My husband saw her first, on a cold December afternoon. The veterinary clinic down the street from our apartment sometimes parks stray kittens in its front window; a scrawny calico, with fur like dandelion fluff, was mewling at him through the glass, as if he were an errant teenager who'd just plowed his bicycle into her parked car. He called me; I hustled over.
When I picked her up, her body relaxed instantly, as if she'd been rigid with anticipation a long time and now could finally breathe easy. She hooked her tiny white paws over my shoulder and snuggled close. She purred dreamily. She sighed a little kitten sigh.
Half an hour later, she was in our apartment.
The feline brain, it is thought, can't imagine the future and prepare accordingly—it lacks the cortical real estate to create cunning plots and plan checkmate maneuvers. Yet two and a half years later, that moment at the clinic remains the one and only time I have ever gotten a hug from my cat.
First impressions to the contrary, Joan—my husband named her Joan, as in Didion, "for her poise and figure"—does not like being cuddled. When she submits to petting, it is often in the wriggly, distressed manner of a small child surrendering to the attentions of a grizzled old aunt with an ashtray kiss.
If an important part of pet ownership is the ability to "read" your cat or dog or bunny or pot-bellied pig, I began in abject failure. In fact, failure has touched much of my tenure as Joan's co-guardian. I failed to teach her to fetch. I failed to convince her that the couch is not a potato that needs peeling. I failed to sell her on her water bowl. (Faucets only.)
I can't change Joan, or even slightly modify her. Instead, she has changed me. I never used to sob at ASPCA ads, or avoid movies with animals (because what if one of the animals gets hurt?!?), or try to make friends with every dog I pass on the street. And it never occurred to me before that I could love another creature so much without expecting reciprocation. I must be content to admire Joan slightly from afar, as one might admire a famous actor or athlete.
The upside is that I have year-round tickets (excellent seats, too) for The Joan Show: Matrix-style spinning leaps through the air at a dangled dish towel; Spider-Man vertical sprints along our living room walls…
…and heroic combat-crawl missions into my parents' garden, from which she emerges with voles attached to her claws like finger puppets.
And once in a while she'll curl up beside us at bedtime, or offer a friendly headbutt. Maybe I'll come home from work and she'll trot up the hall to greet me, cooing like a turtle dove. Or maybe I'll be crying over something stupid and she'll place a comforting paw on my knee. Come to think of it, she does that dainty paw-pat every time, and it always makes me laugh through my tears. More Pet Stories: Oprah's Adoption Drama , Saying Goodbye to a Beloved Companion , and more