Nuts About Freedom

My house smells like tomcat.

I don’t mean tomcat spray. Rusty, the stray orange tabby who began using my place as a flophouse last summer, pulled that trick exactly twice. Both times, thank God, he chose to mark the imitation hardwood floors of my kitchenette, and not the champagne-carpeted floors of my bedroom. No steam cleaning was required; a few hours of scrubbing and bleaching, along with a few days of smoking, sufficed to banish that bouquet for good.

No, what fills my nose whenever I walk through the door is a kind of musk, earthy and pungent, subtle but pervasive. In some odd way it’s come to embody the idea of home, which should tip you off that I don’t entertain much. Still, every so often, maybe after I’ve spent a few hours visiting my friend Rick’s suburban Versailles, this faint Rusty-residue makes me shudder enough to wonder whether there might be any way of concealing or expunging it. Yesterday evening, I raised the question on Facebook. Directly came the answer: chop ‘em.

“I look at this,” I replied, “as a case of Do Unto Others.”

“Actually, it’s not,” insisted my literal-minded friend. “It will take him out of the realm of potential threat to others, and will curb his agression, which is what gets most free-ranging toms in trouble. It will increase his longevity and generally make his life much more pleasant.”

“But Rusty’s never been that aggro,” I protested, and told the story of how he’d once been a bully’s favorite target, but how regular feeding at my hands had built him up to the point where he could stand his ground. I still remember watching through my door as he eyed the perch under the outside staircase where his rival used to lie in wait. He’d filled out enough that his haunches looked as powerful as a little sphinx’s. “Jump, Rusty,” I cried. “You can do it!” And he did. And I almost wept with pride.

Unimpressed, my friend wrote back: “The bigger cat bullies him because he is a threat. I’ve owned cats forever and altered toms are much much nicer and much much happier. They don’t miss their testicles.”

I remarked this sounded an awful lot to me like letting the terrorists win. “Why dont I make like Canon Fulbert, kidnap the big cat, and cut HIS nuts off?” “Silly Max,” she said, “anthropomorphizing Rusty.” “Of course,” I told her. “I always anthropomorphize the people I love.”

I think all animal lovers do this to one degree or another. The habit can be more nauseating or less so, depending on which human qualities they project onto their pets, and what type of relationship they construct based on those projections. I may be an interested party, but I maintain that I see Rusty and his relationship to me in pretty wholesome terms. He’s the young David Copperfield, a distressed gentleman whose natural grace complements a plucky, independent spirit. I’m Mr. Micawber, the good-hearted fuckup who treats him respectfully when his fortunes are ebbing. Somehow I doubt our relationship will evolve quite the way Dickens’ characters’ did; there’ll be fat chance of my ever borrowing any money from Rusty’s friends. Still, the paradigm leaves me no excuse to pack him off for any irreversible, life-altering operations.

Another member of my Facebook council tells me I’ve got the paradigm all wrong. “You are really in the position of cat demigod here,” wrote this man, another cat veteran of many years. “You get to decide whether your subject enjoys freedom or comfort. Step up.”

It’s true — in many respects, Rusty’s behavior toward me has become markedly more, well, worshipful. When he first began coming around for regular meals, he’d allow me to pet him two or three times before recoiling and bolting back out the door. Now he’ll follow me from room to room. He naps at my place regularly for hours on end, and has even spent a couple of nights. If I squat down on the floor, he’ll knead my lap with his forepaws while pressing his nose against mine, or brushing his forehead against my face. Once, when I closed my eyes, I felt his rough little tongue licking my eyelids. “He thinks you’re his mother,” a friend advised me.

So all the time I’ve been thinking of Rusty as a person, Rusty’s been thinking of me as a cat. It’s amazing we manage to relate at all. But I’m not sure I can stand to be a castrating mother any more than I can stand to be a castrating shah-n-shah or Son of Heaven. Rusty’s tomhood is lot like my history degree. Viewed objectively, both have more potential for harm than good. Rusty’s libido, as one of my friends so bleakly put it, could lead to his “producing thousands of kittens each year, most of whom will live short, ragged lives filled with fleas and starvation.” My veneer of culture, thin as onion-skin paper, has yet to earn me a decent living. Worse, it’s made every one of my craptastic day jobs feel like slow torture.

I am not up on elitist philosophies — I mix up the Strauss who taught at the University of Chicago with the Strauss who wrote waltzes. But I’d bet that in somebody’s Utopia I’d have had to undergo an operation that would leave me exactly enough gray matter to bag up groceries at Fry’s and none at all to dream futile dreams of journalistic prominence. I’d probably be happy as a lark, drooling onto my apron as I tipped my cap. But I would not be me as I like to think of me.

By now, Rusty’s dropped some pretty clear hints on how he sees himself and his priorities. Outisde is danger — bigger cats, dogs (including a Siberian husky-timberwolf hybrid), thoughtless drivers, bored cat haters, maybe even cultists who’d offer his blood to Moloch. Inside is comfort — Friskies Savory Shreds with ocean whitefish and tuna in sauce, petting on command, a sky-blue woolen blankie he’s fetishized, maternal me serenading him to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” (“Rusty is a fussy cat;/eats just like a yuppie;/Doesn’t like his belly rubbed;/Because he’s not a puppy.”). You wouldn’t think it’d be much of a contest, but sooner or later, having decided he’s had his fill of domesticity, Rusty always heads for the door and the open road.

Maybe if I had him “altered,” to borrow my friend’s Dr. Moreau-worthy expression, he’d be mine on more of a permanent basis. For all I know, it’s exactly the promise of sex and socially irresponsible procreation that lures him from my bower. But I tend to make a broader equation: Rusty is a free spirit, an independent soul. He may be affectionate enough (or opportunistic enough) to form a regular attachment to a kind human, but ultimately, his real life is out there somewhere. Strictly speaking, he may not need his goolies to be a dharma bum, but it seems right that he should keep them around, just in case.

Rusty shall remain as he is — that is my executive decision. It is my parental decision. The next time I see him strutting out the door — as the song goes — with his tail in the air, my eyes will probably wander down to his furry little testicles. I’ll think, “But for my grace, they’d go,” and I’ll wonder whether I made the right decision, my doubts spelling the difference between a demigod and the full deal.

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