Memoir

Learning to Love (And Live With) a Pet Person

What happens when you ask the love of your life when their pets might die?

Learning to Love (And Live With) a Pet Person

It was a humid summer morning two years ago when I rolled over in bed and groggily asked my new girlfriend when exactly she thought her cats might die.

Yes, I am something that pet owners everywhere cannot believe exists. I am not a pet person.

This is not something pet lovers can accept easily. No, they want answers. “But how are you not a pet person? Is it a problem with your brain? Or do you not have a soul?” They don’t actually say that last part, but I can tell it’s what they’re thinking. “Didn’t you have pets growing up?” they demand with a pitying frown, as if I grew up without running water.

I wasn’t raised in some sort of house of horrors, just in a New York City apartment, by a Bronx-born father who never had pets of his own, and a mother reared in rural Ireland in the 1950s, the kind of place where families might have cats and dogs, but certainly did not let them inside their homes, and most certainly didn’t let them sleep in their beds, or lick their faces, or wear designer clothing, or any of the myriad things pet people — excuse me, “pet parents” — deem acceptable these days. Growing up, whenever my brothers and I asked for a puppy or kitten, my mother would give the same calm and measured response: “Sure…when you get your own apartment.”

By the time I got my own apartment I was already not-a-pet-person myself. Don’t get me wrong: the sight of a cute puppy or cuddly kitten incites the same reaction in me as it does in a pet person – although not to the same panting, drooling, uncontrolled-fits-of-howling extremes (I’m talking about the pet people, not the dogs). It’s just not enough for me to understand cleaning up a litter box, scheduling my life around dog walks, or taking an animal to the doctor to figure out why its flatulence has become so problematic lately.

Which brings me to that early summer morning, lying in bed with Holly. We’d been dating for a month or two, and her cat Walter was greeting the day as he did every day (and by day I mean early, early morning) — running across her bed, then across her keyboard, then around in circles on the floor, over and over, until we both got up. Holly’s explanation was perfectly logical: Walter doesn’t like to take his morning poop until his mom is up and out of bed. Yes, this cat is literally anal-retentive. (But how could anyone not be a pet person?)

I’d like to think my next words stemmed from a very sweet thought — my first inkling that I might want to spend the rest of my life with Holly — along with my first flash of horror at the idea of waking up to an ornery feline crawling across my bed every morning for the next untold number of years. And so, in the midst of falling in love with my soul mate, I nonchalantly asked when her beloved pets were expected to expire:

“So they’re ten? Huh. How long do cats live?”

“Oh, around twenty years,” she said.

Twenty years! I had thought twelve, fifteen tops. I was hoping for eleven.

But by this point, I was already in too deep. I knew she was the woman for me, and she made it abundantly clear that the cats weren’t going anywhere.

When we moved in together a year later – yes, all four of us – we reached a hard compromise: the cats would stay, but were no longer allowed in the bedroom. This made it easier for me to sleep at night, and since a doctor had confirmed my avowed cat allergies were real and not invented, it seemed practical. The transition was tough on Holly, who shed some tears those first few nights, and tougher still on “her boys,” who whined themselves to sleep outside the closed bedroom door. Each morning still dawns with a clawing and mewing that is sometimes laughably cute and only sometimes ominous.

I work from home, because I am a writer, and so do the cats, because they are unemployed. I can avoid them at night, but during the day, with Holly at work, they insist on bonding. During those first few weeks alone with them, I’d be lying on the couch, typing on my computer, when Walter, the feisty alpha cat, would slowly stalk up towards me, inching ever closer, testing how much space I’d give him. If I let him lie next to me (rare, during the first few days), he’d nuzzle his furry little head into the side of my back. If I allowed him to get away with that move (increasingly common around week two) he’d tiptoe his paws onto my lap and look up pleadingly. If I fell for that old trick he’d seize the moment to lift himself onto my lap, stretch out his front legs in a relaxed yawn — and dig his claws right into my chest, over and over again. This repetitive motion, Holly has patiently explained, may be an instinctual movement cats do related to squeezing milk out of their mother’s teats. (How could anyone not be a pet person?)

Yet somehow, after a few months of working at our new home, I found myself at the point where I no longer really noticed when Walter sidled up next to me and did the first few steps of his routine. I’d continue typing as usual, not really paying attention until he reached the part where he started clawing me. Usually I’d throw him back down on the ground, but eventually I gave in even to that, letting him work through his weird evolutionary milking thing until he’s ready to lie back down and purr. I developed a tolerance — a pet person might even call it a fondness — for Walter, and for his less needy, less assault-prone brother, The Dude.

Still, when the subject comes up, I find myself insisting that I am not a pet person.

Sure, I might text Holly approximately three times a day with photos of cute things the cats are doing – sitting in a box! Sitting in a smaller box!! Getting out of a box!!! – but that’s just to brighten up her day. It’s not because I’m a cat person.

Do I make up unique voices for each of them, and then articulate to Holly what they might be thinking? Do I sometimes use these voices even when she’s not around? Well yes, but that’s all an elaborate joke, not me talking to my cats, which is something only one of those crazy pet parents would do.

Do I find myself worried that The Dude, the chilled-out beta cat, might be developing an inferiority complex because he doesn’t get as much lap time as Walter does? Do I wonder if Walter understands what I’m writing right now, and if he has purposefully chosen this exact moment to start his first faux-milking routine of the day? Were the cats mentioned prominently in my wedding vows when Holly and I were married this summer? Perhaps.

And perhaps, if you stumbled upon our apartment during a workday and saw me writing on the couch, a contented ball of tabby fur curled up in my lap for hours on end, me only occasionally letting out an uncontrolled fit of howling as a wayward claw digs into my side, then leaning back down to whisper “I’m not mad at you,” in Walter’s ear, perhaps you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m a pet person.