Three-Cat Nights

January 31, 1994|By ANDREW CIOFALO

I vaguely remember sitting at his kitchen table in Mahwah, New Jersey, telling my brother Tom how much I hated cats. But here was my brother telling me that his future second wife was a cat lover. I prefer dogs, I said. She's beautiful, he said.

The one dog in his life had been a mistake, the result of a father's yearning to capture on film the delights of a daughter's face presed against the window at the mall pet store.

Long before the dog was buried in a one-gallon Baggie under a back-yard gravestone, Elizabeth had wisely shifted her emotional allegiance to Snoopy -- ageless, immortal and stuffed.

Now a doctoral student in psychology (of course) at Fairleigh Dickinson University, she is bringing to her upcoming marriage this August to David, the book editor, a dowry worth considerable thousands in Snoopy memorabilia. They've already installed the nuptial cat in their condo. This is crazy, I said. Cats don't die, she said.

Anyway, I told my brother I would never marry a woman who smoked or who owned a cat and beat a hasty retreat back to

Baltimore before he could smack me.

Row houses in Rodgers Forge are deceiving; they conceal all manner of pets. So when I started to date Judy, a Forgean transplanted from Iowa, my petard was readily available for hoisting. There was this black cat, ominously named Bear, that claimed every bit of sofa between me and my beloved. Such frustrations quickly led to marriage, and I figured Bear, being primarily an outside cat, would be out of sight out of mind.

After we were married, I was introduced to the two other cats that lived in the basement, Bucket and Max, essentially abandoned by Judy's daughter in favor of a social life.

Retribution has come to Jennifer in her job as a resident assistant at Loyola College, where she is well on her way to a career as a zoo keeper.

What did anyone need with three cats anyway? Things might have worked if the two house-bound cats, who longingly called to birds from their ground-level window perch, could have been maneuvered into a life on the streets. But they weren't street-wise, and Bellona Avenue might have flattened their expectations.

So I hatched a plot to move the family upcounty, where there was acreage and no traffic, where the cats could spend delightful afternoons lolling on the porch and exhilarating nights dodging foxes and raccoons.

We were barely settled in our White Hall farmhouse when Judy broke the news to me. She was severely allergic to flea bites, and so not only did Max and Bucket have to remain indoor cats, but Bear would have to be weaned off the roaming life and be introduced to the gritty world of kitty litter.

Laden with 20-pound bags of the stuff, I wisecracked that litter and bran cereal could easily be combined into a single product that would also be useful on icy sidewalks. Shut up, she said.

My new sister-in-law decided to breed Persian Longhairs in her New Jersey basement. Shortly after my brother's second

divorce, I congratulated him on getting rid of the cats. But a quick visit found him absorbed in strategies to entice an outdoor cat, a holdover from his first marriage, to spend more time indoors. Why are you doing this, I asked. It's winter, he answered.

When the following year a sophisticated Manhattan editor, Pam, entered his life, he told me, as he put the cat out, I think I'm going to marry her. Why are you doing this, I asked. It's spring, he answered. No, I mean the cat, I said. It's spring, he repeated.

The four-hour drive down to White Hall was ample time to plot my strategy. Judy? What, she said. It's spring, I said. So what, she said. Divorce was out of the question.

Summer cycled into fall and cat hair was all over the place. What's going on? The cats are getting ready for a long hard winter, she said. Don't they know they're never going out, I said. They're not doing it for themselves, she said.

On Channel 2 Norm Lewis was going on and on about El Nino and that Alaskan high pumping frigid arctic air into the northeast. Quick cut to Mary Beth Marsden: So that's what's going on, she said. Back to Lewis: It's winter, he said, proudly.

The temperature in the northern burbs had already dipped below zero. Bear had crashed that sliver of couch space between Judy and me; Bucket and Max flanked us on each side. All were purring warmth underneath the afghan that stretched across our legs.

This seems rather nice, I said. Then let's go to bed, she said. Bear, Bucket and Max trotted upstairs after us.

It was the first of many three-cat nights, now and forever.

Andrew Ciofalo teaches in the Writing and Media Department at Loyola College where cats are not permitted in the dorms or the offices.

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