Litter Mate

My boyfriend changed the litter box. Could he be the love of my life?

Published September 3, 1998 1:28PM (EDT)

The day Jon changed the kitty litter, I nearly went into shock. Let me clarify: It's not that Jon, my boyfriend of about a year, had done anything that I don't do, well, almost weekly. And Cyrus the Cat's little crapper certainly had begun to smell. But when I came home from the corner grocery, bags of ice in hand, I never expected to see him walking out the door with a garbage bag full of cat poop in his.

"It smelled," he said.

"I know," I replied. "I figured I'd change it when I got back."

Honestly, I probably wouldn't have had time before our dinner party started. Instead, I would have tried to ignore it, hoping that our guests would too. Or maybe I secretly knew this man was on to my olfactory fatigue and hoped, subconsciously, that he'd do something about it. I had a great capacity for writing off as "homey" such things as piles of newspapers, lint-covered furniture and, yes, the ripe, pungent scent of a well-used litter box.

And so he had changed it. Could this man be the love of my life?

As generous and unexpected as it was, Jon's voluntary litter box cleaning brought up the uncomfortable question about where our relationship ended and where my own private life began. We'd been together long enough that I didn't doubt his willingness to get serious, my usual concern after one decade too many of commitment-phobic men. And with this pressure gone, I was left with the task of determining the level of the relationship.

I'd spent weeks, off and on, wondering how serious it could get, how serious I wanted it to get, in every possible manifestation. I'd faced my own fear of intimacy, even if I didn't want to call it that, and wondered what was a real phobia on my part, and what was just a healthy need for clear personal boundaries.

And that's how I found myself pondering the rules of cat ownership. When, after all, does one person's pet become the couple's? Was my cat our cat? And how did I feel about that?

Don't get me wrong. I have no unhealthy attachment to cleaning up feline waste products: the litter, the fur balls, the unexplained vomiting that wakes you at dawn with its bouncing, hacking sound. But Cyrus and I had lived together for a long time. Nearly 10 years before Jon came into our lives. My little gray kitty had been, as my therapist rather unhelpfully pointed out, the only consistent relationship I've managed to maintain over a certain period of years. I wasn't sure I was willing to let some man in on that.

Nor was I totally sure how Cyrus would react. He was, after all, a one-woman cat. Yes, he'd roll over and allow his belly to be rubbed by just about any cat sitter who could open a can. And he hadn't exactly pined away during a month-long sojourn I'd taken in Bali, when my friend Rick let Cyrus share his pizza on the sofa while they watched my premier cable channels. But he had bitten a house guest once, which I took as a protective act since the man did subsequently mistreat a girlfriend of mine. And a certain reporter at the newspaper where I worked will probably think twice about playing fast and loose with the copy editors' hearts after Cyrus shat on his clothes, left carelessly on the floor in the heat of passion.

A cat, after all, is not a possession to be shared without consultation. A cat is a fellow creature, a little beast of as many moods and personalities as any of us. Cyrus and I, for example, had taken several years to come to an understanding about lap sitting. It had taken me quite a while to accept that although he would happily sit by me on the couch, I could not expect him to jump in my lap like some mindless kitten. Once I learned to let him purr contentedly by my side he graciously forgave me my previous uncouth attempts to haul him onto my lap and pin him there like a badly matched wrestler.

Now, just because I was pairing off with a man, I had no right to assume that Cyrus would comply. As his forthright opinion in the matter of lap sitting had demonstrated, he wasn't the type of creature that would simply allow himself to be passed back and forth between lovers like a sweat shirt or favorite CD. Cyrus had a voice in the sharing, while my clothing and the band X does not. And Cyrus' voice could be exceedingly imperious.

Which was a comforting thought: I wouldn't have to make waves with Jon about his de facto adoption of my cat. Cyrus would make himself heard if he didn't like the way things were going. I wouldn't have to say a thing. So I was caught off guard when I realized that Cyrus was not only already aware of what was going on, but he actually seemed to like it. He was opening up to Jon, trusting him to a degree that I still found difficult. In fact, the little fellow seemed perfectly content, round green eyes staring up at me as if to ask, "Well, did you want to cart that shit out?" Obviously, the issues were mine, of sharing my soft gray friend. And Jon's, of taking on a responsibility, sharing a role. A foster cat.

But Jon really didn't seem to have any problems with feline stepfathering. I recalled that an ex-girlfriend of his had owned three cats. He'd moved in with her, and one of the cats had taken it badly. There was hissing, soiling of personal property, scratching at the eyes. Taking matters into his own hands, Jon finally cornered the offending feline and sprayed him with a water pistol until said cat howled for mercy. After that, in what can only be explained as a bizarre respect for male machismo, the once spiteful kitty started to revere Jon, following him around to sit at his feet and gaze adoringly at his shins. When Jon and the lady split up, he heard that the cat had missed him most, howling and crying as though he had lost one of his own pride.

Jon had no issues with cat ownership. In fact, I realized with an odd twinge of jealousy, he probably saw my cat as one of my more attractive features. Cyrus would like that, if he ever figured it out. I wasn't sure how I felt. Meanwhile, I was left wallowing in my insecurities and feeling a little bit put out over Jon's cavalier assumption of litter duty. I always thought I'd wanted a man who was unafraid of responsibility, of sharing and of the dirtier jobs in life. But what if -- while I was preoccupied unraveling my fear of intimacy from the rest of the emotional morass -- Jon assumed more pet duties? What if he took over the vet visits and the grooming? How would I feel the first time the cat curled up to sleep like a small heated beanbag on his belly?

Later that night, as we stared blankly at the TV screen in what was becoming a comfortable if moribund habit, Cyrus jumped on the couch. On Jon's side. I was crushed and sank further into the sofa, jealousy flooding my heart, along with a cold sadness: I'd been replaced. I said nothing, but in a long-term relationship both partners can sense even the quietest emotional storms brewing. As if to quell the impending squall, Cyrus got up and slowly walked over my boyfriend to settle in beside me. I stroked his smooth gray head, happy again.

But Cyrus didn't resume his usual nap position. Instead, he sat up. Carefully, deliberately, he began kneading my side, a kittenish trait that I read as affectionate although my vet took the less romantic view that it meant he'd been weaned too soon. He crouched on his hindquarters like a gopher, his big ears tilted back, and he seemed to be concentrating very hard as he sank one paw then the other into the soft flesh of my waist. His determined little claws sunk in hard, but I made no effort to stop him. Sure it hurt, but I wanted him to like me best.

By Clea Simon

Clea Simon is a copy editor and radio columnist for the Boston Globe. She is the author of "Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings" (Penguin).

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