House Cats

Fiction
Ann Zhang


Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

My second cat Janie has some rudimentary understanding of physics. Ever since she got spayed she’s been moving like a lizard, her neck a downward slope from her elfin shoulders to her head, which looks larger than usual wrapped in the vet’s semi-translucent cone. She’s tried rubbing the front of her body against wooden objects, moonwalking until her hind legs hit the kitchen wall, and if no one had invented Velcro, her tricks would be working.

I was too young to remember the weeks after my parents took my first cat to the vet. Meow-Meow was a grey tabby who liked to catch flies in his mouth, sometimes a wasp of below-average mobility. In his middle age, he impregnated the cat two doors down the street, whose owners demanded one hundred dollars and Meow-Meow’s punctual castration, or at least that’s what my brother told me. Before he told me that, my brother counted the stitches on Meow-Meow’s stomach aloud, explaining in psychedelic detail how the vet carved the balls out of our cat. He said to imagine my own balls as walnut seeds.

Sometimes I can’t help but think about Janie in terms of Meow-Meow: her eyes far bluer, her existence a touch less ordinary. She has a downy white coat that makes her the feline equivalent of a very pretty girl. Just then Janie begins grinding her cone-ridden head against the maple leg of an armchair where Meow-Meow used to sit, licking his stomach while my brother tapped out one-handed rock covers on the electric keyboard.

The one thing my brother was really good at was speed stacking, that game where you build pyramids out of cups and then take them apart in the smallest possible number of motions. He set a world record in the 3-3-3 stack, actually. There’s a video online with thousands of views and adults in the comments raving that he’s the fastest eleven-year-old they’ve ever seen, and that he should consider learning classical guitar.

On the edge of the table across from Meow-Meow’s favorite armchair, my brother kept a bright blue place mat and a special timer that he would smack with both hands whenever he finished his routine. Plastic cups splayed across every flat surface of the house like party aftermath, memorialized: a red set, a purple set, a glow-in-the-dark set the color of honeydew. By now my parents have donated boxes of my brother’s stuff to our younger cousins who wanted to catch up with him, never came close. Although a kid from Korea soon stuck a new world record.

Around the time we thought about adopting Janie, my parents and I were the only ones left in the house. My brother had wrapped up his high school legacy of state-school grades, skipping homework to drive into the night with such urgency that I suspected he played a pivotal role in some secret mission to save the world. Turns out he was visiting girls’ houses as soon as their parents left town, and now he was somehow off to West Point. At the animal shelter, my mom kept asking me which cat I wanted. I cried on the cool, paw-printed floor because I couldn’t bring myself to choose.

Four years later, we came back, and my dad helped me calculate the shelter’s nicest cat. Janie liked to brush her face against my hand, which my dad deemed a signal that she wanted to befriend me. She’s been trying harder than ever to befriend me these past few days, probably since she can’t quite scratch her own face with the cone. I have to itch her myself, especially the bald patches in front of her ears, the solid bridge of her nose. Afterwards, I run to the sink to wash my fingers of the wet crust that tends to accumulate around the inside corners of her eyes.

My brother sends home bi-monthly updates about his life at West Point. Last I heard, he was in the middle of survival swimming, a unit that consisted of leaping with all your clothes and equipment into a simulative pool of massive waves. For the final test, his superiors hoisted the crests even higher, added lights and fog for limited visibility, recordings of machine guns and people screaming. When my brother couldn’t unclip his vest, he had to drop his rifle and use both hands. He would be required to retake the course in the spring.

I remember that right before Meow-Meow died, the poor cat started crapping in different rooms around the house. Back then I was spending a lot of my free time tracking tropical storms, probabilities blazoned in yellow, orange, red. A hurricane swept into Texas from the Gulf of Mexico on the same day that we found Meow-Meow motionless, curled into a ball inside the walk-in shower that my brother and I used to share.

The main reason my mom eventually drove us back to the animal shelter was not that she had in any way pardoned my lack of resolve, but because Meow-Meow’s body was decomposing beneath the peach tree in our backyard. On the ride there, my mom kept asking if my brother ever texted me. He didn’t, and I couldn’t figure out how to lie to her. While my dad led me through the aisles of cats in cages, on suspended platforms, crouched around metal bowls, I spotted my mom holding her hand out to a litter of grey tabbies. Bird-sized things that wouldn’t stop shrieking as we left the room.

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Ann Zhang is a student at Yale University. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Twitter: @annleezhang Email: annleezhang[at]yahoo.com