Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
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The Cat Lady

I think the universe is trying to tell me something about my decades-long opinion of cats.

I never really hated cats, I'm a sucker for all animals, even the ugly ones. Dead skunks and possums at the side of the road make me tear up. Cats have just never been my thing. Who wants a snobby cat when a boundlessly happy dog is ready to cater to your every need? Who needs a silent, stalking creature when there is a goofy, loyal-to-a-fault licking licker ready to fill your love tank?

And yeah, okay, I may have made one or two cat lady jokes in my time but only after one too many creepy hoarders featured on Buried Alive were found to be living among the carcasses of cats who died when Justin Timberlake was still synchronizing dance moves with Joey Fatone and the gang by day and schtooping a teenage Britney by night.

Dog living has always been the life for me. Dogs are eager to please and cats are all me, me, me, what can you do for me? I know, I know. Your cat is different. Your cat is totally amazing. But I'm sticking with dogs, I said whenever the dog vs. cat conversation arose. Show me a cat who will kick a stranger's ass for acting aggressively toward you or show me a cat who can catch a Frisbee and I may have reconsidered.

Then, a few days before our house fire, a bright orange cat showed up on our doorstep. It wasn't the first time I'd seen this cat. Once, about a week before the cat turned up on our porch, while returning home from somewhere at night, my headlights flashed across this very same cat huddled at the side of the road.

This is farm country so cats and even the occasional dog roaming around isn't highly unusual. Now, I wonder if that first roadside sighting occurred very close to the time someone exited the main roadway into our little village and ditched the poor thing but I'll never know for sure. Anyway, the little one turned up on our doorstep, Christmas night, I think it was, and, against my better judgment I sat down there on the porch and gave it a good rubdown. Perhaps the spirit of Christmas moved me, who the hell knows? Regardless, worried about the cold temperatures, I woke up a few times that night to see if the cat was still sitting on the porch. First time I checked, it was there and the sighting sent me into a tailspin of Should I bring it inside? Should I put it in the garage? Should I feed it? They say never to feed strays but what if it's hungry? Later it was gone. Vanishing into the freezing night. I surprised myself by feeling disappointed but was also relieved not to have to wonder what to do with the poor animal.

A few days later our house burned and we had to move. The day after the fire some friends of ours told us about a house for rent in a small town about a half hour away. We immediately came to check it out and one of the first things I saw was this:

The photo is taken from the kitchen. The window looks into a natural spring that bubbles up in the backyard. The cat was sitting next a trickle of water looking directly at me through the kitchen window.

"He comes with the house." The landlord, who was giving us a tour of the house, said when she noticed me watching the orange cat. "He's a stray but the neighbors feed him. They call him Charlie."

"Charlie." I replied while staring intently at the cat that looked identical to the one I had seen on the porch of our home that had burned not a week earlier. Of course, it wasn't the same cat, our current home is more than thirty country miles from our old house. Odd, though, that I go for years without noticing cats, with no cats crossing my path for any reason and the week before my house burns down a fire-colored cat shows up on my doorstep (A harbinger of what was to come?) and then an identical cat "comes with the house" I am forced to rent in the wake of the fire.

Charlie came withe the house, all right. Within days of moving here it got to so I'd look for him out the back window every night before I'd go to bed and first thing in the morning when I woke up. More often than not, this is the sight that would greet me:

Charlie, getting in his morning slurp before settling down to sleep off a night of cat debauchery. He'd curl up in one of the chairs we left on the back porch and close his eyes until we'd all troop out for the dogs' morning romp. Once they made it clear they were big, dopey goofs, overly friendly sheep in wolves' clothing, Charlie wasn't afraid of Max and Milo at all. If anything, it was the other way around. The first few times we were all out in the yard together he made it clear they could run around and play but he'd get straight up crazy on their asses if they tried to pull anything funny. Eventually he allowed them the pleasure of sniffing his ass every now and again but he made it clear that would be the extent of their relationship.

The kids were a different story. Even though he hailed from a lawless land of homeless cats where hisses, bared fangs and claws rule, he loved nothing more than to roll on his back and get a nice rubdown. His time on the battlefield would never allow him to really relax, though, he was always watchful even under the gentlest of hands.

Violet and Henry were crazy about him. They've grown up with two big, lumbering black labs all the time in everyone's way which makes the dogs about as interesting as the couch. But what is this slinky, mincing new creature before us? A cat was foreign, fascinating.

Before long we were regularly feeding Charlie cans of tuna fish which Violet demanded to give to him. She would carefully walk out onto the back porch, slowly and deliberately stepping toward Charlie, holding the opened can of tuna aloft in both hands like a tiny wise man presenting the Christ child himself with a gift of exotic oils on the day of his birth. Charlie would warily (but not unkindly) watch her approach, not moving until she placed the can on the cement and backed away slowly, ultimately screaming and jumping with happiness when the flame-colored cat would deign to hop down from his chair perch and gulp her tuna offering.

"Look, mama! He's eating! He has hungry tummy!"

"CHA-WEEEE!" Henry would growl in delight and bang starfish hands on the screen door that separated him from the object of his affection.

It got to the point that Charlie would come running from next door or the woods that border our house whenever we came into the backyard. He liked us, this warrior cat whose personality made me think of a vet who just returned home from his second tour of duty in Iraq. Watchful, jumpy, yet happy to sit in a safe place among friendly folks. And it was just what we needed too, this new friend. After the house fire we also felt jumpy and watchful and so it was nice to sit quietly together in the backyard and watch the days go by.

He allowed me to pick ticks off his body and silently listened when I'd finger the huge gashes torn into his head and body, war wounds from nightly battles with other strays.

"Oh, Charlie," I'd say while inspecting a bald patch where slashing claws had apparently ripped out hair and a generous amount of flesh. "You've got to stop fighting with other cats. One day you'll get really hurt." He'd just stare at me intently (and appreciatively, I like to think) and then continue drinking from his private well of fresh water.

Charlie's presence became a part of our day, this new routine we settled into after the house fire exiled us to this unfamiliar territory. He was an ambassador of sorts for this new neighborhood and I'll admit, I felt a sense of pride that this wild-ish animal liked me, liked my kids and seemed to enjoy hanging out with us and I even started fantasizing about keeping him and taking him with us when we move back to our hold house once the construction is complete.

I haven't seen Charlie in a month.

It took three or four days of trying not to look at his empty chair before I voiced my fear to Serge. "Charlie hasn't been around lately." I said, my worst fears lurking in my unspoken implication.

"Eh. He's probably just out on a cat bender or something. I wouldn't worry. He's a stray, doing his thing."

The days melted into weeks. I asked the neighbors, who also feed him and presumably named him Charlie, if they'd seen him lately. No. Nothing was said aloud but it was clear that they too feared the worst.

For the longest time I've been waiting and hoping and peering out the back window wanting/needing to see him curled into his usual chair sleeping off an epic bender but I suppose the fact that I'm writing this is finally me acknowledging that I guess he's gone. And I'm really upset about it. Devastated, actually. For weeks I've been imagining him bleeding to death in a field somewhere after another one of his bloody battles. Or worse, suffering along a road somewhere after being hit by a car.

Aw, Charlie guy... Did one of your battles leave you mortally wounded? I just don't know.


A week ago I decided I was going to plant some trees and bushes in the backyard of the house that burned. Liven up the barren stretch of grass so it's a nice place to spend time this summer when we finally move back. I was watering a just-planted tree when a flash of orange darted past me and disappeared between a broken piece of lattice that adorns the rim of the deck.

"CHA-WEEE!" Henry shouted with violent joy and Violet came running.
"Mom look! It's Charlie".
"That's right, there he is." I said, stunned. I got down on all fours with my daughter and peered between the diamonds of lattice. There, in the darkest shadows under the deck crouched the orange cat I saw a week before the fire, before Charlie.

Had it been living there all this time?

"Here kitty, kitty, kitty. C'mere, kitty, kitty, kitty." Ten minutes of coaxing brought the reticent feline out into the sunlight where I again noted its striking resemblance to Charlie; fiery fur and green eyes. We let it bask in the sunlight in peace while we worked in the flower bed, to show it we meant no harm and to our great pleasure it stuck around for the rest of the afternoon.

I make the twenty-minute drive to the house every day to water plants and see how the construction is coming along. The cat is there most of the time. I'll sit on the back steps and stroke its slender, body and think about this strange, sudden influx of fire-colored cats into my life.


Reader Comments (22)

Love the face! Yellow females a bit uncommon, perhaps it's a neutered male? Yellows are among my favorites, for whatever reason, they seem to come with very mellow and loving personalities!

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNelson's Mama

I have a fire colored cat with one eye and thumbs, he's very similar in that he was war stories and spent the first few weeks in our home hiding after we had rescued him from the Human Society. Every night when we get up and go to bed he follows us up, waits for us to get into bed then jumps in with us and lays over my leg.
I think he feels safer to love us in the dark when we're not moving, it's alternately terrifying and comforting.
I like cats because they don't give up their love easily, you have to earn it, and once you do you're in for life.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermoosh in indy.

Cats are the best! I am so glad these orange cats have been taking care of your family as you are taking care of them. Orange females are rare but we had our share in the animal shelter I worked at. I love that you're teaching your kids to be such great animal lovers, it will stay with them for life.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLex Lemon

We grew up with too many cats, and i have always been "Bi" when it comes to animals. Dogs are wonderful for all the reasons you stated. They don't even know what a grudge is--much less how to hold one. They just love, love, love! I think that is amazing and wonderful!

Cats, however, with their sensual bodies, peculiarities, and hesitation to be so free with their feelings have this amazing allure. When you become a cat's "person" there is nothing better. It is different because you have done some unidentifiable something to earn their trust...and the not knowing what is was is almost as good as the purrs.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermargaret

Aww...very sweet. Cats are funny. Sometimes they can be gone for a really long time and they come back eventually. One of our cats got closed in a neighbor's garage by mistake, right before the guy went on vacation. Our cat was gone for 2 weeks. We were sure something awful had happened. But, the guy came home and was surprised to find our cat hanging out in his garage, a bit skinnier, but still just fine. Perhaps something like that happened to Charlie. Or, maybe he had a very wide circle of homes he visited and someone decided to make him an indoor cat.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBarb

I love this post, Monica. I'm a dog person, too, (we had five Goldens at one time) but I grew up with a cat who lived to be over 20 years old. She was a dark grey color with green eyes; we called her "Meinze" (german for cat). I grew up in the north woods, and she was the only one of our cats who survived all of the wild animals. When she was younger, she'd rid the house of mice at night and leave the pieces outside of my bedroom door...I had to be careful where I stepped in the morning! True cat love, it was. Thanks for bringing back those memories!

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhey

Now I'm worried about that cat. FUUUUUCK.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersweetney

That is so sad and so sweet all rolled up in one. Just remember...Charlie is not a gender-specific name. Charlie for Charles and Charlie for Charlotte or Charlene work equally well!

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

This may be a repeat since for some reason the message "Post A New Comment (Unable to Post) appeared. At
any rate, what I originally stated is that I, too, was a dog-person until our first cat made his appearance in our lives...a stray kitten...or more likely abandoned. He wormed his way into our hearts and made me understand why people love cats. I adored him. We're now on our third cat.

Our vet told me never to give a cat canned tuna meant for humans, that it has an enzyme in it that's harmful to cats. The enzyme is removed in the canned tuna meant for cats. I tiny amount of the water in which the canned tuna for humans is o.k. if only given once in a rare while as a treat.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarole

I grew up in a house that always had a cat and a dog. Now I have both in my own house and what everyone else has said is true. It is great to feel the undying love of a dog but it is an honor to be loved by a cat. As you said they dont need you but when they want you it just feels so great. I have also had cats that have disappeared for a while only to turn up a little later. I hope you get to see Charlie again...In the meantime enjoy that cat welcoming you back to your "old" house. :)

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

it's possible Charlie might come back. my friend's severely overweight cat disappeared for a while. she was kind of old and really out of shape, so they were sure she was dead. but after three months she returned - having lost all of her extra weight - but was otherwise fine!

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteramy

I love this! Now you have me all worried about Charlie!!! I'm a cat person, always have been. I love dogs too (all animals really), but have never had one, and have always had at least 1 cat (and at one time, I had 16 ferals I was caring for - too many). I'm so glad these fiery cats have turned you into more of a cat person. I think it's their independence and the fact that they choose to hang out with you that makes me love them so. Sounds like they wormed their way into your heart. Sometimes they do come back. I had a stray that I cared for that disappeared for 6 months and came back. You never know.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

Lovely, lovely piece.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamsin

LOVED this post! Im not a cat person at all, always had dogs but oh maaaan, I wish Charlie would come back, I hope he is ok!!! Keep us posted :)

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBelinda

Really, really enjoyed reading this post! I too have always been a dog person but this lovingly-written piece might just make a cat fancier out of me yet!

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSue

Really, really enjoyed reading this post! I too have always been a dog person but this lovingly-written piece might just make a cat fancier out of me yet!

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSue

I hope you're taking cans of tuna back for Charlie 2! Although, it *could* be the same cat, in which case, omg, omens, and voodoo, you know? I love cats, but am allergic, sadly. You wrote that "cats are all me, me, me, what can you do for me?" I totally feel like dogs are more that way, "walk me! throw me the ball! play with me! me! me! me!" I guess it really does depend on the individual animal, doesn't it?

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSR

OK, the tequila kitty with the beret was adorable, but these two, orange cats? Priceless. I will say a little prayer for Charlie.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

So sad about Charlie, it really is, but he had been living free and on his wits for a while, so it wouldn't have been possible to really tame him. This new cat has possibilitites though... do consider getting him neutered if it hasn't yet been done though, it will obviously curb breeding and fighting to a large extent, which can only be a good thing. Obviously it's a costly thing, so I do see why one wouldn't with a cat that didn't actually belong.

Cats come into your life at the right time - they aren't like dogs at all. I have had ginger cats on and off for many years, all of them just happened past at a crucial moment and while they aren't as buddy-buddy as dogs, they can be very rewarding in their own way (I love dogs too by the way, and have one!).

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

Ahh I am definitely a cat person, and I loved reading this thoughtful piece. I think those cats chose you.
I hope Charlie is lording it up somewhere and is ok.

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA

Awww... awesome story. And the photos remind me of my orange kitties I had when I was young. They were brother and sister aka Rascal and Buttercup. I loved those orange kitties and I miss them. I have dogs now (daughter is allergic to cats) but cats can be cool too.

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKay

We all have fears and hates but we must realize not all the things we fear and hate are that bad.
Just like those cats, once you know them you would know how compassionate they are with people.

May 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdog food

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