Dina was a 29-year-old, curly-haired Egyptian pothead on whose 2nd Avenue apartment’s walls hung her own paintings of women morphing into trees. She had worked in advertising but had decided to go back to school to get a degree in Art Therapy, presumably to help other young people express themselves through cliché.
Craigslist had presented my boyfriend Ben and me with slim pickings for housemates who were willing to bunk with a couple: an immigrant who had been avoiding taxes and feared FBI raids; a painfully shy teacher who collected tarantulas. We decided to go with Dina.
A week before we moved into her place, she informed us that she had adopted a cat.
“This is Gumbo Ginsberg,” cooed Dina, babe in arms. The babe swiped at her face; she winced just in time. “Isn’t he sweet? His family was leaving so I said of course we could take him.”
Gumbo Ginsberg did not have to swipe at me personally for me to realize how relieved its family must have been to be rid of him, though Ben and I agreed that the cat’s bad mood could be a legitimate reaction to his new name.
She was already displaying questionable qualities in a housemate, but I wanted Dina to like me. She was older and, maybe, sophisticated: she had done drugs and made money. When, after a mishap with Gumbo Ginsberg left her almost dead, Dina asked me to accompany her to see Siobhan Meow, the transsexual cat-lady of Avenue C, I said sure.
“These are the raw meat lockers,” said Siobhan, slapping a palm down on a line of white, industrial freezers against one wall. “That’s all cats should be eating. They’re wild.”
The ones swirling around her army boots bore this out. Motley as pirates, they lacked ears, eyes, paws. Others prowled through the apartment, climbing the scratching posts that served as furniture. Siobhan marched over to the farthest corner of the apartment, where darkness seemed to intensify the zoo-like odor. “Here is where I keep the feral ones,” she said, gesturing towards a mass of eyes. Pointing to a figure slinking out of view, she added, “That one I call Osama Bin Falafel.”
Okay, I thought, that gives “Gumbo Ginsberg” a run for its money.
Siobhan folded her heavily-inked, heavily-muscled arms across her chest. At over six feet tall, she was the most intimidating figure in a peasant skirt I had ever seen. The story was that she moved into the vacant building with other squatters in the late 1980s. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt on the part of the NYPD to oust them, the city shrugged its shoulders and let them have the place, which came to be known as the Umbrella House. Siobhan transformed the sixth and top floor into a reform school for strays. Dina had found her on the Internet.
“So what did Gumbo Ginsberg do?” asked Siobhan.
Dina put her hand over her wrist to cover the bandage. “He … bit me.”
She had been away. When she returned, she gathered up Gumbo Ginsberg in her arms and squealed into its squashed face. The cat hissed and scratched, and when she continued snuggling—I could almost see him roll his eyes as he made this decision—he chomped down on her wrist.
Blood geysered out of the puncture wound like it was showing off, reveling in its newfound freedom. She sat there shrieking as arterial spray turned the living room into a scene from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ben grabbed my First Aid kit left over from my summer as a camp counselor and bandaged her up. Gumbo Ginsberg sulked in the corner.
“But I can’t send him to a shelter,” said Dina to Siobhan, almost pleadingly. “They’ll put him down.”
“Assholes,” said Siobhan. “What I do here is rehab. I take cats and fight the aggression out of them. See?” She stretched her arms towards us to show off the topology of her scars. “One time one was fighting so hard, I had to drag him over here to the sink and run water on him to get him off.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” asked Dina.
“Pain …,” said Siobhan, with the air of one asked to describe sight to the blind. “It’s a rush, actually.”
“Kind of like getting tattooed,” I suggested.
“Exactly,” she said, looking at me for the first time.
“Okay,” said Dina, still shaky. “So you’ll take Gumbo Ginsberg …”
“And you take one of my cats. That’s how it works. Or, for $4,000, I’ll take Gumbo for free.”
I studied the pockmarked floorboards, trying to breathe through my mouth because the dander was making me feel faint, as Dina scanned the crowd. Siobhan plucked a sleek grey cat off the ground and placed it against a shoulder, where it rested like a dishtowel.
“Who’s that?” Dina asked.
“Sotto,” said Siobhan. “But I don’t know if I can part with him. He’s one of my favorites.”
“Is he violent?” Dina asked.
I shrugged at Dina. Sotto might well have been the Ford Pinto Siobhan needed to move off the lot, but there was no way to know.
“We’ll take him,” said Dina.
Siobhan gave Dina a four-page contract to sign that stipulated, among other things, that she would not declaw or spay the animal in question, and that she would not think of the cat as “hers,” as cats do not have owners.
“I don’t know,” Dina said, going over the document that night. “I feel a little weird about giving my social security number.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I would trust that impulse.”
“I hope it’s not a deal-breaker,” said Dina. She provided the other information requested and then sat back on the couch, musing. “He’ll need a new name. Sotto … Sounds like Soda. Soda Pop. Soda Pop Ginsberg!” She sighed, touching the gauze on her wrist. “It’s just too bad he’ll never know his brother.”
Soda Pop Ginsberg was, as it turned out, a Ford Pinto. He pulled the W key off my keyboard, and during the Bush years “W” was a very important key. But then, Dina was a Ford Pinto too, who turned out to be as erratic and bad-tempered as her pets; Ben and I had to flee from her in the middle of our lease like the Israelites from Egypt. Did Dina turn the cats sour or was it the other way around? In the end, it didn’t matter: the association had been made in my mind, and I could never again look at one without thinking about how my roommate’s cat had tried to kill her, and how it had had the right idea.