Cream

By

A windy March night in a West Oakland neighborhood. I killed the engine, got out of the car, and stood waiting on the street while my husband, Sebastian, shut the creaking wooden garage—the garage in which the former tenant had left a crowbar, for self-defense, we guessed, stashed above the door. We’d lived in that apartment for about nine months, elated to find anywhere to live at all, desperate to be chosen among the twenty-two prospective tenants—I counted in disbelief—who stood in line on the stairwell at the first showing. We loved the 1920s casement windows and the neighbors who had lived there for decades and we could tolerate the hostile landlord, but we were never able to get comfortable with the nightly sounds of gunfire. Recently we’d also been troubled by a pitiful animal cry emanating from somewhere in the weeds below our second-story bedroom window. Poor thing, we’d said, and then turned out the light. I wasn’t thinking of that sound, though, as Sebastian fumbled with the garage padlock. I was too furious.

We’d bickered the whole drive over the Bay Bridge. Sebastian had wanted to go to a reception for which I had press passes. I hadn’t felt like dealing with the social pressures, he’d said I had to be less shy, I’d said could he just leave me the hell alone? We were fighting a lot at that time, though usually about less glamorous matters: how many meals a week we should eat together and who would cook them. You act more like a roommate than a wife, Sebastian had started saying. I had often thought, What’s so bad about being married roommates?

Finally, the padlock clicked. I shrugged off Sebastian’s touch as we hurried around the corner to the front entry. One of Sebastian’s best friends had actually been mugged in front of our building a decade before. We hated being the fearful gentrifiers, but there we were.

Sebastian stopped dead.

A small white creature with calico spots scurried toward us, whimpering.

“Well, hello there,” Sebastian said, and crouched.

“It’s the cat we’ve been hearing all week!” I said. She was round like a rabbit, with a black patch over one eye and a red patch over the other. “Small,” I said. “Still a kitten?”

She circled, mewing like need itself. “No tail,” my husband said. “Is that natural?” The cat was nearly touching her pink nose to his hand now, crying louder.

“She’s a Manx,” I said. Our fighting from a moment before seemed suddenly shameful, as though a security camera or perhaps the starless city sky had been recording us. I crouched down, too, and reached out for the kitten, who was now throwing herself to the ground and writhing confusedly. I felt as though my lungs were tingling. I sensed a sudden opportunity for redemption, and with it a sharp danger of disappointment. I was impulsive when it came to matters of the heart, but Sebastian was so much more cautious.

“She must be starving,” he said, meeting my eyes. “Poor thing. I’ll go upstairs and get her some food.”

And my gaze followed Sebastian like that of a love-struck teenager. I stood there thinking, So. This is the man I married.

He was back with an open can of cat food in less than two minutes. The little white cat stopped mewing and lapped every last lick, looking up at us with needy green eyes.

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“She’s starving,” I said.

“She shouldn’t be out here. Do you think she’d come inside with us?”

My lungs felt stretched thin, like a balloon that could pop, or make my whole chest rise. So, I inhaled. This is the man I married.

Then I thought of Jarvis, my sleek brown Burmese, my pampered only-cat-for-thirteen-years.

“Jarvis won’t like this,” I said, because we had both seen my old cat, the cat my husband called your cat, hiss like bloody murder at other felines. Now the little cat on the street was butting my hand and purring. “But what if we put her in the bathroom? Jarvis can deal.”

“Well… we can try it,” Sebastian said. And just like that my husband scooped up the little white cat with no tail, and we carried her inside and up the stairs and into the heart of our marriage.

*

All the bickering evaporated, absorbed into a punch-drunk haze of adoration.

My husband named the little rabbit-shaped cat Josie. Josie is so sweet, we said. Josie is so clever. She loves to play with the water-dish! That’s because Manx cats are from the Isle of Man; they love water. Did someone really just leave her on the street? But she’s obviously so special!

How could our marriage have been in a crisis before Josie, I asked myself, even though the answer was obvious. Belatedly, Sebastian and I had been struggling to create a common existence, a non-temporary one. When we had met in Oakland, two-and-a-half years earlier, I had been applying for academic jobs across the country. Not two months into our dating—but already past the point where we had ended up nakedly entwined on my carpet—I had landed a temporary job 2,500 miles away, in North Carolina. The mutual decision seemed to strike us both instantaneously: we’d leave Oakland and move to North Carolina together. And so we did, and eloped at the courthouse when we got to Asheville. It had all felt so natural, so easy: I put on a white cotton dress, and Sebastian put on a suit from JC Penney, and the day after our vows we lay together under the myrtle tree, reading philosophy and art criticism in the sun. The next two years were like that: I struggled to teach headstrong and reckless nineteen-year-olds at a college with endless “pedagogical” workshops, but scant psychological services; Sebastian struggled to make paintings—we used part of my tiny salary to rent him a studio. But mostly he worked to support me, cooking and cleaning and bringing home flowers. We had a common mission I could easily embrace: to get me through those two years.

Two honeymoon years, in retrospect.

But now that the job was over and we were back in our home state, back in Oakland, both back working (Sebastian at an architectural drafting job he found stressful, while I was writing journalism and rushing around to interview dancers and artists)—the common mission was nebulous.

Shortly after we moved into the apartment on 38th Street, I bought a pint of nonfat milk for my coffee. Sebastian appeared in the kitchen doorway the next morning, holding the carton up like evidence. “Did you buy this milk? Why can’t you drink the two-percent milk? A family should drink the same milk.”

After the bitter cross-examinations came the tears (his), and the cursing (mine).

We went to counseling over our separate cartons of milk.

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I believed the milk dispute to be ridiculous. At the same time, I knew that our separate existences needed some third element that had to arrive as though fated, that couldn’t be willed.

*

When little rabbit-shaped Josie scurried into our lives, I was working part-time as a cantor at a mostly African American Episcopal church in West Oakland, a short bike ride from our apartment. I’d tried out St. Augustine’s because I wanted to worship among the people of my neighborhood, and help out in the church food pantry. Since the choir at St. Augustine’s had been abruptly disbanded due to a corrupt choirmaster, and the congregation needed help getting through the hymns, I had been plucked from the pews to stand in a robe behind the pulpit with a microphone, singing gospel classics—“His Eye Is On the Sparrow” and “Oh There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Adding to the absurdity, my vocal “training” mostly consisted of several years of crooning at the local piano bar. So there I was, a white woman, falling far short of doing justice to these profound songs, finding succor in a culture born of a kind of hardship I had never known. The congregation had nothing but kindness for me. They’d ask gently, Could you maybe sing with a little more… soul?

Between hymns I sat in the quire stalls of that red-carpeted, wood-paneled Carpenter’s Gothic church, the rector shaking his head through his fiery sermon, and I thought only of our small white cat.

Our cat!

After communion, at the coffee hour, I told Joan and Tanya and all the other church ladies. “My husband just scooped her right up! Because she needed us,” I said. “I didn’t know Sebastian would act like that, you know? We’ve only been together two years. I didn’t know what he’d do.”

I rode my bike home and walked into our apartment to find Sebastian rigging string and coir mice up and over the futon and the armchair. “Look at her go!” he said, as the little bunny-shaped creature bounded. He had gone to the pet store and bought Josie special kitten food, feathered sticks of many fluorescent varieties, a pink collar.

That afternoon I took Josie to the veterinarian, a soft, round woman with a faint Irish accent. I explained that the cat had been living on the street for at least three days, that we had put “Found” posters up around the neighborhood. I held Josie as she trembled on the steel examining table and whispered, “It’s okay, little bunny, our sweet little bunny,” as the veterinarian admired her sharp kitten teeth.

“My husband and I are both kind of hoping no one comes forward for her,” I confessed to the vet.

She smiled at me conspiratorially, then scratched Josie’s chin. “You’ve fallen into cream,” she said to Josie. It took her repeating it a few times for me to figure out what she meant: cream was the epitome of being cared for. “Look at you, you’ve fallen into cream.”

I beamed. Me and Sebastian. Together we were cream.

*

I’d had a vision of this when we first met, when I’d first spent the night in Sebastian’s apartment, first seen his bedroom. There were paintings, mostly his, on every inch of wall. A queen-sized bed with more paintings and drawings stuffed beneath. A red frayed Oriental carpet. And a bookshelf full of old children’s books.

“I collect them,” Sebastian explained, embarrassed. “And I guess I was thinking if I ever had children…”

“I think that’s wonderful,” I said. A forty-seven-year-old man who lived alone and secretly wanted children. How strange. How delicate. How refreshing.

That night, Sebastian would tell me that he had a rare genetic disorder (the reason he was thin), but a few more weeks would pass before he’d explain that the genetic disease also causes sterility. A few more weeks would pass before I’d tell him that even though I was thirty-five and could probably conceive, I’d never really wanted to be pregnant, never felt I had to have biological children. That I’d had a recurring notion, starting when I was about sixteen years old, that it might be nice to adopt a child some day. It would be a few more years until Sebastian told me he hadn’t started wanting children until his late thirties, during six years of lonely singlehood before he met me, and even then, even as he began collecting copies of Heidi and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he’d been uncomfortable with the idea of bringing a new life into the world. But to help someone who was already born…

So the vision of caring for another life had struck, and struck whole, that day when I first saw the children’s books in Sebastian’s bedroom. And like any vision, it brought with it some fear. A forty-seven-year-old misfit artist who wanted a child.

I looked at that yellowed copy of Heidi and thought, It could be just an idle fantasy. Maybe he won’t really be that crazy, when it comes down to it.

*

Josie did not fall entirely into cream. There was also Jarvis.

Jarvis wanted to kill Josie.

The moment Jarvis was brought into a room with her he groaned with murderous hatred.

Sebastian and I spent hours reading the veterinary literature on how to introduce hostile cats. We bought tension-calming pheromone spray, we let them smell each other under doors (until Jarvis’s hissing grew too hair-raising); we fed them within sight of each other, planning to slowly move their bowls closer. Josie licked her bowl clean in two minutes, staring across the room innocently with her green eyes. But Jarvis refused to take one bite.

Josie was a kitten, and a willful one. She clawed a hole into the mattress so she could crawl around between the springs. If we were in the bedroom with Jarvis, and she was outside, she scratched next to the doorframe until the new Berber carpet, which the landlord had installed just before we moved in, looked like a bird’s nest of shreds.

She cried in the night, and I came out and held her like a baby as I sat on the toilet to pee, and gave her my finger to suck on like a nipple, and cooed. Jarvis heard the cooing, and hated her more.

Jarvis became very skilled at waiting silently by the door, and dashing past when we opened it, dashing straight for Josie. The fur flew. Josie bled from her eyelid, from her belly, streaks of shining red in her soft white side.

We held her and said, “We’re sorry, little bunny. So sorry.”

Jarvis lost three pounds. A hunger strike. The vet gave him Prozac. Sebastian stopped calling Jarvis “your cat,” and started calling him “poor Jarvis.” We ran up our credit cards buying more cat pheromones, and lavender-scented collars, and the kind of beige-carpeted cat tower I’d vowed, years before, never to allow in my decor.

Josie ran to us in the morning for her breakfast, jumping four feet high against the kitchen doorframe. We laughed. We called, “Honey, come see this!” She became fat. We teased her. “Our little plump milkmaid.” But Jarvis was skinny. My husband said, “We can’t do this to him.”

I said, “We’ll give it just one more month.”

We gave it another month. And another.

My friend Jon, whom I knew well from singing together at the piano bar, wanted a cat. I agreed with Sebastian that Jon, jolly and single, would be a suitable owner for Josie, though I added, “Those pheromones seemed to work on Jarvis today! He didn’t yowl at the door! Honestly, I think both cats were better.” Sebastian insisted Jon was the solution, and a godsend. Josie couldn’t go to just anyone. She was too skittish; she needed patience and love, the things we had planned to give her forever when we’d debated whether to put her on the silver plan or the gold plan for pet health insurance: the mission that had made our bickering cease.

But Jon was cat sitting for a friend, which bought us some time, since Josie needed to be in a one-cat home. One night we invited Jon over for dinner. He appeared in our doorway holding a large plastic box with a metal grate at each end. “The other cats left!” he said.

We sat down to the meal but I could hardly eat.

When dinner was over, I forced Josie, shaking and mewing, into the crate. I shouted at Jon, “Go, go quick!”

I sat on the bed in the dark, doubled over, retching and making animal sounds.

Sebastian came in and sat next to me. “I just wanted to do what was best for her,” he said. Then his voice leapt an octave as though he’d become a scared ten-year-old boy. “But I don’t know, she needed us. She needed us, I didn’t know what to do.”

He dropped his face into his hands. I stopped crying to watch my beautiful husband whimper. I clasped his wet hand.

*

“It was craziness to think you were going to keep Josie,” our friends and family told us. “That was sheer craziness.”

We had broken our rental agreement, which stipulated we would keep only one cat. We had let Josie slash the curtains and pull piles of wool out of the box spring. We had woken up at 2 a.m. to the sound of rushing water, and discovered she had twisted the hot water nozzle on the kitchen sink to full blast, so that the sink was nearly full and the windows were dripping with steam.

We had delighted in her dangerous antics.

Through all of that—six months of that—we had never fought.

“Thank God all that craziness is over,” my mother said.

But it was a shared craziness, that love, and I kept thinking of another crazy commitment. One night not two months into our dating life, about a week after I had signed the contract for the job in North Carolina, I had driven to Sebastian’s apartment, trembling. I had been possessed by the idea that if we were going to move together, live together, throw everything in together, we should go all the way. I’d confessed my desires to Jon, who—on his third glass of wine at the piano bar—had said, “Just go over there and tell him!” It was the kind of heart pounding that pulses in your ears and your fingertips. If Sebastian shared the craziness, it would work, we would be united in that leap to craziness forever. But if he didn’t, if he held back even the slightest bit…

Sebastian let me in. He said, “What is it, my love?” That night I sat on Sebastian’s knee and said, “I think we should get married.”

He looked at me very seriously. I thought, it’s over.

He said, “Let’s talk about this.”

I said, “Oh, God. You don’t want it as much as I do.”

He said, “That’s not it at all. Let’s talk.”

And so we did. For a few weeks. A few weeks that felt like torturous months to me, as Sebastian turned over our rationales for marriage with characteristic practicality, as we had long conversations about what we each felt marriage meant: a partnership—wanting maximum fulfillment for the other person with your whole, unreserved heart.

Finally, on our third or fourth conversation, Sebastian said, “Well, since that’s what we both want, I think marriage makes sense.”

Not totally crazy. Just crazy enough.

*

By the time we finally gave Josie away, life was busy. We were buying a house. A house in the Sierra foothills, two hours above Oakland, near Sebastian’s parents. We chose the little yellow two-bedroom for its raised garden beds and half-acre yard and its proximity to an excellent elementary school. A bonus: the house was less than five miles from the nonprofit agency we hoped would help us adopt a child out of the foster care system.

We planted snap peas and tomatoes. We lined the living room with bookcases. We left the second bedroom empty. Sebastian crammed his desk and computer and file cabinets against the wall in our bedroom. He was working from home, drafting architectural plans on the computer all day long, and the space was much too small. Yet he never suggested we could use the spare bedroom—“the child’s room,” we called it—as his office. On days when the idea of raising a child felt unreal and distant, I pulled weeds below the munificent oak tree and thought to myself, Sebastian’s not using that bedroom. I reminded myself of that empty bedroom through the months of being interviewed by social workers, of passing background checks, of attending workshops on parenting traumatized children and reading books on tantrums and violence and the hard work of healing. Even with all that, I’d think, Sebastian still could balk. Then I’d remember the empty room.

The day came when we were deemed ready. We sat at a wood-laminate conference table with a social worker and paged through a binder of “Children Available.” Aggressive tendencies, cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, violence toward animals… no, we couldn’t handle those things, we said guiltily. Then, a photo of a five-year-old boy, small and fine-boned for his age. Some sexualized behaviors. Needs a strong male role model and a high-structure environment to thrive. No ADHD prescriptions, no violence. “A little boy like that, I think we could help him,” I said. The social worker glanced at us and quickly looked away. I saw myself through her eyes: craning my neck, pleading.

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Sebastian avoided my eyes and turned the page. “We need more time to really read through this book carefully,” he said. I was afraid that if I met the social worker’s gaze I would burn with embarrassment. The agency had invested months of home study in us. Next to our social worker sat the child-match coordinator—the woman who had the power to call us or not when a new child needing a home entered the system. She made a note on her pad. Don’t call them, I was sure it said. They don’t really want it.

Sebastian closed the “Children Available” binder and we walked to the car.

“You made us look bad,” I said.

“Sorry,” he said. “I just want us to take our time, make sure we’re taking on something we can actually handle.”

The mind flies to far-flung conclusions when the heart is pushing on the race-gates, or at least my mind does. The mind doesn’t think, How responsible of you to be practical. It doesn’t think, Thank you for being careful about the long-term consequences. It thinks, You held us back. It thinks, That dusty copy of Heidi in your bedroom misled me.

And the heart pounds: Now what will bind us?

*

But the next Monday, Sebastian walked into the living room with a yellow notepad and a blue fountain pen in his hands.

He had drawn a chart: Name, Age, Traits, Why We’re Interested, Concerns, Questions. We drove the five minutes to the agency office and they installed us in another grey-industrial carpeted conference room. We stayed in there for two hours. We emerged with a list of five names, which we handed to the secretary. Next to one seven-year-old girl’s name we noted, Highly interested.

Three weeks later, a new social worker came to our little yellow house. She sat with us at the pine kitchen table, passing photos and reports across the checkered placemats. She showed us pictures; she told us confidential things. She said, “I know some of this is hard to hear.” I said no, no, it was okay. We could take it.

I looked across the table at Sebastian. The day before this meeting, he had spoken to me sternly: “It’s important that we not get pressured into the wrong fit,” he said. “We have to try to take on the kind of child we can actually help. We don’t have to go forward just because we’ve come this far.”

Now, with the girl’s social worker at our table, Sebastian was silent, not disagreeing with me, but not nodding. His face was more relaxed than the day when we’d first looked at the book, his eyes unclenched. But if we didn’t share the craziness, if he held back again…

“I’d like you to think it over for at least a week,” the girl’s social worker said. She told us to take our time, really search ourselves, and then to let her know our answer. We closed the backdoor and heard her footsteps growing fainter on the gravel.

Sebastian was waiting in the kitchen. Sunlight struck the left side of his face, unreadable.

I thought, If he says no, there’s nothing to do about it, it can’t be forced.

I thought, Please be that man I thought I married. 

I said, “So we have to think it over. But which way are you leaning?” And then, unable to stop myself, “Do you think we should do it?”

My husband’s eyes broke into a crinkled expression.

He said, “Of course.”

*

I’ve written this last part several times. In the version I wrote before, I described our days of parenting as oscillating between cheering our daughter’s flips on the monkey bars and soothing her tantrums, as being filled with love and frustration and failure and constant calling on one another.

But parenting a child who survived the foster system isn’t all happy endings.

And a child from the foster care system is nothing like a little lost cat.

Except, though this may sound offensive, she is. Our daughter is needy and willful. She shouts. She is jealous of Jarvis and he’s lost weight, though he’s stopped short of a hunger strike. The health tolls have fallen mostly on me and on Sebastian. We’ve had a few nights when we’ve cried together, asking ourselves if we really can take care of this spirited and difficult and brilliant little girl, this girl who delights us and depletes us.

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Sebastian and I have separate cartons of milk in the refrigerator now, and neither of us thinks that’s an issue. It would be crazy to think that eating the same food makes a family, and neither of us has emotional space for unnecessary craziness. We don’t fight; we need each other too badly now to survive. We don’t feel as though we’re “cream,” as that kind veterinarian once told us; most of the time I feel judged by imagined observers, and Sebastian feels failed. Sometimes we feel as if, hopefully, we are actually doing some good, helping someone who needs it.

As for what really does make a family, we are apparently now discovering that.

***

Rumpus original art by Jonathan Michael.


R.A. Tallitsch is a memoirist and fiction writer who lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills. More from this author →