The dawn comes up like a rugby match in downtown Frederick, MD. Car accidents. Police sirens. Fistfights over the last everything bagel. I come awake, screaming "Not again!" and the cat jumps about 20 feet in the air and takes off for the hall. This morning I watched her run away. Her top is orange and white, but she is not cute. From her paws to her chest there is no fur.
The cat’s name is Juno. Juno is allergic to something. I’ve suggested humans, but I’m the new roommate so no one listens to me. Juno’s allergies cause a full-body itch. Anywhere her mouth can reach her fur has been torn out. The legs of this cat look like the skin stretched over an old man’s bald head. For the first few days, I felt like I was being rude to the cat by looking. I tried even harder to avoid touching her.
My earliest memories regarding cats do not cause me to look back and smile. I remember a gang of them taunting a dog in the school yard. I had a cousin who was always feeling a presence and she kept a black cat. The old lady who gave out pennies on Halloween was usually in trouble for having too many cats. They were pets for neighbors who kept the blinds closed on sunny days. At night, you could see their yellow eyes glowing at the edge of the shadows.
I grew up in an Italian neighborhood where everyone had two living rooms: one for show, one to hide the kids in. Some of these houses even had full kitchens in the basement, so the first floor was never disturbed. The pets I can remember were all small dogs. Their only purpose was additional decoration. The Miniature Poodle, I remember, matched the wallpaper of my friend’s room downstairs. Someone else’s mother bought a Pomeranian to complement the suede leather of her pocketbook.
The fathers were never home — they all owned construction companies. An uncle stopped over once and I asked him about cats. I don’t know why I cared. I think I had just seen Oliver & Company.
"How come no one has pet cats?" I asked.
"Because," he said, "dogs are people pets. Cats are for wimps and they belong outside."
The other myth about cats is that you’re either a dog person or a cat person. If you’re a dog person you’re normal. You’re fun. You have friends. But if you’re a cat person — you’re weird. You have long black hair and are probably really pale. And you spend your time alone reading anime.
I definitely didn’t want to be a wimp. Sometimes a cat would show up in the winter and we’d give it milk (I know). We’d make it a little bed in the garage. And after a few days it wouldn’t be there anymore.
I got older, and even though I never had any money, for some reason women dated me. By age 24, most of them were living on their own. Every unmarried woman living in New York has a cat. They name their cats after characters from television shows we watched as kids. Reptar. Milo.
I didn’t like the smell. Cats always knew too much, and that bothered me. And they knew I didn’t like them. They would wait until my girlfriend was in the shower and then the meowing would start. I’d ignore it, but they stared with their marble eyes. I’d start to think they were putting black magic on me. "What do you want?" I’d ask. Because I’m pretty sure cats can speak.
The meowing would intensify. Finally, I’d go to the kitchen and pour more food or water in their bowl. The cats never ate or drank. They did a victory stretch or a move with their face that looked like a smile. I was a monkey. The cats made a fool out of me. I was their slave, I realized. They were just letting me know the order of things.
I was content living my life in limbo forever. But one day I turned 26 and my father threw me out, I ended up in Frederick with two roommates. One of them had a cat named Juno. Of course, I thought. I hated that movie. It reminded me of too many girls from college.
I found the cat’s physical state equally unappealing.
We ignored each other at first. I was a dog person and I felt like that was important to be known. But what really defines me is my unemployment. I was spending a lot of time alone in the apartment. Alone with the cat.
I’d read a book. The cat would sit across the room scratching herself. I’d sit on the couch and watch the news. The cat would rub her head against the bottom of the coffee table. I felt bad, but not bad enough to help her out.
I have a germ thing. I don’t share drinks. Handshakes cause anxiety. My friends call me Howard Hughes. One day the cat sat at my feet. Her eyes were wide. She was pleading me to scratch where she couldn’t reach. I looked at her pink skin, reddened with irritation. It was the same feeling you get when you’re in a public bathroom and you can’t get out without touching the door handle.
"I’m sorry," I said. "I just can’t touch you."
Juno stopped asking. She jumped into my lap. I froze, but she had already broken through. I took a deep breath and sighed in defeat. I scratched her through the first presidential debate.
Frederick, MD, has existed since 1745. It was occupied by the Union and Confederate armies and survived unscathed. My apartment is haunted. I woke up one night, alone and scared. My roommates were gone for the weekend. A thunderstorm was attacking the Appalachians. Scratching sounds were coming from the walls. There was evil all around.
I need to get the cat, I thought. Because she would see a poltergeist before I could.
I found Juno asleep on the couch. I picked her up.
"I know you can see other dimensions," I told her. "I’ll scratch you all night if you come and sleep with me."
I carried the cat in both hands, holding her as far from my body as possible. When we got to my bed I looked down. Thunder amplified. I got over my obsessive-compulsive disorder in two seconds. I sat cross-legged with the cat in my lap. I held my hunting knife with a tight grip and faced the hallway. Nothing ever came.
I woke up with Juno sharing the pillow. She opened her eyes, looked at me, and stretched both paws out against my face.
"We made it," I said to her.
There’s something noble to be said about earning a creature’s respect. Dog people will disagree, but cats aren’t dogs. You wouldn’t compare Vietnamese food to brick-oven pizza. They’re both great for different reasons.
I have insomnia and stay up later than Juno’s mother, so the cat sleeps with me now. I still find her off-putting, but sometimes compromises have to be made. When I needed her, she was there for me. Right now, her karma score is higher than mine.
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