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CONNECTIONS | MAGAZINE

My cat Rose is what people are talking about when they say they don’t like cats

She doesn’t like to snuggle, be held, touched, or even play. Caring for her is a reminder that love, at its purest, isn’t transactional.

Sam Steenstrup

I am a cat lady, and can say with full honesty that all the stereotypes are true. Neurotic? Socially awkward? Check and check! But I would be sad if my cats themselves were tarred by the same prejudice that attends cat people. At any given time I have at least three cats in the house, and most of them are as sociable as dogs, following me from room to room in a swirl of tails and fur. As I write this, four of my current five are gathered around me on the battered couch in the living room, two foster kittens wrestling with the resident clown, Kirby, while the majestic long-haired Samson looks on with interest from behind my shoulder.

And then, alas, there is Rose.

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Rose is, I think, what people are talking about when they say they don’t like cats. She’s not friendly. She doesn’t like to snuggle, she doesn’t like to be held or touched, she doesn’t like to play. She mostly sleeps, although occasionally she will also use the rug as her own personal litter box to inform you that the designated one is not cleaned to her exacting standards. Friends who come over admire her pretty brown tabby markings, although I think they’re just being polite: Rose is very average.

And that is exactly the point of Rose. She is not amazing, or special, or full of character. We took her in as a foster kitten when her person, an elderly gentleman living in a van, became ill. He was devastated about having to give up his little buddy. The adoption counselor assured him that she was being fostered by a nice, cat-savvy family. After much agony, he told the counselor that he would be willing to let Rose go, but only if she promised that Rose would stay with us and not be put up for general adoption.

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Thus, Rose came to us not just as a kitten but also as a repository of a stranger’s love and attachment. We could have re-homed her after a respectful span of time. In my 20s, I wouldn’t have thought twice about that, because come on, how was this man ever going to find out what happened to her? We’d never met him; he didn’t have our contact information. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.

But the self-centered pragmatism of youth becomes more problematic once you yourself are on the downslope of life. I think of this man often when I’m cleaning poop off the couch or being scratched bloody while trying to clip Rose’s claws. I hate doing all these things; my life would be easier, and probably better, if she were gone — and yet, I don’t want to give her up.

Why not? My husband asks this frequently, and openly fantasizes about Rose being “gifted” to a friend, or conveniently disappearing after being “accidentally” let out. I’m not sure I have a clear answer. Initially, I wanted to honor her first person’s request. Then my son developed a brief, passionate attachment to Rose, which made it impossible to even discuss re-homing.

But both of those obligations have since fallen away, and still I hold onto her, even love her, though differently from the way I love the other cats. Animals — pets — occupy an odd place in the hierarchy of human affection. We say a pet is a member of the family, but under closer inspection that relationship can skew dark. We love pets because they love us back, because they entertain us, reflect us, give us something in return.

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A cat like Rose gives nothing. Caring for her is almost a religious experience, a suggestion that love, at its purest, is not transactional, not changeable according to personal convenience or benefit. In a frantic, disposable world, Rose is an eternal (or at least a decade-and-a-half) commitment, and because of that, I think of her as a genuine beauty, in spite of — indeed, because of — all the scars on my arms.


Francie Lin is a writer in Florence, Massachusetts. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.