Why Loving My Cat Breaks My Heart
My boyfriend and I are walking up 7th Avenue on a sunny weekend when he suddenly stops. "Let's not go this way."
Up ahead I see the pet adoption truck parked, its side open to reveal the clear glass dividers behind which animals with no homes are waiting for their lives to begin. Passersby are looking at the display.
My boyfriend knows it's better for me if we simply change direction.
* I've known my cat, Brioche, longer than I've known the man I live with and love.
I still remember the day I first saw her photo, forwarded to me in an email years ago by a man I no longer knew. His friend was fostering her, and I had just signed the lease on the first apartment of my own, a tiny studio in Brooklyn.
I wasn't planning on getting a cat until I'd settled in. But then this kind of awkward photo of a shy black cat with one white whisker appeared:
"That's my cat," I thought. But to be sure that she and I belonged together, later that week I walked along 3rd Avenue to the apartment where she was staying and rang the bell. Inside, I sat on the couch during wet food feeding time, waiting. Finally, the shiny black cat, about 9 months old, slinked up the hallway shyly. I watched her eat.
Her foster dad, who already had two cats of his own, told me that the mother and litter of kittens had been found on the banks of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. This little cat had been very close with her brother, who had been adopted the week before. And now she was the last of her family left without a home.
We were strangers to each other. She timidly came over to me. Then she sniffed my hand. She opened her mouth slightly to smell more deeply with the special scent organ cats have in their mouths, then she rubbed her little head against my fingertips.
* The cats in the cages on the street are waiting, wide-eyed or resignedly sleeping away the hours. In my mind, they're always waiting, watching people pass and ignore them. They come to represent, for me, the thoughts we cannot bear to think, to live with. Any of the animals I've loved could have suffered a life without love. The plight of the unwanted cats is just the tip of a mountain of heartbreaking pieces of information about the animals we live among, facts that have no sense or shape.
Of course, I know there are thousands - millions?, unfathomable numbers - like them waiting behind glass. I know this, but it doesn't make the sight of the individuals there on 7th Avenue, waiting in their cages, any easier to see.
My boyfriend and I already have as many cats as we can fit in our tiny New York apartment. So we abandon whatever errand we were going on and go home to our animals. I know there are countless others. I cannot even bear to look.
* "But what can I do?" is a question people ask about the sad plight of animals, some wanting to actually do something, others wanting to point out their impotence before the massive, almost unthinkable problems, and excuse themselves for doing nothing.
All day, in writing about animals, I try to give the facts some shape, make the problem thinkable, lend the suffering a story. I look into my lit screen to find the animals, then I call and ask questions to which I may or may not want to know the answers.
One of the hardest pieces to write was about the cat who was killed with an arrow. I saw the photographs of the woman who bragged about "her first bow kill" holding up the arrow with the limp, dead body of a cat dangling from the end.
After, I watched a video of him, Tiger, when he was still alive, purring. There was no sense I could make of it, but I tried. I wrote the article and then I wrote another. I checked for updates every day about the court case, which is still pending.
I could not bear to hold the image of Tiger in my mind while looking at my own cat. Sometimes, I had to go for a walk outside, and not be around the animal I love at all.
* An animal activist tells me over a vegan lunch that she can't sleep at night.
Months later, approaching the Yulin dog meat festival, I cannot eat.
I think of the hypocrisy, too. I think of the cows and pigs I've met who I relate to in the same way as I relate to my cat. I should be sick all the time.
My stomach turns. I dream about a whale trapped in a fountain, and wake up throughout the night.
* Those first days with the new cat with one white whisker, we were still strangers, even though, now, we were sharing a home.
In keeping with a multi-generational tradition in my weird family of naming cats after pastries, I named her Brioche. Brioche brought the tradition into a fourth generation.
But Brioche did nothing but hide under my bed for days.
Those first nights, all she did was howl. And I mean, howl at a level that made it impossible to think or sleep.
Maybe she hated the food I'd bought for her. Maybe she missed the brother she'd been so close to. Maybe I was far too young to be a mother to a cat I knew nothing about. Panic set in. I called my brother in the middle of the night, crying as Brioche was howling, asking why she hated it in my apartment, which was new and scary to me also.
* But the howling didn't last for long. Soon, we got to know each other better and we weathered the ups and downs of our new lives together.
Now, three years later, Brioche and I live in another apartment, closer to the canal where she was born, with my boyfriend and his own rescued cat.
Every night, when I get home from work, I sit on the couch and Brioche jumps up beside me and looks at me. When she lies on the back of the couch to get closest to my face, I put my cheek up to her furry stomach and can hear her lungs drawing in air and her little heart beating. I hear her throat start to issue forth her purr.
I look into her glassy eyes, which reflect me and obscure me at once, and see her recognition of me. She splays out her legs so I can stroke her belly. She places her paw on my shoulder, and falls asleep.
I watch her one white whisker twitching as she dreams. "What does she dream about?" I wonder. I notice that already I feel my own lungs fill with air and slowly release it. Slowly, I forget, for the span of a few hours, the horrific images of the day, and the animals that go with them.
Brioche will never be one of the lost ones again. And, for those fleeting minutes or hours in the evening, that has to be consolation enough.
When she wakes up, I feed her and her adopted brother, Fyodor, spoonfuls of exorbitantly expensive wet food. They purr as they eat, and my boyfriend and I sit on the floor with them, stroking their fur.