Only Connect - Part 2: Ariel Tames Us

Jay Jay came through the storm in his house

Jay Jay came through the storm in his house

Part 2: Ariel Tames Us

       When we were safely away from the door, I let the cat go. She fled immediately under the couch. For nearly three days, through gale winds and flood and low-racing clouds, she was a ghost presence, crouched in secret spaces she found when we weren’t looking. Like prey, she fended off a dangerous world by creeping under the bed or behind the stacks of Robin’s paintings—landscapes that had always been a form of refuge. The raging storm stranded me in what had become unambiguously Robin’s apartment, overflowing with her stuff. Powerless against the elements, and fearing some unheard-of sequel from the cosmos, we made space for each other; together we searched for the feral cat we’d rescued from Sandy’s deluge.

Lilacs by Robin Epstein

Robin's landscapes had always been a form of refuge

       Under these atmospheric circumstances, strange and unnerving on every level, I saw nothing abnormal in the animal’s terror of us and our rooms. Even house cats were alarmed by new surroundings and could spend days in hiding. We were bobbing in the flow of events, waiting for signs of the cat’s lurking presence. No sounds came from her hiding places, no rustling or claw-sharpening on canvas—just a dead zone, seeping through the rooms as we searched for her.

       On the second day, as the storm was making landfall in New Jersey, we forced the animal from under the couch. Before she could run for cover, I managed to grab her and show her the new cat box. As though by magic, she comprehended its use and never made messes elsewhere. I was encouraged by this sign of intelligence and respect for our space—or was she simply covering her tracks, as prey often do?

       After three days, the storm had cleared enough for me to go home. Robin wanted me gone, and we were making almost no progress with Ariel. Moreover, I needed to check on my apartment. The subways were closed due to flooding, so I called a cab. Robin thought she could tame the cat—who was I to doubt her?

       My apartment was in good order. I spent the evening reading and observing the moody sky from large, southwest-facing windows.

       In the morning, my phone rang. Robin was in a panic: she’d been up all night as the feral cat ran through the apartment. Could I come back and help?

       For a moment I imagined saying no: everyone knew feral cats were trouble. However, I agreed to come by. I walked the three miles through my new neighborhood and then Prospect Park, surveying the storm damage. In my neighborhood, branches lay in the streets and a tree had fallen, smashing through the roof of a house. On another block, falling branches had crushed a couple of cars. Adding to the strangeness of the day, it happened to be Halloween. As I passed the crushed cars, a small Darth Vader ran by in the company of a wand-waving girl; the parents followed, nervously eyeing the debris. The park was worse: a mess of dangerous hanging limbs and uprooted trees. It took me over an hour in the bracing cold to reach the Park Slope apartment.

       I ended up staying several more days, until the subways began running again and Robin’s job and the language school where I was teaching opened back up.

       The apartment had a small room used mostly for storage, where we set up the food bowl and the cat box. The apartment’s larger rooms were connected by wide, open doorways, forming a single long space. The cat emerged from hiding mostly at night, when she thought we were sleeping. Then she stole out to forage for food. I was sleeping poorly and would sometimes hear her padding across the floor toward her food bowl; once she paused to sharpen her claws on one of Robin’s new Persian rugs.

       As the week passed, Ariel became more daring. Soon nights were for prowling—sussing out places of safety—and running. She was a wild animal, used to chasing birds and fleeing danger; and for her, danger hung in the stuffy air of our rooms—the doldrums where she’d washed up. Using the long, open apartment as a runway, she made flying leaps over the bed, landing on a small rug and sending it spinning. Lying half-awake in the dark, I heard her thumping gallop and struggled to get the covers over my head before her body came flying by. It was an alarming feeling. What if she landed on me, claws out? This was no incompetent house cat but a seasoned hunter; what else was she capable of? Even so, I was in sympathy with her unruliness: I’d been a runner myself, and her pent-up energy spoke to me. I wondered if, in mama cat’s mind, she was making a dash for Jay Jay’s place, securing food for her long-lost kittens as she galloped through our rooms.

       Whatever she was doing, Ariel showed no signs of wanting to leave. She was dug in—warm, dry, and regularly fed. She kept away from the door, her only means of escape. By the end of my stay, she’d begun creeping from her hiding places to get a good look at us. I’d never tamed a cat before and was uncomfortable forcing my will on her. What wrenching would her feelings go through as fear changed to dependence? Would she become a loving house cat—would our connection be mutual? I remember seeing her wary face, with its camouflage of tiger markings, as she peeked around the couch, assessing me—weighing the dangers and comforts my presence implied. Her forelegs in a taut crouch, she peered up at me, as her large ears responded to sounds from the street. A passing car, a dog barking—the old dangers were in her blood. They were flooding her memory as I leaned closer and offered my hand for her to smell.

*     *     *

       To my alarm over the years, Robin had sometimes spoken of taking in a teenaged foster child, as some of her colleagues were doing—but a cat? Never. Now, however, feeling bereft and abandoned, she’d courted and adopted a challenging, feral one—an implausible pet, just when I’d rented my own apartment and was spending time there. Cats responded to me; as for Robin, she’d never had an animal. For a long time, she’d thought she hated cats. That had changed as she got to know the ones at our Mendocino cabin, and as she fed and courted Ariel—a stray; a soul mate for her secret garden. Yet taming a feral cat would be a problem for her—more so because the taming would have to go both ways. Robin worked long hours and slept badly. Like the cat, she wanted tending but often fled from it. Soon I was coming over to move the process along—helping them communicate, soothing feral tempers. As squabbling couples do, we joked that Ariel was keeping us together.

       I’d been unsuccessful with Robin—or so I felt. Why was I worrying about another stray? Maybe I was feral too.

       Sometimes, when Robin was working late, I would drop by to feed Ariel. I would enter the apartment to find signs of her presence—food consumed, carpets scooted here and there, a fallen lamp. But for weeks she fled from me, leaving me frustrated and discouraged. Robin was unhappy too; she’d wanted company in the apartment, but the cat was no companion. Jay Jay had come through the storm in his cinder-block house; I began to wonder if Ariel could be tamed—or maybe she belonged out there with him.

       Soon Robin was calling me to complain about Ariel. The cat became impossible at night; she sat moaning by the bed and had vomited on a brand-new Persian rug. Maybe I could do something, Robin suggested; maybe I could take her to my place, since I claimed to be so good with cats.

       I knew Robin would never give Ariel up. Soon we were joking bitterly that we could share custody, as though parceling out the care of a hopelessly wayward child.

       Then one evening, when Robin would be coming home late, I went by the Park Slope apartment to feed Ariel and found her on the couch. The couch was human turf: I’d never seen her there before. Propped comfortably on her forepaws, her eyes peering from among the symmetrical tiger markings on her face and ruff, she had a fetching appeal. Her glance was full of feline challenge as she made a small adjustment, readying her body for flight yet remaining in place on the couch. I approached, cooing; her tail made a single slow arc. My first thought was that she was laying claim to my worldly goods—my old reading corner by the lamp. I’d left empty space in the apartment, and Robin was filling the vacuum with stuff—furniture, Persian rugs, and now a cat.

       I was impressed by the sign of progress—Ariel’s claiming of human turf. Or was she after something else? It was as if she’d been waiting for me: far from wanting to drive me off, she was engaged by my presence. I wondered if she’d begun to see me as a gentleman caller—if, by claiming my corner on the couch, she was claiming me. In any case, she’d come out of hiding, suggesting that she might someday drop her feral ways. Disengaging from them one by one, she could develop a house cat’s amusements and loyal caring for her imperfect humans—the ones she’d followed home in the storm.


Signs of progress

*     *     *

       The adjustment would not be easy. Accustomed to doing her own thing, Ariel was a night creature in more ways than one: soon she was in heat. Robin began complaining of weird howling and leaping, accompanied by fits of writhing on the rug. When I came by the apartment to observe for myself, Ariel grabbed my pant leg and began clawing her way up. For days the madness was all-consuming; then it passed, leaving her shy and demure. Ebbing and flowing every couple of weeks, her changes were a force of anarchy, transforming her temperament like a dangerous drug. Robin found the mood swings alarming—she’d already had one pill-popping, out-of-control mother in her life. We would have to put the cat out on the December streets or get her spayed.

       I assured Robin that Ariel would be calmer once she was no longer flooded by hormones. Hoping the problem would be solved and I could then go my own way, I prepared to stay at the Park Slope apartment after we brought Ariel home, and for as long as needed. We got a cat carrier and, after a desperate struggle, got the cat to the vet.

       Our demands were unbearably cruel to wild Ariel—so it seemed after we brought her home from surgery, as she lay groggy and suffering on the rug. Her body was underweight—barely seven pounds. Now there was a gash in her belly and a cone around her head to keep her from tending the wound. She’d woken to these baffling changes to her body. The cone kept her from lying comfortably or even reaching her head to the food bowl. Watching her stagger around the bowl, I resolved to remove the cone, at least temporarily.

       As I struggled with the fastenings, I was surprised by Ariel’s helpful adjustments of posture. She managed to stay calm, leaning her head just so, lengthening her neck to make room for my hands to work. Overcome by suffering, Ariel was cooperating with the only beings who could help—us.

       Once free of the cone, she let go of the crushing effort and breathed a sigh. As I massaged her nape and jaw, soothing the areas rubbed by the cone, she suddenly offered her chin for scratching—something she’d never wanted before. Though we’d done the damage, Ariel regarded us as helpers in her hour of need. Feline intelligence had its merciful limits.

       There were other signs that Ariel had been bonding with us during her ordeal. Along with a calmer temperament, she emerged with some budding house cat ways. Forms of comfort she’d accepted during her convalescence now became full-blown pleasures. She would flop on the rug, looking at me and purring. She was learning some verbal cues as well: I would say “Chinny-chin-chin,” and she would reach out her head for a game of chin-scratching, as her eyes watered with delight. Through the horror of the wound, the feral cat had been tamed after all.

       Progress was slow but steady, as the cat and Robin figured things out one by one. They were oddly similar—once they’d found something safe and fun, they kept going back. For Robin, that meant returning to the same neighborhood restaurant, the same Mendocino guesthouse. For the cat, it meant sleeping in the same place on the bed, eating only one food. No wonder they got along.

       By contrast, I got bored with routine; I desperately needed change. Even so, I was beginning to envy their togetherness. My separate life felt lonely and feral. I was a lazy cook and ate poorly. Between my jobs and my writing, I had no time for meeting new people, much less dating. As Robin learned to care for the cat, I began to understand her overbearing need to care for someone—just not me, please. I’d never wanted the kind of caretaking she gave the cat; I’d been looking for something else.

       As I came and went, Ariel made her accommodations to our arrangement. She had a place for Robin—the regular feeder, the regular presence; and for me—the playful drop-in guest. Sometimes, when I’d been away for a couple of weeks, I’d come by the apartment to find Ariel enjoying a new house cat game—such as chasing a toy mouse across the rug. The chasing game evolved as I dragged the mouse along the rug, onto the bed, and under the bedspread. The mystery of the mouse’s disappearance kept her engaged for months—tracking the lump under the bedspread; reaching or scrambling after it. She could spend hours under the bedspread, waiting by her imagined mousehole for the toy to make its move. If I came over and pulled the string, she would pounce violently, grabbing and mauling the wriggling toy. Then one day she figured it out: the strange mouse was controlled by me. She’d been working on the problem in my absence, and having solved it, she began to grow bored with the toy—a puppet on a string.

Ariel contemplating life

Ariel ponders the strange mouse

       Soon I became the troubling mystery. When I went through the door and back to my place—taking my coat and bag, those objects that signaled my coming and going from the neighborhood—she would stand by the door hissing in anger. Robin and I thought we were breaking up—but in Ariel’s mind, we belonged to the same world, and something in that world became deranged when I left. At our demand, we’d become her family. As I was beginning to understand, even feral creatures have families. We’d taken Ariel away from Jay Jay; we’d wanted her for ourselves. We were her family now, and she hissed at my going away.

*     *     *

       Several years passed. I kept my apartment across Prospect Park. I was writing and working two part-time jobs, and I needed to get clear of Robin’s problems at her job, which had become overwhelming for both of us. For a long time our conversations had revolved around those problems: the malignant leadership from small-town Ohio, brought in to save money by purging the agency’s caseload; Robin’s struggle to safeguard children from further maltreatment by family or the state; and the agency’s efforts to punish her for defying orders and costing them money. The pressures were destroying her: surrounded by enemies, real and imagined, she’d reached an impasse of rage and fear; my presence was no help.

       In any case, I needed freedom to manage my life. I was working on another novel during the day and teaching in the evening; I often got home at ten o’clock. Meanwhile, in the space of a few years, my father, stepfather, and mother passed away, each having suffered a long decline. My mother was the last to go. She’d spent her last years in bed, unraveling the plots to Perry Mason and voting against Donald Trump even when she could no longer remember what she’d just read, or how her younger stepson had come into our household. The deaths were a family trauma, pushing relationships from bad to worse, closing off communication, and as a result, her memorial was fraught with sibling resentment. There would be no more chances, no going back; even death could not end the family conflicts. Floating on a sea of grief and bad feelings, I sought a publisher for Playground Zero and found one.

       Robin and I stayed connected. Although things were tenuous, we never made a complete break. However, I was no longer there when she came home from work, fuming about her agency. Forced to use the phone, we began communicating about other things—her yoga classes; the news; the daft neighborhood church where Robin had joined the choir. Then one day she began crooning the theme song to The Secret Garden through the phone: she was taking singing lessons. Having created a large body of paintings and drawings, Robin remade herself as a singer, rehearsing and performing a cabaret show. When I dropped by the Park Slope apartment, her singing and the cat’s presence made things fun again. Robin’s job was no longer all-consuming, and I began spending weekends at her apartment. We found new people in the neighborhood; we began going to bookstore readings and a nearby jazz club, with its roster of performers from around the world.

       The neighborhood strays had disappeared one by one—only Jay Jay remained, in his dog house on the corner. Then he became sick, probably with cancer. Jay Jay’s feeders tended him until his death, and we sometimes helped out. Near the end, he could barely drag himself along, searching for the sunshine he needed to keep his fevered body warm. Appalled by his fate, we thanked our lucky stars for Ariel’s robust good health. We pampered her, and as our tempers cooled, we let her heal us.

Jay Jay/Tiger's death notice

Jay Jay/Tiger's death notice

       Apart from her angry goodbyes, Ariel was easy to pamper. Compared with the house cats I’d known, aggressively begging to be fed from my plate, she was undemanding: respectful of our human space and not tempted by our food. Every few months, she would get the hang of a new hunting game or a new pleasure, pursuing them with eager passion when I came by the apartment. Ariel’s mind seemingly placed me in the role of gentleman caller—maybe even a successor to Jay Jay; her only demand was a proper greeting, as though convinced I’d come for her and her alone. As soon as I came in, she would begin clawing one of the Persian rugs, slashing away with growing frenzy if I paused to speak to Robin—cats can be very jealous animals. She relented only when I leaned and scooped her up, often still wearing my coat. Only then, when she’d had a proper welcome, would she become calm enough to sniff my face, another form of greeting that let her know what I’d been eating lately—what scrap of mouse or bird carcass I might offer. Though I never brought anything from my supposed foraging, Ariel was ever-hopeful. She was also pragmatic: one sniff was enough. The exchange was largely informational for her, telling her where I’d been and what half-eaten prey might be stowed in my bag. I may have found her endearing, but at those moments she saw me largely as a forager: that was my role as gentleman caller. Robin was the cat’s caretaker; everyone knew her role was rescuing the city’s strays.

       Robin’s work life was ending. She’d won the war: she was leaving the agency and retiring with a pension. No longer rescuing strays, she would recuperate by being the cat’s caretaker. As for me, I was holed up in my place across Prospect Park, getting ready to publish Playground Zero.

       The final adjustment came one day when I placed Ariel’s struggling body on my lap and made her stay. She got the hang of that, too. Plush, a tad plump, and loving, she no longer ran leaping over the bed: the hungry animal I’d brought upstairs had transformed herself into a pleasure-seeking house cat; only her lightning-fast paws suggested feral beginnings. Although Ariel’s energy dropped, she compensated by engaging with us. Eager and optimistic, she was a calming force in our topsy-turvy human world. My family had been unstable and full of conflict; Robin’s had been worse. We’d had mother problems—and father problems. As the years passed, it began to seem as if we were in the mama cat’s care—her long-lost kittens come back from the storm. We’d been deluded to imagine things were the other way around.

Click here to read Part 3: A Pandemic Ghost Town

Click here to learn more about Playground Zero

Sarah Relyea

Sarah Relyea is the author of Playground Zero, a coming-of-age novel for adults about the 1960s. Playground Zero is published by She Writes Press and available wherever books are sold.

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Jeri Hilderley
September 28, 2022 1:51 pm

I love the name of Part II, Ariel Tames Us. A subtle way to show how inextricably bound Sarah and Robin and Ariel have become in this tender and beautifully written account of the interdependencies humans have with each other and their pets, or should I say their “caretakers.” Bravo!

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