The little, gray kitten was a Christmas gift from my then boyfriend who gave it to me not so much as a token of affection, but more as a last ditch effort to save our failing relationship. I was a sophomore in college, still obsessed with Nirvana, Doc Martens, and dubious hygiene. The boy’s plan backfired when the kitten began to receive all of my attention, because with the kitten, unlike the boy, it was love at first sight.
I named him Minouche, after Tante Georgette’s cat in French in Action, because he came to me during that period in college when I was only watching black and white French films about death. When the boy complained that the cat was sharing the bed with us, I told him he was welcome to sleep in the living room. The boy stuck around for a few more explosive months, but the kitten remained.
Even so, the kitten wasn’t the little gray, furry bundle of joy I’d been hoping for. He was born on Halloween, and may very well have been a physical manifestation of Satan. He had a way of peering into your eyes with a malevolence that seemed to say, “I’d kill you if I could, and one day I will,” just before he’d make a bite-y lunge for your face. I started calling him the “Anti-kitten.”
He was needy, and would meow pitifully when I’d leave him alone, even if it was only to go to the bathroom. He’d claw his way up my pant legs to curl up on my warm neck. He was covered in fleas, so I got him a collar that protected him, but not us. I couldn’t bear to discipline him, so he’d just accompany me during my showers, batting at the shower curtain and crying until I was done and could hold him again.
He seemed determined to poop everywhere except inside his litter box. When my roommate, Nikki, left a post-it on the fridge that said, “Your cat shat on the mat,” I knew that I wasn’t cut out for kitten parenthood. So when I went home for the holidays that year, I took the kitten with me, and irresponsibly left him with my parents when I left to go back to school. My excuse at the time was that I couldn’t afford the pet deposit, but this wore thin years later when I was working full time, and we all knew that I just didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of another living thing.
As a child I’d never been allowed to have a pet in the house because my mother said my dad and I were bad enough. But with me in college, my parents’ empty nest syndrome was in full swing, so the cat became a surrogate child for them. At one point my mom asked me if she should get the cat’s birthstone put on a ring with the rest of our birthstones. I had to explain to her that he was a cat and didn’t have a birthstone. For a while he was even sleeping with them until he started biting their elbows every time they’d roll over, and then he was banished to sleep in a cat bed in the utility room. He seemed happier with them too, and never once pooped anywhere except for in his litter box.
Being rural Texans, my parents refused to call him by his given name, Minouche, and instead called him Mutt, and his full name, Mutt Brister when they were yelling at him for being up to something he shouldn’t, which was frequently.
He was still evil. He’d “hide” behind the French doors and wait for someone to walk from the kitchen to the dining room before leaping out to bite their ankles, not quite smart enough to realize that the doors were glass, and we could see him hunched over and ready to pounce from the other side. He’d curl up in your lap, and lull you into a false sense of security, before latching onto your wrist and sinking his fangs into your arms while scratching you with his hind legs. When my dad would walk into the kitchen for a late night snack, he’d sneak from the shadows to attack his feet. The last straw for my mother happened when she came out of the shower one morning, and the cat leapt from atop a bookshelf onto her naked back…and stuck there.
The next day she took him to be fixed and declawed. For any other cat I’d say that declawing is horrible and inhumane and should never be done, but Minouche couldn’t live with people had he not been. He was just too violent. For a while my mom threatened to drive him out into the forest and leave him there. But as the years went by, they settled into an uneasy cohabitation.
Nearly fifteen years passed. I’d visit twice a year, and, even though I’d abandoned him, Minouche always seemed to know that he was really my cat. He preferred my attention to everyone else’s, and would curl up in my lap to have his belly rubbed (before grabbing my arm with his clawless feet and sinking his teeth into it.) He’d rub his back against my legs and purr, and my mom would call him a traitor. “I’m the one who feeds you!” She’d tell him. “I’m the one who cleans your litter box!” He’d stare at her blankly for a moment, before turning back to me with an exaggerated, fishy yawn.
Every time we talked on the phone, she’d complain about having to take care of my cat, and would threaten to ship him to wherever I was living at the time.
For my first month in New York City, Carlos and I stayed with his friend who had two cats of his own. Dainty June, who he doted on to a degree that bordered on obscene, and Truffaut, her sweet, but timid brother.
“Cat people are crazy.” Carlos said, and, having known too many of them, I could not disagree, even though I sort of am one. The benefit of cats, to me, is that they come to you for attention when they want it, and then ignore you the rest of the time, a pattern of behavior that I can at least relate to. They don’t require all the maintenance of a dog, and are mostly quiet. And you don’t have to walk them.
But cats can be demanding, like Dainty June, who would stand on my chest at the crack of dawn, meowing insistently for me to feed her, then ignoring the food once I dragged myself up, content with the fact that I was her puppet. She’d race from the bedroom to the living room any time she psychically sensed that I was petting Truffaut instead of her. She’d flop down across my keyboard as I sat on the couch, scouring the internet for jobs.
When her master was home, he’d say he was going to the bathroom before Carlos or I could go shower, then he’d spend the next twenty minutes cooing, “Dainty June, Lance needs to shower, I have to get up,” and would wait for the cat to leave his lap of her own accord instead of just setting her down, or shooing her away. Carlos was constantly attacking me with a lint roller, and complaining about the cat hair that would relentlessly attach itself to every item of clothing we owned. So when we found a place in Brooklyn with a woman who had a “no pet” policy, we were both relieved.
The past few weeks, when I phoned home to my mom, she’d tell me that Minouche was no longer eating. She’d buy every kind of cat food, would buy cans of tuna or salmon meant for people, would cook chicken or ham and pinch it up for him, to no avail. He’d lick it a few times, then walk away, bored. For a while our conversations seemed to consist entirely of a growing list of items that Minouche was refusing to eat. Being practical she told me, calmly, “I bought Mutt a coffin.”
As his inevitable death approached, it took an unexpected toll on her. When I spoke to her last week, she was crying hysterically. I’d never heard her cry so much, even when my Grandfather died, and we stood, holding hands at his funeral. “He just looks at me like he wants me to do something, and I don’t know what to do!” She’d sobbed. And hearing my mom cry made me cry. But she didn’t want to take him to the vet because she was afraid they’d just put him to sleep, and she didn’t want that either. She still hoped he’d come around and start eating again.
But he didn’t. When I pointed out that she’d spent the past 15 years complaining about him, she said, “I know, but I’ve gotten attached.”
She was the one who fed him. Who took care of him. And she was the one who had to watch him die. I wished that I could be there. To hold him one last time. To pet him, or comfort him, to just be there when it happened. Because he was, no matter what, my cat. But I was miles away, with cities, roads, and years between us.
Carlos and I visited a beautiful, Catholic church yesterday, and I joked about lighting a candle for Minouche. But I was sort of serious. I wanted to do something, even if it was only a symbolic effort. “You can’t,” Carlos told me, “because cats don’t have souls.”
“Neither do people.” I’d pointed out, unsure what bothered me the most, the fact that somewhere my cat was dying, or that a part of me was dying too, a young man in ripped jeans with Trent Reznor posters and a world view untarnished by cynicism, or the ridiculousness of life and death in general.
“I’m just saying what Catholics believe.” Carlos said, but I could tell he was against me lighting the candle, so I left it at that. I just thought of Minouche, quietly throughout the day. A needy, playful kitten, running around the living room, attacking mens’ hats and women’s hair with his little paws. The older, more sedate Minouche, stretched out on the dryer while my mom did laundry, attacking the towels as she folded them.
My mom sounded better when I spoke to her today. “Mutt passed away on Friday night.” She said. In the end they’d talked to a vet who was going to come by on Saturday and put him to sleep, but he passed away on his own, naturally and peacefully in his sleep. He’d spent the days leading up to it lying outside in a patch of sunshine for hours at a time. He hadn’t seemed to suffer. That was comforting.
“It’s better this way.” She said, and I didn’t disagree. I’m glad that my parents were there to handle everything. To bury him in a little, cat coffin in the backyard in a patch of sunshine. I don’t think I’m quite grown up enough to handle that much reality yet.
R.I.P. Old Friend.