My Most Unlikely Love

I remember walking out of my bedroom before going to school. It was 2009 and I was in Form 4. It was a Monday in March and it must have been about 7 AM in the morning. My house smelled newly strange but I knew exactly what it was. I walked slowly down the stairs in my blue and white school baju kurung and at the bottom of the stairs in a metal cage, I see a black furry cat staring at me. I remember thinking “Oh my god, this is not what I wanted. What have I gotten myself into?

***

I have been afraid of cats for as long as I can remember. When I was really young, my sisters and I would stay at my grandparents’ house in Klang every weekend. One weekend, a cat wandered into the Klang house, leading me to quickly run onto and climb the dark blue worn-out leather couches. Nothing has really changed since. When I was 14, my family and I went to Kuantan for a beach holiday. We were eating lunch at a small kedai tepi jalan—the kind always host to stray cats. When one stopped next to my seat, I climbed the table, quickly but careful not to step on any plates of food. My fear of cats (and dogs, and rabbits, and hamsters, etc…) have since encouraged me to embarrass myself on countless more occasions. All my friends have seen me not-so-subtly move over to the side when I am about to cross paths with someone walking their dog on the streets.

Naturally, they always find it surprising when they eventually figure out I lived with a cat at home. “Well,” I always try to explain as briefly as possible, “I thought getting a kitten would help me get over my fear but Katy was already quite big when we got him so that never happened and I just learned to live with my fears.”

That, I really did. My bedroom door is always closed so Katy, our cat, could never come in. (I made the mistake of leaving it open once in the early days and when Katy glued himself to the floor beneath my bed, I could not step into my room for the entire day.) I sit cross-legged at the dining table so his fur never touches my legs. I examine the staircase from the top floor before I go down it so I never encounter him by surprise as I’m walking. My dad or one of my sisters usually holds him down if he’s in my way so that he doesn’t come at me. That was just my life since 2009.

It’s strange to think it will never be like that ever again.

***

It was late Saturday night, or if you want to be technical, really early Sunday morning. I was about to go to sleep but I was hungry. I pick up my phone and send my sisters a picture on Snapchat with a grouchy face. The caption was: tfw you’re hungry but you’re not supposed to eat because it’s so late—or something along those lines. I sit down on my bed a couple of minutes later, when I get a FaceTime Audio call from my sister Julia at 12.44 AM. It was unprecedented and alarming. I pick up, unsure of what to expect. “Julia?!” I say as I answer the phone. But I don’t hear anything and she hangs up.

I switch my lights back on, wracking my brain for a perfectly pleasant explanation. For a second, I think, maybe I’ll just go to sleep and she can tell me whatever it was she wanted to tell me in a text and I’ll read it in the morning. I want to believe her reason for calling me was as dismissable as a butt dial. But I sit up straight, frozen still, knowing on some level that there was no way I could have gone to sleep and that I would be crazy for ignoring my phone. I open WhatsApp immediately to see if I had missed something… because maybe she just wanted to ask me something and I hadn’t replied quickly enough.

And after what seems to be the single longest minute of my life, she calls back. “JULIA?” I answer again, implicitly demanding to know if everything is alright. “Uh, Che,” she begins, and she almost sounds like she is going to ask me what cereal it was I bought at Jaya Grocer the last time we went. “Katy passed away.

I ask her a series of questions and she answers me as best as she can. She doesn’t know why. No, he didn’t get hit. Yes, only just. No, she doesn’t know what to do. Yes, she was alone at home.

I am not sure at what point I started crying but my lungs felt like they were going to burst. I am not sure if Julia had been crying from the beginning but we sobbed collectively for a moment, two sisters on opposite ends of the world. We hung up at some point and feeling more lost than I ever have in all my years away from home, I walk to Shahirah’s room as she was just about to fall asleep but I wake her up and she sat with me as I cried for an hour straight, just saying everything that was on my mind. I can’t imagine how my family feels. Julia was all alone. How will Aida find out when she wakes up? I feel so helpless because I can’t be there. I just can’t believe he’s gone. He’s just gone. I hope he was happy. I hope he felt loved. And I repeat each one of those over and over and she nods and offers me tissues and water. I eventually tell her I will go to sleep and that she can too, but I just wanted to be alone.

No one had said anything about it yet on our family group text. I didn’t know what was going on so I had to be the first to break the silence. I say I’m sorry I can’t be there. I say I wish I was home. I tell them to “stay strong” like a generic tweet from a stranger because that’s all I can offer and then I excuse myself virtually, saying I need to try to sleep.

I turn off my phone and I don’t sleep. I lie in my bed in the living room of my college apartment, staring at the clock on the oven in the kitchen. I have cried myself to sleep plenty in my life but even I was impressed with myself this time. It must have been about half past three the last time I glimpsed at the time.

***

In about three hours, I wake up and for a brief moment I almost forget. But then I break the news to myself and I curl up in bed, reeling. My sisters and I are still texting about what happened. Did he walk onto the patio to die? I guess he knew he was going to die. I hope he was happy, what with having to live with 3 legs and all. He came home to our house when he lost his leg, he must think of our home as his home too. This was the last snap I took of Katy. Do you think he was there long before you found him? Did you see him earlier in the morning? I wonder if he purposely chose that spot, or if that’s as far as he managed to go. How did you carry him? Where did you bury him?

Then, as time difference mandates, my family back home goes to sleep just a few hours after I wake up. My parents don’t say anything about it as they say their goodnights over text, but I know we’re all thinking about him. And suddenly, I feel like he is slipping away. I sit up immediately, and I grab my laptop. I open my Notes app and furiously type out everything I can remember about him.

I named him Katy after Katy Perry. We thought he was a girl but then we were told he was a he. The name stuck. We had nicknames for him like Kates, Kay Kay, Taty, The Black Guy. He was jet black but turned more brown as he got older. Very furry. Grey-ish at his belly. He used to wear a pink collar but he hated it. He hated being carried. He never really liked toys. Hardly ever meowed. I used to take videos of him with my Nokia 3500. I used to throw sticks from inside a room to distract him by making him get it if he was waiting in front of the door I wanted to get out of. He peed on plastic a lot; we could never leave plastic lying around the house. He liked Calci-Yum yogurt. One time, he was lost for a few days but he came back and we always wondered where he went but we’ll never know. One time, we thought he was lost for a few days but he was just stuck in Julia’s old room! He would get into fights with the other cats in the area and my dad would worry endlessly about how much hair Katy was losing. He was never allowed in any of our bedrooms and I hope he wasn’t always too bored at night. He liked the red chair in the living room downstairs, the area near the elliptical upstairs, and sometimes the rug near the kitchen sink. He was the reason I’d jump a little whenever I saw a black bag or something on the floor. I wonder if he would have been saved had we kept him at the vet longer. We kept the vase in the living room downstairs because he drank water from there even though the little bamboo plant we used to have in it died a long time ago.

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***

I feel bad. I’ve left home for Penn six times now and I’ve never really said goodbye to him. We never really interacted because of how scared I always was. There have been times I don’t think of him for weeks while I’m away. I’ve even said there were times I forgot we had a cat. I partly feel like I don’t have a right to be so sad. And yet I felt numb—so inexplicably and painfully numb—in ways I honestly didn’t even when both my grandfather and grandmother died; Atuk had already been sick for a very long time and I was so young when nenek left us. I cried then too, but I was with my parents and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and we sat in circles and said prayers and held each other. But that phone call was exactly the kind of thing I have always dreaded since I left home for the first time over three years ago. And I know it will hit me in ways I can’t fully anticipate when I go back home in just under 8 months: no more sitting cross legged at the dining table, never hearing anyone pour cat food, no litter box at the back of the kitchen, no occasional meows from the living room.

Being so far away, I can almost tell myself all is well at home. That he’s lying on his back with his feet in the air on Mama’s old red computer chair upstairs in front of the TV. That he still chases after my dad when he walks up the stairs. But he’s not. He’s just not.

He was part of our family, and I hope he was happy to be. I hope he felt loved. Thank you for 8 years, Katy. You were my most unlikely love.

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