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Home Is Where The Cat Is

Lily Sprinkles was supposed to save my relationship, but she gave me something even better.

Illustrations by Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

I refuse to change my phone number. The area code, 313, makes me feel like I still have a home, even though my address has changed every two years or so of my “adult life.” As I cycle through IDs, ZIP codes, and friends, my phone number is the tiniest of anchors. It helps. That, and my cat. But I didn’t get her for companionship, originally; I got her as a bribe.

When you graduate with a journalism degree (at the height of a recession), you go where the work is. My toughest professor was fond of warning us: “Your first market will probably be somewhere like Tougaloo, Mississippi.”

Art and I had been dating for two years when Rochester, New York, became my Tougaloo. We didn’t want to entertain the thought of being separated. But let me keep it funky: We lived with our parents and finding alone time made us feel like two bad kids. Having a place of our own would make us Grown-Ups™.

And it did! We learned that being grown includes walking in circles around Wegmans, arguing over what to cook for dinner. It includes biting your tongue when the least your partner could do was wash the dishes before you came from work because you’re tired but he doesn’t like to be told what to do, remember? Being grown means sometimes he makes less money than you and he’d like to take you out but he has to work an extra shift because he wants to prove he can carry his own weight. Also, being grown is watching your colleagues at the paper get laid off and having to fold their duties into yours.

A year in, I told Art I couldn't do it anymore — him, the job, any of it. "I came here for you! How can you leave?" he asked. He’d never seen me cry, but it happened then. I told him I’d wait until his school year ended or until I found a better job, whichever came first.

Like a couple who has a baby as a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, I thought a cat would bring us closer.

And then on July 8, 2011, I saw a tweet that Lollypop Farm, the local animal shelter, was doing free kitten adoptions at a pet store down the street. Like a couple who has a baby as a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, I thought my offer to adopt a cat would bring us closer. The way I imagined it, we wouldn't see one "we" both liked, because cats terrified me. But Art liked cats, so my grand gesture would be enough! I was proud of myself.

There was one cage in the entire store. That's it? That's the whole selection?! I was halfway out the door. Until I looked back at Art, who was bending down next to the cage. A tangled mess of five orange and white kittens scrapped inside, oblivious to their audience of potential saviors. But one kitten was unbothered. She walked right over to Art and stuck her paw through the grates. He gave her a little handshake. "Aww, bae, we gotta take her!" he said. We had been chosen. Damn.

This tiny furball, with huge, dirty ears full of mites, yelped in the box all the way home. The volunteers said to confine her to a small area to help her get acclimated, but she made so much noise that it sounded like we'd kidnapped an infant. We let her out of the bathroom, for everyone's sakes.

For the first few days we didn't call her anything. The kitten was so little I was afraid to handle her, so I thought of the name Lily, which I always associated with delicate things. As she got more comfortable in our apartment, however, I learned she wasn't delicate at all; this damn kitten was nuts. She went through the garbage while we slept, she jumped on the table and stuck her paws in our plates as we ate, she scratched a hole underneath our bed and walked around in the box spring. If we closed our bedroom door, she clawed and cried until we opened it. She was "special," the vet said, her term for cats with five toes instead of four. To us, it looked like she had on boxing gloves, and more than once she took a swing and bopped Art on the nose.

I sent pics to my younger sisters for help, who came up with the moniker "Buttercream Sprinkles." Womp. I'd already started calling her Lily, but the Sprinkles part fit, too. I decided to name her both.

As bad as Lily Sprinkles was, she did brighten our home. When Art came speeding down the apartment complex driveway, music blasting, she'd leap out of the window and meet him at the door. When I took a shower, she sat on the toilet lid and waited until I was done. Art and I talked more than we had in months...even though it was mostly about her. Maybe it was only about her? May came, our lease ended, and meanwhile I had spoken with a hiring manager who said he had a job for me — if I could just make it to L.A. Art encouraged me to take it.

Items Lily used to perch on started disappearing as I sold them to strangers — the dining table and its chairs, the couch, the TV stand — and she knew something was amiss. We consolidated our lives to fit in my Kia Spectra, and though it was bittersweet, a new chapter was what I wanted. Space. A fresh start. Art and I drove to Detroit and each of us moved back in with our parents. Lily came with me.

Part of me was scared she was trying to find her way back to the home she used to know.

For me, going home was a pit stop. I just needed to save a bit and collect my bearings before heading to L.A. Besides, the house was full: My two sisters, parents, and aunt lived there and I had to share a room with a 12-year-old. I thought Lily would enjoy the space upgrade, going from a one-bedroom apartment to a two-story house with a basement and a yard. But she spent her days hiding in the closet or darting outside as soon as anyone opened the front door. She'd refuse to come back, each time wandering farther and staying out later. Part of me was scared she was trying to find her way back to the home she used to know.

Come October, I again packed my life into my Kia, but only as much as a vagabond could carry. I'd accepted the job, as well as the kindness of a stranger, and only knew where I'd be sleeping for the next two weeks at most. I hadn’t bartered enough space for a cat, too, so Lily stayed behind. My sister slid in the passenger seat and off she and I went, road-tripping to California with a one-CD soundtrack (Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream) to take us across the desert.

Art and I kept in touch, at first. He was proud of me and excited for my career move. He laughed with me when I shared episodes from my egomaniacal Craigslist roommate. At first, I didn't notice the calls starting to taper off. I didn't really get what was happening when I'd text Monday afternoon and get a reply Tuesday morning.

It took longer than it should have for me to realize I was single. Single, like I'd asked to be. Single, and alone, like I hadn't been in years.

The discovery was not gradual — the roof caved in and buried me alive. I was sullen and withdrawn at work, when I should have been going out of my way to meet new people. My roommate who — surprise! — was pregnant, would try to chat, but I just wanted to lie on my air mattress in my room and cry. Hiding from the world didn't work either, because — surprise! — her boyfriend stayed over every weekend. Theirs was a relationship that very audibly oscillated between passion and tumult.

I needed something of my own, again. I needed a reason to keep going when the things that were supposed to make me happy had only made me worse.

I needed Lily.

I called home and asked how she was. It was winter and Lily could no longer escape outdoors. "She always wants to get into the basement, and we couldn't figure out why," my aunt said. "Every day she goes down there, comes up when she's hungry, and goes on back. I went down one day and saw her sleeping on a sweater you left behind." That made me cry even more.

Finding an apartment in L.A., I learned, is a gauntlet where you run to an outdated building and hope your credit-income combo knocks out the 18 other applicants already there. But one day God passed me a layup: A friend called and said, "Dude, you need to get on this! It's a place down the street from your job with two units left." I zoomed over with the dossier one keeps on hand when apartment searching. I even took a selfie in the bathroom mirror in my Easter dress. "This place is mine!" I told the mirror.

Two days later I got denied.

These fuckers didn't know who they were dealing with; I was a mom who'd abandoned her child and needed to get her back. "Let me talk to the owner," I told the manager. After a convo in which the man read my credit history like the world's worst novel and suggested I "just find a nice rich man with money" to buy me a house, he eventually relented. I booked a flight to go rescue my cat.

I was a mom who'd abandoned her child and needed to get her back.

Having her back almost made me forget how hard it was to find a squad (and a date) in L.A. Almost. Eventually, though, Lily’s presence began to make me remember Art's absence. I landed a new job that paid better than the previous three, but what good is money when you're profoundly lonely? Some days, the only reason I got up was to feed her and let her outside to play, then I’d get back in bed and cry until I heard her meow to come back in. Those meows reminded me that someone was counting on me; I started seeing a therapist to help me get back to myself. I told her I didn't want to spend another Christmas without my family. Lily and I stuck it out for two years, but I knew what I had to do: move back east.

This time, we settled in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Our spacious, three-bedroom apartment came equipped with an older roommate who took the tone of a patronizing elementary school teacher. She also had a sneaky cat who ate Lily's food; Lily started chasing the thief whenever she saw her coming, and then somehow I'd often come home from work to find Lily locked in my room. Lily chose to spend most of the day in my bed under the covers, no matter the temperature. She was not home. Neither was I.

Things easier than finding your own apartment in New York include purchasing a new car, buying an actual house in another state, and climbing a mountain barefoot, probably. But I did it. Last fall, I found a "true one bedroom" that I don't have to share with anyone else: not Art, not a nagging roommate, or another thieving cat.

This go-round, I didn’t even bother to purchase furniture. All I have are my bed and an upholstered bench that Lily has effectively destroyed. I should have tossed it, but it's ours. I sit on it to do work and Lily scratches it, then climbs in my lap to interrupt my flow. I rub and scratch her until she bites me; enough. Then she curls up next to me and falls asleep. The day we moved in, the movers set our bench down in front of a sunny window, and I looked forward to spending many days together in that spot.

When they left, I let Lily out of her carrier. She took a look around. She leaped on the stove, and then jumped on top of the fridge for a nap. This was her sign of approval — she was comfortable; she was home.

I envy her assurance. She knows that when she's ready, there will be nourishment, attention, treats. I, on the other hand, expect unpredictability in my career, my emotions, and my relationships. What I do know is whatever corner of the world I inhabit is just a room; home is where my cat is.

This essay is part of a series of stories about the meaning of home.

Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed