Episodes: The cat


(As always, all names have been changed and various details obscured to hide real identities, etc.)


The first time Bill Clinton was elected president, I was pretty sure the world was going to end.

I had been born into a world of Republican rule. When Ronald Reagan left office, I sighed with sorrow about how it was too bad he couldn't be president forever. I remember being frustrated that the country didn't embrace Pat Robertson's ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign, but I also remember pulling for George Bush that fall. All I had known was Republicanism, and all I had known was winning elections. Even the state I came from mostly elected Republicans, and the county I lived in got written up in the newspaper for having almost 100 percent Republican registration.

So when Bill Clinton started crushing Bush in the polls in 1992, it prompted anxiety like I hadn't known in my life to that point.

You can add to this a certain amount of moral panic. I went to a church that preached that if America didn't turn to God, surely the end of days would follow. (It also preached that we would be raptured ahead of said end of days, but I really didn't want to leave behind my life on planet Earth so soon.) Clinton stood for so many awful things -- I didn't really know what, beyond abortion rights, but that was a big one -- and surely God would punish us for electing such a clearly wicked man.

We watched the election returns at my grandparents' house that night, a blustery November wind outside their picture windows. We were all in a state of shock, but for my grandmother, who mentioned, off-hand, that when the country had elected Kennedy, they had all been sure he would turn things over to the pope the next morning. But that didn't happen, and Clinton being president wouldn't somehow lead to demons swarming through the country.

She seemed confident, at least.

Also at the election party were old family friends, an older man and his wife, who sat in the corner, he thrusting his hand into a bag of chips, drawing them out by the fistful. She sat on the arm of his chair the whole time. They both faced the TV, watching the results pour in, saying nothing.

They had been through a lot in recent years. One of their children had died a few years earlier, in a car accident, and it had reverberated through their lives. Another child curtailed plans to join the military to stay home and help out. Still another saw their grades tank. Only the youngest seemed more or less on track from where they had been.

But what's more, the people they had been grew up in different courses, around that central fracture in their lives, the child they had lost and the strange etchings around the silhouette of their grief. They were the same people we had always known; they were also completely different, colored in different shades. Strangely, I think, they became faster friends with our family after that, clinging to something stable.

At some point a little while after the accident, the wife found a little cat out back behind her office. It was a tiny, mewling thing, clearly on its last legs and looking for somewhere to get warm. She took it into her workplace that day, and then she took it home, where she fed it milk and raw eggs, until it was fat and happy and a fixture in their house.

If you knew him, you would not expect him to be the kind of guy to take in a cat, even one that desperately needed a home. And this was more or less accurate. He kept his distance from the cat, but the cat, in that cat-like way, wanted only to be close to him. So they settled into a kind of uneasy truce. He would sit in his chair; the cat would creep closer and closer, eventually making its way to the arm, where it would rest beside him, but not quite touching him. Eventually, he would push it away. But he put up with it.

For her, I suppose. Of course it was for her. How do you re-establish what had been (presumably) a good marriage in the wake of something so seismic? You give the other person space. You let them have something in their life that might bring them a little happiness, even if you have no use for it. You relearn the rules of being together, a delicate renegotiation of something that once seemed second nature and now seems terrifyingly new.

You let your wife keep her cat, in other words.

And if you ever were alone with him, around other men, he would joke about the cat, would laugh about how he was going to run it over or shoot it or throw it out into the night, in that exasperated way of men who are all alone and find that space a safe place to roll their eyes about the impossibility of understanding their wives.

(Sidebar: When I was growing up, dogs were always coded as masculine and cats as feminine, and I have never quite understood why. Everything else in my childhood suggested masculinity was a strongly independent quality, so why wouldn't a strongly independent creature like a cat be a masculine animal? At any rate, my father has always liked cats and keeps a small fleet of them in his shop, where they routinely interfere with his work.)

So the cat was an unexamined fault line in their relationship. She wasn't giving it up. He wasn't going to make her give it up. But he resented it all the same, thought it a little ridiculous that she would bring it into their house, would make him trade in some portion of his masculinity to be the kind of man who had a housecat. And the cat, oblivious to it all, continued to grow fat and happy.

Which is how we return to election night, 1992, watching the returns roll in, knowing that Clinton was going to win, but hoping against hope that the entire West Coast might be called for Bush and somehow make it a tighter race. But, of course, it wasn't, and as the networks proclaimed victory for Clinton and the first Democratic president since before I was born, we sat in stunned silence, the only sound that of the TV.

"Look at him," the husband said as the TV showed file footage of Clinton doing his thing. "What a disaster."

Nobody spoke up to correct him. He balled up the bag of chips, crunching the aluminum down into a small wad to throw out, rising to do so.

"Dark times ahead," he said, then shook his finger at the TV. "You know how you can tell? He owns a cat."

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.