Jeffrey Essmann's work has been featured in the New York Times and on Chicago's NPR affiliate, WBEZ. He is a regular contributor to the indie website The Morning News, and is currently working on a book. He lives in New York.
Culture: Stories & Lit
February 6 2012
I’ve always been kind of a cat man.
I didn’t have pets as a child because I suffered from Responsibility Deficit Disorder, but I started having cats in college, soigné creatures with names like Odalisque and Mrs. Miniver. I had a long-term cat relationship when I first moved to New York: a brother-and-sister pair of tiger stripes, Queenie and Spike. They lived forever (I swear Queenie had dementia), and then they died. And after they died, I never got a pet again. I just never wanted to be bothered with food, litter and death again. For that matter, my life had embraced an instability that could barely sustain me, much less lower life forms. And then there’s the whole thing about smaller creatures depending on you. I don’t know how people with children do it. I mean: there are days when I resent my plants.
Once, there was a fly in my room, over a month, maybe two, and I kind of started to think of him as a pet. I didn’t name him or anything. But I’d say hello when I came home. And I’d let him know when there were orange peels in the wastebasket. I told myself I was nurturing a Buddhist respect for all forms of life, but really, I just couldn’t afford therapy.
The good thing about having a fly for a pet was that I didn’t talk about it to anyone, didn’t tell any stories about it at work. People always tell stories about their pets at work. But no one wants to hear about flies. Which was fine with me. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to sound like a Pet Person. I didn’t want to stand around the water cooler telling stories that started out reasonably enough and then suddenly veered into the most cloying sentimentality. And then, of course, you get those people on Facebook who not only talk about their pets but as their pets. That sort of thing gives me the chills.
Now, I like other people’s pets. I’m a pet sitter. And I like pet sitting. I like being the fun uncle who doesn’t mind if you get fur on his sweater. I like the limited responsibility, the promiscuity of pet sitting. The affection is all the sweeter, the cute-kitty moments all the more piquant, knowing it’ll be over at the end of the week.
It started innocently enough with a friend’s cat—Thomas, a super-cute gray-and-white, most of whose nine lives have been plus-sizes. For years, I stayed with him when Ann went out of town, and even lived with him for a while when I moved in with her after losing my apartment. Then a lesbian couple down in the Village with a cat named Junior started using me regularly. Junior and I really get along, and the couple tells me I’m the primary male influence in his life. Which is great, I guess. I always wanted to be a role model. I just never thought it would be for a cat.
I had an Upper West Side job with a cat named Mittens, a name I refused to call the animal. A couple of nights into it, I suddenly realized I had no idea where he was and, while I knew he hadn’t gotten out, I really wanted visual confirmation. But when I opened my mouth to call him, I found it refused to form the requisite syllables. I couldn’t, as an adult, walk around an apartment calling, “Mittens!” I finally settled on calling out (softly) “Kitten!” figuring that, as a lower vertebrate, he could be easily duped by assonance. I was wrong: he had no sense of poetry at all. I didn’t see him until breakfast the next day. And next week I have a meet-and-greet in Chelsea with Taylor, a cat I’ll be staying with for a couple of weeks in January.
So: mostly cats. I don’t do a lot of dogs. They’re so needy. It’s always feed me-walk me-feed me, just me-me-me-me, 24/7; it’s exhausting. And speaking of me, I have to watch out for myself as well. Neediness is a two-way street, and dogs and humans have co-dependence issues that go back to prehistory. Dogs were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago, and they quickly made themselves indispensible to humans—hunting, herding and so forth—in exchange, of course, for food. It was in part the stability they provided that allowed humans to finally settle down, establishing villages and, eventually, cities. In short, without dogs, there’d be no New York; you have to wonder if instinctively they knew it would be a great place to shit.
And I’ve never really liked little dogs. The little-dog thing is an aspect of my homosexuality I’d never explored. I certainly have any number of gay friends with little dogs, and have, in a jolly, avuncular way, shared their joys. In a less jolly but no less avuncular way, I’ve also shared their sorrows and moments of doubt: I remember helping a close friend transition from Shih Tzus to Terriers. But there are doors in gay men it seems only little dogs can open. In days of a simpler psychology, gay people’s relationships with their animals were seen as a neurotic transference of affection for the children we would never have. But now that we’ve figured out ways of obtaining human infants, the ardent devotion gayboys lavish on their little mammals has gone from being a symptom to just another color in the rainbow. The transference thing was so bogus anyway. I mean, I had two cats, and yes, when they were kittens, I thought they were adorable. But it’s not like I lactated or anything. And little dogs didn’t make me feel transfer-y at all.
So when I got the email—a couple in Chelsea; friends of a friend—asking if I was available to stay with their Pug for a week, I kind of made a face (kind of a pug face, come to think of it). But I hadn’t done a dog in a while, it was summer, their apartment was five minutes from work. I thought, why not.
I was surprised when I first met him, when I went to pick up the keys. He was bigger than I’d expected. And cuter. We took to each other right away. He jumped up onto the couch, into my lap, kissed me: cute. And the apartment was gorgeous, muted olives and rusts, with lighting that just got more fabulous the farther in you went. By the time you hit the bedroom, you looked like you were in your early 30s.
So I took the keys, wished them a bon voyage, and showed up a few days later with a briefcase of work and a duffle bag of clothes I thought would go with the apartment (I leaned toward green, figuring it’d play into the olive but make the rust pop). I kind of expected the Pug to come running, barking, as soon as I got in the door—he was so exuberant when we met—but he was nowhere to be seen. But when I went into the living room, I saw him on the back of a low easy chair (olive), obviously just coming out of a nap. When he’d shaken off his stupor and saw it wasn’t his daddies, that it was someone new, that it was me, the guy from the other night, he gave three full-throated barks, jumped from the chair to the ottoman, from the ottoman to the rug (rust tones in some of the stripes), chased his tail in a circle, chased it the other way, jumped on the couch, jumped on me and licked me into dermabrasion.
I have to admit, the face did take some getting used to. Head-on, a Pug can look like he’s just run into a wall, but at certain angles he’s adorable. I once had a boyfriend like that: he had a strange cast to his face, but if you caught it at the right angle, he was really cute. He never noticed that I always faced him on the diagonal. What’s amazing about a Pug, though, is the moment—early on; somewhere in the first 10 minutes; somewhere in the first belly rub—when you suddenly shift from thinking that he’s kind of ugly to thinking he’s just the cutest thing in the whole wide world. It’s a nearly imperceptible movement, a moment’s sudden grace, transformative, pure. I thought, This must be what it’s like to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. The world is transcended; Pugs are cute.
Yet the evolutionary drama still had to be reenacted: The dog had to establish an immediate, intense bond with me so that I would feed him, and the surest way of establishing that bond was by doing something immediately and intensely cute.
The dog was a leaner. He wouldn’t just sit next to you when he wanted attention, he’d lean into you, pushing into the petting hand until he flipped upside down across your lap, his head lolling back in full-body-rub ecstasy. After I’d unpacked and settled in, I decided to meditate a little before I got to work. I sat on the floor, my legs in a faux-lotus, and as I focused on my breathing, the dog came and nestled against me, leaning into my ankles. For an astounding moment, there was nothing but my breath, the warmth of the dog and the sound of the rain on the air conditioner. Then I suddenly sneezed, and before I’d even pulled out of it, the dog was up on his hind legs, paws on my shoulders, licking me a god-bless-you. Thus the pact was sealed in dog breath. Maybe I was there to feed him, but he had me eating out of his hand.
His name doesn’t matter, since I rarely called him by it. I called him Pugsy, Pugster, My Little Pug-Pug, Pup-Pup, Puppy and Dog. He didn’t care what I called him. I was just there to rub him. I could call him Mittens for all he cared. From then on we were inseparable: he followed me wherever I went, sat at my feet as I worked at the computer, waited outside the shower for me in the morning. Before bed we’d watch some TV together, and he’d bark at animal noises and sirens in the shows.
Something I googled said Pugs can be “yappy,” and My Little Pug-Pug had a pretty good vocabulary: a throaty moan when he wanted a treat; a gurgly growl when he was playing with his ball; and a what-in-god’s-name-are-you-doing-out-there-in-the-hallway yip. He also had exquisite diction. The first night, he was snuggled up alongside me in bed and I was just about to fall asleep when he heard something in the hallway. He jumped up, leaned over the edge of the bed and said, quite distinctly, “Woof!” (The articulation of the “w” was extraordinary.) I said to him, “Did you hear what you just said?” He also had a good ruff-ruff, a ruff-ruff-ruff and a pretty good arf as well.
While my affection for the animal grew stronger by the minute, it was a feeling I entertained as a fully cognizant Homo sapiens. I felt very clear on the relationship. I never saw the dog as a replacement for a child, though he was a perfectly good replacement for a boyfriend. There’s much to be said for being wildly adored by something really cute. OK, you have to pick up its shit, but anyone who thinks being in a relationship doesn’t entail picking up someone’s shit has no sense of metaphor at all. And, properly trained, boyfriends make heartwarming companions. I once had a boyfriend I taught to play fetch. (He rolled over pretty well, too.) Women, it’s said, can be feline. But men are definitely dogs.
And drawn to other dogs. Pugster’s daddies had told me he was a man magnet, and they were right. Puppy has an intense cuteness aura, and the leash connected me to the very heart of it. A lot of guys talked to me who, sans chien, I imagine would have regarded me, if at all, with the Chelsea Chill. But I didn’t care. For the nonce, I was perfectly happy to bask in canine glory. For a week, I was a gay man in Chelsea with a little dog. I had a Pug and I was proud.
The day I left, he knew something was up when I put the duffle bag on the bed. He sat outside the bedroom door and watched me as I packed. When I came out of the room, I told him it had been fun, and that his daddies were coming back. I tried to sound excited. I threw him a handful of kibble and locked the door behind me.
* * *
I’m back home now, in my room. My roommate’s cat really likes me, and is sitting by me as I write this. I call her Purr-Pot. Or Chicken. She’s purring as I pet her absently, my gaze drifting out the window, drifting south, downtown, to Chelsea. My fingers run over her black fur, she purrs and pushes against them, and I wonder if she can feel the distance in me, if she can tell that part of me is elsewhere. But then, how could she possibly tell, possibly know, possibly understand?
She’s a cat.
This essay originally appeared in The Morning News.
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