Memoir

When My Roommate Let the Cat Get Out

A few moments of complete terror, thinking my cat lost forever, made me rethink my living arrangement — and my sanity.

When My Roommate Let the Cat Get Out

After he watched my cat climb out his bedroom window and onto the roof, my roommate Peter did all the things a dedicated roommate should do. He made kissy noises at the cat. He called the cat’s name. He tossed a piece of string out the window and tried to lure the cat in, like a fisherman trying to catch a fish. And when none of that worked, he climbed out the window, scaled the side of the house and tried to grab the cat, who of course evaded him, the way cats do.

The only thing left to do was to call me at work and let me know what happened. “I’m sure she’ll come back soon,” he said.

“I’m coming home right now,” I replied. Then I got up from my desk and walked out of work without offering an explanation to anyone.

As I rode the bus home, I chewed my nails and imagined exactly what I would do if my cat died that day. Would I get a tattoo to honor her? I wondered. I didn’t have any tattoos. Am I that kind of pet owner? The answer came as a swift and definite yes, the only question being whether I would tattoo her grey-and-black-striped face onto me, or if I could find her corpse, make an ink stamp of her actual paw print and have the tattoo artist replicate it exactly, to scale. If the latter, could I handle that? Could I handle holding my dead cat, my friend, in my arms, and then using her paw to make a macabre commemorative craft project? I would have to, I resigned. I would have to simply reach deep inside and FIND THE STRENGTH. I also thought a lot about how exactly I would tell Peter that he needs to move out of our home, immediately.

(Today, my mother and sister like to cite this bus ride — and the fact that I did not scream and physically assault the bus driver, demanding he ignore all routine traffic laws and instead barrel down the road with abandon, at maximum speed — as a crowning triumph of the ten milligrams of anti-depressants I was taking at the time.)

Before the bus came to my stop, I received another call from Peter. My cat was fine. He found her sitting under a tree in the backyard. I could hear the relief in his voice, and it washed over me too. Being faced with the possibility of losing my cat, even for a few moments, shook me. She was my companion. I took care of her, but she also took care of me. I once had a months-long “major depressive episode,” during which the only reason I got out of bed was because she would meow loudly and knock things off my dresser if it was past nine a.m. She meant the world to me — and Peter had only been my roommate for a couple weeks.

When I got home, I found my cat downstairs in my basement room, napping on the bed like it ain’t no thang. I grabbed her and sobbed into her furry cheeks, which smelled like twigs and autumn leaves.

The rest of the week was tense. While on the surface I forgave Peter, I avoided conversation with him and made a point to keep my cat locked in my room at nighttime. At the end of the week, Rudy — our other roommate, decided to call a house meeting.

Sitting on couches in our living room, Peter said he felt like he was walking on eggshells all week, feeling unwelcome in his new home. I sighed and confessed I probably “projected a lot of shit” onto my cat, and told them about how she’d been there for me during a time when it felt like nobody else had. Peter told me gently, “You know, someday you’ll have to deal with the fact that she is going to die before you do.” Then Rudy poured us each a shot of whiskey and we agreed to put the episode behind us.

I hugged Peter, then left to go get some food, leaving my cat to roam freely throughout the house in my absence. I was feeling good, ready to move forward and leave the cat drama behind me. But as I drove down the darkened road back home with a bag of groceries beside me, I came upon a middle-aged woman, wild-eyed, running around in the middle of the road and waving her arms above her head. When I pulled over she shouted at me, “I saw it! I saw it get hit!” Then she asked me if I had any money for cigarettes. When I said no, she ran off to catch a bus that was already pulling away. In her absence, I saw what she’d been yelling about: a small, furry creature lay in the middle of the road, with blood soaking the fur around its belly.

I approached the animal. It was a cat, with long, soft, gray-and-white fur. I picked it up and carried it in my arms to the side of the road, kneeling in front of a 7-11 and a check-cashing place. I stroked the cat and could feel its fur was smooth and clean, lacking the matting or burs that are customary on a stray’s coat. This was somebody’s well-cared-for pet, I thought. It seized in my arms, twice, and then died.

I took the cat to an all-night vet clinic, not wanting to leave it to rot on the ground in front of a crummy strip mall. The woman working there said I could either have it cremated en masse with a bunch of other strays for $25, or pay to have it privately cremated for $150, and collect the ashes later. Even though I only had about a thousand bucks to my name, I opted for the latter. They had me make up a name for the cat. (I chose “Monica.” I have no idea why.) A week later, they sent me a condolence card in the mail with an ink stamp of the cat’s paw print inside.

I went home that night and breathlessly told Peter what happened, then suggested we scatter the ashes together somewhere, on a mountaintop or something. He agreed, in a raised-eyebrow, “who the fuck am I living with?” kind of way. I think we always meant to find the time to do it. But we never got around to it, and when I moved out a year later I brought my living cat with me, and just flushed the ashes of the other cat down the toilet.

I haven’t spoken to Peter since. I’ve wanted to see him, to tell him how I got off the anti-depressants, how I meditate now, how I moved to a farm in rural Minnesota and, against all odds, began letting my cat outside regularly. That she catches mice and rolls in tall grass, and comes inside every night to sleep at the foot of my bed. That everything’s fine. I know he wanted me to see that then, and I didn’t. I want him to know that he planted the seed.

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