The first cat I brought home I named Mikhail Bulgakov, after the Russian novelist who wrote The Master and Margarita, and did so because I was 23, which is exactly how young and stupid you need to be in order to mistake meaningless literary pretension for a personality. The shelter gave him to me with such trepidation, as he was part of an ongoing NYPD animal cruelty case, rescued from a basement hoarding situation with 37 other cats, and they told me he’d never been socialized and would likely never become accustomed to being held by humans. This lithe, stark black creature when they brought him out, looked at me with such distrust and bitterness, I was helplessly charmed by his determination to rebuff all my attempts to pet him, instead choosing to make his displeasure known by the tinniest, gentlest angry miaows ever hissed forth in catkind.
When he first came home, he hid under the bed for two months, and the only way I knew there was an animal in my apartment was because I’d leave his food out for him, come back from work and see it had been eaten. Contrary to the shelter’s predictions, three years on, he’s learned to demand and express affection with these aggressive swings of his whole body, coming up to me, and only me, and whamming his entire flank into my palm for petting, as if making up for the seven years of his life that he spent without it (or so I like to romanticize).
Within ten days of deciding to foster Mikhail Bulgakov, a second kitten — the monarch of our menagerie, a small ball of white and grey fluff followed me home in a storm, and grifted her way into my life by falling around my ankles in a way that had me rolling my eyes at my own gullibility. Her name is Pigeon, christened for her dove gray patches and to honor her streak of assholery, visible each time as she clucks around dismissively and terrifies the living daylights out of the other two.
And now for the story of Bread, my third incredibly large and incredibly gentle goblin of a cat, whom I brought home as a temporary foster just two years ago. Normally, the shelter sends out these highly stylized glamour shots of cats up for fostering, but his photo was this deeply unattractive grainy photo of him trying to make himself as small as possible, trying to retreat into a ball in the corner of his carrier, which is hilarious when you lay eyes on him and realize he’s this incredibly large 20-lb orange basketball-sized thing. Bread has the personality of a kitten who never outgrew his kittenhood, and while physically he may be the size of a grain sack, in his mind he still thinks he can take a tumble onto your stomach. When he does that it’s as if someone rolled a bowling ball into my midsection and I gulp to regain my breath, even as I feel this overwhelming rush of love for my stupid cat child. So, so huge. So, so unaware of his size. When the time came to give him back, I embarrassed myself so thoroughly by becoming a red-faced mess of snot and tears, that the volunteer struggling to take his carrier from me awkwardly had to tell me “Ma’am you know you can also adopt him, right?” So I did — against all sensible judgment because what unhinged person lives in a Manhattan studio with 3 cats! Three!!There’s this line by the writer Doris Lessing that goes “What a luxury a cat is, the moments of shocking and startling pleasure in a day,” — which is how I feel about having willingly taken on the absurd responsibility of living in this city with a feline menagerie of my own. Whims and impracticalities, as I’ve always been told, are excusable in heiresses and plutocrats whose absurd amounts of money enable them to not subscribe to the quotidian drudgery of everyday life like the rest of us living for small paychecks. But my cats, not one, not two, but three — yes three — are the one impractical luxury I’ve allowed myself in an otherwise profoundly mundane existence. Even when I lived in a quasi-legal rental with no kitchen and a shared bathroom, made $18 an hour, spent 9 hours a day steadily watching my hold on equanimity rapidly decline, I had one cat asleep behind my knee, another curled around my head, edging me off the mattress, and a third keeping watch over our shared domain from atop a wobbly shelf.
Whatever little happinesses I can lay claim to in this short life of mine are because of these animals, for whom I am nothing more than the strange creature who needs to be prodded to lay down their food at 5am in the mornings and who chases them when they claw the sofa, but from them I draw such unholy warmth and comfort, there seems to be some inherent unfairness in how much joy they bring me. Everything good in my life comes from my cats. Everything good in my life came after my cats. Everything good that comes now comes because I have my cats.
Iva Dixit is an Associate Editor at The New York Times Magazine. Previously, she was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker. Her writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, New York Magazine’s The Cut and The New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn with her three cats, none of whom get along with each other.