Cats, like dogs, have half a dozen standard colors that make for thousands of combinations. Orange, black, white, cream, brown, and gray mix together to become calico, tabby, and tortoiseshell. The patterns can vary startlingly when shrunk or enlarged. Classic, mackerel, spotted, ticked, and patched are names for different patterns of tabbies. If the overall color is orange instead of gray or brown, you have a red tabby. What makes these cats tabbies is the M on their foreheads. Purposeful breeding has made some tabbies look more like miniature leopards. So tell me all cats look alike, and I will just say, “Whatever.” Tell a dog person about the amazing variety in tabbies, and you’ll hear the same: “Whatever.”
My cat Blackster is plain black—nothing exceptional in that. But until he came to my patio a year ago and meowed loudly, as if he knew me, I had never been aware of body form in a cat. Some cats are fat, and they loll. Some are skinny, and they perch. But Blackster is tubular. Pick him up and it’s like having a serpent in your arms, writhing and slithering through your hands. When I took Charlie, my red tabby, to the vet and, in passing, inquired about a symptom Blackster had, the vet prescribed some pills. “Does he weigh about the same as this one?” he asked, his hand on Charlie.
Is that when I saw, really saw, this man for the first time? No. The first time was a few minutes earlier, when I had set Charlie’s carrier on the examining table and opened the grilled door. Charlie did not emerge. The vet was on one side of the table and I on the other, with the recalcitrant cat between us, hiding in plain view. I was about to stick my arm in to grasp Charlie and pull him out, but then I stayed my hand. Let the vet do it, I thought to myself, when he considered it opportune. And he did put his hand in, utterly unhurried. A large, apologetic-appearing man, overweight by any standard, gray-haired, slack and loose, wearing spectacles. A mild, kindly expression on his face. The apology in his expression I decided later was due to his regret at having to speak carefully and simply because he couldn’t assume you were as smart as he was. If he had bustled, he might have brought to mind a fussy character from Dickens. He did not bustle. He was surprisingly calm, like a placid lake, just there, unrippled, unwaved, unexpected in the middle of the mountains and trees and the breezes animating boughs and long grasses. If that lake had spoken, it might say it was sorry not to invite you in—the water was deep and you were not an expert swimmer. That was the regretful bit. Eyebrows lifted and knitted at the same time. A sad, hopeful inquiry full of apology, such as I have often seen in a dog’s face. But there was more: a confidence in his own mild method. All this in the manner of the vet as he put his hand in the carrier but did not seize the cat by the scruff. He stroked the cat.
The vet I had gone to before would have hurried the cat out of the carrier, not unkindly, but impatient. She might have addressed the cat too, but she would have said, “What’s this game-playing? What’s to be afraid of?” Almost by chance, my feet had taken me down the street across the road and to this clinic rather than the other way, to the other clinic and to the other vet, where I’d gone before.
The cat emerged. The vet examined him, gave him a shot, said to come back in 10 days. That’s when I asked about Blackster and his cold and the vet asked about his size. Does he weigh about the same as this one?
About the same. What does that mean? That you pick one up and then the other, and the effort is equal. But the effort is a mix of lift and hug. Pick up Charlie, and he goes limp until, deciding he wants to be free, he kicks. Pick up Blackster, and he slides through your grasp like a long water balloon, his weight rolling from one end to the other. How is that possible? Within seconds, he’s free, having expertly slid from my arms, and so I reach for him again. He is so solid, so full, so slender. I have never held an eel, but that is what he suggests to me. Except he has legs and an eel has none, you might protest. True, but the cat’s legs disappear when he’s in your arms—like a plane in flight, the cat’s landing gear is retracted and zippered up inside him. Strange but true.
Cats, it seems to me, all look alike the way your mother and father look alike. Meaning not at all. Except people do all look alike. Different sizes, different shapes, but all like tippy toys set loose, wobbling fast or slow along the sidewalks. What is the point of these toys, I have wondered, watching them wobble here, wobble there, wobble through terrifically complicated scenes built just to let them wobble. This was how the people at the large trade fair in Gijón in August appeared to me—like tippy toys expertly avoiding collision with other tippy toys, bobbing along but staying upright as they are designed to do. That I was one of them didn’t make them less strange on that hot, humid day, wobbling from building to building, stand to stand, forming lines to receive a free pencil or a free bottle opener branded with some company’s name. No matter what was being hawked, the stands appeared all the same, as did the people going from one to another, making the rounds, in and out of one pavilion after another, past food arrays, lots of kitchenwares, stuffed animals, furniture, tech displays, and cars costing more than a house. Everything reduced to bright colors in constant motion, a kaleidoscope with individual faces forming and splintering. Onward.
From the streak of shade cast by a lamppost, a cat watched the toys, its personality so concentrated that I felt I’d seen a rare bird about to take flight. I fumbled for my phone to get a picture. The cat was special. It was watching the moving lines as if it might strike out with a paw to imprison a few of the creatures—as I have seen my cats watch buzzing flies at the window or a trail of ants—but it was the wrong size. What was it thinking? It couldn’t possibly catch these oversize ants, all lumbering along, striving so intently on moving. When I looked again, phone in hand, the cat was gone. “I missed it!” I said to my companion. I’d seen it but missed it, just as I’d seen the vet but missed the full implications of the still waters, the depth of them.
“The cat,” I said. “It was just there, by that post.”
“I saw it,” he said. He looked at me. “And?” He couldn’t fathom it. He had seen the cat but hadn’t seen it. Strange but true.
“It was a special cat.”
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