He sauntered, uninvited, through an open screen door, into my cheap student apartment. He walked right over to where I was sprawled on a too-small sofa, watching TV, and hopped on top of me.
“Aaaah!” I shrieked. “What are you? Get off of me!”
The intruder looked sort of, but not really, like a cat.
He was black and white with a long bony body and a huge head. His face was mostly black, with just a little white on the chin and forehead. He had enormous yellow eyes, a crooked nose that rattled when he breathed, and long white hairs that sprung from his eyebrows.
As I tried to get him off of me, he just seemed to hug (yes, hug) me tighter.
He looked hungry so I carried him to the kitchen and got him some food and water.
He watched me constantly and seemed pathetically grateful for the kindness. I petted him and he purred like a chainsaw.
“What IS that?” asked my roommate, all red-eyed and confused when he got home.
“I think it’s a cat,” I told him. “A really huge, weird-looking cat.”
After an hour or two, the cat-creature left through the same open screen door and disappeared for the night.
We saw each other again the next day when I went upstairs to have coffee with my neighbour. There he was. Curled up in the hall like a great big furry lump. He leapt to his feet and rushed to greet me, acting like a dog, and jumped into my arms, trusting I would catch him. I did.
I didn’t want a cat. I already had one (another stray) who was about as snuggly as a goldfish and was barely around except for food and vet visits which were killing me financially.
In that moment I understood how strange it must be for pets to be chosen and instantly loved by their people because I had just been chosen. I was his.
My neighbour, who was a photographer, had already decided he should be called Ilford, after the black and white film.
I held Ilford the whole visit and when I left, he followed me back to my apartment downstairs where I got him more food.
I took a walk in the neighbourhood, Ilford following alongside and behind, leaping through gardens, showing off his cat moves as he attacked plants and shrubs. I looked for ‘Lost Cat’ signs about Ilford. There were none. Given how thin and needy he seemed, I wasn’t surprised. We walked home and when we got there, I held the door open for him.
I had a new cat.
“What an unusually, uh, striking creature,” said the vet on our first visit as I beamed with pride much as I would almost twenty years later about my children. Ilford measured 3 feet from nose to tail. Really large. The vet estimated that he was about four years old.
Regular food and proper care put flesh on his extended frame and it wasn’t long before Ilford started to look more like a cat, and eventually, a chubby cat. People would sometimes still ask what he was but not often.
My life was already full of love (family and friends) and I’d had my share of infatuations, but Ilford was my first experience with being on the giving end of totally unconditional love. He changed me.
He wasn’t typically lovable. Not traditionally good-looking – you would never see him on a pack of toilet paper – and he was no great shakes at personal hygiene (I was probably making excuses but I blamed the jerk who had abandoned him). He rarely even bothered to cover his soiled kitty litter, just scratching his feet in a half-hearted way that reminded me of people who fake-wash their hands, and he snored like a grizzly bear but I adored him.
I would walk in the door and he would jump into my arms, or, if he was outside playing, would recognize my step and come running, his furry strange face filled with joy.
He would bring me revolting gifts of headless pigeons or live tiny mice that he would spit out at my feet. I was always flattered as well as horrified. I got him a bell for his neck to stop the gift-giving but couldn’t help feeling proud when he would catch something anyway.
I would be sick with worry if he took too long to come home at night, or worse, didn’t come home until morning.
We were together, and madly in love for more than ten years until he passed away. That was nine years ago and I now have three small human creatures of my own (that can also be incredibly gross and charming) who I love overwhelmingly and unconditionally.
But I still miss Ilford.