The author and her large grey cat, who has green eyes, sitting on a couch with a laptop, which the cat surely does not wish for her to access
The author and her large grey cat, who has green eyes, sitting on a couch with a laptop, which the cat surely does not wish for her to access
My little demon

Things My Cat Taught Me

Year ago, I had a puppy, but I gave her up in the ensuing breakup proceedings with my boyfriend. It was my choice, and it was the best one for her, but I missed her for years. Time heals certain wounds, and I stopped missing her awhile ago, though I do occasionally inquire after her health. Given the difficult experience of detaching from an animal, I decided I wouldn’t adopt another one until I was really ready.

I’d long had it in mind to foster and then adopt a dog who had been given up by an elderly owner who needed to go into a nursing home, because I figured it would be great to get to share photos and perhaps even a FaceTime call with the original owner. I saw both my grandmothers live in adult care facilities, and knew how some of the residents missed their animals and loved it when an animal would visit. But a dog requires a lot of work. A cat can, as well, but so long as it shits in the proper spot indoors, you’ve at least eliminated the need for walks.

In March of 2020, with a lockdown looming in Los Angeles, I considered my own history of panic attacks, depression, and agoraphobia. None of that had troubled me much for years, but I didn’t know what it would be like to spend so much time alone, and I didn’t know how this potential national disaster would affect the society in which I lived. Over 500,000 deaths later, I have something of a clearer and more horrific picture.

Unsure if I’d get used to Zoom meetings or FaceTime therapy, or if I’d somehow manifest a romantic partner in time to have companionship for the long haul, I considered my options. That’s when I signed up to foster a kitten.

I did not get a kitten.

At the last moment, the rescue organization asked if I would take an older cat instead. She was around seven years old and had been in foster care for a few years, too inclined to swipe or growl or lightly (sometimes not so lightly) bite, too old to be considered cute, and too chonky for some people’s tastes, I suppose (these people are obviously bastard people). She was an owner surrender when her original “dad” (of the human sort) passed away and her original “mom” (also human) went into nursing care. She had gotten lost along the way, and gone (or returned to being) a bit feral.

Of course I said yes. And when I picked up Polly, her foster was tearful. She’d wanted to adopt her, but had lost her job the previous week due to the impending period of quaratine. When I got Polly in the car, her first act was to shit herself in fear.

For the first 12 hours in my care, she repeated a pattern of hiding in the closet for an hour, then carefully emerging and walking in ever-smaller circles around the apartment. When I tried to pet her, she hissed at me, so I stopped trying. People told me to casually leave my hand dangling for her to sniff, but to act real cool about it. I did that, and it worked. By the end of the evening, she came and sat on the sofa a few feet away. I felt like I’d ascended a mountain.

I adopted her a day later, and am quite certain I will love her until the day she dies. She is now such a part of my life that it’s a bit odd to remember what it was like to return home to an empty place, not a mewling creature with immediate demands for petting and comforting. What is it like to not share space with something that purrs? What is it like to sit on the couch and not be stared at until I put a pillow in my lap so that a creature can hurry over and settle on it in her exact preferred position? And what is it like to close the bathroom door without hearing tapping, scratching, and occasionally a 13-lb body actually pushing itself against the door with all its might like some sort of adorable battering ram?

A few months into my tenure with Polly, I woke with a start during an earthquake. Within a couple seconds, it settled down. That’s when I noticed her paw was draped over my wrist, perhaps as an act of comfort (for her or for me, or maybe for both of us).

I should share with you a few things I’ve learned from her.

  1. If somebody doesn’t want to hang out with you, don’t push it.
  2. If you leave somebody alone and give them their space, they’re likelier to want to hang out with you.
  3. Sometimes somebody can express annoyance or be brusque, and they’re not actually trying to attack you — they’re trying to set a boundary, albeit somewhat inelegantly. You don’t have to stand for being hurt, but you can have compassion for somebody who loves you but is a bit rough around the edges. They’ll likely settle down. And if they don’t, you can do the bare minimum required for the relationship and take your own space until they chill. (Also, you should leave an abusive person. A cat who is being ornery isn’t being abusive. Cats are not people. When you adopt them, you take on the responsiblity of caring for them for the rest of their lives. Don’t be a lazy fuck. Good talk.)
  4. Those grooming glove things are awesome. If you disguise grooming as a massage, your cat might dig it.
  5. Cats will puke for a variety of reasons, most of which are no cause for alarm. Invest in a pleasant-smelling organic stain remover. It probably won’t work, but at least you won’t poison yourself or your cat.
  6. Cat people are bananas. This is not a stereotype. Many are pleasantly bananas and hilarious, and quite generous with tips and ideas.
  7. You can be a cat person and a dog person and an other types of creature person! What a world! Love is all around.
  8. Adopt, don’t shop, but be sure you’re adopting from a reputable organization that acts with decency and ethics toward the animals and the humans involved in rescue and care.
  9. Cats are often noticeably more tender and affectionate when you are sad or sick. They may also be very snuggly at other times.
  10. An animal companion is a responsibility. They depend on you, and if you aren’t able to advocate for them — and access clean water, decent food, and necessary medical care — they will suffer and may die. So do at least the bare minimum to keep yourself going, so that you can love them not just with your heart but with your actions. This does not mean you need to have lots of money and resources to take good care of a pet. This does not mean all unhoused persons should be denied the chance to have a pet.
  11. There are a lot of excellent animal rescue organizations, foster programs, and no-kill shelters. Even if you can’t or don’t want to take on the care of an animal at this time, you may be able to help them by spreading the word about their work or even volunteering.
  12. Nobody is certain if ghosts are real or if cats can see ghosts, but ghosts are real and cats can definitely see them.

It has been an absolute honor to get to hang out with this lady for a year, to wake up to a 13-pound ball of fur staring at me while standing on my chest, to feel her hop up on my belly or legs or side while I drift off to sleep, and to see her trot over when I call her name.

I have lived alone throughout the past year, and did not have a pod of companions until I moved back to NJ to be closer to my family five months ago. For somebody who experiences agoraphobia, depression and panic attacks, this little gal has been an absolute lifesaver. I’ve had my struggles over the past year, including grief, but have stayed largely healthy and reasonably hopeful in no small part because of this demon queen.

Just the other day, Polly’s first owner reached out to the rescue organization over email. She’s living full-time in a nursing care facility, presumably relatively isolated for the past year. She wanted to know if Polly had ever found a loving home, or if she had just been considered too feral and had to be put down. She said it would ease her mind a great deal to know how Polly was doing.

I let the rescue know I would be very happy to send photos and stories about Polly. And I said that if she wanted to do a Zoom or FaceTime with Polly, I would be delighted.

Last year, I planned to get a dog. That didn’t happen. Instead, I got exactly what and who I wanted, just in a different body than I’d envisioned. That happens sometimes, with humans and with other beasts. How fortunate we are to receive unexpected blessings. How fortunate we are when some plans don’t work out.

The author, a woman with auburn curly hair in a high ponytail, and her cat, who is grey with green eyes, sitting on a bed.
The author, a woman with auburn curly hair in a high ponytail, and her cat, who is grey with green eyes, sitting on a bed.
The author, a woman with curly auburn hair, wearing a Bunnicula t-shirt and standing beside her grey cat, who has green eyes and is sitting atop a cat tree.
The author, a woman with curly auburn hair, wearing a Bunnicula t-shirt and standing beside her grey cat, who has green eyes and is sitting atop a cat tree.
A grey cat with green eyes laying atop the book “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom,” which was written by the author of this essay.
A grey cat with green eyes laying atop the book “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom,” which was written by the author of this essay.
The author, a woman with curly auburn hair wearing a Peter Dinklage / Game of Thrones T-shirt, sitting on a yellow chair with her grey cat in her lap.
The author, a woman with curly auburn hair wearing a Peter Dinklage / Game of Thrones T-shirt, sitting on a yellow chair with her grey cat in her lap.
A grey cat sitting atop the back of an orange futon beside an orange stuffed squirrel. The cat is chewing on a thread from the futon.
A grey cat sitting atop the back of an orange futon beside an orange stuffed squirrel. The cat is chewing on a thread from the futon.
A close-up on the face and ears of a grey cat with green eyes sitting atop a cardboard box.
A close-up on the face and ears of a grey cat with green eyes sitting atop a cardboard box.
A grey polydactyl cat laying on its side on a bed, with a six-toed paw extended.
A grey polydactyl cat laying on its side on a bed, with a six-toed paw extended.
A grey polydactyl cat laying on a bed beside the arm and hand of a person, with a grey paw draped over the person’s wrist.
A grey polydactyl cat laying on a bed beside the arm and hand of a person, with a grey paw draped over the person’s wrist.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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