On Sunday morning, my cousin Karen in Taiwan Whatsapped me a single line.
“Meow,” it would say, and rub against my ankles, “Meow.”
In Cat-speak, this means, “I will love you for the next five seconds if you’ll take some canned cat food and put it in this here bowl.”
But I am not one to feed fat things, and so very rarely was Fat Cat ever nourished by me.
My cousins Karen and Larry, my aunt, and even, in a more removed, hands-off fashion, my uncle, had been very good to Fat Cat, a pale yellow and white tabby Larry had rescued many years ago when he was in high school. Fat Cat was such a hit amongst the members of that sixth floor nucleus that a few years later, Larry brought home a dark-furred stray that would aptly be named “Little Cat.”
With a master named Larry, one could hardly argue that his pets ought possess names with more flair.
Compared to Little Cat, Fat Cat was obviously much larger, less active, more blasé about life because he had a few years on Little Cat, was rescued first, had seen things Little Cat could only imagine. Little Cat was much scrappier than Fat Cat, who though born in the feline slums of Taipei, harbored an innate and perplexing sense of entitlement. It was as though upon setting foot into the 6th floor apartment, he washed his paws of his past and developed almost instantly a taste for expensive canned foods. None of that pellet crap for him. Perhaps in a past life he had been the obese Queen of some weird tape worm tribe because Fat Cat definitely had something odd going on in the gut. He was never ever full and would have, had my cousins allowed it, eaten himself to death. A poster cat for the grossest sin of gluttony. But still, he had his moments.
I have a picture with Fat Cat when he wasn’t fat, and was just “Cat,” because he was the only one. I am about twelve or thirteen, wearing a worn-t-shirt and baggy athletic shorts and hair in a messy ponytail, strands framing my young, open face. During later summers, when I too was Fat, Fat Cat and I would pass each other in the cool hall of the 6th floor and I would think, turning to glare at his quivering haunches then down at my own, that “Fat Cat, you and I have both seen better days.”
But in the photograph, taken in the same summer of Fat Cat’s arrival, I am athletic, bright-eyed, an animal lover. I’m clutching Fat Cat close to my cheek, grinning at the camera while Fat Cat, in a slender and more awkward version of himself, looks unamused. His front legs are splayed out awkwardly and his legs are dangling uncomfortably above my crossed legs. His expression states quite plainly, “What the f***.” It was not his best photograph, but he needn’t have worried, for my cousin Karen made certain to photograph Fat Cat at least one thousand times a year, so that nearly his every non-movement is recorded for all eternity. Here is Fat Cat lounging on the chair. Here is Fat Cat lounging on the other chair. Here is Fat Cat sitting on Karen’s bed. On the other (my) bed. On Larry’s bed. Here is Fat Cat with Larry in college, who physically, is going the way of Fat Cat. Note the look of tenderness and adoration on Larry’s otherwise, at any other moment, dull and inexpressive face. If Larry loved any one thing more real than Star Trek, it was Fat Cat, upon whom he showered with slobbery, affectionate kisses that would make even his girlfriend cringe.
Here is Fat Cat in a mess of blankets because it is cold. On the floor, paws skyward, fleshy white belly undulating like a water bed because it is hot. Under the kitchen table, like a pervert. Peeking over the kitchen table, tiny pink tongue lashing out above the class, tasting about for my aunt’s broiled fish, which she inevitably, at meal times, will debone and put in a tidy little pile for him to lick up. Here he is looking up from the kitchen tiles, because he is expecting to be fed. And here, utterly full in gluttonous splendor, sunning himself on the balcony in the small woven basket he barely fits in but somehow still does, rolls of fur spilling over the basket’s edge.
Is he comfortable? Seems like it. Fat Cat Fat Cat Fat Cat. Click click click. And each year, he gets a little fatter, a little fatter, his eyes though, stay the same blank roundness. No questions, this cat. His hunger is literal. His philosophy is food. Sleep. Food. The occasional cockroach, killed with a sadistic remove, much to the delight of his cockroach fearing master, Larry. Click click. Fat. Cat. One need only to check my cousin’s Facebook or hack into her phone to realize not all cat ladies live in musty apartments and knit in their spare time.
But that is beside the point.
My own dismal track record with pets makes me an unlikely candidate to memorialize Fat Cat, even casually. On my watch, multiple generations of Russian Dwarf Hamsters, two chickens, a kitten who barely lived long enough to open its eyes, an insipid turtle, and a fish or two have perished. Most of these I buried or, as with the hamsters, when they became too numerous and their deaths too frequent, tossed in the trash with a simple prayer (I was always careful to wrap them in some sort of tissue or paper towel, but of course wearing rubbermaid gloves). The chickens were eaten by coyotes, the kitten dead before I came home from school. I found my mother sitting silently in the kitchen with the kitten still in her arms, her eyes rimmed with tears. She buried it the next day underneath an avocado tree on our back hill, and it seemed soon, the tree too was dead. If it did bear avocados they were usually small and withered and reminded me of the kitten itself.
These were technically my “pets” but in a way, they were never my pets. It was a polite label I assigned them because I did not understand what it meant, as a young child, what it meant to make something your pet. But can you blame me? Size matters. Just as I have trouble befriending people who are too short (midgets – oh I’m sorry, little people need not approach me) because I don’t like looking down so much, the little pets are hard to hold in high regard. Their needs, though quite real, seem small because they are small. I never cried when any of those animals died, only sighed and thought, “Again? Damnit where are the rubber gloves.”
But the larger animals that lived with my relatives and were, from the moment they arrived, treated like members of the family, I remember quite fondly, and it was from their interactions with these lucky animals that I learned what it means to be an honest-to-goodness pet owner. I should like to think the affection I saw doled out to these furry members of the family rubbed off on me too. At least, the lens through which they saw their pets, even if I only wanted ever to borrow their glasses for a minute. The warmth of their fur, the sound of their soft footsteps or their graceful movements bounding from chair to sofa to floor – those sounds and sights no less familiar to me than those my late grandfather made (indeed my grandfather spoke to me about as often as Fat Cat mewed to me).
Even before my cousins in Taiwan brought home Fat Cat, there had been Holly, my uncle Jimmy’s dog rescued some twenty years ago from the pound, a mix between a chow chow and something else, so that the violence of the chow was subdued and he had neither the lion’s mane nor any distinct attributes of the other breed and was simply, Holly. He had a tail that was shortened, so the length of his body ended abruptly in an adorable nub, and his coat was a dark, glossy ambery honey-wheat. If that is a color. Holly was just another member of the family and I said hello to him just as I did to my cousins, aunt and uncle each time I entered their house. Holly passed away while my cousin, the youngest in the family, was studying abroad in Beijing during her junior year of college, and her parents, wishing to spare her the pain, did not tell her until she moved back home and saw that Holly was gone. It was a strange feeling that day for me too, when I visited their house and realized a few minutes after walking in that Holly had not come bounding out the door to sniff around the door, making sure I was a member of the family and not some hood rat gangster from the neighboring city.
The sadness that comes is not overwhelming, but it is genuine. I’m never as close to the pets as their masters, but over the years I too, have become accustomed and on certain occasions, even fond, of their presence. It will be the same strangeness again, when I return to Taipei next year and am greeted only by Little Cat, who though more aesthetically pleasing (more cat-like, rather than walrus-like), has the odd, distasteful habit of pissing on dirty laundry and keeping quiet about it. I will, a perpetual student/unemployed person, wake up much later than my more productive, salary-earning cousins, my busy-body aunt and wander into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I will open the fridge and feel an unfamiliar chill about my ankles, hear only the sounds of the city entering late morning. No mews, no plaintive if feigned stares, no nips around my achilles tendon. Just me, alone in the kitchen, on the sixth floor, because Fat Cat is dead.