Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Cat Whisperer

"Watch this," The Lady Killer said to me the day I got home to Maine from The Everyone I Went to Grad School with Had a Baby Summer Tour of 2010.

He bent and scooped up Abbey. He held her close. He nuzzled her under his chin. He kissed her head once, twice, three times.

Abbey didn't make a single sound. She didn't growl, cry, or fuss. She simply submitted to his love. She even leaned into him.

"Holy shit," I said.

"I know!" he said.

Weeks before, their relationship was a bit more complicated: Abbey would give him a single minute's worth of affection, and then, just as he was getting into petting her, she would step back and snarl and hiss. She would bite him. She was saying, "Hey, Motherfucker. Back the fuck off."

This wasn't out of the ordinary, really. Abbey used to be a really sweet, really cuddly and kind cat--back when she was little. I have pictures of everyone holding her. My brother, my mother, the Possibly-Gay-Black-Belt, my mother's boyfriend, my father. She accepted love at every turn.

But then something happened.

It's impossible to know exactly when or why. This cat has never suffered any trauma. She simply was born, lived at my uncle's house with her mother until she was old enough to leave, and then she went with me to Maine, where she spent her kitten days doing everything a kitten loves: destroying things. My curtains. My bedspread. My office chair. A couple purses. A table cloth. My sleep schedule.

But even though I was frustrated by her kitten ways, and even though she was as bad as a newborn child, and even though whenever I turned my back she launched at the curtains and clawed her way up them until she was too high to get down--which meant she cried and cried and cried until I came back in the room and had to remove her claws one by one until she was no longer stuck to the curtains--I loved that cat more than anything. My love for her was obscene (I got excited on the drive home from school because I knew I was on my way home to her) and embarrassing (she has a Facebook fan page). When she had a bad reaction to her first round of shots, I cancelled a much-needed post-move massage and stayed in bed with her all day.

She has known nothing but love. But she knew it from me. We were, after all, mostly alone. For a long time, I didn't have many visitors to my apartment here in Maine. That's not true anymore--Abbey's got lots of people around her these days--but maybe she got a little strange, a little finicky, a little bitchy because of that. Maybe her aggression and bad attitude was her protecting me. Who knows? But I am certain of this: She hated everyone but me.

And Abbey did not make an exception to this rule for The Lady Killer. He could get down on his knees and stare soulfully into her eyes--he could roll out the glow he shines on for old waitresses and cute check-out girls--and he could say, "Abigail, all I want to do is love you!" and she would still hiss at him. And then he'd turn to me and say, "Dude, your cat is a BITCH."

And it was true. Until what I'll call The Miracle.

The Miracle started poorly, like so:

It was the day TLK and I were leaving for New York, to the Great Pink Torpedo Wedding of 2010, and the car was packed. All the suitcases and laptops and shoes and food was loaded up for the nine hour drive. All we had left to do was put Abbey in her carrier and take her down to the car.

Abbey has never really been a fan of her carrier, but I can always get her into it. When she was a kitten, it was simple. I just chucked an earplug into the carrier, and she skittered after it. Or, alternatively, I'd place a pile of treats in the back of the carrier and tell her to go at it. She wised up to that tactic pretty quick, though. Now when I try the food trick, she attempts to break into the carrier from the other end so she can steal the treats and go on her merry way without ever stepping foot into it. The last time I got her into the carrier--for the June trip to New York--I had to use a massive spoonful of Reddi-Whip to coax her inside, and she still put up quite the fuss.

But this time, she was having none of it. Reddi-Whip wouldn't do it. Treats or toys wouldn't do it. I even tried a bowl of heavy cream. She simply looked up at me with eyes that said, "Mama, do you think I'm an idiot?"

Thus began the struggle. I tried to place her in the carrier, but Abbey suddenly morphed into a flailing toddler and found a way to block the entrance to her carrier with a tangle of limbs. Nothing I could do could hold her down or fold her limbs under her so she slid inside. She cried.

I won't lie: I cried too. I imagine I was feeling a little something like what mothers feel when they have to send their babies off to daycare or school and the kids just don't want to go and they scream and cry until their voices are raw. I wanted to tell my cat I was just kidding, that we didn't have to go anywhere, and that we could spend the rest of the day in bed watching all the best episodes of The West Wing. But that wasn't true. We couldn't. We needed to get our asses in gear.

So then I had TLK hold the carrier and I tried to drop her down into it in one slick motion, but once again she turned into a wild, clawing thing. She sliced my pinkie open and TLK had to perform emergency first aid to stop the bleeding. And by that time it was clear: She was not getting in the carrier. She was crying. I was crying. TLK was trying to tell me it was okay, it would be fine, he could take care of her when he flew back to Maine after the wedding.

He'd be back in five days. The longest I'd ever left her with her extended feeders was four days, while I was in Washington. And when I came back from that trip, the cat vaulted at me and climbed up my leg and wouldn't let me go for two entire days. What would she be like after five days?

But there was no choice. We needed to get on the road, and we couldn't get the cat into the carrier, so I loaded up the feeders and we headed off to New York.

And while I was in Wisconsin and Minnesota, I got sporadic cat updates, but none of them were glowing. Abbey was mostly ignoring TLK. She was sleeping on top of the fridge and hissing whenever he came near her. If his friends came over, she was similarly unpleasant. But then, a few days before I came home, there was a shift. By the time I arrived back in Maine, Abbey was feeling more loving toward TLK, and she was following him around, letting him pet her, pick her up, kiss her. "Come here, kitten!" he'd call, and she'd come over and rub up on his leg. It was miraculous.

The good attitude has even applied to people beyond TLK and me. When TLK's best friend came over the other night, he called us into the living room and whispered, "I have been petting this cat for five minutes, and she hasn't hissed once!"

It was so clear: TLK cat-whispered Abbey into good behavior.

Then, this morning, the crowning glory: TLK came back home after an early meeting, and I was still in bed. Abbey had been under the covers with me, but she'd leapt out when she heard her boyfriend come through the door. She trotted out to meet him, and when he climbed under the covers with me, Abbey hopped up on the bed. It was the first time she'd even dared to step on the bed when he was in it with me.

We both held our breath. And then Abbey draped herself over his legs and snuggled in to sleep with us.

"Oh my God," I whispered. "My heart is full to bursting." And it wasn't an exaggeration.

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