When I was twenty I swore that if I were still single by the time I was forty, I would be the cha-cha-ing, poker-playing, martini-drinking sort of single gal; I would not be the needle-pointing, tea-drinking, galosh-wearing sort. If I had a pet it would be a boa constrictor, a monkey or a mynah bird. I was never ever going to become one of those lonely, witchy spinsters who “kept” cats. (There is a great line in the movie Desk Set where Katherine Hepburn says, “Don’t worry Ruthie, we can always get a house together and keep cats.” To which the brassy Ruthie replies, “I don’t like cats, I like men. And so do you.”)
I did, in fact, become the cha-cha-ing poker-playing, martini-drinking sort of single gal--but one with cats. By now, of course, I realize that this whole cat lady persona is nothing but a sexist, ageist stereotype that is unfair to both women and cats. I got cats because cats are wonderful, and because they are fairly self-sufficient and well-suited to city living. (I love dogs, but--call me crazy---I refuse to pick up poop off the sidewalk.) And yet, I sometimes catch myself trying to conceal the fact that I have cats.
Just the other day I was talking on the phone to a man I had recently met when Henry snuck up behind me, leapt onto my shoulder and meowed loudly into the mouthpiece.
“God. What is that? Is that a baby?” the man asked.
“No, it’s not,” I said uninformatively, pushing Henry off so abruptly he howled even louder.
“Hey, are you okay?" the man wanted to know. "What’s going on?”
I tried to bluff it out. “Rock star neighbor,” I murmured. But by this time Pickering had decided to tackle Henry and they were both screeching at high volume. “Alright, actually, it’s my cats,” I was finally forced to confess. I braced myself for that uncomfortable pause on the other end of the line, followed by the inevitable question: “Um…How many cats do you have?”
I know this reaction well. It says: Ah--she’s one of those professionally single women, the ones who have opted for cats. And not just one cat, but cats, plural. Suddenly the man with whom I have just been flirting is envisioning me in a dowdy flannel nightgown, twenty-seven cats crawling on my lap, all of us eating from the same tub of vanilla ice cream, disdainful of all other humans and vowing eternal independence.
Many people have the idea that women with cats don’t really like men--or anyone, for that matter. A pet is thought to be the alter ego of the pet owner; the attitude of the animal reflects the attitude of the person. Unfortunately cats--unlike dogs--do not go bounding up to strangers with their tongues hanging out, desperate for affection (well, Henry does, but he has issues.) You can’t grab a cat around the stomach and pat him roughly on the top of the head (though I must say Henry likes that too.) Human beings tend to be intimidated when animals don’t need their attention. A woman with cats in the city is seen as existing in her own complete universe, wanting nothing from the outside world. If the cats don’t go outside, maybe the woman doesn’t either. Maybe they all just stay in, sneaking silently around, hissing and casting spells on people they don’t like.
I’m here to tell you this is not true at all. I have two nice cats--brothers. My apartment does not smell the least bit funky; people do not leave here brushing clumps of cat hair from their clothing or holding gauze over cat-inflicted wounds. I do not love my cats more than I love people. I did not acquire my cats to serve as a substitute for anything or anyone.
I could go on at greater length, but it’s time to get into my jammies and open a gallon of ice cream for me and my boys.