I spent my first five-dollar bill on a stuffed kitten. We had just moved to The States and were rummaging through the toy aisle at Target when Papa slipped me some cash. “Pick something special to bring home.” On my quest, I spotted a striped orange cat with almond eyes and clear plastic whiskers poking its little head out among a sea of Beanie Babies. Someone had haphazardly thrown him into the wrong section. I pulled him out of Beanie Baby hell, like I was his god or something. He was only about the size of my five-year-old arm and his face seemed to carry a million expressions. “That’s really what you want?” Papa asked skeptically.
For the first few years of Kitty’s life, he was a she. He went by the name of Ashley, which had to do with my short-lived girl crush on the Olsen twins. I remember taking a bedazzled pink bow from one of my dolls and wrapping it around his scruffy left ear. He looked at me blankly, as though trying to communicate contempt. Then he was an “it” for a while until the gender change. I started calling him Kitty after running out of more creative options.
During my elementary school years, Kitty sat by a large Spongebob pillow in the middle of my bed waiting for me to come home every day. After school I’d run into my room, drop my backpack on the floor, and smother him. Much like my journals, he tolerated my ranting silently. I’d yap endlessly about the day, my ideas, my dreams. He was never one to judge, and his patience was boundless. In fact, the poor thing sat on my desk when I listened to Avril Lavigne’s album “Let Go” nonstop for a month straight. I still know every word.
Over the years, my bond with Kitty only intensified. I’d snuggle my cheek against his baby pink nose before drifting off to sleep, feeling protected. If ever I misplaced him and couldn’t find him in time for bed, I thought the nightmares would come for me. He was a dream-catcher. He’d wait for me by my sleeping bag during our summer camping trips in North Conway and smell like fire and lake water during the drive back home.
My grandparents, Rosita and Carlos, who are two of my favorite people in the world, would visit us from the Azores every year. Rosita has never been one to sit still and would deep clean every room in the house when my parents were at work. She’d reorganize everything and redecorate until the place looked like an Ikea advertisement. She was also the only one to ever give Kitty baths. After throwing him into “the underwater Ferris wheel”, Rosita and I would cook lunch together. When it was time, Kitty would come out of the drier brand new, his stripes and belly the color of snow again. I’d take whiffs of lavender and wrap my arms around him. We’d nestle together next to Rosita under a blanket, watching telenovelas until it was time for bed.
Snot and tears found a home in Kitty’s fur from countless nights spent feeling utterly alone, let down, and heartbroken. I never believed in God, so I saved my bigger questions and wishes for Kitty in times of desperation. I’d often ask him “Why?” and “What next?” like he was hiding the answers. I’d get frustrated when he didn’t respond. At the same time, I’d lock my eyes with his and feel safe. Our bond was beyond words.
When I was eleven, my neighbors threw Kitty back and forth in the yard. I was the monkey in the middle. His left eye came off and rolled past me on the cement path in slow motion. Playing it cool, I pretended not to care in front of the cute boy-next-door. At night I shut myself in my room and cried into Kitty’s ears. Rosita sewed the eye back on the next day, but the guilt of letting my friend down remained.
As time went on, Kitty moved from my to bed to shelves where I could see him, but no one else could. This was during the phase of giving away all my stuffed animals, tearing up the Twilight poster above my bed, and my teenage identity crisis. Kitty was on top of my bookshelf facing my bedroom window that led to a lower roof when he watched me smoke a bowl with my friend Anna, our legs dangling together into the night. He fixed his blank gaze on me when Mama caught us in the act. “You know you could’ve cracked your head open and died, right?”
Kitty hid beside my Jane Austen collection when I stuffed my bedroom into cardboard boxes, preparing for the move to a freshman dorm room in downtown Boston. Papa grabbed one of my bags and stood beside him for a moment. “You’re not gonna take Kitty with you?”
“Not this time,” I responded, scratching my fingers through the fur on his head.
I flunked out of my first semester of college, diving into every possible distraction instead of focusing on school. I gained twenty pounds, bounced around parties in a haze with my “friends” from Thursday to Sunday, and let myself go until there was nothing left. Kitty was waiting for me in the same spot on my bookshelf when I moved back home in defeat. There was judgment in his eyes for the first time, so I threw him in the closet and shut the door.
As time went on, I picked myself back up again. After taking community college courses to catch up on credits and to raise my GPA, I found my way to Salem State University. Kitty was still in the closet when I moved into my first apartment, gathering dust next to my flute and a middle school yearbook. The years spent at Salem State were some of the best of my life, filled with milestones that Kitty never witnessed: falling in love, moving into an apartment with my best friends, landing a real “adult” job, and the list goes on…I could have cried into his fur after my first gut-wrenching break-up, but my best friend ‘s shoulder and a cliche pint of cookie dough filled the void instead. He wasn’t there for any of the memories that solidified my transition into adulthood. I guess he’s only really known me as a child, which makes him all the more special to me.
Last week, my two-year-old brother, Gabriel, and Mama were snuggled together on the couch watching Sesame Street. I had just come back home from school for the weekend and finished attacking Gabriel with kisses when his little almond eyes reminded me of something. I walked into my room and opened the closet door, standing face-to-face with an old friend. Picking him up by the paw like the day I first brought him home, I introduced Kitty to my brother. Gabriel sneezed into his fur and handed him back to me like a used tissue. Mama and I laughed until Gabriel instinctively joined us. Kitty sat watching at the center of it all.