One of Taylor’s crowning achievements is a box, shredded by two years of claws and gnawing, that gathers dust in the corner by our window-unit A/C. That’s where Ellory keeps her toys.
Taylor and I like to prepare for things in superficial ways. We’re alike in that respect, approaching mundane situations with preparation that serves no end but our own. When we decide to go out to eat on a night off from work, Taylor spends the whole afternoon looking at the menu, comparing descriptions with photos of food. I ask, sometime after my second cup of coffee goes lukewarm but before it’s gone altogether, what Taylor wants for dinner. We map walks in detail and abandon the routes midway through. The search for an after-dinner movie begins before lunch. That preparation is satisfaction in itself, more so than the successful execution of the plan: we change our minds on the spot about the menu, do something different for dinner, watch an old movie anyway. We were probably like that independently rather than the tendency of one rubbing off on the other.
When I was in college my preparation warped often into something resembling compulsion. My guitar teacher would introduce a new concept and I would plant myself in a practice room with a notebook and cover two pages in outlines and bullet points. To say that such planning served no end but my own would be misleading. It didn’t, but it rarely served my own ends either. Instead I’d find myself lying on my back, staring up at the fluorescent lights in the carpeted hallway between practice rooms as midnight closed in. My tendency to plan for things far out of proportion to their importance didn’t rub off on Taylor – she did that already. But her tendency not to collapse in on herself like a poorly made souffle rubbed off on me, to a certain extent. Now I make lists of books and buy them in preparation for binges I only barely start, keep notes with page numbers, scour the menu long before the meal.
We decided to get a cat after moving to Queens. We weren’t allowed pets in our basement hovel in Bay Ridge, but the building on Queens Boulevard approved the adoption of Ellory, so Taylor went shopping. She got the essentials: litter box, litter, food dishes, wet and dry food, carrier. But the highlights were the superfluous trinkets and baubles. Taylor returned from Target one afternoon with an armload of stuffed mice, toy birds with feathers pinned to their butts, fuzzy toy fish, balls that hid small bells, a scratching post, and a floor pillow. My dad asked how it was going one day shortly after Ellory came home with us and I told him about the shopping spree. “Taylor knows the cat’s never gonna use that stuff, right?”
My mom is a cat person but Dad has always been a bit of a feline cynic. He doesn’t dislike cats, more like he loves to hate them. He talks to Mavis, their lumpy Maine Coon throw pillow, and plays with their orange tomcat Jack. But he relishes scolding them and rolling his eyes at their misbehavior. “Damn cats.” He was the same with Raleigh, who died a few years ago. His dad was the same with his own cat, scratching him under the chin while he called him a little hellion. Cats are easy that way. Everything that dog people say about them – the fickleness, volatility, apathy, aggression – is true. They’re unpleasant little animals but cat people find their orneriness charming.
Dad, though, had good reason to believe Ellory would neglect her toys. Mom tried, with Raleigh in particular. We caught him several times literally climbing the back doors – spread-eagle, five feet high, clinging by his claws to the metal screens. He scratched the bark off trees until they were an inch from dying and stripped chairs and sofas of their upholstery. Mom bought a scratching post and set it up in our basement, right by the couch. He climbed it once or twice and went back to sharpening his claws on the fabric while the post gathered dust a few inches beside. Mom bought toys and he passed in favor of coins, rubber bands, and wallets. Mom bought attractive things to dangle but he preferred attacking Dad’s neck ties. So when Dad poked fun at Taylor’s accumulation of toys, he did so with good reason. But Ellory loves toys and this is Taylor’s greatest success.
She bats little fuzzy golf balls about the apartment and raises hell when we dangle the yarn-woven fish in front of her whiskers. The jingle of tiny bells keeps us awake late into the night. She carries stuffed mice and birds in her mouth lowing like an ox until we acknowledge her triumph. The little odds and ends – a stuffed cheeseburger, several mice, a felt ice cream cone, a rainbow-colored fish, and numerous others – fall in and out of favor. Oh Ellory, I see your owl came out to play! That’s a cool snake you have there! There are always four or five scattered about the apartment, but which for or five changes constantly.
She collects those for which she has no use in a repurposed cloth-lined bin that once carried file folders full of Taylor’s lesson plans. It’s caked in her gray-black fur, ripped into coarse fraying bits by her claws, filled with toys out of circulation. She curls up inside the box and her round middle presses against the edges, testing the seams at the corner. Cats love boxes, tucking themselves into spaces for which they are a bit too large. People have the same tendency. Some, like Taylor, mirror it literally, gravitating toward small spaces, tightly wrapped blankets, sweatshirts in which they’re swallowed. Others, more like me, are pulled toward figurative smallness. Boundaries, spaces one can fill, openness that doesn’t overwhelm can be a comfort.
Cats aren’t exactly metaphysical creatures, but the instinct to run toward an open closet door, search for nooks, and perch proudly with ears at attention in a space that fits one exactly and no more is profoundly human. When Taylor and I are occupied, writing in one corner and planning lessons in another, Ellory finds her box full of toys and curls up inside of it. She lies on top of them, repurposes the things she knows, and fills the little box with her breathing. The creation of a weird little space filled with odds and ends in which another fits exactly, comfortably, is one of Taylor’s crowning achievements. We’re still talking about a cat, but that sounds right.