The White Cat

When I was 34, I moved to Chicago for the fourth time. Originally from St. Louis, I moved to Chicago to Los Angeles to Chicago to Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle to Chicago. I had moved to Philadelphia to join my long-distance boyfriend, and as his job transferred him around the country, my last four moves coincided with the ebbs and flows of our toxic relationship.

After spending two years in Seattle, arguing with one another, usually about his drinking and my negativity towards his drinking, our virulent relationship finally ended. I jettisoned what I couldn’t ship, packed my remaining things, including my cat, Kitty, and moved back to Chicago, for good, with less possessions than I did when I first moved to the city when I was 20.

Wherever you go, there you are – but with less. Much less.

Since my move back was abrupt, I was couch surfing – a cute way of saying temporarily homeless and unemployed. My friends opened up their apartment to me, where I had once paid rent and slept in a bed. This time, I would be sleeping on my old beat-up couch as I searched for a cheap apartment and any job willing to let me serve or bartend.

In the fourth grade, my class was assigned to draw a self-portrait of “Where I See Myself in Twenty-five Years.” I drew myself smiling with a stethoscope around my neck, standing behind a table, petting a cat. Along the bottom, I wrote, in black marker, “Veterinarian, age 34”. My actual 34th year was not keeping inline with the optimistic prediction by 9-year-old me.


That first night I was back, my first night after my fourth move to Chicago, my old roommate came home from work and told me she ran into a mutual friend.

“Oh, how is he?” I asked, tucking sheets into the couch that had collapsed into itself two years earlier. Kitty, needing to decompress after our five hour flight from Seattle, had recognized the sectional even in its depilated state and was happily clawing the arm, like he did back in the good old days.

“I told him you broke up with Captain Morgan and you were back in town. He said, ‘So, just like the situation with Sour Puss?”

Hugging a couch cushion covered with dubious stains, I mentally compared the two break-ups. “I mean, I guess this break-up and that break-up are the same – sorta. But Captain Morgan couldn’t get me out of there fast enough and I couldn’t get Sour Puss to move out of my place for six months.”

“Is that the guy you got a restraining order against?” a roommate called from the kitchen table.

“No, that was another one,” I said.

Another roommate shuffled into the room, “Remember that dumb bartender you were obsessed with? He slept with EVERYBODY.”

As the roommates went through the list of losers I dated, I half expected to suddenly get a text from an LA friend reading, “Don’t forget that line cook who once took you to a shady drug deal! Didn’t he have his last name tattooed on his back in bones?”

There was a pattern about my behavior that I was only starting to figure out that had been obvious to my friends for a long time.


A few weeks later, I walked into an animal shelter. By then, I had had left my friend’s couch and moved my few possessions and Kitty into a garden apartment nearby. That morning, I had woken up and didn’t know what to do with my day off from my bartending job. A job that mainly consisted of pouring vodka sodas for West Loop greaseballs, dressed in a uniform that I said was only a denim vest, but management assured me was, technically, a shirt.

After months of moving, job hunting and waking up every morning with such intense anxiety it felt like I was mainlining Sudafed, I just wanted to lay on my newly purchased discount couch and not do anything for at least six months. But, since quiet solitude would force me to think about the state of my life, I decided adopting another cat would solve two problems: a) keep me at home to avoid spending money I didn’t have while also b) creating new chaos to distract myself from going into shame spirals over stupid shit I did. Like being in a relationship with a guy who wore pleated pants.

At the shelter, a soft-spoken volunteer in her twenties, wearing a smock, led me through the glass doors of Kitty City. Less of a city and more of a hallway with doors leading into glass-walled rooms, Kitty City’s population ranged from kittens with presumably razor sharp claws batting fuzzy sparkle balls in one room to sleepy senior cats in another room, presumably all sleeping with each other and WD-40ing their wheelchairs.

All the cat rooms were roughly the same size, except one massive room in the middle with a design decor that looked like the house of a rich white woman on a Bravo reality show. Gigantic windows poured sunlight onto modern cat condos as cats laid comfortably over the room, drowsy with vitamin D overdoses. The volunteer and I watched a little girl dangle a toy in front of an attentive calico as her parents and another smocked volunteer watched, waiting for the verdict.

“We’ll have to wait until they’re done,” the volunteer said.

“Okay,” I said.

We stood in awkward silence with one another. Being naturally awkward, I was immediately uncomfortable, so I tried to break the ice.

“Hey, is this, like, the cat room for the trust fund cats?” I pointed at a tabby winking at nothing. “Is he an IG influencer?”

She cocked her head and looked at me like I was an idiot.


We went back to standing in silence.

After a few minutes of staring at one another blankly, she lead me to the end of the hallway and stopped in front of what looked like a stockroom, until, I realized we were at another cat room. Unlike the other rooms that were spacious and airy, this room was small and crammed with cat condos and an enormous hamster wheel.  I looked through the glass door and, at the top of a cat condo, sat a white cat with his back to us.

I pointed at the white cat. “What about him?”

“You want to go in there,” she said. I failed to notice it wasn’t a question, but a statement.


“Um. Okay. I have to get another volunteer, though. That’s a level four room.”

“A level four room?”

“Yeah, I’m a level one volunteer. I need a level four volunteer,” she explained, sounding like a Scientologist defining “thetans” on a busy city sidewalk.

More volunteers, several women of varying ages, but all dressed in the same smock like a crafty army, stood two feet away from us inside a giant cat food pantry, validating my suspicion they converted a closet into a cat room. They stood amid pallets of food and wheeled carts, cracking open cans of wet cat food and dumping the gloopy meat into bowls sitting on the carts as they shouted to one another and referenced clipboards.

“You guys?” Timidly, the soft-spoken volunteer tiptoed up to a woman with gray hair in a chin length bob, pointing and directing the aproned women like she was the general preparing to defend Kitty City from invasion by, I don’t know, maybe the Pound Puppies. My volunteer whisper-shouted several times to this woman, who looked like she was really trying to ignore my quiet volunteer.

“It’s feeding time, so they’re a little busy,” she whispered to me. The atmosphere was tense, like we were in the control room at NASA during a space launch.

Finally, the woman heard my meek volunteer and turned to her with a condescending expression. With arched eyebrows and slightly raised chin, exasperated that her Fancy Feast delegations were interrupted, she listened as my volunteer explained the level four situation. I watched the older woman’s face become concerned. She turned to the gaggle of volunteers.

“Everyone!” she said. “We need a level four volunteer.”

Immediately, the feeding halted and silence fell across all of Kitty City. A quiet but terse discussion followed as if they were trying to decide who would be defusing the bomb and, if so, which wire to cut.

“Hey, why are the rooms different levels?” I asked as we waited for someone willing to step forward for the suicide mission of letting me pet a cat.

“It’s based on behavior. The kittens are level one and then those rooms are twos, and well, I don’t know if there’s a level three..”

“So the level four cats are…

“They’re way more aggressive.” A woman, with short dark hair in her mid-thirties said, appearing out of fucking nowhere. She must have loss the coin toss. She looked through the window pensively and turned to the younger volunteer. “Which cat does she want to see?”

“The white cat.” 

“I don’t know anything about that cat,” she told me, without even having time to to think about that cat, as she jangled a key ring that would dwarf any high school custodian’s. This volunteer had an obvious disdain towards life that I immediately found refreshing. “You’re going to have to follow right behind me, so they don’t get out. You ready?”


“Good luck!” my quiet volunteer said, while sprinting down the hallway, never to be seen again.

The cynical volunteer cracked open the door. “Let’s go!” Like a small inept SWAT team, she and I rushed, or really, squeezed quickly, into the level four room. 

You know the scene in every war movie when the soldiers enter a battle and time slows down as bullets and bombs whizz and explode around them? I still have no idea what that is like, but the level four cat room got me slightly closer to that experience. As we entered the cat room/closet, our arrival interrupted three cats trying to claw each other to oblivion. 

“Hey!” the volunteer clapped her hands together loudly. Two cats skittered away, recessing into the dark bottom layers of cat condos, their eyes creepily shining. One cat stood defiant, a domestic short haired demon with patches of grey and white fur. The demon cat meow-screamed at her.

The volunteer stared down the belligerent monster and pointed to the giant hamster wheel. ”Get on your wheel!” 

He meowed back. “Fuck you, bitch! Where’s our food?!”

“It’s coming! Now get on your wheel!”

“It better be!” The grey and white marbled monster strutted to the wheel, and before he ran on it like a rabid gazelle, he looked over his shoulder at her, and said, “Or I’m fucking up every motherfucker in this place!”

I looked around the tiny room. Cat condos were smashed against all available wall space. One wall was glass and looked directly into the trust fund cat room. The trust fund cats frolicked in an excess of sunbeams while these whiskered felons shanked one another to use the one weak sunbeam shining from the tiny barred window. I didn’t understand the reasoning behind smashing the most aggressive cats into a room the size of a handicapped bathroom stall. What crimes have these furry criminals committed? Deep within a cat condo, I heard the mournful playing of a harmonica.

I looked at the white cat I saw in the hallway. Still at the top of the condo, safe from the miscreants below, he sat with perfect posture and a fluffy black tail wrapped protectively around himself. What I didn’t notice from outside was how pretty he was. The white cat had two black markings on his head, making him the cat version of Alfalfa from the Little Rascals. A few more black spots haphazardly popped up on his body giving his tail some relation to his body, but still not enough to not look like a quirky accessory he picked up at a thrift store. Twisting his head to one side, his green eyes were transfixed, watching the demon cat running like a coke-addled hyena on the giant wheel.

I tentatively reached my hand towards his probably murderous head. The white cat didn’t notice me because he was so engrossed watching the demon cat running like he just looted a daycare. I unfolded my fingers and gently pet his head behind his left ear. The white cat leaned into it. I scratched harder and he turned his eyes to me and flopped onto his side, purring like a lawnmower. The white cat rubbed his head against my hand. I scratched harder still, and with that, the white cat was on his back, purring even louder, rolling and smashing his head into my hand. Incredulously, I scratched his neck and he wrapped his front paws around my arm, pulling himself towards me, purring like a jet engine. It was almost like the white cat had been waiting for me, like we were old friends.

“Hello!” his dumb eyes said.

Teddy bears were more aggressive than the white cat.

“Whoa, he really likes you,” the cynical volunteer said, as she “tossed” a cat condo, looking for contraband.

“He’s not aggressive at all. Why is he in this room?” The white cat rolled around demonstratively, feet flopping and back arching, his big blank eyes dilating from the single buzzing fluorescent light, too stupid to shield his eyeballs.

“I honestly don’t know,” She pointed to an empty cat carrier by my feet. “He was put in here this morning.”

As if suddenly emboldened by my kindness, the white cat suddenly sat up, climbed down to the floor and sat in front of the hamster wheel. The demon cat came to a stop on the wheel to stare at him. The white cat gazed up, still purring, and slowly raised one paw.

“Friends?” he asked demon cat.

As expected, the demon cat catapulted off his rage treadmill and onto the white cat, pummeling him with punches so hard the smacks reverberated around the tiny room and through time.

“No!” the volunteer yelled. The white cat did nothing to defend himself; he just kept that one white paw raised like he was surrendering as the demon cat threw Pacquiao-esque combos. The volunteer scolded the demon cat back to the wheel, giving the white cat time to scramble back to the safety of the cat condo, hiding behind me.

The white cat shrugged, “Not friend.”

I pet his wounded head and he flopped onto his side again, purring and writhing like a total fucking idiot, like nothing happened.

One of the cats hiding in the condo, at that moment, ventured out into the open. The white cat, again, sat up and looked down at the clearly hate-filled cat with hope in his dull-witted eyes. The white cat hopped down from the tree and up to that cat.

I tried to reason with the white cat. “No, don’t-“

“Friends?” he implored as that cat’s back hair and tail tripled in size.

The area around the white cat exploded into a cloud of cat fur and screams. Again, the white cat didn’t fight back; he patiently took body shots and maybe even a flying knee. It was hard to see. The cynical volunteer clapped and screamed to break it up. Again, the white cat hopped up to safety and rubbed against my arm, purring. The volunteer and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m not sure why he’s in here,” she said.

Then, the third cat, a tuxedo cat, emerged, wanting a chance to pound on the moron. We again watched as the white cat, without a flicker of forethought, climbed down to him. “Friends?” he implored, the same white paw raised as if in a handshake, for the third time.

The tuxedo cat promptly slapped him with the force of a runaway train. The white cat was thrown into a cat condo, hitting a scratching post with the same force of a bird flying into a spotlessly clean window. The tuxedo cat advanced on him as the white cat scrunched into a ball and shut his eyes. His only defensive mechanism was to pretend to be an armadillo.

“Oh, my god, why!” I cried. “Stop doing this to yourself!”

As I yelled at the white cat to stop, I thought of the times I had decided to pack up my life to follow my ex to another town, trying to convince myself that if I hung around long enough, everything would be fine. The white cat and I were both trying to find acceptance, despite glaring red flags at the onset.

The white cat climbed back up onto the cat condo, a little slower this time, but still looking confused. I rubbed his slapped head. He flopped onto his side and wrapped his paws around my forearm, purring like a motorboat. Despite ending up in this hellhole and getting beat up for last few minutes, he had no animosity and zero self-pity. If I were to leave, the white cat would, I was sure, continue his quest for love in all the wrong places.

Defeated, the cynical volunteer looked at me and shrugged. “Maybe you can adopt him to get him out of here?”

I looked down at the white cat, imaging him in my new home with myself and Kitty. I could easily give him the love he deserved. I stroked his head.

“Friends?” the white cat said. His mouth clicked open wetly as his dumb eyes closed in happiness.

“Friends,” I said.

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