IT’S JIMMIE’S BIRTHDAY. We smooch in front of my apartment. We’ve just returned from shopping for new shirts in a great mood, Jimmie because of his presents, and me because I have a new haircut. It’s just these things—the successful completion of a shopping trip, a nice hairdo, the anticipation of a happy event—that seem so poignant when you stop being happy.
I turn the key. At that exact moment, Jimmie says, “I think I’ll run out for a newspaper.”
I open the door. Little Kitty, our tabby, comes for his usual ritual greeting, flopping on his back and squirming with pleasure. But this time he just flops. His mouth works strangely. I pick him up, and his body feels inert; pee trickles down my shirt. I look into his terrified eyes—then they go fishy. The vet is only two blocks away. I run down four flights. The light is red at Haste Street, so I can’t make haste.
I pace while the vet attempts Extreme Measures.
“Sorry, we see this sometimes in an apparently healthy young animal—probably a congenital heart defect.”
I call the condo but Jimmie isn’t back. Fifteen minutes have passed. Finally I reach him and he joins me. The vet carries in Little Kitty and lays him on a table for us to say goodbye to. We cry because he lies there dead in his beautiful coat of fur, and there’s nothing we can do. We leave him for the vet to dispose of; between us we don’t own a bit of earth to bury him in.
I’m tormented by remorse. No grave. No proper name. And get this: Just the night before, I was sitting on my bed watching the winter Olympics and eating lamb chops. Little K., a genius about stealing food, snaked out his paw and hooked a chop. “No, you don’t,” I said, snatching it away. How I wish I’d let him have it, the last meal of a Dead Cat Walking! Jimmie grieves, too, but after a while he gets tired of my tears and endless replaying of Little Kitty’s dying moments. I was there, and he wasn’t; it drives a wedge between us.
In fact, I haven’t told the whole truth. Jimmie didn’t run out for a paper, but for a secret smoke. I knew it and he knew it but we didn’t talk about it. It’s one of the little lies and betrayals that riddle our relationship. He doesn’t indulge in any one thing too often, but now I imagine him doing all of it in the 15 minutes Little Kitty was dying on me. He seemed so perfect when I met him seven years ago—smart, funny, handsome, kind—maybe, like Little Kitty, he harbored a congenital defect.
I decide to get another cat.
Jimmie recommends waiting a few months.
“It’s only been two days! You need to experience the five stages of mourning.”
But I’m a multi-tasker; I can mourn the old and welcome the new, so I call the Humane Society.
“Do you have any gray tabby kittens?”
“It’s not kitten season.”
“An adult’s fine. All I’m looking for is whiskers and a heartbeat, and I’m willing to compromise on the whiskers.”
“Lady, I’m telling you, no cats—call back in May.”
May! I scan the Want Ads. Only one ad for cats, by Tender Tonks Cattery. “Sweet lovers,” gushes the ad. “$400.” It’s a lot, but I’m desperate. I call and talk to an Eric. “Tomorrow?” he repeats. I hear him whisper off-phone, “bereavement situation.” Then: “Sure, early Sunday is fine, our 8-year-old gets us up at the crack of dawn.”
After a few rings, Eric answers the door buttoning a blue Oxford shirt, and Gary trails behind him in a red dressing gown. The men are tall, in their early 40s, incredibly good-looking, with mustaches as narrow as eyebrows. They look like actors in a British drawing room comedy and have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences. “Come to our bedroom,” invites Eric. “Because there’s someone special waiting,” says Gary. “Voila!” Dozens of kittens romp or nap on a king-sized bed. Eric points out a beige powder puff with aqua eyes jumping off to eat at a communal food bowl. Then her mother seizes upon her neck and carries her, paws dangling helplessly, to a litter box, where she dumps her and walks away. “Tough love,” observes Gary. “Cookie Monster’s great at toilet training but not real tender,” adds Eric.
There are pictures of men on the bedroom walls, but the living room is devoted to family photos: Gary and Eric cradling a newborn; Gary wrestling a toddler into her bathing suit; Eric opening presents with a 5-year-old under a lit Christmas tree. I have a cherished daughter, too. Where did her childhood go? I had her when my son was growing out of cuddly babyhood. I’d adopted Little Kitty to shed his fur in my empty nest after my daughter flew off to college. Now I was getting a replacement for Little Kitty. Come to think of it, I met Jimmie right after my divorce and the death of my dad. Is every new love just a substitute for an old? Where will it all end?
I pick up the kitten, who fits with room to spare on a small palm, and I look into her ancient baby eyes, searching for answers from her Egyptian deity ancestors. It occurs to me that Jimmie and I will be substitutes, too, replacing her familiar territory, feline tribe, and sweet owners. I hope we’re up to it.
Margo Peller Feeley of West Berkeley earned a Ph.D. in English literature from City University of New York and has taught composition and literature in the United States and in Jerusalem. Her short stories and essays are published on three continents—America, Japan, and Great Britain, and she has received many prizes and honors including First Runner-Up in nonfiction for her book-length memoir in the 2006 University of New Orleans Writing Contest. She has a son, daughter, three grandchildren, and three Tonkinese cats.
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