Shelter Choices

These are not the cats I would have chosen. I apologize every time someone tells me they are beautiful.

I wanted the angry mother and daughter, as enmeshed as their tails. They had survived charm’s expiration date. They erased their grace period. I would let them live under my bed and swear violently with their eyes. I would prostrate myself before their distrust and sing Tony Bennett songs. I would notarize the promise to love them even if they never emerged, even if I had to deliver sardines between the under-bed sweater boxes for sixteen years.

I wanted the soot woman, a nebulous cloud with one eye. There was a break in her tail and gaps in her resume. She tried too hard and fell off the tower. She attempted to bilocate and landed in the litter box. I would crown her flaws with laurels. I would change her name from Midnight to Photini, full of light. We would accept each other’s shadows.

I wanted the elk with the retired pancreas, a vast creamy cat who did not flinch at nightly needles. He was a gentleman of insight, hissless and buoyant. He did not resent the prescription kibble or the sharp scent of insulin. He was expensive to keep alive and plush in all arms. I would meet his needs and meet his eyes with conspiratorial cheer.

I wanted the last plum picked. I wanted the accolades that come from choosing the “less adoptable.” I wanted the bond that comes from mutual confession. I wanted my coworkers at the shelter to write my name on the white board and circle it with a heart: Angela adopted…!

I needed to make my husband happy.

He was unmoved by the hundred cats at my shelter. He had reasons. He had an unneutered litter of analyses, logic too airtight to admit my fuzzy mewling. He collared his decrees with kindness. He just wanted to save my broken heart from disappointment. He just wanted to save our budget from the unexpected.

He was always just looking out for me. He had trained me not to use the word “just,” which weakened any words that followed. He had educated me in the dangers of wearing my neon orange coat, sparing me the risk of appearing to want people to look at me. He had dutifully outlined the evidence that my mother was a dotard. He adduced a bibliography proving I should not talk to her every morning. He had a kennel of authorities supporting the proper temperature of my dinner, even though it burned my tongue, even though I wanted to feed myself.

He knew what to do. We would go to another shelter, with a more favorable ratio of “normal” to “special needs” animals.

I fidgeted with my seat belt and summoned the spirits. Dibbles and Pippa were more my ancestors than my pets. I had adopted them mere hours out of school. My mortarboard had not yet hit the ground when I spoke their names. Dibbles was a quivering skeleton who grew into Jimmy Buffett, a beatific beluga who let me sleep on his belly. Pippa was “the beast from the East,” six vicious pounds of electrons with extra teeth. She slept in my arms for sixteen years on the condition that I told no one. I took them home the day I accepted the job at the shelter that only accepted broken beasts.

I belonged to them before I changed my name. My hair was still flat from the bridal veil when they died a month apart. My husband hardly knew them.

My husband knew best. We walked the banks of cages at the other shelter. I introduced myself to a fat mink named Gorgeous George. I asked an eleven-year-old calico what she knew about waiting.

My husband summoned me. He was laughing. It was not the laugh that came when I played my favorite songs – “basic, overrated” – or attempted to make a meal – “sweet effort. Soggy. I’ll show you how to use the toaster oven.” It was the laugh I hoped for when I sang a new song – “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky From Now On” – and declared, “I am espousing this as my life philosophy.” It was the laugh I was still young enough to expect when I greeted him at the door with a unicorn horn or a cupcake.

I reported to the cage. It was filled with brown pom poms moving too fast for me to see their eyes.

“They are perfect.” He had spoken.

They were kittens, swiveling inside feather boas. They looked like Maine Coons. They were calendar material. Had they been dogs, they would have been Papillons, the breed favored by my husband’s parents. Had they been dogs, my husband would have been proud to introduce them to his parents. You can just really bond with a dog, you know. And when you go to a breeder, you know exactly what you’re in for.

I was lucky to be getting cats. I remembered enough of myself to know I would love anything we crammed in a carrier. “They’re perfect. I love them.”

My friends, friends of strays and errors, buried their forgiveness in a shag carpet of celebration. “They are precious!” “They are blessed to be yours!” “They look like squirrels!” “They are beautiful!”

I didn’t know how to seek absolution.

The boy cat had a streak of white that looked like melted ice cream, and a streak of mania that caused him to jam his head down the garbage disposal and leap four feet from the floor to the curtains like Spider-Man. He waxed ecstatic over lint and needed to be shown the food bowl every morning. The girl cat had stout legs and a double portion of intensity. She assessed the physics and metaphysics of scaling the kitchen counter. She aligned toys in descending order of size and had no response to catnip.

They were beautiful and as shaggy as all that lives. I carried them through the house singing hymns from churches I no longer attended. The boy drooled down my shoulders. The girl had more important concerns than hygiene and developed dreadlocks under her armpits. I groomed them while singing my grandfather’s Depression song “Bread and Gravy.” I squeezed tubes of gelatinous tuna into their mouths while we blinked at each other. The girl smacked her lips in her sleep and woke up chirping. The boy collapsed into atoms in my lap and stared like I was sunrise.

My husband was angry that I worked from home and logged more “man hours” with the kittens than he could match. He made up for this by chasing the boy through the house while howling. He screamed when they scratched the couch and made jokes about taking them to IKEA: “I keeeeeel ya.” When the girl developed a heart murmur, he was certain she was fine. I smuggled her to a cardiologist and sang “Margaritaville” all the way home.

The kittens could not be coaxed out of delight. I could not talk them out of their sense of the sacred. I tried to reason with them. They had to know their woman was not normal. I did not listen to reason. I could not bring myself to like avocado or the Carol Burnett Show. I used the incorrect side of the sponge when cleaning the refrigerator. I was lucky to have found a husband. I used flowery language, an embarrassment of adverbs. I did not make real money at the cat shelter. I was enmeshed with my mother. I had childish faith. I prayed for my cats and my in-laws.

When my husband decided he needed a divorce, we agreed I would keep the condo and the cats. When my husband decided we needed to stay together, he warned me that any reasonable judge would award him the cats. When I told my husband that birds stay in cages until you open the door, he called the other shelter and produced proof that the adoption paperwork was in his name.

My shelter friends promised to prevail. My boss found me a lawyer with teeth like Pippa’s. The boy howled every morning until I held him like an infant. The girl pressed her forehead into mine until I remembered many truths. They shredded the arms of the couch and beheaded ceramic angels. The girl’s cardiologist confirmed that her condition was serious.

I renamed them and took back the last name on Dibbles and Pippa’s paperwork. I let the boy sleep on my neon coat. I apologized to my mother and my friends and the cats at my shelter. They refused my confession. The girl survived and survived. I survived and survived.

I would not have chosen beautiful cats. I wanted to be funky. Every living creature has special needs.

Angela Townsend is Development Director at Tabby’s Place. Her work appears in bioStories, Cagibi, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Razor, and The Spotlong Review, among others. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately. She lives just outside Philadelphia with two shaggy comets disguised as cats.