After college, I lived in Kankakee County in a small town called Momence for a while. There were only a few hundred people living there with a main street no longer than 10 or 15 blocks long, and that’s being generous. It was far from work, but in the neighborhood which is what I wanted. I used to run everyday, and in the summers it would be so hot that would I run with my shirt off. I worked a few miles away in a larger city called Bourbonnais. After work one day, I was hanging out with some friends that I had adopted through a coworker. They introduced me to a girl who said that she had heard about me. My mother grew up in a small town so I knew about how small towns can be. But this girl told me that she had heard that I’m the city boy who runs around with his shirt off. My smile disappeared as I thought about my preconception that I might be known as the cameraman for the local TV show, or the boy who had moved into the pink house next to that fancy French breakfast place. Through the passage of time and circumstance, I eventually quit my job along with my coworkers, and my adopted friends soon vanished. I didn’t really run after that and I gave up my gym membership. I felt like I was alone in a small crowd. I moved back up north to Chicago for work and because I couldn’t take the smallness of Momence anymore and the lack of social interaction.
Funny enough, Rogers Park had a loneliness caused by it being too large. So I again found myself being alone, but this time in a big crowd. I bode my time at work making the best of an empty situation, waiting for a break or a big break. One weekday night, I heard a cat meowing outside my back alley door. It sounded hurt. So I opened the door and looked to see if I could help out, and in flies this gray kitten. He just swarmed past my legs, through the kitchen and under my bed. He stayed there for two days. I put out water and lunch meat which were ignored. I tore up a newspaper and put it into a shoebox and he went to the bathroom in that. He was so scared of the whole world. On the third day, I came home and found most of the food and water gone. I went to the store and realized that I had never bought cat food before despite years of owning cats while living with my parents. Buying cat food, I found, was like buying bread; there are dozens of identical choices. I laughed inwardly at my new choices in life.
By the end of the first week, the kitten was bounding around my apartment like a fur coated slinky on crack. My couch was on the other side of the wall the front door was on. So when I would come in, he’d stand on the backrest peering around the corner, his tiny head rotated 90 degrees around the corner at belly level. I’d come home looking in a half crouch for him walking on the ground and I could see him laughing as I discovered him right next to my face at eye-level. Then he’d tear away and run circles across every surface in every room no matter the height.
He was filthy. I know cats are self-cleaning, but I couldn’t let that little guy put his tongue on that much dust. He seemed to trust me more now sleeping in my bed and causing me all sorts of allergic reactions. I sat on the edge of the tub as the water plunged in. I’m not sure what my plan was; it was fluidly forming minute to minute. Buddy slowly crept into the bathroom placing and replacing his paws deliberately in the same places as if the ground would give way underneath him at any moment. His eyes weren’t wide, they were passively interested, scared but accepting like a traumatized child ready for the next terror to be catalogued into the darkness. I leaned down, our eyes locked and I reached for the drain plug and let the water out. A wet paper towel was a great way to pet him for one of the first times. Loose hair and smokey dust came off in dark ridges into the folds of the towels. His ears were pretty clean, considering. But the therapeutic effects that scientists write about when petting an animal went both ways. He looked up at me peacefully and I thought, “It’s a rescue.”
The ending to this story is harder to write about. I was born allergic to evergreens, horses, dogs and cats. For my whole early life, I was a “wheezy child” until I stopped riding horses and having animals around me constantly. Into college and beyond, the years of breathing without wheezing made going back to animals that much harder. I was weaker or more sensitive to the kitten from the lack of constant exposure. I was dying with red itchy eyes and water seeping from every part of my face. Buddy would play this game where I would go to bed, he’d rub his whole body against whatever part of my hands or face weren’t under the covers (usually my face) and I’d move him away gently. Then he’d stalk my head as I slowly emerged for air and pounce on my face with both paws on both temples. He’d rub my face all over with his nose and back. He loved this game. In his opinion, it was a great way to spend those dark quiet hours when humans are sleeping. I must say, he was really talented at stalking and pouncing. I could slightly wiggle a toe a quarter of an inch and he’d catch the movement and pounce from across the bed. One night in bed, he buried his face and whole body into my arms and chest to escape a particularly loud and bright thunder storm. His fear seemed so palpable and real to me and I was glad I was there. But my allergic suffering eventually overtook my affection toward him and I knew I had to find him a permanent home.
The vast majority of animal shelters have a policy of killing the animals after two weeks if they are not adopted. A very small number of shelters have a no-kill policy, unless the animal is violent or gets sick. I must have called every animal shelter in the phone book. No one was taking cats except a small number of the kill shelters. One place told me that even though they don’t any cats, cats are left in cages at their back door almost every night. She said with loss in her voice how hard it was to have to put these animals to death all the time. They just don’t have the resources or room to take them in and care for them humanely. So I put an ad in the Reader for a cute kitten giveaway. “Gray, super friendly, a traumatic start to a soon to be wonderful life, if interested.” A few calls led to one person coming over to see Buddy. I met her outside and Buddy seemed very interested in the grass and trees but not the girl. He’d been inside my apartment for about a month at that point and I had no idea how long he had been living outside before; maybe his whole life. The potential owner, a 25-something girl, looked at him with distance and an upturned nose. “I was looking for a smaller kitten,” she said. See, Buddy was definitely a kitten, but he was doing much better now and he had grown a little in the month with me. So even though he still seemed like a kitten to me, and he certainly wasn’t a cat yet, he was more medium sized. “He’s more medium sized,” said the girl.
“Look. I’ve called dozens of shelters. And the only ones that can take the cat are kill shelters. That means that if no one adopts him, they kill him after two weeks. You’re the only person who’s come to look at Buddy and if you don’t take him, I’m going to have to take him to that shelter where he’ll probably be killed. You’re his last hope,” I said. The woman’s face flashed with anger. “Don’t put that on me! Why don’t you keep it?!” I told her how I was dying from an allergic reaction every time I was with him. She walked away. “He’s free and he’s a cute kitten,” I called after her. She got into her car and drove away. Buddy and I looked at each other. We went back inside.
That night, I could barely breath in bed. My allergic reactions seemed to have a cumulative effect and that night I was really having a hard time breathing and not touching my face (which makes it worse). Buddy seemed to want to be touched the more I pushed him away. He played the face stalking game. I would look at him and he would stare at my eyes with a paw in the air as if waving hello. I’d blink my eyes closed and he’d paw my eyes as if he were trying to catch my eyes before I could close them. It seemed like the worst game in the world to play when trying to avoid cat fur going into your eyes, but it was just so cute. I wanted to hurry the night up and get it over with so I could do what I had to do the next day. I could feel myself mentally creating a distance from him, justifying why I had to give him away. A photographer needs to be able to see, and breath! Red bloodshot eyes look bad to your bosses every day. They’ll think I’m on drugs. Buddy started to relax and give up when I hid every part of me under the covers for a long time. He was warm against my chest. It’s easy to think about the tides and waves of fate and how things happen and lives intermingle. How could I give up this cat or cause him harm. He’s an animal. Why introduce him into the human-controlled government of animals where humans have to decide his fate? Could he live in the woods? The world is a big place.
I pet him all over devouring him. He riled up and then relaxed into it. I pet him until he was so relaxed he started to fall asleep. Then I lightly pet him and memorized the moment. Cats are a cool combination of soft and sharp edges, a fascinating accessible link into the more wild world of Nature. Half in the darkness and half in the light, they seem to balance on anything and have been scientifically proven to be aerodynamically configured to always land on their feet (proven by dropping cats out of higher and higher windows – scientists are sick). I’ve seen a cat jump from a stand-still eight feet into the air and catch a bird. Their eyes are coated with a reflective film on the inside which bounces light around and enables a sort of night vision. I’ve seen them kill; I’ve seen then scared and I’ve seen them blissfully warming in a beam of sunlight. I hardly slept.
The form was very long and in that same non-English legalese used on tax returns. I wrote quickly because I was parked illegally in the alley and I was afraid. I wasn’t scared of a ticket, I was scared of the fear I saw him Buddy when I wrapped him in the towel and got him into my car. It quickly evaporated though into an adventure and we barely made it downtown as Buddy wanted to drive. The form asked for sex, color, type of animal and under size/weight, I wrote “medium sized kitten”. There were all sorts of releases of legal rights to the animal, this small little kitten who had literally run full speed into my life and hid with me in bed. Those rights were then verbally released as the woman robotically read off what I was doing to make sure I knew what I was doing. I was confused at the formality and without looking she asked me where the animal was. I told her to hold on and she impatiently watched me run back outside to my car. Buddy was tearing around the inside of the car doing circles and he looked excited and happy with the new adventure. I gathered him up easily without the towel and he held onto me wrapping his paws around my shoulder like a clinging monkey. He looked at the chaotic city intersection with wonder as we walked inside. He was light. I pet his back and brought him to the counter as he darted his head around in curiosity. I am assured that the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society is a no-kill shelter. A volunteer grabbed Buddy from my shoulder as soon as I approached the forms. Buddy’s eyes locked onto mine and his face turned to sheer panic. The volunteer gripped him too tightly as she stuffed him tail first into a carrying cage. His eyes never left mine and he seemed to wonder why I wasn’t helping him. The betrayal.
There was a small tear in the room at that moment through which all the air was sucked out. I apologized over and over in my mind as the volunteer whisked him away. Buddy’s medium sized but soft kitten paws pressed against the thin metal grid and stared through my eyes and into my soul and just asked once, “Why?”
I backed away. In my car now. Window down. A few blocks later, I started to breath.