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Dispatches

Kitty Pride

A visit with the prima donnas of the 32nd Annual Westchester County Cat Show helps a longtime owner appreciate her unruly childhood best friend, now departed.

Betty Fuerst, Chalkware Cat, c. 1940. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

“Can you believe we forgot his glasses?” says a middle-aged woman with a poofy perm and toothy grin.

“I know! We didn’t realize it until we were two hours into our drive,” sighs her husband. “We stopped off at a Petco on our way here but they don’t sell eyewear—you know how chain stores are. Though we did pick him up two more outfits.”

I nod and stare at the feline in question. Cheddar is an award-winning, orange American shorthair cat. His glossy green eyes beam with the fierceness of a born champion. I am told he starred in a Target commercial.

“I hope he can see all right without them,” I say.

“Oh, his eyesight is perfectly fine. The glasses are just an accessory,” said the man in total earnestness.

She beckons me closer. “Go ahead, you can pet him if you like.”

Given Cheddar’s illustrious modeling career, not to mention a glamorous wardrobe that far exceeds mine in its size and scope (his closet holds more than 60 outfits, including medical scrubs that he wears to the vet), I can’t pass up the chance to snuggle with such a diva.

I give him a scratch behind the ears and Cheddar lets out an eager mew. His plucky cries capture the excitement of the arena. I hand him back to his owner, who begins brushing him in preparation for the main event—the Meow Wear Fashion Show, just one of the many happenings taking place at the 32nd Annual Westchester County Cat show. In addition to the traditional best-of-breed judging panels, the show is known for showcasing the quirkier side of cat ownership. Past years have included a demonstration of cat reiki (an ancient Japanese healing technique driven by the flow of bodily energy) and a piano recital by Nora, a gray tabby known for her ivory tickling abilities (her performances garnered over eight million views on YouTube).

This peculiar celebration of all things feline draws thousands from all over the tri-state area. There are elderly women in Garfield sweatshirts and kindergarten kids with tiger-stripe face paint smeared across their cheeks. The crowd is a diverse bunch united in cat obsession. And apparently now, I’m a part of the tribe.

It’s been more than three months since my childhood cat Mudpie died. As an adult in my mid-twenties, I haven’t been cat-less in nearly two decades. A void has grown at the foot of the bed where Mudpie used to wake me up at 6 a.m. for breakfast. She was a feisty, independent girl who always fought back. Her splotchy tortoise-shell colored coat shone. When Lucky the Dog ate her kibble, she’d stand on her hind legs, let out a hiss, and slap his snoot. Sometimes we found her claws in his fur. Sometimes we’d find scratch marks on our arms. She wasn’t always loyal, but she was always there.

Since her death I’ve inhabited the only space I know that has more cats than this cat show—the internet.

I’ve spent the past fall since her death glued to the couch, or rather many couches, inhabiting the only space I know that has more cats than this cat show—the internet. Online, I visit Maru (Japan’s box-loving cat), Lil Bub (a disfigured dwarf cat), Long Cat (a cat known solely for being long), and a litany of others that even casual web surfers are likely familiar with. But I know them especially well. They have been my companions during this tumultuous, transitional time. I’m between jobs and between living arrangements—the timelines for both seem rather nebulous. I’m like millions of other kids born, raised, and thrown into an economically desolate landscape—a recent liberal arts grad with a degree in a subject that I’m told is not only useless, but oxymoronic: American Culture. Hours have turned to days turned to months as I’ve deluged the inboxes of publishers with my paltry resume. It’s gotten to the point where form rejection letters are considered a victory—at least my failings are acknowledged. I lapsed into depression and insomnia. Without a pet or a prospect or even a true home, my life’s most pleasant diversion remains confined to a YouTube-sized box on a screen, watching shadows of my former friend’s spirit.

Mudpie lived the last of her days huddled in a basket of blankets in the basement closet at my parents’ house. I lived those days bouncing between that house in the suburbs, friends’ apartments in Brooklyn, and a boy’s bedroom in New Jersey. It was a tri-state area Bermuda Triangle of impermanence, easy to fall into but hard to escape. It was the cat that kept me coming home. Amid sporadic temp work and mounds of student debt, her ferocity was a source of constant comfort and I needed her savage presence now more than ever. Ravaged by kidney disease, she soon stopped eating and withered away to a shell of her former self. It was then, when she became indifferent to that pesky dog, that we made the final vet appointment and parted ways one last time.

I now stand dead center in the gymnasium and watch the spectacle unfurl. Row after row of cages filled with Himalayans, Abyssinians, Bengals, and bobtails. Judging stations are in every corner. The judges examine each cat with the thoroughness and solemnity of FDA food inspectors. Tails are stretched. Paws are prodded. Fur is literally flying. Vendors along the periphery of the gym hawk cat toys, cat clothes, cat furniture, cat everything, wigs and nail polish included.

Here were people who could provide these animals with not only a lifelong supply of food and shelter but non-prescription eyewear and ballerina tutus.

In the back corner of the gym the local county animal shelter showcases two dozen strays in need of “forever homes.” I look longingly at them through the bars on their crates. A bell rings out, signaling another successful adoption. The resounding sound elicits claps and cheers. While I’m happy for the no-longer-homeless calico, I can’t help but feel a pang of selfish sadness. Yes, I long for a cat, but even more so, I long for the circumstances necessary to own a cat. Stability. Permanence. A steady income might be nice, too. I envied the bounty that calico was about to receive: Here were people who could provide these animals with not only a lifelong supply of food and shelter but non-prescription eyewear and ballerina tutus.

I aimlessly wander the gym once again. The clock strikes two. An announcer’s voice blares over the loudspeaker, “The Meow Wear Fashion Show is about to begin at the main stage.” This year’s theme is “At the Movies.” Lead by their owners, feline after feline is paraded down a mini-runway. Countless puns are made about the literal catwalk. There’s a tabby dolled up in a white, wind-blown dress a la Marilyn Monroe. I spy James Dean, Elvis, and even a vampire out of Twilight. The outfits are more elaborate than most of my past Halloween costumes: just take Dorothy’s paw-sized, ruby red slippers. Those jewel-encrusted shoes achieved a level of detail I could have never bothered with, as the one-dollar Old Navy flip-flops I was wearing could attest.

Most of the cats are indifferent to the spectacle, though a few try to wriggle out of their dresses. When I was nine, I tried putting Mudpie in a dress meant for baby doll. She bit my arm hard, her jaw like a screw clamp. The memory makes me giggle and sigh.

Then Cheddar emerges in a shiny blue cape and wizard hat—Harry Potter minus the glasses. If it’s possible for a cat to ham it up, that’s what Cheddar did. He pranced toward the cameras, as if by model instinct, with a level of pride I’d only seen in Mudpie when she killed a baby bird.

A lady seated behind me squeals in delight. She whispers to her friend, “What could be greater than a cat in a hat?”

And at that moment, I wasn’t sure I had the answer.

All I could do was marvel at this fluffy spectacle. Cats in hats (and dresses and glasses) were indisputably adorable. But it reminded me of another truth, courtesy of my former pet. There’s more to love than just appearances: There’s the spirit that lies underneath. Sometimes there’s virtue in clawing your way out of that very same clothing that makes you so cute in the first place Whether she was chasing squirrels up a tree or vying for the dog’s food, she was nothing if not persistent, defiant, and unfettered. She was free.

Jessica Gentile is a writer based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Paste magazine, and xoJane.com, among other publications. More by Jessica Gentile