In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I have never understood those personal ads that specify the seeker is looking for a person with “no baggage.” What does that mean, exactly? Who hasn’t accumulated regrets and scars — not to mention a storage unit’s worth of junk — by middle age? Show me someone with no baggage, and I’ll show you someone who forgot to pack.
“I’ve got a cat,” Christopher said on our first date. “I’ve had her since she was a tiny kitten, and now she’s seventeen.” He told me how Dede had been his companion through divorce, cross-country moves, a return to school, and subsequent career changes. In a life with a few too many twists and turns, the cat had been his one constant.
OK, I thought, this is pretty sweet.
The first time I slept over at Christopher’s house, I was awakened in the middle of the night by frantic yowling.
“It’s Dede,” he whispered as he slipped out of bed. “She’s so old she’s got senile dementia. She wakes up in the middle of the night and doesn’t know where she is.”
OK, I thought, this is going to be challenging.
I heard him pad downstairs and murmur comforting words, then the sound of a can of cat food being opened.
Who is this guy? I thought, leaning back against the pillows. He came back to bed. “Does she do this every night?” I asked.
“Well, not every night, but a lot. I think she’s scared. She doesn’t understand what’s happening to her.”
“Do you think she’s jealous because you have an overnight guest?”
“It’s not you. It’s just something she does. She’s elderly and losing it.”
He took my hand under the covers. I stared up at the ceiling. I wondered about when I got older and started to lose it. Would there be anyone to wake up in the middle of the night and comfort me?
Neither Christopher nor I had children. He was childless by choice, although he wasn’t opposed to dating a woman with children. I had contended with a crumbling marriage during my prime childbearing years, and in the aftermath I hadn’t been in any shape to care for a ficus tree, let alone a needy infant. Approaching fifty, I was still coming to terms with that history. I had wanted to marry a single father so that I could at least experience the joys of children around the house. I would be the world’s coolest stepmother, I thought; the kids would adore me. I did date several men with children. They were too recently separated or divorced — and, in one case, not exactly out of his marriage at all, to my surprise. Meanwhile friends who were actual stepmothers told me how difficult it can be. I began to reevaluate.
Christopher’s smile, when he looked at me, was whole-hearted and luminous. He told the truth, read good books, and composed music that made me cry. He’d painted some of the pictures that hung in his home. He lit up when I talked about my work. We understood each other from the start.
As the relationship progressed, Christopher and I began to talk about his moving into my house. Though I had several housemates to help with the mortgage, I hadn’t lived with a partner in fourteen years, and predictable fears surfaced. It was all very well to sleep over at his place one or two nights a week and be awakened at three in the morning by the inevitable yowling. He always got up and took care of Dede like a good parent, while I would roll over in bed like a stereotypical 1950s father. But if Christopher moved in with me, could I take that every night?
I was not used to considering cats in the equation of love. Then again, I was not used to anything about this new relationship. I wondered if the Dede question might be masking deeper issues.
Christopher’s artist’s loft was a carefully designed hive of creative activity. He’d built wooden shelves and cabinets to house his audio recording equipment, and he’d put his five (!) pianos on dollies so he could roll them around. There were even climbing structures for Dede to perch on and watch from as Christopher composed, read, or ate his dinner. I couldn’t imagine how he might take all of this apart to move in with me.
It was equally hard to imagine how I might make space for him in my own crowded life, which included acting in an improvisational troupe, attending play readings and conferences, and spending time with my many friends and extended family. Christopher jokingly referred to my house as “the shtetl” — Yiddish for a village, like the one in Fiddler on the Roof — because I favored a casual, open-door approach to living. There were weeds in the front yard, dog hair on the couch (one of my housemates had a dog), and dust bunnies under the bed, but friends felt free to stick their heads in my refrigerator and help themselves.
As we got to know each other better, I realized that the issue with this man wasn’t that we lived with different animals. It was that we were different animals. Christopher is a cat: he’s aesthetic, independent, and territorial. Me, I’m definitely a dog: enthusiastic, affectionate, and not completely housebroken. Once Christopher and I lived together, he might have opinions about my messiness and lack of boundaries. He would see the interior of my closet after I’d spent half an hour trying to decide what to wear to an event. He would confront my underthings hanging over the shower rod. He would witness the time I wasted playing Sudoku online when I was supposed to be writing. Once he saw what a flawed, vulnerable person I am, he might stop loving me. He might leave — or, worse, die.
That was the heart of my fear. My mother had died. My ex-husband had died. This is the difference between making a commitment at twenty-eight and making a commitment at fifty: at fifty you know that people die, and then you can’t see them again, ever, except in your dreams, where they show up improbably driving sports cars or wearing suits they never would have worn in life and give you incomprehensible advice that you can’t remember upon waking.
I did remember one piece of advice my ex-husband had given me in reality when we were breaking up: “Hold out for real love,” he’d told me. But how can you tell, based on a month or two of good sex and homemade dinners, whether your budding romance is the Real Thing? How do you tell the difference between someone who, let’s say, has had two divorces that he’s learned and grown from, and a man who’s an emotional-hit-and-run artist? How about the difference between someone who takes antidepressants and sees a therapist once a week, and a person who has the suicide hotline on speed-dial? The answer is you can’t know. Here I was, older and wiser and creakier in the joints, and I had to take a leap, just as I had when I’d first gotten married as a young woman. Love demands this: a balletic, impossible leap over the river of your worst fears. The only alternative is to stay on the riverbank by yourself. I could see the goodwill in Christopher’s eyes. He had been honest with me right from the start, no attempt to make himself seem more heroic than he was — and I found that raw honesty heroic. I leapt.
A few months after Christopher and I had decided to move in together, I was knee-deep in boxes, helping him dismantle the contents of his carefully constructed loft. I swaddled the china from his first marriage in towels. I bundled photographs, love letters, programs from performances given by old girlfriends, back issues of Fine Woodworker magazine, and sheet music. I even packed his parents’ ashes: two little vials, marked “Mom” and “Dad.”
He packed a small studio’s worth of musical equipment; his thousands of CDs; and Dede, boon companion of his monkish days, spiritual teacher.
One U-Haul truck, three grunting piano movers, and dozens of unpacked boxes later, we shared the same address. Now the real work began.
I knew there would be a loss of autonomy and privacy for both of us. Christopher had never lived with housemates. Accustomed to playing music as late and as loudly as he wished, he felt anxious at the thought of disturbing the three other people who shared our home. And could I give up my precious eight hours of sleep a night because of a senile cat who was the love of my boyfriend’s life? “I’m going to have her made into a pair of earmuffs,” he’d grumble on nights when she woke us two or three times. But those words were hollow.
Dede, too, had difficulty adjusting. Christopher had restricted her to one room — his music studio. Within a month she had stopped eating or walking. We tempted her with slivers of chicken and bowls of half-and-half. We offered her spoonfuls of melted vanilla ice cream, which she halfheartedly licked before turning away.
“I think this is it,” Christopher said when he called me from the veterinary clinic, where he’d brought Dede for tests. He sounded devastated. “She’s so dehydrated the vet can’t even get a needle into her veins. I’m bringing her home, but I think I’ll need to make an appointment to have her put down.” His voice broke on the last syllable.
“Don’t make any quick decisions,” I told him. “If she’s dying, maybe she’ll just go naturally in her sleep.”
“I don’t want her to suffer,” he insisted. “I promised myself I would never let her suffer.”
The next day was Thanksgiving. In spare moments between cooking the turkey and greeting our guests, Christopher stole away to be with Dede. She had lost weight and was visibly weaker, but she still responded to his presence with faint purring.
On Friday Christopher dug a grave in our backyard between the peach tree and a magnolia. I helped, but mostly I was there to hold him when he needed to drop the shovel and sob. His grief was pure and raw. Holding him, I felt what a terrible price love exacts from us. I also felt awe at his willingness to pay it. Unlike me, he had not let his fear of death keep him from giving his whole heart.
The next day a vet who made house calls came by in his van. His manner was reassuring and grandfatherly.
“How are you both doing?” he asked, seeing Christopher’s reddened eyes and our clasped hands.
Not so good, we answered, and then Christopher got up and brought Dede into the room. She was feeble but found the strength to protest when the vet palpated her belly. “She smells another cat on me,” he said cheerfully, his hands working up and down her spine. “Had her a long time, have you? This is harder on you than it is on the cat.” He turned to me. “You’ll have to help him through it.”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure how I would do that.
The vet finished his examination and said to Christopher, “She isn’t ready to go yet.”
“What?” Christopher said. “But she’s so thin, so weak.”
“She isn’t ready. I can’t find any obstructions, no tumors or anything. Have there been any major changes in her life lately?”
“She just moved into this new house.”
“Well, maybe that’s it. Cats are very sensitive to their environment.”
“And I’ve been keeping her confined to one room until she gets used to the new surroundings. She hasn’t been getting much exercise.”
“There you have it. Give her more space to roam around in.”
“And she hasn’t been sleeping in the bed with her human.”
“Well . . .”
Christopher and I stared at one another. Reprieve! The freshly dug hole for Dede’s burial would have to be filled in before someone stepped in it and broke an ankle.
After the vet had left, we went out and shopped for a baby gate so we could cordon off the stairs, giving Dede access to the entire top floor. Here we were, two people who would not be having a baby together, buying a baby gate. It was an important ritual.
And we invited Dede to sleep with us, though not without trepidation. After all, the bed was at the heart of our domestic arrangements. Would an eleven-pound feline with a motorboat purr that could be heard three counties away upset the delicate balance?
That night I spooned against the curve of Christopher’s backside, and Dede curled in his arms. He was the thin, delicious slice of meat sandwiched between two females who both wanted him. Dede began to snore like a broken muffler. Have I mentioned that she also has tuna breath and tracks kitty litter into bed?
“The gang’s all here,” Christopher said with deep joy, and I leaned over and kissed him. Deep within my own belly I felt an answering purr, a great, growling hum of unexpected contentment.