Jim Ruland

Cat Sitting in Hollywood

For Bob and Ms. Bobo 

 

"I leave the radio on," the poet said with a laugh. "For the cats." 

          It was laughable, a pair of cats, Coco and Mister Crowley, listening to National Public Radio, soaking up the news of the day. How nice for them. What learned cats they must be.  

          My cat-sitting duties were simple: feed the cats half a can of wet food in the morning, the other half at night, and keep the bowls of water and dry food filled at all times.  

"They like to graze," the poet explained.  

"Lucky cats," I said. "Wish could listen to the radio all day.” 

          "I know, right?" the poet said and then off she went to Paris to collect an award for her latest book.  

          Coco had a sweet personality. She liked to curl up in my lap and purr until her whole body was vibrating like a wind-up toy. A regular love muffin. No, a love bakery. Mr. Crowley was skittish and furtive, more catlike, I suppose, though what did I know? I didn't really care for cats. I was more of a dog person, though compared to the dog people I knew, I wasn't much of a dog person either. In my limited experience, the animals pretty much took care of themselves.  

          I started pet sitting after I received a job offer in Los Angeles that was too good to pass up. Even though I didn't have a place to stay and things hadn't worked out the last time I'd lived in L.A., I took the job. I wasn't in a hurry to get an apartment right away. What if I rented a place where some poor woman had been violently violated? What if my neighbors were creeps who liked to spy on single young women? There were so many things one couldn't know.  

          A screenwriter's assistant I used to date asked me to take care of his boss's cat while he was away on vacation. I guess he was impressed I didn't drink all of his booze or burn the place down because he told his friends and they told their friends, and soon I was booked for the summer, taking care of domesticated animals throughout greater Los Angeles while my clients, most of them writers, traveled the world, worked at residencies, and accepted awards and fellowships that I would never in a million years qualify for. The owners had the peace of mind of knowing their pets were being looked after, and I had a place to live. A win-win situation with each of us probably thinking, How lucky am I?  

 

          "Hello, Coco! Hello, Mr. Crowley!" I announced when I walked through the door. I could go to a party and not talk to anyone all night, but I was a real chatterbox with the cats. Experts around the world have found it's good business practice to greet one's clients by name, so that's what I did. 

"Are you hungry, Coco? Would you like something to eat, Mr. Crowley?" 

          Cats, I have learned, are always hungry. Food is their favorite subject. Even the most insolent and indifferent of felines will offer up a meow or two when they're famished, which is always. I made a habit out of feeding my clients as soon as I walked in the door. This way they would view my arrival as the best part of their day.   

          "Did you have a good afternoon?" I called from the kitchen as I prepared their dinner. "Did you hear anything interesting on the radio?" 

          The cats moved about my feet, rubbing against my shins, waiting impatiently for their meal. I set the bowls on the floor. Coco dug in. Mr. Crowley was more apprehensive.  

          While they ate, I imagined my life as a cat. I'd catch up on my sleep and get a lot of writing done. I'd write experimental poems that riffed on the things that I heard on NPR. That sounded so much more interesting than mining my dysfunctional relationships, like my growing obsession with my new boss. I wasn't the kind of poet who thought too much about the creative process. The poems arrived and I copied them down. That was my process. Sitting down to write something that wasn't already tumbling around in my mind wasn't in my makeup. Poetry, I believed, came from a place of inspiration. 

          The cats had stopped eating and were looking up at me as if they knew what I was thinking, like "So, you're a poet, too?" and "How's that working out for you?" which kind of freaked me out because I wouldn't last ten seconds in a house with a pair of mind-reading cats. 

          The truth was it wasn't working out. I hadn't written any poems since I'd returned to L.A. My new job kept me fairly busy and I'd set the poems I'd been working on aside. I'd putter with them here or there, but I hadn't really wrapped my head around them in a while, nor had I written any new ones, which was sad, because living my life as a poet was one of my motivations for moving back to L.A. 

          Coco was tearing up her scratching post and Mr. Crowley was well into his after-dinner preening, diligently applying his raspy tongue to his privates. They'd lost interest in me. My work was done.  

          I said good night to the cats and went into the guest bedroom. It was only seven o'clock: plenty of time to work on my poems. I started up my laptop and clicked on the folder that contained my poetry manuscript, such as it was, but my heart wasn't in it. The guest bedroom didn't have much in the way of artwork on the walls. It was bland and impersonal, a room for transients like me. There wasn't a bookshelf to be found anywhere in the house. What kind of poet didn’t own any books? The only book I'd found was an old collection of pulp fiction called The Ghastly Garden that sat atop the toilet tank in the bathroom. 

          I climbed into the poet's not particularly comfortable futon and wondered about the feline experience. What was it like being a domesticated animal? Did they yearn to be wild and free? Did they like their owner? What kind of men or women did the poet sleep with? Would listening to National Public Radio all day make me a better writer?  

These questions felt urgent to me.  

          As I drifted off to sleep, I imagined Coco and Mr. Crowley writing poems. Coco wrote hers down on little pieces of paper while Mr. Crowley composed on a cat-sized laptop with a paw-friendly keyboard.  

          If you've ever told a joke and that didn't go over well, you know something of the pain of a failed poet. Whereas the bad joke-teller gets over her embarrassment and continues to enjoy listening to well-told jokes, something dies inside the bad poet and that little death leaves her incapable of hearing about the successes of other poets, particularly those with whom she is acquainted, especially those who are, technically speaking, her boss.  

          The following morning, I didn't have much to say to the cats. I fed them their food and while they tucked into their bowls I turned off the radio—petty, I know—and slipped out of the apartment. 

          You'd think an advertising agency would be a good place for a poet, that putting little strings of words together would be right up my alley. Economy of language and all that. Well, you’d be wrong.  

          At the office, I tried to find a few minutes to work on a poem but the hours flew by and the time never quite materialized. I thought about going to a café after work, but some of my coworkers invited me out for drinks and I didn't feel like I was in a position to say no. If I didn't go, they'd surely talk about me behind my back, and I couldn't have that. So I went and gave them a reason to laugh at me by flirting with my boss and asking one of the account executives, my only friend in the office, if she thought he was attractive.  

          "Yeah," she said, "until he knocked up the proofreader. They're getting married next month. Didn't you know?" 

          I did not. People are always playing jokes on me because I'm the clueless/gullible type. I'll believe anything. I know this about myself yet I keep finding myself in these situations, and when I find out I've been tricked, taken advantage of, played, whatever you want to call it, I don't always take it so well. But this was no joke. Rather, the joke was on me.  

          I went home to the cats, a little sad, more than a little inebriated, and offered my usual greeting. "Hello, Coco! Hello, Mr. Crowley! How are you this evening?" 

          The cats sat facing each other on the rug in the center of the room. They looked my way but otherwise didn't move. "Oh," they seemed to be thinking, "It's you again," like I was interrupting some super deep conversation.  

          These cats were starting to get on my nerves.  

           I barged into the kitchen where I prepared their food as quickly as I could, slamming cabinet doors and making the china rattle. I set the food down on the floor but they wouldn't come into the kitchen until I left and sat down on the sofa, which I did. I uncorked a bottle of the poet's wine and splashed it into a water glass.  

          "Here's what I'd like to know," I began, because I had a few things to get off my chest. "How is it that after working on an autobiographical cycle of poems about a woman who falls in love with her boss who is emotionally unavailable to precisely the same degree that she is psychosexually damaged, I've fallen into the same fucking trap?"  

          I took a drink of the poet's wine, which was French, of course, and was probably going to cost me a fortune to replace.  

          "Even worse," I continued. "My new boss has no clue how I feel about him, which isn't really the issue. He's not the obstacle. The obstacle is me."  

          It dawned on me that I should be writing this down instead of ranting at the cats. That this constituted an "Ah-ha!" moment was indicative of how shitty my life had become. Coco jumped up onto the couch and climbed into my lap. Mr. Crowley rubbed his furry little body along my calves as if in a show of support.

           I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  

          "I didn't mean to snap," I said. And I was sorry, because, I was taking out my frustration on the cats, which wasn't fair.  

          To be perfectly honest, my job wasn't all that difficult. I had plenty of time to complete the work I was assigned and if I squandered the free time that came my way by obsessing over my boss and looking at photos my pet-sitting clients posted online, it was no one's fault but my own. The obstacle to writing is not writing. Surely even the cats knew that. 

 

          I was too hungover to do any actual work. To get over my obsession with my new boss, I looked up my old one, a junior vice president at a boutique digital advertising agency. I thought we had something. More than a spark. More than chemistry. Something with real staying power. But I was wrong.  

          What we had were too many half-priced cocktails at happy hour and some porn-worthy sex in a private car en route to the airport. He was going to New York for a new business pitch. I was just along for the ride. By the time his plane touched down at JFK I'd been shitcanned. Locks changed, passwords scrambled, key cards deactivated.  

          I didn't believe it at first. I thought I could make him change his mind—if not about the job, then about me. I was wrong, of course, which took months to accept. Thinking about him in the past tense was a major improvement, but I still felt blindsided when I learned that he was engaged to a local news personality whose ass was so famous it had its own Twitter account.  

          Great, while my ex was getting ready to marry a minor celebrity, I was sleeping on futons and talking to cats.   

Improbably, my poetry began to show signs of improvement.  

          The fact that I was working on my poems at all was a minor miracle, but doing the bare minimum no longer satisfied me. I worked on them during my lunch breaks and scribbled notes during meetings. Lines came to me while driving on the freeway and I repeated them out loud and in my head like a kind of prayer so that I wouldn't forget them. When I wrote them down more lines came. If I thought about my boss, it was only as material for my work, not as a potential partner in romance. I felt alive with poetry like never before.  

          I shared my progress with the cats. I talked to them every chance I got. I bounced ideas off of them when I was feeling particularly jaunty. Coco was the more nurturing of the two and would sit on my lap and purr while I stroked her fur. When Mr. Crowley lost interest, I imagined it was because the lines weren't working as hard as they could, and I pushed myself to do better. They were the writing group I'd never had.  

          By the end of the week, my motley collection of crossed out pages began to resemble a real manuscript. For the first time I felt like an actual poet and not a taker of notes. And I owed it all to the cats. 

          I never lost sight of the fact that they were cats that depended on me to feed them, but they were the cats of a prize-winning poet, which had to count for something. It's not like they were strays off the street. Still, I felt like something was missing from the work. A unifying event, an organizing principle, a motif.  

And then I had a dream.  

          I was workshopping my poems with the cats. We were sitting on the floor of the poet's living room with my pages spread out on the floor and the radio turned down low.  

          "I think your work could benefit from a touch of whimsy," Coco said. 

          "These poems feel lived, circumscribed by actual events," Mr. Crowley said. Of course he would be the pragmatic one, but he wasn't wrong.  

          "What Mr. Crowley is trying to say," Coco added, "is it's okay to use your imagination."  

          "Thank you," I remember saying. "You've been a huge help." My gratitude was immense.  

"You're welcome," Coco said. "We love helping writers find their voice." 

          "You're nowhere near as demanding as you-know-who," Mr. Crowley added. 

"You mean you help her, too?" I asked. 

"Of course we do, sweetie," Coco answered. 

"But... she's...." I couldn't find the words I was looking for. 

"Established?" Mr. Crowley answered. 

          "Yes," I said, but she was more than established—she was famous. In poetry circles, she was a star.  

          "We all need someone with whom we can share our work," Coco explained.  

"But what about you?" I asked. 

Coco slithered between my legs, her tail curling around my calf.  

"Don't you worry about us, sweetie." 

          I continued to work with the cats. I read my work to them every night when I came home and sometimes in the morning. Coco and Mr. Crowley helped me get to a place I couldn't reach on my own. They gave me the courage to challenge my thinking, investigate my motives, go deeper, and work harder. They were my muses. My mentors of the meow. But that was about to change. 

          The prize-winning poet had cut her Parisian sojourn short and, unbeknownst to me, returned to L.A. a few days early. I unlocked the door to the apartment I was already beginning to think of as home, and three pairs of eyes swung in my direction as I came through the door. 

          The poet sat on the floor with Coco and Mr. Crowley, surrounded by manuscript pages. It was just like my dream. The poet’s gray hair hung down like a dirty veil and she clutched a foul-smelling cigarette. She looked like hell.  

          "You're back," I said, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice and doing a lousy job of it.   

          "Yes, yes," the poet said, unmistakably annoyed. "I meant to call you. Obviously, I won't be needing your services any longer." 

          "Oh." I tried to remember if there was a mess in the kitchen I'd put off cleaning.  

          "You can leave the keys on the table," the poet continued. "Is there anything you need to get from the guest bedroom?" 

"I don't think so," I said.  

"Sorry to be so abrupt but I'm kind of in the middle of something." 

"I understand." 

"Great! Let's have coffee soon." 

          "Let's," I said, but it was clear that we wouldn't. Paris had done something to the poet, but that's not what bothered me. It was the silence of the cats. I waited for them to welcome me home, but they didn't acknowledge me. Mr. Crowley slunk underneath the coffee table. Coco stared out of the window, tracking the flight of a bird, her tail twitching on the sill.  

          I drifted toward the door, clutching the strap of the bag that held my freshly scribbled pages, pages I'd written with a fervor I hadn't felt since the fiasco with my old boss, an intensity of purpose that was already starting to slip away. 

"Bye, Mr. Crowley. Bye, Coco." 

          The poet forced a smile that got me out of there for good.  

I closed the door and waited. I could hear her talking to the cats. She was reading to them in her poet's voice. That's when it clicked. The poet with her prizes and haughty air of superiority and apartment without any books in it was a fraud. Something bad had happened to her in Paris. I was certain of it. Her talent had been called into question. Her confidence had been shaken. Something had sent her scurrying back to Hollywood where Coco and Mr. Crowley were waiting to give her what she needed, and I wasn't the least bit sorry I drank that bitch's wine.  

          I walked down the hallway's narrow throat and descended the stairs. Shuffling down Hollywood Boulevard, I breathed the exhausted air. Cars plowed the streets. Ancient Thai women carried leaking bundles of fish, texting their children and their children's children to come over for dinner. I took it all in. The tattoo shops and massage parlors and clubs where women stripped for cash. The sidewalk was littered with bottles and cups, defaced with stencil art, polka dotted with black discs of gum, so uniform they appeared decorative.  

          Poetry wasn't something one made with words. It was always already there, waiting to be let out. The secret was seeing it. Words comprised the combination, nothing more, but when they clicked into place they permitted access to a new way of looking at things. It was all very simple actually. So why did I feel so sad? 

         I looked up at the sky and shouted "Why?" This was how it always ended for me: loving someone who didn't love me back. An oft-traveled road whose landmarks I never seemed to be able to recognize. I staggered into a lamppost and slid down it, like people do in the movies, until I was half on the sidewalk, half in the street. I wasn't some beleaguered ingénue: I was just dumb. I started to cry. I was inconsolable. A young man, several young men actually, helped me to my feet. It took some doing to convince them that I was okay, that I was fine, that I'd never felt better in fact. One of them wanted to know how that was possible, seeing as just a few moments ago I'd been deep into a crying jag. So I told him. I didn't leave anything out. The prize-winning poet, my new work, the cats. Everything.  

          When I was finished, he sat quietly for a long time and looked at me with eyes in the first flower of infatuation. So that's what I look like, I thought as he asked me out for a cup of coffee. 

          I ran into the prize-winning poet a few years later. She'd continued her rise, but by then I'd published two books of my own. The first book was about my obsessive relationships, which happily didn't include the young man I'd met that night in Hollywood. In fact, I was engaged to a French essayist who was known in his country by a single name, which was useful during arguments. My second book was called Cat Sitting in Hollywood, a work, as Coco would say, of the imagination.  

          We'd been put on a panel together, the prize-winning poet and I. We sat at a small table on a large stage and the lights were so bright we couldn’t see the people in the audience. We'd ask each other questions and read from our work. Or read from our work and ask each other questions. These events were all the same. Nothing two adults couldn't handle.  

          While we were up on stage, waiting for the show to begin, I leaned over and whispered, “How are the cats?” 

“Mr. Crowley passed on, the prize-winning poet said. 

“No!" I exclaimed. 

          She looked down at her fingernails. I thought she might cry, but when she looked at me her eyes were dry. 

          “He thought very highly of you," she continued. 

          "He did?" I asked, a good deal more excited than I usually permitted myself to be, especially before a reading.   

"Absolutely. He always said you had the makings of a very fine poet." 

          I'd come to think of that week in Hollywood as a dream, a dream that gave me a glimpse of an alternate me. But, like all dreams, it was unreliable, and over time it faded and I was no longer sure I believed in the version where Coco and Mr. Crowley taught me how to be a poet. I didn't want to let that part go, so I wrote about the animals I’d gotten to know during my time as an amateur cat sitter. Now here was the prize-winning poet, telling me she talked to the cats. Talked to them about me. 

“And Coco?” 

"She said we'd go places, you and I, didn’t you sweetie?"  

          I followed the poet’s gaze to her feet. Tucked underneath the table was a cat carrier made out of molded plastic. She opened the door and scooped Coco out. The invisible crowd murmured its approval.  

          "I hate these things," the poet said. "I have to take special drugs so I don't have a quadruple panic attack. In the old days I just did a lot of blow and went with the flow but that stopped working."  

          She said this with a warm, wry smile. Not quite an apology but an explanation. I used to be a horrible person but I'm better now. She held Coco close and stroked her noble head, both of them regarding me with the same curious expression until it was no longer clear who had said what to whom.