Somewhere around the second grade, I developed a cat obsession. I collected Cat Fancy magazine, had “cat only” parameters around my room’s décor and I was given cat figurines for every occasion, but I had no luck with cat ownership. My dad was anti-pet, though he did give it a shot, twice.
First, there was Toy, an old, incontinent gift from my mother. Later came Fabian, the black kitten with a personality somewhere on the feral spectrum. Both of them wore out their welcome within two weeks and that was it. My dad was done with cats and I was resigned to loving them from afar. I continued to write about cats whenever given a writing assignment in school, and any book reports I wrote were based on made-up books about cats as well.
One afternoon when I was in fourth grade, I was watching TV after school, as I did every day until five o’clock when my dad got home. There was a knock at the door and I opened it find two neighborhood kids I hadn’t hung around with for some time, one of them holding a poofy kitten with blue eyes and long white fur. In my living room they told me that they’d found her in a tree and neither of their parents would let them keep her. My mind raced, my heart pounded and I decided she was mine.
The girls left and I sat there on the floor, propped against the couch, snuggling the kitten and watching her crawl around my legs. It was the happiest I could remember being – since the joy of occasionally seeing my mother was always complicated by nerves and angst. There were nerves now too; I was scared about my dad coming home, but I was also fully prepared to pack a bag.
An hour later, I heard his car pull up and felt the rapid pulse in my ears. The car door slammed, the screen door opened, the key went in the lock and there he was. He spotted us . . . stopped . . . closed the door . . . walked over. Neither of us said anything until I warbled out, “The cat stays or I go.”
Finally, he said, “I need to go start dinner.” And I knew I had a pet.
Shaista, pronounced Shasta but spelled Shaista to be original, turned out to be a he and he was perfect – funny, cuddly, mellow, playful and deaf, which is common in white cats with blue eyes. If you don’t believe me, you can read about it in my sixth grade report entitled, “Cats.”
Shaista had only been with me for a few weeks when I got up one morning to find him gone. My dad was always at work before I had to get up for school. He left me a note saying that Shaista didn’t come home the night before but probably would today. I got ready for school but instead of going to the bus stop, I started knocking on doors, knowing I’d get it at school and at home for missing the morning. I finally walked to school, devastated. When I got home, a friend up the street called to tell me that her next door neighbor had Shaista. I went to the lady’s house and she was ready for me, though she clearly hoped no one would claim him. She sent me away with cat food and toys she’d bought. I felt bad for her. And I got Shaista a tag with our address and phone number on it.
He was my cat and I was his girl. One night I woke to find him standing on my chest with a big dark spot on his face. When my eyes adjusted I realized he’d brought me a gift -- a huge, live cockroach. As he grew up, he could often be found on his back, stretched into a long white line. He let me kiss his belly, face and nose as much as I wanted and he’d make the bully dog next door cower in a corner. He put up with baths in the tub but he did not go for toilet training.
He even grew on my dad. Pops fed him every morning in the wee dark hours before he went to work, until a few years later when he decided that should be my responsibility even though he was already up. Whatever. I set my alarm, shuffled into the kitchen where Pops would be, already dressed for work, with only the stove light on. He would bring Shaista’s bowls in from the other room and put them on the counter for me. I’d open the cabinet, take down a can of wet food, scoop it into the bowl, put the bowl and water back in the other room, and return to bed for an hour.
I truly needed that friend in my life. I wasn’t a good student or musician or athlete or artist. Family was a heartache (though I did love Dudley Moore and hoped he would be family one day). School was a constant stress. In science, for example, all we had to do was keep a notebook with very specific notes in it. At the end of the six weeks, we’d turn in the notebook and get a good grade if we’d written down everything we were told to write down. I couldn’t even do that. It was almost time to turn them in and I begged a studious classmate to lend me her science notebook to copy. For some reason, she did, more than once, but this time . . . I lost it. I would’ve given anything to go back to the time where I was just going to get a shitty grade and suffer at home. Now, I had that AND Claudia’s fate on my head. I was sick about it. I decided to take a stab at prayer. I told God that I’d believe in him if he would let anything else bad happen to me but please let me find Claudia’s science notebook.
The next morning, I dragged myself to the kitchen and started the routine even though my dad hadn’t placed the bowls on the counter yet. He was standing there, still in his robe, leaning on both hands, either tired or mad. I opened the cabinet and took down the can but before I opened it dad said, “Shaista’s dead. He was hit by a car last night.” I froze there. His arms went around me and he started to cry. I stayed enveloped in my big dad for a long time, then gently pushed away, opened the cabinet, put the food on the shelf and went back to bed.
When he left for work, I got dressed and went around to the side of the house where the trash cans were. There was a large bundle in a black garbage sack on top of one of the metal cans. I unfolded the bag and looked inside at my kitty. He was stiff and clean. I folded the bag around him and lifted him off the lid. I couldn’t believe how much heavier he was dead. I took him inside the house and left him in the back room by his bowls.
I moved through the morning in shock and grief. At school I felt the space around me that you get when kids are a little afraid. I told the few people who asked what was wrong and was touched by condolences from a girl I hadn’t been friends with since we were at another school together years before.
Before lunch, I went to my locker. When I opened it, I saw, plain as anything, Claudia’s notebook – sitting front and center, where it had not been before. Then I remembered my prayer. God had killed my cat and given me Claudia’s science notebook. I believed in him.
On the bus ride home, I was joined by another girl I hadn’t spoken to for years. Teresa was the neighborhood friend who called to tell me where Shaista was when he got lost. I told her I was going to bury him when I got home and she asked if she could help. I was glad to have the company.
At my house, we found a good box, wide enough but not too tall. In it we placed a blanket, Shiasta, his toys, some catnip and a bright orange plastic Goofy figure that had been around as long as I could remember. Maybe that was my way of putting something of me in the box with him. Then we started digging.
The top six inches of dusty Texas dirt were easy to toss away but we soon realized that even a four foot hole was hopeless. My older brother, who lived with my grandma, happened to come over and take pity on us. He took the shovel and dug the hole. I knew he had to do that kind of work for a living and he hated it. I never would have asked. He gave me a one-armed squeeze while taking a drag from his cigarette, then he kissed my head and left. My knight in dirty denim.
After we put Shaista in the ground and covered him up, Teresa had to go too. I sat cross-legged and spoke to him, as I would for years to come. I didn’t say anything to God though. I was all done with that guy. Then I went inside and made a cardboard cross, outlined with gold glitter and placed it in the dirt on Shaista’s grave.
You’d be surprised how long a cardboard cross can last in the desert.