We noticed the cat—a standard tabby, dusty from dandruff or dirt—upon entry because we expected the residence to be empty. It gawked from a corner, one muddy eye fixed on us, misaligned other paralleling the wall—not unusual for a cat but it made the stare appear vacant or as though it were looking through us. It also appeared to grin, the way its mouth was set. Ava commented on how the listing made no mention of pets and our agent deftly responded that “it also doesn’t say that there are no pets.” We ignored the cat for the next hour or so, our guided tour, opening cabinets and peering in empty closets, inspecting oddball nooks not really knowing what to look for. The remodeled bathrooms and kitchen had farmhouse sinks and stainless appliances; there was a mudroom in which Ava and I glanced at each other and she absently touched her tummy; in sum, the house was just about perfect. We were already talking about making an offer before we got to the backyard, which is when the cat escaped. It slipped between the agent’s legs in a stealthy trot, nearly knocking her on her ass. “Ope,” she said.
The cat vanished before we saw where it went. From the back deck, Ava and I called “here kitty, kitty” and so on until our agent interrupted to inform us the owners had said that it was okay, the cat would return on its own shortly. Throughout the remainder of the walkthrough, we glanced around from time to time for the cat, chancing one of us should be the hero anyway.
A week later, the house now ours, I carried Ava over the threshold, bumping her head on the doorframe as we both giggled like children. It was an exciting development, our first mutual property, even if it was the equivalent of a blank canvas. We ordered Chinese, customary for us in the first night of a new home—this started when we got our first apartment together and I’d said I wanted to try out the area’s reportedly best Orange Chicken, for which Ava would always ask my take—and we ate on the floor since we still needed a table. Ava went over what colors she wanted each room, how that fit with their themes as would what style furniture would be permitted—except the baby’s room, a conversation we tabled—and I agreed to all, not really caring one way or the other if the living room was taupe or rustic blue. The whole buying process had gone more smoothly than we’d anticipated, the seller very motivated, yet it was inherently stressful. It was over but it didn’t feel over so I had a hard time sleeping. When I got up to use the restroom for the third time that night, I saw the cat. I convulsed in surprise. It was perched on the bathtub, smiling at me through the mirror. I woke Ava to tell her what I saw. She mumbled something which included the word “weird” before falling back to sleep. I figured the cat wasn’t hurting anything, it was late, and nothing could be done at this hour so I, too, went to sleep.
We found the cat the next morning in the kitchen, again watching us with its idiot stare. I stared back as if I expected the cat to say something. It smiled. I made a pot of coffee and called our agent. I told her the previous owners had left their cat and she set to work, tracking them down so that they may retrieve their lost feline. I talked with Ava about how we will have to set up a time for the previous owners to show up, or maybe have to meet them halfway. Ava joke-recommended we should leave the cat at a cache site, somewhere inconspicuous like a mailbox. Four hours later, the agent returned my call to say the owners had responded but their message was odd. “What was it?”
“Their text just says, ‘not our cat.’”
I thanked her for trying and promised we’d sort it out. Our initial reaction to the bizarre message was that it must then be a neighbor’s cat, though their message a week ago during the walkthrough assuring us of its return had led us to believe it was theirs. In case the cat did belong to someone nearby, Ava posted a photo to a local page for lost and found pets and we walked a block or two in each direction of our home, taking the opportunity to introduce ourselves to our new neighbors “and hey, by the way, do you know whose cat this is?” Most didn’t recognize the tom, but the older woman who lived a house left of ours did, telling us that it belonged to the previous owners.
We quickly learned that cats are very difficult to lose. We were meant to be spending the day furniture shopping but instead we spend the day trying to get rid of the cat. I pointed out to Ava that we didn’t know how long it would take the owners, if there are owners, to discover her postings and come forward. I suggested we try calling Animal Control.
“No! The county-run places keep animals for a week then euthanize them. I’m not trying to kill the poor cat.”
So ‘we’ decided to find a no-kill shelter. I was able to scoop the cat up easily, without protest. It felt as dirty as it looked and its fur was greasy and thin over the sharp angles of its joints. “I’ll drive,” I said. Ava carried the cat while we drove to the nearest no-kill animal shelter, about ten minutes away. The cat didn’t move, which was good because Ava’s grip on it was loose. She didn’t want to hold it either, her face was a grimace.
“Can I help you?” The girl at the counter had to be a high schooler.
“We want to get ri—”
“Surrender,” Ava corrected.
“We want to surrender this cat. It’s not ours,” I started to explain but the high schooler interrupted.
“Um, why do you have a cat that’s not yours?” She sounded annoyed. I explained how the cat kept getting in. The high schooler called over someone from the back, someone older, who ran what looked like a department store’s pricing gun again the cat’s shoulders then the rest of its body. They told us they were checking for a microchip and that there wasn’t one. I asked again how I would go about surrendering the cat here, if there was a form I had to sign, and she interrupted again. “We don’t have any room.”
We were silent, Ava and I taking it in, the high schooler likely waiting for us to leave. The cat smiled forward, not at anything in particular. “Well, what do we do?”
“I don’t know. You can try again later, maybe in a month or two.”
Back home, we searched for other no-kill animal shelters—Ava again specified that we should only deal with the shelters labeled as such because the cat had done nothing to deserve euthanasia for the sake of vacancy, I was indifferent—and called to see if they had room to store one medium-sized cat. We began our task filled with caffeine and optimism but after our second search expansion, now at a radius of an hour’s drive, meeting the same repeated rejections of “no, sorry” and “we’re full up on cats right now,” we lost a lot of steam.
“We should get it some food and water. It hasn’t had anything all day,” Ava proclaimed.
“We’re not keeping it are we?”
There was some hesitation, but I’d like to say we were on the same page on this. “No, of course not. I just don’t want it to starve.”
“It’s been getting on fine without us before.”
“We don’t know that. It could be starving.”
“It doesn’t look hungry.”
We picked up a 10-pound bag of cat food of medium quality, a middle-shelf brand between the junk vittles and premium organic gluten-free grass-fed kibbles. We went cheap on the bowls since they were intended to be tossed within a day or so, once the cat was extradited. Ava poured a healthy pile of food in one dish and I filled the other from the tap. The cat watched us perform these tasks without emotion and did not approach the finished meal, so I picked it up and placed it in front of the food. Nothing, and my hands felt dusty again so I washed them. “Maybe it’s afraid of us or something.” I didn’t agree but we left it alone to unpack some boxes.
The half-wall of moving boxes in each room was daunting, but I chipped away at the edifice, bringing the first box down. We talked about what our next steps should be with the cat. Conversation digressed, our moods lifted as we talked of plans and dreams—Ava lit up while coming up with ideas for themes for the baby’s room—and we had forgot about the cat when we returned to the kitchen and were reminded by the twin bowls, both untouched. The cat stood by the back door, its unsettling smile reflected on the glass back at us. I took its position as a cue and let it out.
By the next afternoon, the cat was still missing. I reminded Ava of the plot of Homeward Bound where the pets get lost and left behind somewhere by their distraught families. “It was Canada I think, and the pets follow them for like thousands of miles to arrive months later. Maybe that’s what he’s doing. I’m pretty sure it’s based on a true story.” The fantasy dissolved when it returned that evening. Strangely, neither one of us remembered allowing the cat inside. It was waiting for us in the bathroom again, this time discovered by Ava. “Well, hello, you,” she said bitterly.
For the next few months, we passively attempted to rehome the cat. We put it on a waiting list with the three closest no-kill shelters and waited for them to call. In the meantime, we continued to freshen the food and water despite the cat rarely touching it. We let the cat out and, as before, we never let it back in. After a few times of this happening, I was compelled to check our home for a hole or a loose awning window, but everything appeared secure. I rationalized that there could be somewhere higher up where I didn’t have the energy to check, or there’s the chance that we were letting the cat in without thought, the memory not being logged by the pre-coffee mind. Plus, the cat would be present for a day or so and vanish for several days at a time, so it’s not like it was an everyday occurrence. In short, we mostly ignored the cat until it became a nuisance again.
It began small. Instead of finding the cat on the bathtub or in a corner, its typical haunts, we’d find it on the counter, almost at eye level. We’d yell at it and it would act as if it couldn’t hear us. One time, Ava screamed at it, face reddening, two inches away, “Geeeeeet, doooooooown!” It looked her in the eye, sort of, and smiled like it was taunting her, then after a beat, jumped down. It left paw prints all over the counter, which Ava would clean dramatically, looking at me wide-eyed as if to say “Can you believe this?”
Most of the time we discovered it, it was in our bedroom or bathroom. One of us would be trying to use the toilet and would find the cat in its favorite bathroom spot, on the rim of the tub. In bed, we would be making love or more often trying to sleep, and Ava would spot it sitting on a nightstand or on a corner chair. “It’s back,” she’d whimper, or cry out, or state matter-of-factly. I would get up, not saying anything, pick up the cat and place it outside the room, shutting the door which someone had apparently left cracked.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” Ava said in exasperation one day as I returned from work. “I can’t do anything. You know the damn cat’s killing our sex life. It seems like every time we try to do something, it’s there. I mean, it’s hard to stay in the mood when you catch it staring at you. It’s unsettling. I mean, there’s something off about it. Some sort of judgment or motive. Am I crazy? Do you get the same feeling?” I didn’t respond immediately. “Are you listening?”
“Yes, I’m listening. I was just thinking. I agree it can be distracting.” I trailed off and she picked back up. For me, it wasn’t really the cat, but I accepted the scapegoat. I rarely found myself in the mood in the first place lately. There were a million things that had to be done, that I had to do, running rapid-fire through my mind that I couldn’t simply ignore—setting up the house, preparing for the baby, there were still countless boxes to unpack and I didn’t want to just throw them into the garage or storage to sit indefinitely.
“Oh, it’s more than that. Yeah, I know you’ve tossed it out the times we’ve seen it, but it just gets back in. I don’t always see it, but I just know it’s there, somewhere. I mean, think about it. When have you ever seen it come in the room? Or the house for that matter? Where does it go when it’s gone for days or a week? There’s something off about that cat and I don’t like it at all.
“I can’t even relax anymore. Today I was taking a bath, I had calming music going and one of those fancy bath bombs you got me.” Her tone lightened here, a quick thank you for the gift. “I was trying to decompress and just couldn’t and didn’t know why and when I opened my eyes, it was sitting there on the sink, smiling down at me. It was why I couldn’t relax. I knew it was there before I saw it, do you see? I yelled at it to go away, like you saw me do that time it was on the counter, but it didn’t even flinch.
“And I can’t keep the house clean. You know I like a clean house and that’s only gotten stronger with the pregnancy. I’m supposed to be nesting but I can’t, not with that thing walking around on the counters and every time I vacuum there’s fur, I mean I’ll vacuum five or six times and still I’m getting fur up, and, and I saw it in the crib today. In the crib. Who knows what it will do when the baby gets here? I don’t want to think about it.” She was crying now. “I don’t want that cat here with the baby. I don’t trust it. We have to get rid of that cat.”
My next idea was to post to Facebook the simple question, “Anyone want a cat?” I almost sent it then added, “It’s friendly. Very low-maintenance.” I also posted similar ads on local yard sale pages. I received no immediate response to the former, but to the latter, dozens of anonymous people felt the need to let me and everyone else know their opinion on people who surrender pets. Most respondents informed me that everyone knows having a pet is a commitment, and some asked why I would even get the cat in the first place if I couldn’t handle the responsibility. Many opined that cats are easy to care for and interpreted my own statement of it being low-maintenance as an admission of incompetence or hypocrisy. Several listed off how they had acquired two to seven dogs, one to five cats, and one to three children; had moved two to four times; and yet they retained their pets despite these hurdles. I refrained from engaging, but some had me close. For example, one reply, after echoing the sentiment that pets are members of our families, rhetorically asked if I would abandon a child so easily. A few went so far as to wish infertility upon us or other, worse curses.
Ava’s question of where the cat went caused me to reconsider the cat belonging to a neighbor, so one day when I let it out, I followed it. The cat didn’t look back immediately, making me think it didn’t realize I was in pursuit, until it jumped on the fence and turned to watch me, its permanent grin seeming to say, “I know what you’re up to.” I kicked dirt around and paced for a bit, trying to act like my trip outdoors was unrelated. I glanced to see if it moved. It continued to watch me. After more than an hour of standing around in the yard, I gave up and returned inside. When I turned back, the cat was gone.
That evening, my aunt Carrol replied to my Facebook post that she would be happy to take the cat. “Been lonely here since Roscoe passed,” she said, referring to either my uncle or the Shih Tzu she named after him. I was elated. Even though she lived about eight hours south of us, it was an immediate fix to what seemed to be an impossible situation.
We wanted to leave that very weekend, but the cat had yet to return by Saturday morning. “Of course, the one time we want the cat to be here, it’s gone,” said Ava. Sunday night, it made its appearance, again on the counter, while I was cooking dinner. Ava pushed it to the floor and cleaned the counter with two different brand cleaners. “You can’t prepare food on a dirty counter,” she said. “We’d get sick.”
We drove to Carrol’s house that weekend, making a fun road trip out of the drive, stopping at roadside attractions we spotted. Ava specified that she did not want to carry the cat during the trip, nor did she want it free roaming in the car while one of us drove, that it would be dangerous, so I went to PetCo and purchased a small plastic crate, probably a bit too small for it, which we ended up gifting to my aunt. At each stop, we allowed the cat to roam about the vehicle, but it didn’t use the travel-sized litterbox we’d purchased, nor consume any food or water we’d arranged.
“Such a pretty boy,” Carrol said upon receipt. “He’s happy to be here.” She laughed deeply and coughed. The cat surveyed her home while we shared a meal of homemade fried chicken—Carrol tried giving one to the cat which it only sniffed and looked up at her. “Once you try it,” she directed at the cat, “you’re gonna ask me for it ev’ryday.” She laughed and coughed. Carrol offered to let us spend the night on her couch, but we declined and said we wanted to make some headway before dark. After a night in a hotel, we continued north and sighed with relief as we reentered our home.
The following weekend, I painted the baby’s new room. We felt lighter without the cat. I gladly did much of the housework, including the painting, because it felt good to make progress, to check items off, and Ava was now far too pregnant for me to feel okay with her doing much anyway. And it was one less list item pestering me. She had a mere bump indiscernible to strangers when we purchased our home, and was now, well, larger. In public, she smiled at the additional attention, glowed at people calling her cute-pregnant, but at home cried about the times people said she looked so big or ready to pop when really she had months left. Her self-esteem was dwindling and she needed frequent reassurances of her beauty. I’d call those people with their opinions idiots, affirm that I still found her beautiful, and she’d say I was lying but sweet. Another method of reassurance was continuing sex with the same pre-pregnancy frequency, or trying to anyway despite my exhaustion, stress, and apprehension—primarily from fear of causing harm. I was probably needlessly gentle and overcautious. This concentration on caution is partly why I promptly fell off the bed when Ava suddenly screamed “The goddamned cat is back!”
As it had before, the cat was watching us from a corner table. Also as it had before, it did not speak in response to our reaction to its presence, as other cats likely would. It must have traversed hundreds of miles to return, so as to gape at us from the corner. I immediately tossed the cat out of the room, probably a bit too aggressively, and laid down next to Ava knowing our lovemaking was done for the night.
I called Carrol the next day who was surprised to learn that the cat—Moxie she’d named him—had escaped. I offered to drive the cat back down, but she said “Naw, that’s alright. He clearly don’t wanna live nowhere but there. Never ate my chicken.”
“The timing doesn’t make sense,” I said to Ava later. “Carrol lives damn near five hundred miles from us and it walked it in a week’s time. What’d it do, catch an Uber?”
“Cats are fast, aren’t they? He could’ve run the whole way back.”
“Do they have that kind of stamina?” I looked it up, to which Ava rolled her eyes. “According to Google, cats can only run in short bursts. Also, most cats sleep like 16 hours a day. None of it makes sense.”
I thought then, maybe if I could stop it from getting in, it would no longer be an issue. I performed the same fruitless check around the outside of the house, this time kicking at random bricks in the foundation. From inside, I checked every window’s locks. Again, nothing wrong. So, I went to Best Buy to get a set of security cameras, hoping to catch a glimpse of how it was getting in. The cat watched from its fencepost as I installed the second of six outdoor cameras. “Do you think this is funny?!” I called after it. It smiled.
I watched the cameras from my phone. I had it set to cycle through each camera in turn every few seconds and to skip ahead if something moves. I watched it for hours while Ava watched TV, well after my eyes were dry and tired. It may not return for days, I knew, and it was getting late, so I created a new setting: record video on motion. But when I returned from the settings to the camera view, the cat was there. I started, bumping my head on the wall behind me. Ava laughed and asked what that was about; when I told her, her smile dropped and she went back to the TV. It was a silhouette on the deck railing, but I could tell it was looking inside, in my direction it felt. I pounded on the back door, trying to scare it off, but it remained.
The next morning, it sat at the foot of our bed, smiling at me. I kicked it off and it trotted out the room, through the parted door that I distinctly remembered closing the night before. I checked the cameras – only a few short recordings of distant trees twitching in the wind, nothing even of the cat jumping down from the railing, where it was last I saw it. I knew what I had to do.
“You said you can’t relax,” I said.
“But there’s so much left to do around the house.”
“Look at you, you should be resting, not doing the housework.”
“I know, I’m a blimp.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it. Ava, go. Enjoy your massage. Relax.”
As soon as she left, I called Animal Control. I told them there was a stray cat that kept getting in our house, that we asked all the neighbors and no one claimed it. They sent someone within the hour, which was just long enough to worry me Ava would get back before the guy got to the house. In retrospect, I should have seen if I could set an appointment or something. He expertly scooped up the cat with gloved hands and threw it in a cage in his truck. When Ava got back, I was cramming broken-down boxes into the recycling bin. I waved happily and jogged after her. The victory of finally ending the cat saga caused me to forget everything else, even my own apprehension, and make love with my wife on the living room floor.
I was at work the next day when Ava called. “It’s in the crib again.”
“It scratched the bedding to ribbons and shit on it. It was just sitting in it, in the bedding, in its own shit, staring toward the door like it was waiting for me to come find it there. I screamed at it, that’s why my voice is about gone, and it just kept looking at me, smiling. That’s all it fucking does: smile, smile, smile! I grabbed it by its neck and threw it outside. Then I fell down and cried.” She sniffled. “I’m alright, I just, I can’t think of anything else to do with this cat, but I don’t want it here when the baby comes.”
I thought about telling her about my call to Animal Control and decided not to; it changed nothing about the situation, maybe made it worse. “Alright,” I said and promised we’d do something. Did the cat know what I’d done, what the implications were? It had never done anything before, not really, beyond staring at us—was destroying the bed a threat? Although Ava’s obstetrician advised against it, we decided we had to move again.
We called the same agent; this time she would also sell for us. She had to know why there was such a short turn-around. Our excuse was only a half-lie: “We want to live closer to family.” I told her to set the price the same as what we had purchased it for, even though it meant losing money on fees and even though the value had likely increased a bit over the months.
While we waited for the home to sell, Ava and I barely spoke. I figured it was because there wasn’t much to talk about besides the cat and moving, which is also talking about the cat, and it was just something that we no longer wanted to discuss. I stayed busy packing boxes, new ones since I’d discarded most of the last ones. When the first buyer offered at asking, we took it without argument.
Were we worried the cat would follow us? Of course we were. The first few weeks living in our new home, we caught ourselves glancing at corners thinking we’d spotted the cat, only to realize we were almost literally jumping at shadows. At moments of quiet, we expected the cat’s return, and we could not have sex or use the bathroom or eat—times we’d seen it appear the most—without a sense of dread and anticipation of spotting the cat on a nightstand or sitting on the edge of the bathtub or counter. Sometimes I swore I saw it out of the corner of my eye only to see some random object in its place when I looked.
Two weeks in, I got a message that likely confirmed we were done with the cat, but we didn’t believe it at first, not for months. Despite the message, we’d check in on the baby–perfect and healthy, by the way, besides his particularly grating cries–because one of us would have a gut feeling that he was crying because the cat was there, sitting on his chest, maybe clawing at him or worse. There would be nothing, just a hungry or dirty baby, but that didn’t help us sleep. The message we got a couple weeks after moving was a question that came from our agent, who must have forgotten our very similar query from nearly a year earlier because she didn’t mention it. I texted my response as others had before me: “Not our cat.”
James Willsey is an emerging writer, Air Force veteran, and recovering cat person from Richmond, Virginia. He has published work with BackChannels.