Last summer, when family troubles landed me down in the dumps, I decided I should have a little joy in my life. I got an urge, not unlike the longing a woman gets when it’s time for another child: that stirring deep inside that is at first un-recognizable but slowly gels into actual thought, and, finally, action. I wanted—no, needed—another cat to take the place of my beloved Scooter, who died, cancer-ridden, deaf, and blind, at the age of 21.
I’ve had cats since I was 10, when I befriended a country girl whose vast property was home to perpetual litters of irresistible kittens. My mother grew used to my phone calls begging to bring one home. Every cat since, from Casper to Benjamin to Frank to Doc to Paddy, has hailed from a nearby litter, shown up at the door, or been retrieved from one shelter or another.
The time and circumstance have to be right. I tried to attach myself to Sonny, an orange mischief-maker born to a pregnant mama left on my vet’s doorstep, but the karma was wrong, so back he went—adopted, I came to find out, almost immediately after our failed relationship. My brother insisted I survey a huge litter of feral kittens behind his used-truck lot, but they didn’t seem to enjoy company any more than the bagel chips he kept tossing into their midst.
And so it was that I began my almost-daily visits to the Indianapolis Humane Society shelter. A chorus of meows greets visitors to the large cat room, where creature after beautiful creature rubs up against cage bars or shrinks in corners, frightened by the activity or hiding some terrible secret. But it wasn’t until a new litter of 8-week-old longhair kittens made their appearance that my heart sang. We took out two, my sister and I, sitting side-by-side as one batted at the pearl buttons on her sweater and the other licked my hand in approval as I stroked her from the top of her soft head to the tip of her wispy tail. Who could resist? The first week of June, I took home “Darla,” with her swirls and stripes of black and beige, her dramatically outlined eyes, puffs of fur poking from her ears. Never mind the leftover horse lice she’d picked up from her birthplace in a barn, where she was ignored and possibly even abandoned by her mother. When you fall in love, you tend to overlook the negatives.
And this is what has happened since. I rejected her staff-bestowed name and called her Joy, my rationale more metaphoric than fitting. She remained the lovable, gentle licker for a few days, and then the general anesthetic for her spaying wore off. After that, she began to explore her new home in the laundry room, and by explore I mean flattening herself in the space between the washer and dryer and hanging upside-down from the crate in which I first tried to contain her. (That lasted one day.)
Freed from her confines, she began to race around the house like a plane taking off, on the floor, the sectional sofa, the counters, knocking over plants and breaking two picture frames. She now sleeps in my potted fern, spraying dirt on every ascent; chews my rugs as if they were beef jerky; sticks her paws into the toaster; punches out the window screens; hides inside the washing machine; and skids across my new dining table, back claws (the only ones remaining) extended. I can’t prepare a meal without her occupying the sink, and, in an attempt to save my mother’s precious crystal and porcelain collectibles, I had to install a custom four-foot-tall Plexiglas partition to seal off the living room. I need only leave the back door open half an inch for her to squeeze through, which reminds me of Paddy, who used to stand on her hind legs and press down the latch to escape. I’m expecting JoJo—the nickname better reflects her roguish tendencies—to figure out not only how to open the door, but to ring the doorbell when she wants back in.
This is, you see, a big cat. Not big like in cute-big, but big like in jungle-variety, Lion King huge. Even as a 4-month-old kitten, her paws were the size of catcher’s mitts, and you could use her wide, sweeping tail as a feather duster. When she gallops across our wood floors, it sounds like the cavalry advancing, and she consumes an entire cereal bowl of dry food by midday.
If her bulk weren’t enough, she bites, and, although most vets will declaw, I haven’t found one who will excise teeth. She bites when she wants to be petted and bites when she is petted. She bites my ankles, my elbows, my hands, and my grandchildren, which lands her in the porch, on the other side of a glass door, where she is observed as if in the zoo.
When she went missing, I wasn’t surprised to find her closed in a cabinet, clattering among my baking supplies, but she shocked us by vaulting to the island cooktop, where a dangerous descent caused her to ignite a gas burner. Had we not been standing by, she’d have set herself, and probably the house, on fire.
As you can see, there is not much joy in Joy. And although the connection defies explanation, I love her. She is feisty and independent, not to mention gorgeous in her lush, silky coat. When full-grown, she might outweigh me, and I’ll have to haul her over my shoulder, like a sack of feed. Already, I need a bigger lap. I have confidence, though, that nurture will win out over nature, that at some point my wild barn cat’s genetic composition will cede to her more-formal surroundings, that she will come to nap in her lovely jumbo-sized bed rather than in my oversized ceramic serving platter.
In the meantime, if you happen to live in my neighborhood and the doorbell rings, please answer it.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.