The cat’s name is Finch. We sleep together. More accurately, she sleeps on top of me, and I wake up under the weight of her calico-fur coat, blanketed head to toe in sweat. She climbs up on the bed sometime during the night, after the house settles and the only sound is the faint whistle from the air-conditioning. I don’t mind the imposition of her spare warmth, even in the summer months, when the cool Blue Ridge Mountains appear mirage-like in the morning sun. Finch validates the lingering little girl in my dreams, the one who clings to a stuffed koala bear with a compulsion to say, “I love you, I love you” when its paw is squeezed. The little girl is me, and the feeling is pure gratification. I am loved, for this bear tells me so. And it’s less a dream and more a memory because, between the ages of five and thirteen, I did indeed squeeze its paw like it was my own hand. Then the start of my period signaled a requisite letting go: of my blood obviously, but of my toys as well, any soft thing, the naïve loneliness of a child perpetually out-of-step.
Finch came to me out of a living, breathing hell hole. No more than six weeks old when christened, she was rescued from a property that was infested with mosquitos and choked in red clay. The kitten herself, named for that too-righteous family in To Kill a Mockingbird (because at this point I was a first-year English major with something to prove), was a bag of bones with bleeding ears and a bad attitude. I became determined to make her love me. I am her protector. I hold her close. She is my plaything. We snuggle. I serve a purpose. I have the scratches to prove it.
There was a way in which, early on, I was expecting the cat to take the place of human longing. I’d seen a sticker in a bookstore that read, Crazy cat ladies have more fun. And I told my unamused parents this was my new aesthetic. I would embrace what I then considered to be the hard truth; without this cat that seems to hate me as often as not, I am alone in the world. So at the ripe old age of nineteen, I thought I could live with myself, a disabled girl and her cat, forever. Melodramatic, I know. But you have to understand, other girls my age were having sex. Real life, honest to goodness sex. To my mind, all of a sudden, everyone was in the midst of one big orgy. And I was the one person they had neglected to invite. And Finch was small consolation, no matter what I said to save face.
When the guys finally came along, because come they did, the level of fear and regret trapped within me was unlike anything I had ever endured. And given my medical history, I have a lifetime of experience with being naked in front of roomfuls of strangers. One person’s car morphed into another person’s bed, and I felt young for the first time in years. And I hated myself. I missed an innocence that had never really been mine, a Build-a-Bear that only claimed to love me, and a cat with the disposition of an ax murderer for her animal honesty.
It can be the smallest, stupidest, most commonplace fluff, but if it allows you to show yourself some mercy, hold on to it for a while longer and for dear life. At least that’s what I tell myself when Finch decides she ought to perch on my torso at 6 A.M. and clean her lady parts.
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