Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

How a cat has grounded us in San Fran

The little ball of fur was a real, honest thing when California seemed anything but, writes Sarah Griffin

Mon, Apr 22, 2013, 01:00


Sarah Griffin

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When his body moved back under the covers I started to wake up properly, having been in the strange half-sleep-space I’d taught myself how to slip into when, months before, the cat had started to commence life-ruining in the hours before dawn. CB was sniffling, his body colder despite the enormous blue bath robe he’d acquired at some point between our room and the kitchen.

Each morning between four and seven when the cat’s slow, deliberate dismantling of our bedroom begins, I mumble an identical thanks to CB when he, soft touch, gives in to Moriarty first and rises to feed him. I know it well now, the rhythm of his walk to the kitchen, the creak of the press, the click and hiss of the tin opening, the scrape of a fork the clink of the bowl on the floor, the padding of CB’s feet back through the flat then back into bed. I can not see anything during this time, my eyes are still closed, but I know the melody of this daily routine so well that it becomes a part of my sleep.

This particular morning was during the phase where Moriarty had discovered the noise that our plastic, colourless, came-with-the-apartment blinds made. We don’t have a window or balcony in our bedroom, just a strange set of ancient glass double doors and a steel grill, leading out onto a fire-escape. The blinds look as though they belong in a clinic, or a class-room from my childhood in the ashy grey of 1990s Ireland. That is to say, they are so ugly they can not be disguised. They make a clacking noise when they move. They make a louder, more disturbing noise when they are the target of a certain small airborne feline’s fearless assault.

This noise makes me think of bones being snapped, many bones all at once. It is a spine played like a tuneless xylophone. It is the warning rumble of the earthquakes that native San Franciscans keep warning me about. Clack-clack-clack, all foreboding and plastic. Sometimes it is the first sound I hear in the day – the overture to my new life.

I almost have learned how to tune it out – one morning it rained and I focused so hard on the hush of the rain that the murder-clack just faded into nothing. Tiny victories. CB however, has not mastered ignoring it. It gets inside his skin and he can not rest until it stops. He faithfully, time and time again, rises to feed the creature, then returns sadly to bed, sleep broken, day begun far too early.

As he pulled back the covers and rejoined me, I leant into him tenderly, but he did not lie down to meet me. He was sitting upright, leaning forward. This alarmed me. I sat up to see what was wrong, still sleep-delirious.

His hand was clenched to his nose, bunched with tissues.

“Do you have a nosebleed?”
“Are you ok?”
“Did the cat give you a nosebleed?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“When was the last time you had one?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think the cat gave you a nosebleed.”

Nosebleeds freak me out because I’ve never had one in my whole entire life. They make me think of the X-Files and people having sudden, violent brain-hemorrhages and alien capsules being implanted into the skin in your neck. I remember children having them in the playground and holding their head back, nostrils crammed with toilet-paper, so that the blood rolled back into their system like nothing ever happened. I wonder where they are now, the nosebleed kids, and if they ever suffered repercussions as adults from all the runaway blood they drained back into their airways.

As CB sat there in the morning that came too early, head tilted forward, I was angrier at the cat than I ever had been. My partner was bleeding out of his face because of this creature. The man who had agreed, only a week before, to spend the rest of his life with me, had undergone what I still consider a violent psychic injury, due to the disgraceful antics of an animal that had more fur than body-mass. I was so furious – why did we do this to ourselves? Welcome this disaster into our home?

The cat entered our lives in summer, shortly after I first stepped onto Ceaser Chavez, with 48 kilos of my life in two cheap suitcases, jetlagged and terrified. I had not expected the cold plateau of unemployment to follow me to America from home and was finding it extremely difficult to connect with people – as a result, while CB was in work miles away in Silicon Valley, I often spent days just walking. Trying to understand the language of San Francisco, hoping that if I put in enough footsteps it would would suddenly all make sense to me. At first this habit was from necessity: I need to know where I am, so I’ll go out into the world. It then grew into a ritual. Walk to fill your day until something else comes along.

Every very day I would wander a little further down into the grid of the Mission, picking up things in thrift stores to place in our hollow little flat that might make it look like home. My discomfort at being there had escalated to a seething hatred: this empty house was not what emigration was meant to look like. So I walked.

This mapless wandering eventually took me to a huge set of buildings near a freeway bridge – they were familiar, I’d passed them before, but had never yet been drawn inside. SFSPCA is a lot of letters but I knew one of them stood for animals and I’m not sure what I was thinking, wandering in, saying I was in the mind of adopting a kitten and did they have any?

I have never owned a domestic animal in my life. Three kittens had orbited me throughout my adult life, at various distances. Cammy, a college boyfriend’s Norwegian Forest cat with no eyelids. Lola, an old friend’s pink bellied tabby. Jaws, my former housemate’s toothless black and white rescue. All made weird noises and were very small until they weren’t, and were absent as soon as they grew out of this cuteness and became old enough to prowl suburban landscapes for baby birds to torture. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead at all as I wandered the strange corridors full snoozing, mewling balls of fur.

When I would hint, as a small child, to my father that kittens were lots of fun and a great idea, he would regale me with stories of the dead cats of his childhood: white baby ones found squished beneath packing cases in the garden, bags of them drowned in the Clonmel river, Mama and Fatso who lived and lived and bred and bred. “Kittens turn into cats,” he’d say, “Cats won’t love you like you love them.”

Visiting the small creatures at the SFSPCA became a thing I did sometimes. This is not something I am proud of, because I honestly think it is a little bit sad. It is a clear reflection of how badly I needed company during those days – how completely disoriented I was. I’d turn the idea over and over that adopting a pet would be the thing that would plant me some roots in America. Maybe it would turn me into an adult – or at very least, bring some reality into the barren, overpriced new home I found myself in. A thing with fur and lungs and eyes that needs to be fed and taken care of would bring normality, wouldn’t it? People in the world swear they love their animals like brothers and sisters, don’t they?

I entertained the notion of just showing up at the door of our flat with a kitten under my arm, but realized I had to have a conversation with CB before springing a life on him. I know this, because, for our three month anniversary, years before, I’d decided it would be romantic to bring him a goldfish. Here, new love of my life, is a goldfish in a jamjar that I brought all the way from a petshop in Bray for you! It survived the whole journey on the bus even though the lad who sold it to me said he might not make it the whole way to Christchurch but look at it go! Little fighter!

CB, having majored in philosophy in his undergrad, was not in the least bit impressed with this – a tiny life in a plastic bag was not a present. I maintained it was not a tiny life, it was basically a plant with eyeballs. The fish, unnamed, lived for almost half a year. Most of that half a year it lived in a saucepan full of tap water. I like to think it lived a happy little fish life, floating in the blackness of the saucepan, almost a bit like drifting in space. In retrospect maybe we should have called it Astronaut, instead of nothing at all.

To avoid another saucepan situation, I said to CB that I figured a cat would ground us. Put down some roots. Stop us running at the first sign of trouble. Plus kittens were adorable and possibly internet-lucrative. We could be millionaires, CB, think about it, it’s a business investment. Whatever way that conversation went, through the inevitable, “Is this a practice baby?” moment, through the, “It’s going to live for like, ever, you know that, right?” sequence, and finally finished at the, “Let’s do it, this could be hilarious.”

I was very proud when I eventually returned to the SFSPCA with another person on my arm, because I’m sure the staff were a little wary of sad-girl-with-weird-accent-wandering-around-the-kennels.

Moriarty, then named Muffin, was in a puddle of his brothers in a “kitty condo” with a television screen that played a loop of a flickering image of a forest bird on a branch. He had the longest hair of all of his siblings, was patched black and white like a tiny cow, and looked a little like a reject puppet from the Henson Workshop, possibly around the Labyrinth/Dark Crystal era. I picked him up, and his fingertip sized paw went straight for the emerald necklace I wore on my neck. He was a thief. A bandit. Love at first looting – the little creep was coming home with us.

CB quickly revealed himself to be a kitten whisperer, the small thing would stand on his shoulder like a demented parrot on some sort of a glasses-wearing skinny-jeaned pirate. The kitten and I would lie in bed in the mornings when I scanned aimlessly through Craigslist writing/editing job listings. He was so small he could just lie on my sternum, purring like a handheld thunderstorm. I’d look over his little head and scan through the potential futures each listing held for me: I’d type up cover-letter after cover-letter and receive radio silence. I was still learning how to apply for jobs, still figuring out how to aggressively sell myself and it was challenging. He didn’t mind though, he was there, constantly, reminding me I was not alone.

He, a little like myself, was poorly co-ordinated but had the ambition of a mountain climber. Me and CB would invent endless histories for him, projecting a million stories onto him. He was a bank robber, a former punk rocker, a supermodel – he became a weird little catalyst for more sessions of hysterical laughter and elaborate fictional narratives than I ever had expected.

And yet, there he was that morning, sitting on the end of our bed, as CB bled out of his face. I was so angry, so enraged at that moment by how we hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since Moriarty came into our lives, so utterly and totally freaked out by the fact that my partner was bleeding out of his face.

I held CB very tightly as Moriarty continued to ricochet himself around the bedroom, as he usually does at dawn, until we eventually passed into an uneasy last few hours of rest before we had to get up and be people, an intern and an internet detective.

When I woke up properly, later in the morning, CB having departed for Silicon Valley long before, the black and white creature was snoozing in a little ball beside me. I thought about the day ahead of me again: the strangeness of Americans and their television voices, how it was still so hard to connect with them. I scratched Moriarty under his chin, he purred, eyes blinking open all interstellar yellow. A life-ruiner, sure. A holy terror. But absolutely a real, honest thing when California seemed anything but.

Sarah Griffin writes essays and poems and can be found on Twitter @griffski. She is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read other articles written on her departure from Dublin, on ‘The ache of homesickness’, on Christmas in Ireland, a dialogue about the emigrant experience with fellow Irish writer in San Francisco Ethel Rohan, and how ‘Making a new home does not take away the home you had’.