Four Cats (1999)

People who are not fond of cats cannot understand the profound, all-embracing feelings a feline—even a virtual feline—can inspire.

ISNT HE CUTE?” asks Jennifer, my editor. On her computer display, an animated black-and-white cat is pacing atop the title bar of her Word 97 window. I yearn to pet him. Felix is only a “virtual” kitty; why do I respond as though he’s real?

For one thing, his resemblance to a real cat is astonishing. His strut bears the saucy gait that Disney brought to life in Oliver and Friends. When a virtual television appears, Felix turns to watch. When Jennifer drags the window, he falls, and I want to catch him. When he looks at me plaintively and paws the glass, he leaves pawprints, and I want to rescue him. 

a black-and-white drawing of four cats in a row, striking various poses

a black-and-white drawing of four cats in a row, striking various poses

But my intense response has a more basic reason. A person’s behavior is largely defined by his personality; a dog’s, by its breed. But a cat is a cat. When you’re a cat, you are little different from cats ancient and modern, virtual and vital. Mysterious and aloof, you return our love on your terms, if at all.

The first cat I loved came to me, literally, in 1969, at Boy Scout Camp. It was a white cat who lived in the woods. Each time it appeared in our campsite, my scoutmates hurled rocks. Before I could stop them, it would vanish into the sanctuary of the woods. 

One day, I found myself alone at a stream, building a dam. From a distant loudspeaker, Stevie Wonder was singing his latest hit, “My Cheri Amour.” I glanced up. From 20 feet away, the white cat was watching me. 

I crouched and cooed, coaxing it to come. Cautiously, it approached. In four minutes, it was lying in my lap, purring. And so was I. I had gained this creature’s trust, and the feeling was intoxicating. I longed to take it home, but I had seen Born Free. This feral feline belonged in the wild.

Four years later, I returned to the camp. As I expected, there was no sign of my furry friend. But the feelings it had stirred were etched in my psyche. In my human relationships, I would become a classic rescuer, drawn to women who had stopped trusting men. I’d be their knight who would teach them that trusting could be safe.

Two years out of college, I adopted a cat of my own. He had wandered near my apartment, a waif in search of food. I named him Dizzie, inspired by a BBC dramatic series about British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. “Dizzie married me for money,” confided Disraeli’s wife, a wealthy widow, “but if he had to do it over, I think he’d do it for love.”

As cats go, Dizzie was unremarkable. He spent his days outdoors, free to roam and follow his instincts. But when I arrived home from work on my bicycle, he would join me as I ate, read, watched TV, and slept. Dizzie had come to me for food and shelter, but stayed for love.

One evening, Dizzie was nowhere to be found. I biked around the apartment complex, calling his name. A 10-year-old boy flagged me down. “If you’re looking for a brown cat, he was run over this afternoon. They took it away.”

For weeks, I would suddenly feel a twinge of loss and call his name. Just as the white cat foreshadowed the women I wanted to rescue, Dizzie’s death became for me a template for losses of the romantic kind. Each time a relationship would end, I found myself whispering his name.

I had acquired my love of cats from an ardent people person: my mother. She couldn’t see a cat without cooing, “Bayyy-bee!” Before long, neither could I.

To my mother, people were to be loved, cats to be spoiled. At dawn, she would heat their canned food. At night, she’d leave her open newspaper unread rather than disturb their slumber. “If I’m ever reincarnated,” her friend once remarked, “I want to come back as Ruth’s cat.” Our family agreed. “I think that maybe you love the cats too much,” I once told her. “There’s no such thing,” she replied, “as too much love.” 

Like many cat lovers, my mother found it difficult to turn her back on a stray. As a result, her longtime cat, Delilah, spent her final years hiding from an aggressive interloper, Oedipus. In 1981, Delilah succumbed to renal failure. When my mother called with the news, I jumped on my bike and raced over. “The doctor thinks her kidneys failed because of the stress of fearing Oedipus,” she sobbed. “Oh, Paul, I feel so guilty. Tell me I did the right thing to take him in.”

People who are not cat fanciers cannot understand the profound, all-embracing feelings a feline can inspire. They are certain there’s no room in our cold, slinky hearts to care about members of our own species. Maybe they’ve seen too many Bond movies, where the villain strokes his long-haired Persian while fondling the remote control of a device that will turn humankind to ashes. 

No, we don’t love cats in lieu of loving people. We love people for who they are, and despite who they are. We love cats, only despite. Truth be known, few cats are loved for their affection, fewer still for their loyalty. To love a cat is to love selflessly, purely. When the cat dwells in your computer, unrequited love is—well, virtually certain. And oh, so familiar.

I think that’s why, as Felix saunters off-screen, I find myself muttering, as if for every love that didn’t stay, “Dizzie…Dizzie…Dizzie….” 

© 1999 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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