Happy 18th Birthday To My Damn Cat

“Shut the f*ck up,” are the first words out of my mouth most mornings. I know that makes me sound crude and uncivilized, but when an animal the size of a breadbox is screaming in your face at 6:15 am, a time when you’d saw off your right arm with child-proof scissors for another hour of sleep, I don’t think it’s unreasonable. Typically I’ll then push her off my bed, which is basically a couch from a nice neighborhood.*

“MEOW!” she’ll scream from the floor.

“Please…PLEASE!” I’m begging now. “Shut…Up! PLEASE!” It has no effect.

“Meow!” Having been tossed from the trundle bed, she exacts her revenge in the hallway, knowing that my wife can now hear the meows from the other room, and if SHE has to get up an hour early on a work morning to feed the damn cat, I’LL be the bad guy.

“Meow!” A decibel higher. So I lay, one eye open, a battle raging in my mind over which is worse, losing an hour of beloved sleep or having my wife mad at me because she had to get up early. My decision is obvious, and I begin the slow slog down the stairs.

In October of 2001, my girlfriend Colby, my buddy from Hawaii Duff, and I had decided on somewhat of a lark to move to Philadelphia with essentially no money in the bank, and after a couple of weeks grew tired of sitting on camping chairs.

I lived on 6th Street, just south of South Street, in the old Levi’s Hot Dog building. It wasn’t far from where much fancier people put decent furniture out on the sidewalks on Mondays. One day, when walking home from another disastrous lunch shift at Sfizzio’s (where Zahav is now…that’s a whole other story), I came across a small sectional on the curb, and as I had a friend from work with me, decided to take it to the apartment. Initially, the small sofa was the height of luxury for guys who had spend the first two weeks in Philly in camping chairs. But it held a dark secret: it was inhabited by mice, and within a few days they had begun to attack the kitchen. It was time for a cat.

Colby and I went to the Morris Animal Refuge just before Halloween with the intent of taking home a kitten, but we saw two who were brother and sister and didn’t have the heart to tear them apart from each other. So we took home two kittens, who we named Popiko (it means “cat” in Hawaiian, we shortened it to Popo) and Malia (after a mischievous dolphin that I loved when I worked at Dolphin Quest in Hawaii) in the hopes that they would alleviate the mouse problem.

Duff enjoyed taking ridiculous pics of the cats playing basketball.

Popo was the early star, active and excitable the way a kitten should be, never catching mice but letting his presence be known. Malia, on the other hand, spent most her time chasing her own tail and staring at candles. So it came as a shock when one night Malia hopped up on our “coffee table” (technically a piece of wood placed on top of milk crates) with a mouse in her mouth. She was hailed as a conquering heroine, and the pride she found that night has carried her through to this day.

Colby and I broke up a year later, and for some godforsaken reason I demanded to keep the damn cats when I moved in with a work friend in early 2003. One night that spring, a door in the back was left open, and Malia disappeared. Frantically, I made up posters and hung them on telephone poles. I then walked into the back alley calling her name.

“Malia! Malia!” Finally I heard a meow, loud but coming from a distance. I looked over walls, behind alleyway detritus, until finally I decided to look up. Stunned, I saw her perched atop the second story roof of a nearby house. How she got up there will always be one of life’s great mysteries. In the meantime, I had to figure out how to get her down. I went home, grabbed a ladder, and tied a shoestring to it. I climbed the ladder to the top of a back porch, then MacGuyver-style lifted the ladder up by the string. I climbed it again, and leaning tenuously (as one does atop a ladder on a flimsy deck porch) I reached for her. I was hoping to expedite the process, knowing that at any second a neighbor could be dialing the police in reference to a man on a ladder on top of a nearby porch deck. Playfully she avoided my reach and went to rub up against a nearby chimney.

“You little bitch,” I muttered under my breath to no-one in particular. “Malia, come here.” She meowed, rubbed up against the chimney one more time, then pranced over my way. I grabbed her, dropped the ladder down one floor by the shoestring, and together we descended.

The past 18 years have gone whirring by, and she’s been there for just about all of it: multiple roommates, girlfriends, and other pets moving in and out. She has taken it all in stride. Like most cats if there’s food in the bowl come morning and again in the afternoon, the rest takes care of itself. After six years apart, Colby returned to Philly and we got back together, then got married. Malia could have cared less, though it did give her one more human to draw heat from when the weather turned cold. Once we had a kid, there were two.

Let’s not get overly romantic here: once you have a dog, a wife, and a kid, the cat takes a backseat, and becomes more of a chore than a close companion. But she went missing again in October of 2015, and I found myself once again desperately searching the back alleys of the neighborhood for her, posting flyers on telephone poles again, looking under nearby parked cars. Don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, I suppose. After a couple of weeks of fruitless searching, my buddy Vaughn came by to help me hit up a few alleys. After an hour or so, we called it quits.

“You put up signs, you’ve spent days searching through alleys for her, you’ve done everything you can do,” he said. “Now it’s for the universe to decide.”

I would continue to walk to the wall in our back yard, call out her name, and shake the cat food, but once we past the month milestone it seemed to be little more than a pitiful habit. Until, one night, I saw something move down the alley.

“Malia!” I cried. She ignored my call and kept scurrying towards the gate at the end of the alley that emptied onto Pemberton, slid through the grates, and ran across the street.

The next night, I walked back there again. I was about 75% sure I had seen Malia the night before, but couldn’t be certain. I peered into the alley again. There she was. “Malia! It’s me! Come here!” She looked up, saw me, and sauntered back the other way.

“You little bitch,” I muttered under my breath to no-one in particular. At this point I was just annoyed. “Well she’s had her chance to come back. She knows where we are.” I stomped back into the house.

It was late October, and the next night the temperature dropped drastically. Sure enough, Malia came prancing back into the yard. The queen, after a month abroad, was ready to be pampered, fed, cleaned up after, and most importantly kept warm by her people.

Her brother died in 2019, at age 17. He was, for about the past decade leading up to his death, an old man: feeble, sickly, and cranky. He existed to eat and ate to exist and the rest of it was bollocks. Malia is quite different. She has always enjoyed it when company comes over. She loves being rubbed on the head and adored and worshipped like the goddess she undoubtedly is in her own mind. A few months ago she decided she was sick of cat food, and simply stopped eating. She was essentially on a hunger strike, and willing to die for the cause. And so we started buying tuna fish, which she enjoyed for the next month, until she decided she was ready for cat food again.

Is there a moral here? Have I learned anything over the past 18 years, other than “Maybe shoulda gotten a dog”? I don’t know. Does there need to be? Isn’t that kind of the point of cats, that there is no point, they just confound you by hopping in front of the coffee pot, fridge, or sink, wherever it is that you’re trying to get to? That their existence is driven not by love or affection but by food and body heat, and that we spend thousands and thousands of dollars over the years to give them both? There’s probably some sort of moral about unconditional love buried in here somewhere, but my sleep deprivation has left me incapable of articulating it. I’ll just leave it to the universe to decide.

*My wife and kid sleep in the “good” bed, as he has taken over my role as “preferred cuddler” in this house, and the cat and I sleep on what I only found out three weeks ago was called a trundle bed.

Epilogue: Malia passed away on July 30, less than three months short of her 20th birthday. We will miss her terribly. And we will roll our eyes and laugh….a lot…whenever her name is brought up.