I was not always afraid of cats.
When I was a child, we had some neighbors, the Berls. The Berls had a big, lazy orange cat named Rusty. I can remember squatting next to Rusty on their hot driveway, stroking his soft, sun-warmed orange fur while he snoozed. I was not afraid of Rusty.
My mother hated cats. And my sister was terrified of them. I was proud of myself that I did not share this weakness, that I had invincible cat tolerance. I did not particularly like the slow, silent way they had of turning their heads and looking at a person, and I didn't like the sharp claws that protruded from their otherwise soft and flexibly limp bodies. But I was tough. I could deal with cats.
One day when I was a teenager, I accepted a baby-sitting job for a lady I did not know. She had two little boys, and she ordered us a pizza for dinner. She said we could eat it in the living room in front of the TV. She also had a cat.
We ate as much of the pizza as we cared for, and then I got the boys off to bed, leaving the pizza in its box on the coffee table. After tucking in the little ones, I returned to the living room to tidy up after dinner, only to find the cat atop the pizza, slowly nibbling at it in typical catlike fashion. The sight repulsed me, and I tried to shoo the cat off the food. It stood its ground and looked at me, as if to say, "I dare you. I just dare you." In that moment, panic gave rise to a deep fear. I did not know what to do. The little boys were in bed, and I was alone in the house with this obstinate, odious creature.
My inner compass screamed to me that it was neither right nor good for a cat to be on top of a pizza on top of a coffee table in a living room. Although I wanted to flee the house, taking my chances in the dark streets, heading on foot for my cat-free home and the comforting presence of my parents, I mustered all the courage I had and stayed.
Pleading with God to help me, I removed a large pillow from the couch and used it to push the cat from its perch. I do not remember much about this, just the sickening sense that the cat continued to resist me and tried to regain its position over the food a number of times with the cloying stickiness of gum that cannot be scraped from the sole of a shoe.
Dogs just don't do things like that.
When I finally freed the pizza, I grasped it quickly, sloppily, in its mangled box, and rushed it to the kitchen counter. It was defiled, so I did not know what to do with it, whether to throw it away. Honestly, I cannot remember what I did with it.
I returned to the living room and sat down on the couch, hoping to pass time quickly with a TV show until the mother returned. Perhaps I was hoping the cat would stay in the kitchen with the pizza. My memory is very foggy from this point on, except for the points of trauma, which I remember in stark detail.
The cat approached me on the couch and climbed onto my lap. It sat there heavy, as cats can make themselves, staring at me. I choked on a gag. Every cell of my skin went electric, and I broke out in a nauseated sweat. I didn't know if I could breathe, if I would vomit, if I would wet my pants. I began more panicked prayers and slowly reached for the large pillow again, a barrier I could erect between myself and this vile animal.
Most of the ensuing events, I have involuntarily blocked from my mind. I do know that somehow, in my desperation, I used the pillow to force the cat down into the basement, whereupon I closed the basement door, checking and double checking the latch.
For the rest of the evening, I sat and shook while shivers ran up and down my back, causing me to cringe at unpredictable intervals. The cat yowled and scratched at the basement door, now and then extending a clawed foot through the space at the bottom of the door.
When the mother returned, I told her that the cat was in the basement. She never asked me back. I would not have gone if she had.
Since that time, I have never wanted to be around a cat.
There have been times when I was almost OK with cats, and times when their presence has filled me with inexpressible dread. Generally, I am not as afraid if there are plenty of people around to buffer a feline presence from me. Proximity is a big deal, too. For instance, I could maybe walk past a cat outside if it were in a yard and I were in the street, but if the cat was in the middle of a street I was walking on, and I was alone, I would turn and go a different way, preferably not the opposite way, because it is not comforting for me to know that there may be a cat behind me which I cannot see. I would never pass a cat on a sidewalk. My worst case scenario is to be alone in a house with a cat. Ugh. I can barely type that thought.
My husband loves cats. He wanted to get one as a pet for our children. We had some friends whose cat birthed kittens, and I went to see them, tiny, sleepy things with their eyes not even open. I thought, "I can do this. I am not afraid of these kittens." A few weeks later we went back to pick one up, and they were barbarous, leaping varmints with sharp claws and hunter instincts. "Which one do you want?" our friends asked us. I looked for a gentle, sleepy one, but there was none to be found. I told Shawn, "Let's wait until tomorrow. We don't even have a litter box. We can't take one tonight."
That night, I dreamed of cats. I dreamed I was in my mother's laundry room, where a cat had attached itself to my arm and was eating the flesh away from my elbow to my hand. It was not painful, but it was petrifying, and I could not disengage the cat from its mission to expose my bones. I woke up in a sweat and asked Shawn, "Can we please not get a cat? Please?"
At times, I have been able to exercise all of my fortitude and be polite about cats, and at other times, I have simply crumbled into a nervous wreck in the presence of cats. There was the time we were at a Bible study in the home of some people with a cat. They put it away because I was afraid, but I didn't realize that they had merely removed it, they had not contained it. At one point, when I left the group to feed my baby, the cat stalked me and appeared, an ominous, undulating presence threatening me from the doorway of the room where I was then trapped, alone. That gave me nightmares for weeks and set me back about ten years in my learn-to-abide-cats endeavors.
There was also the time Shannon was taking a flute lesson. The flute teacher, a renowned symphony player in Syracuse, was the nicest woman in the world, and always shut her cats up when I was there. But that particular day, for some reason, the cats were in the room next to where I was waiting, and not in the bedroom upstairs. I kept hearing them jump at the doorknob, and the doorknob would shudder. I tried to focus on the book I was reading, but my body went all prickly and hyper-alert. At one point there was a crash as a cat threw itself against the door that separated it from me, and in the corner of my eye I saw a sleek gray body swell out of the room. Gulping back nausea, I bolted the opposite direction and burst right into the flute studio, right in the middle of the lesson. There I crouched, hyperventilating in a fetal position. The kind teacher raced out to see what was up with the cat. In the end, it had not escaped at all. It was only my fearful imagination. But the teacher was an incredibly kind person who continued to be willing to teach Shannon anyway.
At a certain point, I just gave up. I am not strong. Cats scare me. I am not afraid that they are going to bite me or scratch me or attack me. I am afraid that a cat will touch me. That is my fear, and I have given up trying to conquer it.
But I do try to work on my attitude, if not my ability. When I think of cats, instead of thinking about how much I am repulsed by them and fearful of them, I try to remind myself, "God made the cats. God made the cats, too."