January, 2009. We had driven across the country from New York to Washington for the second time in four months. The first trip was reconnaissance; we had rented an apartment sight unseen and packed a trailer and our pickup truck for the preliminary trip. If we liked the Puget Sound community we had set out for, we would decide to go back for the rest of our stuff and the second car. Two months later, we were ready to make the move permanent. We flew back to New York and stayed for a month, packing up our little house, making our goodbyes and getting ready for another long drive. This time, the stuff travelled by pod and we drove unencumbered. We drove about 900 miles a day, stopping every couple of hundred miles to stretch our legs, get gas, and grab a meal. It took us five and a half days.
We were only back in Washington a few weeks when we met the kitten for the first time. We were still getting used to both apartment living and the culture shock of a new community. It takes time to acclimate, to get used to all the new voices and regional accents, to learn the neighborhoods and grocery stores, to feel like you belong. I was working as a substitute teacher in the local school district and I was enjoying the laid-back and comfortable attitudes I was encountering from principals and other teachers. The kids seemed to be better behaved and more respectful than what I was used to. It was lovely- but everything was new and strange and unfamiliar. Stress comes in many forms, and this move certainly came with tons of it. Tom and I rarely argue. We have a lot of patience for each other. As a rule things between us are easy and comfortable. Hell, we drove across the country twice and laughed and talked like we always do the whole way over. We arrived back in Washington at the beginning of February. Once settled, the stress of the move finally manifested in some unusual tension between us. Whatever the words were, I don’t have any memory, but in the moment, Tom decided to step outside for some fresh air and a chance to calm down. It was late February at this point, and the day was sunny, warm and lovely. A minute later, he was back inside, calling me to come to the door. He sounded happy and all negative outlook had vanished. I went to the open door. There on the landing was a small gray cat, very fuzzy, on her back, paws in the air, wiggling delightedly and looking up at Tom with the sweetest little wide-eyed expression on her face. Tom was smiling down at her. Who could resist? Then, she jumped up and ran into our apartment for a look around. I didn’t know what to think, really. It was nice having a little cat visitor, but I hadn’t had a pet in years. The last cat in my life was 20 years ago. It just wasn’t something that had even crossed my mind. The cat seemed young (she was) and unkempt, and I thought she might be an abandoned stray. She was very confident and friendly. Maybe she belonged to somebody in the complex?
She only stayed a few minutes that time. Soon, she was visiting almost every day, and I had begun to feed her a little. I wondered to myself if I even should be. I couldn’t resist the temptation to nurture her, though. At first, I would open a can of tuna and save a little to give her, or I would feed her some leftover cooked chicken. After a couple of weeks, I broke down and bought some cat food. And a brush. Her beautiful tortoiseshell fur was matted and dusty. She didn’t seem to mind the attention. A couple of nights a week, she would have a sleepover at our house, and cuddled close on my side of the bed. She learned to meow at our door, and she knew we would let her in. She was playful and friendly, and very talkative, communicating in a series of soft questioning chirrups as she used her front paws to knead whatever surface she was perched on. We came to call that “making muffins”, which makes no sense really, but comes from the same place in the psyche that produces all the nonsensical terms of endearment that help us define our couple-hood or family relationships. When our new little friend was done visiting, she would go back to the door and ask to leave.
I didn’t dare name her. I was getting more attached all the time. I found it hard to believe that she might not actually have a home, and what was her “real” family thinking? Were we doing them a disservice? In between cat visits we continued to settle into our new community, and brought our house-hunting days to fruition. A house we had looked at several times dropped in price and fell into our price range; we made an offer and it was accepted. We closed on the house and spent April painting and cleaning. Our moving day, May 1, was rapidly approaching.
Tom and I decided to make a serious effort to see if we could find out anything more about the kitten, and if it still appeared that she was homeless, we would take her with us. Early inquiries gave us no new information. No one seemed to know her. Apparently we weren’t speaking to the right people.
Two weeks before we were to move, the kitten missed a visit. A few days passed, and still no kitten at the door. I was heartbroken. I wondered if someone else had taken her, or if her “real” owners had decided to make a better effort to keep her indoors. I didn’t let myself think about any other alternatives. Finally, after a week of no-show, Tom spoke to one more neighbor, a young man who lived and worked on the premises at the apartment complex. The man was hardly ever home, which was why he was so late to be asked. When Tom asked if he’d seen a fluffy gray kitten around lately, it turned out that he had. In fact, she was in his apartment that very moment. Relief that she was safe flooded in, mixed with hard disappointment that she did already have a home. The story that came out revealed that back in December, a friend of his had asked him to watch her for a few days as a favor, but then wouldn’t take her back. They made excuse after excuse and eventually actually gave him money to have her brought to a shelter to be euthanised. Our neighbor couldn’t bring himself to do it, but he also didn’t really want a kitten. He had a small dog that seemed to require a lot of attention, and it hadn’t been his plan to have a cat, too. His ambivalence manifested in allowing her to roam the complex. He may have been hoping that someone would adopt her; he never named her or took her to the vet, or looked for her when she was gone for hours or days, and he was more than happy to turn her over to us. He seemed relieved. As it turned out, she had not escaped from his apartment for a week, and that’s why we hadn’t seen her.
We took her that night. Our neighbor gave us a case of cat food and a bag of kitty litter to go with her. A few days later we moved into our new house and she came with us. We called her Smudge. Her fur, long and silky now, is tortoiseshell in grays and pinks. In a room with low lights she disappears into her surroundings like a bit of soot.