I once fell in love with a nuclear cat. Four years ago I was in my first term of employment with the animal shelter. I worked more closely with the animals then, almost exclusively with cats, actually. I cleaned a lot of litter boxes back then.
One day I was over in the medical department, where some of the shelter animals stay while they’re being treated for various illnesses. I was walking by a bank of cages when I heard the funniest, warmest, most good-natured “meow”. I stopped and scanned the cages till I saw a beautiful old cat, a lynx-point Siamese with bright blue eyes and a lavender sheen to his short grey coat. He looked back at me, blinked slowly, and meowed again; a hello-meow, a thank-you-for-walking-by kind of meow. A warbly, old-man “mrow.” He looked like a cartoon character with his wise old blue eyes, his stooped posture. Like any minute he’d start up a discussion about the weather. Then I saw his cage card with a bright yellow sticker that said, in bold lettering, “RADIOACTIVE”.
“Hello, old boy,” I said. According to the card he was sixteen. I looked through the vet’s notes and saw that he was being treated with radiated iodine for his hyperthyroidism.
“Mrow,” he said again, and I mimicked him, “mrow.” We talked back and forth like that for a couple of minutes. I stuck my finger through the wire cage and he sniffed it once, then rubbed his chin against my fingertip. I scratched his ear and said “mrow.”
I started calling him Oscar.
I visited him everyday while he was under treatment and then, the first day that he was made available for adoption, I took him home. Louie had lived with cats before, and he and Oscar settled immediately into an agreeable companionship.
Oscar talked all the time, especially when I’d come home from work. He and Louie would greet me at the door, and I’d pick him up in my arms and he’d place a paw on either side of my neck, and rub his cheek against my chin. He’d talk to me while purring, his “mrows” vibrating in my ear, and we’d walk around the house like that for awhile, talking to each other. He’d lay in my lap while I read or watched TV, and he’d nap on the red ottoman that caught the sun’s rays in the afternoons. Sometimes I’d find him sleeping in the bathroom sink.
This was during the spring of 1998. After eight years of sobriety I had decided to try drinking again. After all, I was nineteen when I quit. Perhaps, I told myself, I’m not really an alcoholic. I was 27 and feeling left out; I was missing out on my twenties, damnit. All the fun. I had left Minneapolis and my AA friends behind, and now in San Francisco everyone I knew partied a little. I wanted in.
I caught up pretty quickly. The drinking escalated in the first week to a daily habit. The boyfriend would come home and I’d be passed out on the bed, taking a “nap”, four or five beer bottles under the bed. He started teasing me about tasting like beer when he kissed me. As the months passed, the teasing turned to irritation, and then anger.
I had my first hit of Ecstasy on Gay Pride day at the end of June. It was so important to get it right, to make the experience as powerful as possible. I ate very little that day, so that my stomach would be empty. I avoided beer and took the next day off from work. My friends, on very familiar terms with E, marshaled me through the night. They slipped the tiny pill into my palm and I washed it back with a berry Calistoga, standing near the peanut barrel at the Lone Star. We walked over to the Powerhouse and it started to kick in. A tingling in my fingertips, flowing slowly upwards through my arms and washing over my body. I was radiating. The music expanded. My friends smiled at me and even though the Powerhouse was not a disco, I couldn’t stop moving to the music. Everyone thought I was hot. I kept catching the sexy bartender looking at me. My friends dragged me out into the night.
“Oh, my god, look at the sky!” I shouted. It was alive, boiling, colors popcorning through the clouds. Not hallucinations; just fleeting visions of the world’s inner energy; everything around me humming with its own life. My friends groaned and rolled their eyes and pushed me into the car, where I laughed and stroked their buzzed heads all the way to the Pleasuredome. They fed me another hit, and I was off. The music, not just louder, but bigger, like the sky, the cavernous club filling with vibrating, pulsating life. We pushed our way into the center of the writhing crowd, the lights flashing above, my vision blurring at the edges, into the center of the heat. I loved my friends. I took my shirt off, reveling in the sweltering, sweating masses that surrounded me; everyone smiling, everyone full of love.
They say Ecstasy isn’t addictive. Maybe the chemical isn’t, but the experience of Ecstasy was, at least for me. Of course, everything is addictive to me. I had suffered from depression my whole life, and had now found in a $20 pill the key to an overwhelming, confident happiness. Yes, I paid for it dearly the following week, but that just heightened the weekend’s importance. My life became all about the weekends then; the week emptied of pleasure and meaning. I just had to get to the weekend, and the E. And one hit became two hits became three hits, weekend after weekend, the nights out multiplying. I tried new drugs, the K, the GHB, the crystal. I loved them all. Yes, it’s true what they say; it’s never again like your first time, but who could give up trying? Certainly not me.
I knew, underneath it all, that I was in trouble. I knew I thought about drugs more than my friends did. It was, no doubt, an obsession. My first bout with AA had ruined me; I was never completely rid of that guilt, that little voice that whispered in my ear, sing-song, “You’re an alcoholic!”
So getting high became necessary; to drown out the voice, to run away from everything, if only for a couple of hours. To run from my stupid job and my cheating and my ruined potential. The obsession to get and stay fucked up clung to me, through the gray fog of my eight-hour workdays, the wasted evenings of beer and television. Each day slipping away.
I found a website that sold the ingredients to make GHB at home. They’d send it to me via Fed Ex, maybe to avoid federal laws concerning drugs and the US Postal Service. Since I worked days I’d have them hold it for me at their San Francisco hub. Each time I’d pick up the package my pulse would be thundering. I thought for sure the feds were going to bust me; everyone around me was an undercover agent. Every time the clerk slipped into the backroom, every minor delay at the counter was another reason to cut my losses and run. But the obsession was stronger. I held my ground, I got my package, I slipped out into the night. I drove home and mixed the two chemicals with distilled water and voila, a pitcher of GHB. Each pitcher emptying a little more quickly than the last.
I wasn’t a bad father to Louie and Oscar, in those days. I’d come home from work and pour myself a little G and take Louie out for a walk. If other people could relax after work with a little drink, a little G wasn’t all that different, I told myself. All that crap about it being the date-rape drug was mostly media hype. Sure, if you took too much you’d pass out. So don’t take too much.
One night I came home from the Fed-Ex station, package in hand. I unlocked the front door, and Louie was there, looking somewhat anxious. Behind him, down the hall, I saw Oscar laying on his side on the living room floor, an unusual place for him. I hurried down the hall. Something was wrong. I came to where he lay, and he seemed to tremble a bit. His sides rose and fell; once, twice. Then nothing. I dropped to the ground, put my face up against his. “Oscar?” I said. There was nothing, no “mrows”, no breath. His eyes open and staring. I picked him up in my arms and his neck fell back at a horrible angle, his head fell motionless against my arm. I squeezed him against me, I moved his head, I ran my hands over him, again and again, “Oscar? Oscar?”
I think he was dead by the time I picked him up. I think he waited till I got home, and he breathed twice, and he died.
I held him to me and I cried. I kept talking to him, unsure if he was really gone. There was no clear moment or sign of death; he was still warm, and I asked him, “Oscar, hey old boy, don’t go yet.” But the warmth faded, and he cooled in my arms. I held him for over an hour, because I couldn’t be sure, because I didn’t want to put him down. My buddy, my nuclear baby.
Oscar had lived with me for six months. He was an old guy, and I knew when I adopted him that he’d only be with me for a little while. I knew he had been happy, that I had given him a good home for those last months. I knew from the way he put his paws around me and held on, from the way he talked in my ear as we walked around the house.
There wasn’t anything I could have done differently, but I look back on that day with guilt. For where I had been as he lay on that floor, waiting for me to come home. For the package in my hand that had been more important than anything else. It’s not a rational shame. Oscar did not die because I was a drug addict. But his death and my drugs are caught up together in memory, and you can’t reason with memory. When I remember Oscar I remember that day, I remember the sight of him down the hall, the package in my hand. As if I could drop the package and somehow save him.
I wish I could say that it changed everything; that losing him made me stop. But I didn’t. Or I couldn’t. In memory, it was just the beginning.