Nancy was my first. My memory of that day now is all blurry and water-warped, but here’s what I’ll pretend to remember: my mother brought me to a familiar and sprawling brownstone, the type I know now that I’ll never be able to afford. The year was 1990. Inside of the brownstone sat a pack of Greek women who brayed in broken English. My sometimes-babysitter Nancy was also there with a pounce of newborn kittens, this is who we came to see. I don’t recall there being much competition, I chose my kitten right off and named her “Nancy” too — this, the result of my being four and not really understanding the way that pets and their names worked. We brought Nancy home and introduced her to our mutt, Bushka, and the family was complete for a time.
Every pet to become a part of my family has had one biggest fan, and I was Nancy’s. I mean, everyone loved every pet; we all hugged them and walked them and gave them water, but there’s no denying that we each had a favorite. Bushka was this little brown thing that we drove three hours to Pennsylvania to adopt, and my mom liked her best. She was our only pet until the day we brought Nancy home. And she was a good one — she had this curly knot of fur next to her ear that I loved to squeeze, because it was like hurting her but not really, and she also had a long pink tongue that would dart out and lick you wherever, completely indiscriminate. Bushka was a fan of sticking her tongue in your mouth while you were telling a story. But this isn’t a dog tale, it’s a cat tale, so I’ll leave it at that.
Nancy’s tongue felt like sandpaper. In fact, Nancy was inferior to Bushka in a lot of ways; she wouldn’t sit still and if I tried to make her, she’d slice me up. Nancy and bloodshed became synonymous by the time I was six. This was also around the time Nancy would disappear out of our second story window and pose on the very slim and daunting sill like she had a death wish. The first time it happened, I worked myself into a panic — figured she would run away or die trying — but after the fourth or fifth time I realized she wasn’t going anywhere. She was just in the mood for some sun.
The only other cats I knew at the time belonged to my sister, who had 16 years and one cat on me. Her cats were named Naja and Hops, and that might be a lie: those might be the names of her ex-boyfriends or maybe those names don’t belong to anyone. Naja was fat, so fat that she couldn’t bother to move when I pet her. I liked her for it, but I have to admit that I wished she would lose some weight. Wishes like those are wasted on cats, though. Hops was the opposite — tall and thin and wearing a stylish striped sweater of fur, he would hide beneath the bed anytime I approached. My sister told me he was shy, but I just felt rejected and began to resent him. Those cats didn’t scratch like Nancy did (I think I recall receiving one particularly gruesome face-scratch from Hops, on one occasion), but I was still glad they weren’t mine.
One summer night, my family was walking home together from some family-type outing and we heard a mew-fest coming from the church garden next door to our apartment. A few people searched in the dark for the source of the noise, and my younger sister and I protested until we were allowed to join in. What we found were two small stray kittens, one was an orange and white boy and the other a black and white… something, I don’t remember identifying its gender definitively, even after we adopted it. They had the same color eyes, hazel. This made them brothers, to my sister and me, and who better to take them home? So we did, the orange one was named Marmalade and the cow-spotted one, Gizmo. I was especially thrilled because, after mucking up Nancy’s name, I needed another pet whom I could call a proper cat name like Gizmo. I could explain here, the compulsion one feels to name a cat Gizmo, but having met many cats named Gizmo at this point in my life I can say with a certain authority that the name just appeals to cat people, same as independence and unrequited love.
Nancy didn’t care much for Gizmo or Marmalade, but that was okay by them. They would tussle with each other and sharpen their nails on the shared scratching post while Nancy would sit on some high-above ledge and judge them, her tail jealously whipping back and forth. I could always tell what kind of mood Nancy was in based on her tail and her pupils — tall and thin pupils meant she was peaceful, fat pupils meant she was distressed, thin tail and thin eyes meant she was plotting, bushy tail and big eyes meant she was out for blood. And with the other cats around, she usually was.
I don’t remember the circumstances under which Marmalade and Gizmo left, or even much about them as pets in general except for that Marmalade liked to masturbate. He eventually came to triple Gizmo in size, as orange cats are wont to do, and he took to sleeping sloppily propped up against a wall with a paw gracefully placed on his nuts. He looked like he’d passed out after a night of hard partying, and we’d take pictures of him like that and so now that’s the only way I can remember him. Gizmo, I don’t remember anything about except that he or she was cute and had satisfied my need to avenge Nancy and her terrible name. They both went to live with my dad’s coworker, maybe when we brought in an abandoned stray dog called Scruffy who turned out to be a handful or when my grandfather moved in with us after being mugged or perhaps when my family moved out of our apartment on the second story and to a house in Rockland County. Either way, we still receive photo updates of the cats and they seem to be doing great.
Nancy took to the suburbs well, all things considered, or at least she took to them better than I did. She transitioned from indoor cat to outdoor cat without anyone’s permission; it seemed she had no trouble finding her way back to the front door after hours of menacing deer or catching field mice or sprawling out in whatever sun spots she could find and so we allowed her to go off on her own. After all, she was practically a senior citizen in cat years, what could we tell her?
She was 14 when I left for college. I’ve been told 14 is kind of old for a cat, but never by someone who knew Nancy personally. When I left, my brother took my place and brought with him a cat named Meatball. Soon after, he moved in with his fiancee and my parents got stuck with the cat — which wasn’t a bad thing, unless you were Nancy. Meatball was a bit overweight, but so soft and agreeable that anyone with good sense would call her beautiful, perfect even. I always wanted to touch her, but she didn’t make that easy. When I came to visit, Nancy could feel my presence the second I stepped into the house and greeted me accordingly, but Meatball had no idea who I was. I saw the way she cozied up to my mom and retracted from me and for the first time, I realized this was not my home anymore, this was not my pet.
My senior year of college, a skinny and well-groomed grey cat who was too clean to be homeless but too hungry and present to have a real home kept showing up at our apartment until my five roommates and I decided to keep her. We named her “Cat,” probably to be cute but maybe also because we were 20-year-olds who had important things like finals and keg parties consuming our time and interests. Two weeks later, we moved to a new apartment and Cat escaped during the shuffle, presumably returning to her real home. We never saw her again.
Around this time, I got a call informing me that Nancy had gone missing. My immediate thought was that she’d crawled off somewhere to die, the way pets do to spare their owners the trauma of finding their loved-up little bodies. I felt certain she was dead but without the finality of it all, like I was being realistic about the situation without reacting to it in a realistic way. On the fifth day she was missing, I came across this picture and knew for sure that I would never see my cat again.
The next morning at around 6:30 a.m., my younger sister texted me: “Nancy came home!” and I felt very stupid for believing in ‘signs’ but mostly I just felt glad. She was a different cat the next time I saw her: bony and matted with a mysterious bump protruding from her leg. “What the hell is this?” I waved the leg at my dad. “Oh… it looks like she may have broken it. We’ll get it checked out.” The bump turned out to be a benign tumor, one that would grow in size as she shrunk into her old age. At 17, she was coming undone but still found the strength to run to the door when I came home to visit, still kneaded my stomach for what seemed like hours before she’d made it fit for sleep.
After moving into my first post-college apartment, my roommate and I took in a black cat we named CC — short for Cowboy Curtis. CC was lithe and perpetually horny until we had her fixed, but I suspect she was inordinately affectionate by nature. Another escape artist, CC would weasel her way out of our tiny bathroom window, climb the fire escape, and break into our upstairs neighbor’s apartment where her cat-boyfriend lived. I only learned of the relationship through an encounter with my neighbor in the hallway, who barked in barely-English, “You own black cat?” When I said yes, she laughed and told me she thought the cat was homeless, that she’d washed her and even given her a haircut. “What’s her name?” she asked after I’d apologized for the misunderstanding. “CC,” I said. “Ah! We call her ‘Kiki’!” I walked away feeling like a mother whose precocious child had made her look like an unfit parent. Who the hell gives a cat a haircut?
Nancy, who needed a new haircut, a new leg, a new life, could’ve benefitted from some grooming, but she was so old that even brushing her seemed cruel. My mom used to joke, “What’d you get a new cat for? Take your old dying cat with you,” as if she hadn’t just answered her own question. I hated seeing Nancy during this period; her pathetic and frail demeanor the antithesis of the Nancy who’d regularly prevented Meatball from eating or drinking until she’d had her fill and given her unspoken permission for the lowlier cat to feed. She twinkled on her toes like she’d been munching Morphine all day and night, her balance one of the last things to go. Maybe the tumor in her leg hadn’t caused her any pain, but it was painful for us to watch the way she dragged the thing around like it was a catch she’d made and not like it was a limb she’d relied on for getting around and in trouble.
My dad called me in the middle of a winter week to tell me they had to put her to sleep, that they’d wait for the weekend if I could make it home but if I couldn’t, they’d prefer to do it the following day. I told him I wouldn’t come home and to put her to sleep — she was 19 years old, already. When we hung up, I asked my sister to send me her picture. She responded with a photo of Nancy curled into a circle, the lighting and angle of the photo making her appear fine, in good health, even. I began to cry, which surprised me because when my grandparents died, nothing had happened. I cried again when she was actually and truly gone, and when my sister sent me words of condolence, and when CC nuzzled me and tried to expel my sadness the way Nancy used to. I cried because I finally understood what it was like to lose a friend when everyone you know thinks that all you’ve lost is a pet.
Visiting my parent’s home after that wasn’t difficult, just strange and hollow the first few times. There were still cats roaming around: Meatball, who’d gotten to know me after eight years of visiting; Coffee and Chino, two black kittens my sister accidentally came to acquire. Pepper, the dog we’d had since I was eight or so, still remembered me for a time before she, too, gave way to age and insanity. But nice as it was to see them, these pets weren’t mine, see? Meatball was my mom’s now, just like Bushka had been; Coffee and Chino only had a place in the family because of my sister; and Pepper undoubtedly belonged to my dad. My piece of the puzzle was gone, and I’ll never have the opportunity to replace her — not with this family, at least.
Of course, we all faced similar loses eventually: my parents could not take Meatball with them when they moved to Florida, so now she travels with a piano player to nursing homes as one-half of an entertainment duo. Pepper was put to sleep a few years after Nancy, when my dad had to begin carrying her outside for her “walks.” Coffee and Chino live in Westchester with my sister now, and I guess I feel about them the way I felt about my grandparents when they died, or the way my grandparents felt about me when I was born, or the way anyone, young or old, feels when too much time and space and age has passed between oneself and another: we will never, ever know each other.