It is my dad’s 36th birthday and I am holding a cardboard box that is moving. He’s on the phone—he’s often on the phone—but the night’s plan has no room for interruptions. My present has begun to open itself.
This is the first living thing that I’ve ever been able to present to anyone, and my hands are shaking when my Dad says, into the phone, “Oh, they got me a kitten.”
Someone names the kitten Pete because that’s what he looks like, and I become absorbed in his habits. I am shocked by the functionality of the litterbox. I learn what “neuter” means.
Pete’s home and mine is on a jagged hill of subdivision houses, so heavy on lifted foundations and skylights that you’d imagine there was a beach nearby. There is no beach nearby. The cliff behind our house, carved out by construction workers only a few years before, overlooks the main stretch of road, named after a civil war battlefield. I spend afternoons watching traffic and rolling rotten vegetables from our garden into the street below. Pete prefers to plunge himself rear-first down the cliff’s edge, feigning panic by wagging his paws, crustacean-like, towards the nearest shrub. He is always very close to landing on his feet.
But we are at our best when we’re indoors, doing what I call “making a picture.” We’ll curl up together next to a pile of laundry we’ve just folded; on the edge of a carpet we’ve vacuumed; or on a couch with neat stacks of bills lined up on the edge. We’ll pretend to sleep and lie in wait for my parents to come home and see us, Pete and me.
We are friends, and we are afraid for each other. Every evening we find one another at the back door, and check to see that we are still Here. I begin reading stories about pioneer children taking their dogs to their one-room schoolhouses and I wonder how I can lobby for a bigger backpack.
And then Pete is gone.
Afternoons go by. My brother and I put up flyers on signposts and my parents start giving each other meaningful looks. On the seventh day, my dad wakes us up early to tell us that he and my mother have found Pete dead on the side of our subdivision’s main road. They’ve buried him. They show us the shovel. I feel hollow and excited. I want the phone to ring and for it to be a celebrity who will have sensed the profoundness of our loss and will offer the kind of weighty condolences that can only come from repeated rehearsals. Both of my parents cry.
After that we have cat years and non-cat years. There’s no cat the year I begin to get a murky sense of something that I can only then see as an irrevocable liability, a big gay cloud on the horizon. When that feeling comes, it makes me think of what Pete must have seen coming. My sense of tragedy is the slow inevitability of a four-door sedan going the residential speed limit into a body that can do nothing to save itself.
And when the thickness of that fear gives way, I’ll listen and hear the thin walls of our house adjust like the shaking of a cardboard box. And it’s then, with no sense of panic aside from a slight trembling in my hands, that I am desperate to allow myself to be given away.