You wanted a dog, but instead, you have four cats.
Friends joke that you could tape them together into a dog, if you liked. They’d be about the size of the one you want – a midsize pup who doesn’t shed, or not so much, and who likes to lean on your leg while you write. The cats weigh between eight and eleven pounds each, so the math adds up. They all seem to like each other, besides; you have the feeling they wouldn’t mind coming together, Transformers-style, to become a dog for a while, if only for a morning.
It’s not the cats’ fault that you don’t have a dog. For that, you can blame the pandemic, which has caused a run on lots of things – not just toilet paper, but washer-dryer sets, and plywood, and (apparently) canine companions. Only cats are free.
You came to the farmhouse with two cats, who were good boys when you moved in but who, ten weeks in, have become deeply spoiled, rotted by too much Outside Time and the constant proximity of their humans.
Each morning, the two original cats wake you. One cries anxiously, the other peremptorily; one sits between your legs, staring at your face, and the other trawls the nightstand, occasionally raising a paw to knock over your glass of water, you think with malice. They have needs: first, you must open the door; then, once they have sated themselves with leaf-chasing, you must summon them back into the house for Wet Food.
The two bonus cats are much more modest. They know gratitude, having spent some time in the school of hard knocks, the brambly woods. “Chill out,” they tell the two original cats. “What’s so great about outside?”
In month nine of the pandemic: no one’s sure who’s right.
There are things that are okay about all of this, you grant. The good parts: waking late every day, in a king-size bed crawling with cats, next to a kind and good man. Getting to mow your way through whatever TV you please. (You’re nearly out of TV, which you didn’t think possible.) Sweatpants. Feeling entitled to order yourself decadence: a crate of wine, expensive CBD oil, the shampoo you always wanted but never felt you could afford. Now you can afford it, because all the places where you used to spend money are closed to you. You feel virtuous, with your saving, but aren’t really.
The not-good parts of all of this have been extensively covered. No need to dwell on them.
One of the other good parts: you are surprising yourself by starting to want new things. All of your relatives and friends to be alive at the end of this, of course. All the people who are hurting to receive relief. Everyone to just chill for a damn minute and hunker down.
And then there’s the vanity. Last year, at this time, if you are honest, what you wanted was to write the type of book that everyone you follow on Twitter seems to be writing – a book that would rocket you around the country, no, the world, being lauded and praised and cosseted.
And then everything closed down, and you were shut in your old apartment for what you thought would be two weeks. Then two weeks became three, and then three became four, and soon you were realizing that there was not going to be any rocketing around the world for you, not anytime soon. That you were what you’d always feared you would be – stuck in place, on the couch, flipping from website to website. And all the libraries were closed.
But mercifully, the Internet of books was still available. If you waited enough time, the novels you wanted would be sent to your phone, and you could read them there. Often you had to wait weeks – it seemed everyone else was locked in place, too, sick of Twitter and Reddit, and reading for the first time in a while – but this made you treasure them more, all the dumb thrillers and how-to manuals that you started off by reading.
Not all of the novels you were sent were good. Some of them, in parts, made you close the Kindle app and wander away.
But others let you do what you’d done when you were a child, stuck in the back of a minivan on interminable Highway 94, heading from Wisconsin to Minnesota or vice-versa – they let you forget where you were. These books were like a hug, or like the feeling of sudden laughter. (You do still laugh, these days; yesterday, you and a student spent five minutes just exchanging giggles over Zoom, though today you can’t recall about what.)
And you started to realize that this was a good new thing to want: to write a book that would also feel like that, for someone. A book that wasn’t about you (even if its narrator was you, albeit a you who had made different decisions). A book that didn’t try for poignancy – it just was sad, in parts, and then funny in others.
And you moved here, and the two cats came, and in the mornings, now, you get to do it.
Sometimes, up there in your room with your notebook, you write so hard that the cats’ yowling doesn’t even register. You haven’t done this for a while, writing so hard your hand hurts after. It feels delicious, the way you imagine a cardio workout might feel, if you were ever the sort of person who’d done one of those.
You wanted fame and glory, but instead you have four cats.
You wanted to travel, but instead you have a farmhouse.
You wanted real books, but instead you have this app.
Your life, these days, is a series of menu substitutions. The restaurant’s run out of ingredients, and it’s sorry, it’s tried, but the dish dropped off on your stoop in no way resembles what you ordered. You’re quite surprised to find that it still tastes good. And anyway, it’s here, and there’s a pandemic on, so just eat it, Karen.
It’s more subtle – it’s got sixteen delicate little paws rather than four running-jumping ones – but at nights, when you crawl onto the couch and it creeps into your lap, you’re surprised to find yourself, in moments and snatches, grateful that it chose to come to your door.