Imagine that the two loves of your life are both creatures who you fervently aim to please but continually disappoint. One is your temperamental cat; the other is your unpredictably moody wife, who has made it clear you are the source of her unhappiness. In Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (Da Capo Press, 2012), author Peter Trachtenberg frames his turbulent love affairs with both wife and cat with loss. In telling the story of this dual crisis and the search that ensues from it, Trachtenberg explores the mysteries of relationship, both human and animal. Trachtenberg revisits past love affairs, with both women and cats, in this excerpt from chapter 1.
I first saw her a week or two after some friends had rescued her from the woods across from their house, a small, matted thing hunched miserably on a tree branch in the rain while their dogs milled and snapped below. She was very sick with a respiratory infection, and for a while they didn’t think she’d make it. By the time I came over to the barn where they were keeping her, she was stronger, but her face was still black with caked-on snot. I sat down on the floor beside her, and the little ginger cat rubbed against me and a moment later clasped my hand between her forepaws and began licking it. It wasn’t the grateful licking of a dog; it was proprietary and businesslike, the rasp of her tongue almost painful. She was claiming me.
F. and I named her Biscuit after the color of her fur. She never completely got over the respiratory infection. Even in total darkness, you could tell she’d entered the room because of the snuffling, a sound like a small whisk broom briskly sweeping. Every few months she’d start sneezing with increasing viscid productivity until it got so gross we had to take her to the vet, which she didn’t mind—she’d stroll into her carrier as if it were the first-class compartment of an airliner—and put her on antibiotics, which she did. She hated being pilled and would buck and spit and slash until you got the message. You can see the scars she left on my forearm. Once, when we were still living in the village, Biscuit wandered into a neighbor’s garage and came back with half her muzzle and one forepaw white with paint. Three people had to hold her down while a fourth shaved off the painted-on fur so she wouldn’t be poisoned while trying to clean herself. It was the angriest I ever saw her. But only a few hours later, she slid into bed with us, snuffling and purring.
This was our marriage bed, my wife’s and mine. In it, we had made love; we had quarreled; we had exchanged secrets the way children exchange trading cards. (When I was a kid, these were mostly of baseball players, but there are now cards for WWF Superstars, Star Wars characters, and the members of England’s royal wedding. Wilfredo, the boy who used to visit us in the summer, had decks of Japanese anime figures.) We had sat up reading by lamplight while the world slept, sometimes silently, sometimes aloud to each other. During the early years of our marriage, the books we read included Charlotte’s Web, Oliver Twist, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, and the entire Lord of the Rings, which aged us like grief. We did the voices of all the characters: guileless, bumptious Wilbur; manly Oswald, bluff as a little Winston Churchill; Templeton rubbing his hands—or I guess his paws—together in anticipation of an all-you-can-eat buffet of purulent midway garbage; unctuous Fagin, his ill will barely concealed by a façade of mocking courtliness; hissing, sniveling Gollum.
Lately we don’t read to each other much.
On September 29, 2008, while I was away teaching at a college in North Carolina, I learned that Biscuit had gone missing from our house in upstate New York. F. was also away at the time, at an artists’ residency in Europe, so if anybody was going to look for our cat, it would have to be me. By rights, the kid we’d hired to take care of our pets should have gone looking for her, but he was useless—at least, he was useless as a cat-sitter. And so I booked a flight to New York and set off to find Biscuit, though I couldn’t afford the airfare and worried that by the time I arrived it would be too late. She’d already been gone three days, a piece of information Bruno the cat-sitter had held back until fairly late in our conversation, I don’t know whether from caginess or because it had just slipped his mind.
It was early evening when he called; I was making dinner. I remember looking out the window into the garden of my rental house, which lay in the shadow of the live oak whose acorns, bigger and flatter than the ones I was used to seeing up north, littered the grass like woody bottle caps. It may have been the shade or an approaching storm that gave the dusk a greenish cast. It was like being at the bottom of a well.
“What’s the name of your orange cat?” Bruno asked. I felt a surge of anger. He couldn’t remember the name of a creature that had been sharing his home—whose home he’d been sharing—for two weeks, a creature whose color was not orange but golden; F. sometimes called her “the golden kitty.” But I just told him, “Biscuit, her name’s Biscuit. Because she’s biscuit colored.” In much the same way, parents of missing children describe the clothes they were wearing, their birthmarks, the gaps between their teeth. I know that a child is a child and a cat is just a cat. I’m only trying to say I’m one of those people who greet bad news politely, as if by doing that I could turn it away.
A little over a year before we got Biscuit, my cat Bitey had died. She was the first cat I’d ever owned or owned for more than a few months, a smoke-black domestic shorthair with an underbite that gave her a look of implacable, scheming malice, like Lawrence Olivier playing Richard III. When F. and I moved in together, back when we were still girlfriend and boyfriend, Bitey took an instant dislike to Tina, the younger and more timid of F.’s two cats. Scarcely had we let them out of their carriers than Bitey slipped out of the room where we’d stowed her and shot down the hall into the room where we were keeping Tina. She must have smelled her in passing. Shrieks rent the air. (If any shriek can be said to rend the air, it is a cat’s. The shrieks of all other creatures only perturb it a little.) We separated them; that is, we drove Bitey away from the bed under which Tina was cowering, but from then on she spent much of her time lurking outside what we came to call Tina’s room, waiting for the little orange cat to tiptoe out—and she really would tiptoe, lifting her paws very high and placing them down as if stepping onto the wrinkled surface of a barely frozen puddle—so she could menace her with her wicked Plantagenet jaw.
Some of this aggressiveness had been apparent even when I adopted Bitey from the Baltimore ASPCA on a wet day in April twelve years before; I remember the statue of St. Francis in the shelter’s garden shining with rain. She was just a kitten, barely larger than my fist, and so black she seemed featureless except for her green eyes. My girlfriend held her to her breast as I drove home. D. had a cat of her own that she could handle like a slab of bread dough, but before we’d gone three miles the kitten had squirmed out of her grasp and was pacing along the backs of the seats, mewing. D. tried to pull her down, but she clambered on top of my head and sank her claws into my scalp. She meant no harm by it. Still, her claws were sharp, and I cried out in pain. The black kitten continued to cry out in whatever it was she was feeling: fear, probably, and misery at being shut up in a hurtling cage without her brothers and sisters in it, just two large humans rank with sex and tobacco, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo, their mouths brutal with teeth, their nostrils like caves.
A week or so later, after she’d gotten used to me, I had some friends over for dinner. She pranced fearlessly from one to the other, making warlike feints at their hands. My friend Charlie wagged his finger at her, and she nipped it. “Wow! That’s a bitey cat you got there!” he said. Up until then I’d been calling her Bridget, but the new name fit her better.
At the time I got Bitey, I had recently entered a new phase of my life. I thought a cat would be part of it, a bolt on the door I’d shut on all the misdealing and unhappiness that had gone before. A cat would force me to be regular in my habits. It would force me to consider desires other than my own, which up until then had been my main, maybe my exclusive, subject of interest.
I’d had other cats before this, but only in the sense that the singer of “Norwegian Wood” once had a girl. They were cats I found on the street or in apartment buildings and kept for a while, feeding them more or less regularly, cleaning their boxes, but then got tired of or, more to the point, overwhelmed by, and passed on to other caretakers. There was the one who began crying like a rooster at first light, which was only two or three hours after I’d gone to bed: she didn’t last too long. There was the silent gray male who scratched my girlfriend T. while she slept. There was the orange female I named Jasmine, who once awakened me from a long nod with an ominous scraping (I thought someone was trying to break into my fourth-floor apartment) that turned out to be the sound of her empty food dish being pushed—butted, really—all the way from the kitchen to the bedroom. I’d liked those cats all right, until they got to be too irritating. I didn’t think of them much afterward, except maybe for Jasmine, who one night while I was out pushed aside a window screen and then in all likelihood leaped to a neighboring rooftop, or maybe onto the towering ailanthus in the courtyard, whose branches reached almost to my floor and from there flowed to the ground and melted into the dark. Wherever she went, I hope she found an owner who paid more attention to her and fed her when he was supposed to.
From the very first, Bitey interested me in ways her predecessors hadn’t. She was an entertaining presence. For one thing, she fetched, preferring the crumpled cellophane wrappers of cigarette packets to all the toys I used to buy her in the pet aisle of the supermarket. Maybe the crackling reminded her of small animals stirring in the brush. She could hear the sound anywhere in the house and would come trotting up to me whenever I opened a fresh pack, her tail twitching with eagerness. Unlike a dog, she wouldn’t drop the cellophane in your lap or even at your feet, but always far enough away that you’d have to get up to retrieve it. I don’t know if this was out of the same caution that makes a cat reluctant to eat from a human hand or because, having scrambled around the room in pursuit of her prize, swatting it from paw to paw, levering it with surgical dexterity from under a baseboard, lofting it into the air then showily leaping after it, caroming off walls and vaulting over the furniture or skidding under it like a tobogganist before finally seizing the ball in her mouth, she wanted me to get off my ass too.
Most intelligent animals seem to want to be entertained. This desire may be one of the constitutive features of embodied intelligence, a boundary that separates higher animals from lower ones and intelligent animals from intelligent machines. To date we’ve seen no evidence that computers get bored, not even the really big ones, designed to measure the expansion of the universe or track the firefly motion of leptons, that take up entire multistory buildings. By this standard, the crowning achievement of our species may not be writing or the pyramids or the cathedral at Chartres—all of which, face it, can be boring—but Grand Theft Auto. I’m not sure if it would be possible to make a cat understand what writing is for. (Maybe if you could somehow demonstrate that it was our way of rubbing ourselves against the furniture or, alternatively, of spraying). But I can imagine a cat staring raptly at Grand Theft Auto, especially on a big screen.
When Bitey chased a ball of crumpled cellophane, as Biscuit chased cloth balls stuffed with catnip, she may simply have been practicing the behaviors she’d need for hunting. But I think she was also engaged in something gratuitous and nonutilitarian that might be called fun. A 1954 study found that even “Kaspar Hauser” cats, cats “reared in social isolation and without opportunities for visual experience, let alone play behavior,” displayed normal predatory responses when presented with a “prey-like” moving dummy. (Leave aside the ethical implications of raising a young social animal in what amounts to solitary confinement and—judging by the experimenter’s offhand “without opportunities for visual experience”—total darkness.) From my own observation, I know that Bitey would go scrambling after a tossed projectile moments after she’d finished eating, often with such abandon that she vomited in mid-pursuit. Her vomiting was brisk and without fanfare. Suddenly she’d brake; her body would be seized by spasms that squeezed and stretched it like a concertina. These would be accompanied by gasps of esophageal exertion, though “gasps” leaves out the sound’s distinctive Elvis Presleyan glottal stop. It was purely functional, without the notes of outrage and self-loathing that characterize human retching, whose sound is always the sound of someone groaning, “Why? Why? Why?” in a filthy bathroom at midnight. Bitey didn’t wonder why. What had gone into her was now making its way out. When it came, she looked at it blandly, then shook her head and walked away.
My girlfriend D. had a dramatic personality. She wore her hair dyed platinum blonde and swept back from her forehead like a romantic composer’s. She played the keyboards at three in the morning. She would fix you with hypnotic stares of desire or grief, her pupils big as jelly beans, waiting for you to jump her or apologize for the terrible thing you’d done to her. When she smiled, her mouth was shaped exactly like an upside-down boomerang. The night we met, she watched me pour a bottle of wine down the kitchen sink; I think it was a Beaujolais nouveau. The first time we made love was also marked by ceremony. We’d put off the moment for a while. I’d never delayed gratification of any kind before, just had it delayed for, or do I mean from, me, dangled out of reach like a catnip toy, and I have to say that when you’re the one who does the dangling, it drives the other person crazy. It drives you crazy. Like the old ascetics of the desert, you’re intoxicated by your self-denial, not to mention your unexpected power over another person. Not that this was my reason for postponing sex. It had more to do with the new life that had begun only a day or two before I met D., one event following the other so closely that I thought of them as cause and effect. In my mind, D. was the reward for my new life, which in its early stages was marked mostly by what it required me to give up, as if I had joined a priesthood whose members dressed in mufti and chainsmoked. Those rooms murky with cigarette smoke. Even in mid-summer, you seemed to be huddling by a fire, trying to make out your comrades’ features through the gloom. “I want to wait,” I told D., and kissed her the way you kiss someone when that’s the only way you have of entering her. When we finally did it, it was the most powerful sex I’d had in my life up till that moment. In an old movie, it would have been symbolized by a shot of water crashing down the flume of a dam or steam surging through a pipe. (With the passing of heavy industry, we are losing an entire category of metaphors for the sexual act, metaphors of vast forces allowed only a single conduit through which to make themselves felt in the world. The turning of cogs and gears, the thrumming of turbines, the entranced pounding of pistons into cylinders: all gone. I suppose new metaphors will arise out of the new technologies, but how much fun can sex be without build or friction, only the whirr of boot-up or the chime of a new message materializing in your in-box?)
With D., I wore my last Halloween costume, suffering miserably with one half of my face painted black and the other painted white. She wasn’t the first woman I ever apologized to, but she may have been the first to whom I apologized because I was wrong and felt bad about it rather than just because I wanted to end a fight. I couldn’t say what I was apologizing for. My moral proprioception was still coarse back then and could identify only the grosser transgressions: if I’d screwed somebody else, I would’ve known it was wrong. Still, I remember the remorse rising in me like nausea. Once, when we were fighting in the car while caught in traffic, I made a violent turn that brought one half of the Tercel lurching over the curb for a second before dropping back with a tooth-rattling thud, and D. accused me of trying to kill her; maybe I was. Once she told me to go and fuck my way around the world if that was what I wanted. On at least two occasions, she told me that she loved me more than air. One of these was at a birthday party, before an audience of aww-ing friends. Even now I remember how my face burned with pleasure and embarrassment. The pleasure was pleasure at being loved, of course, but it was also indicative of my own taste for drama, which in years past had led me to many sad feats of clownish vainglory. The embarrassment suggests that my appetite for drama wasn’t what it had been. When you’re a little kid, grown-ups warn you that your eyes are bigger than your stomach, but there comes a time when that’s no longer true, not because your stomach has gotten bigger but because your eyes have gotten smaller.
“I love you more than air,” D. said. I said, “I love you,” and immediately felt at a disadvantage, as if I’d followed her inside straight with a pair of eights. Everybody knows that the thing to do then is fold. I did, but it took me several more months. I’m not sure why. One morning I woke up and was no longer in love with her. Then she was gone, and I was left wondering what had happened to everything I’d felt for her, where I’d lost it.
I often think that my relationship with Bitey might have been much different if not for something that happened in the first year I had her. I was alone in the house. It was an early evening in winter; there was a sting in the air. I was suddenly overcome with tiredness—I hadn’t been sleeping much since I’d broken up with D.—and lay down on the couch in the dining room, resting my head on a padded arm. Bitey jumped up and settled on my chest. At first she sat gazing down at my face. Then she lay down on top of me and stretched her forelimbs so that she was almost clasping me around the neck and began to purr. We stayed like this for a long time. I could feel her breath on my face. Abruptly, the phone rang, and I started up to answer it, jostling my cat from her place of rest and spilling her onto the floor. She wasn’t hurt; she was a cat, and cats routinely fall from much higher up without injury. But she never lay down on me like that again or clasped my neck in what I always insist was an embrace. I’m probably reading too much into that moment. I was lonely, and Bitey may just have been stretching.
We think of love, at least love in its ideal form, as a reciprocal condition, like a current that requires two poles to make one’s hair rise; without two poles, you can’t even speak of a current. Unreciprocated love may not be love at all, but a delusion, maybe a pathetic delusion, maybe a creepy one. Stalkers, too, think they’re in love. Well, if someone says, “I love you,” it’s nice to be able to say, “I love you,” back. This is more difficult than it sounds. In James Salter’s Light Years, a little girl is writing a picture story: Margot loved Juan very much, and Juan was mad about her. But Margot is an elephant, and Juan is a snail. In the classical myths, humans and gods love one-sidedly, a predicament the gods usually solve by means of rape. The poor humans just pine. Tristan and Iseult may be the poster children for requited love, but even they needed a love potion, and it’s significant, I think, that the love they came to embody, courtly love, has conditions so extreme as to be essentially unrealizable. It must be adulterous; it must be pure. The lovers must love equally. We have to speak of such love the way we speak of black holes. Who knows what happens to someone who enters a black hole? Is he crushed by its gravity, which is massive enough to crush stars? Do its attractive forces wrench him in two or draw him into a wire of infinite length and infinitesimal thinness and stretch him across all space and time? What message does that wire transmit, and who hears it?
There was a moment when F. and I loved each other equally, when we looked at each other with eyes whose pupils were similarly dilated. F.’s pupils were easier to see because her eyes are blue. Mine are dark, and this makes the state of the pupils more elusive, a trait I found useful back when I was getting high.
There are nights when I wake beside my wife as if beside a stranger. Her body is familiar to me; I know it almost as well as my own. Maybe I know it better, having looked at it and touched it with greater attention than I ever gave myself, because I wanted to know it. There’ve been few things in my life I’ve wanted to know so badly. But something’s gone wrong. Two years ago, she asked for a separation. A while later she changed her mind. I couldn’t tell you why. Or rather, I could tell you: Because of the children we didn’t have or the child we borrowed. Because of the kitten we rescued and then lost. Because of money, because of sex. Because I didn’t pay enough attention to her, because I paid too much. Because she got bored, and then got interested again. But any of those explanations would be wrong.
Now it’s my turn. I don’t know what to do with F. I look at her the way you look at a house you are thinking of moving out of. It’s gotten too small for you. It needs a new furnace; the floor slants. Why do you stay? But how can you ever leave?
“They lay in the dark like two victims,” Salter writes of a husband and wife, “They had nothing to give one another, they were bound by a pure, unexplicable love. . . . If they had been another couple she would have been attracted to them, she would have loved them, even—they were so miserable.”
I remember when people still spoke of couples as being estranged. “Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton are estranged.” The term has passed out of use—unfortunately, because it is so accurate and absent of blame, saying nothing about which party has become the stranger and leaving implicit the fact that when one falls out of love, as when one falls into it, one becomes a stranger to oneself. Proust describes that earlier estrangement well, when he has Swann realize, with an inward start, that he has fallen in love with Odette, whom only a little while before he found a little boring and her beauty a little worn:
He was obliged to acknowledge that now, as he sat in that same carriage and drove to Prévost’s, he was no longer the same man, was no longer alone even—that a new person was there beside him, adhering to him, amalgamated with him, a person whom he might, perhaps, be unable to shake off, whom he might have to treat with circumspection, like a master or an illness.
I gaze down at my wife in the dark but see only the dim curve of her body lying on its side like a letter C, a face shuttered in sleep. I go into the bathroom and turn on the light above the sink. My face in the mirror is the face of a tramp rousted from a ditch. I lean closer and try to make out the size of my pupils, but of course the sudden brightness has made them pin. In mechanical terms, there’s something they don’t want to see. The door creaks; I turn in alarm, but it’s only our plush silver tabby Zuni, that fool for running water, shouldering her way inside. She hops expectantly into the sink. I turn on the tap for her; she laps without a glance in my direction, like a duchess so used to being ministered to that she no longer notices the servants and sees only a world where objects dumbly bend to her wishes, doors opening, faucets discharging cool water, delicious things appearing in her dish.
Is it that I don’t know F. any more or that I don’t know myself? Maybe it’s love that has become strange to me. I can’t recognize it in another person. I can’t find it in myself. It has become my lack. But this seems to be true of many people: of Salter’s glamorously wretched married couple; of Swann, trembling at the loss of his faithless mistress, whom he will marry only when he has fallen out of love with her; of all the seekers who crawl and flounder after this one thing, turning over wives, husbands, lovers, mistresses, like rocks in a garden, under one of which, long ago, they buried a treasure. Or maybe just a dream of treasure.
What is this treasure?
It took me about twenty-two hours to travel the 1,400 miles from the town where I was teaching to the mid–Hudson Valley and back. That’s one of the drawbacks of flying on a discount carrier. To Biscuit, the distance would be as incomprehensible as that between Earth and the sun, whose warmth she loved to bask in when it poured through the living room window on winter afternoons. Though, come to think of it, you hear stories of cats traveling long distances all the time. Usually, they’re trying to return to a former home or be reunited with a missing owner. To me, why Biscuit wandered off and where she went are, if not incomprehensible, unknowable. Still, I can recount just about every step of my search for her and many of the key incidents of our relationship before then.
This is more than I can do for my relationship with F., which at the time Biscuit disappeared was beginning to change and, maybe, to draw to an end; it’s still too early to say. I recall that relationship at least as vividly as I do the one with Biscuit, if not more vividly, but, as Freud showed us, there is such a thing as an excess of vividness. The most vivid memories, the ones most populous with detail and saturated with color, may be the least reliable. And my relationship with F. may also be too complex to be easily narrated. Both of us can talk, and that means we can contradict each other. (A cat can defy you, but it can’t contradict you, its powers being confined to the realm of action as opposed to the realm of descriptions of action, which belongs to humans.) I feel no obligation to relate F.’s version of the events I lay out here. Still, when her version contradicts mine, I feel haunted. My past seems to belong to someone else, a self I am only impersonating. Did I really do the things I remember doing, say the things I remember saying? And whom did I say them to?
About my cat and the self I am with her, I have fewer doubts.
I turn off the faucet. The silver tabby goes on lapping. I still hear her after I turn off the light, swabbing up the last drops of moisture. I feel my way in the dark to our marriage bed and climb under the blankets beside my wife. In the dark, I listen for the creak of floorboards and the sound of a small whisk broom briskly sweeping.
My Relationship with Women and Cats excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Another Insane Devotion: One the Love of Cats and Persons, published by Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, 2012.