"Bruce needs a cat," I announced one afternoon. I had been hiding at Bruce's house for three months, ever since my ex-boyfriend turned up at my apartment, despite a court order telling him he wasn't allowed within 150 yards of me. Bruce, the father of a friend from school, was an Outward Bound instructor who spent most of his year on the West Coast, giving my boyfriend Dan and I the run of his place.
"Oh, it's Bruce who needs a cat, is it?" Dan didn't believe me for a second. He knew that having grown up surrounded by felines, I found it a little disconcerting not having a four-legged creature in the house. He also knew that Bruce was the most easygoing person on the planet, and that he adored me: If I told Bruce I wanted to put his bed on the lawn and set it on fire, he'd go along with it without question.
I called Bruce in Washington, where he was working. "We're getting you a cat," I told him.
"Sure," he said. See?
Twenty minutes later, having seen a "Free Kittens" advertisement in the local paper, we were led by a woman onto the porch of a house not far from where we lived. There, piled quietly atop one another in a basket, were five fluffy gray kittens, blinking and yawning.
"Mitsy got out for a night," the woman told us, pointing to an adult cat reclining nearby. "Had herself quite a time, the hussy."
"They're so cute!" I squealed, picking one of the kittens up. "They're so - OH MY GOD IT DOESN'T HAVE A TAIL!"
"No, Mitsy is a Manx," the woman explained. "They're born that way. A couple of the kittens have stubs, but the others are completely tailless."
My brain melted a little. Teeny tailless tabbies - KITTEHS HAVE FAILED TO LOAD. I knelt down and proceeded to pet them for several minutes. Two fell asleep, and the others lay there, uninterested.
"Which one?" Dan asked. I didn't know how to choose. They all seemed relatively the same - furry and inactive. I was about to close my eyes and randomly pick one, when I noticed motion across the porch. It was a tall rubber tree plant, and its leaves were rustling violently. Near the top of the plant, a kitten clung to a branch, engaged in a fight to the death with a leaf twice its size.
"That one," I pointed.
From the minute I picked Bella, it was obvious that she was going to belong to me, not Bruce. I imprinted on her immediately. It was as though my heart had been plucked from my chest, outfitted with fur and fangs, and then handed back to me. Every conceivable free moment I had was spent following her little tailless butt around the house. I was delighted by all her adventures. She grappled with giant moths, insolent shoelaces, swarthy tissue boxes. She managed to get herself shut in the cabinets, the closets, the fridge. She suffered pratfalls of Wile E. Coyote proportions, and would shake them off like they were nothing. At night, she slept in a Saltines box by my pillow, coming out occasionally to stalk our feet under the blankets.
I was fascinated by everything about her - she was my familiar. And she knew the sway she held over me, occasionally stopping in mid-play to bite my fingers or ankle in case I forgot for a second that I was her bitch. I talked about her incessantly, took her picture constantly. I even bought us matching leopard-print collars, with little heart tags that read "Bella."
"You love that cat more than you love me," Dan told me, after several months of The Bella Show.
Did I? Surely, that couldn't be the case.
"Yes," I answered.
Our relationship didn't last much longer.
In spite of all the love I showed her, or perhaps because of it, Bella grew up to be a royal monster. She became 25 pounds of nasty-cat, hissing and scratching at everyone around her, myself included. She would let me pet her for only a few moments before latching onto my hand and rabbit-kicking me with her back feet. She growled and clawed at guests, meter-readers, pizza delivery guys. The vet refused to see her, unless I shelled out an extra $50 each visit to have her sedated so the vet could examine her without being injured. She was banned from every kennel in the area. "Not only did I have to put on the elbow-length leather gloves just to put food in her cage," said one kennel owner, who was near tears, "but she was also verbally abusive." (I admit, that made me a little proud.)
"Why does she hate me?! I love her sooooooo much!" I cried to her vet, after Bella's attack on our building's maintenance man nearly resulted in our eviction. "What did I do wrong?"
"You didn't do anything wrong," the vet told me. "Animals are like people - they each have their own personality. Sometimes, they just turn out bad. Or, in Bella's case, really, really awful."
The only person she didn't seem to have a problem with was my husband, probably because he had no interest in her. He had moved in when she was two, and they immediately went about ignoring one another - he didn't talk to her, and she didn't try to eat his face. Me, I would try to rub her on the head, and in turn, she would try to remove my spleen through my ear.
She was all mine, though, and I loved her fiercely. I was so happy in the brief moments I was able to pet her before she turned into Psycho Kitty, or the times she would sleep at the foot of our bed or entertain us with the midnight cat-crazies.
"Tell me again, how long do cats live for?" my husband asked, as he helped me bandage my most recent Bella-inflicted wound.
"Bella is never going to die," I told him. "Evil lives forever. Besides, you shouldn't want her to die, because I love her, and you love me. Despite my cat."
"Yes. Despite your cat."
She outlived him by four years.
Bella mellowed out in the last few years of her life, taking to sleeping by my pillow, just like when she was a kitten, and even letting me pet her for extended periods of time. She became more vocal, loudly expressing her opinion about everything, and even affectionate, following me from room to room...to loudly express her opinion about everything. We settled into a comfortable routine - we were two old maids sharing an apartment, eating and sleeping and occasionally hissing at people.
She had a stroke two weeks after her fifteenth birthday. I had always imagined when she died, I would lose my mind. I would come home and find her dead, and I would be hysterical. I was sure they'd have to tranq me and put me in a straitjacket. But when it happened, there was no time for hysterics. She was barely moving and her breathing was shallow, her eyes filmy. I wrapped her in a towel and rushed her to the emergency vet.
When the vet examined her, she told me there was no hope of her recovering. I was actually, surprisingly, very calm. There was no question about what needed to be done. Bella gave a few feeble last growls while the vet prepared to give her the shot. I put my face down close to hers, kissed her on the head, and thanked her for being my best friend for fifteen years. Then, for a split second, I panicked. I shut my eyes and thought, "There's no going back from this moment." But you can never get any moments back, no matter what choice you make. So I opened my eyes and looked at her as she closed her eyes for the last time.