We got Stormy on the day I turned twenty-four, when her two adoptive brothers that we’d gotten from the family next door were about a year old. It was December 27th, and I’d complained for months that I was outnumbered—in our little country rental, where cold seeped through the floorboards every winter, Duke, Beans, and Michael listened to my feminist ravings with the same bovine stare, sometimes distracted by the television set or a Carolina wren in the yard. I opened a box on Christmas, two days before, with a note that said, simply, “One kitten of your choosing.”
At the county shelter a few hours away, wedged between economically devastated towns and highway quick-stops selling off-brand energy drinks, I chose her, ignoring the din of barking dogs against the cinderblock walls and the menagerie of sweet kitten faces squeezed against cage bars. She was asleep next to her mama, also jet-black, and seemed not to register our presence, squeezed as she was in the back of her enclosure. The tag hanging outside read “Miss Brown,” a holdover from the people who’d surrendered her there without regard for her sooty fur and bright gold eyes.
Sweet, at first, she barely meowed on the ride home, nestled on my lap like a charred loaf of bread. We went back and forth on her name, but by the time we’d pulled into our driveway, we’d settled on Stormy, the adopted sister of the cartoon cat Pusheen. Names, sometimes, can be predictive; without knowing it, we’d stumbled on a descriptor of her tempestuousness, her spunk, and her majesty, all of which coexisted in a matted ball of dark hair that left mementos in our sheets and on our sweaters.
A year later, Mike and I had just married and I was packing a suitcase to move to Oakland, CA by myself. Before he proposed that fall on the concrete porch, both of us bundled against the year’s first chill, I’d already decided to head west. There would always be things keeping me so close to my hometown, I thought, but I’d hankered for adventure since graduating high school, when I accepted a spot at the university ten minutes away. Opportunities for escape had passed me by like stills in a film reel—studying abroad never worked because I’d committed to a paid editorship at the school’s paper and began an intermittent, ill-fated love affair. After graduation, I rented a $300/month room in a shared post-graduate bungalow, drinking $2 cans of PBR and reaping the benefits of the small garden my housemate would tend.
I’d never postpone my dreams for a man, but for my cats? The small beings that had kept me from deepest depression and mitigated the self-destructive boredom that peppered my early twenties?
“They’ll be fine,” Mike said, helping me squeeze shut my suitcase. “It’s only a few months.” As soon as he could wrap things up at work, he’d drive across the country in his Accord with all three of them in the back seat.
I boarded a plane the next day and cried when I found strands of black and grey clinging to my t-shirt, a reminder of who I was.
Catless and permanently temperate, my new Bay Area digs were not my familiar terrain. I woke up late each morning on a mattress on the floor, depressed and underemployed, and chastised myself for seeking such unprecedented adventure. One woman’s great escape is another woman’s purgatory. Mine was an old white-walled doctor’s office converted into a sunless apartment between Pill Hill and Auto Row, where brick medical centers and automobiles sprawled between me, Lake Merritt, and the hip restaurants in Temescal.
Lost without the familiar signposts of home, I would round the corner to Cat Town, the nation’s first cat café, and donate $5 to spend an hour with adoptable felines, all of whom slinked around between small replicas of the downtown skyline. It was a temporary reprieve from the assault I felt every time I stepped outside my door—throngs of panhandlers at the BART station, desperate for a meal, or the man on a bike cruising down the sidewalk at top speed, yelling ahead for me to “move, bitch” or be squashed. As broke as I was, there were always more people clinging to the city by their fingernails, pushed out and hungry.
Cat Town was an escape from the parade of catcalls that I seemed to court. I had never been more aware of my looks, which might be compared to one of the saucer-faced heroines in a Disney musical—pink cheeks, blonde hair brushed, and hanging past my shoulders, large, blue eyes that broadcast a change in my mood like stoplights, and a menagerie of twee, brightly-colored t-shirts featuring prints of dancing lobsters or kittens next to puns. The first bus ride into Berkeley, a man stared so hard that I finally looked up. He leaned forward so that I could smell the alcohol on his breath when he said, “I ride this bus every day. I’ll see you again, beautiful.” I disembarked a few stops early and got lost between the Whole Foods and the bookstore where I was interviewing for a part-time job.
Things escalated. Running by Lake Merritt, a man going the opposite direction veered close enough to brush up against me, his hand making contact with my upper leg. A crazy guy pushing a shopping cart, railing against the world, saw me walking up the block and went on in harrowing detail about what he’d like me to do to his penis. I paused a phone conversation with my mother to feebly holler, “Don’t talk to me!” He walked on the other side of the street yelling “fuck you” for ten more blocks, until I disappeared inside the BART station, rattled and defeated. I had never been more aware of being an outsider, transplanted from a quaint town with a pig in my backyard to a city where my presence was, surely, displacing someone else.
I took a self-defense class. I started carrying pepper spray. I wore my hair in a ponytail and practiced looking tough. I could feel my dog-like personality—the one that trusted people, expecting that we’d lick each other’s faces—bending to adulthood. Touch Stormy’s belly and she’d try to disembowel your arm; I was learning to be so fierce.
At the peak of my obsession—a low point or a high point, depending on how much cat fur and baby talk you tolerate—with my hair unwashed, my body stinking under layers of mismatched blankets, and a meager shaft of sunlight barred from my room with pushpin-rigged curtains—I spent days in bed streaming videos of Cole and Marmalade, Maru, and “Cat Daddy,” Jackson Galaxy’s entire oeuvre, from bootleg episodes of “My Cat From Hell” to “4 Ways to Tell Your Cat ‘I Love You!’” The best way to express that sentiment, I berated myself, would be never to have left at all. The only thing that could cure what I’d later come to know and treat as depression was the warm, reassuring presence of a small mammal making biscuits in my lap. Like the skittish Cat Town calicos, or the wary football-headed street cats I sometimes encountered, I began to freeze in the face of so many new stimuli. I reverted to a more animal nature, making my way in the darkness, learning to see when the lights were low.
While I consciously mustered courage, I subconsciously surrendered to being a cat lady. Missing my little family so terribly, I took to wearing a different cat shirt every day. It was an odd combination of defeat and maturity that made me reject the tight jeans I used to wear in favor of a high-waisted thrift store Mom cut paired with good walking shoes and a cozy sweatshirt.
I read John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense, where he describes the pagan, lady-helmed cults that worshipped Bastet, Diana, and Isis and focused on “motherhood, the family, and marriage.” He describes tough mother cats rearing their children alone, their survival (and hers) depending upon her ferocity. He describes social groups “composed of close relatives, say a female and her adult daughters,” where women do the most important work.
Amid the car lots and the husks of buildings, where I’d often see a smattering of ferals, I became more independent and capable. I let my cat-loving freak flag fly, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of my past self, who cared more about approval and sweetness, getting a biscuit for a job well done. I would fend for myself and my family, so far away, and make a life for us here by hook, crook, or claw.
In my weekly visits to Cat Town, where I became a volunteer, I learned more and more how to be a cat person. You never pick them up, especially like human babies. You let them come to you. You sometimes feign disinterest, or stick out a hand like you’re just airing it out, la-dee-dah, and if you’re lucky, some sweet creature will do a drive-by and rub their chin against your outstretched palm.
Finally employed full-time an hour and a half commute away, I rode BART and the bus to and from San Francisco five days a week, adding daily to my cache of horrible men being horrible. There were just as many affluent dicks as impoverished ones. They came in every shape, size, color, political affiliation. I watched them put their hands on other women’s thighs. I heard them brag about their conquests, or bemoan the “snobby” girls who’d rejected them on OKCupid.
I’d nearly perfected my iron-clad resting face when I felt a man leaning too close in the single seat behind me, his hot breath on the back of my neck, his knee touching my hip. I took the too-long moment to question what was happening—his hand slipping forward, gnarled fingers at the edge of my pocket. I watched an expired transfer slip float from my coat pocket to the floor and summoned a steady voice, yelling, “GET YOUR HAND OUT OF MY POCKET.” I made eye contact with anyone who would look at me. “THIS MAN IS PICKPOCKETING ME!”
The women across the aisle glared at him. The bus driver, also a woman, shouted, “You okay, sweetie?”
I nodded, said a confident, “Yep,” and commiserated with her when I exited at the Powell St. stop. We are all in this together.