When I moved to Portland in the winter of ’99, one of the first things I did was adopt a cat from the Oregon Humane Society. My building didn’t allow pets, but apartments were affordable and easy to come by then, and I had the chutzpah of a 21-year-old women’s college dropout. I come from a family of animal lovers, but we are specifically cat people. There have always been cats in our houses, and there always will be. I was half-raised by a Siamese who ate breakfast with me in the morning and settled me down to sleep at night. Making my own home in Portland meant sharing it with at least one cat, even if I was breaking the stipulations of my first lease.
Ruthie, the tabby I adopted, was my feline soulmate, my companion through 11 apartments, years of clinical depression, two relationships, pregnancy, and the birth of my son. She died a few years ago, but by then I had already adopted another cat: Olive, a jumpy, half-Siamese short-hair. After Ruthie’s death, Junebug, a chatty calico-snowshoe, joined the family. One wild, lonely spring later I rescued an almost-feral kitten, Trixie (who, at 16 pounds, now dwarfs her older sisters). Three cats, I knew, officially made me a cat lady, but we needed Trixie as much as she needed us: there is deep solace at the bottom of a cat pile, tucked into blankets under warm bodies, nudged awake by velvety noses and gentle taps from soft toe-beans. And with three, I was almost never alone in a room and could not be accused of talking to myself.
Through the witchery of Internet dating, I found a partner who wasn’t deterred by a kid and three cats. In fact, she came with two cats of her own, and when she hitched her wagon to mine, we blended our cat families: my girls and her two boys, Artemis and Apollo.
Five cats add up to more than either of us feels comfortable admitting to strangers—we’re those women on the block now—and it does make for stereotypical fiascos: there are late-night skirmishes that wake the house, and the cats have made a sport of territorial marking. It took us months to figure out who was peeing on a bookshelf—it wasn’t the one who was peeing on the bath mats!—and I’m now an expert in DIY odor and stain removal (hydrogen peroxide + essential oils). Our vet, Julie (we go out for drinks sometimes), recently prescribed Prozac for Junebug. But on the whole, the stepkitties are coming to terms with each other.
When we leave town, we leave a tome of instructions for our cat sitter, Erin. We marvel at how late we sleep in with no one pawing us at 5:30 a.m.—what a treat to be catless for a while! But when Erin Instagrams proof-of-life shots, we are reminded: even with the pee and the Prozac, there’s no place like our furry, feline home.
Alexis M. Smith is the author, most recently, of Marrow Island.