“I don’t think we can keep her. I’m horribly allergic.” That’s what I told Randy, my boyfriend of several months, when his college-aged son and teenaged daughter brought the bedraggled and shivering tuxedo cat to the front door one snowy evening, just before Christmas, in the waning days of 2008. Allergic was an understatement; toxic was more like it. If I so much as crossed paths with a feline (or any furred or feathered creature), I’d invariably start sneezing and that’s not all: a severe asthmatic from early childhood, my chest would constrict and soon I’d be coughing and wheezing, the ill effects multiplied according to the number of dander-laden creatures in my vicinity. If I happened to be foolish enough to actually pet a cat (and there were times I couldn’t resist), I’d erupt in angry red hives, and my eyes would become so itchy and swollen that it was impossible to see. Like I said: toxic.
If I happened to be foolish enough to actually pet a cat (and there were times I couldn’t resist), I’d erupt in angry red hives, and my eyes would become so itchy and swollen that it was impossible to see
“But Dad⎯we found her wandering in the street…just look how skinny she is.” Randy’s son continued to plead the cat’s case despite my allergies, and why wouldn’t he? I was relatively new on the scene; who knew how long I’d be in his father’s life?
Granted, things were going well with Randy. We’d been spending most weekends together since we’d met that summer on the porch of a Victorian Inn, alternating visits at his place in Central Massachusetts and my place in New York City. Despite the geographical challenge, I was hopeful that at 45, I’d finally found a man who might stick around, but I’d been disappointed before. Randy’s reaction to his kids’ request to keep the kitty, I decided, would be a test: My boyfriend had grown up with cats, couldn’t pass a stray without making mewing noises. I suspected that this petite black-and-white beauty would exert a powerful pull on my animal-loving beau. Would Randy choose the cat—or me?
Would Randy choose the cat—or me?
My heart leapt a little when I saw Randy shaking his head no in answer to his son’s request. “We can’t do it buddy,” he said ruefully. “Paula is too allergic.” Yet I didn’t exactly feel triumphant. Growing up, my allergies prevented me from owning anything other than anemic pet store turtles or listless goldfish, none of which seemed to survive beyond a few weeks time. I’d always longed for a furry, warm-blooded being that I could cuddle and hold, who would love me unconditionally. What would it be like to have a pet after all these years? I wondered, as I gazed at the skinny little thing wending her way around our feet, gently butting her tiny head against our ankles in the most adorable manner possible, as if she knew her future hung in the balance.
“Come on, Dad—I’ve already named her,” Randy’s daughter chimed in. “I thought we could call her Lexington—Lexi for short!” Lexi began softly purring as Randy reached down to give her a rub. “What if you guys just keep her through the holidays?” his son suggested. “After Christmas, I promise I’ll take her right to the shelter.”
Randy turned to me, a quizzical look on his face. “What do you think, Paula?” I hesitated, then inhaled deeply, testing the atmosphere to see if the teeny particles of Lexi-ness in the air would irritate my lungs, disrupt my sinuses. No reaction. I actually felt fine.
“Sure, we can keep her for a few days, but maybe she can stay in the basement? I’m just worried about my asthma.” I also worried about seeming like a kill-joy in front of Randy’s offspring, but the basement was preferable to the street, wasn’t it? And so Lexi, after being fed and stroked and cooed over by everyone but me was exiled to the lowest reaches of Randy’s home. And still, I hadn’t so much as sneezed.
Christmas came and went and all that holiday week I kept our new guest at arm’s length, though Randy descended to the basement on a regular basis to keep Lexi company, making sure to wash his hands thoroughly afterward so as not to contaminate me when we canoodled. But when it came time to install her in the shelter, all the tinsel and stockings stored away, Randy’s son had bad news: “There’s a waiting list,” he informed us. “There are at least a hundred cats ahead of her.”
That shouldn’t have been surprising. We’d just rung in 2009, and the Great Recession was going strong. Human beings weren’t the only ones losing their homes; apparently, animals were also being evicted. Meanwhile, it was growing increasingly difficult to confine Lexi to the dreary cellar, especially when we heard the tapping of her paws running up the stairs and she tentatively peered around the door, her wide eyes so trusting, making a silent plea for entry. I’d been nervously experimenting with petting her, her glossy black fur silky beneath my fingers, her little body impossibly warm when she settled herself onto my lap before I could stop her. And still, no sneezing, no coughing, no wheezing, no red blotches, despite the black and white hair that was piling up on the furniture, that I’d started to notice sticking to my sweaters. “She’s a miracle cat,” I declared one night with a smile after we’d allowed her upstairs for an entire evening. Not only did she seem to be magically hypoallergenic; she also seemed more canine than feline, not haughty or diffident but following my boyfriend wherever he went, trotting up to his side when he whistled, wanting to be wherever the humans were, seemingly grateful that we’d offered her shelter from the storm.
I’d been nervously experimenting with petting her, her glossy black fur silky beneath my fingers, her little body impossibly warm when she settled herself onto my lap before I could stop her.
The more time I spent at Randy’s, the more she warmed to me, too, energetically kneading my thighs or chest with her little white paws, giving me my first kitty massage, her every move a marvel for me, a very-late-blooming pet owner, just as I was a late bloomer in love. All her habits delighted me: the delicate way she licked her food with her tiny pink tongue, her fastidious grooming routine, her unsubtle way of arching her back when she craved a scratching session near her rump. I was also delighted by the way my new man handled our visitor, coaxing her into a playful wrestling match without ever hurting her, or oh-so-gently rubbing the chronically itchy spot under Lexi’s chin, as kind and careful and exuberant with this fragile furry being as he was with me.
Soon, Lexi was bunking with us every night, making herself thoroughly at home just as I was easing myself into what was increasingly feeling like my new home, joining us in front of the fireplace, peacefully dozing as Randy and I exchanged the details of our lives, discovering all we had in common. “I think we need to keep her,” I told him about a month after Lexi’s arrival, my allergies quiescent but my heart brimming over. I was now doing cat-related things I’d never imagined I was capable of: scooping poops from an ugly plastic litter box; spooning up fishy-smelling cat food from a can onto a plate, then anxiously hovering like a Jewish mother until Lexi licked up every bite; wiping up kitty vomit (“Cats have very sensitive stomachs,” Randy solemnly informed me, when I fretted that she was ill); even sleeping with a warm, purring, living creature (her favorite spot was right between the two of us). Indeed, Lexi was beginning to feel like a fixture in my life, just as Randy was. I was too old to have children of my own, Randy had finished with his own child-rearing but both of us were unexpectedly babying this unlooked for visitor, a cat who was making us a family.
I can’t say Lexi was in evidence when Randy and I walked down the aisle in a wedding on our lawn a year and a half after Lexi came into our lives. Though our diminutive tuxedo cat was affectionate with us, she was shy with strangers, so she was probably hiding as our 100-odd guests cheered at what I thought of as the almost-miracle of my marrying at age 48 for the first time. I’d waited a long time to find the love of a man—not to mention a pet to call my own. But I’d discovered that it pays to wait for the right one, the one who can sense when you are in the mood to play, or you need comfort, or that you just want to savor the feeling of a warm body nearby. Randy was able to sense all that, and, oddly, Lexi was too, the three of us now a unit, united in love.