2013 Winner - Fiction
The Holy Church of Sir Hamilton Whiskerface
The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself. Of course he wants care and shelter. You don’t buy love for nothing. Like all pure creatures, cats are practical. To understand an ancient question, bring it into present time.
—William S. Burroughs
The cat sensation that began its infectious conquest of the Internet when I was in high school seemed at first like a generational anomaly—just one of many millennial hula hoops. It started benignly enough: a Flash video here and there, kitten faces Photoshopped over the heads of celebrities. Yet from the beginning, I sensed instinctually that the craze was only a small symptom of a vast continental shift that had been in effect for centuries. What I had selfishly conceived to be a private, almost holy, infatuation was fast revealed to be a near-universal biological craving, cat love and humanity fast becoming indistinguishable. The humorless welcome mats of aging women had suggested for many years that cats were the true masters of their people, but the sentiment had never been meant or taken very seriously. And anyway, a great deal of people in the world still considered them to be vermin or food.
My very first boyfriend was, shamefully, one of these individuals. He cried revolting tears when he asked if I would marry him and I said no.
“Why not?” he demanded. We were fifteen, his question hypothetical in the ugly, not-really-but-still way of adolescent males.
“You are allergic to cats.”
Later, I would learn to screen for this point of contention ahead of time, but having only recently upgraded from the pimply unfuckability of junior high, I had not yet learned that rejection was a feasible option. We settled on a weak compromise.
“What if we got married, but then I kept my cat at a friend’s house?”
He pouted, “Would you still love it more than me?”
I masked my hesitation by performing the Martyred Savior Girlfriend trick, staring directly into his eyes and smiling as though comforting a small child with a fever. Leaning in for a kiss, I tried to conjure the feeling of leaving my own gorgeous Bastet for this scraggly, manic teenager. I imagined her owl eyes peeping from the caged window of the carrier as a friend packed her into an unfamiliar car. I imagined reaching for her in the night, heart wilting as fingertips found only clammy, hairless boyflesh. The grief of this thought was as insufferable as the boy’s terrible spit-soaked teeth.
“I will always love you,” I lied.
I heard, years later, that this boy was killed in a car accident in the parking lot of a Value City. I cried at the time, less from a feeling of loss than at the unfamiliar potential of mortality. I briefly considered attending his funeral—“I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Lee. If it makes you feel better, he always tried to feel me up when we went to the movies”—but thought better of it. For a while, I still indulged in the occasional voyeuristic click over to his abandoned blog, checking to see if anyone continued to leave him memories or prayers. Ultimately, however, he was and remains inconsequential to me.
Bastet’s eventual death, on the other hand, nests in my desolate brainstem even now. I suspect I’ll die before I stop dreaming her alive again, stop waking up tearful to find that she is still gone.
I have never expressly identified myself as a cat-lover. Before the modern cat fad, I typically found most self-described “cat-lovers” untrustworthy. They were of the same breed as the parasites that infested every comments page with self-righteous bile, demanding some sort of divine compensation for thinking and feeling correctly. They jabbed pious, pointed fingers at destitute cat hoarders, hissed monster at the poor who could not afford veterinary bills. Their homepages glimmered with luxurious gourmet cat food recipes, feathered toy mice crafted by hand, do-it-yourself scratching posts meticulously peppered with organic catnip grown in rooftop gardens. Surely they deserved recognition for the stunning feats of extraordinary empathy and kindness they produced for their furry friends. Surely those who fed their pets only bagged, processed food did not deserve love like they did.
The demeaning connotations of the term “furry friends” aside, it seems clear to me that the choice of cats as objects of obsession was more or less arbitrary for this type of person. This disagreeable sort of love can be applied to any item, any hobby, any half-baked humanitarian cause. It is a Tumblr sort of love, a love that seeks praise simply for bothering to exist. I imagined these people scraping crusted bricks of urine from litter boxes and inhaling deeply, hoping a neighbor or lover would catch them and think, what genuine sacrifice! What inspirational dedication! I suspect many of them left their back doors just a bit open at night, quietly dreaming that Boots would steal away to be mangled by a dog or a drunk driver. First thing in the morning, they’d blog their Christly suffering up to the e-Heavens to receive holy redemption from their sympathetic commenters. “Heard about Boots. What a beautiful cat! Our family sends all our love and prayers.”
These people knew nothing of the battle that I fought for them. They had not felt their faces pressed into sharp playground wood chips for insisting that cats rule and dogs drool. They had not sat silently weeping in back seats while friends’ fathers spoke brightly of the cats they deliberately crushed under truck tires. They were not told to go home because their fur-caked shirts were allergens to blond rich girls who pulled their hair when no one was looking. They did not witness their most beloved creatures perish slowly and in pain when well-meaning parents could not produce the money to heal them. They had not suffered, and they did not love cats.
I have always preferred to align myself with the much-reviled Crazy Cat Lady. Perpetually hocking phlegm from ammonia-induced respiratory infections, she is at least honest about the base lust that compels her. She is drawn to her darlings so helplessly that she cannot bear to part with them, even as they slowly kill her and themselves. Her existence is one of unbearable shame, but it is worth it as long as they stay, as long as she can reach out and press her face into their matted fur. Her smell prevents her from maintaining jobs or lovers, but this is of little consequence. The reward for this lifestyle is the creatures themselves; there is nothing else.
It is worth noting that this figure is not ever married and certainly never appears with children. While dogs are a family pet, to be enjoyed like a board game or a maid, cats are traditionally the companions of lonely women, surrogate children for the unlovable. This is not a mistake. In college, arriving home to the warm stench of weed, I once heard my roommate and her boyfriend playing a game they called Cat or Baby. They took turns eliciting whiney yelps, the other one guessing if the sound was meant to be a cat or a crying child. The game was quite silly, but it spoke to a profound evolutionary truth. The cat’s hungry wail has evolved through centuries to mimic the sound of a needy infant. So dearly reliant on us for their wellbeing, the cats that have survived history are the ones who have successfully convinced us to love them.
Many animals know this trick. The female cuckoo, for instance, discreetly leaves her egg in the nest of an unsuspecting warbler. The intruder’s egg will hatch earlier than the nesting mother’s own eggs, and the baby will be larger and more beautiful. Entranced by its tremendous, dazzling mouth, the mother bird will be compelled to feed it more than she feeds her own blood offspring. Her own children will quickly die, and she will toss them from the nest as her adopted darling continues to grow, becoming even larger than its surrogate mother.
It is easy to vilify the cuckoo, but of course moral outrage is a uniquely human trait. Imagine the joy this unwitting warbler feels as her beloved chick swells to twice her size. I have been a good mother, she thinks. My baby is the most beautiful. Who are we to tell her otherwise?
In any case, the real cat revolution was uncontaminated with the false love of narcissists. It wasn’t presumptuous; it didn’t pout. It was simply that the things cats did, all on their own, were so terribly wondrous to behold. Many, like myself, had known this all along, but the rise of the viral video had made it possible to recruit converts. Whole new constellations of stars emerged: Tamika, who walked on her back legs like a proper lady; Marino, the box-jumper; Bubbles, born with a toothless perpetual grin. Some were one-hit wonders, others Renaissance felines who kept us returning time and time again to see what they’d thought of next. They poked their tiny heads from blankets, climbed walls, belted beautiful yowling songs, clutched marshmallows in their teeth. They paralyzed us with love.
Interestingly, human children did not seem able to produce quite the same charming effects. Infants dressed and posed as miniature adults were the stuff of gynecologist’s office walls at best. On the other hand, Cat Couture—the website featuring weekly photographs of lanky purebreds in designer apparel—was up to four million views less than twenty-four hours after its release. Floundering toddlers and tiny babbling twins did make it to the upper echelons of Internet fame occasionally, but they were minute specks on the radar compared to A-list celebrities like BombCat or Dr. Wiggleston. Set side by side with their graceful feline counterparts, our tubby primate children seemed somehow less captivatingly pure. People frequently deleted their online acquaintances for indulging too much in baby pictures. I have never known cats to provoke this response.
This all started to take up quite a bit of our time. It was common to come across half-joking sentiments like, “This paper is due in three hours, but I can’t stop watching Kitten Cam!” or “How can anyone get anything done when there are so many videos of Tamika to choose from?” Later, these thoughts did not need to be voiced. The skyrocketing pageviews said all there was to say.
The rise of this phenomenon was a great relief to me. My transition into college marked the end of an era I hadn't fully recognized or appreciated until it had already passed. Like the fish with no concept of water, I had not realized the full extent of my reliance on the family cats. Dormitories left no space for dignity or solitude, nowhere to scoop cats into one's arms and weep. I became discombobulated and fragile, my posture degraded into a protective hunch to nurse my shriveling heart. Like many, I sought relief in liquor, grades, and sex, but the only vice that helped—really helped—were the videos. Crouched under my comforter in the dark, I would ravenously snap my laptop open, pupils constricting in its headlight glare. I let the search engine fates guide me to the destinations of their choosing, never daring risk too much specificity. A simple "cute kittens play" or "funny cat" was all the search bar required to work miracles. I followed the current of suggested videos, traveled from well-populated sites like Baby Lovecat to the outskirts of cyberspace where amateur housecats lolled on sofas in the grainy, low resolution of Smartphone cameras. It was a pleasure that approached but didn't quite cross the border of guilty. And while it failed always as a satisfying substitute for the real thing, it nonetheless became a necessary ritual.
The camaraderie the addiction fostered was fascinating. Even in the dead of night, comments amassed; you were never really alone. I was and remain perpetually stunned by the innocence of it all. The pleasure we felt as we drank in sultry eyes and catnip tantrums was pornographic in nature but without any of the customary defensiveness or shame. For what had we to be ashamed of? Our love was honest and pure, our fix harmless. No cats were harmed in the satisfaction of our cravings.
I had of course entertained notions of acquiring my own cat, but my face-to-face encounters with new felines left me with the acrid aftertaste of one-night stands. Neither the sweet pouting mutts I encountered behind bars in SPCA annexes nor the congenitally fragile purebreds who slept fitfully in mall pet stores felt quite like sweetheart material. They were good for a rush, but ultimately, my heart still ached for Bastet. I was not yet ready for a long-term relationship.
The human brain, however, was not designed for indefinite grief. Sore spots remain, but inevitably, numbness clears new spaces for love.
The summer following my graduation marked the arrival of my second serious romance. I was twenty-two years old, smoking cigarettes on the back porch of my apartment with my boyfriend, Andy, when a tiny cat appeared in the bushes.
“Hello,” I said. I held out my hand and made the soft kissing sounds I’d long ago taught Bastet meant “food here.” The animal froze, alarmed, but did not run away.
“Hey Andy,” I asked, “Do we have any meat?”
He flicked his cigarette into the garden and tromped inside. The stubborn squeal and clack of the screen door startled the little cat, but still he did not run away. He gnawed on the grass in front of him, keeping a cautious eye on me. I sat very, very still.
“We don’t have lunchmeat or anything,” Andy said from the kitchen, “but your housemate has a can of tuna.”
“Open it,” I called. The woman I lived with kept some food in our kitchen, but by the time she returned from her job at the hospital, she was so tired she always ordered takeout. A missing tuna can would not change this.
Andy emerged from the house with the opened can and set it at the bottom of the porch steps.
“Hey, little guy,” he said with a grin. I smiled in spite of myself. I’d lately begun to feel somewhat sour about Andy, but the tenderness with which he spoke to the little cat made me wonder why. The creature eyed the can, but stayed in his place.
I said, “Throw him a piece.”
Andy plucked a wet shred of fish from the can and flung it into the grass. The cat took a nervous step forward, sniffed, and gratefully devoured it. My heart skittered; he was a perfect snowy white. Andy continued to do this, tossing the pieces of fish closer and closer to the porch until the cat at last conceded to eating straight from the can. He purred uproariously as he wolfed down the pink-gray lumps of meat, a savage, guttural sound punctuated by desperate gulps. Andy reached carefully toward him, softly scratching behind the cat’s ears. To our delight, the cat allowed it.
I had thought for many years that no animal on earth could have been as lovely as my lost Bastet; her moon blue eyes and dappled wildcat fur were those of a queen. But this new little cat was a different sort of creature entirely. He was perhaps six months old—a teenager—but already it was clear that he was destined for fame. His eyes and nose were the color of apricots, his milky fur thick and luscious. He was a prodigy and a prince. He was, immediately, my one true love.
I tiptoed down the porch steps to join him. He was no longer skittish but wildly blissful, enjoying his first meal in what I assume had been many days. When I reached out to him, he pressed his face into my hand, audibly raising the volume of his purr.
“He’s friendly for a stray,” said Andy. “Do you think he belongs to somebody?” My heart withered at the thought.
“I don’t think so,” I said more confidently than I felt. Andy had grown up in a house without pets, so I could feign a certain amount of authority. “It doesn’t look like he’s been fixed.”
I was lying, but this did turn out to be true. Just moments after stepping inside the apartment, he celebrated his unfettered manhood with a stinking spray that lost Andy his sneakers and lost me a $500 security deposit. But it was impossible to mind. His peachy eyes sparkled with a fresh, gleaming love that we could not help but return in abundance. He set our drooping hearts aflame.
I asked, “What should we name him?” Andy thought about this.
“He sort of looks Norse. What about Thor?”
I winced. Though I could see what he meant, Thor was a name for ugly dogs, not noblemen.
“What about Xerxes?” I suggested.
“Too exotic,” said Andy. He was right. The little cat was quite gentlemanly in appearance, but his demeanor was unmistakably down-home. He was no foreign king. We watched as he groomed himself, wracking our brains for a pleasing moniker. Having rejected Alberto, King Henry, Mr. Squishler, and Fuzzenstein, Andy said, finally, “I think he looks like a Hamilton.”
I was rapturous; it was true! How had I failed for so long to notice Andy’s genius? I had intended him to be a pleasantly irrelevant capstone to my undergraduate education, but the thought of leaving him suddenly turned my stomach. A cat needed a father.
The newly christened Sir Hamilton Whiskerface slept peacefully in my bed that night, politely averting his eyes as Andy and I undressed. Our lovemaking did not seem to bother him; he was far beyond the realm of shame. His heavenly calm faltered only when we kicked him by mistake, a sin for which he was willing to forgive us as long as we scratched his chin to let him know we remembered he was there. For his part, Andy had undergone a miraculous transformation. A traditionally monotonous lay, he was bright and ravenous in a way I’d assumed was beyond him. He curled against me like a child after we finished, a charmingly vulnerable act the likes of which I had never suspected he was capable. With Andy on my left side and Hamilton on my right, I radiated with the warm animal energy of a satisfied lover. A long-starved part of me had at last found nourishment.
At the time, I attributed this euphoria to some sort of ineffable spiritual union, but I now know that, like all emotions, the phenomenon was entirely biological. Love is and always has been chemical. The hormone oxytocin, its messenger of choice, zips through the bloodstream at impeccable speeds when summoned with the proper stimulus. Producer of orgasm, lactation, and birth, it is the catalyst for reproduction and protector of its clumsy, burbling consequences. It is responsible for the gallant maternal rapture that storms forth upon the flow of sperm and the sight of infants. And—this is important—it can be tricked. It is said that the brain identifies what is baby and what is not using a preprogrammed set of signals. Disproportionate head-to-body ratio; large, round eyes; small nose; soft, unblemished flesh—these traits cue the release of the love drug, ensuring the guardianship of our fragile offspring. There is nothing personal or spiritual about it.
The keen observer may note that these peculiarities are quite similar to those exhibited by a certain build of housecat.
The following morning, we purchased a litter box, a scratching post, food bowls, and a proper bag of cat food. (We considered a collar as well but did not wish to sully Hamilton’s immaculate coat with a garment so unfashionable.) As Andy boiled water for tea, I plucked our still sleeping dear from the bed and brought him downstairs. Though we’d not yet opened the new bag of food, he sensed that it was filled with something he wanted and ran to it, looking up to us hopefully.
“Don’t worry, Ham,” I cooed. “I’ll get it for you.”
I pulled at the stiff paper seal of the bag until it tore, the sharp smell of “poultry byproduct” permeating the humid air. Hamilton’s eyes widened, and he paced back and forth.
“Hold on, Hammyhead. I can’t put it in the bowl when you’re standing in front of it like that.”
As I took a fistful of food from the heavy bag, he stood up on his back legs and reached up to me. I nearly swooned.
Andy turned from the stove. It was clear how badly Hamilton wished to be fed, but it seemed harmless to extend his anticipation. Greedily, we basked in the simple sweetness of his wobbly beggar pose until our cruel torpor overwhelmed him. In bewildered confusion, he began to cry.
Andy choked on a mouthful of hot tea. I clutched the food in my frozen hands.
“Hosanna,” the cat insisted, rubbing furiously against my legs. “Hosanna!”
I dropped the food. He purred and licked it up as though he hadn’t just stopped the rotation of the earth.
“Did he just—?”
I sank to the floor, stray bits of cat food crunching beneath me.
There was no way around it. Sir Hamilton Whiskerface had spoken.
Too afraid yet to test our luck getting him to repeat the act, Andy and I spent the afternoon frantically scouring the web for videos of talking cats. There were some, but the quality was poor, and the elocution was even worse. A smattering of kittens produced curt hi’s and hello’s, and an ugly shorthair choked out a raggedy, “No, no, no,” but the majority of the films were pathetically delusional. Lonely men and women in slight variations of the same depressing rumpus room insisted that their pets could say, “I love you,” or “How do you do?” if you listened hard enough, but this was uniformly untrue. At best, the cats managed to mumble half-words like, “Prrtle,” or “Merp.” Usually, they simply mewed.
We began to doubt ourselves. Had we fallen prey to the same absurd fantasies as these attention-starved loons? True, we had both heard the cat speak, but we wouldn’t be the first couple to believe in something ridiculous together. The only way to prove ourselves would be to capture the phenomenon on tape.
We had naturally assumed that getting the cat to repeat himself would be next to impossible, but we’d underestimated the enchanting talents of our sweet prince. Though he maintained a strict vow of silence at all other times, Hamilton could not keep his mouth shut when he was hungry, and he knew only one word. All we had to do was place my laptop on the floor by the food bowl, press record, and dangle a handful of food just out his of reach. Again and again, he yowled his prayer, pawing at our hands in half-playful anguish. We cackled with delight, stupefied at our luck. If he was really saying what we thought we heard, “viral video” was going to be the understatement of the century. We uploaded the blurry video, entitled “Sir Hamilton Whiskerface, God Among Men,” to Youtube and held our breath.
I would like to make it very clear that neither Andy nor I believed that the cat was in any way channeling the divine or purposefully communicating with us. A glorious blend of genetic predisposition and acquired habit does twist our love’s vocal chords such that he speaks his word fluently, but he will never know this. Unlike dogs, cats do not comprehend syllables; they have never needed to. Their language is one of pitch and volume—emotions, not concepts. Hamilton will not ever know why the world bends backward to hear him.
Andy and I tried to distract ourselves from hovering over our tepid pageview count, but it was useless. We could think of nothing else. Excruciating hours oozed by like dial-up downloads as we waited to find out if we’d gone insane. Our addled viscera quaked in unison when the first commenter chimed in. Alas, the verdict was exasperatingly oblique:
Antwerp20XD6 1 hour ago
Our agony only increased. Was he laughing at us or with us? It was impossible to say. We gnashed our yellow smoker’s teeth and continued to wait. Of course, we had no reason to expect anything more. Reclusive by nature, neither of us was terribly adept at negotiating social networks, physical or electronic. We needed to go undercover.
Taking cues from spambots, we donned suitably nonspecific usernames like sweetycakesX5 or gerdiebirdie, haunting unfamiliar forums and comments sections to bring the glorious word of Sir Hamilton Whiskerface to the ignorant masses. Our message was simple yet refined, carefully tailored to capture the imagination without giving away the punch line: “omg guys, i have LITERALLY never seen a cat do anything like this before. what is happening??”
Our efforts did not pay off as quickly as we’d hoped. By the end of the night, we’d amassed only fifty views, three likes, and a dislike. Our lowly LOL remained all we had to show for ourselves.
I awoke early the next afternoon following frazzled, gray dreams. Andy slept at my side and Hamilton at my feet as I reached over the edge of the bed for my computer. Warily, I decided to go through my usual morning web ritual without checking our Youtube page. Like my mother at a Chinese restaurant, making careful sure to eat the entire awful cookie before looking at her fortune, I would try to please fate with my virtuous patience. I checked Facebook and my e-mails, neither bringing news of anything but concerts I would never attend. I read two New York Times articles, a halfhearted feminist blog post, and revisited the webcomics I’d fallen behind on while trying not to drop out of school. I hesitated. A round of Boggle would be pushing it, but I felt certain that if I checked our page too early, perhaps even our evasive LOL would vanish. I opted for a palatable gossip website, deciding I would make myself read exactly five short articles before allowing myself what I so badly wanted.
I plodded numbly through “Beards: Y/N?” and “Woman Gets Tattoo of Self on Own Face” for a few idle minutes before my heart stopped. The physical sensation preceded the consciousness of it: “Holy Cat Prays for Food.” For a few nauseous moments, my hereditary pessimism convinced me that another cat had beaten us to the punch. Somebody’s spoiled fat ass tabby was singing Jesus Loves Me before we could even get our feet off the ground. But no. One click, and there was Hamilton frozen on his feet, reaching up to the Heavens. Underneath the screen shot was a short article.
If you’re not sitting down already, find a seat. Sir Hamilton Whiskerface, the little cat with a BIG voice, made Youtube stardom in record time this morning after his owner(s) posted a video of him standing up and speaking. We highly recommend watching the video yourself, but if you’re pressed for time, go straight to 0:23. After getting up on his hind legs, the cat says something—we’re not making this up—that sounds exactly like “Hosanna.” Nonbelievers cry hoax, but the video seems legit. Anyone looking for a sign from God today is in luck.
Following the link at the bottom of the page, I was dumbfounded.
“Andy, wake up.” He groaned but didn’t move. I shoved him. “Andy, you have to wake up!”
He turned to me and opened his eyes. Realizing what I was looking at, he scrambled up to get a better look. We had 1,582,607 views and 643 comments. The two top comments fit together like a beautiful yin-yang:
Sheilabeezy 6 hours ago
“OBJuan34 8 hours ago
praise the lord, jesus. hallelujah!
I will spare you the details of our feverish celebrations; suffice it to say a great deal of money was spent on condoms and booze. Within a week, our page accumulated so many views we were invited to become “Youtube Partners,” which meant we could profit from the advertisements on the page. We used the money to buy a video camera, a real one, and learned to use the primitive editing software that came pre-installed on my computer. We also purchased a domain name—www.hailhamilton.com—and hired a kid from school to do web design for us. We opted not to disclose our names but provided a brief blurb about the discovery of Hamilton and an e-mail address for people who wished to contact us about him.
To this day, I cannot decide whether the e-mail address was a mistake, but it if it was, it was wondrous. Correspondence trickled in slowly at first, then snowballed to titanic proportions. Mostly, it was parasites hoping for a shout out to their tedious fan fiction blogs or child-rearing advice columns. We assembled a stock rejection letter for these loathsome weevils, many of whom, it seemed, had not even bothered to watch our videos before begging for our help. However, every now and then, miracles occurred. The chronically ill thanked us for giving them something to smile about. Little girls sent us crayon scrawled pictures of Hamilton with lumpy speech clouds reading, “HOZNA” or “hoosanuh.” Four-year-old twins from Georgia dictated a list of questions to their mother—“Is he nice to pet? What is his favorite color? Does he like to eat ham?”—who graciously transcribed and passed the message along. We dedicated a fan art page and an FAQ to these lovely children and tried our best to respond to each and every one personally. We delighted in the technology that allowed us to share our love with the world while keeping Hamilton all to ourselves.
But the hate mail was the best of all. Thousands and thousands of keyboards stuck on permanent caps lock, swearing and damning and accusing forever and ever amen. We debated sharing these disorienting, muzzy-brained gems on the webpage as well but decided against it, not wishing to upset the young children who came to us for safe, pleasant amusement. Our sailor mouthed haters came from all walks of life. Some were clearly teenagers who sent the same cell phone pictures of their dicks to anyone on the Internet stupid enough to leave contact information. Others were religious fanatics, certain that Hamilton was some sort of demon or the devil in disguise. The phrase “false idol” was bandied about ad infinitum. Still others were self-righteous, attention-starved halfwits working under the guise of animal rights activism. These were the despicable “cat lovers” from the luxury litter box circle of online Hell. They demanded to know exactly what Hamilton was fed, how often he went outside, whether or not we brushed him every day. They claimed to have filed complaints or spoken to the police about our reckless endangerment of a helpless animal. We stroked Hamilton’s ears and fed him thick slices of turkey as we read through these particular e-mails.
“Are you recklessly endangered, Mr. Hamface?” we asked. He purred and rubbed his face against our hands.
The most confounding hate mail was the sort we couldn’t quite place. These messages defied any identifying marks of age, gender, or location. Their grammar was invariably mindblowing, their tone apocalyptic. We read them again and again, fascinated yet inexplicably unsettled. In spite of their vulgar battiness, they seemed to hint at some inscrutable truth we couldn’t quite put our fingers on. We printed out a copy of our favorite one and put it into a frame:
FUCKR u die thnk ur funy but BURNIG going 2 fcking kill u fukr @$$hols evr time & me 2 shits gonig dwn 2nite cu thre maggitz, c ERVYONE threr
Eventually, the ceaseless stream of mail became too much to bear. Around same the time we arranged for the sale of Sir Hamilton Whiskerface© t-shirts and canvas bags, we hired two girls to read and sort our e-mails into folders labeled, “Trash,” “Batshit,” “Kids,” and “Important.” For this, the girls received $100 a week, free Hamilton merchandise, and a tenuous “internship” to put on their résumés. By the end of the summer, the steady flow of money from advertisements and t-shirt sales was such that Andy and I could quit our respective shitty part-time jobs. Hamilton had become our career.
Despite the popularity of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” evolution often works on a whim. A popular example is the peacock’s tail, but I find that breasts hit closer to home. It is a lesser-known truth that human females are the only primates whose mammary glands remain swollen even when they are not lactating. Nothing about the bulging, fatty breast improves the female’s quality of life; in fact, its permanent engorgement may increase the likelihood of fatal complications. Yet at some vital point too far back in time to trace, the breast became an object of love. Males selected partners for their elastic bosoms as we selected them for their flexible shafts. (Similarly, humans are also the only apes lacking the uncomfortable phallus bone.) Hence, over a span of millennia, fetishes may change the course of history.
One is left to wonder how this principle might affect the evolution of species whose bodily fates have become intertwined. As the cat’s survival relies on our love, they too bend and flex to accommodate our desires. Could we perhaps reach an impasse? Might our feline counterparts one day reach the apex whereby they surpass even our most alluring human lovers in beauty and charm?
About three months in, we received our first request from what we came to know as the Consolation Prize Foundation. A seven-year-old girl with a fatal congenital disorder wanted to hold food out for Hamilton and hear him recite his special incantation in person. Of course we agreed. The foundation paid for our transportation and a pet-friendly hotel room, and the family agreed to let us film the event. The resulting video, “Sir Hamilton Meets LaKeisha,” is unspeakably lovely. With eyes the size of super balls, Hamilton approaches the fading little girl, nervous at first, then confident and chivalrous. He rubs against her knees, purring, and she smiles, looking up to her mother who smiles back. There is a brief cut, and then the food is in her hand. She holds it down for him, just above his head, and he rises up, placing one paw on each of her thighs.
“Hosanna,” he cries, and she squeals with joy, bending down to embrace him. She kisses him on the head, and he says it again, “Hosanna!” as her mother starts to weep with her hands over her mouth. The film was viewed by three million people in two days.
From here, the television appearances began. Hamilton’s natural showmanship was sought after by news anchors, talk show hosts, and even sitcom producers. PBS ran a short in which scientists placed a tiny camera into his mouth as he did his trick, attempting to uncover how his feline mouth managed to form the word. A chef from the Food Network prepared him a gourmet feast that viewers could make at home for their own, less talented pets. He even appeared alongside Big Bird to inform children everywhere that he was brought to them by the letter H.
For two months, Andy and I ricocheted between New York and LA with Hamilton in tow. We bribed a doctor to register him as a comfort animal so he could sit with us in first class when we flew. (I shuddered to think of the woozy, horrified pets that hyperventilated somewhere in the dark of the cargo bay.) Make-up artists and pageboys told us how much they envied us; they wished that they too could quit their jobs to fawn over an animal for profit. But these months were far more exhausting than any occupation we’d ever imagined for ourselves. The all-consuming beige of hotel room after hotel room seemed to suck vital nutrients out through our jet-lagged pores. Though we ate well, we felt eternally malnourished, lungs tender from sharp air conditioning and the musky diaper perfume of pressurized cabins. Hamilton, who was miraculously unfazed by all of this, was the lone source of energy and light that prevented us from burning out entirely. He slept peacefully though flights and cooperated graciously with stagehands and cameramen. At night, we crowded around him like nomads around a campfire. We craved nothing but to slip into the warm, white oblivion of his fur.
As the media buzz finally began to dwindle, Andy and I used the money we’d made to buy ourselves a new apartment in a quiet town. We did not expressly discuss the significance of moving in together; it was tacitly understood that separation from Hamilton was out of the question. The place was much larger than we really deserved, but we wanted Hamilton to be able to stretch and explore, and we couldn’t risk allowing him outside. We shared an uproariously opulent master bedroom with a king-sized bed and its own full bathroom. We each had our own personal study, an office/library, and a music room for Andy. The pièce de résistance, however, was Hamilton’s room. What the landlord had described to us as a “conservatory,” we converted into a veritable feline paradise. We covered the walls in scratchable swatches of wicker and carpet, installed a fake tree for him to climb, spread blankets of all widths and textures across the floor, and garnished it all with a healthy serving of catnip. It was an outright horror to behold, but he loved it, and that was all that mattered. We had no houseguests to entertain. In fact, we could not remember the last time we’d spoken to somebody who wasn’t somehow involved in Hamilton’s business affairs.
Our first night in the house, Andy and I tried to celebrate the acquisition our palatial new bedroom. It had been months since we’d been able to relax in the comfort of a space that actually belonged to us and perhaps even longer since we’d found the time or energy to be intimate with one another. It was surprising to realize this. I cannot speak for Andy, but in the exhaustive excitement of travel, I had failed to note how long it had been since I’d bothered even to hold his hand or look him in the eye. Sitting in the low mood lighting of the bedroom, we emptied a bottle of champagne while discussing whether or not we would need to buy new clothes to match the yuppie atmosphere of our new neighborhood. As I deliberated over the pros and cons of high-heeled shoes, I felt Andy place a hand on my thigh. Mechanically, I leaned in to kiss him.
There is nothing inherently pleasing in the act of kissing. It likely originated as a local oddity, popularized over the centuries by media portrayals and peer pressure. Left to their own devices, few humans would arrive at the conclusion that touching dirty lips together suffices to resolve physical or emotional tension. Opening my eyes to see, up close, the oily pores of Andy’s cheeks and the slow yellowing of his eyes and teeth, I understood the futile absurdity of the kiss. There was no joy to be found in its foul clumsiness, no underlying need fulfilled. Two primates pressed their most bacteria-ridden openings against each other. That is all.
As Andy fumbled against me, I could not help but think that the cat’s primal show of affection seems much more sincere. There is something intuitive about the affectionate cheek rub that is lost in the ritual of kissing. It is love uncontained, uncontaminated with social conformity or rancid saliva. Andy’s sharp stubble wore painfully at my neck, and I longed instead for softness. I longed for love without ulterior motives or the gut-pulling friction of latex. I longed for Hamilton.
When Andy was spent, we sat in the cavernous darkness of the master bedroom in silence. Something tangible was lost in the midst of the room’s splendor. The high ceiling seemed cruel and unwelcoming; the bed was comfortable but not warm. Without saying a word to each other, we rose from the bed and walked across the hallway to Hamilton’s room. Even in the dark, he was obvious—a shock of white amongst shadows. We settled into the nest of blankets around him, and he stirred, stretching his arms out in front of him. I placed a hand over his paws, and Andy placed a hand over mine. Sleep came easily. This was correct.