Part 1: Finding Ariel
When Ariel showed up on our block, she was young and homeless and in her mother’s care. It was midsummer. We’d known her mother for a couple of years—at least, we’d seen her around our Brooklyn neighborhood. A sturdy tabby cat with tiger markings streaked across her round head, the fur as rough as a well-worn tennis ball, she could be found shepherding her kittens by the border of Prospect Park, where they fed on birds and rodents. That summer, she moved her latest litter from the park to a nearby vacant lot. Across the avenue from our corner, the vacant lot was fenced off and overgrown with weeds—a safe place for feral cats. Neighbors sometimes helped with food. I remember seeing the mother’s homely face—her close-set features gave her a nearsighted glare—as she emerged from under a parked car. Alert to any movement on the street, she would prowl toward the food can as though moving on a prey, then lay claim to the enemy’s offerings. As she was devouring the prey, her kittens would hang back in the shadows under the car.
The kittens feared the feeders. Soon enough in the vacant lot, the mother would feed them from her own body.
We became regular feeders. Although I had grown up with house cats and always been a cat person, my partner had long opposed getting one. We’d been together for years in a slowly decaying Park Slope apartment, sharing my study of literature and Robin’s work as a painter, even as her day job became more and more demanding. For years I’d suggested getting a cat, only to hear her arguments against: cats were aloof—poor company; and we had no space for an animal. Then, in a summer of crisis for our relationship, that suddenly changed. For Robin, whose career with the city’s child welfare department was floundering due to cost-cutting changes and harassment by her boss, the connection with street cats was a less fraught way of caring for young strays. Removed from her role as manager and shunned by colleagues for defying orders to cut the agency’s caseload, she was in fight mode—ready to slay dragons, if only I would agree to help. By contrast, I was struggling to complete a long writing project before her demands engulfed me. I’d had enough of hearing about someone else’s job, and about cases of abuse and neglect—I was immersed in another story, with roots in a troubling time in my own past, and I needed to keep my focus and psychological balance. I was not a rescuer or a caretaker type, but a spinner of plot and character: I simply enjoyed cats and wondered why we couldn’t get a calm, undamaged one—why we had to feed them on the street.
As the weeks passed, the kittens grew larger and bolder. They were no longer cringing in the shadows, but romping and tussling along the curb. They were tabby cats like the mother, though unlike her, most had white markings: splashes on the face or chest; boots on three paws or maybe four. The father had been a handsome tabby, for sure. Once we’d gone back through our gate, they would come darting out and chase each other or jostle for space around the empty can, before the mother could corral them back to safety. As we glimpsed them from our doorway, we sometimes caught one of them lingering—the smallest one; the only one with no white markings. A slender animal with a tapered face and streaks of golden fur circling its chest, it was looking toward us. As soon as I opened the door, it sprang for the shadows as though under sniper fire. Robin spoke of luring it in, but I was wary. The feral kitten ran from us as though we were the enemy; it would not adjust well, even if we managed to capture it. And so we went in and closed the door. Beyond offering food, there was nothing more we could do.
The following spring, the mother was gone. No one knew what had happened to her or her kittens. Meanwhile, as though filling the gap, a male stray had set himself up on the nearby avenue, where he’d commandeered the entry to a small apartment building across from the vacant lot. A large tabby with symmetrical white markings and a line of war paint streaked down his nose, he was sure of himself—outgoing, pleasure-seeking, utterly promiscuous when it came to humans. He held court every morning, lolling his long body on the pavement and reaching his head toward passersby. Sometimes he would grab for a pant leg, hoping the wearer would pause and fondle him. Many were happy to do so. Soon he had an entourage of youngsters, some of them preschoolers, whose parents were eager for them to meet Tiger, as the neighbors called him. Three-year-olds were brought to see Tiger, to pet him, to conquer their fears of the animal world. He lay supine as they crowded around, each calling him by a different name. We too gave him a name—Jay Jay, after a cat we’d met on our vacations in Mendocino, California, before Robin’s job problems and our unhappiness began. Others called him Socks, Manny, Mayor, even Charlemagne.
Someone made a Facebook page for Jay Jay, and soon he had 129 followers. He knew how to seduce humans—was bent on doing it—and the humans responded. Jay Jay wanted more than food; he’d conjured up a personal petting zoo where he was the only display.
Some evenings the food brought other stray males, a tough and quarrelsome bunch, demanding a cut of the neighborhood’s largesse. Things could get rough. Fortunately for Jay Jay, he was large and strong and able to hold his ground inside the building’s iron gate—the paved yard and the wooden bench; the commanding heights of the garbage bins; the doorway leading to the foyer. He controlled the turf and the humans; the others were just hungry cats.
We heard a rumor that Jay Jay had been a store cat—that he’d run away to the streets. We wondered why. Maybe he’d grown lonely among the shelves of packaged goods; maybe he needed more mollycoddling than the store could offer. However he’d come to it, he was fiercely engaged in the life he’d chosen. He was a wild thing, but by no means feral; he was carrying out a plan, a purpose. Only death could change his ways.
One windy April evening, Jay Jay came ambling by our gate, followed by a young female with tabby fur—one of the family we’d seen the year before under the parked cars. She ran along close by him as though for safety. The young female was looking for something—maybe she remembered the summer food scene and was scouting the doorways where regular feeders could be found. She was learning the ropes, it seemed, while Jay Jay was keeping an eye on her, showing her how to be just tame enough to beg.
Although the young female was less outgoing than Jay Jay by temperament and by sex, she had some of his responsiveness to humans. We offered regular feedings away from the rough scene at Jay Jay’s, and soon she was ambling by our gate alone. Every evening around six-thirty, she made her hunger known just as Robin was coming along the block, running home from work to care for her stray. In the beginning, Robin would open a can of food and leave it by the curb; then she’d come in, closing the door. Only when the humans were gone would the young female feel safe enough to eat. Sometimes I joined in the feeding hour, lured by her eager face, her beautiful tiger markings, her willingness to form some bond with us. She was full of freshness and energy, as only young animals are, and suddenly I felt young too. As the days passed, we began pausing on our stoop or hanging around the curb to watch the hungry feral cat—the cat we’d begun to think of as ours.
We gave the young female a name, Ariel. Sometimes, when she’d eaten enough, she would pace slowly by our gate, as though searching for something. Just out of reach, she was communing with us—the feeders. Wondering where her family was and how she’d made it through the winter, I wanted to comfort her, but she was careful to keep away—until one day, when she finally let me get close enough to touch her. The feel of my human hands made her leap three feet in the air.
I was not a caretaker type; but my thoughts kept straying to the cat. We were enjoying each other. Ariel was not another gruesome child welfare case for me to get dragged into—delving into the abuse every evening over dinner; responding with outrage to the horror; feeling hopeless, knowing that the damage could never be undone. Even more unbearable, Robin had begun to blame me for her anger and overflowing panic brought on by a workplace hell; meanwhile, other demons were surfacing in the novel I was writing, Playground Zero. I was drowning in a muddy undertow and wanted to save myself; I wanted out.
* * *
As the evenings grew long and warm, the scene by Jay Jay’s place became even more hopping after dark, when a loyal group of feeders gathered on the corner, a stone’s throw from our door. From the window, I could see Robin running back and forth, carrying cans of food and the latest news. The apartment building’s owner, a man named Gino, had set up a house for Jay Jay in the narrow gated yard, near the wooden bench and the garbage cans. Similar in concept to a dog house, the cinder-block structure with its green corrugated-plastic roof was a space where he could sleep in calm and safety, unbothered by turf wars. Gino had even added blankets for Jay Jay’s comfort, changing and washing them every few days. As the evening feeders began to gather, Jay Jay would emerge yawning and stretching through the doorway of his house, ready for the magic of contact. Soon enough the food would lure the feral males competing for Jay Jay’s turf. He would pass the evening eating lazily, pacing his yard, fending off aggressive strays, and courting the admiring humans.
One evening, I was at home working when Robin rushed in to inform me that Ariel had neglected to come by our gate. In the small apartment, my only refuge was work: we were quarreling badly about my refusal to engage. Robin was pleading with me to come out, and I reluctantly agreed, knowing that the cats were something we could still share. We went out looking and found Ariel hanging around Jay Jay’s place—her new feeding zone. Young and shy, she’d always kept away from the scene, with its grimy, squabbling male cats and over-eager humans. Yet something was compelling her change of regimen. Jay Jay was fond of her, and she’d hung close by him early on. He even had a dog house to offer. He’d found the good life—as good as it got!—and he was willing to share it with her. For the moment her reasons seemed clear enough.
We set out a can of food. Jay Jay swaggered over and began slowly nibbling, tail arcing in lazy rhythm: he was a fussy eater. After a few moments, however, he sauntered away, ears back, rejecting the offering. When Robin brought the can closer to him, he gave her a cold shoulder and began cleaning his face. Meanwhile, Ariel had been crouching hungrily by the garbage cans.
Seeing her chance, Ariel emerged from the safety of the garbage area. As she neared the food, one of the stray males sprang aggressively. Jay Jay leaped forward; we heard a thump and a yowl as the other male scrambled away, leaving a clump of fur by the food can. Ariel crept up, her tail flicking nervously; Jay Jay looked away as she dug in. He’d left her the lion’s share—unusual largesse for a male cat, in keeping with Jay Jay’s exaggerated capacity for connection. It suggested that Ariel was companionable as well as resourceful. Remembering the house cats I’d grown up with—free to wander house and yard; stealing home wounded after a fight—I began imagining her in that role.
By the end of May, the reasons for Ariel’s change of regimen had become clearer. Her body was developing a bulge: she was pregnant. As we watched her creeping along at a low run, bearing her sagging belly, we began scheming how we could get her indoors. She was young for a mama cat—how would she figure things out, where would she get enough food? Though feral, she had none of her mother’s toughness. Even a sugar daddy such as Jay Jay would not be much help.
We wondered who her mate was. Not Jay Jay—he’d been caught by the feline population control folks. They’d taken the crown jewels and clipped one ear; although he was Ariel’s defender, he was no longer a mate for anyone. One of the scrappy males had got her.
Whatever coupling had gone on, Jay Jay was watching over her. In the evening he would pace up and down until she made her way from the vacant lot. Emerging from her refuge, she would creep along the curb and then suddenly trot full-bellied across the avenue. Sometimes she found refuge with Jay Jay in the cinder-block house. She had a sweet temperament and was no longer in heat—no longer fought over by the scrappy males. Jay Jay was resourceful and—now that the damage was done—could keep the rascals at bay.
We were also watching over Ariel, cajoling her with food and song. Standing on the corner, Robin would sing “Dear Prudence”—calling her to see the sunny skies; wooing her to come out to play. The hungry cat responded by following Robin up the stoop to our door.
Yet Ariel was feral—wary of doorways, foyers, human traps. She wasn’t ready to come in. Though she sometimes let me touch her, I would never be able to carry off the struggling, fighting, desperate animal she became when I managed to get both hands around her. There would be no capturing Ariel; she would come willingly or not at all.
In early July, Ariel went missing. We’d gone away for the long Fourth of July weekend—our last hurrah together, it seemed; when we got back, she was gone. We asked Jay Jay’s people, but no one had seen her. Then one evening, Ariel emerged from under a parked car as I was coming home from my teaching job. She looked as if she’d been through a war: her belly was an empty sack, her fur dull in color and ungroomed. She let out a desperate cry. She’d stowed her kittens somewhere—the vacant lot, presumably. In any case, she was now a mama cat with a family to feed, and she needed our help.
Ariel made the rounds assiduously, coming to our gate every morning and then stopping by Jay Jay’s place in the evening. Lean and bony, she would come galloping headlong across the avenue, her featherweight body angling through the traffic lanes, as Jay Jay paced the curb. We were watching for her too, holding our breaths as she made her dangerous run. Jay Jay, a good sugar daddy, as always, made sure she had a chance to eat, though he sometimes whopped her in the head if she got greedy, just to remind her who was boss. Mama cat was so hungry she ignored the beatings.
Another change was happening: in mid-August, I found my own apartment and moved across Prospect Park. For years Robin and I had managed together; then we’d begun quarreling—about her job and its psychological pressures; about Playground Zero and the feelings it had unleashed; about the cramped apartment; about ourselves. Exhausted by the struggle and barely sleeping, I’d found my own space. I came by the Park Slope apartment every couple of weeks to retrieve some belongings and see Robin. We had breathing room and had reached an implicit truce. Yet I was feeling guilty, angry, selfish, betrayed—all the tormenting emotions—and when I left, I was glad to get back to my own rooms.
Amid the human drama, Robin fed me news about the cats, hoping to tempt me back. During our ongoing crisis, I’d come to adore Ariel; although I’d been dying for space, I was now missing the fun. And so when I heard one day that she’d begun bringing her kittens one by one to Jay Jay’s place, I ran to the corner to see for myself. Ariel scampered up to me, sniffing my shoes as though wondering where I’d been, while her kitten hung back: not surprisingly, he had the familiar tiger markings and white paws. I leaned and grasped mama cat’s body; she was trembling.
* * *
The weeks passed. By October, the kittens were weaned and becoming resourceful foragers. Though no longer nursing, Ariel was run ragged by her long labors—scrawny; barely larger than the young male she’d fed from her body. I wondered if she would get through another winter. Then, as the month passed and the weather grew cold, we began hearing ominous news about a hurricane that was developing in the western Caribbean Sea. New York was not normally in the path of hurricanes, but we’d had one the year before. Now a whopper was rampaging its way across Cuba and the Bahamas and toward the East Coast, where it was forecast to make landfall in New Jersey just before Halloween. That year—2012—would be remembered as the year of Hurricane Sandy.
The day before Sandy was expected to rip through, I left my job in Manhattan early. The boss of the language school where I was teaching let us go—subways would be closing soon. I headed for Park Slope. Despite our estrangement, Robin and I had been planning and scheming, wondering how we could get Ariel indoors before the deluge came—it was the one thing we could agree on. We knew Jay Jay would never come in, but for her there was hope.
As I came up from the subway and headed for the apartment, the sky had an ominous, unnatural color, and forceful winds were already gusting. Carrying the sack we planned to stuff Ariel in, we went by Jay’s Jay’s place and found her there. She looked confused and bereft: her bones were showing, her fur was sparse for the oncoming winter, and she was pacing nervously, nosing the wind. We’d seen one of her young ones in Gino’s window, and the others foraged on their own: they’d become independent. She was free to go with us, if she chose. As Robin stood holding the sack, I reached and grasped the cat; but she struggled away. The strength in her legs was surprising. When I made a second approach, she fled under a parked car. I cursed myself—the clumsy foul-up could be Ariel’s death sentence.
We took the useless sack and began heading for our stoop. Robin was singing a strange and somber “Dear Prudence”—after all, the run-up to Hurricane Sandy was no time to come out and play. Rounding the corner, we glanced back, unable to keep up our game of feigned indifference—my last, desperate ploy for luring her in. Sure enough, Ariel was following us. Ears back, she was creeping low to the ground, fearing what the eerie sky would bring. A gust of wind zigzagged her fur. She stole along the curb by the parked cars, keeping pace with us. We moved slowly against the whipping winds; we had to get her in range of our door, where I planned to grab and subdue her. Once I’d forced her struggling, slashing body into the foyer, she would have no choice but us.
As we reached the gate, Ariel hung back on familiar ground by the curb. At any moment, she could steal under a car. We climbed the stoop; she followed slowly, pausing and carefully sniffing each step. She’d gotten a good look at us and concluded that we could help in a storm; even so, she was wary of the stoop and the enclosed space beyond the door—a trap, it must have seemed. We opened the door, but she held steady, not fleeing as she always had before. I leaned and touched her gently, massaging her nape to calm her before grasping her firmly around the chest and bearing her up, legs dangling above the ground. I’d been prepared for a struggle that never happened; instead, she went strangely limp in my hands. Her mama-cat’s body was featherweight, making her easy to carry. I brought her up to our third-floor landing and into the apartment. Once we were safely away from the door, I let her go.
Ariel chose to leap. She’d never seen the world beyond the foyer; she had no image of where we went when we went, or where I might be taking her. Yet she’d seen us coming and going. Maybe she’d concluded that doors were two-way things—that she’d leave once the storm had passed. But she was wrong. She was changing one world for another.
Now read Playground Zero