Here’s Your Terrifying Cat

Nonfiction / Brenden Layte

:: Here’s Your Terrifying Cat ::

I’m sit­ting in a rent­ed car in a park­ing lot, and I’m con­vinced that my cat is dying. I breathe and try to talk myself down and think I remem­ber there being a word like hypochon­dri­ac but for some­one wor­ried about some­thing oth­er than them­selves. If I take my phone out to look it up, I’ll end up search­ing his symp­toms for ten min­utes and for­get what I took it out for, so I don’t. Maybe the word I’m look­ing for is just anx­i­ety.  

An abridged list of my recent inter­net search­es: cat fast breath­ing, cat heavy breath­ing, cat heavy and fast breath­ing, cat pant­i­ng, cat pant­i­ng for no rea­son, cat pant­i­ng no exer­cise, cat flared nos­trils, cat pant­i­ng and cough­ing, cat not able to jump, cat heavy fast breath­ing and pant­i­ng, cat sleep­ing in dif­fer­ent places, cat trou­ble get­ting up, cat smells dif­fer­ent.  

Maybe it’s not a case of me hav­ing what­ev­er the word I’m try­ing to remem­ber is, or the fact that he is sick, but the real­i­ty that he’s not the ani­mal he was a year, or even a few months ago, and had been in one way or anoth­er for nine years before that. And between his age and how sick­ness has a way of aging us even more, there’s a real­iza­tion that he might nev­er be the ani­mal he was again. I reach over to his car­ri­er on the pas­sen­ger seat and awk­ward­ly angle my hand through a hole to touch him. He licks my fin­gers until my hand begins to hurt from the carrier’s plas­tic and I pull it away.  

I fid­get in my seat, try­ing to com­fort both myself and the scared ani­mal next to me, and I think maybe I should just try to find that word to dis­tract myself, but then my phone vibrates and it’s a num­ber I don’t know, which I know means it’s the vet. I answer and they’re ready to see him. I get out and go around the car to open the door and grab the pet car­ri­er, then wait awk­ward­ly by the door before putting him down on a gur­ney when it rolls out­side. The car­ri­er was cov­ered in cau­tion tape the last time I left this ani­mal hos­pi­tal with him four years ago. 

I apol­o­gize to the vet tech in advance for the chaos they’re going to deal with when they open the car­ri­er, then walk back to the car and start rolling a cig­a­rette. I won­der how far away I’m sup­posed to go from the entrance to smoke here. Next to the car, I’m about 15 feet from the tents they’ve put out for peo­ple to sit under because there’s a pan­dem­ic and we can’t wait inside. That doesn’t seem far enough. I know there are rules at human hos­pi­tals, and I try to remem­ber what they are.  

I start walk­ing and end up at the far end of the park­ing lot hud­dled on a small tri­an­gle of lawn, smil­ing at the few peo­ple who pass by to use the near­by dog park. Their glances linger and I feel a tinge of embar­rass­ment and the urge to tell them that I smoke like five cig­a­rettes a month and only when I’m real­ly anx­ious and it’s bet­ter than the alter­na­tives. Instead, I look toward the build­ing and think that my being out here instead of inside with the cat is not going to go well for them. Depend­ing on how long things take, it’s prob­a­bly not going to be great for me either. 

The Hal­loween week­end before the pan­dem­ic, my friend leaned toward me at a bar, telling me about the time she was called into an exam room for a real pain in the ass of a cat at the ani­mal hos­pi­tal she used to work at. Since it was Hal­loween week­end, a band duti­ful­ly wore skele­ton cos­tumes and played a Mis­fits cov­er behind her. My friend said that when she entered the exam room, she saw a gray and white cat half-cov­ered by a pile of tow­els in the mid­dle of the floor hiss­ing and attack­ing any­one that came close. It wasn’t just show­ing the fear­ful defense pos­ture that all ani­mals have when they’re scared, but was ini­ti­at­ing attacks with the pri­mal anger that crea­tures save for those they’re sure mean to destroy them. The kind of anger that says, “I’ll destroy you first.” The vet techs already in the room were hid­ing or pressed into cor­ners. At one point, she said, one of them screamed, “He’s already been tranq’ed three times!” In the com­mo­tion, she didn’t rec­og­nize him as a cat she’d met many times before. She told me that my cat calmed down after the fourth shot. 

When my cat does tricks and gets pieces of food as a reward, he picks each up with his paw and brings it up to his face and some­times he drops it. If cats could be exas­per­at­ed, I’d swear he is in those moments, but instead of tak­ing the short cut and just reach­ing his mouth down, he grabs the food with his paw and brings it up to his mouth again. My cat responds to come, sit, high five, lay down, and roll-over, all of which are about what you’d think except roll-over, which has the embell­ish­ment of a protest meow about halfway through. And final­ly, there’s jump, which involves him jump­ing through a hoop made from card­board and duct tape and meow­ing at the peak of the jump, this time with more pride than protes­ta­tion. It’s a good thing to show peo­ple to prove that he’s actu­al­ly good when they were just attacked and maybe have blood on their legs because we were out­side and they came in with­out me to use the bathroom. 

When I’m get­ting the cat to do tricks, he often decides that he’s had enough and just stops in the mid­dle of roll-over and lays on his back, tail wag­ging side-to-side like one of those art deco nov­el­ty cat clocks. It’s not that he lays in a stu­pid posi­tion, or at least it’s not just that. It’s that he looks to me and seems to be try­ing to find a com­pro­mise, meow­ing up impa­tient­ly while he’s halfway through this thing that has become part of his social con­tract. Wait­ing for me to tell him that it’s okay to be tired or just not feel like it any­more and stop.  

Some­times I joke, or some­body else jokes, about how dam­aged my cat would be if he were a human and then I feel awful because most of the peo­ple I care about are dam­aged and it’s actu­al­ly not that fun­ny of a thing to joke about. My cat’s name is Pablo. He’s named after the poet and also a pen­guin from a car­toon I’ve nev­er seen that a per­son I don’t talk to any­more watched. I did have a friend who had a ger­bil named after the drug king­pin if that’s what you were think­ing, though. I don’t talk to him any­more either. 

Because of the attack­ing peo­ple and the four tran­quil­iz­ers need­ed the last time he was at the ani­mal hos­pi­tal, it took hours for them to get a diag­no­sis and tell me that Pablo had a uri­nary obstruc­tion and need­ed to be catheter­ized for a few days. It took less time than that for them to learn that his cage had to be cov­ered with a blan­ket at all times because oth­er­wise he would slam him­self into the sides of it and try to fight his way through the met­al to get to any­one that walked by.   

When he got home a few days lat­er, the usu­al­ly vocal cat had laryn­gi­tis from hiss­ing and growl­ing and doing the cat ver­sion of mani­a­cal­ly scream­ing the entire time he was in the hos­pi­tal. His mouth still con­stant­ly opened, but noth­ing came out. He stub­born­ly kept doing it, either try­ing to will noise from his bat­tered throat, or maybe he knew that I knew what the noise would have sound­ed like if it were there, and he was fine with let­ting me fill in the silence.  

Pablo was adopt­ed and brought back a cou­ple times before I end­ed up with him and when I tell peo­ple this, they nod know­ing­ly before real­iz­ing what they’re doing and being polite and stop­ping. When I first saw him, he was just under a year old and play­ing with anoth­er kit­ten through a glass win­dow at the shel­ter. The game was him run­ning around the lit­tle room he was in, bound­ing through a cat tree, and stop­ping hard at the glass and then the kit­ten, no more than a cou­ple months old, would stum­ble and wave his paws in the air and then Pablo would rub the glass and start anoth­er lap. When they stopped and Pablo laid in the lit­tle bed they had in his room, I asked the woman work­ing at the shel­ter to see him. She opened the door and I reached in and our first phys­i­cal con­tact was him grab­bing my hand with a paw, bring­ing it to his face, lick­ing it, and start­ing to purr. It wasn’t until after this that I saw his paper­work and found out he liked to hide around cor­ners and pounce at peo­ple, and some­times got real­ly upset for no good rea­son, and also that he real­ly didn’t like guests. By the time I found all that out, it didn’t mat­ter. He was com­ing home with me. 

Maybe it’s because of how he is, at least to peo­ple he doesn’t know, but maybe not being good enough for peo­ple who are sup­posed to love you and take care of you can make crea­tures a lit­tle dif­fi­cult and prone to emo­tion­al out­bursts. Peo­ple don’t believe me when I tell them that Pablo often waits for me at the bot­tom of the stairs to my door when I go out and if I’m gone too long, he cries until my down­stairs neigh­bor sticks his fin­gers under the door to com­fort him and give him food. When I get home, he climbs me and des­per­ate­ly rubs his face into me, some­times until he drools, and meows until I cra­dle him so that he can lick me until he gets over­whelmed and cud­dles into my arms to doze off, limp oth­er than the vibra­tions of his purring. Some­times peo­ple don’t get the whole sto­ry because they don’t know how we act when we feel safe. 

Before he got sick, while we were trapped inside for the pan­dem­ic, I’d real­ly got­ten to know Pablo’s dai­ly rhythms and needs in a dif­fer­ent way than I had before. I knew what would keep his com­plaints under con­trol before they even came. What each lit­tle noise meant: a sur­prised, soft trill; a two-part meow that falls in the mid­dle before com­ing back up and fill­ing the room; a purr that seems to push the lim­its of the hap­pi­ness a crea­ture can expe­ri­ence. I was famil­iar with them before, but I began to antic­i­pate his needs and have some­thing resem­bling two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I learned what each tail swish and head tilt meant, what sleep­ing spots were for short- and long-term stays, what toys he liked at what time of day. With this, he began to stay clos­er for longer peri­ods of time. The love and affec­tion from him used to be aggres­sive, but often brief. Now, he sought pets and begged to be picked up. Now he came close and cud­dled up more often, even going so far as to begin meow­ing at a cer­tain pil­low every night so that I’d lay it next to me for him to sleep on, his paws draped over my arm. At ease; con­tent even. 

I’m not in the park­ing lot much longer after the cig­a­rette before I get a call and find out that they can’t real­ly exam­ine Pablo because he’s attack­ing every­one, and I have to come back next week and give him some stuff before­hand that will sup­pos­ed­ly relax him. The good news is that there were no obvi­ous heart mur­murs through the mul­ti­ple tow­els they were hold­ing him down with. I guess no obvi­ous heart mur­murs is bet­ter than obvi­ous even through tow­els heart murmurs. 

Anoth­er week of Pablo’s chest heav­ing, and his body curled up next to the sooth­ing cool­ness of the toi­let or the sink. He has trou­ble mov­ing or get­ting up. When he tries to, his front paws strain to get enough of his body up to com­mit to the act. And when he tries to play or exert him­self, his eyes widen before long and he freezes and lays down right where he is, even if it’s not a spot he likes. He used to jump on top of the refrig­er­a­tor from the floor, now he needs a chair just to occa­sion­al­ly vis­it me on the counter where I work. When he tries to get into the bath­room sink, a favorite sleep­ing spot that he’s climbed into a thou­sand times, he comes up short and has to pull him­self up, or he comes up real­ly short, slides down the cab­i­net, and just lies where he falls. He sleeps all day, his only move­ment the rest­less­ness of try­ing to find comfort. 


After a week, I get up at 6:00 a.m. and give Pablo his sec­ond dose of the med­i­cine that the vet gave me that will sup­pos­ed­ly make him eas­i­er to deal with, and he does seem more docile than usu­al. I think about how easy it is for me to give the med­i­cine to him, and then think about how I can clip all of his toe­nails in a minute or two with him purring the entire time, hap­py for the close­ness and atten­tion. Most peo­ple that know him wouldn’t believe these things, but to me they’re just who he is. 

I walk to get the Zip­car I rent­ed; it’s ear­ly July and it’s the ear­li­est I’ve been out­side since the win­ter. We’ve been in a months-long series of heat waves, swel­ter­ing air crash­ing over and engulf­ing every­thing and then giv­ing us just a day or two to wring every­thing out before crash­ing down again. This morn­ing is cool. I dri­ve back home and pick Pablo up and drop him off to wait for news all day. 

I half­heart­ed­ly try to work when I get home. The lack of his pres­ence makes the apart­ment seem like a dif­fer­ent place. Final­ly, the vet calls. Pablo has asth­ma and seri­ous hyper­thy­roidism. It only took three tran­quil­iz­ers to exam­ine him this time. 

I’m back in the park­ing lot, wait­ing to pick Pablo up and wrestling with the pros and cons of treat­ment options. It sounds like he should be okay for a while but might slow down per­ma­nent­ly. Despite this, I can’t shake the thoughts about his death. They’ve been there a lot late­ly, not just these last two vis­its, but for months now. Part of me thinks it’s because death is such a nat­ur­al thing to fix­ate on right now, but it’s more than that. I had cats as a child, but their deaths nev­er occurred to me as a pos­si­bil­i­ty until they actu­al­ly hap­pened and the mourn­ing set in. When a creature’s well­be­ing is in your hands, it’s dif­fer­ent. There’s a sense of dread when some­thing goes wrong. A sense that when things change, it’s always for the worse and that it’s your fault and in the best-case sce­nario, you have to learn to care in a dif­fer­ent way, and in the worst, you might not have any­thing to care about anymore. 

But then I remem­ber how Pablo still jumped up on the counter to sleep next to me while I worked from home, even when he was sick. One day he was right up against me, upside down with a paw over his snor­ing face, con­tent until I made the wrong move and he nipped me and then vault­ed over a chair to the floor and dart­ed out of the room. And how one day he strung togeth­er a series of this noise he makes that I’d nev­er heard before I heard him make it—a meow that he holds as it gets high­er in pitch, then dives back into his throat and right back up again—and it sound­ed like he was hap­pi­ly ser­e­nad­ing me as I got home. Or that he some­how man­aged to rip off a huge piece of a spi­der plant that’s five feet off the ground when he could bare­ly move ear­li­er that day.   

I also think about the fact that although I’ve been treat­ed as ten­der­ly as he treats me by so few, ani­mal or human, I also know that he’d be damned if he’d let any­one or any­thing else do any­thing that made him uncom­fort­able for even a sec­ond with­out reper­cus­sions. One time my friend was too drunk to go home, and I woke up to him being attacked and yelling, “I am a per­son, you are a cat,” over and over again and either Pablo wasn’t into dis­cussing meta­physics at 6 a.m. or he’d had enough of the strange per­son on his couch and sim­ply didn’t care and wasn’t going to let a per­ceived pow­er imbal­ance stop him from fight­ing. And I start think­ing that atti­tude prob­a­bly applies even if the fight is between his will and his body. 

Maybe this will be what kills him even­tu­al­ly, and maybe his age is final­ly catch­ing up to him and it’s not pos­si­ble to run so hard or so with­out fear for­ev­er. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe hav­ing a favorite pil­low to set­tle into next to some­one you love instead of run­ning around all night is okay. Maybe slow­ing down a lit­tle is some­thing we earn, not some­thing we lose.  

It’s this that I’m think­ing as the vet tech approach­es me, hands me Pablo’s case, and says, “Here’s your ter­ri­fy­ing cat.” 



From the writer

:: Account ::

The first notes that would become this piece were writ­ten dur­ing what we now know were still the ear­ly months of the COVID pan­dem­ic. Watch­ing the unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing of so many, it felt strange to be wor­ry­ing so much about the health of an ani­mal that, part­ly through the nature of pets and part­ly through his par­tic­u­lar atti­tude toward most humans, only real­ly mat­tered to me. At least in any kind of seri­ous way. The idea that my remain­ing time with him could be lim­it­ed, or even end­ing soon, real­ly shook me. I’ve always had pets and loved a few of them a great deal, but Pablo is the first one I’ve been mature enough to love in a way that isn’t self­ish. I care about him not as a play­thing or a dis­trac­tion, but as a crea­ture wor­thy of a cer­tain lev­el of dig­ni­ty, and there was a feel­ing of help­less­ness in not being able to pro­vide that while he was sick. The core of this sto­ry is just that—what it’s like to watch some­thing you care about grow old, but I also want­ed part of the piece to be about the ways that I’d also changed since I’d adopt­ed him, and how steady and com­fort­ing of a pres­ence he has been over those years. 


Bren­den Layte is an edi­tor of edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als, a lin­guist, and a writer. His work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in places like Entropy, Ellip­sis Zine, and Pit­head Chapel. He lives in Jamaica Plain, Mass­a­chu­setts, with his girl­friend, some gold­fish, and Pablo, the ter­ri­fy­ing cat at the cen­ter of this piece.