Cat Acne

Recently my colleagues in the English Department made a collective push to compel my getting a cat since, in their generous estimations, cats have shown a remarkable affinity for me and vice versa. It is true cats do appear to gravitate towards my presence in ways my colleagues do not when I visit their homes. I have no rationale for it since I’ve never owned a cat. I also haven’t thought much about acquiring any sort of pet as of late, either, in the midst of finishing my tenure review portfolio this term. In addition, I frequently make any number of the usual excuses for not getting a cat: the expense, the investment of time, the shredding of precious material items, what will happen if the match goes wrong, et cetera. But I don’t admit to them I’m the kind of soft-hearted libertine who enjoys other people’s cats because of my complete lack of responsibility for them, knowing they will return to their owners to commit the rank misdeeds I won’t have to encounter myself. Cuddle benefits, then, with none of the fuss and dander at my place. A solid deal for me, I’d concluded. This self-satisfied mentality of mine likely irritates my colleagues to no end about my resistance more than anything else, among my other notable shortcomings.

For awhile I have been productive enough, I prefer to think, with this tenuous interconnection between cats and other academic humans in my life. A mildly traumatic incident with an anxious cat during my childhood put me off the species for a long time, aided by my parents who never saw much companionship value to them. Somehow over the course of the years in Higher Ed as both student and professor, the path scattered with numerous friends tending equally numerous cats come and gone, I’ve warmed up to cats to the point of being eager for pro bono sitting duties when a colleague leaves town for a conference and no one else steps up. I found it a welcome diversion from the confines of my quiet study where nothing curls up on my lap and stays there, besides a manuscript. To this day I’m proud for having overcome my earlier misgivings in these instances, warranted or not, despite this underscoring a particular insidiousness about their subtle attraction that will forever give me pause. I guess I am an unwitting convert to a questionable faith that delays the full extent of personal sacrifice until much later.

As I’ve discussed at great length with my colleagues who started prodding me, however, the matter of procuring a cat may have been my biggest sticking point. If I’ve learned anything about cats, it’s that having them pick the owner instead of the owner picking them is often the best way to ensure the match becomes compatible. My colleagues didn’t completely swear by this method, and thus ignored my protests while their plot was hatched. The evidence for my refutation I had to keep under wraps. I wanted to tell them that in many instances I’ve been approached outside my apartment by other people’s cats; and over a protracted courtship of giving simple affection, a bowl of milk or water, these cats gave me a suggestion that I would fare much better for them than their current owners, inevitably leading to the conclusion I should whisk them away to my exclusive care for their own benefit. I’m sure this is a common mindset leading to the frequent disappearance of domesticated cats in neighborhoods across the world, whose blithe owners or caretakers let them outside to prowl. For the record, I have never engaged this underhanded activity (even if I don’t believe in the notion of pets as property), though I admit having considered it with one or two special cats that gave an impression of their looking for a change in scenery. Perhaps I would be doing their current owners a favor, if not the cats themselves, too. It’s easy in this light to see how cats engage some holistic corruption under the right circumstances. In all things, they are to make me feel blameless against the arbitrary and myopic nature of man’s laws.

About now I expect the other major pet coalition to speak up. Yes, I do have in my experience previous ownership of a dog. I attest they are wonderful mini-beasts. All the goofy, sentimental, reciprocal devotion that goes along with having a dog has likely influenced my trepidation over cat ownership, as well as the lingering specter of death that cats are often associated with, particularly by cat owners themselves. These owners seem to know exactly what their own cats are going to do them in a worst-case scenario, unlike dogs and their owners, but that cat owners accept and are willing to live with these worst-case scenarios day after day is a fascinating aspect of pet ownership which eluded me with a dog. A well-trained dog is almost predictable to a fault, I suppose, and perhaps there has never been a well-trained cat. At this stage of my career, too, a little unpredictability that a dog couldn’t provide might have its upside, whatever it may be.

During my Ph.D. studies I knew someone who, with as much simmering intensity as she could bear, held cats to be oh so very human in their predilections, setting their physical desires on their own special terms and changing conditions without apology, and so forth. Unfortunately her luck with cats bore out this axiomatic thinking all too well, including a skittish one of hers sneaking out an open window, never to return. In that example, I do agree completely here. A paradox of escapism predominates our relationships. The next threshold needs to be close at hand to allow our devotion to another life directly in front of us.

The cat that was chosen for me was a rescued feral, no previous owner, a year-old male with a grey coat and buried faint stripes almost bordering on blue, the regal look of his not-too-distant relative already budding. He was let go at my feet for him to make the first move. With a blank expression he stared at me and walked right past, towards the den. My colleagues were kind enough to throw in a starter bag of litter, a few cans of bargain salmon pâté, and a partially used scratching post. “We’ll leave the two of you alone now,” they announced, “and you need to come up with a name already!” Despite what was billed as a cat-warming party for me at our social media hang-out to ease the transition, they left in a hurry as though the cat and I were eager newlyweds, yet alone I was with him as he sauntered around his newfound spacious playground, and kept a substantial distance from me for the evening. Not until the end of the first week did the cat feel comfortable to join me in proximity on the sofa, whereupon I noticed a slight rash on his mouth that I wasn’t sure had been there at his arrival.

I wanted to ask someone about this rash. By then my colleagues were no longer inquiring at the office about salacious details of our consummation. The last thing I wanted to do, after all the trouble they went through to pick this cat, was to annoy them with countless questions about trivial matters I could surely figure out myself— or at least that was the impression given me when I put a feeler out about the rash to no avail. I withheld from pressing further, especially with the review of tenure portfolios commencing then. They were busy, and my appearing to complain about their selection would not go over well, I figured, as though I was suggesting they didn’t do their homework. Such are the selective pains of attempting to acquire promotion from familiar strangers who are also distant acquaintances.

I realize now, of course, I had deceived myself in any number of things regarding this previous cat fancy of mine and my colleagues. I was missing some knowledge about cats that mere observation and anecdotal evidence from the office hadn’t provided yet. To brace myself for the paradigm of cat ownership that I had succumbed to, I required gory particulars from objective sources. I read a number of web articles and books laying bare this icky realm of felines, the futility of coercing them into routine, and all their secret emotions laying dormant behind their impassive mien. With no small imagination I contemplated in various scenarios how miserable my life was going to be having one occupy my private mental space. This research was not engaging reading by any definition, despite my finding a helpful entry in one book on “cat acne” that finally identified for me what the cat was dealing with, and what was potentially to follow. Progress with everything else was slow in coming, on top of my usual grading and department service. The effort wore me down fast.

The onset of affliction, the recognition of affliction, the treatment of affliction, the forbearance of affliction to its end: these are the necessities of a cat I was not used to after a long and arduous adjustment period of understanding this cat ensconced with me, something which can breed not a little resentment after awhile. My formerly entrenched bachelor’s existence came to a predictable, awkward finish— not to reinforce my earlier correlation with conventional marriage here, either. No, it was more delusional than that. It took the form of a standard benign haunting, a ghost I had been aware of which used to kick around above me in my attic where boxes and worn-out furniture reside, and was now invited downstairs to the fancy parlor to stay there permanently with the living. My unconscious act of foolish charity, then. I had never believed in such things. Yet I always knew that ghost was up there, waiting to pounce on my mistake. It only had to manifest itself in a physical shape for me to see the longing for company and my buried dread of that longing. I think I deserved it, too, in a way. For as long as I can remember I have tempted certain forces in and around me. The disaster was all going to crash upon my head, starting with this cat that I was talked into and his terrible acne spreading on his lower lip. My only way to escape it, I convinced myself in a moment’s pure weakness, was climbing the trap door steps to the attic and closing it behind me in abject surrender. Those empty chairs no longer used by the ghost I sat in. The dust no longer swept by unseen feet.

I woke up the next morning still up there, having heard faintly that impatient mewing of his below for breakfast at the crack of sunrise. Leaving a puddle of sweat on the floorboards, I descended to his entreaties for the endless kibble awaiting in a vacu-seal bag if not for confirmation alone of my survival. Which of these was more important to him is anyone’s guess but, then again, the food doesn’t serve itself, to be sure, and I have few mice to speak of. While watching him gobble up his tidy geometric shapes I couldn’t help noticing how he was putting on significant weight, filling out his haunches, the space between his shoulder blades, the scruff of his neck. Another consideration to shatter my world. His growth may be boundless! I panicked. Was I supposed to be maintaining some optimal body mass for him, checking his cholesterol levels? He was eating well, took a lap of his water, and then stared at me as if for instruction as to what to do next with himself, other than hitting the kitty litter.

I honestly don’t know, I wanted to tell him, this is your life, not mine— I’m just maintaining your comfortable dependency on me with a minimum of ethical care.

After finishing up their review of tenure portfolios, my colleagues have come around again to me, though not about how mine fared in committee. They inquire on a regular basis instead about my progress with “the fur baby.” This to me belies what they regard as a fundamental challenge for my character to tend to him, a project that I think they would prefer to nurture themselves. Would I offer if so asked? They could resort to other means. My previously mentioned beliefs notwithstanding, I doubt any of them would stoop to that— “We work together, after all!” But if sensing in them the motivation, I may be better off allowing them to take the cat off my hands. I start wondering in seriousness whether this cat is the potential downfall of many hard-earned professional relationships otherwise. Sometimes, in a hopeless attempt to decide the issue, I look deep into his green-tinted apertures and ask, “Would you prefer to be with Professor So-And-So? He’s happily married with two polite kids and currently doing research for a book that’ll change the way we look at the Connecticut Wits of the 18th century,” and, like most oblivious owners who speak to their pets, I wait for the tell-tale sign or twitchy response that indicates he has considered the proposal carefully and thinks Professor So-And-So would be a spectacular upgrade from my lackluster self. Really, I would not be the least offended. I like animals far too much to have them suffer in a bad situation or prolong something they don’t feel right about. I think zoos should be abolished, and trophy hunters who are attacked by wild predators get no sympathy from me. Fine. A simple phone call on the weekend and I’m sure that’s a wrap.

Then again, I know well Professor So-And-So who also chairs the tenure review committee, his idiosyncrasies whispered about behind closed doors. As is the case in any given department, we constitute an odd family of tepid dysfunction. Maybe that passing question he made about deficiencies in my scholarship behind my back and eventually reaching me through other channels was only to let off some steam, or he was drunk, or he flat-out misjudged my hesitation over the cat business as a sign of weakness in my professional resolve elsewhere. I could forgive those things. I could reconsider, too, whether this is the person who deserves the cat following my efforts to acclimate him to domestic life after the streets. Worse yet, maybe he receives the cat and does a brilliant job caretaking him, and not before long I look incompetent in comparison because I was unable to raise the most compassionate, friendly, and deserving cat in the city. In retrospect, my application for tenure may have been on shaky ground, I soon convince myself.

What to do with my colleagues continuing to ask about the cat? I tell them he and I are getting used to each other. With a vague smile. No elaboration. I doubt that satisfies them, but it seems a fair stand-by response which helps cast aside their incessant curiosity, anyway. I skillfully omit mentioning the acne as well.

Courtesy of a displeased student I have to soothe over a minor transgression in class with another displeased student, I come home from campus after being long delayed for the evening to find the cat displeased himself with my subsequent absence and recent lack of affection. He has used my vinyl LP collection as a new scratching post, and destroyed some rare out-of-print paperbacks along the way with an elegant turd deposited on top like a maraschino cherry. There are no words here. I slam my satchel on the kitchen table and scatter my Chinese take-out to the winds.

I have to make the cat completely disappear from my life. Without inflicting violent pain on him. Without harming my reputation. Without my colleagues noticing. Without the entire karmic balance of the known universe being thrown into complete disarray unto perpetuity.

This rashy burden of his, while not a sheer impossibility that resists comprehension, leads me to reconsider whether I will fully understand this cat, will I be content with him, and whether I will stop feeling sorry for him because his living with me has caused him to contract this acne. Does this represent a disguised opportunity for me to make light of the situation with my colleagues and remark, “I don’t have the cat anymore, but I do have a walking bag of hairy sebum”? This may be closer to my actual resolve. I can’t stop thinking about this cat acne and how I let it waltz into my holy sanctuary despite my stated misgivings. On the other hand, my colleagues will undoubtedly point out that, no matter what, I’m at fault here, I’m responsible for him. How could I let this perfectly well-behaved cat (relatively speaking) suffer from acne because how it is responding to me or my environment? Would I be ashamed to admit to my colleagues that I want to give away my cat because of the acne? The conclusion they would undoubtedly draw is that I am a bad owner, that I am obviously mistreating him, perhaps even abusing him. Never should they have considered pairing me with any cat, they will say to themselves in private, though none will directly intervene to effect a solution. My little joke will have hit all the wrong notes.

Later on this summer I know the attic will be especially oppressive and stifling, and often I never go up there to get something until nighttime when it has cooled off a bit. At high noon in July I would say the temperature up there will be easily over a hundred and ten degrees, and with no direct ventilation to the outside, either. I imagine myself, then, carrying the cat upstairs, closing the trap door behind me, holding the cat as I settle into one of the moldy, ratted upholstered chairs some previous tenant couldn’t be bothered to remove, and fall asleep for good with him cradled in my arms to join me. Eventually. He could snack on my paltry body for a few days. Not an altogether elegant solution, even if it does alleviate to a degree some of these previous concerns of mine.

The veterinarian whom I take the cat to explains to me his lip and chin are indeed badly infected. She adds it could be mange or some other serious prognosis, but she wasn’t certain. I ask if the cat is in pain, and, after looking him over further, she opines it doesn’t appear so. He is mostly quiet and responsive to her touch without flinching. The loss of fur around his lips and degree of redness is somewhat disconcerting, she tacks on diplomatically. I can tell she is thinking I should’ve seen her sooner. Withholding her judgment, however, she takes a sample to check for possible tumors, and passes to me an antibiotic and medicated shampoo in the meanwhile until the biopsy results come back. The cat remains silent on the way home. He resumes his normal activity in my apartment as if nothing has happened or is about to happen.

Mulling this visit over, I start consulting guides as to whether advanced cases of cat acne can be cured with simple touch, positive re-enforcement, or homeopathic cures— not my usual areas of expertise. As I shampoo the cat in my tub that evening, I resist the overwhelming urge to talk to him again, to ask him what more I could possibly do. I am leveling with him. I let the intensity of the lather punctuate my spoken language, which I am getting better at as of late, like it’s my own head I’m lathering in the shower and letting him have that curious pleasure of standing still for. Before turning in for the night, however, I find a shredded roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. Whether this is payback or gratitude I haven’t been able to determine. In the manner of facial expressions, unlike their canine counterparts, I have confirmed for myself a cat does project blamelessness in any and all wrongdoing.

No one, I have also found, wants to be thought of at their workplace as the owner of a cat with a nasty disease. There is something vaguely disturbing about cat acne in the abstract, as opposed to other conditions that might suggest more egregious mistreatment. But is a cat that now lives with acne enough to suggest I have not done my part, that I have failed the cat in any way? I make this pained admission to the veterinarian when I visit her a second time— without the cat— and she stares at me somewhat incomprehensibly, not without good reason. She does her best to dissuade me from a silly notion. Perhaps I was wrong in thinking she had wanted to accuse me the first time. Then I make an unforced error: I ask her if she has a cat. She hesitates. No, she replies. Never has. In fact, she claims to have no pets of any kind. Am I to make something of this, I ask myself. Has everything she said to me been a ruse to ply me through this unscheduled visit, to assuage my guilty conscience? I say nothing else but pack up my written notes proffered from other learned veterinarians, do a re-scheduling with the receptionist on the way out, and pick up a new medicated shampoo at the All Dogs (And Cats!) Go To Heaven pet superstore to try, harboring distrust over the first shampoo. Having to make an educated choice between eight different kinds of overpriced medicated shampoo purges the final shred of any perceived romance I had held of cat ownership.

The rash still doesn’t respond much to my latest selection. As if recognizing my futile attempt at caring for him, the cat bounces out from the tub well before I’m done drying him off and rushes to his favorite spot by the front window, ignoring me completely. With resignation I watch him out of the corner of my eye as I try reading a novel on the sofa. I barely pay attention to the text. Yet when he sits and looks out that window and there’s nothing there, does he believe he’s looking at something, or is about to?

Usual distractions crumble as they are inclined. I spend more time on-line, hoping the thought of the cat evokes any of the numerous popular internet kitties or other meme pet celebrities I peruse. Everyone is in love. Something lurks in their adoration to make me feel fundamentally inept as a cat owner and as a human being when I can find no resemblances.

In the early hours of the morning, the cat is a suffocation without weight upon my chest, one that moves off on its own, left tame for the most part.

The veterinarian no longer returns my impromptu calls to her office for helpful suggestions.

Avoiding the reveal thanks to an effective stealth campaign, another colleague up for tenure becomes a first-time cat owner to join the growing department ranks. The big news is sprung to us with the momentous joy of a baby announcement, and just before the notifications will be sent from the Dean as well about who has snagged the brass ring without falling off their wooden horse. Palpable excitement spreads in the faculty lounge, as if a long-standing and unwelcomed vacuum is about to be filled, and that gregarious life will indeed bear luscious fruition where once there was nothing but ruin. The next cat-warming party invites spread quickly via social media, then, as other department business is put on hold for the coordination of foodstuffs and a cat-themed karaoke list. Four colleagues on-line immediately claim Tom Jones for the latter in less than a minute, precipitating a major blow-up. The closing of the academic year is not mercifully in sight yet.

Hints have been dropped regardless about its eventual outcome. The level of intensity my colleagues exert to avoid talking about my cat in lieu of the new cat, even if I bring up my cat myself in conversation, becomes conspicuous, and not because they appear bored with some previously undiscovered personality trait that I find I share with him. Former plans, I can tell, have been laid waste. Could I have been merely the test, the litmus for the cat to be proven by? Has this problem allowed the novelty of cat ownership to wear off not only for me, but for them? Cat acne has barged into the temple, obliterated their godhead, and sent them searching for spiritual renewal. It’s difficult for me not to feel like a fraud already, if not complicit in some manner of unforgivable duplicity. I start expecting that, without explanation from the Chair, I will be assigned a less-valued committee for next Fall, and be left out of the regular “Sunday Funday” get-togethers under the pretense they’ve been disbanded, though I’ll find out otherwise. The beginning of each week for me until the end of the semester will be filled with fearsome reckoning, inside jokes told that I have no background information about, other plans made on the down-low not involving myself in any capacity.

Or, at least, this suspicion is what I want to confront my colleagues with, my presence barely regarded as it is during the regular department functions. I do what little I can with the infrequent invitations I make to my place. They decline with politeness and cite my cat’s infection, so as not to “pass anything along” to the new cat, they clarify. They hope his condition improves when I mention offhand his lip remaining red and irritated, but I refrain from disclosing my concern over the pending biopsy results this week. In a rare blind optimism I tell them he’s certainly on the mend as I try to remember which of them suggested a cat for me in the first place. There is an ambiguous commitment made to possibly getting together for high-stakes poker after the letters come from the Dean. Then everyone will be in the mood to relax.

Tom, as I’ve gotten around to naming him with all this spare time, handles these real or imaginary slights with a unique, dignified nonchalance while on my lap. I find he receives from me an extended scratch under his raised chin for that.

About the author

Forrest Roth is the author of a recent novel, Gary Oldman Is A Building You Must Walk Through (What Books, 2017). Some of his shorter fiction has appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Timber, The Rupture, and other journals. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia.

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