At around 5 a.m. during the first night my boyfriend spent at my apartment, we were shocked out of our sleep by a glass of water that had been dumped on us. The culprit: my cat, Kelloggs.
Though Kelloggs was in many ways akin to a puppy—really in-your-face, gymnastically agile, energetically annoying—he was also suuuuuch a cat. He loved to clear tables by pushing to the floor whatever he could with his paws, and was particularly fond of doing so at dawn. At that point, I’d been living with Kelloggs for a year and a half, so I should have remembered that anything on the tall dresser next to my bed was unlikely to be there come morning. Luckily, my boyfriend didn’t hold it against me.
“Even after that, he came back,” I explained to his parents at dinner a few days into the new year in Puerto Rico, where they live. Not even a cat dumping water on his head could keep my boyfriend from me, nor could my inability to control the creature that I lived with. Kelloggs and I were both untamed in our ways, and the immediate proof of that did nothing to dissuade my boyfriend. He concerns himself with my assets, not my flaws, and that’s why it works.
Twenty minutes after we told this story, my sister called me from New Jersey. Since I was eating, I declined the call. She called back. “I’m eating,” I texted her. “It’s an emergency,” she wrote back.
I excused myself, certain of imminent tragedy. From the sidewalk across from the restaurant, I called her and she told me she was in an animal emergency room with Kelloggs, whom she’d been looking after at my mother’s house while I was on vacation. When she went to visit him in the spare bedroom he was staying in that night after work, she saw he had thrown up all over himself. When she touched him, she felt that he was limp. She realized immediately that something was very wrong, and drove him to the doctor. The vet was next to her and wanted to speak to me.
Kelloggs had suffered a blood clot that went to his aorta and paralyzed his back legs. He was in a lot of pain. I wondered if his confinement to a room at my mother’s house for the past week, in my absence, had anything to do with it. What I was wondering, really, is how much I should hate myself for letting this happen.
The vet told me the blood clot was not brought on by stress. It’s something that happens frequently in otherwise healthy, often young cats as a result of a heart condition. Since most cats aren’t given an EKG during their checkups, this condition is generally detected when it’s too late. It was too late for Kelloggs, who was three and a half years old.
I asked the vet if she was looking for my consent to euthanize Kelloggs, and she told me that she strongly suggested that option. I told her OK. My sister, a total saint, later told me that he died with her face pressed up against his as she told him that I loved him. She said he went “really peacefully.”
I returned to the restaurant and explained what happened. With sympathy, my boyfriend’s mother told me she had feared that a human family member had died. In the seconds between reading my sister’s text and talking to her, I had, too.
After excusing myself from the table again and talking to my boyfriend, I returned to the table a second time and finished my meal. I never have a hard time sleeping—not even after being awoken at 4 a.m. by a hungry cat—but that night I did. I lay in bed and I cried until my neck was sore. I didn’t know I loved Kelloggs so much.
I regretted adopting Kelloggs almost immediately. He was around seven months when he came to live with me. I had been in the market for a cat following my breakup and loss of custody of the two that I’d lived with for almost 10 years, when I saw a flyer on Bedford Ave., in Williamsburg, advertising one:
I visited him at the Bushwick apartment of the couple who’d found him. Kelloggs licked me almost immediately after I said hello to him. With that, he made my mind up.
When I brought him home a few days later, he leapt from the carrier I bought him, started running, and didn’t stop for a year. He liked eating paper and shredded sensitive documents preemptively. He chewed through wires—power cords, iPhone chargers—like a bunny. He broke drinking glasses and a bong. He hid my keys under the couch. He bit me, and it sometimes really hurt.
Though he came to me neutered, Kelloggs was sexually attracted to certain fabrics, especially fleece. Have you ever seen a cat boner? The gruesome depths of David Cronenberg’s imagination couldn’t prepare you for something so shinily sickening. I got used to hiding most fabric beyond standard T-shirt cotton from Kelloggs, though there was nothing I could do about the jersey-cotton duvet cover I bought last year.
Kelloggs had no interest in almost all of the scratching devices I bought him; he preferred my couches instead. The one I bought in September, after winning my fight with bedbugs, started to look shabby within weeks of moving it in. He shed all over the place: I couldn’t ever leave the house without going over whatever I was wearing with a fabric roller several times. I’m still seeing traces of Kelloggs everywhere I go—I saw one of his hairs on the mat below me at the gym not too long ago, and a strand of his bristle-like top coat woven into the hood of my boyfriend’s black coat. I didn’t say anything or remove it.
Kelloggs mellowed steadily over the course of our three years together, but he alienated several people in the process. My former roommate A.J. and I argued about Kelloggs a lot when we all lived together. (It was A.J. who named Kelloggs after the disgusting Williamsburg diner that we lived around the corner from. I called him “Kelly” for short.) My current boyfriend accepted him, more or less, but would often be kept up late by the cat’s night-time knocking and meowing. He told me that he’d lie awake, watching Kelloggs’ attempts to wake me up.
“You gave him a better life than anyone else would because he was such a pain in the ass,” an ex of mine told me after I told him about Kelloggs’s death. He was. But there was no way I was ever going to give Kelloggs up, even though, in my most insecure moments as a single guy, I worried that he was making me undateable. I can be a handful, as it is, and that’s before you even factor in the Tasmanian Devil incarnate that I lived with. My current boyfriend and I had agreed, in our hypothetical discussion of moving in together, that we’d need a separate room for the cat.
But I think that when you adopt an animal, that animal is your responsibility for life, and not just when it’s convenient. Kelloggs needed a home, and my agreement with him, myself, and the universe was to provide just that. He irritated the hell out of me. I felt helplessly bound to him. My affection for him and my obligation to him were inextricable. He was, in short, a member of my family.
I wondered if my boyfriend would ever cave and agree to live with Kelloggs, or if I’d be living on my own with a cat into my 50s, riding out what I was certain would be Kelloggs’s long life.
And then he died, leaving me so sad and so relieved.
Relief isn’t so much its own emotion than the absence of a separate, usually painful one. It also flows both ways, as a consequence and facilitator. Without any anxiety about the reality of Kelloggs in the future, the negativity I associated with him in the past no longer concerns me. For the first time in my life, I miss being around him.
Kelloggs died the night before I was scheduled to leave Puerto Rico. I missed him by less than 24 hours. I flew into Philadelphia on Jet Blue, which meant I had a layover in Ft. Lauderdale, and would be traveling for about nine hours in total. I remembered that, early in my time with Kelloggs, I had downloaded John Bradshaw’s book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, but I never got around to reading it. I thought maybe spending the day doing so would be therapeutic.
There were two things that really stuck out to me in the book. The first was Bradshaw’s discussion of kittens’ socialization. In order for a cat to be comfortable around people, Bradshaw writes, the cat must be exposed to humans between its third and eighth weeks alive. “A kitten that encounters its first human in its ninth week is likely to be anxious when near people for the rest of its life,” he writes. Kelloggs was comfortable with people, which means that some time between the time he was born and when I adopted him, he had been handled and then discarded. I have no idea how that went for him, but it made me really sad to think about him being abandoned. Even though I knew I never would’ve actually done it, it made me feel guilty for ever even considering a way to get rid of him.
Bradshaw’s other words that hit me right in the gut regarded cats’ vocalizations:
Cats need to meow because we humans are generally so unobservant. Cats constantly monitor their surroundings (except when they’re asleep, of course) but we often fix our gaze on newspapers and books, TVs and computer screens. We do, however, reliably look up when we hear something unusual, and cats quickly learn that a meow will grab our attention. For a few cats this may be rewarding in itself, but the meow will often also produce the reaction that the cat is hoping for, such as a bowl of food or an opened door. Some cats then shape their own behavior to increase the precision of their request. Some will deliver the meow at specific locations—by the door means “Let me out,” and in the middle of the kitchen means “Feed me.” Others find that different intonations lead to different results, and so “train” themselves to produce a whole range of different meows. These are generally different for every cat, and can be reliably interpreted only by the cat’s owner, showing that each meow is an arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound rather than some universal cat-human “language.” Thus, a secret code of meows and other vocalizations develops between each cat and its owner, unique to that cat alone and meaning little to outsiders.
The language that Kelloggs and I shared, then, was a tangible manifestation of our particular bond. My favorite thing he did—ever—was vocalize as I prepared his meals. His multisyllabic meep sounded like a high-pitched, “Really?!?” as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune of free food every day, multiple times a day. He never seemed more appreciative of our shared life, and his timing was impeccable. Sometimes when I’d ask him a question, emphasizing the upturn in my intonation, he’d respond with what my boyfriend translated via texts as, “Ma-maow.” Sometimes Kelloggs would let out a whine when he entered the room, as if he thought better of his uncontrollable attraction to me, and just before I would run my hand over his head, he’d go, “ah-reeeeeer.”
Sometimes, I’d come home from work briefly to feed him and drop off my bag before plans that night had me running right back out. On these occasions, I’d hear him scream-crying as I walked back down the stairs, like, “Hey, where’d you go? You were gone all day!”
His capacity for permanence still gnaws at me. I know what I’m about to share is farfetched. I know that we should not assume that animals’ brains work as ours do, and that by translating his primitive vocalizations into human meaning I’ve already distorted reality. But still, what has consistently choked me up since he died is the idea that as Kelloggs was going through his final moments, I somehow crossed his mind. That Bradshaw writes, “Cats seem to live in the present, neither reflecting on the past nor planning for the future,” provides me little comfort. We don’t know this for sure. We don’t know what flashes through the minds of animals, especially as they are dying. What if a snatch of a memory of my scent caused in him whatever the cat equivalent of, “Hey, where did he go?” I hate that Kelloggs could have thought I had forsaken him.
I hate that I didn’t see him for a full week leading up to his death, that maybe he could have felt the same sense of abandonment or loneliness or whatever the cat version is of those things, or whatever his motivation was to cry out from under that car the day he was found by the people who gave him to me.
At some point, I attempted to look on the bright side: At least, I didn’t have to actually witness him as he whimpered to his death. I didn’t have to pick up his limp body and then sit with him as the last bit of life in him evaporated. The problem is that I now can’t shake the image of my weak, slit-eyed cat that my sister’s description put in my head. I can’t unsee this image that I didn’t actually look at.
“Don’t feel guilty,” my mom told me when I expressed this to her. “Just be sad that you miss him.”
My apartment is tiny, and yet it feels empty without him. My bathroom is just bigger than a dollhouse’s, and yet the space left by his litter box is a colossal void. It’s still really weird to not have to rush home to feed him. It feels wrong that I’m now able to go right to work in the morning after sleeping at my boyfriend’s. The freedom is welcome but not entirely comfortable, like a gift of clothing that I couldn’t otherwise afford.
Kelloggs haunts me, which feels like a fitting final act in his legacy of annoyance. He simply would not be ignored, to the chagrin of many of my friends and lovers, and now I can’t stop thinking about his final moments. Given his entire disposition, this almost feels intentional, which I know is another fantastical extreme. I still can’t help thinking it.
Hard facts ground me and provide solace. Practically speaking, Kelloggs and I had duties to each other, and we carried them out. It was my job to feed and shelter him, and so I did. It was his job to keep me company, and so he did. I appreciated Kelloggs most consistently in the mornings, after he’d finally calmed down, when I’d awaken to find him dozing either on my chest or between my legs. I’d nudge him, and he wouldn’t budge. A lot of the time, I’d take the excuse he offered of spending extra time in bed, getting a slow start to my day, enjoying a peaceful time with a pet who too often settled down only in fits and starts.
I could always count on Kelloggs to keep me warm, and in the time since his death, after an unseasonable start, winter has set in at last. It’s gotten so cold.