Why Do We Lovingly Stroke Cats?

I asked this friend if he’d ever thought about getting a cat, and his response stuck with me. He shook his head. “It’s just an animal eating and shitting where you live. What’s the point?” If kind of an A-hole had told me that, I probably would have forgotten all about it, but this was a good guy. He would never mistreat an animal. He just wouldn’t choose to bring one into his living space. I’ve been lugging my cat, Ebullience, around for about fifteen years. When I’ve moved, she’s moved. She eats and shits where I eat and shit. Kind of literally, because when I lived in a studio I had to keep her litter box in the kitchen between the oven and fridge. My cat and I are buds, but there’s tension. I still haven’t completely forgiven her for the first night in my apartment in Ohio when I woke up with my brain machine broken and lay dying on the floor while she hid in a cupboard meowing, “I don’t like it here, because it’s something different.” What was she supposed to do? She’s a cat. I know. That’s why we’re still buds.

I was recently touched by the cat parts in The Future, a Miranda July movie. (If you’ve never seen a Miranda July movie, I’d start with Me, You, and Everyone We Know and if you like it, then try The Future. She’s quirky and The Future is heavier on the quirky.) In segments the cat talks. While waiting to be adopted from a shelter by a couple the cat says, “They came back and they petted me and I accidentally made the sound that means I am cat that is belonging to you.” *Purrs* “And even making the sound I felt it to be true. It was a warm type of feeling that would have been unwise to have outside at night, but it suddenly seemed that I would not be outside at night ever again.”

My cat has spent her entire life within the various safe walls I’ve provided for her. Her instincts would never make up for her underdeveloped skills when it comes to hunting and surviving. If she got outside, they would literally eat her alive, and even though I created that helplessness by caring for her since she was a kitten, I still feel good in providing for her safety and comfort. But that feels like elevating me above my friend who simply chooses to not own a pet and doesn’t answer the question. The clip from that movie showed me what I get out of caring for a cat. She will never have to be outside ever again. Her every need is taken care of and when “one day she wakes up and feels a great pain,” to quote Regina Spektor, she’ll have to endure a ride to the vet and her existence will come to a peaceful end, with no angst because she lacks a human’s understanding of her mortality.

I say strange things to my cat. When I leave for work, I tell her to “enjoy whatever it is you do when I’m gone all day.” I sometimes tell her to make herself useful by making coffee, just once, in the morning. What am I really saying? I’m saying you were gifted, by me, this stress free life where you don’t have to worry about outside. You don’t have to worry about hunger or meanness. You not only don’t have to worry about them you don’t even have to know these things are a part of life! One could argue that a healthy person wouldn’t enjoy a life like that, which would be fair, humans thrive on challenge, but I don’t think you can deny that aspects of a life like that would be appealing. And then Ebullience is fickle, despite all this. She cries when I won’t sit down if she wants to be on my lap. She cries if the half of the food dish she prefers eating out of is empty even when the other half is full. She’s not always happy. She’s not always appreciative of what she has. “Would you rather be outside fending for yourself?” I taunt my cat mercilessly. I threaten to give her to the neighbors, if they’ll have her. I say all this while I pet her and she purrs. And when I remind her that she should be more grateful, I’m really reminding myself.

An existence with no beginning and no end is an eternal one. We have that, but because of our rare ability to conceive of time before and after us, we don’t always feel like we do. That knowledge can be a gift and it can be a curse; making peace with knowing that is one of the challenges of being human. Maybe one of the ways we manage is by bonding with animals who don’t know that. I must be my father’s son because he used to say strange things to his cat, too. He would pet his cat and it would purr and he would say, “That’s right, kitty, this is all going to last forever.” Because for a content house cat, it will. That’s what we give them and, vicariously, that’s what they give us.


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