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.