My 9-month-old cat Prince bites me when I prepare his food. He gives little nips that would only need to be a little nippier to puncture my calf. These are typically referred to as “love bites,” but being repeatedly gnawed on by what feels like the razor teeth of a freshly chest-burst infant Xenomorph from the Alien film franchise is unlike any love I’ve ever known. On particularly active mornings, Prince leaps off his back feet and into the air, propelling himself vertically with his front legs raised in a V so that he can clap my ass—one paw per cheek. “Mush! Mush!,” I imagine him yelling as I prepare his mush, either because he got his concepts mixed up or because he’s never known an iota of hardship in his life and the most difficult part of his day is waiting a few minutes for me to prepare the food that he wants now.
Reciprocated unconditional love is cool, but have you ever devoted your life to pleasing an animal that would step on your dead face, if not consume it? Prince wouldn’t piss on me if I were on fire or puke a hairball at me if I were bald, and yet this little cat has me wrapped around his furry cankle. At a certain point during the raising of anything—from children to chickens—many wonder, “Am I creating a monster?” I don’t really have to ask.
Luckily the monster I’ve been creating since his late-January adoption is clumsy on his feet, prone to distraction, rarely inclined to bare his claws, and unable to follow through with the tasks he assigns himself. (I’ve seen him kill bugs, but he seems to get bored when they stop moving and so he doesn’t eat them). He’s a harmless monster, really, and more importantly, he’s my monster to deal with.
Luckily for all of us, my boyfriend, with whom I adopted Prince, is similarly tolerant of cat mischief. I fear the day I have to leave Prince in the care of someone who isn’t nearly as charmed by a bitey, ass-smacking cat. I know that I really should be teaching him that biting isn’t acceptable but the truth is, I laugh every time he does it. I just love it because I just love him.
I love cats with the eagerness of someone who mainlines Toxo, but for a while there, I thought I’d never live with another one. My last cat-owning experience was hellacious. I was less a parent and more a witness to destruction carried out by a cat that was found on a Brooklyn street. Soon, I came to suspect that he would have preferred to keep his freedom, as confinement came with the safety and free food I provided. That Kelloggs didn’t appreciate me or my offerings was hardly surprising—nonchalance tends to be part of the deal and part of the allure of living with cats—but it sucks to feel both unappreciated and impotent. Kelloggs couldn’t help who he was, but neither could I. I had resolved never to give up on that cat—he was my responsibility for life—and so his early death at age 3 came as a terribly complicated relief. The emotional exhaustion and mild PTSD lasted for years. When he died, I made another resolution: an indefinitely animal-free lifestyle. I didn’t want to go through that again, or even risk it.
My current boyfriend never got to meet Kelloggs, so he didn’t quite grasp my reluctance to reattach myself to something furry. He brought up adopting a lot. He grew up with cats, and something that endeared him to me early on was hearing him talk about how much he loved his childhood cat, Nick. I believe that the greatness of a potential partner can be judged by the way his animals were treated. We’ve now lived together for nearly four years and have been discussing a cat for much of that time; at a certain point, depriving him just seemed cruel. To compromise my reluctance with his eagerness, I told him that if he wanted to get a cat, we’d have to go through a breeder and raise him from kittenhood. My conscience has yet to fully clear this decision. There are a lot of great cats in the need of a home out there (the rush to clean out New York-area shelters at the start of the pandemic by prospectively lonely people did help to mitigate my guilt).
Bringing anything living into your house is a dynamic crapshoot, but because purebred traits are fairly predictable, breed selection can minimize potential chaos. (It can also invite it, depending on the typical energy level of your desired breed.) Prince is a British shorthair, a breed known for its “independence,” which is just a nice way of saying that they’re born without fucks to give. In my pre-adoption research, I read repeatedly that while Brits “love” their owners, they prefer to sit next to not on them. That sounded like a great change from Kelloggs’s aggressive neediness and proximal smothering. Maybe I should have been a little more careful with what I wished for. I’m lucky if Prince sits within a five-foot radius of me.
He’s otherwise very much a British shorthair, per the literature, in that he often travels room to room with me and/or my boyfriend to observe what we do. Because of his emphasized brow (perfect for peering out from under) and a tiny-little mouth that forms into a resting pout, this observation feels more judgmental than appreciative. When I’m in the bathroom with the door closed, he’ll push it open, though not because he wants in. He often sits at the threshold on the other side of the door he just cracked. He seems to resent the very possibility of my privacy. When my boyfriend is in there, however, Prince generally weaves himself into the boxers at my boyfriend’s feet. He seems to be guided by the idea that everything is at least a little bit interesting, and he is drawn to the most banal shreds of novelty. Generally, he would sooner bat around a small piece of clear cellophane wrapper than give me the time of day.
I relate from afar. Prince is a block of sashaying novelty on four legs. If everything is at least a little interesting to him, everything he does is at least a little interesting to me. When he walks in the room, I stop what I’m doing to watch. Only occasionally is my gaze returned.
But when he does train his attention on me, it can be disconcerting. When I catch him staring at me from the shadows across the apartment, his eyes emit an otherworldly golden glow. I sometimes have to wonder why I have elected to share my home with a hobgoblin (and why I am paying to keep him here), especially since his idea of affection, besides biting me, is gently rubbing against my legs a few times as I scoop his food from can to plate. For a few seconds, he reminds me of the softness that he otherwise withholds. When I pick him up to cradle him like a baby, he extends a stubby front leg to keep me at bay, sighing theatrically, and looking wherever I am not. I’ve never been swerved so hard and often in my life. Once when he was napping on a ledge, I sat down next to him and kissed the top of his head, which was turned away from me. He shot up, turned, peered at me through his eye slits, hung there for less than a second, and then plunged his head right back down to its original position, resuming his endless nap. That’s when I realized that quarantine is hitting us all in radically different ways. I’ve never spent so much time with a cat before, much to my delight, and he’s never spent so much time in such close quarters with a human (let alone two!), much to his chagrin.
Our affection exchange is lopsided. I do not think that Prince loves me, and I do not think that I could love him more. Like Kelloggs, he fails to meet several pet ideals of mine, but I feel more equipped to accept him for who he is and love him anyway. Part of this comes from patience learned over time. Part of this comes from owning a cat that is more aloof than annoying. Kelloggs would wake me up every morning at 5 a.m. to be fed; Prince has never woken me up once.
Moments of rejection aside, I don’t even think too much about where Prince falls short of my expectations because he has so much to offer. We picked a winner: Bright enough without being overly crafty, naughty without being malicious, eccentric without sacrificing his dyed-in-the-wool cat-ness. Because he was born and raised in a loving house full of his kind, I can say with certainty that he has lived without a speck of trauma and that’s a fascinating thing to behold. Prince cannot seem to envision what he doesn’t know, and so he does things like sprawling himself into our direct footpath. He routinely lies on his back with his legs spread, his arms both pointed to one side across his body, in what I refer to as “hula position.” I’m glad he’s comfortable. I suspect he’d find a way to be so, anyway, but if he feels at peace in the peaceful environment I’m trying to foster for him, we live on common ground. He appreciates it even if he doesn’t realize it.
At the very least, Kelloggs was someone to talk to. We chattered at each other all day long, and he had a glossary of situation-specific vocalizations. Prince, on the other hand, does not meow. It’s not that he can’t meow, he just chooses not to. When he makes noise, it’s generally a quiet whimper, a slight grunt, or the aforementioned sighing. I’ve heard him open his lungs and really sound only a handful of times, during the rare experience of discomfort. He screamed when we attempted to bathe him early on—he had issues with the previous cat litter we bought him (World’s Best Cat Litter, which wasn’t, go figure) that left his legs urine-soaked when he emerged from the litter box. We did not expect the bloodcurdling yowl he unleashed when we lowered him into the bath, as he is fascinated by water and doesn’t mind when we drip on him when he stands on our bathmat as we exit the shower, as he often does. He also screamed when I closed a closet door on his tail—it’s a rather jammed closet that requires a bit of heft to close all the way, so when I didn’t feel it giving, I pushed harder. Not realizing he was hanging out of said closet, the push pinched his tail. After his initial scream, I bent down to examine his tail and he screamed again. (Mortified, I rushed him to the vet and he was fine. By the time we got there, it was as if nothing had happened. That was the day he discovered toys laced with catnip.)
I like to interpret Prince’s terseness as another way of exercising his right to leisure. Why meow when you can...just not meow? It’s pure pragmatism. Nonetheless, I am having one-way conversations with an animal that refuses to grant me even the courtesy of innate vocalization. With my socializing at an all-time low, I am filling in spaces, in a desperate bid to connect with a creature who just doesn’t seem to care. Sorry, my owl-eyed furry little bowling ball: You just happen to be my world at the moment.
Loving a cat with another person is a great way to bond and a wonderful pastime. I talk about Prince with my boyfriend constantly. I give up updates on what Prince does with his days, how long he played before passing out, and things I’ve noticed about my own cat-parenting style, which is a bit stricter than my boyfriend’s. (“I’m bigger, and I’m faster. I will always beat you,” I sometimes tell the cat when we wrestle.) We have taken to calling him “Snoots,” which started as an obscure reference to this video of a child pageant contestant singing on The Talk. After watching Prince repeatedly fall off the bed during play (or when merely changing his lounging position), completely miss whatever elevated surface he’s attempting to jump onto, slide ride past the toy he’s aiming for, arch his back and clomp his feet in a way that’s supposed to be confrontational but is just goofy, and just generally clod his way around the apartment, it’s clear that he’s more clownish than regal. So Snoots it is. He recognizes it as his name.
I tend to push the limits of Snoots’s willing engagement. We’re going to spend time interacting whether he likes it or not. The cat is goofy but not dumb, and so I taught him to sit on command within a month. It was so easy, it was as though he had been waiting to be asked. He sits with such self-possession that it does not appear that he’s listening to me, but to his inner voice. I had friends over before lockdown and showed them our trick and one was like, “Uh...it seems like he’s doing it?” He was doing it, but no one would believe me. My boyfriend insisted that he was just getting comfortable before receiving his treat. So then, through repetition, I taught Snoots how to sit and give me his paw. To him, this has become the trick and he does it without my asking, but I want him to know it is but one of several. I’ve always wanted an animal that can walk on his hind legs and I have a feeling if that’s ever going to happen, it’s going to happen with Prince. The sky’s the limit, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s take this thing on the road in a one-cat circus, the perfect platform for a clown.
I’m sure it’s just that apathy is his guiding principle, but Prince has an uncanny way of giving just enough to leave me wanting more. It’s in the bites that I wish were kisses, the glares that I generously interpret as interest, the tricks he performs to get me off his back and food in his belly. While out walking the other day, I saw a woman in a blue denim baseball hat and neon green shirt with the name of a timeshare agency printed on its back, scoop up a sand-colored dog (maybe a Pekingese), hold the pup to her chest and kiss the side of its head. The dog accepted affection without a shred of resistance and I was jealous. When I got home, Prince was staring into space and I asked him if he wanted to hang out. As if on cue, as soon as I stopped talking, he winced a slow wince that started with his left eye and spread to his right. I laughed and wanted to hug him, but out of respect for his space and individuality, I declined.