In March 2003, I was working at a tattoo shop in Jersey City when the guys from the hardware store next door walked in with a box of kittens, newborns, eyes closed, umbilical cords fresh. There were six in the alley, the man from the hardware store said, but three had frozen to death. They had gathered up the remaining three and asked if any of us knew what to do with kittens.
I didn’t, exactly, but as the only cat lady among us, I knew more than everyone else. My friend Denise, who owned the shop, knew a vet tech down the street, and I rushed them to him in a box, wrapped in tattoo-shop T-shirts. There were two gray-and-white tabbies and a solid black one. The black one was weakest; barely alive.
The vet tech wrapped them in a heating pad and showed me how to feed them. “I don’t know about the little black one,” he said, holding the tiny mouselike creature in his hand. The kitten struggled to meow; he opened his mouth but made no sound. “Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make it through the night.”
I like a challenge, so I sat up all night giving the kittens drops of sugar water from an eyedropper. “If you live,” I said to the black one, “I’ll keep you.” I wrapped him in my sweatshirt, against my chest, wrapped up in a blanket, and sat up with him until the sun came up and he drank kitten formula from a bottle.
Then a strange thing happened. The black one started getting bigger than the other two.
I carried my box of kittens around for six weeks, feeding them every two hours. One night, while feeding them at my best friend’s house, I looked up and saw the periodic table of the elements on his wall. The first symbol I saw was carbon, and thus my black cat had a name.
These pictures represent a decade of apartments, hairstyles, and digital camera technology. When I look at them now, I realize how long Carbon and I have been together. At the time I found him, I had plans to go live with my long-distance ex in Dallas for the summer. Our leaving date was exactly eight weeks away. I had to find a home for the other two kittens.
Fortunately, I was an adjunct professor at the time (yes, adjuncts occasionally moonlight in tattoo shops), which meant my students spent most of the quarter feeding kittens in class. One of them adopted Carbon’s sisters, and at the end of the school year, I headed off to Texas with my little black cat.
We introduced him to my ex’s cat, whose name was, coincidentally, X. Rest in peace, X.; you were a patient old man. Hi, Stephen; you’re one of the good exes.
Fast-forward seven years, because this is the Internet and we can do that. It’s 2010, and I’ve moved to New York City, where I’ve lived for almost six years. Stephen and I have broken up, and I’m sick of living in an overpriced studio apartment I’ve come to call The Tupperware. I need space; I have Carbon. Who has, incidentally, become (and I say this with the utmost affection) an enormous, entitled hellbeast attached only to me. By “entitled,” I mean, “drinks water from a glass with ice cubes.” By “attached,” I mean, “always making some part of my body fall asleep with his lard.”
I decide that I will leave The Tupperware, move to Oaxaca, Mexico, and have a midlife crisis in a hammock on the beach. Because if you’re going to have a midlife crisis, where better, right? And if you’re going to have a companion, why not one who will cover you with black fur in 100-degree weather?
Midlife crisis suitably wrapped up — believe me, it didn’t happen that neatly, but we’re doing that Internet time-skipping thing again ÔÇô- Carbon and I found our way back to New York.
He remains the most entitled of the entitled. He falls across my chest the minute I go to bed and puts his Giant Boy Feet Ôäó all over my face, which means I spend a lot of time trying to read books with one foot on my nose and the other over my eye.
I have to move him off the stove whenever I want to cook, because no matter how often I try to explain to him that there are more comfortable places to sleep, he prefers a slab of metal. And, because you can take the cat out of Jersey but you can’t take Jersey out of the cat, he doesn’t hesitate to cut me when he’s tired of my affection.
Despite all this, I love me some Carbon cat. He essentially lets me maul his face with my kisses; the record is 42 kisses on the fang tips in a row. If you come over, he’ll front, but he’s secretly a mushball who loves a good cheekbone rub. This year, on Lou Reed’s birthday, we’ll celebrate 11 years together. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m hoping for 11 more.
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About the author: Stacy Pershall is a constant traveler currently settled in Astoria, Queens, New York, where she lives in a Greek Archie Bunker house and loves it. When she’s not tending to the needs of her two street adoptions, Carbon and Tiki, she writes stories and teaches writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Her passion in life — besides cats — is her work as a suicide prevention speaker for Active Minds. She is the author of Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl. Find out more by following her on Facebook.