Reflection (In Cats)
Coltrane liked the old house. He's a wiry tuxedo cat who routinely loses fur around the base of his tail because that’s where the bugs like it most, and he bites at them incessantly. When we moved, Coltrane got this horrified look on his face that was practically human. He was like any kid on a TV show where the family has to move, except there was the tragic complication that Coltrane couldn’t understand why we would want to leave what had been a perfectly fine living situation for a smaller house with a ramshackle joke of a backyard. We couldn’t say, “Hey, the owner of the old house had to sell it. We don’t like this new one as much, either. But sometimes in life you just have to deal with things happening that you don’t like."
Granted, Coltrane had probably been through some shit in his time. He didn’t move in with us until he was two years old, and before that he’d been feral. When he moved in with our other cat, Satchmo, he was a lunchroom bully. Sachmo couldn’t walk past Coltrane without inadvertently inviting a full-on attack. As a person who teaches children who are emotionally disturbed, I know that aggressive behavior like that can really only come from deep trauma, so I was inclined to give Coltrane a pass.
That was four years ago. When my friend Jenny said there was a "friendly stray” (her words) near her house she couldn’t bear to see unadopted, I stepped up. I’d secretly always wanted to be the kind of person who has two or more cats. Jenny brought Coltrane over in a cream-colored plastic crate, along with a six-month supply of flea medication. I was the person who took him out of the crate and brought him into the old house to begin with. He sunk his teeth into my shoulder, then used his claws to climb up my face so he could get to my scalp, which he bit with even greater enthusiasm. He has never forgiven me for taking him out of the crate.
The old house had been perfect. Hannah and Derek — my roommates, who are also a modern couple (I say “modern couple” because they call themselves "partners," and never talk about getting married or breaking up) — were asked if they wanted to live there by the owner. Shelley was moving away indefinitely to simplify her life. She left behind beautiful, idiosyncratic furniture: a creaky oak wardrobe peeling with warm cornflower blue paint; red plush theater chairs attached on rusting iron hinges; a skinny stack of dark brown drawers which were illogically small and couldn’t hold more than a box of cotton balls each. There were also secret nooks and crannies, and walls painted with bright rust, sky, grass, and wheat hues, so you felt like you were always outside on the most impossible summer day in there.
Hannah and Derek asked me to move into the front room. The front room had been Shelley’s bike shop, and featured industrial, unreachable shelves, and big metal hooks near the ceiling to hang parts from. I thought all of this was wonderful and quirky. I fantasized that boys with glasses who described themselves as writers would see my room and fall in love with me over it; it gave off a very manic-but-on-purpose kind of vibe. Honestly, I had a crush on me in that room. It was a very compelling room.
I moved in on a Saturday while I was still a full-time teacher. I paid two guys who lived in the neighborhood to rent a UHaul and cart my stuff over in one go. I justified not doing it myself because I had a piano.
The room would go through many iterations. In my first two years in New Orleans, I’d amassed a lot. I arrived with practically nothing: I’d gotten into a car crash in Nebraska during the move from Portland; the car landed in a lake and everything I owned had essentially drowned. After, I hoarded whatever I could get for free, and ended up with a lot of college kid rejects: plastic crates, half-full bottles of acrylic paint, frisbees. By the time I moved into the perfect house, it was hard to get everything in one room. I took some perverse pleasure in figuring out how to get my worldly possessions to fit: it was like playing Tetris, or solving a jigsaw puzzle.
All three of us moved into that house like it would be a fixture. I don’t think any of us wanted to believe that we would ever have to leave it. After all, the years after college are turbulent; you long for some permanent thing; something that will root you.
Satchmo had moved from Walla Walla (where I adopted him) to Portland and then finally to New Orleans. Thankfully, he wasn’t in the car when it crashed. He flew down on an airplane later, stacked in the dark with floral luggage and locked suitcases. In New Orleans, he moved from a big mansion Uptown, where I lived on the top floor, which prevented him from doing much exploring; to a little cottage in Mid City, which was perched on a street with too many feral cats for Satchmo’s taste. Satchmo was antisocial when it came to other cats. Finally, we moved into Shelley’s house, which he liked. The yard was big and shady. There wasn’t a shower, so people took baths all the time. (Satchmo’s best party trick was that he liked to sit in the bath with people.)
I hadn’t known how much I needed a cat before I got Satchmo. I suffered from depression and I liked cats, but still the thought hadn’t occurred to me. I adopted him after a college breakup, in a cliche volley for tangible independence. Immediately, I began to understand why sad women archetypically busy themselves with cats. Cats don’t care if you’re sad; they don’t really need anything from you at all (barring a once-a-day scoop of dry food, which is the commitment-equivalent to brushing your teeth). But in a pinch, a cat will make you believe you’re not alone.
Satchmo survived plenty of break-ups. Every one of them was the worst breakup I’d ever had; and every time, I grabbed him and stuck him under the covers with me and looked at him woefully. His face had this wry intelligence about it; I was sure he was trying to communicate that none of those people were good enough for me. I have tried not to go on too much about this on the Internet in the past. I am a firm believer that no one needs to hear about another person’s relationships with their pets. For our purposes, though, you have to understand that, over a hundred times, I looked this animal in the eyes and said, “If you were gone, I wouldn’t be able to live."
After five years simplifying her life, Shelley realized she could no longer afford to keep the house. Hannah briefly entertained the idea of buying it, but it was too much of a financial commitment, ultimately. We came to understand that we would have to move. In January, armed with this knowledge, I lay on my bed and surveyed my belongings. I could see how the top shelf of my bookcase housed books that were uniformly warped from the day I left the window open during a rainstorm. At the time I thought, I’ll deal with this later.
Over the course of the next few months, I started to have to deal with all the things I thought I’d have to deal with later. Mostly, this meant confronting my failures, which had all been relegated to dark corners of my room. I hadn’t learned how to make lipgloss out of beeswax; I hadn’t used the clip-on microphone I got for Christmas to make a vlog. This house had come with a great deal of potential. I had seen myself living many lives inside it.
Last July, like most Julys, I traveled. I like the dry heat of the west coast in the summer; I leave all the piles of possibilities of what my life might turn into at my house in New Orleans and take off with a journal and four outfits in a backpack. When I leave on long trips like this, part of me is deliberately trying to simplify; I am trying to force myself to do less and think more; to pay attention to noises and moments as they pass, whereas I normally scoot between obligations and ideas like an ant. On the other hand, part of me is deliberately forcing myself to miss my own busy life. I want to get bored so I can come back with a renewed sense of interest around all my tasks.
I was in Austin when Hannah called to tell me Satchmo was missing. It had been two days since she’d seen him, and he had been acting kind of weird before he disappeared, mooring up by her desk. She was worried, but I wasn’t. I knew he would come back, because he had always come back.
I am attached to patterns. When we learned about them at school when I was six, it felt like a field day. We took home pattern homework: diamond, diamond, triangle, diamond, diamond, triangle, diamond, diamond, — what comes next? I couldn’t get enough. I made my own patterns on the back of the worksheet; strings of crayon shapes snaking around the edge of the page. This is really the great poetry of math: the assurance that if X, then Y; always. There is no mystery. So long as the cat runs away, the cat will return.
A month later, when I realized Satchmo had died, I was furious. Cats have this inexplicable and unique ability to know when they’re going to die; for some reason — and no one really can confirm one — they wander off to pass away. People on the Internet who write about cat death (there’s a pastime for you) muse about how noble and kind this is of cats; like cats are trying to protect humans from the ugliness of loss. I think it is cowardly. Look me in the face if you’re going to leave me.
This was the beginning of a lot of things ending. Satchmo died, and we slowly began to dismantle our home. We took the pictures off the walls. We moved boxes from the attic to the main floor and blew the dust off them. We entered into a month of never really sleeping, constantly tinkering around the question of what needed to stay and what needed to go; what memories we would continue to cling to with clenched fists, and what we would let wander off. For the past seven years of my life, things had gone: diamond, diamond, triangle, diamond, diamond, triangle. Now, all of a sudden, everything was: diamond, diamond, egg, square, balloon, kite, heart. In other words, maybe there was some kind of pattern, but I could no longer predict it.
When Satchmo died, Coltrane was weirdly sad. He knew what had happened before any of us, and he moved more slowly and behaved with a solemn friendliness that was uncharacteristic. He never really returned to his normal, alpha-male state, actually. When we finally moved him to the new house, down the street from the old one, we understood that we were adding insult to injury. There was nothing we could do. Coltrane ran away after he’d been at the new house for one week. Who could blame him?
A week before we moved, I was accepted into the writing program at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve been applying to graduate school for years; then, every year I decide that it’s not time for me to leave yet. I’ve been repeating this pattern for almost a decade, too in love with New Orleans and teaching and the star jasmine that blooms during the decision-making time of the year to fathom going anywhere. Every year until now, I’ve come home from work to the perfect house, to sit down for dinner (always from the farm, always with some kind of magazine-quality salad) with people I love unconditionally, and I’ve thought, This isn’t the time for me to leave. I will stay one more year. Diamond, diamond, triangle.
But now, finally, things are different. I couldn’t have predicted any of this. The new house we moved into is too small for three people. It’s perfect for a couple. I do not belong here anymore.
The woman who bought Shelley’s house called to tell us that she had found Coltrane in the backyard three weeks after he ran away, and would we come and get him, please. Coltrane didn’t have any interest in things changing; he liked the old house, and he had his routines there. He wanted to chase the very specific lizards that lived behind the rusted-out grill behind the banana trees in our next door neighbor’s yard. Since we clearly couldn’t understand that, he took it upon himself, and returned on his own. He was willing to sacrifice regular food and water and shelter just to get back to his pattern.
Hannah went to pick him up. She put him in the same cream-colored crate he’d arrived in. We are making him stay inside for a little while, just until he can forget exactly what it was he loved about his last life. The memory will be a distant thing; no longer a bright possibility. One of life’s great cruelties is that you can’t hold onto anything you love; and it is only through a kind of forgetting that you can learn to love the new shapes as they come.
And still, you hope that somehow, you’ll remember all there used to be with a fondness you can’t quite place. You hope you look into the great horizon of future, and find that your heart has been changed. That the person you are now depends entirely on all the beautiful complexities of what you’ve lost. You hope, but of course, you can never know.