Saying Goodbye

It’s a triple story complex. Six feet high. The close-linked metal walls are dark as a raven’s feather. The inky plastic floor wanders up through two openings, crowning at the topmost layer, where she stretches out on the tawny plush pillow-bed. Her large sapphire eyes glare menacingly through the square cage slits. I slide my fingers into her proximity, and she sniffs cautiously realizing that it’s me. Her slender ears perk, the icy stare softens and as I scratch the underside of her chin the familiar purr of affection escapes her. She’s got a kitty paradise, her own room in the first floor office. I force myself into believing it, but I can’t stay for long. A chilling reminder of why she’s crammed into this solitary confinement haunts me. I catch her bright eyes as I cross to the door, and the penetration stings.

“I’ll come back before I leave,” I tell her as she spreads her front paws across the bed. But I don’t. In my rush to get back to Richmond for class I forget, and I’m reminded as I speed down 95 that I’ve forgotten her. These days I’m always forgetting her. I command myself to stop feeling so horrible about deserting my cat, but it would be easier to drink liquid oxygen. I’ve left her helplessly stranded at my parent’s house over one hundred miles away and as a burning sensation claws up my throat memories of the old days repeat continuously behind my eyes.

Natasha latched onto me from the moment she was born. Whenever we brought the kittens out to play on the parent’s queen sized bed the other four would crawl around each other, squeaking high-pitched notes and circling the perimeter intent on harnessing the quickest method of escape. Natasha would just curl up tucked against my stomach as I lay positioned on my side, resting her face in the palm of my eight-year-old hand. Her eyes would close and a gentle hum vibrated from within, gratified to be in my presence. Our bond strengthened every day for the next ten years. Whenever I cried, she was there, crawling into my lap or pressing her velvet fur against my tears. She slept right on top of me, rotating with my movements as I shifted in the dream world. I never minded. She gave me her full attention, as if nothing else in the room could be more important than me.

She has the Siamese trait in her, the sole inheritor from the mother cat’s gene pool. Her crème fur is patterned with the characteristic mousy-steel streaks around her paws, face, and tail. Dad always said that was why she became so attached to a single person, to me. I don’t know why she chose me, but she did. She would prance behind me every morning as I shoved on jeans and ran my fingers through my hair, stopping by the bathroom and thundering down the stairs. The boredom kicked in eventually, causing her to return to my warm comforter while I had to catch the school bus or go to a soccer game or complete whatever was on the day’s agenda. For the better part of those years, I always came back to her at night.

She hated it when I had girlfriends over for a sleepover. Thin hairs would erect as a guttural groan parted from her throat, upset that these strange beings were traipsing over her territory. She had a nasty habit of disappearing for hours, hiding behind my mom’s rack of printed dresses and slacks, or under the sleeping bags in the basement. She wanted me to come looking, and usually I did. She always forgave me. I don’t think she wanted to be mad she just wanted me all to herself.

I long for us to return to those carefree days of my childhood, Natasha resuming the role of my sidekick and leaving behind the tortured rejection that I’ve imposed on her. I am cruel, abandoning the most loyal friend I could ever ask for. Internally conflicted, I know that I must pursue my future and my education; it just hardly seems appropriate to hurt her along the way.

I always thought that she would rejoin me after my freshmen year in the dorms, where pets were forbidden and my parents hollered that it was out of the question to smuggle her in. One year wouldn’t be so bad. One year, that would flow by in a breeze. She hated being away from me, my family informed me. She growled at everyone, except for Dad, the only other person who was allowed to pet her. She became withdrawn and depressed, but I was determined to bring her to my new apartment in the city and that our childhood lives could pick up where they left off.

The problem was that I was moving in with my longtime boyfriend. He and Natasha used to battle for my attention, cursing and glaring at each other. She hissed and he would screech right back, chasing her out of my bedroom. Eventually, she wouldn’t come near me whenever he was around. So after we signed the lease, Mom seriously advised against bringing Natasha to Richmond.

“He might kill that cat while you’re in class,” she told me.

“I don’t think so. He knows how much I love her.”

“They do not like each other. If you want a cat, you guys need to get one that loves you both.” No way in hell. I wanted Natasha and only Natasha.

But my boyfriend had made enough jokes about selling my cat to a Chinese kitchen behind my back that I succumbed to the warnings. I spent the rest of the summer curled next to her warm body, while the thump of betrayal clouded my thoughts. We said goodbye for a second time, and slowly her mood worsened. She longed for us to be together again, and I simply didn’t have the means to make that happen. School took the front burner, and our friendship was left deserted and crumbling.

It’s like standing on the deck of a ship and waving back towards a homeland you know you’re unlikely to ever see again. It’s there, waiting for you to step back onto those lonesome beaches, ready to embrace you and reminisce the years once spent inseparable, unknowing that your departure is permanent, and returning to those old glory days will soon fall impossible. My choices began to haunt me, and I couldn’t tell if I’d made the right one. I’m usually not a selfish person, but I knew turning that ship around for a cat was an impractical decision.

My boyfriend got me a kitten for Christmas that year. I think any remaining bit of self-control and hope for our future flew out the door the minute Natasha watched me bring the new ball of fur back to the house to show my family. She started peeing right outside the litter box, dripping the warm liquid in corners, eventually escalating to piles of clothes, shoes, anything on the floor. She would do it out of spite. I caught her once when I was home on a visit, her pupils piercing right into mine as she pissed out of place.

I can’t even begin to imagine the cruel rejection she must have felt upon seeing me, the lover that’s forsaken her, standing with someone new in my arms. Every time I look into those big blue eyes I can’t help but try to remember every touch, night and connection that we’ve shared. They’ve gotten hazy over the years. In the end I chose a boy over Natasha, and the remorse stings down my cheeks. He and I broke up not long after college anyway and having picked him angers me, stirring a feeling of unworthiness at the decision I’d so ruthlessly made.

There are times when the past simply becomes a memory of what was, and the only chance I have of moving forward is letting go. I wish I could have brought Natasha to my apartment in Richmond, but she wouldn’t have liked living there. I never intended to get a new cat myself, but being given a tiny bundle of life is a hard gesture to pass up, and had I not moved in with my ex I never would have known the joy she’s brought me. I wouldn’t trade either cat for the world, but I would trade the world if the two of them could have been friendly under one roof.

It, of course, never happened. At graduation I found myself at a new crossroads of which cat to choose.

Natasha was old, living in a cage in Dad’s office to keep her from soiling the rest of the house. She could live the rest of her days in peaceful silence; she wouldn’t like exploring the world with me. I’d turned her into an empty shell, repaying all those years of kindness and companionship with replacement.

My other cat, however, knew no other life than that with me. Not my family, just me. With my boyfriend fresh out of the picture she had no one else to turn to. And I didn’t want to abandon her the same way I’d abandoned Natasha.

I ended up moving to Florida and the new cat won. Natasha was left to die in peace, which eventually she did, and I began anew.

Some nights I bolt straight up from my nightmares, bawling for my long lost cat to come back to me. The memory of her weight pressing against my thigh sticks to my brain. I take another harsh breath and brush back the salty tears. With every passing year it hurts a little bit less, the remorse softening as the memories of our times together fade.

As soulfully content as I find myself these days, I think a part of me will always regret saying goodbye to Natasha while she’d been alive.