Modern Love

Sherman, a glamorously plush Russian Blue, had a baronial girth – squatting on my floor, the glorious folds of his haunch sloping like terraces on a hillside, he measured nearly a foot across. He was my girlfriend’s cat, inherited from a previous relationship, when she and I came together five years ago.

His name, starchy and a little old-fashioned, suited him well. Sherman didn’t mug for his owners. He preferred to sleep by himself. He tolerated petting the way an overloved child winces through a smooch attack by Grandma. Toys, as far as he was concerned, were the diversions of lesser creatures.

I took all this as an affront. I fed the guy, hauled home litter containers the weight of concrete blocks, and ran him to the vet every several months. (The grand theater – familiar to any cat owner – of tricking him into his carrying case sometimes lasted an hour. Portly Sherman would become lithe as a ballerina as he slipped out of my hands and waddled back to the couch.) Where was the affection I had earned?

I fumed at Sherman, lectured him. After one particularly exasperated eruption – I sheepishly recall that finger-wagging may have been involved – my girlfriend had to come over and explain: Cats aren’t like dogs. They’re independent. You don’t have to walk them, but you also don’t get nearly as much attention in return. A fair trade-off, I admitted. But one that nonetheless felt like an imposition – it’s not like I had a hand in the negotiations. My girlfriend laughed and rolled her eyes. “What are you going to do when you have kids, Boris? Fly off the handle when they don’t hold up their end of the bargain, if they’re going projectile all over the kitchen?”

That looking after our silent, willful cat could serve as a training run for fatherhood had never occurred to me. That’s how far I was from being ready for fatherhood. My girlfriend was a bit older and more experienced in serious relationships. She was ready for the kind of commitment I had considered only abstractly. That is, I thought I was ready, too, until her casual comment forced me to understand that there was more to marriage and parenthood than simply unleashing love and then demanding an equal return.

She and I were from different worlds. She grew up in a large Long Island family. I was the only child of immigrants. She treasured the tradition and rituals of Judaism. I was an atheist. She loved New York. I winced at the thought of raising children on concrete. She was ready to start a family, and I spent most of my time trying to figure out who I was, absorbed in my own questions even in the moments she needed me. And yet – we were both sensitive and warm, committed to the arts, believers in introspection. It was always too good not to keep trying.

One thing on which we never disagreed – after my education in feline ways, that is – was Sherman. We sunk into our little pasha all the affection that we meant for each other, but often spoiled by our disagreements. The upside of Sherman’s reticence was that, like a child, he could hardly object. On walking into each other’s apartments, we often reached for him first.

But after one especially painful blow-up, my girlfriend and I finally agreed that we should try being apart. It was a weekend afternoon, the sun blazing outside, mocking the dolefulness indoors. Tears on both our faces, we hugged tightly and I rose to leave.

Cats are regular creatures; you place them in a new litterbox once and they will never do their business anywhere else. If a cat urinates or defecates outside the litterbox, it’s a sign of distress. Sherman never had, until now. The unmistakable scent filled my passages and led my eyes to my packed canvas bag. Next to it, on the floor, lay three neat, hard clumps.

“Well, that’s quite a parting gift,” I said morosely.

“No, sweetie,” my girlfriend said. “It’s not that. He can tell. It’s by your bag – he’s upset that you’re leaving.”

The moment felt like a looking glass. I always chose the unflattering explanation. My girlfriend tried to extend the benefit of the doubt – to friends, to parents, to colleagues. Even as I envied her confidence, I couldn’t help noticing it was one more thing that divided us.

Back on my own – I worked from home – I missed her generosity terribly. I even missed Sherman. And then it occurred to me: I could get a cat of my own! The thought felt like some kind of adultery. How could I do that to Sherman?

But I had to accept that I might never see Sherman again. I mentioned my plan to a mutual friend, and she chuckled. “Soon as they break up with their wonderful girlfriends, men start craving children.” I knew she had a point: Having lost my maternal guide through the thicket of self-discovery, I was looking for another creature on whom to displace my anxieties. But there was another reason, too, as fragile and new as it was undeniable: I wanted to take care of someone other than myself.

The adoption agency promised that Bone, a four-year-old tabby, was affectionate, but his most pronounced affection was for pillaging tabletops. Down onto the floor went my notebooks, a new hard drive, a mug. Thankfully, my laptop, the centerpiece of my work life, was too heavy, though Bone enjoyed hopping on the keyboard and adding edits to my articles. (“In the seventies and eighties, hundreds of thousands of Soviet zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzJews left the USSR for Israel and the United States.”) I kept him in the bedroom, I sprayed water to discourage the behavior – nothing stopped him. But he liked sleeping in bed with me, and the sight of his cavernous maw enjoying a morning yawn blunted the edge of another day without my girlfriend.

Eventually, she and I returned to each other. The problem, we decided, was that we were holding back, hounded by relatively prosaic differences into a fear of making the leap. So she moved in.

Those first weeks back together were blissful. Even though Sherman greeted me warily, I nearly suffocated him with kisses. (If he didn’t like it, tough: I’d missed him too much.) But my feelings about him had shifted. A cat could substitute for a child for only so long. Raising a crop of goosebumps, my mind strayed to thoughts of finally starting a family. If only my girlfriend and I could shake off the doubts of the past.

In the meantime, we had a new problem: Bone hated Sherman – though, of course, Sherman was besotted with Bone. Sherman would come visit his new roommate, extending his nose toward Bone, and my killer would begin to hiss. Once, he sprung like a mountain lion and scattered a sad dust cloud of Sherman’s rich fur all over the living room floor. We bought a divider, the kind that keeps toddlers from falling down stairs. We filled the electrical outlets with special diffusers that osmosed a calming vapor. Nothing doing.

I may have been unready for parenthood, may have adopted Bone for more selfish reasons than not, but when I deposited him into his carrying case on the night I returned him to the adoption agency, it felt as if I was giving up a child I loved but couldn’t keep. When the owner took him from my hands, I bit my lip hard, but I burst into tears anyway.

That wouldn’t be a good year for our cats. Amid the drama of Bone vs. Sherman, my girlfriend and I hadn’t noticed that Sherman had been acting erratically, even since before he moved in. He no longer ate with gusto. We ferried him from vet to vet until one finally figured it out: Sherman could barely see. (This was why he had come so dangerously close to Bone.) And he could barely see because he had a walnut-sized brain tumor. What little time he had left would be spent in discomfort, if not pain. There weren’t many choices.

That night, we kept him between us as we slept. He didn’t mind – he couldn’t. He was in such poor control of himself that we had to carry him to the litterbox. The next day, we took turns holding him to say goodbye. There are a couple of pictures from that afternoon, before we took him to the hospital to put him down. It’s impossible to look at them without choking back tears.

About six months later, my girlfriend was asked to foster another Russian Blue, a girl named Nili. She agreed, but only for a couple of weeks – we still couldn’t imagine replacing Sherman. Weeks somehow turned into months. We grew deeply attached to her, not least because she spoiled us in a way Sherman hadn’t: She was so affectionate you could barely avoid a make-out session. “Sexual predator!” my girlfriend teased her.

If only her owners could find a way to be as fond of each other. Five years in, my girlfriend and I were still struggling to find a common language. She moved out, though we tried to keep the relationship alive. Nili stayed with me. My girlfriend worked long days, and Nili didn’t like being alone; she made that clear by shredding my couch while we were gone for a weekend. One afternoon, I heard Nili coughing up hairballs. This happened occasionally, so I didn’t worry, but when I returned to the living room, I froze: Nili had vomited up a liquid, unsavory stew. All. Over. My. Laptop.

It died within minutes. Taking with it nine months of work on a book I was writing. But as I stood there, watching Nili depart from the scene of the crime without a flicker of self-consciousness, I felt only a weary love for that creature. I loved her not because she had “earned” it, but just because. This feeling was a thousand times more nurturing than any “equal return.” That day, Nili’s little purge was the afternoon’s entertainment at every Apple store I visited in a sinking hope to recover my hard drive. I smiled along with the techs. My crazy cat. My crazy cat.

In several weeks, I’d have to give Nili back, too – my girlfriend and I had tried for too long without success. As we embraced for the last time, what I regretted as much as anything else was that, in her frustration – all those years I had failed to pay attention to anyone but myself – she wasn’t able to see it: Slowly, haltingly, I had become ready to be a father. And though I had taken too long to understand it, I knew that it was our children that I wanted to raise.

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