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Suddenly Susan

On January 31, 2021 I began a journal entry:

I called Mom on my way out to tell her my stray cat Susan let me pet her for a long time.

It’s 1:39 am now which is tomorrow but also today. I should go to bed because it’s late and I’m tired but I enjoy being awake and active and distracted. Sometimes sleeping, floating adrift in the mind, gives me the heebies.

We watched Arrival tonight and I cried tears of joy for the second time today. The first was when Susan and I finally made contact, which I jokingly compared to Amy Adam’s’ character Louise placing her hand on the opposite side of a pane of glass as the heptapod’s tentacle. But it’s kind of true, isn’t it? The stakes are much much lower, sure. The stray cat in the yard did not land an intimidatingly giant egg-shaped spacecraft. When I first saw her, two days after Christmas, she was an erect furry statue of a thing atop the peach cushion on one of my patio chairs. Her green eyes looked at me, startled. I’ve seen strays in my yard before but never one who seemed comfortable with taking up a residence. And day after day, night after night, that’s what she appeared to be doing when I looked for her out of my back door’s window. A little calico nub huddled for warmth on that chair. I started putting out little bowls of water and feeding her spare cans of tuna. She would run away as soon as she saw me but after I snuck away I would catch her chowing down. But if she heard or saw me she would dash out of sight.

After maybe two weeks of regular feedings I tried opening the door while I was crouched and sat with her while she ate. Often it was so cold I had to wrap myself in a blanket to stand the exposure. It broke my heart to think she had to endure it nightly. Slowly she grew more and more accustomed to me. And then on the last day in January she let me scratch her head. I whispered “you just want to be loved, don’t you?” I know she doesn’t understand language but she understood affection. As she nudged my hand to pet her again, I started to cry. This little furry entity had begun to trust me. So I felt like Amy Adams talking to the hectapods, touching the glass and watching them touch it back.

A huge snow storm hit the New York area later that day and I didn’t see Susan for days. I had made a shelter for her in December and even put some food in it but she showed no ownership of that dwelling. She had to have a hiding spot for inclement weather. She’s smart, she’s alright, I assured myself. She’ll be back. The next time I saw her she was sleeping in a pile of leaves in the alley. And soft flakes were falling around her. I decided then and there that this cat I named Susan would have to move inside.

My strong conviction did not prevent doubt from occasionally swirling through my mind. Was I insane for wanting to adopt this cat? I knew nothing about cats, let alone this one. What if she didn’t want to be inside? What if she scratches my beloved possessions? What if the pet allergy that I always referred to as “mild” is secretly severe? Is it too expensive to have a pet? Too much of a commitment? What if her family was looking for her? I got such a mixed response from telling people about my plan that I started to keep it completely to myself. We had bonded and that was that.

From our new spot in the alley she meowed for me to pet her almost constantly. It was hard to close the door and say goodnight, especially considering the still-frozen temperatures. She started to put her paws on my leg and peak into the warm and bright space that existed behind me. One night we invited her in to see what she would do. Any sudden movement and she ran. So we sat perfectly still on the kitchen floor as she stalked toward us. When she reached me and the long plaid skirt I was wearing that day she climbed onto my lap and looked deep into my eyes. The next time she ventured in, I shut the side door. This would be a crucial test in the Susan Experiment. At first she was startled. But then she started to sniff around. It wasn’t long before she made herself cozy on the fluffy living room rug, and even sat on the couch with her head and paws sweetly on my lap. I knew it wouldn’t be right to put her back outside nor was it right to bring her in forever without having a vet check her out. But logic pained me and the persistent need I had to save my little Susan from the cruel world. I took the first appointment I could get and prayed for a week’s worth of patience.

On a Friday in late February, I coaxed Susan in through the backdoor and shut in. At first, she meowed —in fear? I felt a pang of guilt. She wouldn’t rather be outside, would she? I resolved this was a time when I knew what she needed more than she did, my first real “motherly” decision. Speaking of mothers, my incredibly supportive one drove me and Susan in her carrier to a nearby vet and waited with me in the car. Everyone there reassured me of my adoption, telling me how sweet and gentle she is. They found a scar from being spayed but no chip. She was ready to come home to live with me forever.

Later that day, a cat-owning friend of mine asked how old the vet thought she was. “Two or three,” I told her. And she said “oh that’s great! Cats live a long time so you’ll have her for a while.” How long? About 15-20 more years. I agreed this was great news! But I also realized I was so caught up in the process of courting and taming my wild little beast, I forgot to worry about the rest of my life with her. Or rather, when and where this new relationship will take me and how I will feel when it’s over.

One of the questions Arrival asks is what if you knew exactly what would happen to you in your life? The things you would fail at, the people you would lose, the success you would have if you only suspended your fear. Every time I watch it I get emotional, in awe at this big experiment we all participate in each day. I chose to adopt a creature that I know I must love unconditionally, even when she vomits on my collectible Golf Le Fleur sneakers (which she has done twice) and play-bites me a little too hard (every single day). And even though I’m a little scared to have something that will last so long, I’m even more afraid of when that lasting ceases. I have to remind myself: the joy is worth the risk. It is inevitable that we will lose as we gain.

Sometimes I wonder about her old family. The vet said she had been spayed and vaccinated so she had to belong to someone before. Did she get out and not know the way home? Did they abandon her? Every night when it would rain or snow before she became my newest roommate, I would cry thinking of her trying to stay warm. She was so accustomed to the Great Inside the first night I brought her in, I expected there to be no issues. I figured the hardest part in adopting her was seeing her suffer before I could get a coveted vet appointment. Once she was in, I imagined a riding-off-into-the-sunset-type feeling for her as my pet. And I did feel that way but it was an adjustment. She was incredibly skittish and hid a lot. When she started to sleep in my bed, I would wake up so many times in the night, overly aware that I might kick or roll over onto her. Still, I didn’t regret my decision.

By the end of her first month living inside, she was comfortable sleeping in my bed, curled up close to my legs. She stopped hiding as much. I think of how my mom recorded all my developments in a baby book. “Two months at home, Susan has started perching herself on the couch arms and exploring the dining table.” “She doesn’t care about half or more of the little toys and climbing things I buy her but the yellow chaise in the living room drives her nuts.” “She isn’t as alarmed at the loud clatter of putting away dishes.” She knows our routines, providing me with a daily wake up call for breakfast to be served immediately. Everything she does is interesting to me. Maybe one day that glimmer will wear away, but not yet. Maybe never.

I had always been a little afraid of animals, even pets. They seemed so wild and surreal to have walking around your home. Maybe that’s why I still find myself mesmerized by the way she watches the pigeons outside the window of our new apartment or grooms herself. She’s not an object to possess. She’s a living little thing with boundaries, a tiny carnivore who I let sleep in my bed.

Before she lived inside, every time it would rain or howl with wind I would cry for little Susan out there. The last month she spent in a crate I “insulated “ with some bath towels on the inside and a tight-fitting garbage bag around it to keep the cold out. Right now, it is pouring right outside. And, in an unusual twist, Susan is letting me hold her. Normally she escapes after 10-30 seconds of embrace but tonight’s she trying it out. She let herself get comfortable and started purring.

One year ago, on December 27, 2020, I took a peek out my window and saw her for the first time. Since then, she’s met a lot of new people and moved with me twice (a fiasco for another essay); now we live in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan with no yards and more noise. She definitely enjoyed moving even less than I did, but seeing her now, you would never know she once lived anywhere else.

As our bond grows, spaces in my heart continue to open up. I have always believed her to be magical. Many schools of mysticism from around the world consider Calico cats like Susan to be lucky and protective. Cat eyes themselves are believed to see into other dimensions. Can she see her other family, her before-life, her time as a stray as she sees the present moment? Did she see me before I saw her? Maybe, like Arrival’s extraterrestrials, her genetic make-up allows her to perceive time as non-linear. Maybe she’s just a cute cat who likes me to pet her while I’m on the toilet.

I could go on forever about all the sweet and funny things she does: bite the branches of my fake Christmas tree, try to drink coffee and steal a steak bone from my plate, sleep between my legs some nights, suspect my feet moving under the covers is another animal, curl up extra close when I’m sad. This is an experiment in unconditional love on loop.

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writer + pop culture Historian  

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