A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the second installment of a four-part story. To begin at the beginning, go here.
My roommate was active in the tenants' group that formed when the building's owners were trying to convert it to a co-op. She was among those opposed to the plan, and they met often. One night, they were meeting in the living room of one of the apartments that was a few floors up and in an altogether different wing of the building.
At some point during the meeting, the living room curtains moved a bit. Mort made his entrance.
“That cat!” one person blurted out. “He is constantly coming into my apartment. I think he sprayed on my couch.”
“That cat!” another person chimed in. “He claws at my screens... He scared the hell out of me one night. I thought it was a burglar.”
“That cat!” said another. “Who does that cat belong to anyway?”
My roommate cowered for a moment or two, but ultimately copped to her knowledge – at least, she did so to one person. And when the meeting was adjourned, she returned to our apartment, and she brought with her that one person – one person who, I imagine, was among the louder complainers.
I was sitting in my room with my friend, John. We were just hanging out, chatting. Suddenly, my roommate pushed open my door and introduced me to our neighbor. Within moments, I was being read the riot act.
The complaining neighbor ticked off a list of Mort's trespassings. And when she was done, she said, “And if I ever see that cat again, I am going to call the landlord and make sure that no one in this building is allowed to have pets!” She stormed off, and my roommate didn't stick around for any debriefing.
Hmm, nice meeting you, too.
I looked at John, who was as dumbfounded as I. (John also was a big fan of Mort.) We reviewed what just happened. We reflected on the negative energy that had prevented a dialogue. We chilled for a bit.
Then, I got out the phone book, looked up the number of the pissed-off neighbor, and I gave her a call.
After I identified myself, I embarked on my unrehearsed line of reasoning. “You see,” I began, “that's not really my cat. I found him several months ago. He had a flea collar on, but no one responded to the signs I posted. And, frankly, I don't know what to do about him. I've put screens in my window, but he just pushes them away. He seems to want to be outdoors. So, I don't know what to do. May I offer to buy screens for you? I mean, I can imagine how disconcerting it must be to have a strange cat trying to get in your living room...”
The neighbor was beginning to soften. Somehow, my disconnecting myself from Mort was the key. She turned down my offer to buy her screens, though she clearly appreciated the gesture. And before we ended our conversation, she followed through on the brainstorming that my comments had suggested. “You know,” she said, “I have a brother who lives on Long Island. They have a nice farm. Maybe the cat would be happy there. Hmm, yea. I'll look into it.”
“I'd so appreciate that,” I said. “He clearly wants to be outside. There just doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it.”
“Yea,” she said, “I'll look into it.”
Thank you and goodnight.
I never heard from her again.
By late 1982, my interactions with Eric were heating up. When my roommate made it difficult for me to enjoy those developments in the apartment we shared on 108th Street, Robin gave me an out. Robin was, at that point, slowly reuniting with Doug. (They had split months before, and he had found an apartment on the East Side; now, she was slowly moving to his place – bobby pin by bobby pin). When I needed to relocate, she was ready to cop to her plans. She moved in with Doug, and I took her 110th Street place as a sublet. Kitty and Mort came with me (although Kitty, still pulling the Siamese shtick, probably would have preferred it if Mort had stayed behind.)
Though the space was a share, my room was quite large – and fabulously private. And although the beginning of my time there would be the time I lived with Eric, ultimately that apartment became the place where I would learn to bask in my privacy and make it productive. Never concerned that I had no direct access to a fire escape, I wrote a hell of a lot. It was in that apartment that I came to believe – genuinely – that I was a writer.
It also was in that apartment that Mort came to believe he had wings.
It was really over with Eric one night the following May. And after I saw him in the Chelsea area, where we had our final dialogue and I knew that was the end, I walked the four miles home. I walked through a thunderstorm that night, and when it had passed, and the New York night air had dried my clothes, I got an ice cream cone. By the time I got home, I was just finishing my ice cream, and I was feeling free. As I came into the apartment, I inadvertently let Kitty out into the hallway. I only realized I had done so when I heard her cries, a half hour later, on the other side of the apartment's front door.
I had been spacing out in my euphoria... in my release.
The next morning, when I got up to go to work, Kitty was still present, but there was something missing from the picture. Mort. He was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if he had also escaped the night before, and I silently berated myself for being so caught up in my own situation.
But it quickly became clear that he was not only not in the apartment, he was not in the building, and I grew more concerned. I looked out the screenless window. I looked down from my fourth floor apartment to see if there was a sign of him on the street below. No sign.
I ran downstairs, now fully committed to being late for work. I anxiously walked the front of the building, and somehow I found him. He was still within the building's confines, nestled under a flight of wrought-iron stairs (the kind that are used for fire escapes). The stairs led from the street level to the basement level. But I could not access them. A locked gate barred me from entering.
“Mort!” I cried, seeing him lying there, looking peaceful but dazed in the farthest corner of a space so distant from my grasp.
“You,” he cried back to me, bellowing as he had the first night I met him.
I immediately tracked down Caesar, the building's superintendent, and I brought him to the situation. Caesar retrieved a long-handled industrial broom and made his way down the private stairway. Then, as Mort and I winced together, Caesar swept Mort out of the corner where he had settled to die after his fall.
I ultimately took Mort to a place on the East Side where cats (and all other pets) get better medical treatment than humans will ever experience in this country. I left him there, and throughout the week, the prognosis was grim. Mort's tail was paralyzed, but that was not the worst news. He had a tremendous number of broken bones in his pelvic area, and the damage threatened all functioning in that region of his body.
I remember one moment that week, when I was taking lunch orders from customers in my station. Joanie, our amazingly loving manager, interrupted me. “The surgeon's on the phone,” she said. “They might need to do another operation.”
I excused myself and went into the kitchen, got on the phone and agreed to whatever. I understood the hospital's need to keep calling. Every step was an expense. But what did they think? That I had a cap? A cap at which point I would say no, the cat's not worth it?
I can't imagine putting a price tag on a cat.
Several days later, Mort was ready to come home. I went to the medical center, paid the bill, and was reunited with my sweet boy. Despite the cast on one of his back legs, the gash in one of his hips, and his general grogginess, he seemed fine. He was smiling.
Before we left, the woman on staff gave me instructions regarding how to administer medications and salve the still-opened hip wound. The woman also emphasized the concern they felt as to whether Mort would urinate regularly. She showed me how to check to make sure that his bladder wasn't too full. She demonstrated how to palpate the area and so discern a problem. I pretended to understand.
I then carried him out of the medical center just as I had carried him in: in my arms.
Without a cat carrier (I hadn't thought to buy one), it was a little dicey getting a cab, but finally, a driver allowed our fare. Mort sat on my lap as we rode home, and after several minutes, I felt my thigh getting warmer . And I knew why. “Oh Mort!,” I said quietly, leaning down and smiling at him. “You pee'd!”
And because my jeans had soaked up his accomplishment, the cabbie never knew.
Once again, Mort's actions created an unplanned load of laundry, but I was so happy to have him home. He was my buddy, my hunter, my survivor. We were clearly in for the long haul.
to be continued on March 8th