A friend and I recently took a last-minute trip to Bermuda after we found a sweet deal on JetBlue, like the pair of feisty widows in floral culottes we were born to be. Though it was only four days out of the country, more than one friend marveled that I was on the vacation with my friend and not my boyfriend. Even those who didn’t think it was that strange asked me if I missed him a lot during the vacation. I did miss him, but in the same way I miss him on nights we spend apart: I think fondly of his company but don’t actively need him present for my well-being. I cannot say the same about the feelings I had about my cat, Keith, during the vacation. I missed the shit out of Keith.
Writing about my relationship to my cat in a column usually reserved for examinations of romantic relationships will surely open me up to ridicule. It is a favorite pastime of online harassers to identify women writers who publish anything but glowing reviews of modern masculinity as pathetic cat hoarders who will die alone and be feasted upon by their horde of similarly haggard felines. Ha! I should be so lucky. Save for those brutal psychopaths who would discard a living being to appease a new partner, when single people partner up with someone, their pets come along with them. They are part of the story of our lives, not as background dressing but as significant characters. I went through a breakup and then a move six months after adopting Keith, and I detected his disorientation. I went through the dating and hooking-up cycle under his scrutiny. During stretches of loneliness, he kept me company, endured my neuroses, and was always game to binge-watch TV and eat sushi together. Now that I’m in a relationship, I have to consciously set aside time for Keith so he doesn’t have to endure those stretches of loneliness. I keep a close count of how many nights I spend at my boyfriend’s apartment and give Keith extra attention when I return home. I indulge that weird laser-pointer game he likes so much for longer stretches. I let him shed on me, and, fuck it, I kiss him on the mouth.
The trip to Bermuda was my fourth vacation in the last year, and during each one, I felt a deeper sense that I was betraying Keith by leaving him behind. This was the first year in the four that I’ve had Keith that I took anything more than a long weekend without him — not because I refused to leave him behind, but because I couldn’t afford vacations. This time I left my boyfriend in charge of Keith, a task I was fully confident he could execute with grace and humor. So I was surprised by the onslaught of panic it caused me. On the night I brought Keith to his apartment, he greeted him, “Hey, buddy, you ready to build some forts? Maybe drop some acid and watch color montages on YouTube?” I laughed but also momentarily thought Keith might find his way into an LSD stash. He sent photos of Keith wearing wrap-around sunglasses with neon-orange frames, explaining how the young beast was out carousing and claiming to be a Rockefeller to some pretty young things. I was glad that Keith was in good hands but jealous that someone besides me was getting to recklessly anthropomorphize him. As I get deeper into my relationship, I find myself more aware of the fact that it won’t always be just me and Keith against the world, and thinking about what it will mean to pass through different life stages with him.
I post Keith’s photos with absurd captions so often on social media that I’m asked often why I don’t make him a devoted account. I joke it’s because I fear that he will become more popular than I am and then I would have to kill him. The truth is that I like documenting not just him, but us, our little life together. The narrative I’ve projected usually casts him as an erudite antagonist who cannot abide my erratic temperament and my predilection for selfies together. I sometimes caption them as if he is speaking his exasperation, and other times as if I am exuding my clueless dependence on him, depending on how he’s emoting.
But aloof as I make him appear, he is actually one needy motherfucking cat. He follows me around my apartment all day crying to be held, his chubby little gut swaying back and forth as he clumsily trots along to keep pace with my shadow. When I return home from long days, I feel him grasping me with more strength than usual when I pick him up. “I thought maybe you weren’t coming back,” he seems to say each time. And each time I promise him again that I would do no such thing. But I cannot promise him that I will always come back to him exactly the same person, and I’ve already not come back to him by myself. I like the idea that I’m bringing more people into Keith’s life to love him, but I wonder if he feels that my affections run thinner now.
Before someone comes trotting along to “actually” me about the cognitive abilities of cats, I am reasonably literate in the feline sciences. I know that my cat does not and cannot love me in the same way that I love him. There tend to be two bloodthirsty, adversarial camps in the Cat Academy: one dead set on smearing the already-storied reputations of cats, and the other committed to elevating cats to their intended godlike status among us humans. A study released in March found that a particular cat parasite is linked to intermittent explosive disorder, which causes outbursts of rage in owners, while this marvelously unfunny Huffington Post article reports on a study showing that dog owners are happier and richer than their cat-owning counterparts. On the flip side, another study found that cat lovers are smarter and more likely to be nonconformist than dog owners, and my own highly scientific study — drawn from witnessing this collection of cat specimens prove their superior intelligence and priorities as they stop at nothing to acquire pizza — agrees. I recognize all of these qualities in Keith: inducer of rage, contagion for melancholy, inspirer of brilliance and a relentless will to pursue his dreams. He contains multitudes! But as years go by and my life changes into something far less recognizable than the life I had when I first adopted him, he remains most reliably a lump of something like unconditional love.
I make a lot of jokes about crying into Keith to signal a kind of exaggerated despair over trivial matters. But the reality is, I have relied on him in times of debilitating sadness and uncertainty. And as often as I make him the butt of an ongoing joke about an over-the-top relationship between a sad-sack woman and a cunning and judgmental cat, I am compelled to make tender dedications to him. For keeping love alive inside me when the world has seemed devoid of any love for me in return, it is the least I can do. And so, nestled between my silly jokes about Keith’s sinister nature are photos of the two of us together, captioned with the earnest affection I have for my little gray shadow. In one softly lit image, he is in my arms gazing up at me and I down at him. It portrays us in neither exasperation nor dependence, only the quiet affection of two souls sharing a life together. It is captioned, “My brilliant friend.” I like to think that it speaks for both of us.