The world changed, of course. And my little world went into freefall too. My dot.com overnight multi-millionaire ex-husband went seriously bust when he left all his money in high-tech stocks. The IRS claimed his six-figure pension for unpaid back taxes on gains realized for scarcely more than a year. He lost his house in Park City, his apartment in San Francisco. The second Mrs. Landi left him.
And there went my alimony. Lots of aphorisms apply here: Easy come, easy go. A fool and his money are soon parted. There’s a sucker born every minute.
So I had to give up my perfectly nice two-bedroom apartment a couple of blocks from Central Park and Columbus Circle.
How it transpired that I moved in with an old boyfriend I am not exactly sure. But suddenly I was back in godawful central New Jersey (really, I have nothing against that part of the country since I went to college there at a prestigious institution another writer has dubbed a high-quality daycare center for privileged adolescents….but it is not New York, and the city was always my home). The old beau and I had housekeeping difficulties and gaps in communication that make you rethink another expression: Mind the gap. I won’t get into detail because I still have a fond friendship with this man.
Also, I was deeply scared of being on my own after the attacks on 9/11.
There was no question of living in Montauk in the winter because the furnace was on its last legs and the house leaked hot air worse than a helium balloon in a hailstorm.
But I started going out there by myself on weekends in April, with I hoped the tacit understanding that the “relationship” was seriously on the wane. He never asked to join me.
One Friday, as a light snow was beginning to fall, I pulled into the driveway and there perched on the wisteria arbor next to the kitchen doorway was a sleek gray cat. He seemed to be waiting for me, almost expecting me. He didn’t move as the car approached; he simply sat there calmly, allowing flakes to settle on his glossy coat. As soon as I opened the door, the cat raced past me into the kitchen. When I snapped on the light, I thought he might be a Russian blue, but he was a little chunkier than is usual in that breed and his eyes were yellow. Among the oddments of cat lore tucked away in my omnium-gatherum was the knowledge that mature Russian blues have green eyes.
After he gulped down a full can of food, I was about to let him outdoors again, though I loathed the idea of pushing him out into the snow. But he was too fast for me and made a beeline straight for the bedroom. He settled himself with great aplomb against a pillow and looked at me with those big amber eyes and I was totally smitten. He seemed almost to have an aura about him, a glow like a silvery halo that surrounded his ashen coat.
I named him Boris.
I fed him and let him loose the next morning, and he scampered off toward the beach. And I thought that was that. I felt a tiny pang of loss. I didn’t see him all weekend, but when I returned the next Friday, there he was all over again, sitting on top of the trellis. This time he disappeared during the day but came back to me at night, sleeping in the bend of my legs, purring like a well-tuned Porsche.
When I left on Monday, I made sure he had a full bowl of chow and water on the porch.
You may be wondering at this point, What happened to Sherman, the cat ceded to me after the divorce? He stayed with my parents in Florida, who dearly loved him, for a couple of years, and then was returned to me after my father’s death. The Jersey beau liked him well enough, and so there he stayed on weekends.
One Friday, around mid-May, I pulled into the drive and there was no Boris. I shook the kibbles bag, I called softly into the dark. I became absurdly frantic when he failed to appear that evening, getting up several times during the night and checking out the kitchen window. I didn’t realize how attached I’d become. He was just the sweetest, most self-assured, gentlest cat I’d ever known. And I felt guilty, as though my loyalties were shifting from Sherman to a new infatuation.
When he did not return by Sunday, I canvased the neighborhood on my bike, peering into the shrubbery and keeping an eye peeled for the unthinkable—a small gray carcass at the edge of the road. I decided I would go door to door, and started with the only neighbor who had seemed to be there through the winter, a gruff but amiable retired firefighter.
When I described the cat and how he was spending weekends with me, the fireman said, “Oh, ya mean Duke? Yeah, he sometimes comes in for the night when it’s really cold.”
And, as if on cue, Boris appeared, saucily rubbing against my neighbor’s legs and blinking his big yellow eyes.
I had to restrain myself from a sharp rebuke: So that’s where you were, you little shit?
Instead, I simply felt idiotic stressing over the health and whereabouts of a fickle feline operator.
But the next weekend, he was waiting for me and spent two days hanging close. The same through early June, and then I decided to move out of godawful central New Jersey for good that summer, bringing Sherman with me, of course. It was a thoroughly amiable split, and I left feeling real relief at the prospect of a summer alone, even as I nursed massive doubts about the sanity of co-habitation with two cats.
I seemed to remember reading somewhere that if you could keep the beasts separated for a few days, within the same household, they might be more accepting of each other’s presence, like two prisoners who establish a rapport by tapping on the walls between them. So when I arrived with Sherman, I left him in his carrier in the car, let Boris inside the house, fed him, and settled him in the master bedroom for the night, door firmly closed.
Sherman had the run of the rest of the house, which he already knew well. But I felt such guilt in the early morning hours that I abandoned Boris and slept part of the night with Sherman in the guest bedroom. In the morning, I let Boris out a side door, and Sherman seemed none the wiser about the presence of another cat. So eager was I to have the two of them settle into loving—or least, tolerant—harmony that I called my long-time vet in East Hampton to see what suggestions she might have for inducing brotherly love between four-legged creatures. I could almost hear her jaw drop.
We got through a couple more nights with separate sleeping arrangements, and then one morning I decided it was time to introduce them gatto a gatto. Boris seemed mildly curious, assuming a sphinxlike posture on top of the kitchen counter. Sherman immediately adopted the bare-fanged, arched-back, ears-laid-flat attitude of the classic Halloween cat. Within seconds, there was a yowling as though from the very bowels of hell, and for the first time I realized that the fur really could fly, quite literally, fly. I grabbed a broom and tried to smack the cats apart. Boris latched onto my leg before I got the door open to shoo him out. When I pulled up my jeans to inspect the damage, I saw there were deep scratches and bite marks on my calves, and I knew that could mean trouble.
I washed the wounds with dish soap, wrapped my leg in gauze, and drove to the ER, where the doctors pumped me full of Zithromax and debated keeping me overnight. I hated leaving Sherman alone that long and promised to return if the leg seemed worse.
I did not see Boris again for weeks and assumed he had found acceptable nighttime lodgings next door.
But then my neighbor Tina, who had arrived from California for the summer, called and asked me if I knew anything about a beautiful gray cat. He had moved into her house and showed no signs of leaving. I told her about my adventures with Boris/Duke, and she decided she would begin calling him Duke Boris. She was in love too, and I was frankly a little steamed. I adored that cat—perhaps because he was so elusive. I’m afraid he outshone Sherman in the looks department. And the way he blinked at me, those stunning eyes….
Such was Tina’s devotion to Boris that she took him to the vet for a checkup and shots—something I never bothered with, I realized shamefully. But toward the end of the season, she called to report that Boris had abandoned her too. She had not seen him in days. I suggested that if she was truly concerned, she could try going door to door, as I had, starting with the firefighter’s house. She reported back a few days later that Boris had moved in with an older couple who owned one of the spiffiest houses in the neighborhood, a beachfront residence significantly expanded so that it no longer resembled the modest contours of the Leisurama homes. Boris was sighted on the front porch, happily enthroned on a wicker chair. When Tina introduced herself to his new “owners,” they revealed how enchanted they were with the cat, whom they’d started calling Fritz, and who would soon be flying to Scottsdale, AZ, with them for the winter. Boris had worked out a very sweet situation for himself with stupidly besotted caretakers who could offer him summers in Montauk, winters in the sunny Southwest.
For the rest of his days, I would never cheat on Sherman again, but in the years ahead it wasn’t lost on me that I would show the same questionable taste in men as I did in cats.