My relationship to Tabby was of the Al-Anon variety. There was the inside air-conditioned and domestic cool of my apartment and there was the feral concrete July of my porch, fierce with insects and cigarette butts, and then there was the door, which was our boundary, or rather hers, and she patrolled it with vigor. She always made sure to let me know that I was on one side and that she was on the other, but that she would indeed allow herself to languish in my love and affection when it behooved her to do so. Yet even then she’d only allow it if I behaved myself, and if it made sense for the both of us.

I knew her sponsor—Calico, a cat down the road a way, who used to be enslaved to an alcoholic Bosnian couple but had since extradited herself from that situation with all the poise and delicateness of a Himalayan but none of the dramatic, woe-is-me shedding so stereotypically common of the breed. She’d met my vagabond Tabby while pawing through the dumpsters behind the China King in Gravois Plaza, picking out scraps of jettisoned shrimp and licking the insides of the little dough-purses of crab rangoon. Calico helped Tabby out of her desolation and the whirlwind of fatalism and futility and agonizing self-hatred that had so shrouded her days, and now the orange lady stands tall and proud and walks on her own four feet.

The Tabby herself had come up to me on a whim. She still was motivated to seek company out of sheer boundless loneliness, which I have to assume she had sensed also in myself--we were kindred spirits in that way. She didn’t, however, have the usual sad desperation typical of the other lonely hearts. Hers was a self-possessed melancholy. There was something in the glimmer of her eyes and the steady marching of her clawed paws that let me know she was doleful but not needy. She rolled on her back and exposed her belly to me not in a pleading or supplicating way but rather one that made clear that while she would like to be pet, she wasn’t going to fall apart if she didn’t receive the attention she desired. I could learn a thing or two, I thought.

She wasn’t always like this. Before she’d met Calico in that dumpster that one fortuitous night so many months ago, she used to bank on her body’s lithe suggestiveness to manifest the kind of love she wanted so badly for herself. During this time, in the years just past kittenhood, she’d rely on the slinky way her back legs kicked back when she strode and the way her tail intuited her own backside’s motions but would occasionally, abruptly flick to the left, this enticing spasm that she used to gain the notice of those passing by. She’d slip down the sideways space between the brick walls of my building and my neighbors’ and lift her little starfish ass high into the air and wait for the toms to all come out and lay mice down in her wake, or for the little Vietnamese boys across the street to escape from their mothers’ kitchens long enough to bring her out a brothy bowl of pho, the remnant dishes of which collected in a little pile to the left of the yard waste bins, lapped baby-face clean of any traces of flavor.

This kind of spare love no longer motivated her. At some point the toms all went away, and the boys went back inside to their families, and the crickets died down and the night fell and all that she really wanted--a safe place to curl up in, someone constant to rest her head upon, a litter maybe?--was just as far off as it was when the day began, when she’d crawled from underneath the porch to begin her sashaying parade around the neighborhood. The chasm was still there at the end of each day, this hollow where her soul had been, and she so badly wanted to find respite in the bed of another who was just as wounded as she was. In the mornings, after she’d crunched a few beetles and licked her digits clean of dirt, she’d crouch underneath the beat-up cinderblocked cars (always having had a penchant for the smell of gasoline) to watch the old couples of the city smoke on their porches and run the sprinkler around their lawns and wait for their grandchildren to come home from school so they could make them jelly sandwiches and let them climb in the tree in the backyard, the one that their father had attached a knotted rope to so they could make themselves dizzy swinging around and around. She'd watch them twirl and get light-headed and stumble off, back into the house for crackers and Lipton, and then back outside again, until five thirty came around and they went home to their own parents’ homes for macaroni and long division.

Before she’d been let loose upon the world, when she still lived in the warm arms of men, she thought about what an adventure it would be to prowl the streets at night, to meander in and out of the shadows that sloughed off her coat like soap and chase after the greater vermin of the city. There were rodents out there who’d gotten so fat living behind the Burger King that they'd spawned all these fat little rodent children too plump and too stupid to evade her, she who was this daring predatress who could see the world bright and clear through the tapeta lucida characteristic of night hunters, a film over the corneas that made the earth’s topography sharp and made the motions of small things appear as great spikes in the corner of her vision, like the sparks hewn from a welding iron. She lived for the simple gratification of the adventure of the kill. She took what love she could get in the midnight hours. There was a clowder of toms that lived on the grassy island of land that split apart Utah Street, up closer to Grand, and if she wanted to she could traipse up there and purr and mew and they would give her these big green lusty eyes like they were saying Yes’m, certainly, and she’d usually go off with them to play around under someone’s dank porch.

Sometimes she could hear the fairies moaning while they watched her, tsking her for her wantonness and her unquenchable appetite for something outside herself. They spit and cursed her--This is that very Cat that plats the manes of horses in the night, and bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs! This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to-- But she closed her ears to them and let the toms lick away her shame, matting her orange fur into sticky knots on the top of her head.

Soon enough, though, even this became tedious and habitual. The adventure wore off in maybe the third year, and it was then that she withdrew, and then that she began to watch the grandparents and their doting progeny, and then that she’d roll and splay for something so simple as a bowl of broth. It was then too of course that Calico found her, just as she was becoming entirely lost to the world, wrapped up as she was in the ribbons of self and sadness that bound her limbs and streamed behind her like kite tails, dragging mottled and thin through the dirt. Calico looked at her and saw the world of trouble that lived in her eyes, and she saw the way even the barest utterance was saturated with discontent, and, most importantly, she saw herself in the Tabby, the way the Tabby had seen herself in me. Calico took one look at her and decided now was the time to carry on the gratitude train, the pay-it-forward that began all the way back in the 1930’s with Lois Wilson but probably, really, to be fair, began much farther back than that, back when that first cat or human or otherwise eukaryotic thing took the hand of something else to help it to its feet, and the recipient of such unwarranted aid vowed to pass the goodness along.

The Al-Anon’s help-and-be-helped ontology is as unfathomable as the ontology of the chicken and the egg, but it’s a phenomenon that no doubt exists. It thrives in the recovery centers of America and in the food waste dumpsters where the orphans of the cement cities gather together to sing their hymns. The reach of goodness and love is more boundless than your lonesome heart. It transforms your hole into soul. Don’t laugh! This is why it works, and why it always will work; as long as there is emptiness to change into a great divine something, as long as we look at our chasms and caves and echoing wells of malaise as the shapes of insides of the bodies of the instruments where God’s own breath breathes music into being, we can always know strength and purpose. It’s not the emptiness that matters but the wind that blows through it. Listen to it--hear the plinking tune the droplets of water make as they tumble down the stone, and the way that light and steady trickle brings with it waves of serenity and hope.

Calico says all this to Tabby and eventually Tabby stops hanging around the clowder and starts doing what is right for her. She plays on my porch and lets me pet her and feed her, of course--what stray would turn away whitefish and tuna? But she’s very direct. I cannot make her stay. She’s not domestic. I can’t force her love, or force my love on her. This “Let go, let God” philosophy isn’t natural for me, but even in our brief friendship I can appreciate the true freedom and self-love intrinsic to this always-giving kind of warmth that knows no selfish attachment or manic, desperate need to keep and make prisoner and partner and forever-friend. She’s my companion today because she came from the side yard and decided to roll at my feet but I can’t ask for her promise to return, because all she knows is today; that’s all she has and all she wants. I like her, and I hope she’ll come back, but I don’t know that she will, not really; I can just rub her stomach and pat her head and finish my cigarette and leave her to eat her tuna, and if she wants to come back tomorrow, she can. But that’s tomorrow. And there but for the grace of God go I.

Calico comes around from time to time and on nights like this when the city is still recovering from the sun’s brutal afternoon assault, releasing heat in long sighs from off the black tar of the parking lots, she ambles by slowly, wet from the sprinklers, and falls at our feet. Calico purrs and purrs and says we are all so empty and bereft of hope but that our hearts are like ocarinas and when the winds of change come a-blowin’ we should all stand together and make a beautiful symphony out of all our sadness, with me and my big cavernous human organs at the end sounding out all the low notes of the piece, this basso profundo to the tenor of the little kitties. It’ll make a pretty orchestra, something Baroque I think. Maybe Handel, or Bach; the hounds can chime with their Gregorian arooos! and howl and howl and howl until they’re mute. Great emptiness, oh this great emptiness! I’ll make pretty songs out of you yet, you’ll see; it’s not all for nothing. 

Roberta Singer is a writer and an American Studies graduate student located in St. Louis, Missouri. When she isn’t moonlighting as a librarian, she tends to her blog Physics for Junkies, where she explores the intersections of science, history, literature, folklore, and biography. Her work has also been published in the online journal Entropy.