First friend, best friend

It is evening, close to the end of the month, and I'm alone in my tiny apartment. I watch the wall opposite an uncurtained window, the reflected glow of headlights, their erratic beams cutting through the dark. I question each passing light; wonder about the cars passing behind them, unheard except for the faint hiss of their tires. In my isolation, I feel like a voyeur observing the human race. I've lived for just three days in this city, this university town where I've come to finish school.

I spend the first week wandering the streets, riding buses, seeking a little conversation. The people I meet are polite, even friendly, but only up to a point. Beyond a casual greeting or comment on the weather, they remain a mystery, inaccessible except in the mundane ways. Evenings I return home alone, my loneliness more acute, becoming almost physical -- a garment I wear through the streets.

I'm preparing dinner one afternoon when someone knocks at the door. Not a knock, really, but a kind of scraping. It's a child, I think, though I realize i don't know any children here. When I open the door the hallway is empty except for an odd ball of gray fur and two desperate green eyes. A stray cat --a hungry one, too, judging from the protruding ribs, the intense green eyes, leveled now in the direction of my stove, my tuna and cheese casserole.

"No kitties allowed in here," i tell him. "That's the building policy. Can't you read?" I lift him up gently, intending to deposit him back outside. In my hands, though, the tiny body astonishes me: the sharp bone endings, the shivering warmth and the delicacy of his heartbeat against the mottled gray fur. His whole being seems to radiate hunger and need. I pet him until he stops shivering and then sit him down. Inside the door. Just adjacent to the tuna and cheese casserole.

"I shouldn't be doing this," I tell him. "But I am. Just this once. Just one meal." I transfer him to the empty chair opposite mine at the table, sliding a small plate of tuna in front of his nose. He doesnt' begin eating, though, to my amazement. Instead he waits until I nod my assent, motioning him to the food. He then eats rapidly but with impeccable tale manners. By the time my own meal is finished my friend is asleep --stomach at the edge of the couch. One paw dangles over, the other shields his eyes, as if from something too difficult to look at.

"Sleep well," I whisper. "Because in the morning you're going out. Bye-bye. Vamanos.m Back to the streets . . . ."

The next morning I do put him out. And each morning after that. Each evening, though, I take him back, opening the door to his scratching, his bright eyes and his insistent neows. Eventually it bcomes a ritual: the two of us sharing dinner, talking together, seated across from each other at the small kitchen table. "You're nothing special, though," I remind him one night. "You're only eating what would be wasted. A few leftovers. . . .No big thing."

When he looks back at me his eyes say that he understands completely, that he knowsm why I'm doing this, that the explanations and denials are unnecessary. In these exchanges I sense a kind of empathy unfolding between us, a bond tht both astonishes and consoles me. A friendship.

Gradually we begin to know each other's moods, habits, idiosyncrasies. My friend, for example, enjoys a little music with his dinner. Classical music is fine. Rock and roll is unacceptable. cleanliness, at all times, is mandatory. If I forget to wash a dish, he does, after first giving me a nudge, or reprimand , with his paw. Some nights I read aloud to him, I, sitting in a chair, he, stretched attentively in front of me. Television generally puts him to sleep, as it does me.

As our relationship evolves, it has the effect of nourishing what is human in me, those qualities which had been called into question during my first days here. Without realizing it at first my friendship with the cat had strengthened and affirmed my own humanity. Concurrently, the animal seems happier, his eyes brighter, his fur silky and clean. Both of us have been enriched.

A few nights later I open the door to his scratching. Instead of pushing in, my friend rushes away, pausing a few yards down the hall. In front of Apartment 9 I watch him duplicate the performance, the scratching which has so many times gained him entrance to my place. The hand that opens this door belongs to an elderly woman. She seems happy to see him.

"Picasso!" the woman says, bending to pick him up. "Where on earth have you been?"

"Picasso?" I ask.

"Picasso." she says, and explains that this was the cat's original name. "He belonged initially to some college students. When they moved away, I took him in. Until last week anyway. Then the landlord learned he was living here -- and became anxious. Picasso left on his own. He didn't want to get me in trouble. . . ."

My neighbor and I take turns looking after him now. I count both of them as my friends. Picasso stays with me for a week, then spends a week with her. somehow the landlord hasn't said anything. Perhaps he is human as well. Perhaps we're all -- including Picasso -- learning something we never guesse d at before.

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