I know it’s strong language, but I hate cats. I have since the first time a mottled Persian scratched my arm, delivering thick, red welts causing me to itch feverishly for an hour.
I hate the way they look at you from across a room, sizing you up and making a judgement about you. Mostly, I hate the fact that they have a physical effect on me. The watery, itchy eyes, the sneezing and poisoned red welts their teeth and claws leave on my skin.
It has not been all bad relationships. We had a Manx named Bear who lived outside on our property in Salem, Oregon. He was such a fascinating, ghostly cat to watch. He hunted both night and day, his black form like some jungle-embedded character in “The Things They Carried.”
We had another cat named Kiska, and no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to completely escape her antics.
But mostly I just hated cats. I never touched them. If I went to visit a friend who had cats, I’d take allergy medication first and avoid their couches and cloth chairs. I’d usually sit awkwardly at the kitchen table, which is some form of cat communication for, “please come sit on my lap, because I’m obviously lonely.” Or, more likely, “Ah, you cat-hating bastard. I’ll just curl up on your lap until you’re so uncomfortable you have to leave.”
The day my daughter discovered she was allergic to dogs was a tragic day. We were in the process of buying a car, and the salesman had two dogs in his office. Gabrielle was immediately drawn to the calmer, friendlier Labrador, and as she touched him, she instantly broke out in hives.
Cheryl rushed her off to a grocery store to buy some Benadryl, while I negotiated with the confused salesman.
She was despondent. “You mean I can’t touch puppies anymore?” she whined all the way back to Anchorage.
For several months now, I have told her we’d do an allergy test and find out what kind of pets she might be able to handle. She has made no secret of the fact that she’d like a guinea pig, one of the most allergy-causing pets known to man.
Cats have always been out of the question. As dad, I just won’t suffer the creatures in my house. Gabrielle sometimes talks about getting a cat when she’s grown up, but she’s been mostly content to talk about turtles or guinea pigs in the future.
Then a couple of weeks ago, this big, English Blue showed up outside our house. He’s a stunning cat. Wide faced with a muscular body and a bluish-grey coat with yellow-green eyes and an overly friendly disposition.
We laughed as Gabrielle had the time of her life playing with her new friend. For the first week, she refused to touch the cat, even when he rolled in the grass and presented her with his great belly to rub in the sunshine.
She was terribly afraid that she’d be allergic to her new friend. Then, she touched the cat and she touched her face and her eyes without realizing it, but nothing happened.
There were no welts or itchy, watery eyes. There was no sneezing. Soon she was holding Oliver, as she calls him.
And they have spent every day playing in the backyard as spring makes the slow transition to summer here in Anchorage.
Entering week two, Cheryl and I wondered when the cat would return to its home. After a few more days, we decided to buy a small bag of cat food and a water dish, because it’s the neighborly thing to do, right?
When I get up for work in the morning, the big blue is there at the back door waiting for me. And when I get home, Gabrielle is smiling at me in the driveway, and Oliver is stretching in the sun or hiding from the wind at the base of the stairs.
We discussed turning the cat into the animal shelter on the off chance that someone had lost the cat, but this big guy has been fed well, and his disposition leads me to believe he had a decent family caring for him.
More than likely he was abandoned in our neighborhood.
My ice-cold resolve against having a cat has thawed like this year’s breakup. Which is very strange for me. I want to simply not feel anything for this cat, to disregard it and let it go on its way. But watching him play with the kids or hunt birds in the backyard has been completely entertaining to me.
Today, for the first time in many years, I touched a cat. I reached down and took his big face in my hands. I wanted to verify the color of his eyes. He closed them with some unexplained pleasure at human touch, and I was forced to knuckle him around the ears for a while before he opened them again.
I walked inside and washed my hands immediately and felt a bit guilty about the whole exchange.
My disdain for cats has largely to do with my suspicions that they think themselves superior to us. The argument that dogs are, by nature, loyal and lovable and completely understanding of their position in the grand pecking order, has held a lot of weight for me since I experienced life with our dog Skipper growing up.
I hate how cats have infiltrated every aspect of society, and I despise the memes that are unavoidable now.
Why on earth would I want to pretend to own a cat, when I’m simply providing food, water and shelter to something that if it were bigger, would dearly love to eat me?
But then how do I reconcile the fact that my hero, the man for whom this blog is named, the great Ernest Hemingway was, if I may, worse than any alleged ‘cat woman’ television comedies could conjure.
The man had as many as 57 cats living with him in Finca Vigia. To this day, the polydactyl cats of his Key West home have federal protection. Boise, Princessa and Friendless are all immortalized in “Islands in the Stream.”
How could so intelligent a man, so brawny and masculine in word and action, be so fascinated by cats? A man like Hemingway, it would seem, might find himself more at home as lord over many dogs.
After two weeks of watching Oliver worm his cold little heart, if indeed he has one, into our family, I think I understand Hemingway more.
You don’t watch dogs. You rarely talk to dogs, unless you’re barking orders at them. Theirs is a one-sided companionship. Complete and faithful, dogs will not hold your gaze or engage you in an intellectual, if one-sided, conversation.
If watching cats is a measure of intelligence, then Hemingway was smarter than most men that I know. He purchased high-end cats from catteries, he collected rare and desired specimens, and according to family members, he viewed cats as he did the rest of nature, a thing to be studied, to know in life and in death, to hunt and to be hunted.
Surely it was the basic intelligence of cats that drew the great author’s attention, for 57 cats can no more provide companionship than could 57 wives, each vying for one person’s attention. But in despair and loneliness, as he often was, it may have been the cats that saved Ernest from an earlier version of his eventual fate.
Perhaps it’s Alaska or my perception growing brighter or dimmer with age, but I don’t despise Oliver. He’s in the shop laying on a mattress and staring out the window even now. In the morning, he’ll crawl up next to the barbecue with a view into the kitchen window where I’ll be making tea. He’ll whine for an hour until the kids get up and pay him attention.
But therein lie the limits of his predictability.
The rest is just strangely fluid movements you could never hope to guess. Soon I’ll probably be talking to the big blue. If I could ever get that lonely.
It’s amazing how life changes you little by little. I’m enamored of many things in life. Cats were never one of them.
Perhaps even that bastion of my former pantheon of hatreds will crumble.