How many pets can one couple afford if they plan to have kids?
"So we might get Oliver a 'sex change,'" I told my friend and jogging partner Jowita (yo-VEE-ta).
We were running up a hill in sweltering summer, trying to sprint to the top.
"Stop trying to make me laugh," she said, racing ahead of me.
But I wasn't. Even our veterinarian used this odd euphemism to describe the drastic procedure she recommended we consider for our newly adopted cat. Orange Oliver, FIV-positive (FIV is the feline version of HIV), came in from the street with numerous problems, many of which my boyfriend, Michael, and I could spy on the surface: an abscessed tail from a dogfight, urine-yellow teeth, and a penchant for attacking -- and potentially infecting -- unassuming domesticated kitties (namely our own, mainly my most beloved boy, Stanley, a tuxedoed senior). We took care of the exploding tail for a few hundred bucks and assigned Oliver his own FIV-only living area in Michael's study, around which Ollie paraded like a miniature lion with a lampshade for a mane. We fed him dental-hygienic treats and felt proud of our rehabbed boy, who was straightaway one of the cuddliest cats you could meet -- with humans. Clearly, he'd been abandoned, but now he had a happy new life. Then we realized he wasn't peeing more than once every day or two, and when he didn't pee he didn't want to eat. He grew lethargic, depressed. We waited for pee like a frantic farmer does rain.
"Shit, no pee," Michael said, sorry for Oliver, concerned the situation could get pricey.
"Oliver's got crystals in his urine, and his pee hole is much too small to pass them," I explained to Jowita. "So basically the vet would have to reroute his urethra through his butt to save him."
She nodded sympathetically; I knew what she was thinking. Jowita grew up in Poland till she was 13, when her family won the lottery to move to the U.S. in 1993.
"How much would this cost you guys?"
"The whole thing could cost as little as $2,500," I said.
"That cat should be put down," she said matter-of-factly. "Come on. It's a cat."
"But we love Oliver."
"What's the as-much-as side of the estimate?"
"Closer to 5K."
"I know it sounds crazy," I said. "In the end, I'm going to let Michael decide."
In truth, I didn't have the credit power to decide. After a writing residency in France, my Visa was closer to maxed than Michael's MasterCard, which he paid off monthly.
"Good," she said. "He'd never spend that much money on an animal, would he?"
Michael was careful as a miser with money -- I doubted it.
Most people, with the exception of our equally cat-loving landlord, Susan, had no idea how many cats we owned, and we didn't want just anyone to know. It made us sound like creepy hoarders or dorky get-a-lifers. Besides, we rationalized, this situation would be short-term: We'd place several of our fostered crew in ideal homes eventually. Looking back, though, maybe Michael and I were slightly crazy. Since we'd moved in together a few months earlier, we suddenly had seven cats between us, sleeping, eating, litter-boxing and barfing day and night. We kept a king-size lint roller beside the back door so we could de-fur upon exiting, and yet the fur clung. It followed us.
We were proud that we loved animals to our core, that we had that in common. Despite our ages and other pronounced differences -- Michael obsessed over history and current events; he dreamed of travel and baseball trivia, while I wanted to write fiction and read or watch TV and forget reality much of the time -- we were in love with each other in large part because it seemed there was nothing we wouldn't do for a feline in distress. Each time I'd found a stray whiner in Baltimore's gritty Greektown, my former urban hood -- where I'd moved to pay $350 rent while drafting a novel -- I fed the skinny cat some tuna on my stoop and called Michael in a panic.
"Oh, no, not again," he'd say, sighing, already resigned to help.
"This cat has eyes like Julia Roberts," I told him one night, hoping to entice him again. "She's probably part Siamese."
Though Michael was wary, I waited only one brief beat.
"Will she come to you? Can you pick her up?"
In those dating days before Oliver showed his face, if Michael and I couldn't find a ready home for a certain stray, he would take in the random fur-ball himself (my Greektown landlord, who lived next door, would not allow such shenanigans). In observing his seemingly endless animal generosity, I grew to think of Michael as a soul mate, as much as I'd always hated that term. I fantasized about marrying him, a first for me. And yet our differences distracted me late at night. I mean, he was two entire decades ahead of me, more set in his ways than I, and he always used freaking two-for-one coupons at restaurants. Could our relationship last even the length of one elder cat's remaining life?
The Saturday I finished clearing out my literal garret in Greektown to move into Michael's roomier apartment in affluent Roland Park, I felt almost as apprehensive about merging our respective cat households (my two plus his currently expanded foursome) as I did about invading Michael's clutter-free bachelor pad with my paintings and books. My tuxedos, Stan and Grace, would be forced to lay claim to their own sofa cushions on Yuri, Speedy, Peanut and Bugsy's home terrain. And I would be forced to find a way to get Michael to eliminate his vintage-baseball-card-themed bathroom décor.
"You have to get in there and make the place yours, too," Jowita told me on a nighttime run.
"Without crowding him," I said.
Then, as we loaded the last box of my junk into Jowita and her husband Chad's Subaru wagon, I glimpsed for the third time that week the dirty, burly orange stray I'd begun feeding. Late, late at night he'd cried in the street, pacing up and down like a restless boxer -- or like a child lost in the supermarket. Today, moving day, he wasn't a fighter but an orange clump of wet fur wallowing in the gutter, his broken tail resembling an old coat hanger.
"The orange guy is back!" I screamed in Michael's direction, but he was organizing the trunk and didn't hear me. "I was afraid he might be dead."
"Let it go," said Chad. "Let. It. Go."
Tears in my eyes, I couldn't.
"Mr. O!" I called running for my worse-for-wear friend.
In O's weakened condition, Michael and I were able to cage him easily. We added him to the assortment of boxes in my own car. He was too wounded to speak up. As we drove to Roland Park we agreed: We'd take him to the vet Monday morning.
Making the single-guy space halfway my own was one thing. Moving in with Michael was also stressful for me because we were suddenly sharing the expenses of running a home, and Michael was the most frugal person I'd ever met -- more frugal than Jowita, whose bargain-hunting brought great gifts to my life, like a free antique sofa in mint condition and yoga classes bought for almost nothing in a bundle. Michael kept a special accordion folder, a plastic relic from the '80s, on his desk, filling it weekly with specials on everything he needed for basic survival -- jasmine rice, cans of black beans, whole milk, toothpaste, cat food, toilet paper -- and nothing he didn't.
Once, he watched the specials and bought 25 Yoplait yogurts for $2.50 plus tax. He stocked a storage closet with dozens of bottles of Suave shampoo and generic saline solution bought at a radical going-out-of-business sale; he didn't run the AC unit his landlord supplied in summertime in muggy Baltimore. (Rising temps didn't bother him enough to add a $75 fee to the rent.) My least favorite, but it should be submitted: When his dental floss ran low, he rationed and rinsed one piece for two days' use.
Meanwhile, he lived in a chic and sunny second-floor apartment on tree-lined Roland Avenue, nestled among old clapboard mansions -- he worked as a freelance writer when he felt like it and cared for his aged mother in her home. He looked astronomically younger than his years because he ate only vegetables, grains, legumes and yogurt. Frugality, not fruit, it turned out, was his secret to health and handsomeness.
While I admired his discipline, Michael's penny-pinching also put me off. I wasted money all the time; I came from a long line of wasters -- in my family, we'd sooner buy a movie ticket and a bucket of popcorn than an overdue oil change. Carpe diem and pass the six-dollar soda.
On top of everything, I was 37 and thought that I wanted to have a baby, one of the heaviest added expenses a person could choose to take on. Now that we lived together, I thought about it more than ever, which was a whole lot. The timing felt right -- or at least it felt now or never. Each time Michael and I finished feeding the herd their Friskies and various medicines, I thought, "We can totally handle a baby."
I'd always found it natural and rewarding to adopt homeless animals -- as a kid I took in a puppy, two kittens and two fuzzy ducklings, the latter on display in an Easter mass at my school -- and my surrogate children, the tuxedoed Stan and Grace, had been with me throughout my 30s. Living in Greektown those past two years, however, my stray-cat radar had heightened to almost hysterical proportions. The reason wasn't lost on me. Even as I breathlessly rescued one more starving kit, I knew that my clanging biological clock played a role.
When I'd brought this up with Michael while we cooked veggies on my Greektown hotplate, he reminded me he'd never wanted children.
"Why is that?" I asked again.
"I didn't want the responsibility," he said, and I knew he meant financial.
"Maybe we shouldn't move in," I muttered.
He agreed to open his mind half an inch, to honor my wishes -- to keep us together. He said I should go off the pill sometime soon.
"When we can both agree."
Then the conversation closed. Living on Roland Avenue, I was still on the pill. Whenever I brought it up, Michael got stressed about spending, so I tended not to bring it up. Perhaps therapeutically, Oliver's life-or-death urethra crisis became our central money problem in those early days of cohabitation.
As renters who drove ugly used cars, the only sizable money we'd ever spent had been on cats, I realized -- but why was that? What were we getting from them in the end, really? Little thanks for early-morning feedings and late-night "brush-y" sessions with the comb, not to mention all the shit-clump slinging, the desiccated barf scrubbing. Geez, how much between us had we spent on vet bills in the last year? (And, God in heaven, how much more could a teeny tiny kid cost us?)
To that point, I'd been fortunate enough to face mainly cosmetic problems with my feline brood: Stanley got pricey annual dental cleanings to combat painful decay, but I saved hundreds taking him to an animal clinic near my parents' house in North Carolina; formerly a crack-house-dwelling cat, Grace had required ear and facial cleansing to rid her of mites and chin "acne." Once she began sharing a household with Yuri, who bullied her out of the litter box, she had to be given frequent enemas at the vet's. I figured I was in it for about a grand annually plus prescription food to keep Stan's aged colon working, unless I counted 2010 when he got a life-threatening upper-respiratory infection living in our drafty, kitchen-less garret, and bills crept past $1,800.
Poor Michael still took his 14-year-old calico, Speedy, to the vet every other month to have her lungs tapped of excess fluid, a symptom of her terminal cardiomyopathy. Each trip cost between $500 and $800 depending on whether Speedy first off needed to sit in an oxygen chamber. I sprang for Speedy's medications when it was my turn to pick up our cats' various prescriptions, but Michael still had to be in it for five grand yearly.
Between us: 6K+.
Truth was, Oliver's pee-pee problem might well sink Michael financially, or at least limit his budget for a long while.
Not that I'd ever resented his uncharacteristically grand spending -- on the contrary. Each time Michael shelled out another half-K to extend Speedy's fading little life, I loved him more. The day Speed stumbled and fell in the bedroom because her lungs were faltering, Michael's Aw, no broke my heart worse than any cat sound could.
Conversely, each time the subject of getting married or getting me pregnant came up, his rigidity -- "I guess I like things as they are" -- pissed me off bigger.
After I demanded, in a PMS fit, that he buy me an engagement ring before the end of the year, he pulled a plastic washer from the kitchen drain and looped it on my finger.
"For now," he said. In return, I gave him an empty toilet paper roll with "Michael's wedding ring" scribbled in crayon. This was the same week we had to tell the vet what to do about Oliver. We couldn't keep carting him to the hospital to have his piss drained.
After dinner, we sat down to decide. Yet we sat in silence. Money had become as sore a subject as Oliver's pee hole. Of course, part of me wanted Michael to say he'd go through with the plan to save Ollie's life, but at the same time I sort of wanted him to say what Jowita would have recommended: "Let's put this serious money to use elsewhere. He's a cat."
Ever the conflict avoider, Michael wanted to make a decision as a couple. By now he, too, probably didn't know which end was up, same as Oliver might feel if we opted for the rather iffy operation.
I told Michael that I would understand if he didn't want to keep this sick cat alive. The surgery was considered controversial, although our animal hospital claimed they had a star urethra re-router on staff -- "She digs doing that surgery!" But how long would Oliver live? And how much joy could he experience quarantined in Michael's now baseball-card-adorned office space?
Then again, how much selfish stake did I have in Michael's savings?
"I really don't have the money for this surgery," I mentioned for the fifth time. "I mean, I don't have half just now."
"What do you want to do, really?" he asked. "What is your instinct?"
"What if we're doing more harm than good?"
Though I hadn't informed Michael yet, I'd called an esteemed experimental vet and family friend in North Carolina that afternoon to discuss the surgery -- she said she'd seen miracles occur with the procedure. She also said, "Go for it."
I thought of Oliver's chunky paws and kitty digits, his loving habit of burying his face in our necks when we held him. Then I heard him tapping at the window of the office door, as if on cue. In a rush, I remembered what thanks we got for loving O. Michael opened the door and scooped him up like a toddler. O did the face-burying thing.
As I watched them canoodle, I knew that Michael would make an amazing dad -- something in my chest unclenched.
"Get him the surgery," I said. "At least, that's what I want. I called that fancy vet and she said we should go for it."
A sex change for Ollie, that's what I wanted, more than a cliché engagement ring from Jared, more than all the clean dental floss in the world. We'd become cat savers, after all; maybe we'd become baby people, too.
"I love this boy so much," Michael said, kissing Oliver's huge orange head, his own head relieved. "Let's get you fixed up, what do you say? We can call you Olivia!"
Happily, the surgery was a success. Of course, during the few weeks when Oliver was learning to urinate on his own, our house stank like a pig farm. During that phase, Michael and I took turns expressing the cat's bladder onto an old beach towel several times a day.
Three years later, Mr. O's still alive and well and living in luxurious bliss as a single cat with our former landlord Susan. She sends us pictures of Oliver at his designer feeder, Oliver in his kitty tent, Oliver on her husband's shoulder, burying his head.
These days, Michael and I are married and I've begun fertility treatment at the best clinic in Maryland. We rented a house to give our current six cats more room to roam -- the space will come in extra handy if the IVF works (especially if it results in a two- or three-person litter, as it frequently can). Some days the cats make us insane. Bugsy copes with chronic inflammatory bowel disease, which creates stress and smell. Yuri, the strong, fat, blond tabby, mewls a maniacally high-pitched request for breakfast most mornings well before 7. Stan won't eat anywhere but atop the kitchen counter, and thanks to his missing teeth, sprays food like the old codger he is. Woodstock, a kitten who turned up in our yard this past summer, loves everyone and everything. His sweet curious face makes the entire workload nearly worth it now and then.
Speedy is at rest in the backyard between a holly bush and a rose bush. The day we buried her I read a love poem by William Carlos Williams; Michael read from William Burroughs' The Cat Inside. We pet her fur and kissed her.
I cried extravagantly while Michael cried in moderation at the end of our kitty service. That white winter day, though only for a few minutes, I understood it's possible to appreciate the world and all the creatures in it more and more as you age, if you let yourself change what offers itself up to be changed, and attempt to forgive the rest.
When Bugsy poops on the rug once a week or so, I realize something different: "We're f*cked!" I shout at Michael. "Agreed -- we are slaves to cats," he says. Then one of us just cleans it up.
This essay was originally published on Medium.com.