Yael pulled the thin sheet over her head, but it did nothing to block out the sounds of the damn cats. She despised the city with its endless sounds: sirens and cars honking, teenagers talking loudly just beneath her window. It took her ages just to calm down and relax. It was nearly quiet now, except for the screaming street cats.
She turned on her phone and googled: “How to get rid of stray cats.” The results were many, but they seemed a bit drastic. Besides, if she put out cat food with poison, then the hedgehogs might eat it too, and that would be a shame.
Rani came home late, after his shift at the bar. “Hey bubba,” he said, “Did you miss me?” Yael snuggled up to him, feeling his rough beard and the smell of beer on his breath. His hands caressed her impatiently and she sighed with abandon and pulled off her t-shirt.
Afterwards, he stroked her hair as she lay with her head on his shoulder. “Yaeli, you asleep?” he asked.
“Um hm…” she answered.
“No, but really, I have to ask you something…”
Yael sat up in bed. She felt awake. She was ready for this; she really felt it was time. “Yes,” she said, “What is it, Rani?”
“Well…I’m not sure you’re going to like this idea…”
Suddenly she didn’t feel so sure she knew where this conversation was going.
The next day, Shira, the other bartender from Rani’s work, came over with a large Siamese cat called Vanilla. Apparently, Shira was going to Thailand for six months and needed a cat sitter. Rani had agreed even before he’d spoken to her. Yael looked warily at the cat, and at Shira, but as soon as the door closed behind her, Vanilla walked over to Yael and jumped on her lap. Yael didn’t know what to do. What do you do with a cat that just comes and sits on your lap? Where do you put your hands? The cat looked at her and meowed loudly. It had a deep mellow voice, one that was quite different from the cats she always heard outside.
While she worked on her degree, sitting hours at the computer, Vanilla would come and sit on the desk, paws on the edges of the book she was referencing, and sometimes he’d stretch and rub his nose against Yael’s forehead. Yael started to make little cat sounds back and found herself buying special cat food that Vanilla might like.
Rani continued to work late most nights, and he didn’t always wake her when he got home. One night he didn’t come home at all, and Yael was quite worried when she woke up that morning to see he wasn’t there. He didn’t answer his phone until noon and had a strange tone to his voice. She wasn’t dumb; it was clear it was ending.
More than a year passed and Shira never came back for her cat. And Rani, well, he was gone too. Her final thesis done, Yael got a job and left Vanilla home alone most of the time.
The meowing was loud and obnoxious. Yael struggled to wake up and then struggled to fall asleep again. Vanilla never meowed like this in the middle of the night. It must be the cats outside, again. She turned over and tried to fall back asleep, but the sounds were impossible to ignore. Finally, she sat up in bed and reached out to turn on the light, but the light switch wasn’t there… Through the haze of sleepiness, she remembered where she was… not at home, but at her parents’ house. Shit.
Shit, shit, shit, she thought. What’s wrong with my dad? Why does he always do this to me, sending me on wild and weird missions across the country? She’d just returned from a long and dusty trip to Yavneh to pick up the kitten, a Scottish breed, from a litter of 12 kittens. It seemed impossible that they were all from the same mother, the house full of kittens all tumbling over each other – almost cute, but not really, not quite. The breeder’s house was full of cat hair, cat piss, the stench of a kitty litter ignored. When the woman offered her a glass of coke, that too had cat hairs in it, so Yael pretended to drink and then pretended to remember a meeting she had to rush back to attend. “Don’t forget the kitten,” she’d been reminded, as she left the place in a hurry.
And now she was at her parents’ house. It was pitch black, she couldn’t remember where the light switch was in this new house. Her parents were both upstairs, the air conditioning going loudly and she seemed to be the only one who could hear this howling, screeching sound.
She padded into the living room, looking for the kitten, to see if it was in the fancy cat bed, but it wasn’t there.
It had been years since she’d had to look for a missing cat. Mostly it’d just been avoidance tactics; that is, until Vanilla. That cat. She’d had to look for him, finally. He used to take walks, and let himself in, through the kitchen window. She’d gotten used to him sleeping on her pillow, especially after Rani left. Vanilla would purr and she’d sigh and pet him and together they’d fall asleep. Until that last time.
As she tells me the story, I think of how I’ve always had cats in my life. My parents, my sister and I have always had cats. What sort of a monster hates the soft furry fuzziness that is a cat, I think. There’s something I truly admire about these animals who are independent and self sufficient, who come over for a quick hello and then go off to explore whatever they want, and who don’t crave constant attention like a dog, or a child…
Ah, suddenly I get it; it’s like how I used to feel before I had a kid. When my girlfriends started getting married and popping out kids. And showing them to me, those bald, drooling, fat babies. “Don’t you want to hold her?” my friends would ask, and I would think, ‘No! Why would I? It’s your kid…’ Until that day came when my first child was born and I cried as he was pulled out of me and I cried again when I held him to my breast and even though my nipples hurt like hell and my womb cramped as he suckled, I couldn’t imagine ever not having him next to me, a part of me who’d become a real person, a tiny baby, a laughing smile, adoring eyes, mine on his, his on mine. Until the day when he too was lost, gone, taken away, like Yael lost Vanilla, except of course different, but still, a loss is a loss, and they say you can’t make comparisons; everyone has their own wounds to deal with.
Yael stumbles through her parents’ house, remembering Vanilla and the time of the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and how he followed her one day out to Rothchild Street where she went to meet her friends in the tents. She remembers sipping a Goldstar beer and seeing Vanilla look at her and sort of blink and then turn away and walk down a side street until she couldn’t see him any more. She’d expected him to return, as usual, before the morning, but just like Rani had done, years earlier, suddenly Vanilla too was gone.
The meowing, howling, screeching sound was louder now. It was like a game of Marco Polo. It was the Scottish kitten, but Yael couldn’t find it. She refreshed the bowl of water and then even opened a can of tuna, but the kitten was missing. Missing, but loud. And it sounded… sick?
Before she went to wake up her parents, she went into the toilet and it was there that she found the kitten, struggling and splashing inside the toilet basin. Ugh, gross, she thought, as she dipped her hand in and pulled out the small bundle of wet fur, which resembled a rat more than a cat. She rinsed it off in the sink, and then wrapping it in a towel, took it upstairs to her parents’ room.
I was happy the story ended well for this kitten and breathed a sigh of relief. Yael hadn’t fallen in love with her parents’ kitten; it was only Vanilla who’d stolen her heart, but I was happy to hear that at least Rani had been replaced with someone who didn’t run off in the night.
“There’s more to the story,” she tells me, with a mischievous glint in her eye. Yael has something so lovely about her; she’s tall, elegant, educated and has a great smile. If I lived nearby, I could imagine us becoming friends. Except of course for the fact that she’d hate my cat. Poor Amy with her arthritis and weight problem. I never even knew cats could get fat. I wait for the end to her story that she tells me in our writing workshop.
It turns out that the Scottish cat lived for about eight years with her parents, but was found dead when Yael’s grandmother was taken to hospital while the parents were out of town. The grandmother’s caretaker found the cat, alone at home, and sent Yael a picture by WhatsApp. I find myself imagining what the dead cat looked like in the photo, even though I have no idea what a Scottish cat looks like. It’s lying on its side on the tiles in the kitchen.
My heart goes out to them, the caretaker who found the cat, the grandmother who was in the hospital and would eventually come home to a house without her favorite pet, to the parents who had briefly escaped on a well deserved holiday after caring for the grandmother in their own home for so long.
Mostly, I feel for Yael, who lost first Rani and then Vanilla, who never really wanted a cat, but ended up losing two of them. I try to tell her that I sort of understand how she feels, at least I think I do, but she tells me sweetly, “But Vanilla didn’t die. He just went away.”
* * *
Story inspired by an exercise in a workshop given in Karkur, Israel, by a writer/teacher called Gilad Deker. Prompt was: ‘Tell about a life you saved.’