I live with an illegal cat, who hates me.
What I mean by "illegal" is that according to the apartment lease I share with my roommate, he is not supposed to be here — yet there he is, sitting in the hallway and staring at me as I write this.
I’m pretty sure there are other forbidden cats in the building; I’ve heard mewing. If my roommate’s cat were discovered, I imagine the worst that would happen is she would lose a chunk of her deposit. That’s potentially a huge loss, but the benefits she reaps from having the cat seem to be worth it. She suffers from social anxiety, for which she takes medication and sees a therapist. She actually has a note from her doctor recommending the presence and care of a cat to help alleviate her symptoms.
And when I see the two of them cuddling on the couch, I know how much they need each other, and I’m glad the cat is here — even if it means carefully orchestrating maintenance requests so someone is home when the handyman comes to repair a leaky window or a clogged shower drain.
Not that the cat is much of a nuisance ÔÇª or makes his presence known at all. Except when he is around my roommate, for whom he lights up with affection, the cat is aloof and spends most of his days tucked in her bed, sleeping. Our rooms are across from one another down a short hallway, and she has her bed positioned so that when our doors are open, I can often see the cat curled up on the pillow. She works late hours and I work from home, so the cat and I spend a lot of time regarding each other from a distance.
The cat hates me.
I’m a dog person. I love dogs. I was raised with dogs. I have an intuition for dogs, for their language, for their personalities. Dogs love me. They approach me in parks, they follow me down the street, and they sit in my lap. I like to believe that in a past life I was a dog, and that dogs can smell it on me. Maybe that’s why the cat hates me.
More specifically, I think the cat and I don’t quite get along because I try to treat him like a dog. As a dog person, it’s my default approach to animals. The excited energy, the heavy ear-scratching, the loudness, the movement ÔÇª it baffles and terrifies the cat.
When moving in, my roommate informed me of the cat. I had lived with cats before, but my best friend was always the family dog — usually some big rambunctious breed I could roughhouse with. I have allergies, so we agreed the cat wouldn’t be allowed in my room and that the litter box would be stored in her room. I remembered cat houses always smelling like cat pee, so I admit I approached my new living situation pessimistically. I was surprised and relieved when I could detect no presence of a cat at all. No cat fur and no cat smell.
My roommate offered to introduce me to the cat. He was hiding in the closet. We opened the door and little green eyes glowed in the corner. I held out my hand for him to sniff and the cat hissed at me.
It startled my roommate. "Whoa! I’ve never seen him do that before!"
Even though he isn’t my cat and even though I prefer dogs, I felt despondent over the cat’s rejection. I’m an outgoing, welcoming person. When the cat didn’t like me immediately, I felt I had committed some tremendous social faux pas.
"Just give him time," my roommate said. "He’s very picky."
And he didn’t pick me.
When my roommate isn’t home and I want a distraction from work, I’ll crack open her door and the cat will freeze in his spot on the bed. If I open the door farther, he darts under the bed. I try giving him treats, but he only glares at me. Even when I offer him delicious fresh tuna. Unlike dogs, his stomach is not the way to his heart.
The cat and I spend all day avoiding each other.
However, when my roommate comes home from work, he comes trotting and chirping out into the living room to greet her, a totally different cat. He lets her pick him up, hold him like a baby, even hang him upside down. He is tolerant and pliable, as if filled with affectionate goo instead of bones. Sometimes she puts him in my arms to hold, and I feel his body stiffen and I see his eyes get wide, and the moment I release him he runs back into the bedroom, turning once to glare at me. My roommate shrugs and says, "He’s a very particular cat."
Recently my roommate was away for two weeks and she asked me to look after the cat. "Maybe it’ll be a chance for you guys to bond," she said.
"Fat chance," I said.
Those two weeks my roommate was away I found myself struggling with some of the most intense moments of a recent bout of depression, and I cared for the cat better than I cared for myself. While I skipped showers, I cleaned the litter box every day. Like a lot of cats, he had the peculiar habit of drinking only from tall drinking glasses, and I refreshed his water daily. I kept his food dish full. He observed me from under the bed. I could tell he missed my roommate by the way he came skipping enthusiastically into the living room when I came home, hoping it was her against all odds. "It’s just me," I would say. He would sulk back into the bedroom.
After a couple of days, he wouldn’t run under the bed when I came in to tend to his daily needs. As I poured food into his dish, he even let me scratch his head. One night he sat meowing at my door. Despite my allergies, I opened the door, but he darted away. So I left the door open and he returned to the threshold. I patted the bed next to me, indicating that he could hop in if he wanted to. He stared at me as if I were dumb and meowed again.
"Hush," I said. "The neighbors will hear you. You can come into my bed just this once. Come on." He simply chirped at me, demandingly this time. "What?" I asked. He meowed, tail swishing with agitation. "What do you want?" If he were a dog I would have assumed he wanted a walk ÔÇª but you don’t walk a cat. He let out another purring chirp, and I finally made the connection. It wasn’t that he just wanted to cuddle ÔÇª he wanted me to get in my roommate’s bed with him. "Oh, I don’t think so," I told him, and rolled over to go back to sleep.
Toward the end of the second week he crept tentatively into my room as I worked, sitting upright and swinging his tail, head cocked as if internally negotiating his desperation for attention. But if he wanted my attention, he wanted it on his terms ÔÇª because whenever I would try to pet him he’d scamper away.
Finally, though, his loneliness overcame his disdain, and one night he surprised me with a leap into my lap. He curled up and began purring. A warm lap is a warm lap is a warm lap. I felt like we’d made a breakthrough ÔÇª even if he was just using me.
My roommate returned the next day and the cat wouldn’t leave her alone. He was a purring, cuddling, drooling, needy kneading machine. Like a typical cat, he acted as though our bonding never happened. With the return of my roommate, he returned to his aloof glaring.
But every now and then he’ll be loafed in the hallway, and I’ll make that kissy sound that universally says to animals, "Hey, come on over." The cat will give me a steady look, weigh his thoughts, stretch as though he has no intention of approaching me, and then, after a yawn, sidle into my room, where he lets me scratch his head before dashing off like it never happened.
And that’s the illegal cat I live with, who sort-of-not-really hates me. He’s not a dog, but I guess he’s all right after all.
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