This piece is about evolving identity in adolescence, power dynamics within a family and about the sometimes confusing and painful space between childhood and adulthood.
My cat was named Miss Ann. I can’t remember if I actually named her that or if she came with the name and it was too late to change. She came to me around Christmas. She was a small cat, all bony sleekness. Her coat was a silky gray. She lived in the basement with me, my little sister and her kitten. My sister, younger than me by six years, loved her own hellish kitten: Pickles. Pickles would hide under beds and wait for the passing flash of your ankles to dive out with razor sharp claws. I hated Pickles. My Miss Ann was an older cat. She preferred to sleep on my little white metal day bed with the floral comforter. She would jump up on me when I slept late on weekends and methodically knead my stomach. She was the first pet that belonged to me in a long chain of family dogs, fish and iguanas. I had always kept my distance from the other pets. I had no natural affinity for animals. My sister was easier, loving every creature who had ever been in our care. But with Miss Ann, I found myself owned. We belonged one to the other. She was mine and the only being in my house that never annoyed me. Her obvious preference for me pleased me. I had been a cat owner for about a year by the time I left for a month away at grandmother’s that summer. My mom assured me that Miss Ann would be fine. My mom would feed and care for her. So, I left her alone in the basement, stalking room to room, searching the darkened daybed for me. It was the first time I abandoned someone who loved me.
Our house was set back on a dirt drive from a long curving road twenty minutes from town. Town being a collection of houses, a gas station and one little cafe where we went only when our power was out. On those special nights, we would drive past the darkened houses of our neighbors to eat mozzarella sticks surrounded by the women from our mesa with curlers covered by worn bandanas.The yard in the back disappeared into a few acres of pasture with the bright veins of an irrigation ditch. My sister, May and I would play around the ditch. We would throw sticks in to watch them race. We would pretend to be the characters from The Boxcar Children and make stew with leaves and grass. I already felt too old for games like that but I loved my sister. In the front, a reddish brown work building housed beehives in the winter, gathered from the high mountain meadows. Their honey tasted of wherever they had spent their summer, surrounded by wildflowers or alfalfa fields.
The field between us had donkeys and a long-lashed llama. The llama would rush the fence and chew vigorously, hurling the occasional huffy spit bomb at May and I as we ran past. Beyond that was an animal refuge center. My mom helped to care for the animals in the center as partial payment of our rent.
The woman who owned the refuge lived in a messy, odd smelling house with her son and husband. Past her house, there were areas dedicated to raccoons, falcons and other large birds. Often black bears were in the cages beyond that. There was a little trailer next to the large animal cages. Smaller animals were kept in enclosures inside and the air was thick with the smell of rodents. We didn’t have a computer at home yet but there was one inside the trailer and I sometimes walked there to do school papers. I would sit at the messy little desk typing and gagging on the suffocating, wood-chip odor. Sometimes my mom would be there at the same time, pulling venison from the freezer inside the trailer to bring to the big cats.
In the back of the winding little compound driveway, two mountain lions stalked around or lay bored and drowsy within their cages. Their wooden, mesh-lined crates were a few feet apart and two small stories each. Athena and King. Athena would go into heat every month and from my little bedroom, I could hear the short cut off sounding screams of her frustration. She sounded like a madwoman railing against the walls, like a furious siren breaking from her the melody of her song. Sharp and short, repeated and seeming to never end. Those sounds would drive us all crazy. At night, we would bury our heads in our pillows to drown it out.
I felt a sort of kinship in that sound, thirteen years old, trapped between adult and child, my hormones taking me to task. Desires raking across my skin incessant and hotly agonizing. My rage often outside of my control. My own youthful percolating would rise to a boil and I would hate everyone in my family, then love them again. Everything they said and did annoyed me. I would tease them and yell at them. Then I would cry to think how much I loved them, rising early to bake muffins for my sister before she woke up. Carefully stirring in the blueberries so that the blue wouldn’t bleed into the batter.
King looked like an overgrown house-cat with big chocolate eyes and soft looking fur. He would stare at you as you stared at him. It was impossible not to imagine the cage between us gone. It sent a chill up my spine to day dream about his strength, his powerful legs, his speed. I could envision him free to leap upon me with sharp claws, teeth and ferocious might. These mountain lions would never be able to leave. They were former pets. No doubt the swagger of some truck loving man had been reinforced by a declawed mountain lion as a pet. To declaw: a violent offense against the big primal cats who stared at me like a lesser life form, like the food I could be. Their first knuckle and been sliced but to my human eyes, their paws looked normal. It must have felt to them as though half the paw was missing. Did they mourn those razor sharp adornments? Feel grief over their loss? Standing close enough, I imagined that the incredible, natural power that still vibrated through them crashed like waves against cube of their prison. Their captivity seemed to have it’s own sound, a high octave screech just out of reach of your ears, heard only through the ribs. This pain laden cacophony seemed to vibrate my lungs and heart and made it hard for me to stand before them. Marked by humans, caged by humans, stared at by curious humans. My throat would tighten as though preparing for tears. My knees would feel wobbly. The discomfort of gazing at them made me want to lower my eyes or bow down in consternation and regret for my kind. What would be their fate? Without claws and imprinted by humans, they were doomed to their micro world, with their only companion always out of reach. I wondered how he felt to hear her scream out during those monthly seasons of madness. Did he feel compassion, loss, longing? Are those available to a lion? Staring into those keen eyes, trained upon mine as I stood before him, I thought it possible. I would rush past him quickly some days, leaving the little trailer with my clutch of history papers for middle school, wanting to avoid the awkwardness of a debt I could never repay. Wildness stolen by civilized savagery. I had not caged them but I never felt innocent.
I would never see Miss Ann again after I left for my grandmother’s. My mom accidentally let her outside one day. That’s the story. Although my cat never seemed interested in going outside before. I can’t think of a time I had to be wary of the door or squeeze out to prevent her escape. She had always seemed perfectly content to stay within the basement. She would stay in my room most of the time, only sauntering out with her tiny blue gray feet to the litter box and back. She was small and delicate, fitting of her fussy name. My room at that moment was still a distillation of girlhood. My dresser covered with an embroidered white dresser runner with delicate lace around the edges, pouring over with flowers and women in big hats and gowns, natural successors to the princesses of years before. My collection of porcelain dolls set up on shelves. A scattering of ceramic face masks painted in bright colors with glitter decorated all the walls. The only nod to my changing tastes was a collection of black and white photos of Leonardo DiCaprio printed from the computer and taped to the wall right above the bars of my bed.
When I returned home a month later, my mom told me about the cat. She hadn’t wanted to tell me while I was away and ruin my trip. Her waiting to tell me about Miss Ann felt like a betrayal. Whether mine or hers, I couldn’t say. My stomach twisted to think that I had been having fun with my cousins, helping my grandmother with her garden, watching Letterman and laughing while all the time Miss Ann was gone.
I wonder if my mom let Miss Ann out on purpose. I imagine that she was meowing and beseeching. My mother has always had a complicated relationship with being needed too much by her dependents. She had made a quick open of the door, a justification to herself that the cat would enjoy being outside. Coyotes would have made Miss Ann a quick meal. A cat who had never been outside. At least she had her claws. Later a kid I knew from my school bus would tell me that it was our neighbor boy who killed Miss Ann. A short, stocky red faced kid who was already known for torturing animals. He had bragged of drowning her in a puddle, my second hand source informed me. I don’t know what happened to her and I never found her body. That image of her possible violent ending stays with me even now. Did she think of me? Wonder where I had gone? Did she call out to me silently, desperate and alone? I’ve never loved a cat again, preferring as an adult, the simple affection and trust of a dog. No sharp claws in my heart.
My mom had a boyfriend then who was right between us in age. I was 13, he was 23 and my mom was 33. He had long hair, drove a Jeep without a top and listened to Bob Marley. He had a handsome face, always pressed inward, petulant and pouty. The lips pursed together in a simulacrum of deep thought. He competed with us for attention. We were used to men who wanted to date my mother but had put up with us for the opportunity. I hated him. I hated all the men before and after. I had no loyalty to my father, who was unpredictable and loud. I hated the new men because she wanted their approval too much. Her longing for romance made her weak, pliant to their demands. That weakness was the most dangerous force in my life. It put the control of everything I depended on into the hands of a stranger. I needed her to be strong. To make sure that our little family held together. Unlike May, I remembered how life had been when she was under my father’s control. I remembered following him home in the dark as he weaved all over the road drunk. He always said he was a good drunk driver. I would advise her to call the police. She never did. She concealed her college coursework from him so he wouldn’t have a chance to prevent her from attending classes. I was her accomplice then. The lines in our house were clear: us against him. When we finally escaped, I thought it would be different. I thought we would be free. The line of men after my dad were a salted wound that could never close. That these feeble, idiotic losers could be allowed to take possession of our life set me to burn. This life that I had heavily contributed to by learning to cook, caring for my sister, dragging her to soccer practice making sure she finished her homework was not really in my control. These men would make May and I into outsiders. Men kissed our mother’s neck in front of us as she played at the piano, made suggestive remarks to her, licked their lips and drew her with them into her room. When each relationship ended, I would listen to her cry. I would try to give advice.
That night, this most recent man, Caleb, came to our house when my mom was at work. He sat outside on the porch, smoking. My little sister was only nine years old. She couldn’t remember what it had been like to have our father home. She still looked to each new boyfriend as a potential father. Smiling her big winning smiles, she would stand around waiting to be noticed. That frustrated and disgusted me. I was angry to think that our little group of three wasn’t enough for May either. She was out there now talking to Caleb, his long hair looked dirty and his jeans had big ragged holes in the knees. I was standing at the sink rinsing a bowl, the water hot enough to make my hands tingle and ache, passing over the surface of the ceramic in one smooth ever changing sheet.
The door crashed open and May came in crying. I was next to her, my arms around her in second. “What happened? What happened? May? Are you all right?”
Her voice was croaky and choked. It took several tries for me to understand what she was saying. “He hit me!” I noticed then the redness swelling on her cheek. A slap, perhaps or a closed handed smack. I was shaking. The blood seeming to expand in my body and press against my skin with too little space to flow. Vibrating with rage, I ran outside on the porch already shouting at him. He stood there smirking, hand resting on the wood banister. I wanted to shove him down the steps. I wanted to see him fall backwards and see the gaping o of surprise on his face as he crashed into the hard earth. Instead I raged at him, “What did you do? Did you hit her?!”
“She hit me first. We were play wrestling and she hit me first.” This overgrown boy in front of me, like a flash, all pretense of age and maturity fading. I just opened and closed my mouth. Too angry, too outraged to know what to say. My words often desert me in these moments, my brain short circuiting and no language to express a galaxy of emotion.
“She’s nine years old! How hard could she have hit you? You are a grown adult!” Saying those words was sort of violently comical. Standing on the porch screaming at him that he was grown up despite all the evidence to the contrary. I stormed back inside. Slamming the wood edged screen door with all my strength and heading back to my sister.
“I’m calling mom!” I shouted it at her and then softened my tone, “I’m calling mom. He can’t hit you.” I went to the kitchen and pulled open our clear plastic phone, the brightly colored visible mechanism exaggerated and cartoonish. Placing the receiver against my ear, I dialed the number to my mom’s office. The office woman at the fish hatchery, Margaret answered. “Hi Margaret, I’m looking for my mom. Is she around?”
“Oh hey, Tilda. No, I’m sorry honey, she headed out just a couple minutes ago.”
I thanked her and hung up the phone.
May and I sat in the living room. I held her in my arms and held her hand, so small in mine. “Mom will break up with him when she finds out! He can’t do that to you. He’s a fucking asshole”. I was saying it out loud to May but also trying to convince myself. I peeked a couple times out the kitchen window to see if Caleb was still there and he was, meandering from his Jeep to the porch and back again. He was performing casually as if nothing had happened.
We saw my mom’s dark blue Ford pickup truck pull up in the long curvy dirt drive way twenty minutes later. I jumped up, instructing my sister to stay in the house. I walked past Caleb without looking at him and met my mom as she opened her driver side door. Her head was turned down as she gathered her water bottle and backpack together from the seat next to her. She smiled as she turned toward me, her hair nutty brown and dried out looking at the ends, pulled back from her face with a purple cloth scrunchie. Hanging down onto her t shirt was a collection of necklaces, a silver star, long metal feathers and a nude fairy holding a rainbow gem in her tiny outstretched hand.
“Mom. Caleb hit May.” I let those words sit between us. I held my breath. Waiting for her to react, for her to fly at him in anger where he stood back slouching against the wall of our house, I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. “Mom. He hit her. Her cheek was red and he said he did it because she hit him first while they were playing. He hit her hard.” Desperate explanation poured out of me while I studied her face looking for reflection of my own feeling in her face. “Mom? Mom? Did you hear what I said?”
She just stared at me, blankly. “Oh, Tilda, hey.”
“Mom! Caleb hit May!”
“Okay, where is she?”
“She’s in the house. He hasn’t come in. She was really upset.”
My mom followed me into the house. I looked back at her in time to see her make a pained expression at Caleb. What did that mean? I wondered and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. She came into the living room, where May was sitting on the couch, her feet tucked under her, looking at an old Calvin and Hobbes book that had found a home on the coffee table. Mom went to her, looked at her face, clucked her tongue. She didn’t ask May to tell the story.
Then she seemed to remember me. “I’ll go talk to him. We will take a ride in the car and I’ll talk to him.”
“Are you going to break up with him? He hit her. He can’t hit her.”
She looked at me. My words were not enough to convince her. She was buying time.
So they went for a ride. I stayed home with May. We played the game of Life while we waited. Choosing careers and filling up our little plastic cars with blue and pink peg children. I would get up when it was May’s turn to look outside for her truck. They were gone a long time. Dark had started to spread long fingers across the kitchen counters.
When they finally arrived home, I was looking out. I saw the truck pull up and park. As the doors opened, they both got out looking somber. As they approached the house, he took her hand. She looked embarrassed and pleased. I knew then for certain that he had won. My lungs seemed empty of air, filled instead with an enervating grief. I was a watcher, calling out reason, logic, inalienable truths into the wall of my mother and an adult world. She called me in to her bedroom to speak to her. We sat next to each other on her pink satin comforter. He was sorry, she explained. He knew it was wrong to hit May. He wouldn’t do it again. I stared at her. She looked away, unable to meet my burning gaze. She jumped back from me a couple inches on the bed as though from a hot stove. I said nothing. I left her bedroom, passing Caleb as he entered, closing the door behind him.
That night, I lay by alone in my chilly little basement room. Miss Ann was gone. Athena was quiet. The only windows, high up on the wall, lined up with the muddy ground outside. I couldn’t sleep. I let my hand slide down under the sheets and between my legs. Rubbing up and down the strokes rougher and rougher until I reached that little peak and spasm. Muscles finally relaxing and tears on my cheeks as I closed my eyes and rested. I didn’t make a sound the whole time. If I could have, I would have screamed. High and loud and trapped.