The object of my affection

Archived from April 5, 2006

I can usually tell when I’m at my most stressed or least happy by the tone of my sarcasm. Friday morning, while stopping by the courthouse in Cumberland County for a story with Jamie, I was cracking wise about the one-legged woman behind us. It was unclear whether the bruises on her neck were violent or … romantic.

I’ve always looked at life cynically. Forever made deeply sarcastic jokes, and I’m aware that occasionally, I can be caustic. But there has always been a line in the sand that is sometimes my head. And that line is jaded.

Yes, I’m comfortable making inappropriate gestures at loud babies in quiet restaurants, and I probably roll my eyes more often than I bestow a genuine smile. That’s all fine with me, as long as I’m still able to be caught breathless by something. As long as there exist some things still capable of levelling me, I know I haven’t lost my last shreds of humility or compassion.

I have wondered lately whether I’ve crossed that line and become jaded. I have hardly flinched at the explosion of cherry blossoms outside the building. I barely registered a reaction at all to being able to walk home in the sun last week.

It was with all this in mind, and enough else to commit to a book someday, that I embarked to Pittsburgh.

It was sunny on Friday, and the windows were down, and we had a pile of good CDs. These are the things that generally provide my surefire resolution to any kind of melancholy. I was smiling by the time the Cathedral popped into view. It had been 18 months since my last trip to the Burgh — the longest span ever.

It was, of course, a therapeutic weekend. A rejuvenating weekend in the sense that I was reminded of life from my old perspectives, from ages 17-21. I remembered that I was more than the sum of the events that I’ve spent the last year getting past.

Yet, there were still wry jokes to be made, and self-deprecations to help me slide past the difficult moments. Maybe it was a sense of intense nostalgia, or simply the tenor of conversation so endemic to most of my trips to Pittsburgh, but even though I felt “better,” I still felt jagged, and difficult.

I don’t like to be vulnerable, and I judge weakness – in others, but mainly in myself – as a character flaw. I’ve created a stone likeness of myself, with not much emotion, but a hell of a sense of humor.

It is rare for something to excavate past all of that, and it generally comes in the form of something – or someone – undaunted and unbelievably good. Honesty and an almost supernatural dose of patient kindness are required before I will expose anything close to softness.

It has always seemed, though, that once that softness comes out, it brims. And while whatever is most directly responsible for the leakage reaps the most benefit, it seeps most everywhere, and everything I touch seems nicer as a result.

After Gus, I confided in a few close friends that I was afraid of suddenly losing what little softness I did have. I could see it turning to steel like that scene in The Terminator. I was comfortable pouring out affection to him, and the dividends paid everyone and everything else off rather nicely. Everyone told me it “normal” to now disregard any kind of empathy for anyone. They said of course I wasn’t supposed to handle listening to everyone else’s stupid problems very well. The problem is, I never really believed them. Cynicism might somehow give way to meanness. Without a safe object for my affection, I worried it would dry up.

Waking up on Sunday, Jamie finally committed to adopting a kitten. He’d already chosen a name – the unlikely moniker of a posthumous tyrant – and we were on our way to the animal shelter. We laughed at how ridiculous it would be to call the cat Slobodan Bacon-Claw. Yep. Slobodan. He had already shelled out $7.95 at Petco to have the tag engraved.

We all jumped out of the car and fixated on a tiny black and white lump of fur named Johnny. We laughed when he sat on command (like a dog!), and drove him a little crazy by shaking one of those arts-and-crafts-style wands with streamers on the end. Jamie forked over the adoption fee, and suddenly we were in the car with a cat. And on our way home to Philly.
Slobodan didn’t really like being in a cardboard box. He meowed like mad, and as soon as I half-lifted one of the flaps, he practically bulletted out. So I put him in my lap. Allergies and all.

Within a few moments, I was relaying every precious moment to Jamie, in the hopes that that would keep his eyes on the road, rather than on the kitten. “Oh, Slobodan just wrapped his little paws around my hand!” “Oh, Slobodan is purring!”

I was sneezing, but I was smiling. Really, honestly smiling.

“We might have to change his name after all,” Jamie said. I agreed. He was way too adorable for us to saddle him with our cynicism.

And so we made a list of all terms Pittsburgh-related, from Stanwix and Forbes, to Meyran/Myron [Cope] and Posvar. And the kitten squirmed in my lap while all I could do was coo at him and wonder how in the world this had happened. A kitten, of all things! When I’m a supposed dog person! But the affection was definitely there again. Vibrant and contagious. It was Dave who came up with the winning name. One much cuter, and so much more appropriate: Pierogie.

I’m used to Pittsburgh restoring a little of my faith, and a large sense of my own youth. But I cannot believe that it took a tiny little cat from the Burgh to restore my gushing affection.

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