There was an elderly woman standing in the front entrance of our apartment building when I came home from work. We were probably neighbors but she was still a stranger to me so I prepared to nod a stiff “konnichiwa” her way as I passed. As I neared, I noticed that, to my surprise, she was flagging me down. She was shouting and pointing to the lobby, so I had no choice but to look.
I heard him before I saw him: there, crouched beside the mailboxes, was a stripey little cat. He had planted his small white feet in the corridor like a guardian gargoyle and was yowling.
The woman was gesturing wildly and hollering. I couldn’t understand her very well and realized it was because she was Korean, not Japanese. I tried to focus on what she was shouting but found myself distracted by the cat. Not because he was shrieking to match my neighbor’s howls but because he looked so much like my Heifer, the beloved cat I left behind in my parents’ care when I moved to Japan.
I’d never leave Heifer behind, I said, when I was first conceiving my living abroad scheme. She’d just have to come with me to Argentina. Or Turkey. Or Italy. Then Argentina, Turkey or Italy became Japan and the idea of shuttling a cat halfway across the globe to live with me in an apartment even tinier than our old shoebox in Alphabet City was preposterous. My new landlords would forbid it, besides. So obviously I couldn’t live abroad. But, obviously, I couldn’t continue at my then-job, either, and the mere idea of launching yet another futile job search was devastating. I had also recently received the news that I was being evicted. Couldn’t stay; couldn’t go. It was a whole lot of obvious for one torn person.
So my parents stepped in and volunteered to take in Heifer. The idea of living anywhere without her seemed impossible but, as we find time and time again in life, just about anything can be done. So I left her behind. It would just be for a year, I said. Just 12 months. She’d get to live in a lovely big house that was always clean with not one but two people to play with; people who would never forget to pick up cat food on the way home. It would only be 12 months and she’d be happy. It was extreme selfishness to even think of bringing her with me. She’d be miserable in Japan and, in the end, it was better I was miserable than she.
12 months has stretched into what will be 2 and a half years. I no longer feel for her lumpy, warm heifer body at the foot of my bed and I no longer fear that if I leave a carton of yogurt on the table for a second while I reach for a spoon that I will return to find her stripey face whiskers-deep in it. But each stray cat I see stirs the longing within me … and the guilt. I am a cat lady without a cat and the void aches.
The cat in my apartment’s lobby was smaller than my Heifer, but with her stripes, white socks, and vivid green marble eyes.
I caught one word in my neighbor’s diatribe: unchi. It was an unmistakable word; my students croon it from the beginning of class to the end and I finally understood the woman’s concern – she was afraid the cat would make a mess all over the building – but I was still unsure as to what she wanted me to do.
“It’s not mine,” I told her, in Japanese. She continued to holler and point. Each time she opened her mouth, the stripey cat did, too.
I noticed he was wearing a collar with a bell and that he had a full-length tail. None of the strays around here have more than a bobbed nub.
“Collar,” I said and pointed. She paused in her rant, saw the bell around the cat’s neck and nodded. Then she began to jabber again. Wordlessly, I approached the cat. Unlike every other stray, he didn’t flee; he just looked up and dug his claws deeper into the ground. I shuffled a little closer and extended my hand. He sniffed and for the first time in a year and a half I felt kitty whiskers tickle my fingers. He pondered but didn’t bite or swat at me so I took my chances and scooped him up.
This made my neighbor very excited and she continued to prate. She pointed to the alley.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I’ll take him.” The cat was now nuzzled into my shoulder and had begun to purr. I carried him like a sack to the alley and my neighbor rushed after me. She continued to talk about poop and I continued to nod. I carried him with me to the alley and sat down. The cat slithered down from his perch on my shoulder to rest in my lap.
My neighbor stood in front of us and continued to talk – she appeared to be warning me now. I had become very anxious around her; the fact that I couldn’t understand her accented Japanese was making me feel stupid, back to square one, and I was eager for her to be gone.
When she finally left, I was alone with a kitty.
He had begun to knead his claws rhythmically into my work pants. His purr was rattly and he closed his eyes in bliss when I stroked him underneath his chin, behind his silky ears, and across his back.
His eyes were greener than my Heifer’s and I’d been mistaken; he didn’t have white socks, just little black feet. I noticed that each time I spoke to him, he meowed back, as Heifer had often done. He kneaded my thighs like Heifer and the rings of white around his green eyes were just the same, too. But he was so bony. His collar and trust of humans suggested he belonged to someone so I suspected he had gotten out evening and had spent a few nights, alone, maybe unable to find his way home. What could I do with him – how far had he even come? Assuming I could string together enough Japanese to make “Lost Kitty” signs, where could I stash him until someone called? Animals were forbidden in my building and there was Sean to consider, too, who would possibly give birth to a kitten of his own if he found me fostering a cat when he returned from work.
From time to time, the cat leapt off my lap to sniff around on the concrete, just before he looked hopefully at me. There was a 100 yen store just up the road; I could at least buy him a can of tuna. Who knew when he’d eaten last?
“Come here,” I said, bending low again to scoop him up. As I carried him to the 100 yen store, I realized I could feel his heart beating against my shoulder.
“You stay here,” I said, as I dropped him to the sidewalk outside the shop. The cat meowped at me and sat down, cocking his head as he replied. I paused a moment to be sure he was sitting still, then dashed inside. Tuna. Tuna. As I searched, I began to imagine that maybe Sean wouldn’t die of rage and that I could manage to hide a cat successfully. Just for a little while; at least for the night so nothing would happen to him. I had so many empty boxes and used newspapers; I could make a litter. I could use another box for a little cat bed. I could wake to kitty footsteps just before we set him out again for the day. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it would work.
A can of tuna … a can of tuna … there. I snatched it, paid, and burst from the shop to where I’d left the cat.
Of course, he was gone.