Many years ago when I first started this blog, I did so with the intention of it being a series of epistles to my sons, a chronicle of randomness throughout our lives together which would ultimately impart a moral or character-building lesson. I see now that I have sort of destroyed that intention — from the cheap seats, this platform could be considered to have morphed into an all-about-me show, but really, if you dial in, you will see that it’s still got some good lessons and stories for the boys to go over well after I’m mushroom food — but it all just happened. Much like this story I’m about to tell. (I’ll go into the mushroom thing later.)
This is our neighbor’s cat, now.
We used to call him “Gandalf.” I’m not sure what the neighbors call him, but now we refer to him as “Stolen.”
Gandalf came to us in 2004, after our loss of Skipper to the rescue league (I think I told that story on this blog) because he was basically dropped at our doorstep when all I planned on doing was helping his senior owner learn about the breed his children dumped on him after his wife died and his kids thought he could use some company, not the hip replacement Skipper induced.
Gandalf and his sister, Beezer (aptly named from “BC” for “black cat” and the phrase “bee-cee” morphed into “Beecee Beecer…” and then of course, “Beezer” but that doesn’t matter because on her vet file, she’s referred to as “Bitsy”) were picked up from a local source (pet store — I know, I’ll never do that again) in a moment of weakness. They were born on Boxing Day 2003. My husband knew all my life that all I wanted was a male gray barn cat and when Gandalf was a kitten he showed great promise. My sister-in-law had also recently acquired two sibling cats and she said it was better to have two cats than to have one cat (hmm, they have only their black cat too now), so I told my husband to do it, get both. He did.
Of course they were adorable. Of course they were cuddly and purred. They had blue eyes when they were babies; we knew they would not likely stay blue. They were goofy and we indulged them with all the love and attention they could withstand. It was delightful to watch them grow up.
They are cats. We learned when they were about 10 months old that we were staff. Did the love affair end? Not at all. We still appeal to their aloofness and tried to get them to interact with us, but they made it clear from their early months, that they were to be revered and observed and not really … “owned.” We tried collars. We tried bells on collars. We tried walking them on a leash (BWAHAHAHAAAAA! Such folly!) We never abandoned them and we always followed their lead. They were the cats. We invited them into our lives.
When they were about 15 months old, after they had been sterilized, they made it quite clear (have you heard a cat incessantly yowl?) that they preferred an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Gandalf more so than Beezer. He liked to roam. We loved him so much we had a chip installed in him when he was recovered at a vet’s after he roamed more than 2 miles from home one three-day weekend when we were home; we hadn’t seen him for more than a week. I’d like to thank the Sullivans for posting “found cat” signs along the path to school on the same weekend we were posting our “lost cat” signs. Closer in, he would follow us along the curb line when we would walk Maggie, our first Golden. He would follow us to school in the morning when I would drop off Connor, my oldest, to kindergarten. It was a thing we did every day: all the neighborhood children who walked to school would marvel at and try to pet our elusive yet devoted silly gray cat who stalked us along the ferns and wild lilies to the educave where I reluctantly deposited my five-year-old for his daily infusion of state-designed education. Sometimes “G” or “Gandy” (as we called him) would stay behind, looking quizzically at me as if to suggest: “That’s it? You’re leaving?! What about the one in there? What the hell?” And he would literally walk around the school and wait outside the window looking in. One morning, he found Connor’s classroom and I got a phone call.
“Mrs. Field, we believe your cat is at the school looking in the windows. Could you please get him? He’s lovely. He’s also a major distraction.”
By the time I plopped the kids in the stroller and dashed up there, to try to coax him home (I was not about to deal with a kitty kennel and a double stroller) G was vapor. He probably knew I was coming. Cats know things.
We were a team. Over the years, we began to understand each other. Gandalf simply wanted tactical support during untenable weather, a reliable food source, and a place to shit. We wanted a cat and this is how we operated. “What about Beezer?” you ask? She’s still here. She’s a curious little girl, a bit timid but she warms up to you eventually. No food required, just a gradual and earned trust. She doesn’t fancy being held. But she will endure it to escape the dogs to and from her adventures outdoors. She’s a fantastic hunter and she shows us her devotion to us with a dead mole, small snake or baby something on the doorstep every couple of weeks.
Now that I’ve updated you on our history, I will bring you up to speed (with some backstory) on the current situation.
Our neighbors, in their late 60s and early 70s, have lived on this street since its inception. They are what are referred to as “original owners.” We’ve lived here since 2000, so we’ve known them for some time. Overall, it’s been an avuncular and materteral relationship. We’ve assisted each other with lifestyle requests (lawn care after medical procedures, tool borrowing, etc.) when needed. It’s been high level with some deeper niches here and there. Our houses face each other. It’s how things can be on a “pipestem” or “private driveway” culture.
They have had their own cat, an orange male tabby, “OJ,” who was beautiful and would stare at G and Beezer with both envy and disgust. Then they had “Cricket,” the dog belonging to the frail in-law father who moved in after his wife died and his house was sold. Somewhere along the history in the last six years, OJ died, the father-in-law died, and Cricket died. It was all very sad and hard on the couple, but this is life, is it not?
“Why don’t you get another cat?” I would ask… “You loved your OJ… he was low maintenance and when you travel, cats are pretty cool with a long weekend and very easy to look after…”
“Naaaaah. Too much work. Too much hassle. My heart would break when we would lose it. I don’t want to get attached. I don’t want the expense. I don’t want to deal with another pet. Too much work. I want freedom,” would be the standard answer(s).
These conversations would often occur after they would joke about how G would sneak into their house when the garage – house door was ajar.
“He’s so faaaayast…” the wife would say between hearty laughs in her scratchy Great Lakes accent. “I cayaan’t catch him!”
I would look askance, nod in gentle acknowledgment … my gut telling me something was “off” as we say in the woo-woo world. Gandalf was lots of things. FAST is not one of them. He’s like the slow, lumbering, pimp-rolling cat who OWNS this street. He has nothing to rush about. He doesn’t give a crap about your car coming up the street. He watches YOU steer out of the way. I’m convinced he was part dog. We used to call him “KittyDog” as a joke, but now we call him “Stolen.”
“Well, just don’t let him develop a habit. Call me and I’ll come get him. Or just toss him out. We don’t want to confuse him.” I would say. Keeping the conversation going.
“Oh absolutely! I can deal without the cat hair! Ha! I’ll toss him!” she would say, unconvincingly.
Over the years, we started to see less and less of Gandalf at home. Our home. His home.
It got to be a problem. My kids were concerned. I would email the street: “Has anyone see Gandalf? Please let us know, the boys are very sad…” Everyone would reply “Nope. Haven’t seen him. Will let you know if we do. Will keep an eye out…” except one. Crickets. (Ha!)
One day soon after that missive, I saw G slink outside the front door of my neighbors’ house. Like he was performing the cross-campus walk of shame. Except he was simply crossing 30 feet of macadam. He was leaving the house of you know, the people who didn’t want a pet. That having a pet was too much work. That they didn’t want to get attached. That they didn’t need the expense. The hassle. They just wanted to borrow him for comfort … ?
He sauntered to my door: “mew.” I’d let him in.
This pattern continued a few more months and then I said to my husband: this has to get real, now.
Here I go again: growing up in a world where enabling, deceit and duplicity and shame and hiding truth was a way of life, I had determined when I was a young woman that even if it meant I was going to be a caustic raving troubadour of truth, that I was NOT going to live in a world where people simply didn’t own their shit.
My husband, knowing for certain that he’d married a real liability about stuff like this and that I’d reached my limit of neighborly kindliness and looking-the-other-way -ness about it, knew he had two options: he could handle it and things would likely go nice and diplomatic or I could handle it and it was going to be like a freaking social nuclear holocaust on their asses.
He handled it. He went over to their house and had a doorstep chat about it. He had all his facts. He presented the situation and they admitted to it and hung their cat-thieving heads in shame and said they’d stop doing it.
Enter… the summer. Gandalf comes and goes. He’s happy. He’s losing weight. He’s fine.
Enter… the fall. Same. He’s never been a fan of indoor living and he wasn’t thrilled when Charlie took up residence here, but he’s a cat. He flew under the radar. He came and went as he pleased. At midnight he would howl and we would let him out. In the morning, he’d be at the doorstep mewing all, “breakfast?” And we’d let him in.
Enter… the winter … and G was having sleepovers again. His absence was the harbinger of the resumption of their dysfunctional behavior. I remember disTINCTly the time I saw with my own bespectaled eyes, their readmittance of MY CAT into their home. It was a standard February day here in Northern Virginia: 45˚ and sunny. G padded around the house, rubbed his furry gray head into my shin and “rowled” hello. He followed me to the front door and mewed that he wanted to go out, so I let him. He sat on our brick stoop for a while (much like in the photo above) and then he got up, stretched in at least 15 different ways and began his daily constitutional, walking around outside, performing a census of the bayberry thorns with his back in the neighbor’s yard and slinking beneath their junipers stopping from time to time to daintily sniff something.
I was just watching him do his kitty thing in the bright sunshine. The morning sun’s reflection on the glass storm door across the asphalt caught my eye as my female neighbor OPENED THAT DOOR, LOOKED FROM SIDE TO SIDE LIKE SHE WAS IN A 1930’s GANSTGER FLICK AND “TSK TSK TSK’D” MY CAT INTO HER FUCKING HOUSE. Gandalf looked up from his sniffing and trotted through her doorway.
I lost my mind. I counted to 10 in kitty years. I took a few breaths. I did all the shit I tell my yoga students and all the freaked out little kids to do when they’re upset and none of it worked. It was like I was staring at a hall of mirrors of “FUCK MEOW YOU” written all over them.
I often refer to moments in my life with scenes from movies, to bring people into my state of mind. There’s a great scene in “Raising Arizona” when Holly Hunter’s character, Ed (who was a police officer), discovers Nick Cage (Hi) has reverted to armed robbery (“it ain’t armed robbery if the gun’s not loaded,” he would say earlier in his defense during his parole hearings) and has a panty on his head. Why? He was absconding with a bulk case of Huggies diapers for the baby he and Ed, now his wife, have just kidnapped because she was infertile. (This is a comedy, so stay with me.) Ed, in full police chase driving mode, drives to pick up Hi and as she sees him with the gun raised to the pimple-faced teenage store clerk, and she puts the car in park, gets out of the car, stands up, points at Hi and screams, “YOUSONOFABITCH!” at least twice. That’s how I felt. I felt kinship with her character, Ed, because she had been deceived. Instead of shouting what she did, I pointed and shouted, “YOUFUCKINGBITCH!” at least twice as I watched that harlot let my cat in her house without a damned care in the world and how small it made me feel.
If you’ve never seen Raising Arizona, you need to; here’s a great summary which still doesn’t do the film justice: https://youtu.be/wQYY7TSnPXQ
I realize this is not about the cat. This is not about Gandalf being “disloyal” and all the other human attachments we assign to animals. I read National Geographic. I’ve known for YEARS that cats are whores. Especially the indoor-outdoor type. I wasn’t concerned about G’s well-being because he was a badass. He OWNED this ‘hood. It wasn’t about his weight or his health or the fact that every time he’d been away for several days we’d know where he was because he smelled like their we’re-no-longer-smokers but our-house-smells-like-cheap-candles-to-cover-up-the-stench house. Whenever G came home from an overnight he smelled like the cheap cologne from a brothel washroom (or what I’d imagine that space would smell like). Every time, we would sniff him and say, “He’s been tricking.”
Because I know this isn’t about the cat but rather human weakness, fear and cowardice, I’ve basically tried to let it go. I’ve looked the other way. I’ve gone Jesus about it and turned the other cheek. I have zoomed out: these are sad people with nothing really going on. I’m not being coarse when I say they barely leave their house. The husband is a workaholic and has had two heart attacks. He’s on a pacemaker now. The wife is probably enduring some form of insulin resistance or compromised health or depression and their marriage is likely a silent one. If G hanging out with them brings pleasure to their lives and their sad existence, then he’s doing the work of angels and nuns. I’m good with it. What I’m NOT good with, no shock here if you’ve read anything I’ve written, is THE LYING and the GAME PLAYING, the silence.
It continued for years. I would play Jesus. I would let it go. I would notice my beautiful gray barn cat getting fatter and fatter. To keep the peace on this tiny cul de sac, I would keep my piece.
“He doesn’t come home and when he is here he doesn’t eat. He barely talks to me. He hisses at the dogs. He smells like Old Spice or Brut. His body is changing… I think he’s having an affair!” Same with cats. Save for the lipstick on the collar.
Four years later, this May, shit hit the fan. I am guessing literally, over at the House of Stolen Cat. Gandalf hasn’t been lodging with us for at least a year. He comes in to eat and nap then leaves before long. Apparently family living isn’t for him, plus our kibble likely sucks in comparison to what was in the Fancy Feast tins I’ve seen in their trash. No, I didn’t go snooping although now I wish I had.
My husband and I are watching a murder show around 10pm. This is what we do when we are exhausted and bored and want to compare our lives to the sadness on exploitative television.
His phone lights up with a text from the man who will now be known as “Mr. Cat Thief.”
MCT: We think the cat is sick. It has been coughing a lot tonight.
Dan [after much laughter from us before replying and chatting about ‘the cat‘]: What cat?
Dan: Well, you would know better than I. You have allowed him to live with you for at least a year. We take him to XYZ vet.
MCT: We would like to take him to the vet. We would pay of course. But he has a chip. They might balk at us for bringing him in without your consent.
Pause… we are laughing. We can’t believe this is happening. I’m all “‘but he has a chip…’ — that’s because HE’S NOT YOURS, YOU EFFERS!”
Finally, Gandalf is giving them what they deserve: the hassle, the vet bills, the companionship, the attachment, the heartache — the true surreptitious ownership (despite EVERYTHING they said they didn’t want) of MY GRAY BARN CAT — because we haven’t had him overnight in our house for more than a year and he’s become obese and flatulent at their hand and their cowardice. Dan and I debate this conversation. We are bitter. Well, I am bitter. I’m half bitter, actually: I’m THRILLED that they’re having to reach out to us about OUR cat that THEY stole from us and I’m pissed that they are effing cowards and assholes.
Dan? Dan’s dancing a jig, finally free of the cat who literally was a giant nagging eating and shitting machine — an asshole to us. Finally relieved of tending to his shitbox. I can see in Dan’s head, the cartoonish “for sale” sign attached to Gandalf’s kitty house. We talk some more. A little at odds over how to handle this. I want to say, “FUCK YOU! YOU STOLE OUR CAT!” when we both know that won’t solve anything. “That’s not why they’re texting, sweetie,” Dan reminds me. This is how we work.
Dan: Go ahead and take him [forever] to the vet. We will authorize the transfer and ownership of Gandalf to you.
Here’s the actual thread with crappy editing:
Dan is freaking on fire. He’s laughing so hard and he’s so happy. He can’t believe his luck.
I’m laughing with Dan sincerely while at the same time I’m also enraged that no one — not even my beloved — has called them out explicitly for stealing our cat from us after our requests to not let him in, to not develop habits with him, to remember he doesn’t live with them despite his insistence that he thinks he does. Curiosity does not equal dominion.
Do I miss Gandalf? Yeah, a little and a lot sometimes. He’s a beauty and he used to live here. I resent the hell out of this situation because I chose to be nice, that I chose to be all Jesus and turn-the-other-cheekish about this. I really do.
And then it comes back to me, my lessons from all those years on the couch: It’s hard to be soft.
So they took him to the vet. The next weekday morning, I answered the call on our house line and it was the receptionist at XYZ vet telling me that MrsCT was presenting Gandalf. Asking if I was ok with their bringing him in for attention and observation? I was pissed. They actually went through with it… probably thinking as well that they were better cat owners than we. That if we really loved him… I don’t know. But I allowed the transfer of the chip and ownership to them. Now they are confronted with their outcome. We all are. It could be easily said that if I really wanted my cat that I would MARCH THE HELL OVER TO THEIR HOUSE AND DEMAND!!!! THEY RELEASE HIM AND NEVER DO IT AGAIN!!!
But that’s really silly. I am not a fanatic. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to live like this.
I’m also not a hypocrite. As depicted in the photo in the beginning, taken this morning, Gandalf clearly still comes “home” to us, but we don’t let him in. We don’t want to further confuse him and frankly, we don’t own him anymore. We’ve handed over all rights to M/MCT. He rubs against my leg, but he doesn’t come in. He sits on our stoop, infuriating Charlie and is sociable to Beezer who hisses at him whenever she gets the chance. (This is not new behavior for her, she’s one of those kitties who absolutely has to let herself be known so she can operate freely in her zone.)
The thing is though, that we would’ve absolutely had a real conversation about them adopting Gandy if they wanted to. We spoke privately about it. We saw what was happening — they would feed him, he’d get fatter and we’d have to deal with their indulgence but they openly said they didn’t want a pet; they just wanted our cat but not own him-own him.
It sucked. The only way to have dealt with it was to deal with it. For several months before this went down, Dan and I would talk to each other about how something had to change; that they had to stop doing what they were doing or that we were going to have to upgrade their status. But Gandalf took care of it all on his own.
So how did the following weekend’s Memorial Day Pipestem Cookout go, you ask? It went fine. MrsCT was sociable and acted as though nothing had happened. She seems willing to speak about unpleasant things when they have to do with her husband who takes her nowhere. Ever. I cooley smiled and then ignored her and drank my Bud Light Limes under the shade of my crepe myrtle with my bestie. MrCT was as cold as my beer. He likely knew that I was seething under my red white and blue frock, and I didn’t care. To me, Maya Angelou (God rest her), was loud and clear: “When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them.” That first time was when in their weakness and heartache they stole Gandalf six years ago. I knew it would happen again. I choose to be real. I won’t speak to them at all anymore unless they start the conversation and of course like Dutiful Recovering Catholics, we won’t talk about it, even though I know it would be best. I honestly don’t think they can handle the conversation.
So what’s the moral lesson here? What’s the platitude if I can’t think of anything substantial…? I think it’s that we all screw up, but that it’s not OK to say “I just screwed up.” That we have to go deeper, we have to do more. We can’t just roll over people and expect them to be ok. We have to do the right thing. We have to own our screw ups and own the pain we cause others. We have to admit our weaknesses for other peoples’ things (if you’re the M/MCTs) and come to terms with how our choices shape the lives of the people around us. Not to mention the shape of their cat.