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When my friend Sally called to tell me that I needed a kitten, and fortunately, her cat Pumpkin was pregnant, I said no, absolutely not.
I didn't want a pet, I didn't like cats, and I didn't want to love anything that could die before me.
I was thirty-three years old, single, and living alone in a house with a garden, three leaky skylights, and a crooked path to a sheltered beach in Santa Cruz, California. After seventeen years of struggling madly with emotional eating, and being as insane as anyone I'd ever met-I'd gained and lost over a thousand pounds-I'd finally crawled out of the compulsion by giving up dieting altogether. More recently, I'd settled at my natural weight, written two books, and begun teaching national workshops about breaking free from emotional eating.
But my obsession with food was a walk in the park compared to the chaos that ensued whenever the possibility of love walked into my life. At the time of Sally's call, I was in a "relationship"-I use that term loosely-with Harry-the-Rake, a self-confessed lothario, who alternated between wanting to move in with me and telling me I was too fat. I was convinced that my heart was either on permanent sabbatical or missing some essential ingredients-the ones that allowed normal people to take risks, to discern the bad guys from the good, to say come closer, hold me, go away. And I was wary of opening to anyone or anything that would depend on me to come through. I didn't trust myself to show up. I didn't think I had the capacity for big love.
Pumpkin gave birth to two kittens whom Sally immediately named Blanche and June. My mother, visiting from New York at the time, wanted to see them. At two hours old, they looked like wet weasels, and I wasn't impressed. My mother went straight for the white kitten. Take this one, she crooned, as she stroked the slicked-back fur of the shut-eyed rodent, but I wasn't taking anything so fast.
A few weeks later, Sally called and said her husband didn't want a white cat, and so Blanche was mine. Usually, I am the one who bosses people around, but Sally was completely sure of herself, absolutely positive that having this pet was a precursor to having a life. So I told her I would take the kitten on one condition: if I didn't like being a cat mother, I could return it in two weeks, like a pair of gloves from Macy's. She agreed.
It's not that I'd never had a pet. My grandmother gave me a parakeet named Cookie when I was seven. She rode around the house on my shoulder, sat on the desk while I did homework, and pecked at my eyelashes when I closed my eyes. One day, my brother opened the front door and Cookie flew out of the house. I cried for weeks. I decided then that the next thing I loved was not going to be able to fly away. We settled on goldfish, but the one we called Tallulah got out of the bowl somehow and flipped around the house. My mother and I ran after her with a strainer, but we couldn't catch her, and she died under the brown paisley couch. Then there was a puppy named Cocoa, who pooped in my father's slipper right before he stepped into it one Sunday morning, and by Monday, she had gone to live somewhere else.
When she heard that Sally wanted to give me a kitten, my friend Sophie told me her pet story. After her mother died and her husband left her for another woman, she thought she was going crazy-the kind of crazy where a psychotic break was two weeks away. On a particularly rough day, a group of friends tried to make her feel better, but she sensed their fear. The fact that her best friends couldn't be with her sorrow made her feel even more frightened, more alone. Then her dog, Squeak, jumped in her lap and fell asleep. In that moment, she says Squeak saved her life. He cut through the drama, walked directly on the fiber of feelings, and stayed there, as if pain and grief were no big deal-as natural as chasing squirrels. His relaxation dissolved her fears of going crazy. After that, she was left with a broken heart, and as much as that hurt, she knew it would mend.
Though I was glad Sophie had her dog, I'd heard these sappy tales before-a boy and his dog, a girl and her parrot, the wolf who saved the family from a fire-and didn't see what they had to do with me. I still didn't want a cat.
During our first few days together I refuse to be charmed by Blanche, although every time I turn a corner, she is there, crouching behind philodendron leaves, or stalking an ant or a dust mote or my big toe. When I say no, she doesn't hold a grudge. When I push her away, she comes back. Blanche's affection doesn't waver if my hair sticks straight up in the mornings or if I am having a fat day. She seems to be looking beneath the surface of things at some backward-spreading light I am not aware of.
A week after Blanche arrives, my two-year relationship with Harry-the-Rake ends when he falls in love with another woman. Flinging myself on the bed in a paroxysm of sorrow-what will I do, where will I go, who will ever want me-I notice a cloud of fluff inching across the quilt until it settles on my heaving chest, wheezing a low, gravelly purr. It's difficult not to be melted by such total acceptance; it's hard to keep insisting that the world is a terrible place.
On the eleventh day, I admit I am smitten and tell Sally I will keep the cat.
Once I cross over, every single thing about Blanche enchants me, and I am positive that no one has ever had a cat this adorable. Then I start to worry that I love her because all kittens are irresistible, but when she gets older, I won't love her anymore. I still believe love depends on what you look like.
Within a month, Blanche has about ten thousand nicknames: Pooters, Banana, Wig-Wig, Moochy-Mooch, Fuzzy-Wuzz, Petunia, Mr. Guy and a Half, Sweet Potato, Booch Pie, Blue, Moo, Dandelion, Blanchebananche, Peachy Canoe and Tyler Too, Curly-Whirl, and on and on. Every day, a different name.
Within two months, I can't imagine that I've ever lived without her. She seems to be exactly the same shape as the craggy hole in my heart, so when I see her, all my stick-out edges and weird crazy ways smooth down. I feel as if I've been dreaming her for years and now she is here.
It never occurs to me to question my choice of love objects or wish that Blanche was a person instead of a cat. When you've been famished for decades and someone hands you a slice of warm pumpernickel raisin bread and homemade jam, you don't ask for chocolate cake instead.
The first time she visits the vet, we discover that Blanche is a he. Since I have been calling him her, and since he has a girl's name, it is perplexing to discover the truth about Blanche's gender. But there is no question about changing his name; the being in this cat's body is definitely a "Blanche."
Dr. Mike reminds me of the popular sixties song by Johnny Cash called "A Boy Named Sue." I decide that since Blanche is going to be neutered, he has transcended gender. He is neither cat nor person, neither boy nor girl. Blanche is beyond definition.
When friends walk into my house and see that
I have a kitten, they turn to mush immediately, talk baby talk, tell Blanche they love him. My friend Nancy, a suit-clad district attorney, crawls around on her knees, trying to lure him with a penguin stuffed with catnip. My painfully shy friend Louis pulls a string on the floor, from room to room, letting Blanche pounce on it. My hip, edgy friend Maria picks him up, cuddles him, and coos, ignoring me altogether. People change around him, the way they do around babies. Blanche seems to provide an opening from which their love, coiled like a rope at the bottom of a basket, can wave its vulnerable, tender head.
By the time he is two years old Blanche weighs twenty pounds. He looks like a furry pyramid or a goat with curly stomach hair. Since my books are about emotional eating, everyone who walks in the house has a comment about his size. They all say the same things:
Your cat needs to read one of your books.
Your cat needs to come to your workshops.
Your cat needs to go on a diet, but oh yeah,
I forgot, you don't believe in dieting.
It doesn't help that Blanche has a girl's name and I have to keep correcting everyone that she is a he. They take it as an opportunity for further speculation: Does he eat because he's confused about his identity?
But I know this is Blanche's real shape, his natural weight, since I only feed him half a cup of dry food a day, plus little bits of butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and dried sardines. Blanche is a nibbler, a delicate eater, an epicure.
He is also the kind of cat you can dress up in a bonnet and wheel around in a baby carriage, which my eleven-year-old neighbor, Rosie, does several times a week. As soon as you pick him up, he relaxes his body and purrs; when Rosie isn't out wheeling him up and down the block, I walk with Blanche around my neck like a monkey, like a second heart.
I feel like a cliché. For the first time in my life, I am not afraid of being too intense, too effusive, too needy. No matter how many times I kiss him, hug him, pull his tail, and turn him upside down, he doesn't turn away. Blanche is a love sponge with a thousand petal-pink lipstick marks on his head.
Three months after Blanche's second birthday,
I meet Matt at the Association for Humanistic Psychology conference, where we are both speakers. Though he is sexy, funny, kind-and here's the linchpin: AVAILABLE-he needs to pass the Blanche test before I let him into my life.
When Matt comes to my house on our first date, Blanche is out carousing in the neighborhood. Matt and I sit in the blue striped chairs on the deck and tell each other about our lives, the usual first-time stories. We discover that we had been to movies at the same theater in Fresh Meadows, New York, and must have passed each other on the lines for Dr. Zhivago and A Hard Day's Night when we were in high school. I tell him I didn't think I would have liked him, though-he is too nice, and I only liked boys who were mean and loved someone else. He happens to mention that he doesn't like chocolate, and I wonder whether I can ever love him.
A few seconds later, Blanche comes hopping over the fence, swaggers to Matt, and jumps on his lap. I am sorry I haven't asked Matt if he has a hernia, because when Blanche lands on you, it feels as if a truck has crashed on your legs. Matt doesn't flinch. He begins to talk baby talk.
Then, looking at me, he says, "You know, I really don't like cats."
I glance at my watch to see when I can kick him out.
"But there is something very unusual about you, Blanche," he continues, stroking him under the chin. "You seem to be more than a cat."
I decide to wait a few weeks before I ask him to marry me.
After our first date, Matt flies off to Hawaii on a business trip, and I get ready to go to New York to teach. As a treat for Blanche, and because I feel guilty about leaving him the next day, I open a can of tuna fish, and when he doesn't come tearing to my side, I know that something is wrong. I call the vet to tell him that Blanche is dragging his bottom across the deck and won't eat his favorite food. Dr. Mike tells me to bring him in immediately; he says it sounds as if Blanche has a blocked kidney.
Fortunately, my assistant, Maureen, who is working in the house, has a three-year-old child and is practiced at being calm in emergencies, because I am suddenly hysterical and can't remember where I put the cat carrier. We end up wrapping Blanche in a towel, tearing out of the house, honking through red lights, and running into the vet's office. Dr. Mike feels Blanche's kidneys, asks me when he peed last (I have no idea), and confirms the diagnosis: feline urinary disorder, a condition common in male cats.
"A few more hours and you would have lost him," he says, "his kidneys would have burst." Since by now I cannot imagine life without Blanche, I put all my emotional energy into setting up a visiting schedule for Blanche's upcoming week in the hospital. Each day a different friend will read or sing to him, bring a stuffed toy or catnip, and call me in New York so Blanche can hear my voice. It is the calling-me-in-New-York part that makes it apparent I've gone over the top.
Back at home, my feelings for Matt grow stronger, which is becoming a problem. Not only am I, a self-proclaimed curmudgeon, unexpectedly and boundlessly attached to a cat who is probably going to die before me, I am now falling for a human as well, and it scares me. I worry I'll get soft around the edges, begin getting used to his smell, the lilt of his voice, the crinkles around his eyes-and then wham! I could lose him. He could meet someone else (someone nicer, someone less intense, someone with big hair and long legs) on the street, in an airplane, at the grocery store, and break my heart. Or he could die in a plane crash, or a car accident, or from cancer. The statistical odds are against us. Men die before women. I feel utterly exposed, as if I am peeling back my skin and opening myself to the center where wounds are born.
Avoiding this state is the very reason I was obsessed with food for seventeen years, the reason I used to zing up and down the scales by ten pounds every few weeks. It seemed to me that being thin was like wearing my insides on my outside, while being fat gave me protection. People thought they were seeing me but I knew they were seeing my fat; I was safely inside, watching, waiting, assessing the situation. When they rejected me, they were only rejecting my fat. The real truth was, they couldn't touch me, which was exactly what I wanted. I was able to stop eating compulsively, in part, by telling myself that being thin didn't have to mean relinquishing my control about who touched me, who hurt me, who came close, and who stayed away.