Artist Date 113: Stella

mark wunderlich
Poster from the Unamuno Author Series, Poet Mark Wunderlich

Stella was always trouble.

A manipulator by nature (What cat isn’t?) she danced inside a cage one Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Your Basic Bird as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me! Yoo Hoo! Over here! Pick me.”

And so we did.

She was “my cat.” A scrawny tortoise shell, unaware of her size, who refused to abdicate Alpha Cat status to Ezra – a Norwegian Forest Cat affectionately known by my then husband as “Big Daddy.”

Bent on asserting his position, Ezra would regularly back Stella into a corner or under the butcher-block cart. Trapped, she would flatten her ears, hiss, and come out swinging – literally – inevitably pissing or crapping herself, which the two of them would roll around in, fighting.

We cleaned the floor with enzymes.

We tried separating the two.

We gave Stella Bach Flower essences. Anti-anxiety medication. Consulted with a feline behavioral specialist.

None of it worked.

Eventually, we tearfully gave Ezra to a client of mine who allowed him to take his rightful place as the Big Daddy, while Stella took the position as Alpha Cat in our home. Much to our surprise, Nin, our third, seemed relieved that Ezra was gone and was happy to acquiesce to Stella’s whims.

And so we thought our Stella troubles were over – and they were – until we moved to Chicago.

She lied limp on the floor of our largely sunless apartment. Depressed. Was spooked by thunderstorms. And eventually began peeing on the floors and furniture – rain or no rain.

I haven’t thought about any of this in years – until now, Artist Date 113. The Unamuno Author Series, featuring American writers reading their work here in Madrid.

I arrive late – having come straight from teaching – and Mark Wunderlich is already reading from his book of poems, The Earth Avails. I slip into a chair and listen while a wave of “Oh yes…this is why I go on Artist Dates” sweeps over me. I fantasize about graduate school – about being a part of a community of writers and artists. English-speaking writers and artists. I think about how I feel like a child here in Spain – unable to communicate more than my basic needs in the language of the country where I have chosen to live. How I become shy and small in Spanish, while I am big and often shiny in English.

And then I think about Stella.

Mark reads poems about many things. Prayer. Bridges. A classmate whose name sealed her destiny as a pole dancer.

But it is the poem that is not included in his book that locks me in. About missing the cat who greeted him at the door – eager for her supper. Who shared the bed with him. Who was there when his partner no longer was.

And about the bolus they injected into her paw when it was clear her life was coming to an end.

I remember holding Stella when they injected the first bolus into her.

It is a Saturday afternoon. I have just pulled the still-warm-from-the-dryer covers back on the sofa cushions, having just washed them with enzymes – again – when Stella leaps on to the couch, looks straight at me, squats and releases her bladder.

I look at my then-husband. We know without saying it that we cannot continue to live like this. That she will ruin every piece of furniture. That she will ruin the dark, original walnut floors. And that no one will adopt her.

Before we can change our minds, we whisk her into the cat carrier and into the car and drive to the somewhat ironically named Anti-Cruelty Society.

Inside, people are relinquishing their pets for all sorts of reasons – some seemingly legitimate, others ridiculous. But what do I know? I am putting my cat down. Not even relinquishing her.

I discuss the matter with a staff member and she agrees with our decision.

I slip Stella out of the cat carrier, let my then-husband say goodbye, and carry her into another room where “the procedure” will take place.

I hold her in my arms on the stainless-steel table, covered with a threadbare beach towel. I tell her that she was a good cat. That I love her. And the technician injects a bolus of medication that will end her life into her paw.

“It will take a few minutes,” she explains. “Keep holding her.”

I do. I hold onto her for what seems like a very long time. She is groggy, like she was the time we gave her anti-anxiety medication, but nothing more. After about 10 minutes the technician returns.

“She’s still alive,” I say. “Always a fighter.”

This time the technician injects the needle directly into a vein, as opposed to near it, and once again leaves us alone.

This time, I feel her breathing slow down. And then stop. She is gone.

Eight years later, my heart still hurts. Tears streaming down my cheeks as I am writing this.

I don’t like thinking about this moment. And yet I am grateful to Mark for reminding me of it. For reminding me of Stella – this scrappy little cat who reminded me so much of myself once upon a time. Hair slicked back. Wannabe Alpha looking for a fight. And yet behind the bravado, a girl – seemingly unaware of her small size –crying “Pick me. Pick me.”

Of how much I loved her. And the possibilities for loving that girl.

 

 

 

Artist Date 33: Done. Saying Goodbye to Nin.

nin

I didn’t want to glaze tonight.  I was done.

Done.

With my day.

I’d already snagged decidedly gorgeous, flimsy, French panties and bras on sale.  Seen a Tina Turner impersonator on Michigan Avenue.  A pretty good one.  And connected in that profound way that strangers sometimes do with Yahkirha, a Red Cross worker fundraising across from Millenium Park.

Done.

With my pottery class.

It ended two weeks ago, but I still had two mugs and a woefully off-center bowl to glaze and finished pieces to pick up.

So I went, anyway.  My ex called while I was walking there.  As soon as I picked up, I knew something was off.  I could hear it in his voice.

“I have to put Nin down.”

nin 3Nin is our 19-year-old cat.   Correction.  She is now HIS 19-year-old cat.  She looks like she is wearing a tuxedo, with her black body, white chest and milk mustache.   Her sexy, sleepy eyes reminded me of Anais Nin – ergo, her name.

We adopted her in 1999.  Our friend, Tim, arrived home that day from a year’s sojourn in Chicago.  He called from Tahoe to say he was on his way, and drove his truck straight to Berkeley to meet us for brunch.

After, the three of us wandered into the pet store next door.  And I walked out carrying cat number two.

According to my ex she’s having trouble using her back legs.  She can no longer pull herself up on the bed to sleep with him.  Today he came home and found she had peed all over herself.  As we were talking, she went to the litter box and simply lied in it.

Uncontrollable tears streamed down my face. “Put her down. Put her down.” I repeated the words over and over like a mantra.

He thanked me.  Said he needed to hear me say those words.  To make it ok.

Another piece of our shared life together fell away.

I thought about changing my course, turning around and going home.  But something wiser in me told me to keep walking, up the ramp and into the Lill Street Clay Studio.

Robert, my teacher, was giving a demonstration to the new class.

I wandered back to the carts holding fired pieces.  Some complete, some bisqued – waiting for glaze and a second fire.  I began the tedious and time-consuming process of locating my work – picking up every stoneware cup, bowl and tray, looking for the etched LMP on the bottom.

Melanie was doing the same.  She traveled to Seattle during our five-week class.  I sent her to Flora for dinner and Molly Moon’s for ice cream – honey lavender.  I was happy to see her.

Sifting through the pieces, I admired other’s work.  A deeply tinted bud vase, kissed with a tear drop of shiny blue.  A sculpted hand.  Melanie’s star-shaped badge, stamped with the word “rock.”  She wasn’t thrilled with how the glaze turned out.  I thought it looked awesome.

Kevin was there too.  A principal dancer with Hubbard Street and a fine beginning potter.  I got to know him a little bit one Saturday evening when we both went in to the studio to practice.  I watched bowl after bowl come off of his wheel while I just tried to master centering.  I never did.

And Lori.  We met a couple of weeks ago.  She was glazing a lidded pot with a brush.  She had etched cherry blossoms on to the side.  It was elegant.  Lovely.  The kind of work I dreamed of making but felt years away from.

That same evening, she showed me some tea cups she made.  Delicate cone shapes with carved out handles that looked like wood. Porcelain – glazed yellow salt.

She’s been throwing for just 10 months.  It looks like 10 years.

2013-08-03 16.47.16Eventually I found my pieces.  The slab tray buckled.  It was too thin.  But the bowl that Lori helped me glaze looked pretty good – my best piece yet.  She said my mug looked really good.  I told her it wasn’t my work, that Robert made it and gave it to me to glaze.  We laughed.

I told her about Nin and not wanting to glaze.

She told me about her best friend unexpectedly dying and how she wanted to cocoon but knew he wouldn’t want that.  That he would want her out in the street calling his name.  So she did.

We talked about pottery and writing and relationships.  She helped me glaze one of the mugs, filling the inside with one of the variety of whites.  And when it was dry we lowered it into a vat of rutile blue, then turned it upside-down and “kissed” the glaze a final time around the rim.

I watched her glaze several more lidded pots, a large tea-cup like the smaller ones she had shown me, and a tall, thin bottle – lowering it into the vat with her finger tucked inside.

I watched the patience and care she devoted to each piece.  I do not have that patience.  I am not so exacting.  At least not in this moment.  Not about pottery.  I realized this is what anything “good” requires – attention, time, care.

The same attention, time and care I take with my writing, my food, my clothing.  The same attention, time and care my ex takes with the cats, Nin and Maude.  The very reason I left them with him.

I put my pieces on the cart to be glazed.  Wrapped my finished bowl and tray in newspaper and put them in my bag.  I thanked Lori for her help and said goodbye to Melanie and Kevin.

Seems I wasn’t quite done.

Turns out, neither is Nin.  I talked to my ex.  He couldn’t get an appointment with a vet until Sunday.  He said she seems comfortable.  Slow, but comfortable.  Purring.  I trust him.  I trust his attention, time and care.  I always did.