‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being Corporeal’, by Elmo Keep


When you were a kitten I found you in the pet store on my twentieth birthday, sleeping with your seven brothers. Huddled in a row, all facing the same way, except you: squeezed right in the middle, the odd one out. The only girl, the only tabby with those seven little brothers of yours, all white and grey.

My first and only pet. I have just turned 34, so now we are both old.

Straight away you burrowed inside my open jacket and refused to come out, so I did up the zipper and sat in the front seat of the car with you sleeping propped on my stomach. I could cover all of you up with one hand. Dan came over to see you that afternoon and you were so tiny you ran up the inside of his pant leg.

One afternoon on those first days we came home and found you swinging from the middle of the washing line. It wasn’t clear how you came to be there, or for how long you had been gently rocking to and fro. The whole day, perhaps, silently hanging from your front claws. After we retrieved you, you were so relieved that we never found you trying to imitate a drying shirt again.

After I brought you home I was suddenly and horribly sick. It lasted for many months. It began with a low-grade fever, which increased and then would not go away. The glands in my neck were swollen like golf balls from a virus in my spinal cord, and I passed out frequently. I was beset by migraine and my bones ached. I stayed that way from autumn until spring. I left university, moved back into my parents’ house, and waited, with an increasing certainty that I would never be well again. In the end, I was in my bed, unable to do anything but ride out the occasional wave of motion sickness that came over me. I developed a panic disorder.

I developed a panic disorder.

Often I would wake up mornings after knocking myself out the night before on the painkillers I had become addicted to. I took them to help me sleep. I would be so lethargic from having been unable to either leave my bed or sleep unaided, that on waking I would often be on the verge of delirium. Then I would see your tiny face and enormous eyes peering down at me from where you stood on my chest, and it would take a second to reconcile that you were really there. I would lift up the covers and you would scoot in and curl up against my neck because you liked to feel my heartbeat there. I wore you like a little scarf.

Every day, all night and day, you would stay there with me, until I was well enough to get out of bed.

About this time you made a friend. He was a scruffy grey and white street cat we thought was probably homeless, with his weirdly tufted fur and love of eating your food. You never objected to this, you just watched silently. Sometimes you would roll over on the floor beside your bowl, surrendering. Your courtship had been slow to develop. You loved to sit in the kitchen window and be warmed by the sun, and when you did this your friend would sit on the other side of this window and stare at you for hours. He seemed to be in love with you, coming at the same time each afternoon, waiting for you to come out. After all, you always were a great beauty. Everyone says so, not just me. In fact, a vet once said you were the prettiest cat she had ever seen.

Eventually the glass between you was opened, and the homeless cat, so much bigger than you, gave you an enormous lick on the top of the head, as if you were an ice cream; claiming you, perhaps. You were small enough to come up only to his chin, which he liked to rest on the back of your neck. Tentatively you followed him into the yard, where you sat side by side, until the sun was gone, when he would jump over the fence and you would come back inside and into bed. This happened every day we lived in the house.

We never did know what you spoke about.

Later we moved a few streets away and you spent nights sitting on the fence, hoping your friend would find you. Sometimes you sat there all night. Once, weeks later, your patience was rewarded: he came bounding over the gate, and again you were two silhouettes.

We never did know what you spoke about.

Once, suddenly, you were gone for three days. We were distraught, since you never normally left the confines of the yard. One night, just as suddenly as you had left, you returned from your quest, as I learned when my mother wordlessly deposited you – filthy and sodden – on my head where I lay in bed, so relieved that she couldn’t find the words to explain. Where had you been? In a hole on a construction site? Down a well? The frustration we felt in never being able to know! But we didn’t care, because you were back, and you never left the boundary of any of your homes again. You suffered a bath in mute obedience.

Another time, you had tried to leave the front gate, and on doing so immediately come face to face with a large dog. You turned and ran back, straight into the fence, where you were caught: suspended between two railings with your back legs pedalling hopelessly in the air like a cartoon character. You never dared tread beyond the front step again. Sometimes, if the wind blew too harshly in your face while you sat there surveying the street, you would run back inside, and that was quite enough outdoors for one day.

You came with me to the house on Stanley Street. The other house in Five Ways. To the city warehouse with the Doberman that ran unimpeded through the building. To Sue’s house near the park, where I lived after dad died, where you would lie by the fire in winter. To the house with Kate, in Paddington near the fancy shops. To Darlinghurst again, then again. To Surry Hills with Alice, and then Nick, and then when the man moved in. Then to the country house with the apple tree you slept under during the three summers.

There, at the first hint of the chill that greeted the end of summer you would refuse to spend time outside. You would stay in and follow the patches of sun where they fell in through the windows around the house, or burrow in under the bed covers. But in the summer mornings, I would look out at the yard through the glass doors and see your small silhouette lit by the sun, where you had been lying in the same spot for hours. Your ears would prick at the sound of the door handle turning, and you would run quickly down the three stone steps and across the courtyard to the door.

Meow, you would say brightly. Hello.

These were our days: passing contentedly, one after another.

You would come inside for breakfast and I would make coffee and our day would start together. You would keep me company at my desk all day while I worked. These were our days: passing contentedly, one after another. You would talk just about constantly through the day, a series of short inflections, and I would read things to you aloud to see if they were working and you would make sounds that to me at least imparted advice that was extremely meaningful, until you was truly bored or more often hungry, and would stand on the desk and butt my forehead with yours. On the odd days when it was warm enough to eat outside in the sun I liked to follow you onto the grass, lie down beside you for a moment, and try and see everything in the yard from your perspective. Then I would go back to work for a few more hours and some time later the man would be home and he and I would go out for dinner. He always liked to carry you around a bit first, like a football, and promise to bring you home a lobster if we saw one, though where we were they were very rare.

Then I moved alone to a place where you could not come.

Now you live with Bridget and Nick and their little black cat Stella, and their baby daughter Bea. You have lived with Bea for nearly half her life now so naturally she thinks you are hers. Her mother writes to me and says that Bea will cuddle you before she does anything else first thing in the morning, every day. If she sees you sleeping she will cover you with a blanket. Her mother asks her, What does the cat say, and Bea will say, Meow. One time in her sleep Bridget says Bea just said your name, Miro, Miro, over and over. Her father sends me photos of you wearing a small hat, or sleeping in the soft dirt of the garden, or sitting inside someone’s bag. In other photos you lie asleep on someone’s lap while Bea uses you as a cushion, which I know you enjoy, because you always did love the feeling of being slightly squashed.

You still love to talk, also, all the time. You have so many ideas. So many thoughts and feelings you like to share in all manner of unique intonations. So much to say that I always felt by day you must be very busy, perhaps an important executive at a city firm. Or at least a diplomat. Your favourite thing in the world is to be allowed under the covers, into the crook of an arm, and to be rolled up in the duvet so that you cannot move. You will stay there sleeping, purring all night. You do not enjoy for the pads of your paws to be cold or wet, and if that should happen you shake them, doing the weird, jangly dance of someone trying to not let their feet touch the ground.

Your countenance is so even, your patience so infinite, that perhaps you are a reincarnated monk or a very wise elderly woman.

Your countenance is so even, your patience so infinite, that perhaps you are a reincarnated monk or a very wise elderly woman. Bridget and Nick have taught Bea to be so gentle with you when expressing her affections, but even the odd accidental poke in the eye is not too much for you. You have never scratched me, or anyone, ever, except for the time when I got into bed and lay, heavily, right on top of you where you sleeping when I came home drunk to the lights all switched off. I am still very sorry about that.

Sometimes I mistakenly think I might just call you on the telephone. Other times I think that maybe I will try and talk to you over the internet, because I heard people do that with their dogs. But it would be too hard to see you and not be able to give you the scratch under the chin you love so much, or for you to really hear me when I tell you that you are very smart and good looking, which is what the vet said I should do when I first took you home, that I should tell you that once a day to bolster your self-esteem, so I have always taken that advice to heart and also it is the truth. It’s too hard, already, to think of not telling you about my day each night before bed. So I pretend that I can’t talk to you because we are in the past, back when people could only communicate with the occasional postcard, which I send you from wherever I am.

The last night I saw you we slept on the couch, where I lay you along my ribs and over my stomach so your heart was on top of mine, and I pinned you there with the covers as tight as I could, tucked in like a little burrito, and you purred all through the night, which I know, because I hardly slept, because I wanted to be awake with you.

When I left, Nick sent a photo of you and me to my phone, taken from behind your head, your little ears in frame. Through the window you are watching me walk across the street. The last time you saw me, I was leaving you behind. But I did not know that at the time, I hope you will believe me. I know that on the day I found you I promised that I would never leave you, and one day I lied.

As I turned the corner and crossed the city, I did not care who saw me crying. My phone pinged with the photo, and by that point I cared even less who could see my face, streaked and red.

Bridget writes now, all these months later, and says that though they can never be what I am to you, that you are so loved where you are. That you are a great old dame and that travel would be hard on the elderly. That they love you now like you are part of their family. That they will always look after you.

But the other day Bridget had to tell me that you are dying.

But the other day Bridget had to tell me that you are dying. We cried for a very long time. There are tumours on your belly, but you don’t feel any pain. I want you to know how glad I am for that last part. You don’t know anything is wrong, which is so like you. You will just bask in the extra attention like a grand dame. Bridget also said that the vet could tell that you are one who is very loved. She says that all that will happen now is that you will be spoiled more than you already are, taken under the covers into bed and allowed to eat ice cream from a spoon. People will come and see you when I can’t be there and give you a scratch between the ears for me.

The city I live in now is hard. Everyone who comes here says that about it, like an incantation you must murmur aloud to gain admission. Every day I think about you. I think about how you would have loved to watch the squirrels I see running in the yard from the desk where I write this. You would have sat next to me on the sill while I worked, and looked at the sparrows on the branches of the tree just outside the window. I know you would have been a busy and important cat of New York.

I was, I guess, in some ways dimly aware of your mortality, though not in any real way, because to me you are eternal; life is divided into the time before you came along (a dull void) and the time after (the sum of all things). I wonder if you did this now to let me go? So I could stop living in two places at once in my heart, always thinking of coming back to you? So I could let go of you and the place where you and I were together for so long, with everyone we have loved, along with everything that goes with that? And that when you are to leave I will be the one to see you off; I will come back and see you one last time, if I can, and I will hold you close to me like I always will, and then some day maybe I will see you again.

Best girl, little bean, I love you so. No one in my entire life will ever be what you are to me.

Elmo Keep is an Australian writer in Brooklyn.