When I drove home from visiting my family late Christmas night, I saw a cat. Strays are common in my apartment complex, but a glimpse or two is all I’ve ever caught of one; they keep close to the walls and bushes and flee when they spot a human. But right at the last corner before my parking spot, there was an orange cat just sitting there and meowing.
It was very cold that night, and that week the temperature just kept dropping from the balmy 20s to the slightly chilly teens before bottoming out in the omfg srsly single digits. I’ve dealt with weather like that before, but that was when I lived in Pittsburgh and had the trade-off of shit weather in exchange for the best-worst baseball team in both leagues.
I live in Memphis now, and there’s no trade-off. There’s just everything shitty about the American South and now, apparently, this bullshit weather. But I wasn’t worried about the cat; she seemed pretty chill (haha, chill, like cold, get it, it was cold) and her meowing, which I could not hear as I drove past, looked more like an understudy who suddenly found that she had the stage all to herself more than it looked like omg omg wtf is this I should worn two fur coats.
I never put my cats out (Little Baby would have a panic attack and run away straight into a wall), but I realize that people in Memphis are sometimes confused (turn signals are not for straight lines, how do none of them know that their barbecue sucks) and I fully believed in a neighbor who wasn’t super-clear on whether she owned a cat or a dog. I went inside, grudgingly turned the heat up to 55 so the pipes wouldn’t freeze (now is the winter of my discontent…with my bank account balance) and silently thanked the occupants of all of the adjacent units for keeping my apartment at a livable 65 without my participation.
The next morning, I heard meowing, which is pretty typical when mommy does not snap to attention and serve breakfast, but it was belligerent and desperate and it sounded like it was coming from outside. My cats were nowhere to be found, naturally, and it really didn’t sound like either of them, but exploring the gloomy recesses under my bed to be certain would have been harder than what I did instead, which was to simply open the door and see who was raising the ruckus.
An orange streak rocketed into my living room before I’d even opened the door halfway, and, when the dust had lifted, an orange cat stood in the middle of my living room, looking around with interest.
It quickly located and sampled the dry food, took a quick peek behind the couch to confirm the position of the litter box, and then casually settled into the nearest vacant kitty bed for a bath.
I closed the door again because it was cold and watched as the orange kitty finished her bath and headed back to the food. My cats had emerged by then and were watching guardedly from the bedroom doorway.
I paused to rack my brain for an explanation for what appeared to be some sort of promotion: had I really just been made responsible for 50% more cats, or had this orange one been here all along without my noticing?
But no, this was the cat whose street corner serenade I had briefly beheld on the previous evening. Besides, surely, I was capable, at the very least, of counting to three or telling orange from grey from brown (though, perhaps, not both feats simultaneously at that particularly confusing point in time).
I watched the cat move on, the very soul of nonchalance, to sip some water. It certainly behaved as if it lived here. I looked around. Was I certain that I lived here?
Bemused, I followed the orange cat as it explored my apartment, which is small, so it wasn’t long before the the cat completed his tour, sat down, and fixed me with its silent gaze.
With motionless whiskers, perfectly-relaxed ears, and opaque eyes, the cat’s expression was utterly inscrutable. I knew a moment’s sense of relief, grateful that we were not playing poker, not least because blackjack is the only card game–nay, the only game of chance, period–worth playing.
“Well, hi?” I ventured. “Are you… I mean, were you planning to stay? For a while? At least ’till it warms up? I guess?”
Each of my questions was met by silence and that maddeningly opaque stare; the cat lacked even the common courtesy to look at me while I was talking to it! Had I imagined meowing? No, that’s silly; it had to have meowed, or I wouldn’t have opened the door. Unless it hypnotized me with those unreadable golden eyes… But that was a ridiculous notion; how could the cat possibly have hypnotized me into letting it come in before it was inside where I could see its eyes?
Bemusement was giving way to affront, welling up as a bubble of frustration rising through a murky broth of certitude that I was being deliberately mocked, and, culminating, finally, in the belch-like irrational urge to tell the orange cat that it was nothing but a lousy ginger! and a stray thought floated through my mind–this must be what Donald Trump feels every moment of every day–when the cat’s tail twitched.
Aha! I gloated inwardly. It can see me!
Too petty and immature to acknowledge my triumph in our battle of wills, the cat casually turned and sauntered over to the litter box to show me what it thought of my glorious victory.
A new question occurred to me, and I spent the next several minutes stalking the orange cat as it snacked, sniffed, and finally simply sat down to discourage my efforts at lifting its tail. But I was successful in obtaining the first–the only–known photograph of the creature. It was a male, clearly, but unaltered, or fixed? I was unsure. I turned to the animal experts of Facebook, who unanimously concluded that my home had been invaded by a neutered male.
Other than his (perhaps understandable) lack of cooperation with my attempts to photograph his ass, the cat was very friendly. He let me pet him and rubbed against my leg when I did; he even allowed me to pick him up and hold him while he purred. He had been hungry but not famished, and his coat was clean, sleek, and shiny. The combination of these indicators of good health together with the fact that he’d been fixed led me to believe that an owner, probably in my apartment complex, would be looking for this cat.
I put up signs advertising the presence of my guest, whom I had begun to call Agent when I yelled at him to stop chasing Little Baby because this was her house and he was a guest in it, and no, Agent, kitties do not sit on top of the piano!
But after a couple days of no ginger-devil-seekers, I somehow crammed him into a cat crate (I have never–never–seen a cat so effectively and with so little apparent effort resist being placed into a carrier, and I once had a cat named Whack-a-Mole because that’s what trying to get all of him inside one at once felt like) and hauled him off to the nearest vet, where I was informed that he was a spayed female and not in possession of a microchip.
I gave him–her–sidelong glances the entire way home. I was onto her wily, sly, tricks. She’d tricked me and half of Facebook into misidentifying her sex in order to lull me into relying on the gender stereotypes ingrained deep in my thinking by my upbringing as a hostage of the patriarchy. Worse, she had succeeded; the unwarranted tolerance I had been subconsciously extending to a rambunctious little boy had placed Ankhesnamun and Little Baby at the mercy of male privilege, and there weren’t even any males around to blame!
I changed my online postings to reflect the, erm, updated information, but I was way too lazy to walk back to each flier I’d posted two days before; it was cold, dammit!
Besides, if I’d lost a ginger cat as nice as Peach, I’d be following up on any found-cat postings, because people (me: I mean me) are idiots (look, what’s important is that I can tell the difference between males and females of my own species!)
I was still actively seeking an owner for Peach (Peach Pie when she snuggles, Peach Pit when she attacks my ankles as I get out of bed), but not necessarily a previous owner. The vet had noticed that Peach had a clipped ear (which is really noticeable from one angle and not at all from any other), probably indicating that she was a feral who had been picked up, spayed, and released.
But people who had been able to safely express interest when there might have been a chip now chickened out en masse, leaving me with two offers: a couple in rural Tennessee who wanted to put her in the field by their house to hunt mice, and a strange texter who didn’t want to know anything about Peach other than that she was alive, right? (What?!)
The longer Peach stayed, the more wishy-washy I was about the need to re-home her. More inquiries came about adopting her, but I responded only by deleting my advertisements. Sure my lease only allowed two cats and my dad, who had co-signed because my contract hadn’t yet been drawn up, would probably have a heart attack…
In addition to her kitty bed, she picked a spot at the foot of my bed for when I was in the bedroom. She learned “dinner” very quickly and, unlike the other two with their habit of frantically wailing like I might forget what I was doing partway through, Peach waits calmly by the door for her dish to be brought to her.
After the first week or so, she saw that her efforts to liven up the other kitties were futile. Instead, she played with all of the toys they’d rejected in recent years. She and Ankhesnamun coexisted companionably enough in the same room, and Peach wisely allowed Ankhesnamun to exercise the Head Kitty’s right of primo delecto, or “first treat.”
Little Baby and Peach still didn’t get along, but that was obviously due to Little Baby’s felinicidal overreactions to minor stimuli such as being looked at from across the room or seeing a shadow that resembled anything–anything at all–nobody even knows! Little Baby’s tragic, persistent, mental damage is (I am being completely serious) a manifestation of PTSD from the way my husband treated her ever since she was a kitten. Meanwhile, Peach has backed off. We’ll give it time.
Of course, what ultimately sealed the deal for Peach’s permanent residence here was Ankhesnamun’s death on Monday. It’s very hard to say it like that, but it’s true. When my father came to take Suna’s body away for burial, he told me to focus on my other two kitties. (There had been, until that moment, a collective state of denial regarding whose kitty Peach was.)
Peach came at just the right time to find love and a home: early enough that I don’t feel like I have to reject her out of loyalty to Ankhesnamun, late enough to that no one had time to seriously try to make me give her up before there ceased to be an incentive.
And for all that she started off annoying the whiskers off of other cats by trying to play with them against their will, she did eventually recognize Suna as the boss cat. Near the end, Peach kept a respectful distance and even let Suna steal her food if she felt up to it. By all rights, Little Baby should be next in the line of succession, but she’s clearly completely nuts (seriously, PTSD, I swear), and Peach certainly acts like she has assumed the august mantle of weighty responsibility and taken her place as the new boss cat.
I like to think that Suna passed on some words of wisdom, but Peach could be dumb as a bag of hammers and still rule more wisely than Little Nutnut, who is still shitting in my bed every other day to avoid a dangerous cross-bedroom trip to the litter box. I really don’t know what to do with that except laundry.
Lots of laundry.