In retrospect, we were goners as soon as the cat came out of his carrier, and everyone else knew. Our foster, we said. He’s staying a little while.
The idea of fostering came after years of aimless talk about the someday when we’d have a cat of our own. I grew up with two; Griffin, as a toddler, had one. In our earliest memories there were tricky little shadows slinking through, and small, warm places, and the sound of a purr in sunlight. My ideal future has always included a cat somewhere, but that somewhere was never a fixed location any more than the somewhere I’d finish a novel, have a backyard, look at my bank account with only bland curiosity. Instead I cat-sat for professors and friends whose cats, once they met him, invariably preferred Griffin. Which always made me feel like I’d chosen my person well.
And then, well, pandemic. Subject about which there is currently so much and also nothing to say. There was no more somewhere or someday, just the same apartment day in and out and the sound of sirens echoing through Brooklyn. And time got slippery before ceasing to signify at all. My life and career, the many things I wanted but couldn’t admit to, the tread I was wearing in the world I passed through – all of it was, is, on hold indefinitely. Someday we’d have a cat. But our friends were fostering now, and the photos we got of her – sweet toothless girl – were about all that got me through some of the however-long it’s been so far.
Someday we’d get a cat, and in the meantime why not. I found a foster application and had Griffin double-check my answers. Someday we’d get a cat, and a week later I did a FaceTime walkthrough of the apartment to show that all our windows had screens, that we weren’t keeping any dangerous plants, that we could set up a place for our temporary house guest. Someday we’d get a cat, and the next night I got a text from the foster coordinator. They had a cat for us, she said. He had a family but they moved and gave him up when they went, so he’s sad and scared right now. His name is Leonardo.
Oh, poor baby, I said. Of course we’ll take him.
How about tomorrow for a drop-off? she said.
And I, fully aware that I’d need to have cat food delivered first thing the next morning, fully aware that I’d be masking up and running to the dollar store ASAP for a litter box, food bowls, toys, anything, everything until nicer stuff could ship, fully aware that this was faster than we’d expected, said: Yes. Yes, that would be great.
The next day, I went outside to meet the nice woman whose face I’d only seen in full on FaceTime. She put a carrier on the ground between us and stepped back so we’d still be six feet apart. It felt very much like an illicit handoff, in no small part because there was no one else around. Everything during lockdown feels illicit, or at least feels that way to me. The sirens died down after April, but they’re hard to forget. And here we were, doing something besides thinking about the pandemic.
Back inside, I called for Griffin and went to unlatch the carrier. Hi, Leonardo, we said. And a little gray blur rocketed out and under the TV stand. Sad and scared – I felt pretty sad and scared all the time, too. So I sat on the couch and waited for this small creature to figure out that he was okay. Not much else I can do in 2020, but I could do that.
Over the course of the evening, the blur made his way to the bedroom, where he hid under the exact center of the bed for hours. For a while, I was worried he’d somehow blinked out of the universe and teleported himself elsewhere, the way cats always seem to when you’re looking for them. Three hours and we’d already lost him. The rescue was probably lighting our application on fire.
But after a while I laid down on the floor next to the bed, rattlesnake-style on my stomach the way I’d liked when I was little, and found the reflection of his eyes. He meowed. I held a treat out for him in the palm of my hand, and eventually he ventured out far enough to eat it. Far enough for me to see his little face for the first time.
The next morning I found Griffin sitting with him, very carefully petting him, and saying, How could anyone abandon you?
You know, the way you do with your foster cat.
Like I said: goners.
We held out almost a full week before I wrote to ask if we could adopt him. Seemed appropriate not to rush, not that time was real anymore. All we knew was that there was a tricky little shadow slinking through the apartment now and we could not bear to let him go.
Here is how I mark the days now: by dry-food breakfast at 6:45 and wet food dinner at 6. By whenever in the night it is that Leo gets lonely and decides to yell for us. By cans of food in the pantry, litter box cleanings, teeth marks in the couch even though your toys are right there, Leonardo.
By the smallest return to a routine, I guess, even if that routine is just determined by a little cat who wants his supper. By knowing that someone is depending on me. My life is on hold; my life is right here.
Back when Leo first came out from under the bed, I confess that I wondered how long I’d get to spend my weekdays with him before the office called me back. How would I make sure he wasn’t lonely? How would I feed him if I stopped for a movie on the way home? Who would cat-sit when we traveled?
That was three months ago, and not a single one of those questions has become relevant yet. After the hellish rush of March and April, after the morgue trucks came and left again, after cases began declining, New York settled down into purgatory. Thus we have remained. It’s possible, now, to get takeout or delivery, to buy cocktails in to-go cups and drink them at carefully-distanced tables outside. It’s possible to sit in the park with someone whose face you had only seen in pixels for so long. It’s possible to watch the sunset from the roof without hearing a single siren. But at the end of all of these things, I go home to the place I always am, to the spot on the couch where I work and eat dinner and watch movies and write long letters to everyone I am missing. The only place, anymore.
Someday I will finish my novel. Someday I will have a backyard. Someday I will hug my mother and won’t let go until I have made up all these long months. Someday I will have coffee with my father in person, not over Zoom. Someday I will need a cat-sitter. Someday.
Here are some things Leo likes: Being up high. Playing atonal music on Griffin’s keyboards. Biting our feet through blankets. Eating (anything, everything, all the time). Chasing his little orange caterpillar. Being with us.
Here are some things Leo doesn’t like: Being on the other side of a closed door. Waiting between meals. Being without us.
Here is something I don’t like: Being without my boys, one of them sweet-voiced and gentle as he makes up another song for the other; the other, a little gray blur.
Now that Griffin works from the office again a few days a week, I have hours alone with the cat. I talk to him – a lot, in fact. I knew this about myself, I think, but it’s still disconcerting to realize. I talk to the cat.
I took a video recently of him that starts with me talking and ends with him responding, if mrehhhhh can be described as a response. It was the first time I’d heard my own voice in a while. And truly, to hear yourself addressing an animal is to gaze deeply into your own soul, which I both do and do not recommend, depending on the status of your soul.
This is one way I’ve confirmed that, in lockdown, my accent has come back. Not that I’ve ever tried much to hide where I’m from; just, I wanted to be taken seriously by people with newscaster vowels, so I matched them. So I talk like a newscaster, too, but faster – maybe a newscaster being chased by a bear.
But lately, without anyone to match, I say things the old way. There with a syllable and a half. Get with an i. Hi, baby the way my grandmother would, all warm vowels and extra space. I haven’t been home in so long that home came to me. And that feels right, I suppose. I spend my voice on creatures I love, so why wouldn’t I speak to them in the truest voice I’ve got?
Someday I’ll know what to say about this time, this long gray stretch of days, but in the meantime I am coming to realize that someday isn’t useful to me now. All it means is that I will continue, and I already knew that.
This is a love letter, I suppose. Is that absurd? I am writing from my place on the couch – the only place – while the cat licks his tail to a shine. We’ve been here a while, and we’ll be here a while yet. When Griffin gets home, we’ll all figure out what to do with ourselves within the confines of current public health guidelines. If it ends up with us just sitting together while Leonardo, no longer sad and scared, runs from one end of the apartment to the other, then that’s fine by me. If the days still blur together, at least the blur they make is good.
Hi baby, I say to him.
He doesn’t say much back. But that’s okay with me.