At the risk of sounding crazy, when I think about Valentine’s Day—and not the consumer-driven Hallmark glaze that obscures it—I think about my cat. My boyfriend has motivated me to have some positive feelings toward Valentine’s Day after having been a Grinch for decades, which says a lot, but history matters. My boyfriend and I have been together for 4 years, but Zola and I have been together for 15.
There’s no one (I’m fully aware of the personification here) who has been a part of my daily existence for longer than Zola. She saw me graduate college, she moved to New York City with me three days before 9/11, she moved to Vancouver with me when I went to graduate school, she moved back to Michigan with me when my dad got sick, and she moved with me to Boston. That’s a whole lot of life—everything since I technically became an adult.
I never meant to get a cat. My college boyfriend’s uncle found her when he was mowing the lawn. She was tiny, clearly the dumped runt of the litter, and she was cross-eyed. He planned to take her to the pound the next day. It took some doing—she’d have to live in my boyfriend’s apartment, which wasn’t ideal, and he was afraid that she would die and leave me inconsolable—but he finally agreed when she sat on his palm and stared up at him with those crossed eyes, chirping and squeaking like a Tribble. Her first litter pan was a cereal box cut sideways.
If you’d have asked me then how long I expected to have Zola, I’d have shrugged. A few years, maybe? I entered into the relationship impulsively, which was something I never did in my romantic life. With her there was no cost-benefit analysis, no thinking ahead to whether it would ultimately “work out.” I just scooped her up and never looked back. I don’t think I’ve done that with any other person or thing in my life.
But unlike with another person, there was nothing complicated or difficult about this love. Zola would never lie or get boring or get jealous or fall in love with someone else—there was nothing I could do to make her not want to be my cat, and nothing she could to do make me not want her to be. It sounds simple, but for me it’s unexpectedly profound. I’ve often wondered whether I’m capable of loving another person unconditionally, but with pets, you don’t even have to try. It just is.
I didn’t analyze my relationship with Zola—even typing the phrase now feels silly—until I realized just how different my life would be without her. She was the only friend I had in New York City when I moved there on September 8, 2001. September 11 was the first day she was brave enough to move from under my bed, traumatized from the long drive, the new digs, the street noise. Everything went silent and out she came, the only normal and recognizable thing in the world. A few weeks later, she disappeared out an open window. She’d never been outside and was afraid of other cats, no match for the mean streets of Manhattan. I’d lost the job I just gotten and the apartment where I was staying. The big city had vastly different plans for me than I’d expected, but it was her getting lost that made me feel the unfairness of it all—it was the suckerpunch on top of the crap sundae. That’s when I realized how much she grounded me; she was the common denominator between the current chaos and a past that made sense. She was the only thing in New York City that would have been affected if I’d have been in a tower that day.
If I didn’t find her, she would die. And the world would end, or so it seemed to me. I did find her, days later, tucked under a pile of firewood in a back yard around the corner. I know I’m projecting, but when I brought her back and she slowly unfurled onto my lap, she wondered how she’d gotten there, and she looked up at me and knew. She was home, and she’s been home ever since. I’ve never been ambivalent about that, even when I’ve felt ambivalent about everything else.
I can be hard sometimes—I’m good at swallowing emotions, good at compartmentalizing, good at laughing at myself when I think of my cat as my life partner. But I never thought I was capable of unconditional love, and I suppose it doesn’t much matter who, or what, taught me I am.
Joelle teaches writing and science fiction at Boston University. She maintains a blog, www.couldthishappen.com, about the relationship between science and science fiction, for which she received a 2012 Somerville Arts Council Fellowship Grant and a 2013 Nonfiction Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston and she writes for www.giantfreakinrobot.com Her work has appeared in Slate, Guernica, Carousel, Briarpatch, Sycamore Review, and others. Her collection of essays, Letters to Ray Bradbury, will be published by Aqueous Press in 2014.