About the existence of cats, our father encouraged us to ask, “Why?”
He couldn’t stand them.
Cats annoyed and disgusted him and because of these effects, they also annoyed and disgusted my mother. Rarely did Mom or Dad simply utter gato. Gato always traveled alongside cochino.
I never asked Dad about his anti-catness. He did once mumble something about cats’ historic ties to the devil, but the comment didn’t explain his unique distaste. His grudge seemed personal, not infernal.
At the very least, Dad’s anti-catness uncomplicates my Christmas shopping. I buy him a bit of anti-cat propaganda (like the metal NO CATS ALLOWED sign that now hangs from the fence) and cross him off my list.
When I was ten, Mom took us to the pound in search of a dog. We chose a jittery Yorkshire terrier who barked at nothing. We brought her home and unleashed her in our backyard, but invisible forces continued taunting her. She snarled and growled at them, attacking the air, snapping at it.
“Is she haunted?” I asked Mom.
“Creo que está loca.”
I stared at our dog in amazement. I’d thought mental illness was a human domain.
I started looking for signs of madness in every animal I encountered. Guinea pigs. Birds. Goldfish. Daddy long legs.
Our dog lived outdoors. She slept in the garage. Occasionally, Mom brought her indoors and sat her on her lap. The dog would get so comfortable that she didn’t want to go back into the cold. Once it was time to be returned, she growled. We apologized to her, but she wasn’t having it. She fought to stay, lunging at our faces, biting our cheeks.
“Traéme una cobija!” Mom yelled.
My sister fetched a blanket. Mom gestured for her to toss it over the dog.
She did and the blanket thrashed, a frenetic ghost.
When I turned eighteen, I blew our dog a kiss and moved out. Animals were prohibited in my university’s dorms and none of the roommates I shared houses or apartments with kept animals. Animals continued to be outdoor creatures.
At twenty-one, I stumbled into a bar and met a dyke. Weeks later, we moved in together. The dyke didn’t have animals, but she wanted a dog. Our lease prohibited dogs, and this rule was well enforced. Our building manager gave our neighbor the following ultimatum: “You can stay, or you can leave and take that fucking pit bull with you.” The pit bull moved out, proving to my girlfriend that if she got a dog, we’d be in trouble. She wanted a beagle badly.
One afternoon, my girlfriend called me with a question. She was at the house of a professor to whom she sold weed, and when the academic offered to pay her, she offered an animal along with cash.
“Have you ever taken care of a rabbit?” I asked my girlfriend.
“No!” she answered. “But I’ll learn! I promise. If he stays with L, her dogs will kill him! You’ve met L’s dogs! You know how they are! They’re ASSHOLES.”
I sighed. This was true. The dogs could be assholes. I’d witnessed it.
“Please? You know I’ve been wanting to get a dog forever, but I can’t! So a rabbit is perfect! No one will know he lives with us! He’s the perfect pet for apartment living! He’ll sit at my feet! Quietly!”
I knew that no matter what I said, a rabbit would soon be our third wheel.
“The rabbit can come home,” I conceded, “as long as you get rid of that Art Linkletter contour chair.” This eyesore rusted in our bedroom, beside the closet. A big gash tore its upholstery and the thing colonized way too much space. I loathed this chair. I had fantasies of attacking it with knives.
My girlfriend agreed to my terms.
I hung up and dragged the heavy chair to the elevator. We rode to the ground floor where I dragged the chair through the garage and out into the alley. If I didn’t move quickly, my girlfriend might get cold feet and seek to compromise. Then, I’d be stuck with a rabbit and an Art Linkletter contour chair.
When my girlfriend got home, she proudly carried a wire cage to our coffee table and set it down. Inside of it seethed a very animated toupee. For a creature so small and fuzzy, the rabbit had BME, big macho energy. He bared his teeth, bit his cage, and rattled it. Lifting a leg, he scratched a lop ear.
“Has he been checked for fleas?”
My girlfriend shrugged. She was in graduate school. I taught full-time at a nearby continuation school. Some of my students were teens. Most were adults. I went to campus mornings and evenings. I spent my afternoons at home alone.
Now, my free time was no longer mine, it was shared, and within weeks, the rabbit had won me over. I loved him. He loved me. A little too much. I fixed that by fixing him.
Because he itched so much, we named him Scratch. I felt terrible leaving him alone to go to work and so I looked for a companion. I found one on the internet, on Craigslist. This second rabbit, Siddhartha, was double Scratch’s size. He was also placid.
To my horror and chagrin, Scratch despised him. When I introduced them, Scratch hopped on his wire cage, shook it, squatted, and peed. Siddhartha looked unsure of the strange rain hitting his head. When I released Siddhartha into the living room, things got worse. The big rabbit gingerly ambled. Scratch approached his face, mounted his head, and attempted to skull fuck him.
“Stop!” I yelled, pushing Scratch away. I worried about Siddhartha’s eyesight. That’s where Scratch had tried to stick it.
The rabbits lived separately for years. They stayed in two different dog crates outfitted with hay, newspapers, and litter boxes. One crate remained open so that one rabbit always had the run of the house while the other waited his turn. When Scratch was on the loose, he’d shuffle to Siddhartha’s crate to smirk. He was a bully, but I had so much affection for him. I began wondering if, in addition to dog and cat people, there are rabbit people.
About five years into the one-rabbit-in-one-rabbit-out arrangement, I conducted an experiment. Perhaps the rabbits had forgotten the skull fucking incident. I decided to reintroduce them. I filled a squirt bottle with water and slid it into my overalls, just in case.
I opened the crates and the rabbits emerged. Scratch headed to a litter box. Siddhartha sniffed and meandered. Once Scratch was done, he moseyed over to Siddhartha and sniffed his snout. Siddhartha crouched, sweetly letting his neighbor inhale.
I sighed with relief. “Finally.”
The rabbits spent the rest of their lives as a queer couple. They snuggled in our non-operative fireplace, ate dandelion salads, and spent hours watching Judge Judy. During the last year of his life, after Siddhartha had surgery on his face, Scratch tended to him, giving him comfort. They rested side by side, bun to bun, and I once saw Scratch’s ear drape over Siddhartha’s shoulder the way a lover’s arm drapes across a shoulder.
I found Siddhartha collapsed on our wooden floor one morning. Scratch was seated next to his friend. I don’t know when Siddhartha’s spirit left his body. Only Scratch knew but he couldn’t tell me. Scratch was in mourning. I picked up Siddartha, held him, and stroked his cold fur. Days later, Scratch left us.
With the rabbits gone, I understood that my lesbian relationship was over. My girlfriend had become my wife and I hated matrimony. The rabbits had made it bearable. Now, I had to leave.
After we separated, I lived with my first boyfriend. He had no animals. He had had a dog that he claimed to love but as I got to know this man better, he demonstrated that his capacity for love was severely compromised. He petted me on the head and called me by the dead dog’s name. At other times, he cracked jokes that likened me to dogs. He used the word bitch a lot and believed that there are plenty of reasons to hit women. He repeated one of these reasons like a mantra: “Bitches are crazy.”
I got away from this man, but it was hard for me to let down my guard after the things he did to me. A year after I escaped, another man, a photographer I’d met in my twenties, invited me to dinner. We dated but I insisted he be patient. I was jumpy. A simple hug was enough to make me want to fly out of my skin. When we were sexual, I sometimes pushed him away and shut it all down. I cried. Bitches-are-crazy had raped me repeatedly and I had flashbacks. Those are one of the worst parts of rape’s aftermath. When one has flashbacks to those assaults during sex, it’s like a non-consensual threesome. There’s the rapist. Again.
The photographer was patient. He waited. He listened to me. He asked me what I liked and didn’t like in bed. I answered, “I don’t know.”
The photographer waited for me to teach myself what I liked.
Unlike bitches-are-crazy, the photographer was introverted. He’d once been a model, but he had no pictures from this time. When we went to visit his sister, she showed me photos of her him in Italian fashion magazines. In the advertisements, he looked aloof and suave, different from the man I regularly watched cuddle with his elderly cat on a loveseat.
Julian was the cat’s name, and I wasn’t sure what to make of him. He wasn’t sure what to make of me. We mostly tolerated each other, but Julian did have a mischievous streak. The photographer and I would be chilling, watching TV. Sensing lust, Julian would leap onto the loveseat, climb into the photographer’s lap, and smile at me.
“Your cat is trying to cock block me.”
“No, he’s not. He wants to watch TV with us.”
I shook my head.
When we were ordered to quarantine, I hunkered down with the photographer and Julian. “Listen,” I told the cat. “You and I have had our differences. But now, we’re shut in together. We’re going to have make it work.”
At first, I talked to Julian a lot because there was no one else to talk to. Eventually, I found myself talking to Julian because he proved to be a good listener. He never interrupted. He never mansplained. He never called me a bitch. He never laughed at me. His sense of humor was amazing. Julian was a paragon of friendship. Still, he belonged to a species whose right to exist I’d been raised to question.
As we ate stew one evening, I told the photographer, “Something is wrong. I really like Julian a lot. I love him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“But, I was raised to despise cats!”
“Well, now you’re rebelling.”
That weekend, I called my parents and came out as a cat person.
Julian showed me that bitches-are-crazy hadn’t wrecked me, that I was still capable of emotional evolution, and during the last presidential campaign, I gave Julian a nickname, Julian Catstro. It suited him. He looked regal. Electable.
The day that Julian’s spirit left his body, I met the photographer at the animal clinic. The two were there, waiting for me. Julian had collapsed that morning and lost control of bodily functions. The photographer was distraught. His best friend was deteriorating, and the vet advised that Julian be euthanized. The photographer accepted her advice. I came to bear witness.
The three of us sat together on a bench in a garden. We petted Julian, telling him that he had nothing to fear. He looked beautiful. Like an old panther. We held him as the vet gave injections. We felt Julian go limp as he left himself and diffused into the ether. The photographer sobbed. The vet placed her hand over Julian’s eyes and closed them. His pink tongue peeked through his lips.
When we returned to the photographer’s home, he wept at the sight of his friend’s water dish and food bowl. We sat together on the loveseat, and I comforted him, the way the rabbits had modeled for me. The home felt heavy with presence and absence, and I felt more human than I had in a very, very long time.
One of the pleasures of managing this magazine is that it provides a home to strange reflections, like this one. To support Tasteful Rude and independent journalism, please click here. Your contribution will help fund the Brick House Quarterly, fund libraries, and could get you a signed copy of my book MEAN and/or a print by The Photographer.