Love at First Sight
Love at first sight is psychologically unfashionable, regarded as pathology, or worse a breach of taste. But it happens, and here is what happened to me:
I was working one fall at a foundering magazine, and to relieve the boredom born of unrelenting anxiety, I often left the office, sometimes at lunch hour, occasionally in the middle of a long afternoon, to stroll about the neighborhood, a dull stretch of midtown gridwork whose sole attraction was a fancy cat store, a hole-in-the-wall, actually, where the surroundings were as dingy as the cats were elegant. I had no intention of buying a cat, having long since pronounced myself an unfit owner, but I found the presence of these animals soothing, the way some people are calmed by spending a half-hour in the pew of an empty church.
One November afternoon, the kind of day when the sky is an ominous almost white, I wandered in, and out of the comer of my left eye caught a glimpse of something huddled in the back of a cage. It had a small, rather pointed head, two sharp green eyes, huge, bat-like ears, luminous gray fur, and a Dickensian air; it looked, in truth, more like a rat than a cat. Instead of being repelled, I was riveted.
“What is this?” I asked the proprietress, without daring to take my eyes off it.
“A Russian Blue,” she said. “And you don’t want one.”
A none-too-savory-looking character herself (she would have been at home in a P.D. James novel) she went on to explain that Russian Blues are very difficult and tried to turn my attention to a Siamese across the narrow room.
“Just let me hold him,” I said, and the woman, muttering, opened the cage and lifted a miserable thirteen-week-old male cat out of his paper scraps.
I took him, as gently as I could, and held him against my shoulder, scarcely breathing myself. Finally I heard the faintest purr-not so much a purr as a sigh, of resignation perhaps. I promptly fell in love.
“Your name is Cole,” I whispered into the down of his neck. The name had popped unbidden into my mind. I don’t know why-except for the obvious fact of his color, and possibly because the smooth, disdainful shape of his skull reminded me of an old photo of a pomaded Mr. Porter.
In ‘Concerning the Birth of Love,’ a chapter of his book, On Love, the great 19th century French writer (and skirt chaser), Stendhal, describes the progression of love from coup de foudre to obsession as akin to “crystallization,” the process by which the love object becomes endowed with laudable qualities, just as a bare bough tossed into a salt mine becomes encrusted with “scintillating diamonds” until the original branch is no longer recognizable. Stendhal also notes that crystallization occurs when the infatuation is not immediately consummated, which is a lovely 19th century notion.
I left the cat store, sans cat, trudged back to work, and finally went home that evening to entertained myself with thoughts of Cole, a delicious torture that I indulged in over the next week or so. It wasn’t a long time by Stendhal’s standards, but I felt possessed, although I have no idea any more what I thought would happen if I brought this fantastic creature home. Something. I just knew that I had to have him, no matter what he cost (the cats in this hovel were very expensive), and that I would risk the ridicule of friends who brought in strays or purchased cats from Bide-A-Wee.
And so it happened that I returned to the cat store (feeling less like a potential pet owner than a criminal, or an insane person) and told the owner that I didn’t care what the cat was supposed to be like, that he liked me (he had purred) and I liked him, and here was a blank check, would she please fill in the amount and not tell me on the remote possibility that seeing the figures would derail me from what I now regarded as destiny. Criminally insane.
There are any number of explanations for why I fell so precipitously in love with Cole. According to Stendhal, love at first sight depends on the element of surprise after a long, fallow stretch of boredom. And I was bored. But I tend to believe that this thunderclap had some more mystical, albeit slightly skewed, significance.
At the same time that I was chewing my nails at my boring job, I was also working on a piece of fiction that I eventually finished and sent off to The New Yorker, as I had been doing with poems, stories and “filler” items ever since grammar school, and collecting in return an impressive stack of tidy printed rejection slips. What was unusual this time was that I was utterly convinced—as convinced as I had been that Cole was the cat for me—that I had finally struck the perfect New Yorker note, a conviction only enhanced by the fact that the magazine had kept the piece an auspicious length of time.
When I finally heard from The New Yorker, it was not a form rejection: it was a handwritten letter from one of the editors who was extremely nice and quite encouraging. I was not disappointed, and I quickly wrote back, thanking the editor for his kind words, but adding that I had been so convinced that the piece would be accepted that I had gone out and spent the money I would have been paid for a Russian Blue cat. “Please advise.”
I never received a reply.
Now, if you think that the moral of this story is that you can’t believe in magic, you’re wrong. It takes faith to fall in love, and faith to send stories to The New Yorker, and faith (though some may call it madness) to spend money you haven’t yet earned. What matters is the leap—not where you land.
In Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying, Ann and Barry Ulanov compare Cinderella, the young girl who “In spite of all difficulties…remains convinced that her wish will be fulfilled,” to Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith. Cinderella, with her childish innocence, purity of heart, and acceptance of the absurd—of reality—wins her prince, whereas Kierkegaard, who broke his own engagement, can only console himself with resignation, wondering, as he does in Fear and Trembling, “Why has he been denied this final act of daring?”
It was not, the Ulanovs explain, that Kierkegaard lacked the reasoning power to understand what was wrong, but that he would have been better off had he at least temporarily lost his reason.
Envy, according to the Ulanovs, is admiration gone sour, emulation diverted into contempt. And, if I am reading them correctly, the spiritual cure is love. Part of love is surrendering to that temporary loss of reason that allows love to take root, and part is appreciating the differences between me and another enough to love us both.
Cats, it would seem, are the perfect teachers for such a lesson. For one thing, they are admirable, worshiped throughout history. And they are enviable, if only because they are always well dressed. This may be why people who fail to appreciate cats speak of them with such contempt, as men and women often do of each other when they are perplexed. “An admirer,” Kierkegaard writes, “who feels he cannot be happy by surrendering himself elects to become envious of that which he admires. So he speaks another language.” When they don’t inspire contempt, cats, like love, inspire clichés, our most frequent response to the ineffable.
For the longest time, I was confused about what cats had to teach me. Despite my initial passion for Cole, I assumed that I wanted him to teach me how to live (so self-contained and graceful was he that he seemed more highly evolved), not how to love. And I was typical of the spiritually ambitious. If one cat were an education, I reasoned, two would hasten my enlightenment. I bought another cat.
My new guru was a tiny, bird-like Abyssinian that I named Kizzie (I was watching Roots at the time, and my beautiful kitten reminded me of Leslie Uggams). Cole, who became for a time Kunte Cole, was not amused. The cat who had been my psychic pet became my nemesis. He stopped sleeping on my bed (on my chest!) and retired every night to his lonely outpost on the living-room sofa. If he was sitting on my lap and Kizzie jumped up, he hissed and ran away. If I brushed him, he stretched out and purred for the first five strokes and on the sixth, inexplicably snarled and ambled away, swinging his slender hips in annoyance. For hours at a time he roosted on top of the refrigerator, looking, with his aquiline nose and protruding tongue, like a malevolent gargoyle. When, after leaving him with my sister for two weeks, I went to retrieve him, he refused to come down off the kitchen cabinet; when I picked him up, he tore flesh from my forearms.
Psychic pet, indeed! Knowing friends joked that Cole was the nasty part of me. In a sense they were right. Like any polarized couple—the introvert and the extrovert, the compulsively neat and the slob, the addict and the enabler—Cole and I had created our own system of valences. As I had done in so many relationships with a “difficult” partner, the kind to which I was most attracted, I was able to disown my worst parts but experience them through Cole. By attempting to control Cole, I was able to forget that I needed to domesticate myself.
What was going on here, as much as this might tax the imagination, was a serious relationship, and one that seemed more and more complex. Before I decided to get Kizzie, I had worried that Cole would grow up to be a neurotic only child. Then, I’m ashamed to admit, I began to feel the honeymoon was over, and thought that a new cat would again bring me the thrill of romance. It seems odd that I could have had maternal feelings and adulterous feelings at the same time, not to mention that I could have had them about a pet. But Cole was certainly responding like a displaced sibling and a jealous lover. And you don’t have to read too many pop-psychology books to begin to believe, as I do, that when it comes right down to it, there is a certain primitive level on which all relationships exhibit the same spectrum of emotions. No doubt, this kind of thinking keeps cat therapists in business. And, after several years, I did engage such a person, only half in jest.
The cat shrink arrived with a small packet of catnip and a lot of Freudian baggage: while she tantalized Cole with the catnip, she grilled me about my love affairs and living arrangements; finally she announced that Cole was suffering from “low self-esteem,” which did nothing to ease my mind. Eventually I was worried enough to take him to the vet, a deft surgeon with a gruff bedside manner who was none too fond of Cole. (The cat didn’t have a chart-he had a record.) I asked her if she thought, by any chance, he had a brain tumor. “Nope,” she said, laughing. “He’s just a prick. “
I laughed, too. “Prick” was certainly a happier diagnosis than a brain tumor, and much more dignified than “low self-esteem.” How often wish that my own couple’s therapy had been abbreviated by such practical wisdom! On the other hand I had to admit that Cole was a prick to me, specifically, and that needed to look at what I was doing to provoke him.
“There is a kind of psychic intrusiveness that animals respond to,” said Vicki Hearne, the author of Adam’s Task, “They are extremely sensitive to incongruities between what you’re thinking and what your body’s doing. “
Vicki Hearne was a poet and an animal trainer. I had been amazed by her book, an unsettling combination of horse sense and philosophical flash, and found her to be, in the flesh, a simultaneously daunting and simpatico figure. I was very anxious to hear what she had to say about my cats, Cole in particular. What she said, after meeting them, was: “Who’s supposed to be the trouble?” Cole, whom I had described as a hellion, was rubbing and rolling seductively in front of her, presenting himself as an angel.
He had pulled this sort of stunt before-once, when a group of friends were sitting around burbling about how enchanting Kizzie was. (And she was promiscuously friendly.) Anyway, she was doing all sorts of entertaining things while Cole sat in the doorway, watching “What’s with him?” someone said. “Doesn’t he like to play?” Cole then strode into the room, grasped a little rawhide chew stick between his front paws, and began conducting, in perfect time, to the Mahler on the stereo.
Not only, I realized, was Cole as perverse as any two-year-old kid or beleaguered mate, but he was sensitive to the kind of psychic intrusiveness that Vicki Hearne was talking about. What, after all, could be more intrusive than a vet with a thermometer, unless it was a person who insisted on seeing him as a problem and whispered words of love when she brought home a new cat’? Cole and I couldn’t sit down and talk things through, but clearly something akin to a conversation had to take place. I had been doing all the talking; now I had to listen.
Ironically enough, the real cat therapist ended up being… a cat. Raisin joined the household several years after Kizzie. She was a luscious sable Burmese with huge yellow eyes. I thought her quite diabolical-looking, but she turned out to be a sweetheart, proving that even though I went instinctively for the same type, my own therapy was working, however subliminally.
Raisin taught me how to brush her. She did this by refusing to stand still and submit to pleasure. Instead, she would slink back and forth beneath the brush as I held it, presenting her head, her back, her tail, and then slithering around and coming back for another stroke. I suppose I could have grabbed her and said, “Hold still,” the way my mother brushed my hair when I was a kid. But I was beginning to understand that “I know how to brush you” translates all too easily into “I know how to love you, ” and that this latter assumption is what thwarts most relationships, including mine Cole. For Cole, five strokes were enough—enough pleasure, enough intimacy—and six was too much.
It was not surprising, then, that Raisin also taught Cole about love. What happened was this: I went away, leaving the cats in the care of a friend, and when I returned, Cole, who hadn’t given Raisin the time of day until then, was in the throes of what could only be called a romance. He slept curled alongside of her, played with her, adored her. I can only surmise that Raisin, who had had patiently instructed me, had similarly refused to take Cole’s prickliness personally. She had just been there, like Cinderella sitting in her ashes, “utterly undefended except by her good heart. “
When well-intentioned people become curious about my relationships with my cats, the first question they ask, if they are at all willing to be impressed, is: “Do they come when you call them?” I am always tempted to ask: “Do you?” Or even: “Do I?’
Yes, my cats come when I call them. And so do I, when they call me. Just as a new mother learns to distinguish her baby’s cries, over the years I have come to recognize that various mews, gurgles, and trills mean “hello,” “pet me,” “I’m starving,” “buzz off.” There is something, it seems to me, inherently conversant about cats; they are so willing to participate in what’s going on between us and them that only a boor would refuse to be charmed. (“SCAT!” says the man in Robert Mankoff’s New Yorker cartoon. “REDEEP DE PLOYJOY HEY BOB AREBOP 00 BOP SHEBAM, “ replies the cat.)
More to the point, my cats and I have been able to discard the fantasy of a common language without despairing of the possibility of a shared dialogue. And it is this latter notion that can be instructive.
Once I was visiting a couple I know. The man, who’d had a tough week at the office, was reading and pointing out amusing paragraphs as he came across them. The woman, who had had a tough week at her office, was sharing her innermost thoughts with me. Both of them felt estranged from each other, and each had a very different idea of what would enable them to feel close. That they spoke different languages was clear. What perhaps eluded them—as well as those who teach gorillas sign language or applaud male feminists—was the idea that they didn’t need to speak the same language to be connected. I would be a fool if I needed my cats to answer me in English in order to feel love. Yet why am I, like that couple, just such a fool when it comes to my lovers?
People have difficulty distinguishing what they need from what they think they need, and what most people think they need is sameness, a kind of merging that might assuage the painful truth of Lily Tomlin’s quip: “Remember, we’re all in this alone.” Lacking existential faith, we cling to what we know, which is ourselves, and foist it on each other, creating something familiar enough to love. “The treacherous imagination, “ writes Philip Roth in The Counterlife, “is everybody’s maker…We are all each other’s authors. “
Like men and women, or Person A and Person B, animals and humans are different. And if my cats and I achieve an enviable intimacy, it may be because our differences are more obvious and easier to accept. What cats have to teach us is that we can forget our expectations and indulge instead our capacity for delight. We can look behind the veil of our imagined needs and respond to what is right in front of us. Or else the cat—how admirable he is!—will simply walk away, disappearing around the corner until all you can see is his tale.