In September of 2006 I bought a condo in South Boston. This was before the housing market collapsed, when banks handed out mortgages to anyone with nine digits in their social security number. Back then “pre-qualified” meant you had a job, or at least imagined yourself someday having one. I had no money to put down, and my credit score was in the low 300s. I couldn’t even afford the closing costs; in fact, if memory serves, I received around $1500 in buyer credits when the deed was transferred. So, in effect, I was paid to own property in Southie.
Soon after I moved in The Departed was released and, seemingly overnight, South Boston was en vogue. Every viable square inch was harvested into condominiums. Old buildings were torn down and new ones sprouted from their ashes. “Luxury Housing”, their signs boasted, but from the outside they looked flimsy and homogenized, as though they were built from kits, the kind you might find advertised in the back of Parade Magazine. With their perfect angles and level floors, these modern structures seemed cold and lacked the charm of my sagging triple-decker.
My house had been around since the Great Depression, which might explain why I felt sad whenever I looked at it. The exterior was rotted and painted a yellow-brown disease color, jaundice perhaps, or maybe cirrhosis. Still, there was pride in owning something original. It entitled me to complain about the new construction. “It ain’t like it used to be around here,” I said to my neighbor, Johnny, a Southie local who spent his golden years chain-smoking on his front steps. Whenever I came home from work we’d commiserate. “The yuppies are coming in droves, Johnny,” I’d say, a rolled-up yoga mat hidden behind my back.
Johnny swore that no amount of money would drive him out. “Biz my buckin home,” he’d say, a cigarette in one hand and his upper teeth dripping from the other. While his friends and relatives cashed out and fled to the south shore, Johnny stood in defiance until he could stand no more. The official cause of death was prostate cancer, but I knew it was a lack of purpose that did him in. With the influx of security cameras and the decline in street crime, there wasn’t much need for old men who sat on their stoops all day, cursing at the world.
The locals weren’t the only ones displaced. The reconstruction also spurred an exodus of mice. Many sought refuge in my house, an obvious choice considering the rotted clapboard siding. At first I only heard them, whispering and plotting behind the drywall. I learned just how pervasive they were by the volume of their excrement. Every morning I found more droppings, like trails of caraway seeds, leading to the corners of my floor, my bookshelves, even my kitchen countertop. I sympathized with their basic need for food and shelter, but taking a dump on my soap dish seemed a bit unnecessary, not to mention disrespectful.
I hired an exterminator, the cheapest one I could find. I had expected someone resembling a Ghostbuster, a man or woman wearing goggles and a gray jump suit. Instead I got the discount version, a scruffy dude in his forties who reeked like an ashtray and introduced himself as “Steve”. The closest thing he had to a uniform was a knitted cap with a Patriots logo on the front. He had no weapon, no backpack, no rodent-detecting gadgetry, just a garbage bag filled with mousetraps, slung over his shoulder.
To me, setting traps means meticulously arranging a slipknot under a bed of leaves, or fastening a razor-thin tripwire across two trees. To Steve it meant tossing a cardboard box filled with poison behind my fridge. “The secret is keeping the place as clean as possible,” he said, handing me his invoice. I thanked him for his expertise and showed him the door.
The traps had little effect, if any. Apparently mice are like humans, in that both species tend to avoid coffin-sized boxes. Every morning I swept up more droppings, and every night I lay in bed, tormented by a chorus of squeaks and the marching of tiny feet. “Please God make it stop,” I’d whisper, covering my ears as I slipped further into delirium. I stuffed the cracks in the walls with S.O.S. pads, only to find them the following day shredded into flecks of steel or pushed neatly to the side. I even considered a laser device I saw advertised on TV. It plugged into a wall outlet, like a carbon monoxide detector, and emitted radio waves that triggered in the mice a suicidal impulse, like The Manchurian Candidate, prompting them to leap out the window to their death.
Nothing worked. I was outmatched. There were millions of mice in this city; trap five of them and the next day twenty more gnaw through the plaster.
Hopeless, I turned to the one person I could rely on in times of despair: my drug dealer. “You’re wasting your time with all that nonsense,” he said. “Only one thing can stop a mouse, and that’s a cat.”
It was so obvious I hadn’t even considered it. Still, I resisted. “Yeah, but then I’ll have a cat. A dog is one thing, but a single guy with a cat seems a little weird,” I said, forgetting that my only friend was a fifty-year old drug dealer who lived with his mom, and that I spent every Saturday night in his living room, taking painkillers and eating Elio’s Pizza.
“Nah. Cats are the best,” he said. “Don’t listen to anyone. They’re like miniature lions that patrol your house at night.”
“Really?” I said, scratching the skin off my legs while my heart rate ticked up to a thousand beats per minute. “That sounds awesome!”
The next day I took a handful of pills and drove to the animal rescue hospital. I knew if I were sober I’d have second thoughts, so I timed the drugs perfectly. They kicked in just as I approached the front desk. “I’d like to buy a cat,” I said through my gritted teeth. The vet looked at me warily and then led me to the feline kennels. I prepared myself for a heart wrenching experience, something out of Oliver Twist, all these poor cats sticking their paws through the cages, begging me to take them home. To my surprise, none of them seemed to care about the prospect of a warm home and unconditional love. Most of them faced away from me, and as I passed they lifted their heads off the cage floor and looked back in contempt, as though I’d interrupted something. “Can I help you?” their annoyed eyes said.
All ignored me except one. Near the end of the aisle was a kitten, pressed against the back of the cage, her paws and feet tucked under her body, making her look like a tiny loaf of cream-colored fur. Her head was motionless but her eyes were wide and flittering and terrified. “Can I see this one?” I said. The vet opened the cage and I held out my hands. At first the cat recoiled, but then she leapt into my arms.
“That’s Noel,” the vet said. “We named her that because she was brought in on Christmas Eve. Some nice man found her on his back porch, in Andover.”
I could feel every bone in the cat’s emaciated body, like a feathery sack of Popsicle sticks squirming against my down jacket. Finally she relaxed and looked up at me. A tiny head and big ears, and eyes so crystal blue they looked like matching bottles of aftershave.
“I’ll take her,” I said.
Noel was spayed and given the appropriate shots, and two days later I brought her home. She was drowsy from the anesthesia and had a neat square shaved into her belly from the surgery. I felt guilty leaving her alone at first, especially given the respiratory infection she caught at the shelter, so I stayed home as often as possible—a reasonable task given the light demands of my non-existent social life.
At work, while the 20-somethings recapped their drinking adventures and the 30-somethings gushed about their children, I updated people on my cat, who by then I’d renamed “Dixie”. “Well, her chest cold cleared up, and she’s finally taken to her wet food,” I’d say, unwrapping my burrito at the kitchen table. Soon Dixie was all my coworkers asked about. The general assumption was that I had no life or dating exploits to speak of, only the daily progress of a housecat.
“What’s up for the weekend, Danny? Hanging out with your cat?” This from Angela, an attractive young project manager.
“Yup,” I beamed.
Dixie demanded constant attention. She was content only when sitting on my legs, pinning me to my couch. If I went to the bathroom, she pawed at the door until I let her in. When I got out of the shower I’d find her lying face up on my bathroom rug, wagging her tail, waiting for a belly scratch. On the rare occasion I made a phone call, the cat became angry and confused, hearing my voice directed at something other than her. If the call lasted more than five minutes she would scratch the nearest piece of furniture while glaring at me. As soon as I set the phone down, she’d casually walk over and sit on it. Anything that took away my focus became a threat, so she began preemptively smothering things out of habit—books, laptop, TV remotes, car keys. I’d hear my text alert chime and see her belly glow as the phone lit up underneath it.
I couldn’t tell if the cat loved me, depended on me, or simply enjoyed toying with me. “Dixie, come here, come sit with me,” I’d say, pounding the sofa cushion. “Who’s a pretty girl? Come on, Dixie, come here.” But the cat would just sit upright on its hind legs, watching me, perfectly still. After five minutes of my shameless pleading, the cat would turn and walk away. Was she deliberating that whole time? Or had she no intention of jumping on the couch, and just felt like watching a grown man beg? Her demeanor was impenetrable yet calculating, and as time passed I came to not only love it, but to admire it. In a society filled with hurt feelings, the cat’s utter lack of emotion was refreshing.
Oh, and there was the mice. As soon as Dixie arrived, they vanished. Not a squeak, not a scurry. No climactic showdown, no negotiation. The cat’s presence alone had warded them off for good. I admired that, too.
Months turned into years, and with the exception of a couple brief romances, life consisted of my cat, my living room, and a menu of prescription drugs. By the summer of 2012 I was strung out on pills and hospitalized for an acute Crohn’s Disease flare-up. I’d whittled away to 135 pounds, living off IV nutrition and shitting into a colostomy bag. Yet the cat had doubled in size. Her neck disappeared into her shoulders, and her butt took on the ill-defined shape of a ham hock. When she walked her belly swung from side to side, as though she were a four-legged dinner bell. As my world grew smaller the cat got fatter, feeding not only on her wet food, but on my future as well.
One night I was curled up in a ball on my kitchen floor, detoxing from Xanax, when I heard glass shatter. I looked up and saw the cat, sitting atop my fridge, staring down at me. She had knocked an empty wine carafe onto the floor, sending bits of glass everywhere. My first instinct was to scream at her and then collapse further into my own self-pity, but something in her ice blue eyes stopped me. They were remorseless and deliberate, as if they said, “Yes, I broke that glass. Now stop crying and pick it up.”
Shaking from withdrawal, I got up and picked each shard of glass from the floor. The cat looked down from the fridge, making sure I got every last one.
That moment was my “white light experience”, as we call it in recovery. A month after the broken glass incident I checked myself into rehab. Two years later and I was in a serious relationship. It felt good, this healthy adult life, but with it came a nagging guilt. While I split my free time between AA meetings and a new romance, my cat was left home alone, confused, wondering why I wasn’t laying on the couch with a glass pipe resting on my chest.
When Amanda moved in, Dixie responded like she did with most visitors: by hiding under the bed, in a vigilant crouch, waiting for the person to leave. Two days later she finally came out, slinking low to the ground, sniffing and inspecting Amanda’s luggage. She looked up at me as if to say, “Did you have something to do with this?” I kneeled down to pet her and she screeched and pulled her head away, then squeezed her giant ass back under the bed.
After a couple weeks it was clear that Amanda was staying. Her bags were unpacked and she started redecorating, and soon the condo looked eerily like the home of two self-respecting adults. Gone were my personal touches, like the Nerf basketball hoop mounted on the bathroom door or the Batman action figure sitting on the television. “But they give the place character,” I protested, handing over my plastic AK-47 water gun. Furniture I’d owned since the nineties was brought to the sidewalk and replaced by sleeker, more contemporary models. “This has sentimental value, you know,” I said as we carried my high school bureau down the stairs, its ornate brass handles dangling from the drawers.
Dixie spent most of this transition period under the bed, though occasionally she’d come out for a cautious stroll, as though leaving a fallout shelter to survey the destruction. “Someone wants to say hello,” Amanda would say, giddily, unaware that the cat was not saying “hello”, but rather “I’m going to kill you in your sleep”.
“Hello, Dixie!” she said in that singsong tone people use with pets. “Aren’t you a pretty girl?” She bent down to pet her and the cat swatted at her hand and hissed, a whip-crack action similar to a cobra striking its prey. “Jesus!” Amanda jumped back, clutching her chest. “I think my finger’s bleeding,” she said. “Danny? I said ‘I think my finger’s bleeding’.”
I heard her, but my attention was on the cat, waiting for her response. She licked her right paw, sucking the DNA evidence from each claw, and then walked back under the bed. Doom welled up inside me as I thought, Oh no. This is just the beginning.
“She just needs some time to get used to this,” I said, knowing it would likely get worse before it got better.
The cat’s habits changed, a red flag for animals that are so firmly grounded in routine. She no longer slept at the foot of my bed and instead spent her nights camped out in the building’s main stairwell. I’d find her lying on the welcome mat outside the second floor unit. I’d call to her, but she wouldn’t even look at me. She just stared at my downstairs neighbor’s door, as though imagining a better life inside with a more subservient set of humans.
“I don’t think Dixie likes me,” Amanda said one morning as she showed me her new Marc Jacobs tote bag, the smooth black leather covered with scratch marks.
“She doesn’t like anyone. Don’t take it personally,” I said. Then I suggested she hang all of her belongings from hooks, just to be safe.
We consulted PetMD for advice on how to best integrate Dixie into a new household dynamic. The website listed “10 Things to Make Your Cat Feel Welcome”, small gestures that went a long way, such as “Give cat undivided attention as soon as you come home” and “Keep respectful distance when cat is moody”. Each item ended with “…and be sure to show them LOTS OF LOVE”. Absent from the list were the essentials, like food, shelter, and freedom from a cage.
Gradually, Dixie’s cool demeanor began to thaw. We’d be in the living room and the cat would saunter casually up to Amanda and sniff her. Whenever this occurred we both froze, as though hiding from a predator whose vision was based on movement. “Just let her do her thing,” I’d say, my lips barely moving. The cat would climb onto Amanda’s lap and knead into her leg, the nails of her front paws piercing through cotton sweatpants.
“That means she likes you,” I said. Amanda nodded, her jaw trembling from the pain.
Sometimes a cat is loving, sometimes distant and aloof. Some nights Dixie would flop down and roll on Amanda’s feet, other nights she’d hiss at her for coming within five feet of her domain. Cats are known for their peculiarities, so when Dixie began walking at a tilt and dragging her leg I chalked it up to her “trying out new footwork.” When she fell to the ground and began convulsing, I thought she was working on a new trick. “She’s just showing off,” I said, while the cat writhed on the floor in the kind of rapture one might find at a Pentecostal tent revival.
“That is not normal, Danny,” Amanda said. “We need to take her to the vet.”
“Nah, that’s how she plays around,” I said, watching the cat stagger off, her head drooped awkwardly to one side, her eyes vacant and disoriented, like a punch-drunk fighter.
According to PetMD and other animal care websites, cat seizures are fairly common and can stem from any number of causes. There is no remedy, except of course to show the cat lots of love.
These “spells” became regular, occurring every two months or so. I’d put on a brave face and reassure myself that the cat was fine, but I couldn’t help think that these seizures came from a deeper place. In my own melodramatic narrative, they were induced by the stress and anxiety of losing me to someone else. I couldn’t tell Amanda this, but I did occasionally mumble things whenever I passed her, incoherent non-sequiturs like “Happy now?” or “Cat murderer.”
One morning in June, Dixie had a bad episode. I only caught the aftermath: her walking across my living room, lopsided, her left leg dragging behind her like a wooden peg. In the past she’d gradually straighten out, but this time her gait seemed to get worse, like she was winding down, the movie hero who’s been shot and crawls to the enemy stronghold out of sheer will. We brought her to the animal hospital where she underwent a series of blood tests and an ultrasound. “Possibly a stroke,” the vet said, “but it could also be a swelling of the brain, caused by a tumor.” The only way to know for sure would be an MRI, which would bring the total cost of this visit to $4,500.
“We’ll need to talk this over,” I said, and we brought Dixie home. When I opened the carrier door she limped her way under the bed, where she remained that night, her ice blue eyes staring out from the darkness, fearful and ashamed.
According to the vet, Dixie’s condition would either get better over the next few weeks, or get worse. Improvement meant her seizures could be congenital, whereas decline confirmed something severe. I studied the cat closely those first few days, looking for positive signs. She mostly hid under the bed and came out only to eat and go the bathroom. When she walked, that stiff hind leg no longer dragged but overstepped, as though it was moving over something large while the other three carried on normally. Although it looked grotesque, I viewed it as progress. Any positive change in her attitude, however subtle, gave us hope. We rejoiced when she started licking her paws again, and that first time she wagged her tail—more like dragged it from left to right, once—Amanda and I held each other in celebration. “She’s gonna make it,” Amanda said, wiping away tears.
I was cautiously optimistic and still considering the alternate outcome, preparing myself, you might say. If the cat had something seriously wrong with her, how far would I go to save her? The testing alone would cost close to five grand, and then there was the treatment. Not to mention the physical and emotional toll it would take. It was a chore just to feed her heartworm pills, how would she respond to chemotherapy? Even if I could save her, buy her another three or five years, should I? Is it my place to interfere with the course of life? How is an animal’s life any more or less valuable than my own? I took long walks and deliberated the existential implications. But really, it came down to the money.
Dixie’s follow-up was on a stormy Sunday morning in mid-September. While I waited to check in a young couple came in pushing their dog on an industrial-sized dolly. I wasn’t sure the breed but it was big, which made its agony seem all the more palpable. She whined softly with her eyes closed, her belly protruding out. An intestinal issue, probably. A vet rushed out to meet them and wheeled the dog into the ER while the couple stayed behind. The woman cried. The man was stoic, but he wiped away tears and then covered his eyes while he wept. I had to bite my lip and close my eyes or else I would have wept, too.
By the time I reached the intake desk the vet came back out to update the couple. She asked for permission to use the defibrillator if the dog slipped into cardiac arrest. The couple cried harder. I tried not to listen. My palms began to sweat, my breathing grew short and my teeth got a numbing sensation. I blinked away tears.
I went back to the cat waiting area, where Amanda sat next to the carrier, comforting Dixie in a soothing voice. Next to us, in the canine waiting area, was a man, early sixties. He was dressed for construction type work, with a Carhartt jacket and a baseball hat, so I assumed the pickup truck out front was his, the one with SULLIVAN WOODWORK stenciled on the side door. I saw no wedding ring on his hand and wondered if he was single, if all he had was his dog, and now maybe the dog was old and near the end. My mind often goes to the worst-case scenario. It’s not that I wish ill upon people. Sometimes I just look for sadness.
“Dixie Pellegrini?” the intake worker called out to the waiting area. It was the first time I’d heard my cat’s first and last name together, which was cute, but also creepy. It made me think of my cat dressed in a suit, sitting in a probate lawyer’s office, arguing over the details of my will.
The neurologist was a pleasant man dressed in a sweater vest, collared shirt, jeans and penny loafers, an ensemble that struck the perfect balance between brain doctor and house pet. This made me comfortable and confident in his abilities. He examined Dixie in a non-scientific way, by watching her walk and then moving his finger slowly back and forth across her eyes. “She hasn’t got any worse, and that’s very good news. To me that says that her issue is congenital, not degenerative. She was probably born with a defect in her brain, and her spasms are simply her way of adapting. In a way, they’re like growing pains.” He ruled out a stroke or brain tumor and deemed any further testing unnecessary. In his opinion the cat should live a long, happy life. “She won’t be doing any Sudoku puzzles though,” he said. A dumb joke, but I laughed all the same.
On the way out, I stopped at the front desk to pay. The bill was $450. “For a follow-up?” I said.
“It’s neurology,” the intake worker explained with a shrug. Yes, neurology: the science of moving your finger back and forth in front of a pair of eyes.
I got my receipt, picked up the cat carrier, and Amanda and I walked to the door. As we passed the waiting area the man in the Carhartt jacket argued with one of the veterinarians. The vet spoke quietly, trying to calm him, but the man was loud, reminding her that he paid eleven hundred dollars and he demanded to see his dog. His surly voice cracked with a timbre of fear and desperation, as though arguing against the tide of inevitability. That will be me someday, I thought. Whether it’s with the cat, or something else. That time when I have to let go, move on, but simply cannot.
Dixie has not had a spasm since. She is still moody as ever—one moment she’s curled up on my lap, purring; the next she has a claw hooked into my neck. When I call for her she ignores me, yet once I hunker down to write or read she will sit on my laptop or swat the book out of my hand. If those efforts are unsuccessful she will stand next to me, stubbornly, meowing, blowing into my face a horrid blend of plaque, bile and canned salmon.
Her placid moments are what I find most fascinating, particularly when she sits on her hind legs in an unusual spot and looks around. Her neck and head move in a jerky fashion, almost animatronic, and her eyes still flitter left to right, bewildered, as though she’s caught in a state of sudden awareness. The neurologist says this is normal, a consequence of her congenital brain defect. She is not in pain, is not even aware anything is amiss. This is how she adapts. How she grows. How she compensates for a missing prefrontal lobe, or, say, a new person sleeping in her bed. Animals are resilient creatures, perhaps because they’re not accustomed to self-pity. Fear of change is normal, but any living thing is capable of adapting. The old-timers in South Boston. The mice in the walls. The forty-year old who sells his condo and moves to the suburbs. We hang in there and come out stronger on the other side. There is no special prescription or remedy that makes it easier for anyone.
Except, of course, lots of love.
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Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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