I'll Take That Kitty in the Corner

Initially, I wanted to write a deep, meaningful column this week. It's the first column of the new year (and it's been delayed a week because of my combined desire and inability to write something deep and meaningful right now), and it seems that it ought to be, you know, Important. Filled with Deep Thoughts on How To Live. I tried writing it several times, and it invariably turned into some version of a rant against U.S. policies and wars for oil, which, while weighty, does not as invariably maintain interest. I might try it sometime anyway. But this time, I decided to write about cats.

My parents' cat Maya got sick last week. Really, really sick. She wouldn't eat, but the vet couldn't find anything wrong with her, and she had to go on an IV for a while so she wouldn't die. (It's weird to think of a cat on an IV. I think that's because when I imagine a cat on an IV, I also imagine the cat in a hospital bed, with a nurse leaning over the cat adjusting its pillow and the TV playing daytime soaps in the corner.) I was really worried about her, and e-mailed and called my parents regularly to see how she was doing. She's back home now, and her appetite seems to be returning slowly, though they still have no idea what it was that was wrong.

Maya is a problem cat. Maybe "problem cat" is the wrong term. She's a cautious cat. She's clearly had some bad experiences, and doesn't let just anyone near her, unless she's eating - then it's ok to pet her. When I was home, she actually slept on my bed the last night I was there - an almost unbelievable moment of trust. And that started me thinking about problem cats, and why I have this thing for them.

We - my partner and I - have two kittens. When we went to the foster home to adopt them, the boy, Tista, was everywhere and all over us. Out of about 12 cats and kittens, he was as social and lovable as could be, and he was clearly one of the foster mom's favorites, too.

And then there was Zora.

I caught a glimpse of Zora out of the corner of my eye, saw her as she tried to slink from underneath one couch to underneath another. Somehow, in that glimpse, I was convinced this was the cat I wanted. She had to be dragged out by the tail from underneath the couch - where she clearly wanted to stay - and when I held her, she trembled. She ran away as soon as I put her down, and we had to drag her out from under the couch again when we decided to adopt her.

We took her home, and for two days saw neither hide nor hair of her. Tista was around us all the time, following us from room to room and being generally adorable. Zora was nowhere to be found. Occasionally, when trying to find shoes in the closet or going for a book on a low shelf, I'd find her, and then I'd pet her and sometimes take her on my lap. She gradually tolerated and then enjoyed that, but it took her weeks to come out on her own. Even now, six months later, she's still skittish.

Zora in her first week home. This is where she hid. She was not pleased to be found.

But for me, it was love at first sight. Sure, that's partly because she physically resembles the first cat I ever had, Blümchen, who accompanied me from age four to age twenty-two. But there's a lot more to it than that. Like Blümchen - and like Maya - Zora's a difficult cat. If she was a kid, her report card would say that she doesn't make friends easily, and has trouble in social situations. Why did I want that kind of cat?

The way I figure it, there are several reasons. One is the same reason for which I always used to buy the defective stuffed animals when I was a kid. Missing an eye? I'll take it. Ear sewed on the wrong way? Let me bring it home, please. I worried that no one else would take these animals, and that they'd live a sad, brief life on the shelf at Kiddie Korner, and no one would love them. So I loved them. Much the same goes for cats. Cute, cuddly and social kittens get adopted. Kittens with no social skills? Kittens who cringe in the corner when someone comes to look at them? Hardly. And that just breaks my heart.

But there's also the challenge. She doesn't make friends easily? My brain translates this as: She's picky. She doesn't like just anyone. And then I think, But maybe she'll like me... The kitten cringing in the corner, the cat who's had bad experiences (and Zora's behavior certainly indicates she had her share of those before coming to the foster home) - when, instead of running from you, she actually comes and sits on your lap, it's an incomparable feeling. You've gotten through to her, she understands that you're not going to harm her, she sees you want to love her, you've made a connection. She doesn't love easily, but now she loves you. It's an incredible moment.

The two kittens. Sometimes, Zora is really relaxed.

Don't get me wrong. I love both our cats. A lot. Tista sleeps on me every night (usually on my neck), and I have trouble getting to sleep when he doesn't. When we're gone, he misses us something awful. But because he's so friendly, and cute, and social (a party, to him, means "lots of people will pet me!") and completely adorable, everyone else loves Tista, too. Zora, on the other hand, will never be the kind of cat who's great at parties. But when she climbs onto my lap and pushes her head into my hand, I know how much of an accomplishment that trust is. And that moment, the moment of love and wonder, is why I love the problem cats.

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January 16, 2002

One of my favorite essays about cats

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