Some musings on the meaning of life this Monday, brought to you by this cat…
Let’s flash back to the early aughts.
I am eighteen, alone in the world for the first time, at a campus three states away from the only place I’ve ever lived. I was looking forward to college — highly anticipating it, in fact, given the hell that was high school — and yet, all I want is to call my parents, get in the car and drive back home to my childhood bedroom, hug my stuffed animals close, and have my mom make me dinner.
(I don’t do any of those things. But it’s what I want.)
Day three of freshman year: People are walking around awkwardly smiling at each other, feeling each other out, seeing who’s going to be their friends. Seeing if anyone’s going to be their friends. This is a time before social media, even before cell phones are ubiquitous. There’s the occasional student curled up on a bunk bed on their dorm room’s landline, talking to their boyfriend-at-another-school; all our AIM away messages have deep quotes about what we are going through, who we miss.
Here I am, sitting at my (square, desktop) computer, contemplating which Ataris or Jimmy Eat World lyric to put up next to accurately convey my new adult angst. I am feeling many things, some of which are:
- Frightened of my new surroundings and my new classmates
- Insecure about everything, including but not limited to: my appearance, clothes, ability to conduct small talk, ability to choose the right major, ability to flirt
- Doubtful that I will make any major changes in my life
- Excited by and apprehensive of the boys, both the ones who have been looking at me and the ones who have not
- Terrified of making no friends
- Terrified of messing up my future
- Terrified of being a complete and total loser/failure
As I am sitting there too petrified to move, the friendly face of a girl down the hall peeks around my doorjamb.
“We’re going to the poster fair. Do you want to come?”
I still haven’t come up with the right ’90s lyric to convey my complex emotions, but I go with them, because what I want right now more than perfect AIM away messages is friends.
We wander through the crowds of students looking at all the posters (primarily Monets, Klimts, and Britney Spearses.) Nothing is calling to me. All I want to put on my wall are the printed-out stack of photos I’ve brought with me of the people I’ve left behind.
And then, while sorting through a bin of smaller images, I find him.
Round and orange, he sits in a tiny rowboat in the middle of a dark, churning ocean, no land in sight. He has no oar, no friends, nothing on the horizon.
And yet he is … happy.
I pull the poster out of the bin and study him. The smile on his face. The carefree way he dips his paw in the water. His aloft tail.
This cat is not in his comfort zone. Cats like to be at home, curled up in a ray of sunlight, an owner nearby to cater to their every need. This cat has none of those things.
But — he does have his boat.
And what’s more — he has himself.
I pay $10 for the cat poster, walk back to my room, and put it up above my bed. I also make a new friend that day — one I will still have, more than a decade after graduation — because this cat has given me the courage to ask her if she wants to eat dinner with me later.
This cat has been with me ever since. From one dorm to the next, to my first apartment senior year, to my grad school apartment. Home to New Jersey for the summer, then across the Atlantic to France with me, one of the few decorative things I managed to fit in my suitcase. To New York City, all five apartments. And finally where he lives now, on the wall in my “grown-up” apartment in Jersey City.
He’s in a frame now, hung on the wall by a hook, instead of that blue sticky tack (some of which is still stuck to the back of him).
I am no longer eighteen. I have a slightly better hold on my confidence. But I still suffer from crippling bouts of self-doubt over not having everything figured out. And when I do, I just have to remind myself to look at my cat.
Just keep paddling, he tells me. You have your boat. You have yourself.
That’s all you need to enjoy the ride.
Image taken by me. Cat drawing by an unknown artist (if anyone knows, please tell me!)