We got off to a rocky start, my cat Santosh and I, when I brought her home one cool day in April 1998. I’d chosen her, or perhaps she had chosen me, during a visit to the Animal Rescue League in the South End. I had recently turned 40, moved out of a roommate situation that wasn’t working out, and felt lonely and disconnected as I floated around my Jamaica Plain apartment. I wasn’t used to living alone after spending a year at the Kripalu Center, a yoga community in Western Massachusetts, and three years at the Beacon Hill Friends House, a Quaker-inspired communal home on Beacon Hill.
Now I had only myself for company and we—me and my Self—weren’t getting along. So, looking for unconditional love and distraction, I walked into the Rescue League and surveyed a series of adult cats and tiny kittens, sporting an array of colors and patterns in their soft fur. I was drawn to a small female kitten with stripes of rust and black and a vest-sized swath of white on her chest. The calico let me pick her up and purred, a steady motorized hum that soothed me and instinctively said, “I’m the one.”
I returned a few days later to receive a sick cat. The technician explained that my cat, whom I named Santosh (Sanskrit for “contentment”) had caught some type of virus after being “fixed,” or spayed. Now, “my” kitty was both sick and contagious, and I needed to take her home immediately. I brought Santosh home as she whimpered, her nose streaming with various fluids as she tried to draw air. As I set her down, I looked over the extensive instructions on how to medicate a sick cat. I was supposed to stick a pill down her throat, encourage her to eat, to nurse her to health.
I was all thumbs and nerves as I tried to twist my suffering companion into position. The next morning I had her back at the “outpatient clinic” where Santosh was given IV-fluids and various meds. I explained that I had a job, which required my attendance and attention, along with a formerly healthy and now very-ill cat. “You can bring her back here each day,” the vet at the Rescue League explained.
More desperate measures were called for, and so I called my former vet, who agreed to board my cat and to help her recover. (Several other vets had turned me down, saying they couldn’t risk exposing their animals to my cat’s virus.) A week later, I received a bill for $550 and a reasonably healthy cat, who bore a strong resemblance to the sweet animal I’d chosen at the Rescue League, before she went under the knife.
Fortunately, cats seem to have short memories or the ability to forgive the ones they love (or depend on). By the next year, when I moved back across the river to my familiar ‘hood in Somerville, Santosh had bonded with me, and with my new roommate Mark. She was friendly, affectionate, and not too needy, as if she had grown into her name.
Of course, she had a nice life, with much affection and few demands. Mark was often home when I was out, so that Santosh received a constant supply of hugs, and lap time was almost always available. (In many ways, Santosh’s social life was better than mine.)
The only “fly in the ointment” from a cat’s perspective were our nighttime sleeping arrangements. Since I was sensitive to dust and fur, I closed my bedroom door, and since Mark also wanted to sleep cat-free, Santosh had to hunker down in the kitchen or living room.
When Mark, a schoolteacher who woke around 5 a.m., padded into the kitchen, Santosh began a vocal whine, a stream of cat invective, the feline equivalent of a rant, a kvetchy demand for time, attention, petting. Two hours later, I was greeted by similar kvetching; the point was clearly made.
When I moved to my own apartment in Medford, I yielded, tired of hearing Santosh’s cat scratch fever, her claws scraping against my bedroom door. She wanted one thing—to get inside my bedroom, to get me to open that door—and with the single-minded determination of a cat on a mission, her will be done.
Soon she was sleeping at the foot of my bed, a soft footrest that rarely disturbed me during the night. Once I had adjusted to this new arrangement, Santosh began to claim more of my double bed, until she moved to my waist, shoulders, and head, claiming valuable pillow space when it suited her.
In recent years, I’ve learned that cats truly are nocturnal. When I start to stir at 4:30 a.m., settling back for a few more hours of sleep, Santosh may decide that breakfast, or simply a round of neck-scratching, is on the menu, a service only I can provide. Recently, I’ve taken to pitching her out of the bedroom around sunrise, for a bit of uninterrupted rest.
Sometimes Santosh struts over to the living room couch, waiting for me to get moving, when she will inevitably drift off into her morning nap. Other times, she will scratch on my bedroom door, scratch relentlessly until I sigh, groggily open the door and let her back in. After all, she’s got me trained.