by: Sarah Hollenbeck
“So, what do you say?” Aimee asked one January afternoon. We were sitting at my dining room table, eating chili.
My friend Aimee was in dire financial straits. So when she called to say she was on her way over with a proposition, I knew immediately what it would be.
“If I moved in,” she reasoned, “we’d each only be paying $375 a month.”
In Chicago, rent that low—for a nice place, in a nice neighborhood—is unheard of. But with Aimee, came her cats.
I have very few fiercely strong opinions, but here’s one to which I cling: I hate cats.
Cats are pointless. They offer neither protection nor affection. On the off-chance that a cat isn’t callously aloof, it coats your lap in a layer of hair that even an industrial strength lint roller can’t remove and ravages your forearms with scratches that compel well-meaning strangers to shoot you concerned, you-have-so-much-live-for glances. Cats are dangerous. Mere months after adopting two kittens, a friend of mine ended up with cuts on both of her retinas from “cuddling.”
Hesitating, I gulped another spoonful of chili; when I looked up, though, I met Aimee’s eyes, which had been on the verge of tears too often lately. I was her friend and I could help.
“Of course, Roomie,” I grinned.
A month later, Aimee moved in with Bowser and Tink. How does one describe cats? They were black and white and cartoonish-ly fat. If a cat committed a crime and I was the only witness, it would be nearly impossible for me to identify the perpetrator in a fe-line-up. Also—this just in—cats prompt people to make unforgivable puns.
With Aimee’s arrival, I came face-to-face with legitimate reasons to hate cats. The smell was the most overwhelming. The cats themselves reeked (a tongue bath is not the equivalent to shampoo and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling tongues), but more offensive was the combination of their waste and the floral-scented products intended to eliminate the odor of their waste. ‘Lavender Breeze’ was neither lavender nor breezy. The fact of the matter is: cats shit in your house. When someone who is not a cat-lover comes into your house and says, “Oh, you have cats,” what they are really saying is, “Oh, you have a box of shit in your house.”
And you do.
One day after Aimee moved in, I was in bed with the guy I was seeing when he suddenly pulled away from me and yelled, “Get outta here!”
Bewildered, I watched as he leapt up, kicked a yowling, hairy blur out of my room, and slammed the door.
“He was watching us,” my guy said, scowling.
Later, when I told Aimee what had had happened, her giggle sounded pinched.
“Poor Bowser,” she said, stroking him.
I stopped laughing. The cat had been doing absolutely nothing wrong. Why was my guy upset? And more important, why was I laughing at an animal being kicked?
One Friday night, I was home alone enjoying a bottle of wine, writing letters, and watching Netflix. I worked in retail and after days of relentless human contact, I needed solitude. I was on my second glass of wine when I heard Bowser and Tink scratching at Aimee’s bedroom door. I tried to ignore them, but the purring grew louder and the scratching more ferocious. There was a sudden loud thump and I realized one of them had hurled itself at the closed door.
The minute I let them out, they began twining their bodies in and around my legs. When I sat down, one clawed at my sweater and the other nibbled my toes. I stood up, but as I walked down the hall, one of them kept darting in front of me, so that I hit it with ever step. Just minutes earlier, my plan for the night had seemed safely Bohemian. But with the intrusion of the cats, my wine glass, my letter, and even my movie selection became irretrievably sad. I was no longer a carefree single city girl; I was a lonely Cat Lady. I took another step. My foot—again—slammed straight into the cat’s fat belly. This time, I hissed: “Get the fuck away from me!”
The cat ladies in my real life are cool. They are bloggers and comic book artists and photographers and vegans and bikers with sleeve tattoos. And Aimee. Out-going and gorgeous, Aimee breaks another heart every time we go barhopping. She is living proof—living-under-the-same-roof-as-me proof—that single ladies who own cats are not, in and of themselves, Crazy Cat Ladies. Yet still, the ‘Cat Lady’ in my head remains the delusional hoarder and recluse who un-ironically watches Lifetime, while listening to Delilah, while reading a Harlequin romance, while getting tipsy on wine coolers, while crocheting tea cozies, while collecting Precious Moments figurines.
“Cat Ladies,” a friend of mine once said, “are the bogeymen of single women everywhere.” When an acquaintance told me, “I always pegged you a cat person,” I bristled, hearing instead: “I heard you’re dying alone.” As a twenty-five-year-old who had never had a serious boyfriend, in hating cats I banished the bogeyman.
At the bookstore where I worked, customers sometimes tilted their heads and asked loudly, “Is there anyone else who can help me, Sweetie?”
I was born with a rare birth defect, the symptoms of which include partial facial paralysis. Because of my condition’s effect upon my speech as well as my lack of facial animation, people frequently assume I am “special.” With encouraging grins, strangers speak to me with wide, even spaces between chirped words. I’ve had ticket vendors involuntarily give me the Disability Discount and people on the street use me to practice their bush-league American Sign Language skills. Without any knowledge about me, they make assumptions about my life and about my quality of life. I have about as much control over these assumptions as I do over the muscles in my face. So, with the parts of me that I can control—the clothes I wear, the music I listen to, the books I read, the animals I choose to hate—I craft a self who is aggressively reactionary to the self perceived.
Of course it’s ironic that I judge Cat Ladies with the same lack of insight that strangers use to judge me, but there is something illicitly empowering about dismissing other human beings in the way that I am routinely and summarily dismissed. It’s my stab at a quid pro quo, even though I know that I am stabbing the wrong people.
Nearly six months after they arrived, Aimee and her cats moved out to the suburbs to be closer to her job and boyfriend. It just made sense.
Bowser and Tink hated living here almost as much as I hated having them. By the end of their stay, each of them had gained even more weight and gone on strike against their litter box.
Before she left, Aimee scrubbed the walls and floors and hazed her room with an entire bottle of Febreze. The house was cat-free. Yet, strangely, as I stood in the middle of Aimee’s empty room the day after she left, the house felt lonelier than a pair of cats ever did.
Sarah Hollenbeck, an MFA student at Northwestern, has studied nonfiction writing at Hampshire College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She previously worked for Chicago magazine and is now an editor forTriQuarterly Online. Her creative nonfiction work has been published in the CAF Review and TriQuarterly. She is currently working on an essay collection exploring physical disability and the division of self. A week ago, Sarah was told about a man who cannot remember a time in his life when he did not have the song “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates stuck in his head. This is the most frightening thing Sarah has ever heard.