Popular wisdom holds that cats are, by and large, indifferent to the existence of the humans around them. Sally, my brown tabby, is an exception to this rule: We have a species-transcending, next-level mega-connection, and we understand each other with startling clarity. If I say, “Sally, could you come over here for a sec?” in a completely normal, not-at-all coaxing tone, she comes to me immediately.
Usually, I don’t even have to call her—she follows me around the house and is extraordinarily affectionate, which is especially unexpected from a cat like her, who spent a large part of her life on the street.
I met Sally seven years ago, when she was a stray who had just had three kittens under my grandmother’s patio. My grandmother is somehow totally immune to all feline charms and wanted Sally and her brood gone posthaste, so my mom and I—noted cat ladies both—had been recruited to deal with this adorable infestation. When we arrived at the house, this adorable scruffy adult cat walked right up to us, meowed a cordial hello, and led us directly to the humble home she’d made for herself and her babies, whom she let us pick up and pet. She trusted us immediately, it seemed. I’m not sure if that was because people in the neighborhood had been feeding her and making her comfortable with human contact, or if my mom and I just gave off a palpable “I don’t want to hurt you, I simply want to snuggle, wuggle, wuggle your little face” vibe, but her trust was flattering.
We gathered up all the cats with the intention of finding homes for the young’uns and getting “the mom,” as we called her, spayed ASAP. After that, who knew what would happen to her? Would she go to a shelter? Would any family friends want to take on a full-grown stray cat who, though impossibly amiable, was covered with grime, missing several teeth, sour-smelling, and possible sick?
I thought she was sweet, but I wasn’t considering keeping her, especially because I had my eye on one of the kittens. I did, however, give her a name—Sally is also the name of the female alien on 3rd Rock from the Sun, which I’d been watching a lot of at the time.
After a week, two of the kittens were placed in loving homes, and I’d decided to keep the third kitten. But the question remained: What about Sally? My mom took Sally to the veterinarian, who discovered she had a hernia and an infection (presumably the cause of that sour smell). The vet said it was obvious that Sally had led a rough life, and had probably been subsisting for a long time on a diet of birds and scraps from the garbage.
The first, very unsentimental reason for my decision to keep Sally was that the total vet bill—which included shots, hernia repair surgery, spaying, and antibiotics—was about $350. It seemed pretty outrageous to spend that kind of money and then just be like, “OK, peace out, kitteh!”
The second, perhaps more noble, reason was that I felt a deep sense of responsibility for her. When I imagined what her “rough life” must have been like (dodging cars and dogs, scrounging for food, late-night rumbles in the streets with the cat gang from the other side of town), I knew it was my personal duty to give her a new life in which she would always feel safe, happy, and loved.
Over the years, my bond with Sally has grown so intense that I can’t believe I ever considered giving her away. Our friendship has a lot of the typical features of a human–cat relationship: She sleeps while I clean her litter box, refill her food and water bowls, and take infinity-million pictures of her with her tongue hanging out of her mouth, something that I can only imagine she does because she knows how adorable it looks.
But there’s also a great cultural exchange that happens between us. I’ve introduced her to Seinfeld, which we sometimes watch together before bed, and she’s introduced me to the joys of lying around on stacks of loose paper—an invigoratingly defiant act that challenges the outmoded human convention of not lying on loose paper.
See? Doesn’t this look rad? Sally’s always at my side, when I’m at home, and when we’re not together, I sincerely miss her. If I’m lying on my bed, she plops down beside me and rests her head on my leg or stomach.
About two years ago, Sally developed a severe infection in one of her eyes that caused it to swell and water, and she wedged herself up next to me so that I could hold her. This was during a brief period when I’d stopped allowing her to sleep in my room because she’d acquired this irritating habit of waking me up in the middle of the night by loudly scratching the carpet, which I’m fairly certain she thought was hilarious. But when she looked up at me that day with that sad, runny eye and then rested her head on my thigh, my heart got all melty.
I’m always looking for signs that my animals are as into me as I am into them (I’m not ashamed to admit that I often google “How can you tell if your cat loves you?”). In that moment, though, whatever affection Sally might have for me was really tangible.
Now, of course, she sleeps in my room whenever she likes, and I just tolerate her late-night shenanigans to the best of my ability.
My boyfriend maintains that Sally somehow intentionally contracted the infection as part of a cunning scheme to garner sympathy and elevate her status among the other cats in the house (we have a few, but none that I feel as connected to as Sally). Whether she’s scamming me or she genuinely loves me, I’ve never had a cat cling to me the way Sally does, which makes me feel an even greater obligation to protect her.
There is no way of knowing exactly how old Sally is. Her vet estimated that she was four or five when we found her all those years ago, which means she’s quite elderly today—probably about 12, which is supposedly like 64 in human years. But she’s healthy now, save for a cloudy eye (a remnant of that infection), and I strive to make sure she’s happy, provided for, and able to watch as many episodes of Seinfeld as she wants.
There’s something really powerful about the bond that you have with a pet that was once a stray. It feels almost fated. I wasn’t looking for Sally, she wasn’t looking for me—we just sort of found each other. When I look at her, I see destiny made manifest. I was always supposed to be Sally’s human, and she was always supposed to be my cat. ♦