The day I chased the cat, Sylvia was four years old, still quite dependent on her mother, didn’t like to be in a room alone, needed to know where I was at all times. She would have bouts of hysterical weeping at the back door when I took out the garbage or retrieved the newspaper. “I didn’t know where you were!” she would sob. Sometimes things out of reach seem gone forever. Her anguish was more than I could bear, so when Satchmo fled out the back door I was hesitant to leave my daughter in the house, even for a moment.
Satchmo is named after Louis Armstrong who was known for his chops. Although ours was an ordinary cat—not jowly at all—the name was strangely prophetic, as our Satchmo turned out to be orally fixated in many ways. His kitten teeth were painless but as he grew carnivorous adult teeth, he would pierce the skin, leaving my forearms looking like those belonging to someone prone to cutting. He took to chewing on dresser pulls and the knobs of Dave’s amplifiers. He vomited on the white carpeting and began to groom himself excessively. “Someone is taking good care of his coat,” said the vet at one check-up. But it was more than fastidious cleanliness. Satchmo suffered from something akin to an obsessive compulsive disorder and licked his brown and downy belly until there was no more fur, just pinkish skin dotted with useless nipples. But even with a naked underside, he still likes to have his belly rubbed and the folds of fat are surprisingly soft and warm.
This cat came into our lives just after we bought our first house. It is the progression toward adulthood: marriage, house, pet, kids. All of these things were firsts for Dave who had never owned a pet (we didn’t think his brother’s goldfish counted). Perhaps his parents, who raised three boys, each five years apart, had enough of chasing and cleaning up without adding an animal into the mix. And the thought of creatures running loose in the house can be a strange concept for someone accustomed to humans only. But then, as an indication of either his readiness or surrender, Dave gave me a litter box for my birthday, a symbolic permission slip. (His enthusiasm for children wouldn’t come for a few more years and when it did, there were no grand gestures or gifts, only his thoughtful acceptance of the next stage in life.)
Kitten season peaks in early summer and so by August we had made several visits to the Animal Humane Society’s shelter which, nationwide, houses six to eight million animals a year. There were adult cats sleeping on carpeted perches, adolescent cats eating crunchy kibbles, and fluffy kittens pouncing on other cats’ tails. About half of the Humane Society’s inmates are euthanized and that statistic is never far from your consciousness as you peer into cages filled with puddles of kittens. No pressure.
But the right cat—“our” cat—hadn’t appeared. We were, as these kinds of stories always go, about to leave the cat room when we noticed, curled up in the back of a cage, a dark striped cat, three months old. He had just been neutered and was still sluggish from the procedure, a little lump on the cage’s newspapered floor. We pulled him out and brought him into one of the visitation rooms and shut the door.
Once you close the door, the din of the cat room recedes and all you can hear—and feel—is vibrating purr of your cat, the one you have picked out. Cradling him in my arms, I pressed my ear against his rumbling motor; his sound of contentment seemed to echo off the cinderblock walls.
My first pets were a brother and sister pair of kittens. I was nine years old, and my mom let me pick out the black and white male for my own. She chose the calico with an uneven temperament. Both the cats were victims of neuroses—one with a propensity for urination and the other with anti-social tendencies. Rascal would sleep on my bed, a comforting mound of overweight white fur while Misty would sit atop the refrigerator and hiss at houseguests, batting anyone whose head ventured into her territory. But both of them would tolerate a child’s petting and dragging, Rascal let me trap him with hugs and Misty sat like a queen on the hand-me-down furniture. Four years later, these two siblings were given away in deference to the allergies of my soon-to-be step-family. “I was just so tired of doing it all by myself,” my mom told me later. She thought she could escape the rigors of single parenthood by folding us into a new, catless family. My mom was just trying to do what was best for me and for her, but for years there existed a cat-sized hole in my adolescent heart and every teenage tragedy morphed into me crying about my lost cats.
In the quiet of the Humane Society’s visitation room, I plopped the little tabby on Dave’s lap. The cat purred and paced and promptly fell right off Dave’s bony knees. That clumsy fall sealed our fate; ridiculousness has its charm.
* * *
“Do you want to play on the swings while I look for Satchmo?” I asked Sylvia, getting down to her level, allowing for the eons a four-year-old needs in order to answer a simple question. Parenthood has a way of making everything harder than it would ordinarily be. A trip to the grocery store becomes an expedition that requires reinforcements in the form of toys and bottles. A walk to the park necessitates a certification in CPR and first aid kits with Elmo Band-Aids (heaven help you if yours are industrial beige). And walking out the back door to find your cat becomes an exercise in negotiations and persuasion. “I’m just going outside for one minute,” I said, trying to say it kindly and patiently, cautiously extricating myself from her neediness.
When I did finally step outside, Satchmo was nowhere to be seen. It was so rare for him to explore much further than the patio. Then I saw that the gap between the fence and the house was big enough for a cat—even a chubby one—to fit through. I peered over the wooden slats, calling. “Satchmo,” I said in that sweet pleading voice you use to call a cat that you know very well never comes when called. “Satchmo?”
Once you let a cat outdoors, he experiences a buffet of smells and sights completely new. Some ancestral instinct is awakened and the formerly sedentary feline suddenly remembers his distant heritage as a stealthy hunter. He feels the sun on his back, and the warmth that radiates up from the soil is rich and primal. And who doesn’t want to experience that ultimate and almost erotic awakening? I couldn’t deny Satchmo the experience and so, despite Dave’s protestations, I had begun to let Satchmo out. At first I just let him roam the brick patio where he rolled around in ecstasy. Then I bought a leash and harness (sized for a small dog) at one of those big-box pet stores and let him explore further. He was happy.
At least while he was outside. Once back indoors, though, he now knew what he was missing, aware of the whole new world that awaited him, and the four walls of his kingdom no longer satisfied him. He sat on his haunches at the back door and yowled for his loss. The meowing was incessant. A previously silent cat, Satchmo became as loud as a howler monkey, crying in an almost speech-like pattern of notes and silences. He longed to be outside, to smell the animal scents and coat his fur in dirt. The longing and yowling soon escalated to escape plans. He has a way of inserting himself between the screen door and your foot and, before you can lean down to catch him, he has vanished. He usually only goes a few feet before he flops down to roll and revel in the warmth of the bricks, but he is escaping nonetheless. And his escapes make Dave say, “I told you so,” with something like relish.
* * *
Just as I was coming through the gate, my mom pulled up along the curb. “Are you looking for Satchmo?” she asked. “I just saw him running across the street.”
I panicked. Running across the street?
“Sylvia’s in the backyard,” I called as I took off in my blue felt slippers. “Can you watch her?”
I headed down the sidewalk of the next block, scanning the landscapes of potholed city streets and leafy boulevard trees. Then I spotted Satchmo just ahead of me. As I got near, he slunk under a parked car in a driveway.
“Satchmo,” I cooed, crouching on the sidewalk, peering under the manifold at this cat who hunched just out of reach. Tabby cats are believed to be descended from the domesticated cats of ancient Egypt and still have a little of the regal in their haughty faces. He held me in his gaze and neither of us said anything for a moment. He looked so much smaller out here in the wide world. I remember learning about perspective in art class in elementary school: objects that are farther away should appear smaller. There is a trick to looking at the world with just the right eye, to making a flat piece of paper have depth, to make illusion real.
“Come here,” I said, holding out my hand, one finger, an invitation to smell my familiar scent.
Instead he shot out from under the car, leapt over a puddle and crossed to another. The outdoors and the freedom of the open air seemed to have transformed this lazy housecat into a creature as graceful as an African lion. Even in my panic, I noted the beauty of his leap, the ease with which he cleared the pool of dirty water, and I marveled at nature’s capacity to take back what is hers, to invite the domesticated to return to the fold.
I chased him across the street where he cowered under a minivan. Two children—a boy and a girl—were playing in the yard. They called to him, too. “My cat got out,” I explained, although I suppose that was obvious. The two children followed me as I followed Satchmo as he darted into the bushes along the foundation of their house.
“Come here, Satchmo,” I called.
“Come here, kitty,” called the boy and girl.
I appreciated their help although I doubted he would pay them any attention; he was not a big fan of children. Satchmo’s life had changed with the arrival of Sylvia. It started when I was pregnant. He would try to squeeze himself between my belly and breasts, a space that got smaller by the week, and then he would fall, just like he had as a kitten, to the floor. Sylvia’s smells and emanations confounded him and he looked at us as if we had taken away his most inalienable rights to home and quiet. There were times in those early days of motherhood when all three of us—me, Sylvia, and Satchmo—would nap on our bed during the endless late afternoons. I would look at my fitfully sleeping infant and then at my softly snoring tabby. Leaning in to his warmth, I would think about how many years I had loved this cat and how I didn’t know this baby at all. Loss and gain can be nearly indistinguishable.
As Satchmo dashed around the corner of the house, I cut him off at the window well. He jumped into its perceived safety just in time for me to grab him. And even as I reached for him, even before I clutched him around the middle, I had an inkling of misgiving. This was Satchmo, wasn’t it? I picked him up only to find that this cat had intact belly fur and a lopped-off tail. And a certain look in his eye that couldn’t have come from only a few minutes in the wild.
The cat I had been chasing wasn’t mine.
“He gets out a lot,” said the girl who had followed me. I handed her their kitty. “Thanks,” she told me. I nodded and turned back up the street, my slippers flapping on the sidewalk.
It wasn’t just that these two tabbies looked alike. There was something else that made me pursue this cat that wasn’t mine. We lose many things in life. We grow up and leave behind the comforts of childhood. We get married and lose the part of ourselves that would rather not have a pet. We have a baby and find that our lives have transformed into something unrecognizable. So maybe we’re always searching for the mothers who have gone to take out the trash and for the Rascals and the Mistys who have found new homes and for a good night’s sleep.
When I got back to my yard, I found Satchmo contentedly munching grass in a patch of sun. My mom was pushing Sylvia on the swing, and they were both shrieking with laughter. Whatever we’re looking for, we should always make sure that what we’re chasing is something we’ve actually lost. And when I approached my cat, he looked at me with his completely trusting eyes and let me scoop him up and bring him inside.
Anika Fajardo is a writer and librarian living in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in various publications including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Dos Passos Review, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others, and her memoir-in-progress, Magical Realism for Non-Believers, was a finalist for the Bakeless Literary Prize. Find her online at www.anikafajardo.com or follow her on Twitter at @anikawriter.
Great essay. Some really profound and beautiful lines!