07/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Strange Love

I emerged from the vet clinic toting the big pet carrier. In it was my cat Habbib. At age 19, he had just been pronounced blind, likely from his lymphoma metastasizing. Habbib was supposed to die last fall when vets first diagnosed his cancer, but he didn't. He plugged on, sauntering around purring and being Buddha-like, just as he'd always done. But now he couldn't see, and I was beginning to think he also couldn't hear.

On this day, we'd visited a kitty ophthalmologist, Habbib and I, to see if there was anything that could be done to bring his vision back. There wasn't. Just make him comfortable, the vet said. That's what all the vets had been telling me since October.

"Oh my god, he's gorgeous!" yelped a voice out of nowhere. I was so focused on getting the carrier and its beloved, blind contents gently out of the door of the place, I didn't see the woman ambling down the street. But she saw Habbib.

She stopped in her tracks, her eyes locked on him. Instead of moving around the building toward my car, and then toward my house, where a babysitter was watching my two year old, and there was work to be done -- lots and lots of work -- I moved toward this woman as if marionette strings were carrying me. As though we'd known each other for decades, we sat right down on the steps, two strangers and Habbib in his carrier wondering where the hell we were suddenly.

We didn't exchange names. We just spoke of our cats. I told her of Habbib"s origins, how his first owners, a couple in Baton Rouge, had gotten divorced and put him in a shelter in New Orleans. How I adopted him in 1994 or thereabouts, and how he'd lived with me there in New Orleans, then Baton Rouge when I'd moved, then D.C., then Virginia. I told her how he'd seen me through probably four boyfriends, and one husband, and how he'd happily taken the place of a baby when I couldn't have one, then how he'd gracefully relinquished that status when we adopted our daughter. I told her I'd never considered myself a cat person, but how Habbib had never struck me as a cat, really -- but rather as an undetermined, unclassified entity. After all, he looked far more like a Furby or a Gremlin than any cat I'd ever seen.

I laughed, but then I cried. And she cried. We sat together sobbing it up in the sunny glare -- instant intimacy in Vienna, Va., on a Tuesday afternoon on the steps of the Hope Center. How did this woman find me? How did I find her? I must have emitted an only slightly shrouded signal of grief and she picked it up.

She told me about her cat. Apache, she said, was black and white like Habbib. And also like Habbib, he'd reached a very old age (21) and had been with her through a heap of passages. When he'd died, she'd taken in four cats to try to equal one him. And that didn't work. There was no replacing him.

"You're not going to be ok when he goes," she said to me. "I wasn't. I'm not."


I cried some more. So did she. We agreed that losing these animals wasn't just pet loss but era loss. When her cat passed, so did an era. A long, important, complicated era. That will happen to me soon, too. My sweet and fluffy friend who doubles as a time capsule -- the one remaining creature in my home who goes that far back with me -- will be gone.

Busy as I was, running on a gerbil-wheel as hard as I usually do, I lost all sense of time sitting there with this kind stranger. For a second, it shot me back twenty years to a similar encounter, one that involved far fewer words.

The guy I dated in college was always taking off semesters to work, or to go to another school, and I transferred around more than I should have, too. The result was a mostly long-distance relationship that kept running aground for reasons unclear and unstated, then restarting every couple of months, also with a lot unstated. It was agonizing, and yet it felt, at the time, like a necessity, a must for my very survival. Each time we reunited and stayed together for awhile, it felt bigger, wider, more quintessential.

At the end of a semester I went up to New York City, where, as an employee of a cruise ship that sailed to Bermuda, boyfriend would have one day in port. We found each other in the city and sat in a bar for hours making out like wolverines. And talking, finally talking, about things that mattered, things that needed to be said.

And then suddenly -- oh, shit -- he realized that somehow he'd gotten the ship's sail time wrong (or maybe it was a time-change discrepancy; the memory is muddy). Instead of an hour from now, the ship was leaving now. He threw money at the bartender and we ran, out to the street and into a cab. The cab screeched and careened its way to the dock, where the massive ship had ... just pulled away. With nary a goodbye, he paid the cabbie, grabbed his bag and ran for the docs, sweating, shaking, red. And I just stood there, thunderstruck.

In the distance, I saw him have some sort of transaction with a man on the dock, and then boyfriend leaped onto a much smaller boat, which sped out to the cruise ship. And he was gone. Really gone.

I stared, stunned. It was before cell phones, so I wouldn't be getting a text or a breathless call explaining and apologizing and wrapping up as best as we could; I'd have to wait days or maybe weeks for a letter. The pain radiated into my bones.

I couldn't gather my wits about to me to go anywhere, to do anything, so I just remained there, eyes fixed on that disappearing ship, immobile and crying in a sandy field under a highway for I don't know how long. Ten minutes? Twenty minutes? An hour?

After some time, in my smeary vision I saw a bent and withered homeless lady shambling purposefully in my direction. Wrecked as I was, I didn't move away from her. I just stood there. Pretty soon she was right in front of me. She extended her arms and took my face in her hands, and she held it. And then she said something to me. I remember it being searing and perfect, making the agony move even deeper into me. She kept her hands on my face, old withered woman connected to young one full of love and loss. And then she broke away from me and she was gone.

Now, damn it, I don't remember what it was she said. But I try to tell myself that it doesn't matter, that it was more the feeling than the words. Strangers. Sometimes they emerge from the background in the most poignant and indelible of ways to take you in hand. If you let them.

"My name is Alice, and here is my number," said the lady in front of the vet clinic on Tuesday. "Call me when it's time."

I walked back to my car and back into my world. When I got home I put her number in a place where I wouldn't lose it.