When a stray dog broke into the family garden one afternoon, my cat chased him back out onto the street. I watched from a red-tiled step near my mother’s roses. It had rained earlier – a good, pummeling Venezuelan downpour. I loved being out in our garden after a rain storm, surveying the boiled-cabbage look of things. The dog interrupted my reverie, and my cat’s move sealed her place near the top of my hierarchy of self-determining beings. It was 1986 and my cat and I were both 16. I held her in higher esteem than I did most of the teenaged male bipeds at my school.
Mitzi led an enviable life as a proper house cat with indulgent owners. She had gossamer fur, and she’d grown fat on chicken-liver meals prepared for her, from scratch, by my mother. But, living in Caracas, she still had to watch her back. Amid the congestion, all manner of strays and semi-domesticated wildlife encroached upon her garden jurisdiction. Possums hung menacingly from trees that sprawled over our roof, and small wild parrots eyed us from low heights. The occasional monkey also made an appearance, earning our male golden retriever the moniker, Matamonos (Monkey Killer) when the creature slipped tragically from the wall it was clambering across and fell into the back patio – dog turf.
Mitzi kept her guard up for all threats, particularly those inside the house.
Like the stray expecting a larded rim of steak on that day of rain, Mitzi was a mutt too, a tabby mix whom my mother had rescued from a life of destitution years earlier, when I was an infant. According to the family pet lore, we’d been born less than a year apart. The vet called my mother saying he had an abandoned young cat and her remaining kitten, and he’d be forced to dump them on the banks of the Rio Guaire if they didn’t find a home soon. My mother took them both in.
Many Venezuelan quintas were virtual animal reserves, and ours was no exception. We shared our home with three golden retrievers, two cats, a turtle, a rooster and, in my adolescence, an Amazon parrot that belted out the words to “Amandote” (Loving You) by pop star Colina.
A few of these creatures came and went with a hint of barbarism I figured had something to do with the laws of pet succession. The rooster grew too big for his cage and his anticipatory predawn crowing eventually got him expelled. One day I came home from school and his cage was empty. The story went that he ended up “on a farm.” After that, the morrocoy, or yellow-footed tortoise, disappeared. This left a chunk of my after-school playtime without purpose. I would no longer seek our turtle out in whatever muddy burrow she was hiding, feed her bananas and watch her walk with geriatric effort from one end of the garden to another. Rumor had it she’d been stolen and likely ended up in a soup pot.
I recovered from each loss well because I was most attached to Mitzi, who looked over our home’s shrinking animal brood with an air of satisfied dominion. As a human, she might have incarnated my Sarah Lawrence College writing teacher. He was a bowtie-bedecked Briton and Wall Street Journal critic who told several aspiring writers in the class, “I can’t help you. You’re uneducable.” This is what Mitzi seemed to think of Muffy, the daughter she’d been rescued with and whom she hated, and the one pet I rarely played with. The survival story they shared didn’t endear one to the other. As a child, I remember Mitzi circling Muffy – a clingy cat with unusually long haunches –with unabashed contempt. She often hissed, spat and scratched at her, even pouncing when things got very bad. In their best moments, both managed to ball themselves up on a couch for a nap, but their waking hours were an ongoing game of codependency and abuse. When Muffy was old enough to realize she didn’t have to take it anymore, she retreated to the TV den and curled up with my mother, whose favorite pet she was. Together, they spent hours in relative peace as my mother watched Betamax movies. Muffy would wrap herself around my mother’s shoulders like a neck pillow and chew her hair. The arrangement worked. In that TV-lit space, Muffy avoided Mitzi, and my mother avoided the world.
An all-terrain cat, Mitzi thrived equally well on living room couches and in the wild outdoors where, checking in with her instincts, she’d kill the occasional mouse or garden snake and drag her trophy back into the house. She even walked our block in brief inspections of the street life she’d been spared. In those years, the Caracas of the 70s and early 80s – before street violence, armed guards and residential compounds became the norm – even well-appointed homes like ours had porous borders. This meant that bands of friendly stray dogs stole easily into private gardens, living on owners’ scraps and impregnating the pedigreed dogs beyond the wrought-iron gates.
Such a fate befell one of our golden retrievers, despite my father’s best efforts to separate our dog and her homeless suitor by throwing the garden furniture at them. I spotted Mitzi lording over this spectacle from a well-placed window sill. She looked pleased that one of our purebred pets – the one who often chased her ragged around the garden – would now birth a bunch of mutts as unsourced as herself.
Of all our animals, Mitzi was known to be my special charge. But in our early years, we had our tensions. By the age of six, we were playing rough and she was scratching excessively. To escape from me, she hid under the corduroy-upholstered couch that provided refuge whenever the dogs were inside. I tried smoking her out with my own most vicious bark. Unable to squeeze underneath, I watched her spit and hiss at me from her dark panic room.
“Leave that cat alone,” my mother would suddenly warn.
After these spats, Mitzi would come purring back to me with Stockholm Syndrome-style devotion. I’d carry her around the house like a fanged safety blanket and fed her the puffed cornmeal snacks my mother bought for me and my two sisters. I learned to live with my extreme allergy to her, and washed out my swollen, leaking eyes with a special rinse every day.
Our animal-colonized home meant that, despite daily cleaning and vacuuming, pet hair laced the furniture. It was in the air we breathed. The dogs had a rancid scent. The meticulously self-cleaning cats gave off a milder odor. The back pantry, where the parrot lived, reeked of sweet-smelling seed husks and bird droppings. The essence of our pets was everywhere. There was never any question of scaling back for anyone’s health or allergy-proofing our home. Guests who came over to mingle with us and our animals, and many gladly did, entered a heady atmosphere of canine breath and tropical birdsong.
The only one in my family unenthused about our downy tribe was my Israeli father. He travelled more often than not, and when he was home, he remained alarmingly unversed in the names of our pets.
Sometimes I lined the dogs up in front of him for a test.
“Brandy,” he’d say, when I pointed at our male, Frisco. Then he’d wink and get back to his paper.
Mitzi and her daughter were not lucky enough to be treated with this amused indifference. Whenever he caught sight of them, especially as they aged and started sunbathing on countertops, my father would yell “Kishta!” (Hebrew slang for scat) without much effect. Eventually, he’d look at the pair in the kitchen, eating their cat lunches and intone, “The Final Solution,” before answering the phone or reaching for a snack.
In the end, my father had no say in the matter of our pets’ fates.
One day, when I was a senior in high school, I came home to find the cats gone. For months, Mitzi in particular, had begun to show her age. She walked as though balancing herself on a tightrope. Her eyes were glassy with illness. She spent more and more time outside, hiding in the undergrowth of our plants. Whenever I sat on the same garden step where, only a year before, I’d watched her vigorously chase out a dog, she’d emerge and hobble towards me, sounding a nasal plea for affection, or perhaps seeking some deeper comfort. But I couldn’t bear to pick her up. Each time, knowing I was failing my dying cat, I could only pet her briefly before leaving her there, near the rose bed.
“Where are the cats?” I asked my mother.
She’d taken both to the vet to have them euthanized, my mother explained tensely as she reorganized a kitchen cabinet. She decided to spare me any prior notice. Mitzi, it turned out, had been sick with cancer. Her daughter’s health had also unraveled. Having reached their late teens in such dire shape, it came time for them to go, my mother said. I said nothing and went to my room where I couldn’t cry, but felt a small flare of dread. In taking the cats to the vet’s office for the last time, my mother, besides doing what no one else would, had begun a clearing away.
In a few months I would leave Venezuela for a new life in the U.S., far from the cats, dogs, fowl and garden wildlife with whom I’d grown up for 18 years and, without my mother’s firm kick, would have gladly grown up for 18 more.
With Mitzi gone, my eyes cleared up. Summer approached, but I avoided thoughts of my imminent move. I clung instead to those last months as a resident of my home among the surviving family pets. I took refuge with the dogs who still had a few good years left. I listened to the parrot hard at work, growing his song repertoire. And I sat in the garden, edging toward my own expulsion and looking at the unsubdued weeds, without my cat to fend off intruders.