My marriage crashed to a close in April 1997, and I spent a long and nasty summer alone in a much-too-large apartment listening to the voices of Olga Borodina and Jussi Bjoerling. Not that they made bad company, but I also had to spend a lot of time with myself, and the increasing free time left me the opportunity to stick my nose in the vodka bottle to the point of nightly pass-out. I’d spend money on musical instruments that brought no relief, I’d talk on the phone and watch my bills go way too high. Not, shall we say, a happy camper.
And then it occurred to me that I could get an animal. Years before, before I married, I had a kitten I had to turn over to the ASPCA which promptly put her to death because she mauled the guy who came to collect her. I even signed a paper entitled “Owner’s Permission to Destroy Animal.” Well…there is no excuse except it was kinder than letting the poor little nutsy cat run the streets of the Bronx on her own. I never named her but her presence still bothers my conscience.
In any case, freed of an animal-hating wife, the idea of getting a pet fascinated me. I knew enough to know that dogs were alien territory: I would be at work all day, and besides, I had no intention of getting up at 6 AM on a rainy or icy morning and taking the dog for a walk.
So it would have to be a cat. And on September 9, I gathered up my younger son who was still in high school and we drove to the Bergen County Animal Shelter in Teterboro. All I had in mind was the cat had to be (1) an adult, 3 or 4 years of age, and (2) it had to be fixed.
Ben, my son, got grossed out because of the noise and smells. Animal shelters tend to stink especially if there are lots of critters in close quarters. The chorus of barking dogs was enough to drive anyone nuts.
So I went walking around the rooms of the so-called cattery. The volunteer warned me off a beautiful calico because she was a known “vicious biter” who had a one-way ticket as soon as the vet could get there. I’m still not that selfless. Back then, forget it.
Then I saw her. I wouldn’t call it love at first sight but it was the first sight of Something. She wasn’t especially pretty, she didn’t look at all special, she just stared at me and I stared back. “May I hold her?” I asked the volunteer. Next thing I knew I had this cat in my arms like a baby. She was making a low growling noise, a purr. And I felt wetness on my hand. She was drooling. I was a bit alarmed.
“Is she okay? What’s that mean?” I asked.
“It means she’s happy!” said the volunteer.
After that, the chances of my returning her to her cage were slim to none. “So am I,” I said. “What do we do next?”
I filled out the paperwork, paid the Shelter $20, and took the cat out with me.
Her name was Joey. That’s what they’d called her in her last home or in the shelter if, as I suspect, she was rescued from the street. I never thought to ask why she was there. I’ll never know
In the car my son and I argued over a new name. He wanted to call her Falafel. It wasn’t bad but something just said “Russian Poet” to me. I couldn’t call her Akhmatova or Tsvetayeva…too involved…and then I said if she’s as lady, she can live with a male name. After all, I don’t think that when Chopin was in bed with Georges Sand, he was imagining himself with some guy.
I felt like Zechariah opening my mouth to speak at the circumcision of his son John the Baptist:
“Her name is Pushkin,” I said.
We picked up a large plastic pan, litter, feeding dish, and cat food, and home we went. Ben left and Pushkin crouched, scared, in a corner while we stared at each other. We would do that for the next nine years. Stare, I mean. And sleep, and play, and in a sense even argue. She died nine years later, to the day. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.