I know I just talked about Mary Gaitskill seven posts ago, but I had to bring her up again, especially after spending a couple of hours today with "Lost Cat," a memoir of hers that appeared in Granta in 2009. I didn't intend to give over my writing time to reading time today, but Mark had been mentioning the piece, asking me if I'd ever read the piece, and once I started reading the piece, there was no lifting my head. For a time I wasn't so much in the bedroom or in my brain, but inside an enclosed psychic space, where everything felt raw and new, shot through with wild light. It is, in part, about trying to track down a lost cat. It is also, in part, about parents and children, and how love, more often than not, can devastate us, but not in the ways we expect it to. Insatiability, control, compassion, tragedy, trauma, grief, performed emotion vs. real emotion, aspiration--so many lens working all at once that it would be impossible to talk about all that in a single paragraph. Let's just say that when I looked up from the laptop, it had already been dark outside for a while. And I felt like I'd been given enough sustenance to write for weeks.
Here's a link to the memoir.
And here's an excerpt:
I found Gattino in Italy. I was in Tuscany visiting Beatrice von Rezzori, who, in honour of her deceased husband, the writer Gregor von Rezzori, has made her estate, Santa Maddalena, into a small retreat for writers. Beatrice knew that I love cats and she told me that down the road from her two old women were feeding a yard full of semi-wild cats, including a litter of kittens who were very sick and going blind. Maybe, she said, I could help them out. No, I said, I wasn’t in Italy to do that, and anyway, having done it before, I know it isn’t an easy thing to trap and tame a feral kitten. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I thought you liked cats.’
The next week one of her assistants, who was driving me into the village, asked if I wanted to see some kittens. Sure, I said, not making the connection. We stopped by an old farmhouse. A gnarled woman sitting in a wheelchair covered with towels and a thin blanket greeted the assistant without looking at me. Scrawny cats with long legs and narrow ferret hips stalked or lay about in the buggy, overgrown yard. Two kittens, their eyes gummed up with yellow fluid and flies swarming around their asses were obviously sick but still lively – when I bent to touch them, they ran away. But a third kitten, smaller and bonier than the other two, tottered up to me mewing weakly, his eyes almost glued shut. He was a tabby, soft grey with strong black stripes. He had a long jaw and a big nose shaped like an eraser you’d stick on the end of a pencil. His big-nosed head was goblin-ish on his emaciated pot-bellied body, his long legs almost grotesque. His asshole seemed disproportionately big on his starved rear. Dazedly he let me stroke his bony back – tentatively, he lifted his pitiful tail. I asked the assistant if she would help me take the kittens to a veterinarian and she agreed; this had no doubt been the idea all along.
The healthier kittens scampered away as we approached and hid in a collapsing barn; we were only able to collect the tabby. When we put him in the carrier, he forced open his eyes with a mighty effort, took a good look at us, hissed, tried to arch his back and fell over. But he let the vets handle him. When they tipped him forward and lifted his tail to check his sex, he had a delicate, nearly human look of puzzled dignity in his one half-good eye, while his blunt muzzle expressed stoic animality. It was a comical and touching face.
They kept him for three days. When I came to pick him up, they told me he would need weeks of care, involving eye ointment, ear drops and nose drops. Beatrice suggested I bring him home to America. No, I said, not possible. My husband was coming to meet me in a month and we were going to travel for two weeks; we couldn’t take him with us. I would care for him and by the time I left, he should be well enough to go back to the yard with a fighting chance.
So I called him ‘Chance’. I liked Chance as I like all kittens; he liked me as a food dispenser. He looked at me neutrally, as if I were one more creature in the world, albeit a useful one. I had to worm him, de-flea him and wash encrusted shit off his tail. He squirmed when I put the medicine in his eyes and ears, but he never tried to scratch me – I think because he wasn’t absolutely certain of how I might react if he did. He tolerated my petting him, but seemed to find it a novel sensation rather than a pleasure.
Then one day he looked at me differently. I don’t know exactly when it happened – I may not have noticed the first time. But he began to raise his head when I came into the room, to look at me intently. I can’t say for certain what the look meant; I don’t know how animals think or feel. But it seemed that he was looking at me with love. He followed me around my apartment. He sat in my lap when I worked at my desk. He came into my bed and slept with me; he lulled himself to sleep by gnawing softly on my fingers. When I petted him, his body would rise into my hand. If my face were close to him, he would reach out with his paw and stroke my cheek.