A year before my separation which became my divorce, I bought my husband a kitten. Some people buy a new house or have a baby to save a marriage. I opted for a 5 lbs, extra fluffy, chocolate Persian kitty who cost more than my first car.
When Coco came home it was clear that there was a new boss in town. His clumsy, sassy catwalk strut was unparalleled. His cuteness vibrated like something holy. He looked like a confused brown chinchilla who had just climbed out of the dryer after an hour on the tumble setting. I always knew Coco’s whereabouts around the house because someone would literally be screaming about how unbearably adorable he was. It reminded me of the old days when we played “Uncle” as kids and would howl when the pain was too much. Coco had a tender, redeeming side too. He would narrow his bright green eyes when he was coming in for landing, finally tuckered out from raising hell. He would climb onto the bed to find me and settle down on my chest, his purr reverberating through my being.
As Coco grew older that first year his fabulous, thick, brown coat became my full time job. Literally. I was never not dealing with it in some capacity. This was partly because of the shedding on clothes and furniture and partly because Coco, despite being born into a Park Avenue lap cat body, had the soul of a ride-or-die Hell’s Angel and wanted to be outside all the time. He would turn up in the evenings with half a forest tangled deep into his underbelly and I would spend the better part of my night wrestling with him to get it out. Finally I decided: Enough. And I took him for a professional grooming.
Getting that much fluff and cat-itude into a travel bag, enduring the dramatic deep throat cries for freedom which played out during the entire car ride and then paying the groomer an exorbitant amount of money above her normal fee because Coco was, well, just so very Coco, was not much fun. But it was worth it. And when he came home he was somehow only cuter. He now looked like an exotic miniature chocolate lion. He would hop out of the bag, flick his tail at me with disgust and then settle down in the sun somewhere to recover from the humiliation and injustice of it all. Soon enough he would be back to strutting around the joint with gusto.
Shortly after one of his groomings, deep into the summer when he was slightly less resistant to them, Coco went outside and didn’t come home at dinner time. I didn’t freak out right away. I woke up several times that night and checked outside for him, calling his name, walking through the yard with a flashlight. Nothing. I was sure he would be there in the morning. But he wasn’t.
All throughout the next day I called for Coco but only the wind answered me. I wandered around the neighborhood. I talked to people. I scrolled through the endless pictures of him on my phone, barely able to stand the sight of him in all his precious naughty aliveness. I found one where he was facing the camera, lying on the kitchen table as though it belonged to him exclusively. I printed it and made flyers to hang around town. I posted on Facebook. I called local vets and shelters. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
I spoke with a pet psychic. She told me Coco was with children and being well cared for but that he wanted to come home. She said he was showing her two pine trees. They were large and close together in a front yard with a tall white house in the background. I knew exactly the spot she described and walked there and knocked on the door and asked the woman who answered if she’d seen Coco but she hadn’t. And given how sad she seemed for me when I held up his picture I believed her and didn’t try to push past her and inspect the house as I’d planned to on my walk over.
I went back home feeling gutted. How could someone with that much life force just slip away into the ether without a trace like a trail of smoke from a blown out candle? It was like misplacing a killer whale. It felt impossible that he wasn’t here, wasn’t anywhere. That I couldn’t find him.
Days turned to weeks. My son was barely 6 years old at the time and promised he would never give up, never stop looking. “We’ll never stop looking,” I agreed, kissing his top of head and turning the light out.
Lying in bed with my husband he traced my palm with his finger and told me he was sorry. “For what?”, I asked him. “You know, that Coco’s gone and everyone’s upset,” he replied. And then he added, sheepishly: “You know… I didn’t want a cat in the first place. I appreciate that you were trying to give me a special gift but I feel like having a pet always ends in some kind of pain like this.”
I shot out of bed like a launched cannon after he spoke. All the anguish I’d been trying to contain since the first night Coco had gone missing was suddenly loose like a snake from a cage. Head raised, fangs bared. A laundry list of hurts and accusations and fuck you’s followed. Our relationship was in such bad shape back then and both of us knew it. I’d been trying to fix it by distracting us with something precious and wonderful and happy making and now that too had gone terribly wrong. But for him to reinforce his world view that everything always inevitably eventually goes to shit one way or another was too much for me to deal with on top of the grief around Coco. The loss of our cat was one note inside a much more complex chord. The music getting louder. Pounding in my ears.
I slept in the guest room that night. The guest room which would become my future bedroom when we finally separated. And what kept plaguing me then, lying on my side on the pull out sofa, hot salty tears trailing down from the corner of my eyes to the corner of my mouth, was the unfairness of the fact that I had just gone through all the trouble and time and expense of getting Coco groomed right before he’d disappeared. It felt unbearable to me that I’d invested in something that would not yield any kind of return. That something I’d nurtured and loved and given so much of my devotion to could just vanish. The book was snapping shut mid-story. There would be no happy ending.
Wasn’t this the precise reason I had stayed in my marriage so long even though I’d known for ages that it was over? I couldn’t bear to push away from the table and cut my losses. I couldn’t bear to admit to myself that we’d been building this life together all of these years only to dismantle it in the end. That it was a set on a stage more than a life. It was something we would strike. The house lights turning on. All the mystery and romance and drama: over.
All things happen for a reason? Or do things happen and then we reason with their aftermath?
Coco never came home. We never saw him again. His loss was practice for the bigger loss which was yet to come. The loss of our nuclear family.
With time, our Coco flavored grief was slightly less raw and the kids and I started to make up stories about him. Elaborate, fantastical stories. The kind he would have approved of in all of his fluff and puff and frisky magic. We liked to imagine that he’d joined a gang of wild cats in the woods near our house and that he roamed the old railroad tracks with them at night, stealing food from garbage cans and exchanging ghost stories by the edge of the creek.
We liked to think of him as liberated, not lost. Free not gone. Living wild and loose and in accordance with his soul out there in the woods under the ever shifting moon. And when we miss him, when we still think about him at times and feel sad all these years later, we just let ourselves feel the sadness. We trust that it will alight as naturally as it descended. Like the mourning doves in the backyard where Coco used to lay, curling and unfurling his tail hypnotically. The owner of our hearts.