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The square here is full of stray cats. One of the tiny cats who lives on the square is pregnant and I can’t stop thinking about it. Actually, two of them are, two cats who are almost like twins, skinny tabbies with dollop-of-cream feet and fluffy bottle-brush tails, but one of the two has green eyes, half of one ear missing, some kind of permanent smudge over her nose, and is hugely pregnant. Around dinner time when in the warm weather all the restaurants put tables outside, she winds around people’s legs and sits up in a perfect cat-shape, patiently asking for food. It’s made me basically unable to enjoy being here, because I can’t do anything about it. I’m leaving in five days and I’m staying in my mom’s house, so I can’t take her in and make her a nest of blankets and a safe place to have kittens, delivering food and water and monitoring everyone’s health. I can’t remove the danger, and I can’t look away.
She might be fine; stay cats know how to take care of themselves. They are tiny machines of survival, and even the way she tugs at my heart is one more tactic in that survival and is how she got to eat most of my dinner the first night I was here. But my problem is that I know what it’s like to be at the mercy of whether people find you lovable enough. I know what it’s like to hope to be saved by the randomness of someone’s wet-hearted indulgent impulses, to have the only realistic means of averting crisis the unlikley grand gesture of someone taking you into their home and setting you up with a bowl of food and a nest of blankets.
Nothing brings out my humorless side more than true crime, more than in particular the stories of scammers and their victims that proliferate this summer. I turn dour-faced and unable to hear the timing of a joke. People want crime and desperation to be glamorous so that they can live at a remove from it; the more something is a meme or a slick-surfaced TV show, the more it is happening to someone else, and could never happen to you. These become outlandish and distant stories, rather than the fears that creep right up at the edge of the ways in which we live: The fear that everyone we know is lying, that the reality we have chosen to believe in is only a thin shell, and can come crashing down at any moment, that the person we love will go out to the store for snacks and never come home, that we will see the wrong text message, miss the wrong train, arrive too late or too early, and our life will be revealed to be a sham, going up in thin dust around us. Alternately, the fear that allowing myself to be loved means I have engaged in a scam; that if I do not perform love well enough, do not make myself desirable in the right ways, there will be no more table scraps or warm places to sleep.
I worry less about the cats who live up in near the old uninhabited Chateau that towers over the edge of this small town, who weave almost invisible through the grass there and sleep in the shadows of big ruined stones. It seems like they’re fine. Eva says if she were a cat she would rather be a stray cat. It does help and she’s not wrong. I wish the cats didn’t know how to beg for food. I wish they didn’t know about people. I wish they didn’t know how to depend on anyone, they had never learned that one way they could hunt their food was by wringing it out of people’s softest hearts. I wish I could turn myself against them, see them as scammers. I wish they had never learned to depend on love. One form of scam that proliferates in the world is the kind of negligible business that preys on loneliness: Classes on how to get girls, instructions on how to make every man love you, youtube tutorials that promise to make you beautiful, pick-up artists, mathematical formulas for how to be wanted, for how to be loved, a system of points and numbers to assign yourself and prove you will never be lonely. A Ten will always have a place to sleep. All of this makes the same promise: If you try hard enough, if you do it right, you can make feelings into guarantees. Being wanted as the opposite of lack, the cat brought in from the cold, food piled high. Be wanted and never be hungry. Loneliness and hunger don’t feel particularly different, a concave and vision-blurring unjustness that takes over our better senses and rationalities. Both overwhelm everything else; both feel like living as an empty unhinged jaw.
Here’s what I think about Anna Delvey: I think about how good it must have felt to her to lie down in a big soft hotel bed. I wonder if she was able to sleep. I wonder if she had sex with anyone. I wonder whom she hoped would love her back. I wonder when, in what single moment, she felt least alone. I think of how thinking of ourselves as the hero, as the sympathetic character, is the most psychotic survival mechanism our lives demand from us. I think of how few stories have multiple heroes, or even one, how most stories just have several villains, and more than that, all they have is a lot of people who want to stay warm. I think about the ways in which desperation makes us sort to the worst of one another and of ourselves. I think about the increasing ways in which it is becoming unfeasible to find a way to live in the world as it currently exists. I think about whomever said that thing about Americans as temporarily embarrassed millionaires; I think about how a society that expects everyone to become millionaires will generate scammers and tragedies and not much else. I think about that question on the old Common Application for college admission that asked students to write an essay about what they believe defines the transition from childhood to adulthood and how I think the answer is the first time we do something where we’re the villain in the story, the first time something bad happens that was our own fault, that we cannot and do not claim was done to us rather than by us. I think about how everyone talked about how Delvey wasn’t beautiful, but nobody talked about how she looked like a child.
I walk out along the river and an older woman is feeding stray cats in the bushes near an apartment block, trying to keep them from running away out into the road. Later I see a large doorway with huge containers of cat food, milk, and water in front of it. I think about how nothing ever seems like enough, how food is not shelter and shelter is not a long-term solution and how few kinds of love carry any guarantee. I think about how when I can’t sleep sometimes I scroll through GoFundMes the way I used to click from one live-journal to another, and I read the stories of the continuous worst days of strangers’ lives, and wish I were rich and could fully fund each one. I try not to think about whether it’s better looking, better connected people whose medical needs get funded, but of course it is. Last night around two am when the drunk people under the window finally got quiet and went home, I could hear the cats fighting, and then I heard a person yelling who seemed to be yelling at the cats and I thought about the examples over and over of our nearly unlimited capacities for cruelty, for pretending other lives aren’t real, are either jokes or inconveniences. My phone is full of photos of them, tails and noses and four paws, stalking the square, hunting love and pity. I think about how I shouldn’t have taken those photos. I think about how re-convincing ourselves that we’re lovable, that we’re worth the space we demand from the world is the only way we survive. The little pregnant cat comes down onto the square at the edge of dusk, when people are halfway into their meals. She’s smart. She’s so small; she looks so tired.
Love weakens us. It teaches us to beg for scraps instead of hunting for food. Stray cats are fine as long as they don’t learn to depend on anyone loving them, as long as they don’t build someone else’s reactions into their routine. Maybe my humorlessness about everyone’s obsessions with scammers is because I cannot imagine a kind of love that does not feel like a scam about to fail, in which the warm nest of blankets, the bowl of food, the home and the returning-each-day love, will vanish tomorrow and I will have to feel like it is no one’s fault but my own, victim and scammer, both taken in and seen-through. One of the things we agree to give up when we enter into relationships is the sense of invincibility; we agree to make it harder to survive, to depend on one more thing.
The difference, the reason I got married this time, was that after I met Thomas everything became more real. It was harder to see stories, even ones about people I didn’t know and would never meet, as glamorous, rather than always desperately sad. It made things harder to bear, and made me less fun, less willing to pretend things stopped existing when I stopped looking at them. I had before this never tried to build something with someone without assuming it would fail, end up as a joke and story. A couple years ago, a friend of ours rescued a kitten abandoned near a trash can. The kitten was almost starved and covered in flies and dirt. His eyes weren’t open, his mother was an absent tragedy. Our friend brought him inside and took him to the vet and fed him with an eye-dropper and special calorie-rich cat food. When we came over to meet him he was impossibly small, his ribs visible and his ears so much bigger than the rest of him. It was unclear if he would survive, unclear if his eyes would open, but he was purring like a storm, like a radiator in the dead of winter, and wanted to play and cuddle, his enthusiasm more than his collapsing legs could support. He wanted food and warmth and love and this home made of soft blankets and warm hands and soft voices, and he wanted them so fiercely, his whole heartbreakingly tiny body fighting to live, fighting to get more of life now that life was available, ferociously grateful for everything around him, purring to bigger to defy his small chances of survival.
Now she says he’s so big that he’s like a cat-shaped gravity blanket, huge and heavy and taking up the whole bed. He lived and made it through danger and grew up into a whole cat with funny-looking eyes and giant paws, sleeping right across our friend’s neck like a gigantic scarf. A whole cat, a whole life. Forcing his way into the offered warmth and determinedly staying there, refusing not to get to have more love now that so much love was on offer.
This is just about the same thing that happened when I met Thomas, when I followed this relationship from a fake and glamorous idea to the reality of depending on each in the other’s life. The world has become much more tender which in many ways is awful. I’d rather not stay up at night thinking about stray cats; I’d rather be able to read true crime stories and find them funny rather than think of each real person in them and how each of those people must have felt sick and scared and hunted, longing to go home to the warm oblivion of sleep, yowling all night with no way to come in from the cold. The part of me that wakes up and chooses this relationship each day is the same humorless part that wants to bring every cat inside and yell at people on the internet about how every person in a story is still a person. There is no way to choose to love someone and not be at least in part both the cat asking for scraps from dinner tables and the person agreeing to be a mark and take the cat inside. Each day I hope the offers will be real but am unable to believe they won’t vanish; each day I choose dependence and gullibility, I choose to ask and to offer anyway.