By Michael Milton/"The Art of Seeing"
I love cats because I enjoy my home and little by little, they become its visible soul. ~Jean Cocteau
"Never again!" roared the burly nurse in pink scrubs the morning I came to collect my cat after a week's stay at a very posh veterinary hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The night before, I had taken the red eye back into Newark after a particularly grueling week of work in Los Angeles. I had been looking forward to seeing my white-pawed girl, wondering how she had fared during her five-day stay at what had been described to me by neighbors as a "cat's paradise" and "a feline spa away from home."
Would she have polished nails?
Had she learned to meow in French?
Or perhaps she had been trained to use a human toilet? I had heard it was possible to teach and I loved the idea of not having to clean out her box daily.
Boots and I had been living together for only six months. I had been told by the representative at the adoption center what little was known about my foundling friend.
"She was barely weaned when she was brought to us. I would guess she was the run of the litter she was so wee. She was alone when we found her, wet and shivering under a rusting car on the far west side."
Travel had become a big part of my work-life and I had gone searching for a place for her to stay when I was gone. This particular spot was on a quiet, tree-lined side street. Inside, I caught a whiff of some sort of mild cleanser with an undertone of vinegar. Everything looked clean and well-cared for, with macrame plant hangers suspended in the corners and filled with thriving greenery and on the floor was an old-fashioned hand stitched rug. It was a homey spa, perhaps, more Vermont, less South Beach.
The day before I was to leave, I brought Boots by, swaddled in her favorite blanket. I thought it would be good for her to meet the gang who would be waiting on... I mean, taking care of my beloved cat.
All went well at the meet and greet. Boots was her perfect self; a bit prim, quiet, an intelligent observer, not overly affectionate but pleasant and polite.
Still, she had yet to meet the other guests.
The morning I left her at the feline hotel, tears welled up in my eyes as I said my good-byes, tears I blamed on spring allergies (it was fall.)
Boots seemed eager for her new adventure and didn't even glance backwards as I slowly edged my way towards the exit and to my waiting taxi.
The day I returned after our week's separation, I was surprised that the other nurses and aides at the kitty hotel silently glared at me when I mentioned I was here to pick up a cat by the name "Boots." They had all been so pleasant when I first met them.
The nurse who brought her out into the lobby from the back area held my Boots but she was a changed cat from the one I had left.
Boots didn't see me at first.
She was hissing madly. She held her ears stiffly close to her head and her green-grey eyes rolled in their sockets. Her little body was rigid, tail slashing the air wildly like a furry sabre. She spat in every direction.
Then, once she caught sight of me, she pushed so hard against the nurse grappling with her she was able to extricate herself, perform a flip of some sort in mid-air between the nurse and myself and magically came flying into my arms where, within a heartbeat, she became a completely different animal. She quickly calmed down and within seconds was purring, nuzzling my chest and gazing about the room as though everything was normal.
I had begun my search for a cat companion shortly after my partner had left for a job on the west coast which would keep him away for six months. Within weeks of his departure, the loneliness for me had become unbearable.
The hardest part were the endless, sleepless hours of waiting for the sound of keys other than my own in the front door lock. I missed having someone in the house I could pamper, feed, check up on.
During the adoption search, I was asked what it was I was looking for in an adoptee. I casually mentioned I wanted a cat who oozed an unusual personality. Still, I think her Jekyll and Hyde trick at the cat hotel was more personality than I had bargained for.
The head nurse in the pink scrubs re-stated as I fumbled with my credit card to pay, "We can never allow that cat admission as a guest again."
"Can you at least tell me what happened?" I asked, now thoroughly confused.
At that moment, another pet owner entered the reception area with a small dog of indeterminate breed, big eyed and shivering. Boots expressed no particular interest in the new arrival and nuzzled even more contentedly into my sports coat.
The nurse leaned forward and hissed at me, "Yours just doesn't belong here. She doesn't get along with the other guests."
I giggled at the word "guests." I tend to giggle when I'm nervous.
I mean, come on! What was the misery little Boots had brought upon the staff and other "guests?" Did she crepitate all night? Did she eat the other kitten's suppers? Did she dress up in a Ku Klux Klan sheet and night ride, terrifying the room?
The nurse leaned in even closer. The liverwurst and onion sandwich she must have had for lunch was overpowering and for every micro-inch she moved forward, I subconsciously took a little step back.
She finally burst out with; "She terrifies the other cats!"
Incredulous, I looked down at the tiny mote of fur now asleep in my arms.
Certainly, Boots would have been one of the smallest of all the other cats currently residing here at the St. Regis du Chat.
"Doesn't she seem a little, well, too small, to be the King Kong of your hotel?" I asked the nurse.
She didn't giggle and pressed forward with, "We can help you find other accommodations for your animal needs. Just not here!" And with that, she stormed through the doors into the back room from whence she had come.
I was able to corner one of the newer looking aides and asked how my grey, white and brown American Short Hair had managed to become the Heinrich Himmler of their institution.
"It's the way some cats manage their world," she whispered. "Who knows what kind of world she was brought from to the adoption center before she came here?"
Maybe. But still. A vilder mentz (wild animal in Yiddish) created from a few weeks on the street?
The aide continued; "Boots made it very clear who was boss the morning you left. The first group play time could easily have become a massacre. Boots was able to segregate her playmates into separate corners, all of them desperate for some safe way to get back to their own cages. None of them wanted to interact with your kitty."
I was considerably troubled by the news as I carried Boots back to our apartment, less by her behavior at the "hotel" but more by how I would handle her with my travel schedule. Our production company was working on a new Broadway musical entitled Sweet Smell of Success in Chicago and we were filming the movie Chicago in Toronto and I was away more than ever.
I have had shaky luck in my relationships with people over the years. And my track record with pets has been particularly unsatisfactory, as well.
I have heard it said one must love oneself before loving another. When I picked up Boots from the adoption center, I vowed to myself she would receive every bit of love I could coax out of my withered and frequently stomped on heart.
My partner, temporarily settled in three thousand miles away, wasn't all that happy about my adding a third party to our relatively simple lives.
"I'll eventually be home and the cat will be yours!" he whined. "She won't want anything to do with me. I'll never have a chance."
Needless to say, the cat ultimately stayed.
Still, the day I brought her home from the hotel it was time for "the talk."
"You have to learn to fly," I told her.
She smiled up at me after licking my finger tips and settling into my lap for a nap.
"No, really," I repeated. "If I can't leave you at home when I travel, you have to be able to travel with me. That means airplanes."
She seemed nonplussed. It would have helped to hear her say, "I just want to be where you are, Master." But with cats, it's all a guessing game.
My next trip was a three- day visit home to San Diego. I confirmed she would be journeying with me on the plane and I assembled her health papers. I lined her travel bag with her blanket and favorite toys.
We were set.
And... she was perfection. Not a peep in the car to Newark. Nor as we sat waiting for our flight to arrive. Nor on the long flight. Every time I peeked into her bag, she looked up at me with trusting eyes.
"I trust you will get me wherever we are going safely," she seemed to be saying.
After years of travelling with me, her trust in me remains absolute.
My partner did finally return from his west coast job months later.
They were a bit cool towards one another for a month or so. Then, one morning and out of the blue, she sat at his feet and meowed plaintively. She wanted him to pick her up.
He did and of course, love was the only thing that could follow.
Their bond was finally sealed. We had, I suppose, become a throuple.
And have remained so to this day.