean, sit for long petting periods. He eats our food and treats each day. But every moment is new. Each time I get up from the toilet or move from the hall to the bathroom he bolts away from me as if I were coming to attack him. Each time I lean in his direction, however gently, his head darts backwards. He lives in a permanent state of responding to perceived, and nonexistent threat. This strikes me as a strangely futile way to live.
My husband rejoices in Brelpuff. "Look how much more comfortable he is!" Fusion tells me. I don't see it. I see an idiot. I see a cat who can't learn, can't be at ease, and can't cuddle me. I see a cat who can't even leave his coat unharmed. I don't know what kind of trauma he experienced before ending up at the adoption shelter where Fusion found him, but what does he think will happen to him in my messy little uptown apartment? Aren't animals supposed to respond to their conditions, to the kindness (and feedings) of their owners? I had a neighbor who seemed to hate me because he and my husband fought about the loudness of his music. He told me that he considers Fusion to be a "pain in the ass." Even so, I just couldn't hate the guy. He seemed nice. I would always say hello to him, and he would pointedly look the other way and sigh. I was undeterred. Over the weeks, months, years, I kept saying hi to him. Now he replies enthusiastically with a care-free "hey baby!" My response to him changed his response to me. This is exactly what does not happen with my cat.
I've been taught to seek improvement. My mother has a post-it note by her desk that reads, "every day in every way I am getting better and better." Her basement studio, where she teaches music, has posters on the wall with beautiful nature scenes and quotations about change and growth. She has biographies of famous musicians on her shelves and loans out their CDs to her students. I've made it through high school, college, and some graduate school. I've passed a comprehensive exam, a qualifying exam, and an oral exam. I got a new degree recently. Even if it is slow and challenging, there is supposed to be motion, forward and upward. Life, I once learned, is supposed to be like walking up the steps to the Met; the journey is a pilgrimage, and the sacred destination -- art, culture, an idea of excellence -- is the summit. The bottom is worthwhile only because the top exists.
And yet my cat exists, acting only on his drives of fear and hunger. Can I love this being who resists progress, who responds largely to his most primitive instincts? Can he be this way and still be lovable? Can he be this way and still love me? For the more I live with this cat, the more I realize that I am living with myself. Whatever goals I have for myself, I am still an instinctual being. I call Chinese takeout or go to the local bodega when I'm hungry. I startle whenever I hear the doorbell. My response to most of life is a Dorothy Parker quote: "what fresh hell is this?"
I struggle to love the Brelpuff inside myself. I resent my instincts and loathe my imperfections. Sometimes I think that I deserve to die if I make a big enough mistake. But I would never want to hurt Brelpuff. As frustrating as it can be to live with him, and to encounter myself in him, it is my instinct, too, to care about his tender sentience. I push the food bowl over to him to make sure he eats something. I sit there and watch him eat so he doesn't startle and run away before he's had his meal. He has become kind to our new kittens and he lets Jackie take care of him. His body is soft. His eyes are big and deep. My husband and I smile in his direction and call him "the boy." There is something in him that cannot be denied. He has his own flavor of existing.
Sometimes I want to give up on existing. If I have a bad day and my schedule is not too crowded afterwards, I give myself some time away from life. I lounge on the bed. I stretch. I yawn. I get food. I lick my wounds. I get clean. I feel my body -- heavy, wet, pleasant -- in the bath tub. Then the bathroom door opens a crack. Brelpuff slithers in. He juts his head out and opens his eyes wide when he hears a sound. He raises his front legs so that they touch the top of the tub. He peers into the water near my feet. I wonder what he is interested in. I try to stay still, but eventually I move my legs. He races out of the room.
It is just another day.

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