“Is this the end?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. On FaceTime, my then-boyfriend nodded. Weary of his perpetual need for space even though we’d spent the year 1,000 miles apart, I exhaled a long-held breath of relief.
But I wasn’t just breaking up with him. I was also losing Hamlet, the sleek, gray, green-eyed cat who’d stolen my heart the moment I met him 3½ years before.
During our conversation, Hamlet head-butted the phone and chirruped hello before slinking away. I began to cry. As in a cheesy rom-com, a montage of memories flooded my brain: my now-ex texting me that I’d passed Hamlet’s “interview” after the first time we met; the birthday cakes I’d made to celebrate Ham’s first three birthdays; our dreams of someday adopting a Labrador and the way we wondered how Ham would react. In addition to being a beloved part of my life, the cat also seemed to embody the past, present, and future of my relationship.
My ex was my first love, someone I hoped to spend my life with. When I got a job, I negotiated options for him. When I searched for apartments in the town he assured me we would both be moving to, finally ending our long-distance arrangement, I found one with big windows for Ham. But eventually my ex confessed that he didn’t know if he wanted any of it. As it turned out, he didn’t.
Losing a pet in a breakup is almost harder than saying goodbye to the person. With animals, we have no history of fights, disappointments, or failed promises. Pets love without harm. And so, within days of the breakup, rather than turning to Tinder, I downloaded Petfinder. Late at night, I swiped through photos of adoptable pets, hoping to numb my feelings of loss.
The app soon became more than just a way to ease my pain. I fell in love with cats named Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, whose ears were jagged from a severe bout of frostbite, and Marigold, whose description promised that we could “blossom together.” Learning about what the cats had endured and imagining the new lives that awaited them, I began to realize that I, too, could trust that love would be there for me on the other side of heartbreak.
After moving even farther away from Hamlet and my ex to a new-to-me town, I visited the local shelter. A burnt-orange cat, Lady, missing her front claws and almost all of her teeth, stole my heart. I shimmied my hand between bars to scratch brown-eyed Reese’s Puff and laughed as a kitten named Mary Lou swatted outside her cage to say hello. None of the cats was exactly like Hamlet, but meeting them reassured me that innumerable kinds of love exist. I could be grateful for the time we had together while still moving forward with my own life — and the same went for my attitude toward my ex.
Before long, I clicked the small heart icon on the Petfinder profile of a blue-eyed cat to mark her as a “favorite” and brought her home days later. Willa is relentlessly affectionate. She perches on my shoulders when I write, and she curls up by the window where I once thought Ham might settle to enjoy the view. I am still learning who she is, but nurturing her fills me with hope. We are making a new start together.
And though Willa and I are content, my search for a cat companion helped me realize I’m ready for a human relationship, too. I downloaded Bumble and started swiping right — and as life would have it, my first date was with a veterinarian.
Jacqueline Alnes is a writer in West Chester, Pennsylvania.