Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Pretty much, my whole autumn and winter have been taken up by a cat.

Oh, there was also the swine flu b.s., a load of applications, the production of a scholarly writing sample, an essay about Amy Hempel, a helluva lot of time at the gym, and the usual dance of Cairo, including the horrific thumping of a body against the car of the Metro we were riding in and the subsequent drag and drop of that body. We don't know what happened to that person.

The cats in Maadi are generally in better shape than the ones in our former neighborhood, Zamalek. You see more shopkeepers feeding a few select kitties. They hang in groups, and there's usually one tough boy who heads them. Usually the tough boy has cauliflower jowls from all the scraps he's endured to get his position. Curiously, the big boy in charge of the gang in front of our building has a well-shaped face. He hangs with the regulars - a white gal with a tiny head and enormous, piercing eyes (we call her Ojos Locos), another white guy, and a black and white guy. Here's the tough boy:

He started wooing J pretty quickly this autumn. "Oh, hey, buddy," James says to all animals peeping out from under cars and in garbage piles. J is allergic to cats, but he took to this guy. Or, rather, the cat chose him. He was interested in us. Most animals around here have a blank look of despair, not unlike some of the people. But tough boy was different, and he chose James. Soon, cat food. Eventual inchings of cat into doorway, foyer, dining room carpet. Me saying, "You better not get attached to this nasty cat." Me scolding the cat off the couch when he got too brave.

Me remembering the eleven or twelve cats running around outside when I was a kid, and how I had names for them and loved them all, and would go out on the patio when it was cold at night and gather as many of them onto my lap as I could until my mom made me go back inside. The cats would follow me through the woods in a long line.

I made lots of comments about how I really did not want fleas in the rug. I said, "Hey, disease," whenever the cat tentatively stepped inside. It was hard to explain my ambivalence to J. I was worried about breaking this cat's heart, which would break my heart.

But here he is, just the same. And we decided it was time to adopt him. The cat people in my department were all over this, providing us with doctors' names and numbers, advice about getting the cat to the U.S. (which is relatively easy compared to trying to get a pet into Europe and which doesn't require a quarantine if he's had his shots), and even gift bags of cat toys. We called him Bodie after a character on The Wire. Urban Dictionary will inform you that this name means a guy from the streets who is good with the ladies. We managed to get him his first round of shots, his emasculation, de-worming, and a bath. During this time, I also discovered that de-clawing is an American thing, that it is actually illegal in Europe. Anyway, it was wise not to de-claw him - it would have hurt, and, more to the point, he would have gotten his ass kicked on the first morning we left him to go to work, the day the maid came and let him out. I was devastated. Like an overly zealous new mother, I had called her to make sure the "ota"(cat) was okay. The "ota" was "barra" (outside). "'laam," I muttered. Peace?! My kitty escaped! I was devastated.

"Oh, don't worry," shrugged all the cat people in my department. "He'll be back. He knows where the food is."

We got back at 8pm. By 9, the cat was back, too, but wary. Wary 'til the food was presented. And so the meowing ensued as we shut him back in our apartment. We had a week of break ahead of us, with Thanksgiving and Eid Al-Adha and illogical swine flu extensions. A week of incessant howling each night, sulking and stinkeye, a few pointed poops with our names written in them, and an everlasting smell of cat piss on one of the couches. He really wanted out. After a week, we let him out. I can't explain the relief. We watched from the window as he stepped outside and rubbed against a plant and luxuriously sniffed and trotted about. We saw him periodically cruising about with Ojos Locos. And then, later, he was back. OK, so we would have an arrangement. I didn't know if it was an ethical arrangement. What about if/when we leave? What do we do? I plan to take the cat but not if he hasn't settled in with us. Besides, he hadn't even let us pet him, scratch his chin, though he was playing.

A few weeks later, I was walking down to the ATM and spotted the black and white cat, entrails spilling out in the road. All of the cats on the street were creeping toward it in a slow-motion circle. It had just happened - no doubt he had been run over. Bodie was one of the creeping cats. When he saw me, he ran under a parked car. By the time I came back, someone had scooped the cat over to the side of the road. (In Zamalek, it would have been more likely to rot there for days until it was fully pressed into the pavement). Bodie was trying to get to it, but an orange cat was standing guard over the body. Since he had been emasculated, Bodie was not one to start fights.

When he came in later that evening, he started rubbing against us, and all of a sudden he wanted a head rub, a chin scratch. I have to admit I think that the dead cat traumatized him because all of a sudden he was a lot more needy, particularly toward his buddy James. We got a vet who does housecalls, and Bodie got his second round of shots. He won't stay in all the time, but he spends more and more hours inside, and we even leave him in the apartment when we go somewhere. I am not sure what will become of this cat. But, as J reminds me, every hour he is with us is an hour of comfort for him. I don't think he has ever had such good naps, for sure, with nothing to worry about, no toms picking fights, and food at the ready.

We haven't written much lately. Part of it is that we do not have the same narrative wonder that we used to have. I could tell you about the books I have read this semester, the tedium and joys of teaching and departmental work, my waning relationship with my novel. But Bodie's really the only thing I've found worth writing about.