I’m lying in bed at 6 a.m., still trying to get back to sleep after my new kitten’s 4 a.m. feeding. I hear one of my older cats call to me from across the hall, through the closed door of their bedroom: “Mom! Hey! We’ve been in here for eight hours! I know you’re awake! Let us out!” I know it’s Sara because Lucy is too genteel to conduct herself in such a manner. Sara is a clown. Lucy is Elizabeth Taylor.
I get up automatically. I’ve been on automatic since the new kitten arrived two weeks ago today on Easter Sunday. Jesus rose from the dead; Leo was born in my neighbor’s shed.
I peer into Leo’s box: still alive, still breathing. I cross the hall and let my older girls out. “Good morning!” I sing, trying to sound alert and playful. In truth, I’m exhausted, which I know because when I sit down at my computer to check on the day, I lean forward and rest my chin on my left hand, and my eyes cross. If you ever see me doing this in public, put me down for a nap.
The three of us big girls go through our morning routine while Leo sleeps in his box. After two weeks of what I’m sure Lucy and Sara consider nonsense, they put aside their resentments for the love of being brushed. They take turns lying on my desk, letting me run my nubby grooming glove over their bodies until I have enough fur to make another cat. I stuff wads of fur into an empty Kleenex box on my desk. Somebody should put out a new box of Kleenex; I wonder who it will be.
After the brushing, I quickly get dressed to go out. My cats look at me like this is sacrilege: we usually spend Sunday mornings together. We usually spend every morning together. But today I have to drive over to Manfriend’s house to feed his dogs. Manfriend is enjoying an overnight getaway with his friends at a cabin up north where it’s cool; I’m suddenly taking care of five animals instead of two, and Phoenix has hit triple digits.
I am not bothered by any of this. I’m on automatic.
I drive three quarters of a mile over to Manfriend’s house; it’s a short jaunt through our neighborhood. I let myself in with Manfriend’s spare keys and immediately call out to his boys: “Edge! Hendrix! It’s time for breakfast!” Edge and Hendrix, Cocker Spaniel brothers, look at me over the safety gate that Manfriend uses to keep them sequestered in the kitchen and living room area. I sense the same rumbling mood from them as I did last night when I fed them dinner: This is not our dad, but her intentions seem good. Oh, she’s going to feed us! Wag wag wag. I climb over the safety gate, and after our enthusiastic hellos and good mornings, I put exactly ¾ of a cup of Edge’s food in Edge’s bowl, and ¾ of a cup of Hendrix’s food in Hendrix’s bowl. The two plastic containers that contain their food are clearly marked: Edge, Hendrix. This matches their personalized food bowls, emblazoned with small gold letters spelling Edge on one, Hendrix on the other. This is Manfriend’s way; he didn’t do it for me, the virgin dog-sitter.
We conduct our households similarly.
I wait while Hendrix wolfs down his food and Edge picks at his. Will Hendrix eat Edge’s leftovers? Will Edge be starving by the time his dad gets home? I give them more doggie treats than I should to compensate for Edge’s potential caloric loss, then say my goodbyes. “Your dad will be home soon,” I say, cupping their sad but expectant faces. “Be good boys.”
I swing by the drugstore to pick up some allergy meds before going home. I’m allergic to cats and dogs, but my addiction to them takes precedent.
I’ve done all of this and more before 8 a.m. My own mom would be proud of me: such a good use of time. She would not be so impressed if she could see my floors, which need scrubbing and vacuuming; my surfaces, which need dusting; my bed, which has become a nest. This is where I feed Leo, where Leo exercises in the circle of my legs, where my stack of folded towels gets lower as days go by and Leo eats and poops and pees. My mom would look curiously at the stack of Q-tips on my dresser, the uniform of pee-stained T-shirt and poop-smeared sweatpants I keep folded on the floor, at the ready for Leo feedings. I start each day with a fresh uniform, but at the end of the day, I’m a litter box.
It’s time to feed Leo again, so I go to the bathroom to wash up—the bathroom, one of two that I’ve been trying to keep presentable for invisible company. I run my soapy hands all over the vanity and faucet, then wipe water over everything, all with my hands. Now at least the vanity looks neat, and I did scrub the toilets several days ago. I hope this counts as a clean bathroom, outside of the shower and bathtub and mirror, the dull floor and full garbage can. My mom taught me to wipe down the sink and the bathtub too, after every use: “That way it’ll be clean for the next person.”
I realize I do this for myself because I am the next person.