essay #10

Max the Cat-2
I have never been a cat person. I’ve never had a cat. I had a dog once, and for a while I managed to keep a hamster alive. But I’ve never had even a single cat-tending experience, so when called upon to capture and care for my neighborhood stray, I was hesitant.
              I first met him after my roommate Kara and I moved into the bottom-floor unit of a four-plex that bordered a trailer park and a street that doubled as a freeway entrance. He was a handsome cat of stocky build, a sturdy 20 pounds, white-whiskered with pale blue eyes, and the tip of his right ear was missing, marking him a warrior of the streets. He was also “intact” as they call it – a fact that was obvious as he strutted by us with his tail held high and slightly crooked in greeting, showing off two enormous furry cat balls.
              While it was still warm out, we would leave the front door open, and he would let himself in and rub his head vigorously against our legs, purring so loudly and deeply it was almost a growl. I soon met his owners, the family who lived in the unit above my own. The father looked to be in his early-thirties, wiry-thin and pale with black hair, and his wife looked the same, except with washed-out blond hair. They had an adorable one-year-old son. I once caught Jake – the father – sitting on the stairs outside, petting his cat.
              “Your cat is so friendly, he hangs by our door all the time,” I told him.
              “Oh yeah? That’s good. He’s pretty choosy about the folks he likes.”
               “What’s his name?” I asked, letting myself into my apartment.
               “It’s M…” was all I heard before Jake went up the stairs and I closed my door.
               When I retold this encounter to Kara, she asked me if I ever figured out the cat’s full name.
               “I’m not sure, maybe it was Max or something.”
                And that’s how he became Max the cat.
                I didn’t much interact with Jake again, but for those first two months, my roommate and I heard multiple episodes of yelling and cussing coming from upstairs. Max would hide under the steps next to our front door. I would sit and keep him company but it seemed like he was always there, waiting for his owners to let him in or pay him some attention. And as the weather turned colder, the father didn’t seem to be around anymore, and Max was constantly outside. When it started consistently raining, as it does in Seattle, I would try to coax him into my house, but he would stay stubbornly under the stairs. The girls who lived next door told me they’d heard that Jake had gone to rehab.
               “For what?” I asked.
               “Meth,” one girl whispered.
               “No, it was Oxy,” said the other.
                I never found out definitely what Jake had to be rehabilitated from, but the girls agreed that the mom had moved out with her son to live elsewhere with her family. The unit was empty.
                I didn’t see Max during the months of December and January, the coldest time of the year in Seattle. I had started leaving dry cat food and a bowl of water outside by the stairs but it was rarely touched, and when it was, after close scrutiny, I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t just a raccoon or other animal eating it. Finally around mid-February, I caught a glimpse of a black cat slinking around the shrubbery by the stairs. I put out cat food again, but this time I used the canned kind, hoping the strong stink of tinned tuna would attract it. That night I glimpsed a cat coming out from under the shadows to sniff at the bowl. I was returning from work and as soon as it heard me, it ran under the stairs and disappeared. No matter how I looked around the complex, cat food in one hand, flashlight in the other, I couldn’t find the cat. I left the food outside and gave up. The next morning, the bowl was licked clean.
                Kara and I started leaving cat food out once a day and it was almost always completely finished by sunup. We began to see the cat more frequently, but it was still too skittish for us to confirm that it was, in fact, Max the cat. Finally, one day when I opened the front door, instead of darting away, the cat froze, gave me a good hard stare, and continued eating. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was Max but he looked so different: so much smaller, his skin and fur dangling from mere bones and muscles. And his bright blue eyes had turned black, pupils dilated from starvation. His fur was much darker than before, too, dirty and matted from sleeping outside. He had a deep cut above his right foreleg, which extended to his chest, and although it was scarring over, it was definitely a fresh wound.
                For months, we fed and coaxed him every day but were still unable to get him to come inside the house. Our year-long lease was ending. Kara was moving out to live with her boyfriend and his dog, and I was moving into a townhouse with two other friends. We were all worried about Max. He was becoming less skittish and friendlier but we had found traces of blood on our front steps, possibly left by a cat that had tried to help itself to Max’s food. We couldn’t keep leaving cat food outside if it was attracting other animals, nor could we ask the next tenants to continue feeding him, and since Kara couldn’t take him, I was left with either trying to catch him with the hope of changing a wild, tough, outdoor, cousin-to-lions tomcat into a domestic, indoor Garfield, or leave him to continue fending for himself for who-knows how much longer. I chose the former.
                 First, I recruited the help of two other people. We tried to lure Max into a kitty kennel with food, treats, catnip, toys, and a laser pointer. When Max found that he couldn’t get to the food in any way besides bodily entering the cage, he laid down a foot away from it and gave us a look that clearly said, “Fuck you.” One of my friends was able to pick him up but as soon as they approached the kennel, Max kicked his hind legs into my friend’s side, squirmed out of his hold and once again walked just out of reach from us. He began cleaning himself. We went home after that. I knew I had lost that night.
                 A week later, I waited for two hours on the steps of my empty apartment with cat food and a book, but he must have been too busy that day.
                 The third time I tried to catch him, I was so determined that I even scheduled an appointment at the veterinarian’s office for the next morning. That afternoon, when Max showed up, I didn’t wait around. I had my boyfriend with me, and he propped the kennel up vertically, door held open, and I distracted Max with some foul-smelling food, and when he started eating it, I quickly picked him up and plopped him tail-first into the kennel and locked the door before he could react. The car ride home was filled with yowls of complaint. But Max was finally mine.
                 Now, I wonder if I did the right thing. Successfully catching a ten-year-old cat was certainly nothing I’d ever planned for in my life. Have I rescued or captured him? Does he hate me for taking him away from his life of outdoor adventure or does he appreciate the effort my friends and I have exerted in order to find him a good home? Max now stalks around our house, demands loudly to be fed, and has marked my bed as his own. Perhaps he has caught me and not I him.
                 One thing is for sure: dogs are so much more grateful.
– Kat Chen
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