Are 12 Cats Enough?

“Mom, why do we have so many cats?” I asked as I ate a bowl of pre-dinner cornflakes.

She didn’t respond. All I could see was the back of her dress, her long dark hair, recently showing more strands of gray, lying heavy on her shoulders. She was standing over the stove, staring into a pot of boiling water, the mist raising up around her like morning mist, her hand clutching a fistful of dried spaghetti pasta noodles.

“I mean I like cats, don’t get me wrong, but 12 is a lot don’t you think?” I continued.

She turned toward me, her expression serious and somber as she nodded slowly. But I knew she wasn’t listening. For the last few months she’d become distant and distracted, and after school I’d often find her sitting outside on one of the folding deck chairs, gazing out into the yard. Most days I’d open the back door noisily to get her attention. At those times she’d turn sleepily and ask how school was. Often when I’d answer her eyes left mine and seemed to scan my face and sometimes even my body with a curious look, like she was examining something vaguely unfamiliar. Occasionally I’d stay inside and stand at the window watching her, her head lazily following a cat as it rubbed against her leg, after which she’d lean her head back, her chest heaving slowly.

“I just like cats,” she said, her voice flat. She turned back to her boiling water.

“Me, too, and I especially the momma kitty because she’s so …” I started but then paused. She wasn’t listening.

I wanted to ask her how I could help, but I just sat there silent, eating my cereal in a house smelling of pipe smoke and gin.

Sunshine that had just broken through the thick clouds poured in through the window. It had rained hard for weeks and the rumor at school was that the drought was over. On the table the light sparkled, reflecting off remaining tiny slivers of glass, remnants from the night before.

Outside I could hear my friends gathering at the corner for our nightly rendezvous when we’d talk and make plans for some new adventure.

Without turning she said, “Why don’t you go out and play before dinner. I don’t know if your brothers will join us tonight, but dinner should be ready in 20 minutes or so. I’ll call when it’s ready.”

I hesitated. “No, Mom, I think I’ll just stay with you tonight.”

She turned and smiled, but she looked defeated. “Please go,” she said. “I need you to go.”

I wanted to argue, to stay and talk, even to yell. To hear about what was so wrong. I wanted to hold on to my seat with both hands and stay fixed in place, watching her cook spaghetti, the sound of the tomato sauce bubbling thickly in the pot. I closed my eyes and felt my chin start to tremble.

“But I don’t want to go,” I said, the words stumbling from my mouth in short bursts.

When she turned toward me tears filled her eyes, but her face had hardened. “There are sometimes when sorry is just not enough,” she said.

I wracked my brain trying to think if all this was because of something I did or failed to do.

“What did I do?” I asked.

Then her face softened and she seemed to have come back from where she’d been. Her lips pulled into a sad smile.

“It’s not you,” she said, “But I want you to remember that sorry is sometimes not enough.”

“I’ll remember,” I said.

“Don’t forget,” she said.

“I won’t forget,” I said.

Then she walked to me and knelt down, taking my head in her hands. “We love you, you know.”

I nodded, “I know.”

“This isn’t about you,” she said.

“OK,” I said.

Then she wrapped her arms around me and squeezed, pinning my arms to my sides. We remained like that for a long time.

Outside, my friends laughed and talked, one or the other of them occasionally calling out my name. I tried not to move, fearing that if I did she might let go.

Her breathing slowed and her shoulders relaxed, but she held on. Looking out through the veil of her hair I saw our cats as they milled about the backyard. I knew them all except one. A newcomer had joined the herd, and this unfamiliar cat had positioned itself prominently on my mother’s chair, its tail swishing jerkily back and forth in a rhythm that suggested it was ready to defend its newfound territory aggressively. What happened next is another story.

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Originally published in the St. Helena Star, March 2017