Originally, I wanted a black cat.
I was used to black cats. I was good with them. I’d been a dog person my whole life (and still love on basically every dog that walks past me with an owner that’s not in too big of a hurry to let me pet the pup), until I started dating my ex-boyfriend, who is a 6’7 cat whisperer.
His black cat, Sandra Dee, can only be described as a bitch. I love her, but that cat was a bitch. The first months of our dating, she took up the lap of that boy and made it known his bed was not a welcome spot for me to stay, like she was some crazy ex-girlfriend. But over the years we dated, she warmed to me, gradually sitting in my lap and following me into the bathroom. Gaining the love of the bitchiest cat I know converted me to the species.
When I broke up and moved out of the house occupied by Sandra Dee’s owner, I knew I needed my own cat. My first true pet. Sure, I’d had hamsters growing up, but pets that can’t snuggle are hardly worth counting. I wanted a black cat just like her that I could fall in love with—a gauzy, dark animal with a witchy connotation.
There was a black kitten at the shelter, but she didn’t feel right. Too young, innocent, too cute to be in desperate need of my home/love. There was a fat black cat with kidney trouble who required a special diet and vet visits. There was a black cat who had a best friend I’d need to adopt along with him.
And then there was Mrs. Claus, a ridiculous name for a perfect, 1-year-old, grey-striped tabby brought to the shelter the previous Christmas season. As soon as I got close to her, she grabbed my outstretched hand, pulled it in next to her little face and began to bathe me. This cat needed to take care of me as much as I did her.
Since that day I brought Nico, the actual name I gave “Mrs. Claus” in honor of the melancholic and mysterious 70s model/singer, I have fully transformed into a cat lady.
My apartment’s decorating scheme revolves around the cat’s ability to look out the windows. Her cat tree sits in what would be a more ideal place to put my TV. Her toys, plain cloth mice she loves to fling about and hide in my shoes, are scattered all over the carpet. I have spent probably $100 on toys she doesn’t even like. I bought a $20 laser pointer, which, thankfully, she loves. I buy her food from those fancy pet shops, $15 for a 1-pound bag. This cat has a plush, easy life.
My, dare I say it, maternal instincts have kicked in over this little girl. The vaguest threat of a threat sends an adrenaline lump to my heart, an armor over it preparing me to overpower any possible thing that may hurt my kitten. I am protective over her the way one protects a child unable to communicate for itself. Politeness is in no consideration when it comes to her. A stranger at a party picks her up, holds her on her back and rubs her tummy—a move I know she hates from strangers—and I am there in seconds pulling her from their arms with only a glare for explanation.
The first time I clipped Nico’s nails, she, like most cats, resisted with all her kitten strength. By the time I got to the pinky of her second paw, I saw her nail and released why. Cut far past the quick, someone had trimmed her nail down to a place where it has since ceased to grow; in human equivalent, think a pinky nail cut down to just above the moon. I am fiercely protective of my cat’s nails and her right to panic during trimmings, no matter how much she grows to trust me. The inability to prevent her from this harm in the first place pains me enough.
Nico could have escaped the first night we moved into our current home. A warm September day, I left my windows open to air out the place and went to my boyfriend’s house for a few hours. When I got home, I heard a meow from her loud and clear. Baffled by how close it seemed, I looked up to see Nico sitting comfortably on the stone ledge outside my window. My heart fell down past my stomach. I ran into the building, into my apartment, only after shouting words she definitely didn’t understand such as “NO. STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE, MISSY,” up at my cat. Relieved to find her still obediently on the ledge when I got there, I saw the broken window screen. She’d managed to squeeze her way out of the hole at the bottom, but couldn’t figure out how to squirm back in. I immediately tore the thing apart, coaxed her in, and didn’t let her out of my arms for a full 25 minutes. She looked nonplussed the entire time. I live on the second floor of my building; standing on my tip-toes, I could touch the ledge she sat on from outside. She could easily have jumped off that night and ran away, and every time I think of it, I still feel sick.
I know for many it seems silly to say my “maternal instincts” have kicked in for my cat. But she’s the first living thing I’ve been solely in charge of keeping alive. She’s the first thing that’s been mine. I have no idea what it will be like to be in charge of a human child, but from the protective, nurturing instincts brought to life from my cat, I can tell you one thing. They will be strong.
Despite all this, though, the term “cat lady” feels like an incomplete, and unnecessary jab. Cat ladies are stereotypically crazy. They live alone, jobless, using their welfare money to buy jagged tins of food and litter they parcel between their dozens of cats. They name cats after pretend husbands they will never have, like Mr. Peabody. They have messy hair, hiss and meow more than they communicate with humans, and smell utterly of cat piss at all times. They look like this.
I, on the other hand, have friends. One of whom, joking at my cat-obsessed status, will lean in close to me, sniff, and tell me, “You smell like kitty litter.” Still, I have friends. I have a boyfriend even, one I’m proud to have converted to becoming something of a cat lover himself (at least he loves Nico, who is, I truly believe, a queen among cats). I have a job that supports my habit of buying organic cat food and expensive cat toys that sit untouched on the floor. True, I have messy hair, and will often in the mornings spend a good five minutes meowing in unison with Nico, but cat lady? Lonely, spinster cat lady? Hardly.
Maybe “cat lady,” like so many other female-only pejoratives, is simply a reference to what I as a woman am at this moment—singularly possessed. Is “cat lady” really more harmful than being referred to as a “gamer-girl,” another term that compartmentalizes a person into one of their favorite things? Is it less healthy than “boy-crazy,” which seems to denote a woman singularly interested in finding normative love? And really, is it more offensive than “soccer-mom,” another insulting term reducing a woman to a mere accessory to the one she loves, in her case, her child for whom she will willingly buy an ugly mini-van and watch pick dandelions on a field for an hour? (I only know my own mother’s experience at kid-league soccer games, to be honest.)
Let’s face it: It’s tragically easy to find a phrase to reduce a woman down negatively based on the thing with which she loves. I’m not a soccer-mom yet. I don’t have a kid whose shoelaces I can tie, whose shin-guards I can lovingly tighten into place. Until then, and hopefully, still in the midst of all that love as well, I will continue to be unashamedly in awe of and love with the particular curiosities of a cat. I am willingly and unapologetically a cat lady, and won’t hear the mockery over my kitten’s purring.
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