So I’m on the phone with my friend, Brenda. And she says, “You have a cat, don’t you? I thought I remembered you saying you have a cat.”
“Yep,” I say, laughing. “I sure do. I am indeed the proud owner of a cat.”
I look up to see my cat staring at me from across the room. He motions to me with his claw. “Get over here.”
I can’t, I mouth, cupping my hand over the receiver. I’m on the phone.
“Hang up the damn phone and get your ass over here,” my cat says. “Now! I want to talk to you.”
And meanwhile, Brenda’s babbling about some dog she owned in 1986. I think she said its name was Salt, or something.
“Brenda, I’m so sorry,” I say, interrupting her, “but I’ve got to go.”
“Right now?” Brenda asks. “We’re right in the middle of a conversation. I was just telling you about the time that Pepper lifted his leg on Mama’s toupee. She kept smelling doggy pee, and she couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. She thought it might be her armpits, and she kept burying her nose under both her arms to sniff them, but all she could smell was regular old-lady B.O., and not pee. It was driving her crazy!”
“I thought your dog’s name was Salt?” I ask.
“My dog’s name is Salt,” Brenda says.
“But you just said your dog’s name is Pepper?”
“Pepper is the dog I had in 1986,” Brenda says. “You know that. My goodness, it’s like you’re not listening to a word I’m saying.”
“Huh? What’s that?” I ask, looking at my cat and swallowing. His eyes are narrowed, and I can tell my delay is making him livid.
“I said it’s like you’re not listening to a word I’m saying!” Now it’s Brenda who sounds livid.
“Hang up the phone,” my cat says, his voice eerily calm. “Now.”
“Bye, Brenda,” I say, as I hang up the phone. I can her her screaming violent, rage-fueled obscenities as I set down the receiver. That woman does not like to be cut off when she’s talking about her pets.
“Get over here,” my cat says, motioning me over to the couch.
I take a deep, uncertain breath. Then, I stand up and saunter over to the couch.
“Have a seat.”
I sit down on one end of the couch while my cats sits on the other, his tail twitching manically.
“Now,” my cat says, “remind me what you said a moment ago. You know, the part about you being a proud pet owner?”
I swallow again. Suddenly, my throat feels dry.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” I say, my voice cracking. “I swear. All I said was that I was the proud owner of a cat.”
“And therein lies the problem.” My cat closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. My chest tightens as I await his next syllable. Already, I can feel a line of cold sweat beading across my brow.
“Let’s get something straight,” my cat says. “Right here and right now. And I’m only going to tell you once, so you listen good. You don’t own me. You understand? I own you. You got that, you miserable bag of puke? I own you!”
“I’m sorry,” I try to say, stammering. “I didn’t mean–”
“Shut up!” my cat says, raising his paw. “I’m not through with you. You’re nothing. You’re the rancid scum that pools at the bottom of my milk dish when it’s left sitting out for too long. You’re the flimsy guts of a disemboweled mouse that I left sitting on the back porch. You’re more useless than that cheap-ass catnip candy cane you bought me for Christmas from the $1 store. And what a joke that was, by the way. What kind of a tightwad, scumbag bastard buys Christmas gifts from the $1 store?”
“Cat, please,” I say, my voice taking on a higher pitch. My body’s trembling, and my throat constricts as I talk, which cuts off my words. Either I’m really getting worked up, or my cat allergies are kicking in.
I’m not sure why I have a cat when I’m allergic to him, but he’s never appreciated any of the sacrifices I’ve made. I made a special trip to buy him that catnip candy cane, and it pains me to learn that he hated it.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” my cat says. “Don’t you ever go around telling people you own me. You got it? You will never own me. I would never condescend to call you my owner, or even my friend. You’re nothing to me. You’re just the sniveling coward who fills my food dish and cleans out the litter box. You’re nothing to me but a manservant. All you’re good for is fluffing my pillows and maybe running a comb through my fur when I’m starting to shed. But beyond that, you’re a withered, pathetic excuse for a man.”
“Cat, I’m sorry!” I say, tears springing to my eyes. It hurts to hear him speak so callously. I thought our relationship was stronger than this.
“Silence!” my cat says. “I ought to drag you outside right now and break your stupid kneecaps with a tire iron, you miserable pipsqueak. Or maybe I’ll just slice you up with my claws so that you look like shredded cheese. You’ll look like you’ve been dropped through a helicopter rotor by the time I’m finished with you, you classless bum.”
“I’m so sorry, Cat,” I say, wiping snot on the back on my sleeve. Whether it’s emotions or allergies, my nose is gushing. “I didn’t mean to insinuate that I owned you, or that you’re somehow beneath me. Sometimes I just blurt things without thinking.”
“Damn right you weren’t thinking, you gutless turd! And you’ll never make the same mistake again, will you?”
“I promise,” I say, sniffing. “You’re the most important feline in my life, Cat. I don’t want us to fight.”
“Quit sniveling,” my cat says, glaring. “You’re making me sick. It’s despicable.”
“Cat,” I say, “can I ask you a question?”
“You’re always so mad at me lately. You hiss at me for even the slightest perceived offense.”
My cat’s eyes widen. “That’s because you deserve it, you wretched fool!”
I swallow. “I know I’ve apologized for this before, but Cat … will you ever forgive me for having you neutered?”
My cat sucks in a quick breath. “I said I never want to discuss it,” he says, his eyes burning like branding irons into the depths of my soul.
“I know,” I say. “But clearly, you’re still very resentful. I just wondered–”
My cat holds up a paw, with his blood-stained claws protruding like Wolverine’s terrifying blades. “Not another word, you imbecile, or I’ll slice you up into human confetti. Your guts will be raining upon guests at a New Year’s Eve party when I get through with you.”
“OK. All right.” I rise from the couch and take a cautious step backward. “I’m so sorry, Cat. I swear. I’ll get you some milk now. Does kitty want some milk?”
“You’re goddamn right kitty wants some milk, you insufferable dumb ass! And bring me a handful of those crunchy treats while you’re at it. They help me fight tartar and bad breath.”
“You got it.” Though I’m still shaken, I cross the room to the kitchen to retrieve the milk and treats.
As I leave him alone in the living room, my cat stares blankly at the wall. Ever so slowly, the rage recedes from his eyes, and a dull, glassy stare takes its place.
Although he thinks he’s alone, he’s not aware that I’m watching him. Even through all of our trials and escalated conversations, I have nothing but fondness for him in my heart.
And as he extends his hind leg to lick it, a remorseful pang of guilt surges through me … because as he licks he gently nuzzles that place near the base of his tail — that now-vacant spot where his family jewels used to be.