In our house live: two adults, two kids, two dogs, and two cats. The Peaceable Kingdom, I call it. Though not anymore. Which brings me to the one lie on my holiday card this year. It's not the pictures of my daughter and son - she, strolling happily in the sunshine in the foreground, he, in full Spider Man face paint, striking every Spidey pose he can imagine in the background; that truly is how they each spent the better part of last year. It's not the picture of my dear fifteen-year-old dog, dry-nosed and slumped into his bed, and it isn't the close-up of my younger whiskery dog who likes to snuggle in so tight you could believe you're hugging a seal or a wolf. It's the other picture, the one of my cats curled up next to each other on my bed. Like many of my favorite pictures, it's taken from behind so that their ears look like four steep peaks against the sun. As lovely an image as it is, the truth is that my cats don't share space like this anymore. They fight instead. Even at the time the photograph was taken their close proximity was an anomaly. I took it two years ago, which I know because you can see my daughter's bassinet at the foot of our bed. She wasn't born yet. We were still just getting ready.
I acquired my cats at a time in my life when many seem to: singledom. I got Tito and Lolita from New York Animal Care and Control two years apart, each after a relationship I should probably never have been in. I've always had a mighty love of animals so in my case it didn't feel impulsive; in fact, adopting cats felt like a fine way to get over misguided relationships. (Good thing I only had two.) Tito was named for Tito Puente, the Latin jazz sensation, who, like my Tito, also hailed from Spanish Harlem. Lolita was named for my favorite book.
Can I take a moment here to say how great their names are? Tito and Lolita. They could be a band or a fancy baby boutique; an Etsy business that sells homemade bonbons. Even their celebrity name is fantastic: Ti-Lo. With names like theirs they were destined to go down in history alongside Fred and Ginger, Han and Leia, Bonnie and Clyde.
I'd only had two cats before Tito: Pearl and Joon. Pearl was given to me for my fourth birthday by my best friend. The poor cat was six months old and had clearly already been traumatized, which was not helped by my trying to put doll clothes on her. Pearl didn't like me much. My parents got Joon the summer after my freshman year of college. While she was intended for me, Joon was their cat; for practical reasons, all ten years of her life, she lived with them. Along with Bad Boy Bland, my Texas grandmother's Texas cat, who cornered our family behind furniture on numerous occasions, the cats in my life were skittish and unpredictable, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Tito a gregarious and sweet little guy (though I would learn from several houseguests that he wasn't so with everyone). He had a tendency to follow me around like a dog - as much as he could, anyway, in our tiny apartment. For two years we had a great life going. He did everything you want your cat to do. He cuddled up with me at night, warmed my lap when I wrote, and even caught a few Brooklyn mice for me. But I started feeling guilty when I'd leave for work. Tito would watch me from the window just like I used to watch my dad leave for work when I was the only child. I decided that Tito needed a friend.
I'm educated enough about animals to know that cats don't necessarily think they need a friend, nor do they all automatically get along. If I wanted another cat I would first have to admit that the cat would be for me, not Tito. I came clean and it still felt like a good idea. So I did lots of work preparing for the day I would bring Lolita, light of our life, home. The day before she made her appearance, I brought home a towel I'd rubbed her with so that Tito could smell her before she was even there, the way they tell you to do with your pets before the arrival of a new baby. I felt nervous but like a good mom as I entered my apartment with Lolita in the carrier. I took their introduction very slowly. Total separation at first, then partial with a gate, then monitored together time, then, finally, just together time. It went okay, too. Though there was no mistaking that Tito was an edgier version of himself. He had taken to stalking tiny Lo from atop the furniture as she pranced obliviously below him. But there was never any outright aggression; no hissing, no swatting, no fighting, ever. Pretty soon, Tito started grooming her on my windowsill, like an unsolicited advertisement for what proper cat introduction should be.
Two more years later and we'd all three moved to Connecticut. I'd met the man and dog of my dreams. They would never admit it, but Booker is also the dog of my cat's dreams, since he lets them think they're in charge. A year later, we adopted another dog, Safari, who, after one claw-to-the-nose afternoon, was also happy to grant them their feline seniority. Matt and I got married. Life was humming along. The animals all did wonderfully when we had our first baby; equally wonderfully when we had our second. Though by then we had moved to a new house and that is where the fighting began.
Like most of their spats, I didn't see the first one. I have no idea what started it. I only heard the sudden and terrible sound of it coming from somewhere upstairs. Even if you don't have cats but have ever had a window open on a summer night, you probably know the unmistakable sound of cats at war: Godzilla on helium. So that is what I heard, then Tito flew by me, crazy-eyed, hair puffed beyond recognition. Not far behind came Lolita, more puffer fish than cat herself. And that's how it's gone almost every time. An explosion; a chase; an ever-deepening rift.
Maybe this doesn't sound so bad to you. Maybe it sounds like a fight you had last week with your brother or sister. By dinner, you'd both shaken it off. But, I am an only child who has never done well with conflict. Because this is The Dodo and not Psychology Today, I'll save that story for another publication. Let's just say I like it best when everyone gets along. Because I love them and because giving either up is not an option, my fighting cats are a big deal. The aftermath is worse than the fights themselves, which tend to blow up and diffuse quickly, because cats do not shake things off by dinner. Maybe, if you're lucky, by spring.
So I've spent a lot of time over the past two years despairing - crying over my cats, telling too many people at too many dinner parties about them, and trying to restore the peace. (Did I mention my very patient husband?) I've consulted my wonderful veterinarians. I've used synthetic feline facial pheromone plug-ins to reassure my cats at their most heatedly contended-over territories. I've mixed casein-derived powder into their food since it's known to promote relaxation in newborns after breastfeeding. I've snuck Rescue Remedy for Pets into their water bowls to ease tension. I've separated them over and over and slowly, slowly reintroduced them. And, for a few months at a time, we might achieve a kind of peace. We get so bold as to open up all the doors and I stop screaming for everyone to "Close the door! Close the door! Tito is coming!" Their most recent fight a few weeks ago, though, broke something in me. My five-year-old son was coming through the door and instead of saying, "Morning, Bumble," I yelled, "Quick, quick, close the door. Now!" He paused for a moment, looked me in the eye, and pushed it further open. I don't blame him. This was no way to live. It wasn't loving. It wasn't making anybody feel safe. Even the cats. But what was I going to do?
That's when I realized that something about all of this felt familiar.
My son was three-and-a-half years old when my daughter was born. Even though we took all the advisable precautions around helping our boy adjust to life with a sister, there are many times over the past twenty months when I would have told you that none of it worked. To illustrate this you don't need to look much further than his first nickname for her: The Nothing Doll. From there, we watched a fiery temper rise up out of our formerly easy-going kid and - in waves - we felt it take us over. We observed as he approached his sister often with a kind of predatory air (remember Tito stalking Lo from the furniture tops?), his jaw grinding audibly whenever she was near him. On the worst days, if I was alone with them, I found the only thing that worked was separation, so I would put my daughter in her highchair with some snacks and set up Legos or a show in the living room for my son, moving back and forth between them like a ref until things settled. He didn't want a baby sister. Tito didn't either. But here they are, my two first boys, both stuck with them anyway.
Of course, despite that we often treat them as such, cats aren't kids. The relationship between my daughter and son is getting better. (Proof: He told me the other day that if our house caught on fire he would save all of his toys and even his sister.) More importantly, cats aren't humans. We essentially have two panthers living among us. Cats are solitary, territorial creatures and should be treated as such - not forced to be together when they don't get along. I have come to accept that this will likely be Tito and Lolita's relationship for the rest of their lives. With that acceptance comes the decision to let them take turns in the basement (which they both love as much as the house). For the rest of their lives I'll likely have an upstairs cat and a downstairs cat, just like, on bad days, I have a kitchen kid and a living room kid. Lolita will sleep in bed with us one night, Tito the next, just like my husband and I take turns putting the kids to sleep to keep all of our beasts happy. Sometimes Tito will get the run of the house and sometimes he'll have to make do with the basement, just like my son will sometimes be the Spidey of our universe and sometimes he'll have to swing it alone in the background. It takes work and it's not how I envisioned things, but things are calmer. Everyone is warm and fed and loved. For a house of eight beasts, we're as peaceable as we're going to get and I'm learning to be okay with that.
I look at that picture of my cats now and realize that if I wanted to be totally truthful I would have forgone the photograph and written in its place the most surprising lesson I learned this year: sometimes keeping my family safe means keeping them safe from each other.