Remembrance

Image

If I die

Do not cry

Remember me as I am

Remember me as a friend

Remember me without tears

Remember this one thing:

That I haven’t really gone away

My mind always ran free

It’s just time for my feet

To catch up with me!

 

 

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The Streets

It was a beautiful day in London on Tuesday, one of those days that reminds you why you’re here, one of those days when you feel like you’re a part of something bigger, something important. Apart from New York, no other city can make me feel like this, like I’m plugged into some massive generator, like I’m an essential part of a machine that never stops churning. It was one of those days when the sidewalks felt like they were vibrating.

So on my way back from the city on a rare day off work, I decided to get off the train early and take a walk.

Almost immediately after I got out at Pinner, some lady with a twin pram ploughed into me. Not only was she pushing the giant buggy, she was carrying four Sainsbury’s bags of groceries, wrapped around each of her arms like a straitjacket. She was so harried that she not only didn’t apologise when she almost knocked me over, I’m not sure she even noticed. One of her babies was wailing; the other was playing with a bag of frozen peas. The woman wasn’t being chased by anyone, but she might as well have been; she was so caught up in what was assuredly a stressful journey home, if everyone she passed on the street turned out to be wearing only their underwear, I bet she wouldn’t have noticed that either. And this seemed to be a regular thing for her, this pushing of children, this carrying of bags, this nonstop clutter and clamour. I wondered how long it had been like this. She was young; I bet it wasn’t more than five years ago that her friends were holding her hair back as she threw up in the back of a dingy drinking shithole somewhere in London. When did it switch for her? When did the tide turn? It was probably a gradual thing. She felt she was getting older, that the world was starting to close in on her, she met a nice guy, she settled down, she had children (twins!), and before she knew it, she was carting the sum of her existence down a fairly nondescript street in the  suburbs, aware of nothing but this. She had the look of someone who had not thought about herself in a long, long time.

Because it’s a nice day, two women are having brunch outside a restaurant. I have been to this place before, and it’s exactly what you’d think: shitty service, overrated food and way too expensive. Places like this are always crowded for reasons that escape me. The two women, probably in their late 20s, are dressed in business suits and have leather handbags next to them. They are wearing a lot of makeup. They both went on dates on the weekend, and they’re deconstructing the dates, which is usually the most fun part of dates. One was going on and on about her date’s face; I guess he had a bad acne problem in college and still carries the scars. He’s in finance, it seems, and he kissed her good night, and she was a bit grossed out but kissed him anyway, and if he calls, she’ll go out with him again, sure, why not? The waiter comes by, and the two women complain to him about something, and he looks apologetic but probably isn’t, he probably hates them, he probably hates all of them.

In Northwood Hills, the same two kids as always are hanging out in front of the newsagents. They’re always here, whether the store is open or not. As always, their bikes, which seem to change all the time, are casually lying on the pavement and they’re passing headphones back and forth. They’re very bored. I once refused to buy one of them cigarettes, giving him a lecture in the process, and they’ve never forgiven me. When I went in to buy toilet paper the other day, they saw my purchase and said “Yeah, we knew you were full of shit.” I laughed, trying to show that I get it, I’m hip, and they scoffed at me, told me to “laugh it up, preacher man.” I’ve often watched these kids from the hairdressers across the street. Sometimes a third kid joins them, but I don’t think they like him very much, even though he clearly likes them, or at least wants their approval. He’ll stand there, next to them, talking more than they are, and they treat him like he’s not there. Occasionally I’ll see him standing there by himself, waiting for them to show up. He’ll wait a very long time, if necessary. I wonder if he considers them his best friends. I bet he does.

I continue down Joel Street. There’s a pub called The William Jolle which, every time I look in there, seems to have the same five people in it. They’re the types who come in at noon and just let the bartenders refill their drinks at their leisure. They don’t seem sad, or happy; they barely talk. They just look forward, sipping their drink, tired. I wonder how they got this way too. I wonder what their house or apartment is like. I imagine it is spare and dark. If the bar didn’t close, they’d never go there. I’ve been to this pub myself a few times, when I wanted the same experience of solitude among strangers. I’ve never talked to any of them. None of them have ever talked to me. It’s a comfort.

In front of me, a couple is fighting. They’re desperately trying to disguise their argument from the world of the street, and they are failing. I can’t make out the specifics of their tiff, but it seems that there’s something that he always does that drives her crazy, something that makes her feel she is making a mistake by continuing to be with him, and that he has little desire to stop doing it. She is saying, “I don’t know why you always do this,” and he is trying to ignore her, walking faster and looking away, but she is right behind him and she is speeding up, and I am speeding up to stay with them, and she is starting to yell now, and what had been his mutterings a few seconds earlier are starting to become shouts. He is waving his arms in a robotic manner, as if this is a conversation he has had too many times already and lacks the energy to give even the most feeble resistance. He says something to her that I can’t make out, and she stops and begins to cry. He tries to keep walking, wants desperately to keep walking, but he can’t now, and he turns to come back to her, looking sympathetic and guilty, and I speed past the both of them and know exactly how they both feel.

I see this girl I know walking toward me. It’s been a while. We once had some mutual friends so I’ve run into her a few times at parties. She waves and kisses me on the cheek, which I don’t like doing with her, since I don’t know her all that well and I’m not sure where those lips have been. She tells me it’s really good to see me but I don’t think she means it, since I no longer hang out with her friends. I nod and smile and say everything you’re supposed to say when you run into someone on the street and don’t really have anything to say to them but have to talk anyway. She asks me what I’m up to. I tell her I’m just walking. That’s all? That’s it. I’m just walking. It’s a lovely day.

I need to hydrate. I walk into Tesco, grab a bottle, then stand in line behind a man who is having trouble paying with his card. He is saying that this is impossible, that his card works just fine, let him try again. The cashier doesn’t really care and just wants her day to end; he tries the card again, and then another card, and none of them are working, and the guy is starting to get agitated now, and the woman never changes her apathetic expression. He throws his hands in the air, swears and storms to the door. He is moving too fast, though, and he smacks right into the automatic doors. The woman behind the counter smirks, looks at me and says “Next please.”

My mobile rings. It’s an overseas friend who is visiting London soon and is calling to tell me what airport she’ll be flying into, what day, what time. She asks how I’m settling into my new place, and I tell her about a flooding accident over the weekend. She says she hopes it’s all OK then asks why I haven’t updated my blog, that it’s been a while and she’s been hoping I’m OK. She says that she sometimes wondered what I actually did when I wasn’t at work or writing. I tell her I don’t do anything much different from her at all, that I walk down the street and pick up my laundry and pay my bills, go out with friends and drink too much, like I always do. She tells me I drink too much, and I agree, yes, I just said that.

It’s starting to get dark, and it’s time to go home. I buy some fruit and some batteries for my remote controls. I shut off all the lights in my flat, like I always do when I write, and sit down at my computer and begin to type. It is so simple here, so peaceful. I see so many people out there, who don’t know what they’re doing in this world, who are just like me. I wonder where they find their peace. I wonder where they go to slow everything down, to try to make some sense out of the chaos, to try to strip out some meaning from a planet that is doggedly determined not to provide it. I wonder where they step outside of themselves and relax, and think, and just be. This is where I often find it. On my own, shut off from the world, listening to clickety-clack of my keyboard with a backing track from my iPod to match my mood. This is the place I know to go to.

Writing is my time machine. It always takes me to where I belong. I fear that I might be lost without it. I feel it’s the one thing that’s truly mine.

Walking contradiction

I shoved a guy the other day. It wasn’t a push. It was a good, old-fashioned, solid shove, a violent explosion, inner rage pouring out that I didn’t even know was there. It was like putting an empty coffee mug in a microwave and watching in shock as, somehow, water boils over.

He was just standing there. I was exiting the Tube, heading into London to meet some friends. I was carrying a novel in my left hand, and reaching for my mobile with the right. He was directly in front of me. Then, as he reached the last step on the exit out of the station, he just stopped. I don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was a tourist, confused about where he was going. Maybe he realised he’d left his iron on. Maybe he just decided to pause and drink in a gorgeous day. But he stopped, right in front of me.

Now, people not from London don’t really understand this sometimes, but here, stopping in the middle of the pavement is like someone braking their car in the middle of the motorway. Here, our feet are our cars, and we apply the same rules of the road to the sidewalk. As frustrated as you get when someone cuts you off in traffic, that’s how we feel when someone pauses suddenly to answer a mobile, or makes a snap decision to head toward the Starbucks on the opposite side of the street, or so on. I guess I’d call it Walk Rage.

And this guy just stopped. And I lost it. I pulled my arm across my body to my right side, put my phone back in my pocket, and just waylaid him with my left arm. I had some force behind me too; he almost went barreling into the newsstand set up just beside the station exit. My motion was punctuated with a fierce, involuntary, “OH, FOR FUCK SAKE… WATCH IT!”

He was a smaller Asian man, I was now noticing, probably about 40, with greying hair and a pair of bright blue shorts.

He plunged forward with an audible “Oomph.” He looked back at the source of this strange velocity. His eyes met mine. He did not see a sensitive, island-boy-turned-Londoner, empathetic guy, someone who just tries to get along and go along, an amiable sort always trying to make everyone feel comfortable, the guy cracking jokes at just the right times, the guy who calls everyone “Ma’am” and “Sir” in a slightly joking but still sincere attempt at mock formality, the one who calls his parents three times a week, the one who just wants everything to be OK, just let it all turn out OK, please please.

He saw a snarl and a twisted mouth, spitting, “Idiot! Move!”

He yelled “Arsehole!” I muttered, now somewhat embarrassed, “Yeah, yeah… Fuck… whatever!” before storming on my way.

Moments later, I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. It just wasn’t me. The poor guy certainly didn’t do anything to me (although the stopping-suddenly thing IS quite annoying!) and this is no excuse at all, but… I’ve had a pretty hectic and stressful summer, trying to juggle several tough work projects. And the last couple of weeks have been particularly difficult.

 Now… I’m typically a pretty easy person to get along with, yes, but mostly, I’m a licensed pro at avoiding conflict. If I can sense it coming, I’ll change the subject to something happy, something we can laugh about, smile about, think fondly of. I’m so good at it, typically, that you can’t even notice I’m doing it. Just as soon as they were brought up, unpleasant topics are paved over and smoothly shifted to the next topic, maybe football, or that one movie we saw, or remember that time, when we were in the park, that was great, wasn’t it?

I once went out with this American girl who I thought I might marry, before we split and she married someone else, and never spoke to me again. Even as she was leaving, I didn’t fight. I didn’t scream, or stomp off, or tell her she was a bad person. I tried to be mature, and compassionate, and understanding, and then next thing I knew, she had no real compelling reason to stay, because I’d steadfastly refused to give her one. That’s how far I’m willing to take it. I’ll suck it up if it means avoiding a yelling, nasty tussle. I can take it.

But sometimes the pressure does get to you.  You end up feeling alone, vulnerable, and wiped out at times. That’s when you snap, and fights happen. We’ve all been through them, and I’m becoming worse at avoiding them as I grow older.

One fight with a colleague (I use that term quite loosely – we work in the same place but we certainly don’t work together) was about nothing, really; they usually are. But she was being unreasonable, as usual, and said something that made me feel unappreciated, isolated, awkward, empty… Once she’d left my office, I reacted by pounding my fist into the wall. Then my head. Then I grabbed some papers off my desk and threw them across the room. Then I went for a walk.

Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to write this column, and then meet a friend of mine for lunch, then get some more job work done, run some errands, and maybe even take a walk along the South Bank, one of my favourite ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which this was.

But I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was out of it, and emotionally spent, and had not an ounce of energy to do anything but just lie. There was some sport on. The US Open. Soapdish, on Comedy Central X, with all the swearing edited out. Some movie with Alec Baldwin and that guy from Gosford Park. I had Chinese delivered. I took a nap. Outside, kids were playing, and people were having brunch, and lying in the sun, and working, and writing, and living, and all the shit I came here to do. For the first time in a while, I simply stayed in, all day, and just watched TV and napped, alone.

I was just so tired. So, so tired.

I do not know what is happening to me. I don’t know if my job is making me hard, or angry, or bitter, or just too exhausted to think. But I do know I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I’m maddeningly inconsistent. I don’t know what’s caused it. I don’t know when it happened. And I’m not sure what to do about it.

But I think I kind of miss me. The way I used to be, whenever and whatever that was. Now that I think about it, I might not have been that bad.

 

 

How To Write

Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what advice I would give someone who wants to be a writer. They assume because I have a blog and once, as a full-time journalist, I wrote for a living, that I ought to be able to tell others how to do it. It’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, I’m still and always learning!

Asking me how to write is like asking directions from a blind man with a guide dog; I don’t know how to tell you the way to get there. I just follow the dog.

That said, here are a few tricks the dog keeps trying to teach me.

First, write about what you know, the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing you’ve been given to write about, the thing you can’t seem to get off your mind. Read a lot and, in particular, read everything you can find by the writers you like best; if you like them, it’s probably because their voice speaks to the voice in you. Develop that voice. It’s yours.

Write like yourself, the way you talk. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound like you, rewrite it until it does. Learn the rules of writing and stick to them a long time before you dare start messing around.

Write between the lines; say more with less. And be prepared to suffer, not because writing invites heartache, but because it always insists on examining it. Never pretend to be what you aren’t, or to know what you don’t know. That applies more to life than to writing, really, but the two are not so different. And as for inspiration, I don’t need it to write. I just need a deadline. It’s the surest cure I’ve ever found for writer’s block.

If you want to write, if you feel called to do so, you should. And you will. Maybe you won’t earn a living at it. Few writers ever do.

But you can write cards to encourage the downhearted; and notes of condolences to comfort those who suffer loss; and crisp, compelling business letters that clearly explain why the item you received was not the item you ordered, and what exactly you will do if you are not reimbursed. You can write job applications and memos to colleagues and letters to the editor, or to your MP, or to God, to shed light and right wrongs and make the world a better place, or at least, to get stuff off your chest.

You can write for posterity the stories your grandparents told you, stories that will be lost if you don’t write them before you die.

You can write love letters to your children or to anyone, really, to say all the things that you could never say with your mouth.

You can even write in a diary or journal, if you are so inclined (and a lot more disciplined than I am) to get to know yourself better.

That, of course, is the real reason we read and write — to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will. It works like this:

You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and your heart, and occasionally from your soul, and you fashion them into words.

That is called language.

You put the words on paper, or perhaps on a computer screen, using lines and circles, marks and symbols, until you trust them to carry your meaning.

That is called writing.

Then someone — who perhaps has never seen your face or heard your voice — sees your lines and circles and symbols and marks, and recognises them as words.

That is called reading.

Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.

That is called communication.

Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we are lucky, get to do it for both.

And that’s where I will stop for now. The dog has gone to sleep.

Higher, faster, stronger…

London made me proud last weekend. The Opening Ceremony of the XXX Olympiad was a brilliant celebration of British history, culture and diversity. The passing of the torch and design of the flame were inspired moments. For me, there is always something special about the Olympic Games. I often find myself glued to the telly, celebrating great moments in sports in which I usually have no interest whatsoever. This year, with the Games being held in my own home city, the excitement is greater than ever.

So I’m taking a break from blogging, as I try to juggle work commitments and the Olympics – in the latter case, attending swimming and athletic events, and following the fortunes of Wiggins, Hoy, Adlington, Ennis, Idowu, Bolt, Blake and the other top athletes. The prospect of another record-breaking men’s 100m final, the Games’ blue-ribbon event, has me drooling!

In the meantime, I recommend the blog of my friend Dawn, who is volunteering at the Games: http://dawndenton.wordpress.com

See you all soon!

The first kiss

Like any red-blooded boy of the age of 13, when I was growing up, I imagined nothing the Almighty had created could compare with kissing a girl. I did the whole deal: making out with pillows, feeling up two slightly deflated footballs… When I started to become comfortable with the fact that my parents knew puberty was beginning to rear its hairy head — well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, to be honest — I would cut out all the models from Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions, put them on my walls and give them little comic-strip thought balloons, saying stuff like, “David, you’re hot!” and “David, James Bond has nothing on you.”

In my imagination, I was a torrid lover, a machine, a manly cat the kittens couldn’t keep their paws off… well, let’s face it, guys, I was Shaft. Unfortunately, I was a most private dick; even though a few of my friends had tales of heavy petting debauchery, usually with an older girl, typically in a dark room somewhere and often involving zippers, rubber gloves and mayonnaise, I, at 13, had still never properly kissed a girl (I’m talking about real snogging here, not the quick, stolen pecks on the cheek with Stacy behind the primary school washrooms when I was 11, although, at the time, they were meaningful). The closest I came was taking a girl in to the school bazaar; she ended up leaving with another guy when I told her, no, sorry, I can’t go to hang out the mall afterwards because my Dad is picking me up bang on 6 o’clock, can’t be late. (Emily, I haven’t forgotten you… contact me, if you ever want to talk.)

I thought it was never going to happen. Then, my childhood friend Andy started dating the local football coach’s daughter, and I was lucky (so lucky) enough to accompany him on a few of their dates. Mostly, they would sneak off to a dark corner, and he would touch her breasts (He touched her breasts! He even grabbed them!) and kiss her cheek, and I was off trolling around, hoping neither of them noticed that I was watching.

I mean, what must it be like? You’ve got a girl there… and you can do anything with her! Sure, one time Andy sneaked his hands a little too low, and she let out a shriek and told him to stop it, but I suspect that’s just because they were out in public. When they were alone, who knew what kind of insanity went on? I bet he even kissed her with his tongue.

Imagination was all I had. I was helpless with women, and rather than face the embarrassment of being rejected, I just avoided them. It wasn’t until I joined a local youth club that I finally met a girl who would talk to me.

Her name was Michelle, and I was the first person she’d ever kissed, too. She was a shy, bookish girl, with big glasses that I think also helped the sight of anyone who happened to be standing behind her (within 10 feet). She was a year below me in school and wanted nothing more than to get straight A’s, be a bridesmaid in her best friend Julianne’s wedding, meet David Hasselhoff (believe it or not, there was a time when The Hoff was considered sexy) and not be late to Sunday school. She was a proper sweet straight-laced schoolgirl, and sex was something that would be not be even thought of until her wedding night, and even then only if you’re lucky.

I liked her because she was nice and funny and a good decent girl — this was during a period of my life in which I wanted to be a minister; that might be surprising to you, and probably strikes you as something I should delve into deeper, but I won’t, because it’s not really all that interesting, and besides, it was a very long time ago, and I’m such a sinner now I’d feel guilty even thinking about it — but mostly I liked her because she had enormous breasts and I thought maybe if I was really, really nice and gave her flowers and told her I loved her and took her to movies and made nice with her friends and held her hand, she might let me touch them.

I was willing to wait. Once I finally dug up the nerve to ask her out, we had three dates. The first was to a movie, Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox. Mum wouldn’t let me go unless I had a chaperone, so Andy, who was a year older, also came along… if only Mum knew the stuff I’d seen Andy do! The second was also to a movie, the name of which I have forgotten.

The third night, I knew it was time to make my move. It must have been a particularly ribald weekend in Hollywood, because all the films at the cinema were rated R, save for one. So Andy and Michelle and her friend Julianne and I marched up to the ticket window, plunked down our cash and headed in to see Back To The Future.

The scene was toward the end, when the band is playing “Earth Angel” and Marty McFly is starting to fade from existence because his parents-to-be aren’t getting together on the dancefloor as they were destined to in 1955. The tension was high; would this be the end of our hero? Michelle gripped my arm. I touched her hand. She looked at me. I leaned in. She leaned in. Closer. Closer. I puckered up (this was fucking it! Oh man oh man oh man!) and planted my lips on hers, where they remained for about, oh, half a second. We were in a cinema, but I could still see her blush. As did I, when Andy, sitting right behind us, began to giggle.

And that was my first kiss. Years later, at Julianne’s wedding, I gave a toast. I saluted Jules and her husband, and made a joke about initially spending time with her to get closer to Michelle, my first kiss, someone I’d never forget. Michelle blushed then, too, though I think she might have been drunk. She ended up marrying a grocer or something, and I think they have a couple of children, both shy and bookish with enormous glasses. Curious to see how their breasts turn out.

The one I love

I’ve been chatting online with a friend of mine who’s been quite distraught at the prospect of her cat being put down. Listening to my friend mourn her pet brought memories flooding back of my own experience a few decades ago and inspired this piece I wrote for a writing challenge on the theme of “Love & Loss”.

 

He was there when she was alone and needed a friend. Now her pet is dying, and she feels helpless.

When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my family was visiting some neighbour friends for a late-night barbeque. As tended to be the case, the adults would sit around the grill and bitch about their marriages, or their jobs, or their children, whatever came to mind after a six-pack or two. We kids were relegated to the garden, free to roam around as long as we were within eyesight and able to stop, drop and roll at a moment’s notice. I was running around stupidly, freely, as children are wont to do, when I came across a small kitten, likely a stray. He was gray and dirty and had the cutest little nose. Unlike most cats I’d come across at the time, he didn’t seem to mind when I picked him up and roughed him up a bit. He was sweet and funny and even jumped up on my lap when I was lying in the grass, daydreaming. He was the friendliest cat I’d ever come across.

A cat seemed like the ideal pet for her. Cats are easy. All you really have to do is feed them and change their litter box. Cats aren’t like dogs; they don’t need attention. They just go about their own thing, eating, sleeping, shitting, licking themselves. The world of a cat is a blissful one, and it is decidedly solitary. They just go about their merry way, living their content, spoiled little lives, and if you end up playing with them, it’s because they have allowed you to.

She loved that concept. As nice as dogs are, you could pretty much smack them upside their head with a two-by-four, and after the cobwebs cleared and the blood was wiped out of their eyes, they’d happily come drooling back for more. Not cats. They don’t need you. They’re just fine without you, thank you very much. You have to earn the respect of a cat. They figure out whether or not they like you, and then they conclude if you’re worth hanging out with.

Her brother has the best way with cats. He has little interest in pets and he’s particularly not a fan of cats. So he just completely ignores them, not even implying any interest in their activities, a difficult task, since there are four of them roaming around his house. What happens? The cats, appreciative of not being picked up and snuggled when they just want to sleep, can’t get enough of the guy. He has to peel them off of him anytime he’s just trying to watch the telly. He often tells me that this is also how you’re supposed to deal with women, which, well, is a notion that might be of some value.

We were just fooling around. I would grab a leaf, rub it against his nose, then throw it so he could chase it around. He’d grab it in his teeth, bat at it with his paws, knock it across the grass and then scamper after it again. Playing along, I’d swipe it from him, dangle it around his ears and giggle as he twirled wildly trying to find it. I even did that trick where you pretend to throw the leaf and keep it in your hand instead, tittering madly as he searched furiously for it. At last, I did wad the leaf up and throw it toward a fence that surrounded the garden and shared a boundary with the neighbour’s. Out of nowhere, I heard a chain rattling, a growl, a crunch, a shriek and, ultimately, a whimper.

So she decided she wanted a cat. She wouldn’t even rent a flat that wouldn’t let her have one. She didn’t care what type of cat; as long as she had a kitten, something whose mind she could shape and warp in her own image. Her brother and I, just happy that she’d moved the 300-odd miles north, went on the hunt and found a woman he’d worked with whose cat just shot out a litter. The middle one will be perfect for her, she said; he’s sprightly and energetic and very affectionate. She’ll be living alone. She’ll need all the affection she can get… I mean… when you guys are not around, of course!

Thus, on one Sunday afternoon, about two weeks after she’d arrived in New York, a city in which she knew hardly anyone, a furry little tiger runt showed up at her new flat, announcing his presence by crying and sprinting under the bed. At first, inexperienced in having her own pet, she rushed after him, trying to calm him and instantly make him her friend. She learned quickly enough… just leave him alone. After a few hours, he peeked his head out from under the covers, looked left, looked right, and slowly, slowly, slowly crawled tentatively toward the living room. She tossed him a play toy she’d bought for the occasion. He hopped back, frightened, and bolted out of the room. Within 30 seconds, he was back, gnawing on the toy. She just watched, quietly. A half hour later, he was attacking her feet. An hour after that, he was on her lap, sleeping, and she knew he was hers. Or, more accurately, she was his. She named him Simba.

Many friends of hers in Pennsylvania had cats, and she thought they treated them too much like, well, too much like cats. They would end up either hiding under the bed anytime company would come over, or they would be the fat blob of hair taking up half the couch, a piece of furniture that needs to be fed. Her cat wouldn’t be like that, she vowed. He was just her flatmate, and he could do whatever he wanted just like any other flatmate. Want to sit on the kitchen counter? Dude, go ahead; it’s your place too. Want to eat the leftover pizza? Want to scratch up the wooden sofa legs? Want to bite my arm? Hey, it’s your prerogative. Who am I to tell you what to do? I have no business telling you how to live your life; like I know what I’m doing.

And he was awesome, the most personable animal this side of a car salesman. He would welcome any visitor with a hop up on the lap and a nibble on the wrist. He was just another guy — having him fixed was an ordeal she lamented for days — and he became more a pal than an inferior household pet. He would fall asleep wherever she ended up at night — whether it was the bed, the sofa or, on those particularly rough nights, the floor — and he ran the place however he saw fit. He even helped her out by charming what few guys she could coerce to come over to the flat. (Sometimes being a girl living alone with a cat does have its advantages.)

It has always seemed to me that, in a way, we’re closer to our pets than we could ever be to another human being. You can pick your nose, fart, masturbate, whatever, the types of things you could only otherwise do alone, with your pet in the room and not even think twice, not even hesitate. It’s a natural closeness. That’s the type of relationship she had with Simba.

She talked whimsically about how insane it would be for Simba, who as a cat was likely to live for close to 20 years, to go through changes with her, to move to new places, to meet the man she’d love, to play with her children. You have a cat for a long time, and, sometimes, they’re actually a bit of work. With Simba, it was a commitment she didn’t think twice about making.

Immediately, it was obvious something was wrong. I hurried guiltily over to the fence and saw an enormous dog, blood dripping from its jaws, scurry away. And on the ground, eyes wide wide wide open, was my little kitten. There were two puncture wounds, one just below his neck and one just below his ribcage. The cat was feeling no pain, not yet; it just lay there, in shock, lacking understanding. I was vaguely aware that I might have caused this… if I just hadn’t have thrown the leaf near the fence. And then came the gasps. Later that evening, my mother explained that the dog’s bite, its horrific CHOMP!, likely broke the kitten’s ribs and collapsed its lungs. But all I remember are the gasps. The desperate thrusts for air, a wheeze, a cough, another wheeze. There was simply no air to be found. He wearily lifted his eyes up to me, what happened, oh God I can’t breathe, what is going on? I found myself eerily calm. He is going to die. I ran to the bathroom, grabbed a wet rag and ran back out to him. And for the next two hours, until my parents made me leave, I lay there with my gasping kitten, wiping his brow, trying to ease his suffering, making sure he was not alone.

Her cat is dying. It started about four months ago, when her flatmate complained that Simba, entirely out of character, had urinated on her bed. After changing the sheets and apologising profusely, she watched as Simba promptly hopped on her own bed and pissed there too. She took him to the vet, who told her he had a urinary infection, common for male cats. He gave her some pills (he gave the cat some too) and told her to make sure he drank plenty of water.

Simba was better for about a week, but then he was right back at it again, this time not urinating, but instead depositing little droplets of blood across the flat. It was almost cute; he was conditioned to the litter box, so he would only go on places that weren’t the floor, like the bed, or rugs, or pieces of clothing lying around. She rushed him back to the vet, who said his bladder was blocked, or his tract was swelling, or something, she didn’t really understand what. He said Simba would need surgery, and that it would cost her about several hundred dollars. This was money she didn’t have just sitting around, but there was no way she was letting her cat suffer. Plus, the place was starting to smell. Simba had the surgery and was fine for about three months.

And then last week when she found a dark red spot on the rug. She called the vet, bitching up a storm about paying all that money for a surgery that would only help for three months.

“Yeah, we were afraid that was going to happen. Listen, we weren’t sure at the time, but this is a chronic thing. This isn’t going away. We can perform another surgery on him, but this is likely going to happen again in three months, or two, or one. And it’s just going to get worse.”

“So what do I do?”

“Well, he’s going to be in a lot of pain. I don’t think it’s right to let him suffer.”

“Yeah, but how do I fix him?”

“We’re not sure we can.”

“Wait, you’re not saying… ?”

That’s what he was saying.

About a year later, I was riding my bike by the very same house we visited that night. It was the middle of the afternoon. No one was home. I noticed the dog, a big nasty mean ugly dog, sleeping in the neighbour’s front garden. Stealthily, I hopped off the bike and jumped the fence. I stood there watching that dog for a while, trying to will myself into kicking it right in the stomach, but I couldn’t do that. So I just leapt over the fence again and pedalled away, feeling empty.

She is taking Simba to the vet tomorrow. She’s not certain what the vet will say, but she has a good idea. So now her cat is lying there, on the sofa, silent, motionless, in agony. Occasionally he’ll move his head, look up, eyes wide wide wide open, and let out an anguished yet muted rowwrghhhhhhhhhh, then put his head back down. Christ, is there anything worse than an animal in pain? The poor fucking thing… just lying there, crying, screaming, wondering what in the world is happening to it… incapable of adequately communicating how much this fucking hurts.

As “owners,” we have little control over our pets’ lives. We feed them, clean their litter boxes, make sure they’re not living in total filth. That’s about all we do. Yet she keeps thinking that she’s done something wrong, that she fed him the wrong food, or didn’t pay enough attention to him, or didn’t change the litter often enough. She could have done something. This is her fault. It isn’t, or so I keep telling her, but to her, it sure feels that way.

Oh God, she says. He just jumped up here, on my desk, next to my computer. He’s looking at you on the screen. Did he know we were talking about him? How did he have the strength to make the leap? He’s staring at me now. Does he know? Is he aware? Can he understand? Is he angry? Does he know how much he’s meant to me? Has he ever known?

And then the anguished cry: Oh, Simba, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. We have been through so much. I don’t know what to do without you…