Table of Contents
ALSO BY PETER TRACHTENBERG
The Book of Calamities:
Five Questions about Suffering and its Meaning
7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh
To my teachers
ANOTHER INSANE DEVOTION
This was gruesomeâfighting over a ham sandwich
with one of the tiny cats of Rome, he leaped
on my arm and half hung on to the food and half
hung on to my shirt and coat. I tore it apart
and let him have his portion, I think I lifted him
down, sandwich and all, on the sidewalk and sat
with my own sandwich beside him, maybe I petted
his bony head and felt him shiver. I have
told this story over and over; some things
root in the mind; his boldness, of course, was frightening
and unexpectedâhis stubbornnessâthough hunger
drove him mad. It was the breaking of boundaries,
the sudden invasion, but not only that, it was
the sharing of food and the sharing of space; he didn't
run into an alley or into a cellar,
he sat beside me, eating, and I didn't run
into a trattoria, say, shaking,
with food on my lips and blood on my cheek, sobbing;
but not only that, I had gone there to eat
and wait for someone. I had maybe an hour
before she would come and I was full of hope
and excitement. I have resisted for years
interpreting this, but now I think I was given
a clue, or I was giving myself a clue,
across the street from the glass sandwich shop.
That was my last night with her, the next day
I would leave on the train for Paris and she would
meet her husband. Thirty-five years ago
I ate my sandwich and moaned in her arms, we were
dying together; we never met again
although she was pregnant when I left herâI have
a daughter or son somewhere, darling grandchildren
in Norwich, Connecticut, or Canton, Ohio.
Every five years I think about her again
and plan on looking her up. The last time
I was sitting in New Brunswick, New Jersey,
and heard that her husband was teaching at Princeton,
if she was still married, or still alive, and tried
calling. I went that far. We lived
in Florence and Rome. We rowed in the bay of Naples
and floated, naked, on the boards. I started
to think of her again today. I still
am horrified by the cat's hunger. I still
am puzzled by the connection. This is another
insane devotion, there must be hundreds, although
it isn't just that, there is no pain, and the thought
is fleeting and sweet. I think it's my own dumb boyhood,
walking around with Slavic cheeks and burning
stupid eyes. I think I gave the cat
half of my sandwich to buy my life, I think
I broke it in half as a decent sacrifice.
It was this I bought, the red coleus,
the split rocking chair, the silk lampshade.
Happiness. I watched him with pleasure.
I bought memory. I could have lost it.
How crazy it sounds. His face twisted with cunning.
The wind blowing through his hair. His jaws working.
“Mrkgnao! the cat cried.
They call them stupid. They understand what we say better
than we understand them. She understands all she wants to.”
“We know too little of the nature of love to be able to
arrive at any definitive conclusions here.”
âFREUD, “NOTES UPON A CASE OF OBSESSIONAL NEUROSIS”
THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION. THE CHARACTERS IN IT are based on real people; the events recounted in it actually took place. Still, the facts in this book vary in their density, some being corroborated by documents and interviews and others being drawn from my memory alone. I've tried to make clear which kind of fact is which. The book also contains an artifact, an incident or detail that originates solely in my imagination. I have included it both for aesthetic reasons and out of curiosity about the nature of nonfiction and its tolerance for admixture or adulteration. Nobody doubts that a novel that contains factsâ
War and Peace,
for instanceâremains a work of fiction. Is the reverse true of nonfiction, and if not, why not? The first reader who identifies the artifact correctly will receive a prize. Originally, I wanted this to be a kitten, but it raised too many questions as to how potential prizewinners would be vetted to weed out psychopaths and the incompetent. At this writing, I'm still looking for a satisfying replacement. Not many things are better than a kitten.
FIRST SAW HER A WEEK OR TWO AFTER SOME FRIENDS had rescued her from the woods across from their house, a small, matted thing hunched miserably on a tree branch in the rain while their dogs milled and snapped below. She was very sick with a respiratory infection, and for a while they didn't think she'd make it. By the time I came over to the barn where they were keeping her, she was stronger, but her face was still black with caked-on snot. I sat down on the floor beside her, and the little ginger cat rubbed against me and a moment later clasped my hand between her forepaws and began licking it. It wasn't the grateful licking of a dog; it was proprietary and businesslike, the rasp of her tongue almost painful. She was claiming me.
F. and I named her Biscuit after the color of her fur. She never completely got over the respiratory infection. Even in total darkness, you could tell she'd entered the room because of the snuffling, a sound like a small whisk broom briskly sweeping.
Every few months she'd start sneezing with increasing viscid productivity until it got so gross we had to take her to the vet, which she didn't mindâshe'd stroll into her carrier as if it were the first-class compartment of an airlinerâand put her on antibiotics, which she did. She hated being pilled and would buck and spit and slash until you got the message. You can see the scars she left on my forearm. Once, when we were still living in the village, Biscuit wandered into a neighbor's garage and came back with half her muzzle and one forepaw white with paint. Three people had to hold her down while a fourth shaved off the painted-on fur so she wouldn't be poisoned while trying to clean herself. It was the angriest I ever saw her. But only a few hours later, she slid into bed with us, snuffling and purring.
This was our marriage bed, my wife's and mine. In it, we had made love; we had quarreled; we had exchanged secrets the way children exchange trading cards. (When I was a kid, these were mostly of baseball players, but there are now cards for WWF Superstars,
characters, and the members of England's royal wedding. Wilfredo, the boy who used to visit us in the summer, had decks of Japanese anime figures.) We had sat up reading by lamplight while the world slept, sometimes silently, sometimes aloud to each other. During the early years of our marriage, the books we read included
Charlotte's Web, Oliver Twist, The Story of the Treasure Seekers,
and the entire
Lord of the Rings,
which aged us like grief. We did the voices of all the characters: guileless, bumptious Wilbur; manly Oswald, bluff as a little Winston Churchill; Templeton rubbing his handsâor I guess his pawsâtogether in anticipation
of an all-you-can-eat buffet of purulent midway garbage; unctuous Fagin, his ill will barely concealed by a facade of mocking courtliness; hissing, sniveling Gollum.
Lately we don't read to each other much.
On September 29, 2008, while I was away teaching at a college in North Carolina, I learned that Biscuit had gone missing from our house in upstate New York. F. was also away at the time, at an artists' residency in Europe, so if anybody was going to look for our cat, it would have to be me. By rights, the kid we'd hired to take care of our pets should have gone looking for her, but he was uselessâat least, he was useless as a cat-sitter. And so I booked a flight to New York and set off to find Biscuit, though I couldn't afford the airfare and worried that by the time I arrived it would be too late. She'd already been gone three days, a piece of information Bruno the cat-sitter had held back until fairly late in our conversation, I don't know whether from caginess or because it had just slipped his mind.
It was early evening when he called; I was making dinner. I remember looking out the window into the garden of my rental house, which lay in the shadow of the live oak whose acorns, bigger and flatter than the ones I was used to seeing up north, littered the grass like woody bottle caps. It may have been the shade or an approaching storm that gave the dusk a greenish cast. It was like being at the bottom of a well.
“What's the name of your orange cat?” Bruno asked. I felt a surge of anger. He couldn't remember the name of a creature that had been sharing his homeâwhose home he'd been
sharingâfor two weeks, a creature whose color was not orange but golden; F. sometimes called her “the golden kitty.” But I just told him, “Biscuit, her name's Biscuit. Because she's biscuit colored.” In much the same way, parents of missing children describe the clothes they were wearing, their birthmarks, the gaps between their teeth. I know that a child is a child and a cat is just a cat. I'm only trying to say I'm one of those people who greet bad news politely, as if by doing that I could turn it away.
A little over a year before we got Biscuit, my cat Bitey had died. She was the first cat I'd ever owned or owned for more than a few months, a smoke-black domestic shorthair with an underbite that gave her a look of implacable, scheming malice, like Lawrence Olivier playing Richard III. When F. and I moved in together, back when we were still girlfriend and boyfriend, Bitey took an instant dislike to Tina, the younger and more timid of F.'s two cats. Scarcely had we let them out of their carriers than Bitey slipped out of the room where we'd stowed her and shot down the hall into the room where we were keeping Tina. She must have smelled her in passing. Shrieks rent the air. (If any shriek can be said to rend the air, it is a cat's. The shrieks of all other creatures only perturb it a little.) We separated them; that is, we drove Bitey away from the bed under which Tina was cowering, but from then on she spent much of her time lurking outside what we came to call Tina's room, waiting for the little orange cat to tiptoe outâand she really would tiptoe, lifting her paws very high and placing them down as if stepping onto the wrinkled surface of
a barely frozen puddleâso she could menace her with her wicked Plantagenet jaw.
Some of this aggressiveness had been apparent even when I adopted Bitey from the Baltimore ASPCA on a wet day in April twelve years before; I remember the statue of St. Francis in the shelter's garden shining with rain. She was just a kitten, barely larger than my fist, and so black she seemed featureless except for her green eyes. My girlfriend held her to her breast as I drove home. D. had a cat of her own that she could handle like a slab of bread dough, but before we'd gone three miles the kitten had squirmed out of her grasp and was pacing along the backs of the seats, mewing. D. tried to pull her down, but she clambered on top of my head and sank her claws into my scalp. She meant no harm by it. Still, her claws were sharp, and I cried out in pain. The black kitten continued to cry out in whatever it was she was feeling: fear, probably, and misery at being shut up in a hurtling cage without her brothers and sisters in it, just two large humans rank with sex and tobacco, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo, their mouths brutal with teeth, their nostrils like caves.