A life spent mainly in the company of cats has meant relishing the comforts of domesticity and solitude



In September 1999, after my first summer on the East Coast, I spent a weekend in western Massachusetts with Oscar, a Siamese cat who weighed seven pounds and had ears like Yoda’s. After sightseeing and bird watching all day, I returned each night to have dinner with Oscar in our motel room.

Forty-two and divorced, I had resigned from a tenured job at a small college in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and moved to Cambridge for a five-year lectureship at Harvard. Although I grew up in Japan, I had spent all my adult life in the Midwest. Before the weekend getaway with Oscar, I had never traveled except to visit friends or attend academic conferences, and then only to big cities. I was hoping that Oscar and I could change that by taking weekend trips around New England, but we didn’t get another chance. Oscar had a congenital heart defect that would soon be discovered. He died the following spring, just three years old.

Oscar was my second cat. My first, Dorian—also a Siamese—was twice Oscar’s size and so possessive of me that he bit anyone who came near. In the 18 years we were together, I finished graduate school and found a job, became an American citizen, married, published my first three books, bought a house with my husband, and left it after divorcing him. That, I was sure, was more than half my adult life, over and done with. My mother had killed herself at 41, and most of my father’s family had died from cancer in their 50s or 60s, so when I got Oscar at 40, I assumed that he and I would reach the end of our lives at around the same time.

Although cats are believed to be aloof and independent, mine have been anything but. Both cats followed me from room to room and sat on my lap for hours. My husband, Chuck, said Dorian recognized the sound of my car pulling into the driveway and ran to the door. Oscar started meowing in the foyer of our Cambridge apartment the moment I stepped into the building’s lobby, four floors down. The stairwell of our brownstone was like an echo chamber. His voice got louder and louder as I climbed the steps, until I would hear the clicking of his paws on the hardwood floor just beyond my door.

The first time Chuck came to my apartment, Dorian bit his hand and drew blood. “Just step back and ignore him,” I said. “He usually bites only once, to show you he can.” It’s a wonder Chuck didn’t leave. I didn’t even offer him a Band-Aid.

In the 13 years the three of us lived together, Chuck and Dorian made peace with each other, but there was no mistaking where Dorian’s allegiance lay. He slept with Chuck if I was out late—only to wait for me, pick his way across the bed, and crawl into my arms. Although Chuck and I didn’t have children, we didn’t speak about, much less treat, Dorian like our child. Neither of us ever used the pronoun our in referring to the cat. Still, after the divorce, I took Dorian back to our old house when I went out of town: Chuck was the only other person who could care for him.

Our divorce was amicable, once Chuck forgave me for wanting to leave. I was tired of living in Green Bay and being treated like a foreigner, and the liberal arts college where I taught was becoming more like a business school. Chuck was originally from Green Bay, so no one gawked at him or complimented him on his ability to speak English. He taught at an alternative school where parents vied to have their kids assigned to his classroom. He could complain every day about his hometown and still fit in. At first I thought I was unfairly blaming him for my unhappiness, but eventually I understood that I was longing to be free, not just from him, my job, and our small-town life, but also from being married.

After the divorce, I relocated only a few miles down the road because by then Dorian was 15, too old for a real move. When Dorian died, I was dating a man who had three cats. I got Oscar—my own cat—so that my boyfriend would understand I had no intention of moving into his house and getting married to him. Now that I didn’t have to worry about Dorian anymore, I was ready for a change.

Relieved to be single again, I flew to Cambridge and purchased a 440-square-foot condominium on the top floor of a brownstone near Harvard Square. The tiny studio with the large windows overlooking a tree-lined street was perfect for Oscar and me. I didn’t have to explain, justify, or defend my decision before offering the full asking price to expedite the sale. All I had to ascertain was that the building allowed pets and the living room window would be repaired, so that Oscar could safely sit on the sill. “Fix LV Window so it will not fall on Cat,” the real estate agent scribbled on her notepad. If she thought I was foolish to be more concerned about Oscar’s safety than about the lack of closet space or the cracks in the ceiling, she didn’t let on. I was thrilled to be able to invest in a new home, with no husband to disagree with me and hold me back. I believed in solitude and independence the way most people believe in romance.

At least that was what I thought until, after Oscar’s death, I found myself climbing the four flights of stairs in silence, only to step through the door into more silence. I’d had no business extolling the virtues of solitude and independence when I had never lived alone without a cat.

When Oscar died, only one week remained of the school year. I didn’t think it was disrespectful to his memory to get another cat, but I decided to put that off in order to devote the summer to traveling.

At every Cambridge gathering I attended, I had listened to the other guests comparing their favorite neighborhoods in Paris and describing the frescoes they’d seen in Florence. They were shocked to hear that the only foreign country I’d been to was Japan. I felt like a provincial American in a Henry James novel. I couldn’t tour France or Italy by myself, since I didn’t speak the languages, but I could visit London and Dublin. Traveling abroad would be the ultimate test of independence.

I bought a stack of guidebooks and read them every evening while eating the easiest supper I could throw together—dry toast, a salad that was mostly lettuce. With Dorian and then with Oscar, I had cooked a meal and set a place for myself on the floor with a placemat, a cloth napkin, and silverware so that the cat could sit next to me without trying to climb up on the table. I didn’t offer table scraps indiscriminately, but each cat had a few favorites he was allowed to sample: butter, tortilla chips, and roasted peanuts for Dorian, yogurt and bananas for Oscar. Dinner with them had been an occasion—a chance to put aside the day’s activities and enjoy the food, the apartment, the quiet. But now I understood why people ate Chinese takeout from a cardboard box while standing next to the kitchen sink. Sitting alone with a plate of food in front of me felt useless and stupid. Without a cat by my side, I became self-conscious in my own company.

A single woman with a cat is often portrayed as a pitiful recluse, a disheveled wreck of a person holed up in a filthy hovel. That, minus the cat, was what I was in danger of becoming. I didn’t care what I ate or wore and couldn’t see the point in having people over or going out to meet them. My cats had added a sense of dignity—luxury, even—to the hours I spent with them, alone but not alone. The fortified solitude they gave me was at the heart of everything I did. With Oscar gone, I didn’t feel like tidying up and decorating my apartment or exploring the city I’d moved to only a year before. Single life, for me, was a strange paradox: I needed a cat to keep from becoming the crazy cat lady barricaded in clutter and neglect.

Instead of booking a flight to Ireland or England, I got two Siamese kittens and named them Ernest and Algernon. They weren’t aggressive like Dorian, so I could hire a cat sitter and travel if friendship or work required it. But going somewhere just to go there—travel for travel’s sake, otherwise known as a vacation—was now out of the question. Taking trips with two cats was too complicated, and I had no desire to leave Ernest and Algernon behind, only to spend time in a city or country where I didn’t know anyone and had nothing to do. I had visited Japan only three times in the 23 years I’d been gone. On my last trip, I’d signed away my rights to my father’s estate so that my stepmother could inherit it all and not contact me again. I had abandoned the country of my birth. Surely it was okay to give up on places I didn’t even know. Ernest and Algernon would keep me doubly tied down, homebound.

Recent studies using GPS devices and miniature cameras reveal that most indoor-outdoor cats stay within blocks of their homes. Even those who roam farther have a boundary they never cross. Despite their reputation as solitary wanderers, cats prefer to stay in a familiar place and do the same things every day.

Still, a cat who goes outside deals with changes in the weather or the intrusion of other animals. An indoor cat, by contrast, spends his entire life inside a temperature-controlled house or apartment with humans who come and go in predictable patterns. He rarely encounters any changes in his environment, and when he does, we are there to humor and placate him.

For three nights after we moved in with Chuck, Dorian and I slept under our old comforter in the walk-in closet that contained only my clothes; during the day, Dorian came out to the spare room I’d set up as my study with books and furniture from our old apartment. He would have been perfectly happy if the two of us could have remained in that room. Dorian didn’t understand that the reason for the move was for me to live with Chuck (as well). When he finally ventured into the living room, Dorian hopped from rug to couch to plant stand, assiduously avoiding any piece of furniture he didn’t recognize. I coaxed him onto the chairs from Chuck’s old apartment by covering them with our towels and blankets, sitting there myself, and giving Dorian a treat when he jumped into my lap.

I suppose Dorian loved me because I was the most recognizable feature of his territory, the provider of his food and the arranger of his furniture. Oscar, too, thought of me as a kind of guidepost. In the motel rooms where we stayed during our three-day drive from Wisconsin to Massachusetts and at the Howard Johnson’s where we spent our weekend vacation, he pranced out of the pet carrier on our arrival to explore the premises, rubbing his head on the walls and the furniture. Every few minutes, he returned to my side to head-butt me. Purring loudly, he circled me and rolled over to have his stomach scratched. When he was satisfied with the attention, he darted away to resume his investigation.

Cats have a scent gland under the skin of the forehead that they activate by rubbing. Oscar was leaving his scent on the surfaces he rubbed against and connecting the dots back to me. He was marking me—along with the entire motel room—as his territory and saying he owned me. After he had secured the perimeter, Oscar acted like he had always lived in that room. He understood that the bed was for sleeping, the couch was for sitting on to read, his food and water would be next to the fridge in the kitchenette, and his litter box would, of course, be in the bathroom. Having mastered his territory and confirmed the source of his food and water (me), he could settle right in.

Territory and food are not altruistic motives for affection, but I don’t expect anyone, human or animal, to love me for no reason. I wasn’t interested in whether my cats had true affection for me or they just found me familiar and convenient. The more interesting question was about how my cats had domesticated me.

My mother, Takako, didn’t leave our house by herself except to shop for groceries, care for a sick relative, or attend PTA meetings at my school. Takako loved seeing beautiful things, but in order to visit a museum or a botanical garden, she had to take me, so that she could say she was providing an education for her daughter. Respectably married Japanese women of her generation didn’t go traipsing around town to amuse themselves. They pursued hobbies at home and socialized with the neighbors. When my mother and her friends got together for tea, each woman brought her needlework so as not to sit idle.

Every night after work, my father went drinking with his friends. He had several girlfriends who called our house looking for him. An engineer for Kawasaki Steel, he traveled to inspect the conglomerate’s branch offices and factories. He seldom told us where he was going or when he’d be back. I felt sorry for my mother, but I, too, started to roam, once my friends and I learned to use public transportation in third grade and could meet up at the municipal pool, the zoo, the skating rink. In the suburb of Kobe where we were growing up in the 1960s, children were presumed to be safe so long as they didn’t talk to strangers. My mother had less freedom than I’d enjoyed in kindergarten, when I was allowed to walk to friends’ houses in the neighborhood and play unsupervised in the nearby park. When Takako killed herself, I was 12: old enough to wonder whether she might have chosen to live if she’d actually had a life.

The woman who moved into our house soon after Takako’s death had met my father at the business hotel her parents managed. She was something of a professional housekeeper, having worked in the family business. After they were married, my father resumed his excursions with his friends and other girlfriends while Michiko remained at home and kept the premises spotless: she swept, vacuumed, dusted, and mopped every morning. She spent most of her time in the kitchen, picking up the few crumbs that fell on the floor or wiping off the barely visible stains that drove her to distraction. She refused to teach me how to clean or cook, but I didn’t care. By then I was certain that becoming a homemaker either killed you or else turned you into a crazy and bitter person.

I left Japan after my sophomore year of college, transferring to a school in America. There, I subsisted on cottage cheese, applesauce, and lukewarm coffee in the cafeteria, and cold Pop-Tarts in my dorm room when I missed the meals. The linoleum floor in my room looked equally dingy whether or not I swept it. The potted plants in the lobby had more cigarette butts than new shoots. I left the dorm for graduate school, only to share a dilapidated apartment with two men who stacked the dirty dishes on the counter when the sink was full.

If I hadn’t gotten Dorian, I might have gone on living in that apartment, but a week after his arrival, Dorian climbed the Christmas tree my roommate John had put up and broke all the glass ornaments that used to belong to John’s grandparents. One minute, John was yelling and demanding that I take the cat back to the breeder. The next, I was responding to a newspaper apartment ad.

Moving to a studio apartment with Dorian gave me a chance to start caring about the space we occupied. Dorian scratched the couch and the carpet, spilled food and water around his bowls, and scattered litter every time he jumped in and out of the box, but he trained me to clean the litter box, wash his food and water bowls, and put away my clothes, books, dishes, or anything he might chew, scratch, or break. I didn’t need to be embarrassed by the condition of our apartment when friends came over. It seemed bad enough that Dorian would bite.

The apartment didn’t have a separate kitchen, but the sink, fridge, and stove that were crammed into the corner belonged only to me. I didn’t have to clean up a roommate’s mess or worry about my stepmother carrying on because I’d left a smudge on the sink after pouring myself a glass of water. I didn’t know how to cook, but my mother had taught me to bake. I knew what it meant when a recipe said that the dough should stop sticking to the board and look shiny, or that the loaf should sound hollow when you tapped it. Takako had shown me how to press pie dough from the center out and wrap it around the rolling pin to transfer to the baking tin. It was satisfying when the circles fit perfectly to make the two halves of the pie.

In that apartment and in all the others we occupied together, my favorite way to spend the evening was alone with Dorian, baking and teaching myself to cook. I loved sitting down with him to eat all the wrong foods at the wrong times: half a pear pie for dinner at three A.M., leftover soup for breakfast, scrambled eggs any time of the day.

I cooked during our marriage, but Chuck didn’t care about food. He often said that a team of scientists should be working on a once-a-day food pill to free up the hours humans spent cooking, eating, and cleaning up. We shied away from doing any more housework than necessary because domesticity scared us. I couldn’t forget about my mother trapped inside our house. Chuck’s parents, who had married at 19 and raised four children, didn’t read books or watch movies that weren’t meant for their grandchildren; his mother redecorated their house every year because—we suspected—she was bored. Especially after we turned 30 and bought a house, Chuck and I went out of our way not to become our parents. I cooked simple, functional meals; he cleaned the house just enough so it wasn’t a total mess. Our yard was the last on the block to get mowed or raked. Our marriage, while it lasted, was a joint project to boycott conventional domesticity.

Cooking and baking became a major pastime again when I resumed living on my own. In Cambridge, especially, where everyone seemed busy and impatient, it was relaxing to spend evenings in the kitchen with a cat perched on my shoulder and another sleeping in a chair nearby. Ernest and Algernon grew up to be just like their namesakes. Ernest, who had gray markings and pale blue eyes, was picky and dignified, every bit the country gentleman. Algernon, a sealpoint with a black mask, vest, boots, and mitts, was the freewheeling man-about-town, easygoing and insouciant. They helped me feel less shy about inviting a new colleague or neighbor to my tiny apartment.

“My cats and I want to cook for you,” I said. “They can even bake bread.” Unlike in the Midwest, where friends stopped by unannounced and stayed to eat whatever you were cooking, dinner invitations in Cambridge were major overtures. Without the cats, I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to keep trying when people said they’d love to come but were busy for the next month or canceled at the last minute because they had too much work to do. “We’ll be in touch again,” I said, meaning the cats and I will give you another chance, though maybe the other person believed the plural pronoun signified “you and I.”

Because I was a single woman living far from where I was born, people often assumed I was a free spirit, an adventurer who thrived on change. Actually, I like things to stay the same. When I left Japan for America, my life as a student didn’t change. I studied, listened to music, watched movies and television, and stayed up late talking with friends. My adult life in Green Bay, once I had a dozen close friends, was pretty much the same. My friends and I cooked for each other, went out for movies and pizza, and talked about house repairs or gardening or pets. I hadn’t experienced a drastic upheaval until I moved east to teach at an Ivy League school I would never have gotten into as a student, with colleagues who needed to double-check their schedules and email me several times before they could accept a dinner invitation. I missed the casual familiarity, the communal domesticity of Midwestern friendships.

Domesticity is about the comfort of keeping things the same. The best recipes are consistent—that is to say, the food always comes out the same. Housecleaning restores your home to its former order, and the right laundry detergent can (supposedly) keep your favorite shirt looking “like new” after a hundred washes. When people talk about companionship as the mainstay of a marriage, they mean that a married couple can stay the same together as they experience change, like tandem skydivers falling through the atmosphere.

Instead of relying on Chuck for stability, I resented him for the ties he had in his hometown. During our first year in Green Bay, when I didn’t have any friends yet, Chuck could spend every Sunday watching football with a dozen childhood pals. When neighbors invited us to back-yard parties, he said, “I don’t want to go. I already have enough friends.” I berated him for his unwillingness to meet new people, and yet I was equally upset, a few years later, when he talked about wanting to quit his job and go back to school to study art or journalism. “I don’t see how that would work,” I pointed out. “How would you pay for your half of our expenses?”

I knew he wasn’t serious about leaving his job. He was trying to tell me that some aspects of his work frustrated and disappointed him. If he had been my friend instead of my husband, I would have listened with sympathy rather than finding fault so quickly. I was appalled by my own selfishness, but the next conversation would go the same way. Marriage brought out the worst in me. I never regretted leaving and had no desire to repeat the experience.

The best offer I received for a teaching position after Harvard was in Northern Virginia. I was sorry not to be able to return to the Midwest, but the job would allow me to live in Washington, D.C., a city I had visited before. I figured I would adjust just fine, but the cats were another story. Ernest was particularly averse to change.

When it came time to hold an open house in Cambridge, we went to stay with a friend, and on the drive over, Ernest meowed all the way. Frazzled by his distress, I reneged on the promise to take my friend out to dinner and suggested ordering a pizza and watching a movie on TV. Brighde, a single woman my age, humored me, though at the time she didn’t have a pet and had no way of understanding my obsession with the cats’ safety and comfort. Ernest paced around the living room all night long, huffing and grunting, while Algernon slept on my lap.

When we returned to our apartment, Ernest rolled around on the floor, purring. He was ecstatic to reclaim our home; he had no idea that the open house had resulted in an offer I could accept. I felt guilty as I booked a flight to D.C. to look for a place to live.

The last apartment my D.C. real estate agent showed me was in a brownstone of a similar size and age as my Cambridge condo. It, too, was situated on the top floor and faced east. It even had the same kind of windows, with wavy glass and a pulley system. I could picture Ernest sitting next to my desk and looking down at the trees—crape myrtle, cedar, and magnolia instead of sugar maple, but Ernest wasn’t an arborist; he would be willing to overlook the difference. The layout of the new apartment was also nearly identical, so I could arrange the furniture in the same configuration.

Ernest meowed the entire drive from Cambridge to Washington. He paraded unhappily around the motel room in New Jersey where we stayed the night, but once we arrived in the new apartment, he curled up on the blanket we had brought from our old home and fell asleep. After the furniture was delivered and every piece arranged in its rightful place, Ernest rewarded my efforts by settling right in. Algernon was happy with our new home, too, but I didn’t expect otherwise from him. I suspect Ernest soon forgot our Cambridge studio and believed that our apartment in D.C. was where he had lived all along. Sometimes I felt that way, too.

Our new neighborhood, like the one in Cambridge, had old houses and brownstones, the same kinds of stores and restaurants around the corner. I was practically living in the same residential block as before. The university had hired me with tenure, so I’d never have to look for another job. Most of my out-of-town friends visited regularly when they had business in town. I traveled only rarely, looking forward to the long stretches of time when the cats and I could stay put.

The cats didn’t go out into our neighborhood except in my car on the way to the vet. They didn’t open the kitchen drawers and cupboards, in which the silverware, utensils, and dishes were arranged the same way they had been in every kitchen I ever cooked in. Ernest had given me an excuse to re-create our Cambridge apartment in D.C. He let me pretend I was placating him when I, too, needed to neutralize the move by making sure that my territory and my daily routine remained unchanged. Like an indoor cat, I required my life to be safely contained in the one place I knew.

At the first major U.S. symposium on human-animal relationships, in 1981, psychologist Aaron Katcher suggested that pet keeping, like gardening, restores us to the security of “cyclical time” by engaging us in repetitive activities that sustain life. The responsibility of feeding, exercising, and grooming a pet increases our mental and emotional equilibrium. The chores we perform for our pets are similar to the labor of the home and the farm that once connected most humans to the rejuvenating cycles of nature.

Caring for pets is comforting to those of us who thrive on routine, but not everyone likes to be tied down to their homes by their chores and responsibilities. “I love to travel,” my petless friends often say. “I want to be able to just take off for the weekend, or be gone for a couple of months.”

Perhaps the world is divided into people who yearn for new experiences and those who relish the known. A bird watcher can take weekly trips to the Caribbean to see six kinds of hummingbirds. I prefer to stay put and wait for the ruby-throats, the only hummingbird commonly found in D.C., to alight on the red petunias I plant every summer in my window boxes. The first hummingbird always arrives in early May. By June, they are a frequent sight at my window; robins are nesting in my neighbor’s cherry tree, its branches overhanging the sidewalk. In September and October, flocks of chimney swifts on their way to South America swirl into our chimney at dusk to spend the night, looking like smoke blowing backward into the building. Every season, the same birds return to do the same things as the trees bloom and fruit and shed their leaves.

The “security of cyclical time,” however, is an illusion. A healthy ecosystem can renew itself annually, but nature is all about breeding, predation, and dying. Most songbirds don’t make it through their first year to become adults. We may find robins nesting in the same tree every June, but they are not the same birds year after year. Nests are homes made to be abandoned.

Moving to Washington, D.C., at 48, I no longer assumed—I rather hoped not—that I would die in my 50s or 60s like my father and members of his family. I knew I would outlive Ernest and Algernon, both of whom suffered from inflammatory bowel disease, a chronic condition that made them susceptible to a host of other illnesses. Algernon suddenly went blind in March 2010 when he was 10. He lingered for a month, learning to navigate our apartment by smell and touch while the rest of his body continued to fail. Because he had such a strong will to live, I believed—though no one else did—that he might survive into old age as a blind cat. Three months after Algernon’s death, Ernest started coughing and throwing up and was gone in three days. Even in the manner of dying, each cat was who he had always been, Algernon stubbornly optimistic and accommodating, Ernest equally stubborn in his refusal to accept anything but the best.

The security of cyclical time doesn’t apply to pets even as a comforting illusion. The whole point of a pet is that the animal who lives in your home is different from all the others of its kind. Getting a new pet is not at all like planting petunias every spring or waiting each fall for the return of the chimney swifts. There’s no consolation that the larger world, if not the individual, continues to rejuvenate itself.

I didn’t expect Algernon and Ernest to be the same as Oscar and Dorian, though by choosing Siamese cats, who are famous for bonding with their owners, I was ensuring that in his own way, each would be attached to me so that I could be the same person—a woman at home with a devoted companion, solitary but not alone.

I knew when I left my marriage that I would never again live with another person. Although I dated the same man for years after I moved to the East Coast, we never lived in the same city, and when his parents started getting old and needing his help, months went by without our seeing each other. I discovered I was happier talking to him on the phone than in person. I liked mentioning his name now and then so my friends wouldn’t have to worry about my being “all alone,” but I was approaching an age when no one would think it was strange for me to be single.

Once this thought was in my head, the end was as inevitable as when I started paging through the atlas and dreaming about all the cities where I could start over without Chuck. Or when my Wisconsin boyfriend drove me three hours across the state to pick up Oscar from the breeder. He peered into the pet carrier to say, “Well, Oscar, you’ve now officially replaced me as the most important man in Kyoko’s life,” and I shrugged and laughed as though this was a joke the three of us should be sharing. I hated the rude and insensitive person I inevitably became when I was part of a couple. I couldn’t understand why other people found it comforting, rather than oppressive, to “have someone there” all the time. My longing for solitude was insatiable. Often in the middle of a perfectly pleasant conversation, I wanted to disappear from the scene, just to be alone. It wasn’t exactly a death wish, but too close to one for comfort.

Although I need a lot of time alone and feel suffocated in a relationship, I’m not generally antisocial. I enjoy getting together with friends and colleagues. I’m not nervous in public. I can even be counted on to defuse an awkward or tense situation with courtesy. People who don’t know me well probably wonder why I didn’t choose a more conventional life. My cats are not substitutes for the children I never wanted or the husband I decided I could do without: they are avatars for my true solitary self.

Miles, my fifth Siamese, has shadowy stripes on his legs in addition to the pale gray markings of a typical bluepoint. He retreats to our bedroom if more than six people are in our living room. He emerges toward the end of a party and runs around meowing. Go away, go away, he screams; it’s midnight and he’s had enough. During smaller dinner parties, he stays in the living room to drape himself across my lap and stare at my friends in a pointed way. If I get up to fetch more food or drinks, he follows me to the kitchen, refusing to be left alone with the guests.

When I’m out of town and my neighbor Gail comes to care for him, Miles gobbles up the treats she tosses his way before disappearing under the bed. “Don’t worry,” Gail says on the phone. “He’s eating fine. He’s a little depressed, but he’s not sick.” I tell her that I’m depressed, too. Away from home, without a cat pressed against me, I wake up every hour wondering why the room is so cold. I’m bothered by small things—like bad food or poor service at a restaurant—that I wouldn’t ordinarily care about, and I whine at people. “I’m not myself,” I complain. “I can’t wait to be home.” At least I know where Miles is when I’m away. To him, it must look like I have disappeared. Every time I walk out the door, I cease to exist.

Miles and I, Gail says, are enmeshed. We can move in tandem through our apartment as though attached by an invisible string. I’ve trained him—with a clicker commonly used with dogs—to sprint after me and stop on command, to sit, stand on his hind legs, high-five me, and jump over a pole and through a child-sized Hula-hoop. His best trick, though, is one I didn’t teach. Like Oscar, Miles circles me. Whereas Oscar charted the motel rooms on our travels, turning an unfamiliar place into a temporary home, Miles reclaims his territory every time I sit down on our living room floor.

Miles bumps my legs, shoulders, and arms with his head, takes a few steps, leans sideways to press his whole body against me, and reaches up to rub his cheek on mine. He stretches and arches his back to be petted. Then, purring loudly, he plops down on the floor, extends his legs, and rolls over onto his back. He rocks from side to side, his whiskers trembling with happiness, while I scratch his stomach. When I stop, he gets up and resumes winding himself around me, pausing to press his head against me every few steps. He is casting a spell to prevent me from disappearing, to hold us together in the here and now. Over and over, he draws his magic circle to keep me contained in his world.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Kyoko Mori teaches creative writing at George Mason University. She is the author of the nonfiction books Yarn, The Dream of Water and Polite Lies, as well as three novels, the most recent of which is Stone Field, True Arrow.


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