Peanut Training by Kirsten Voris

white-cat-close-up-whiskersDuring our weekly Skype session, my therapist, Margaret, suggests I’m an alcoholic. What? I already stopped drinking, can’t remember my last hangover. But Margaret knows: my mood, remains, well, moody. Something is still not right with me.

I sag. Margaret sees.

“What are you thinking?” she asks.

“My cat is depressed,” I say.

Behind me, Squiggy lies draped over the arm of his favorite chair. The one he sleeps on; the only piece of furniture in the apartment that he hasn’t peed on. I train the camera on the cat.

“Hmm,” Margaret says. “Are you sure he’s unhappy?” When I fail to respond, she continues.

“Isn’t it just as likely that he’s fine? That he’s happy to have a chair to sleep on? Pleased to be eating regular meals? Why don’t you assume your cat is happy?”

Through cyberspace, I hear Margaret clicking her pen. I look over at Squiggy. His kitty chin droops over the chair arm. Isn’t this how I look when I’m depressed?

“Hmmm,” I say, unconvinced.

“Maybe if you engaged with him more.…”

I give her a blank look.

“You could try training him.”

Train the cat? I want to kill the cat. Put him out on the balcony and see if he jumps. Because when he’s not moping around and bumming me out, he’s keeping me awake at night and making my life a misery. So, I either hate the cat, or feel sorry for the cat. It depends. How could Squiggy be happy under these circumstances? I’m not.

Unfortunately, my boyfriend Zach adores Squiggy. He wants to heal the cat’s family-of-origin issues. I have those. And although my primary caregivers were distant and perfectionistic, I have to admit, I did have clean bedding and regular meals. Squiggy’s beginnings were probably much more ghetto.

Zach approaches the cat with love and patience. Which is how he approaches me. Both the cat and I are coated in Zach-love. Unlike me, however, Squiggy seems to be blossoming.

From my desk the next day, I watch Zach teach the cat to tolerate playtime.

“You’re so handsome!” he murmurs, reaching out, collecting a wound for his efforts. “Yes you are,” he adds, leaning in to kiss the furry forehead, barely avoiding a second swipe. “And so ferocious.”

“You’re going to spoil him,” I mutter. “And you should wash your arm.” Blood is welling. Antibiotic resistant, I think. Squiggy remains unvaccinated. I can’t bear to put him through the going-to-the-vet ordeal. Just thinking about it makes me want a beer. I don’t drink, I remind myself.

Zach glances at his arm and then looks at me. “We have to tell him how handsome he is.”

He’s not kidding. I put down my coffee.

“Remember, Squiggy grew up in the furnace room. He has low self-esteem.”

What about my low self-esteem? I wonder. Zach has composed one rap and one motivational song for Squiggy. And they make me laugh, even when I don’t want to laugh. Zach sings them daily, unconsciously. After 14 years together I only rate one song. And it’s not even funny. The cat gets a new one every 12 months.

It’s been two years. Squiggy was no bigger than a napkin holder when he first peered out of the furnace room. He froze and stared. Then, he blinked and inhaled—and began to howl. He wailed in gulps, like a newborn forcing amniotic fluid from its lungs. Like a banshee. Like a starving thing.

Our hearts pierced, we began leaving food and water. Gradually, he approached. Pure white, we noted, with a tiny black question mark on his forehead.

Since he crossed the landing and transitioned from furnace room to apartment, I have often questioned our decision to invite him. Squiggy has been slow to adapt. After months of steady feeding, spiritually, he’s still in deprivation mode. He doesn’t believe his bowl will be filled again tomorrow. And he hasn’t stopped howling.

“Shut up, you stupid cat!” I scream one day when Zach is home. He frowns.

“I like Squiggy,” he says. “He’s like you.”

“How?”

“He’s got backbone.”

Zach is a forgiver. I tend to keep score. And Squiggy has upended my schedule-free, sleeping-in lifestyle. Projecting into the future, I see nothing but broken sleep and ruined furnishings.

Early in his stint as cat-in-residence he pees on the bed twice in one week. Abandoning our dreams of all-night cat snuggling, we ban him from the bedroom. Daytime snuggling is also out; Squiggy won’t let us pick him up.

No furry love forthcoming. Nothing to make up for the pee-scented couch. What’s the point? I begin to wonder.

Squiggy seems just as disappointed with us. Like a trauma victim, his parasympathetic nervous system fires on all cylinders. Pupils dilated, he vanishes at the sound of keys in the lock, rustling tin foil. He materializes when the peanut cabinet opens and climbs our pant legs. Do cats eat peanuts? This one does.

He has probably suffered deeply. After all, did he just wander off the streets into the furnace room? What about his terror of plastic bags? Perhaps his kitten-self was stuffed into one and dumped in the basement to kill rats. I flash on our building manager, a suit-clad Jack-of-all-trades who prunes fruiting trees with meat cleavers, disassembles appliances in the corridor, and burns trash under our window. He’d shut a kitten in the cellar.

I hate him. I think, stomach tightening.

Poor Squiggy, I think, heart expanding.

Having lived with many snuggly and compliant cats, Squiggy’s attitude hurts. My chest crumples as I tamp down a memory of the last one. She cuddled, I think.

We provide our roommate with clean litter, vet-approved kibble, the same spring water we drink. Our apartment is awash in realistic fur-covered mouse toys. And we wiggle them, at great personal risk, within swatting distance. Still he cries and pouts like an under-slept toddler. Unlike a human, however, Squiggy will never grow up, get a job, and buy me a bed in assisted living.

What’s the point? I wonder.

I try to imagine myself as a parent with a disappointing child. Would I just give up on that child?

I study the cat. He is splayed out on the marble-topped radiator. Asleep at 1:30 p.m. Yes, I think, my son is in sweats playing video games with the curtains closed. He’s unemployable and friendless—but he’s got a good heart. Squiggy smacks his cat-lips together in his sleep.

What a sweet boy.

My compassion is episodic. Mostly, I resent the cat.

Resent the fact that he is a sleeping machine. That he remains comatose through the upstairs furniture rearranging, the twins howling next door. And then whines for breakfast as I finally drift off.

One morning after an especially short night, I crack. I’m forcing a dull knife through a pile of peppers in the kitchen when Squiggy peers in. Eyes bleary and pink-rimmed, he pads over. Wearily, as though I have inconvenienced him with my poor timing. When the kitchen is full he never fails to appear. Squiggy will eat anything—as long as it’s bland and crunchy. He parks himself under my knife arm. I bristle.

Looking down at his shell pink ears and matching triangle nose. I wonder, What if we shaved off his fur…with a straight razor? Is he pink all over? My heart constricts.

Chop, chop, chop. Reducing the peppers to hash, I consider the blade. It’s sharp. I’m so fucking tired.

A few days ago Squiggy urinated on our comforter. Again. The dry cleaner broke into a grin, offered us tea. Getting goose down de-peed costs more than imported cat kibble.

“Urine,” counter guy said.

“Yes,” we muttered, handing over our trash bag of bedding.

I tell myself that we lock Squiggy out of the bedroom to protect the comforter. Clearly it does no good. Honestly, the bedroom cat ban is for me; I have to get away from him.

Although Squiggy dislikes peppers, he’s up on his hind legs straining towards the cutting board.

“Rooowwwwwwwurrrr.”

“Shut up,” I growl, nerves twitching. I jerk the blade through an onion.

Squiggy leaps onto the windowsill and assumes the classic seated cat pose. Then, he begins to creep, haunches wiggling a few centimeters to the left. Otherwise, he is still. Focused.

How does he do that? This cat moves without moving. Like he has special knowledge of physics. Or something.

He shifts again. Advances half a centimeter.

“Don’t even think of it,” I say in a warning tone. He’s going to climb onto the counter.

He lifts a paw. Places it on the sink, just south of a water puddle. Squiggy looks at me, as if to say: What are you going to do now? My knuckles turn white around the knife handle. The cat has thrown down the gauntlet. You little fucking bastard, I think.

Then, I remember my coffee. I set down the knife and pick up the mug. Before I can stop myself, the last quarter inch of cold coffee is dribbling down Squiggy’s forehead. He tears out of the kitchen.

It takes a few seconds for Zach’s voice to rise from the other room.

“Oh no!” he says, in his talking-to-Squiggy voice. “What did you do to yourself little buddy? What’s this…?”

I tense.

“…brown spot?” A gasp.

I wait for it.

“Kirsten, did you …?”

Ummmm….can’t think of a lie! “He wouldn’t shut up!” Yes, I dumped coffee on him! Am I insane?

“Poor Squiggy,” Zach coos.

“That’s not cool,” he says to me.

It takes a week for Squiggy to groom the coffee off his forehead. When I see it there, obscuring the question mark, I feel terrible.

And, I feel elated. Fuck you! I might think, depending on how much sleep I’ve had.

Working from home, I am trapped with Squiggy. He marks with urine, claws our furniture, howls. He’s a cat, after all. But my inability to accept his particular brand of cat-ness dominates my consciousness. Zach’s insistence that we praise Squiggy, incubate the tiny sprout of his confidence, love him into a well-adjusted feline—I don’t have the patience for it. My love/hate flip-flopping, my moodiness—Squiggy brings it all out.

In fact, Squiggy is it. He is my furry, foul tempered doppelganger.

I hate the cat? What I’m really saying is—I hate me.

Slowly, insidiously, Squiggy has thrown my maladaptive coping strategies into full relief. I can no longer ignore the insanity.

Soon after the coffee incident, I am hiding in bed, earplugs in, reviewing my current grievances. Because I have locked him out, Squiggy flings himself against the bedroom door, demanding entrance. Go away! I think,trying to remember a time before the cat. When I had no commitments. When I slept. When life didn’t suck.

God take this cat away, I think, opening my computer. I hit enter. And something happens. A shock wave of shame and remorse steals my air. Like a Taser strike. Like a splash-in-the-face with cold coffee.

No angels sing. No Squiggies whine. In fact, it’s silent.

But I get it. I am the only problem I need to solve.

Thinking of Margaret, I open up Google and type “help for drunks.” I press “enter.” Then, I embark.

“Good for you,” Zach says, his relief palpable.

In my eagerness to heal, to become less angry, more like my boyfriend, I blaze through the first three steps. I admit my powerlessness and out of control-ness, concede that there could be something out there that has more power than me. Then I agree to release what I can’t control. Cats, for example.

Over breakfast one day, I dive into Step Four. And feel my ardor dampen as I bring to mind all the people I have harmed. All of them. Squiggy stares up at me silently, fangs protruding over his lower lip.

Has he forgotten the coffee?

Green kitty eyes bore into me as I list, taking short breaks to spoon cereal into my mouth.He wants to lick the bowl.

Squiggy blinks and continues his vigil. In silence.

There was a time when Squiggy inhaled his kibble then whined through human dinnertime. Good kitty, I think, pleased. He’s afraid of me.

Of course, he’s afraid, I think. I doused him with coffee. Shame and regret march, prickling, across my scalp.

I finish eating. “Who’s a good boy?” I ask. And set the bowl on the floor. Penance? Squiggy’s pupils dilate, irises flash. Tongue licks.

So, on to Step 4. At the top of the list of those I must apologize to: not the boyfriends I cheated on, not the former boss I stole from. Although I wronged them, I barely remember them. Instead, I pick up my pen and write ‘Squiggy.’

I look around for my nemesis. He’s crouched under the clothes rack, pupils expanding with every sound. He knows; Zach is due home.

“I like Squiggy,” Zach will say, as we walk to the drycleaner’s with our smelly bedding. “He’s got character.”

Zach never considers the comforter. Or state of his oft-clawed forearm. Instead of his growing scab collection, Zach sees the cat disemboweling his toy mouse, somersaulting over his Spiderman ball. Or he’s recalling the time Squiggy forced the kitchen door, leapt onto the stovetop and drank a pot of chicken broth. “So cute!” he’ll say.

Mostly, I just smell the cat pee.

I reach out to scratch the cat. As I wonder why I can’t take Zach’s attitude, Squiggy leans back and swats me. Deep, I think. The wound on my hand shows white. As I watch blood pulse to the surface, a grief wave hits. I shuffle into the bathroom to find the Betadine, head and hand throbbing in unison. My fault, I think. Of course Squiggy doesn’t love me: I don’t want to love Squiggy.

I’m afraid to. And there is a reason.

Bihther. The cat who charged up the mulberry tree, pushed past us into the apartment—then sat down to groom her gnarly fur. Tentatively at first, as though she was embarrassed that it got so bad. I brushed her. Napped with her.

Fell in love with her.

And then, I decided to take her to the vet.

That morning, Bihther threw up breakfast. “Oh baby,” I said, as I cleaned up. “Is your tummy upset?” I considered postponing. Instead, I lured her into the carrier.

The vet removed her from her case, and Bihther’s eyes turned black with dread. Overwhelming him, she tore out of the exam room. And without stopping to look back, she flung herself at the clinic door with such force that it flew open. And swung shut behind her.

By the time I remembered to breathe, I could only sob. I canvassed the neighborhood, put up fliers. Bihther never showed.

At night I cried, lay awake believing I’d hear her at the window. It’s not that far, I reasoned. She’ll find me. But mostly, I felt guilty. Wretched. If I hadn’t tempted her with meals and brushings—and my terrible love—she’d still be dancing along the tree branch, rolling in the dirt outside my window.

Soon after Squiggy came to live with us, he jumped off the balcony.

What did I think?

Good riddance, I thought. Two days later, he appeared under the kitchen window, howling for entry. And trotted back into the house after Zach.

Squiggy chose us. Perhaps he is here to teach me something. Margaret said engaging with the cat would relieve hisboredom. I now suspect the directive had more to do with me engaging with myself. Learning right alongside a furry doppelganger. So, using peanuts as a reward, I start training Squiggy to sit.

“Behaviorists say that it is not only possible to train a cat, it is actually beneficial to do so,” I read. I look down at Squiggy. He’s wondering what I’m going to do with the peanuts I loaded into my pocket. In one hand, I hold a cheap pen: we’re going to try clicker training. As soon as his ass hits the floor, I click. Then, he gets a peanut.

“Squiggy sit,” I say.

Then, I wait.

I count. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. He doesn’t move. “Squiggy sit,” I try, in a more cheerful voice. He blinks. I take out a peanut.

“Hold the peanut in front of the cat, and slowly move it up between his eyes and over his head,” I read. “This should bring his haunches down onto the floor.”

I try it. Squiggy hesitates. Then his eyes widen. He gets it! With a “thunk,” his butt hits the parquet. “Click” goes the pen.

He earns his first peanut.

As I move from room to room with the pen and the peanuts Squiggy follows at a distance. Tentatively. As though he fears his luck will run out. As though he suspects I am planning something foul. A trick.

“Do not spend more than five minutes per day,” I read. “This will prevent the cat from becoming bored.”

Over time Squiggy begins to appear at my side mid-morning: training time. As I coax him from spot to spot, clicking the pen, distributing nuts, I wonder: What is he thinking? Is this just another meal to him? But he sits. And when I run out of peanuts, he allows me to pet him. Sometimes, he will even purr.

“Scientists now believe that cats may use purring to calm themselves when they are stressed,” I read.

I prefer to believe that Squiggy sits for peanuts because it gives him pride in a job well done. And then, he purrs with delight. As for me, I now enjoy the feel of cat saliva on my fingertips. And appreciate the delicate snorting sounds Squiggy makes while chewing.

The cat has become more of a companion. And my anxiety is receding.

Sometimes when I sit at the table he’ll take a seat on the chair opposite. From under the table a paw will reach out to test the sturdiness of my knee. And Squiggy will climb over after it and settle into my lap, depositing white fur all over my outfit. The warm weight of him feels comfortable. I love you, little buddy, I think.

On the day of my amends to Squiggy, I wait until he’s relaxed and ready to listen. I find him splayed on the marble-topped radiator. Approach carefully and rub the spot on his forehead where the question mark was. He’s big now and the black spot has stretched and vanished into the surrounding whiteness. His vampire fangs protrude as he leans into my hand. A smile?

I take out my piece of paper and kneel down in front of him.

“Squiggy,” I read from my notes. “In the past I haven’t liked the way I’ve behaved around you and I regret that.” As I say the words, sadness burbles in my gut. I mean it.

“I wasn’t as patient or as flexible or as loving as I could have been.”

He yawns, exposing his seashell-pink Hello Kitty tongue. Thoughtfully licks a front paw. He’s so little, I think. Defenseless and quivering in the face of rustling plastic. I was supposed to protect you. And I dumped coffee on you!

“I hope that my behavior hasn’t harmed you,” I say, sticking to the script, the words painful in my throat “but if it has, know that I’m sorry.”

Stretching himself out Squiggy lays his belly on the marble. He places his perfect chin on folded paws. Then, he closes his eyes.

“You might have to be uncomfortable sometimes little buddy,” I whisper, remembering the parade of strangers who have come through to feed him–each one hissed at, then snubbed. “But we will never let anyone hurt you.” Not even the vet, I think

A memory kneads my heart. I remember what Margaret said: “Why don’t you assume he’s happy?”

Paws twitching, Squiggy enters REM. I watch, wishing I could drop off so quickly. Settling into my chair by the heater, I turn on my computer and start to work. At precisely 4 p.m. Squiggy wakes, leaps off the marble, and begins crying for dinner.

“Raaaawwwwwrrrrr,” he screams.

“That’s right,” I say, “You’re so handsome.” He rubs my leg.

“Raaaaaawrrrr,” he tries.

“One more hour, buddy.” I love you, I think as Squiggy pulls his white self along the leg of my black pants, leaving his mark. I reach down and scratch him between the eyes, right where he likes it. And then, I put in my earplugs.

Kirsten Voris standing by wall with shadowKirsten Voris lives, works, and writes in Ankara, Turkey. Outside her window there’s a white mulberry (Morus alba L.) with leaves as big as Conan’s hands. When she was small (6,201 miles from Ankara) a purple mulberry (Morus nigra L.) grew in her yard. In summer she ran around it over and over, crushing dead berries until her feet turned purple and her mom called her inside. That is how Kirsten felt working on this essay. You can also find her on Cowbird (Kirsten V).

IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Aleksey Busygin
AUTHOR PHOTO BY TIM LEWIS

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