On Cats Running Across Highways, Imagining Stories, and Empathy

I saw a cat run across the highway today. White with multi-colored spots, it seemed to float above the asphalt, its legs moved so fast. I gasped, bracing myself against the dashboard, scared that it wouldn’t make it, that the Honda Civic almost neck and neck with our car would speed up. But it fled onto the shoulder, unharmed and disappeared into the trees at the edge of the road. What on earth was a cat doing in the median of a highway? I thought, But what courage it must have taken to make such a dash across three lanes of traffic.

We drove on, past little green mile markers counting down to the state line. Thirty minutes. Just thirty minutes until I can see my own three cats. They’ll be rolling on the kitchen floor in hunger for dry kibble and human affection. I’ll be able to pick them up in my arms, hugging them almost uncomfortably tight and then reprimand them for peeing on that section of the tiled kitchen floor. Twenty-nine minutes. Remember that time Pushkin slept on top of my legs, and I held my breath so that he’d stay? It worked until my leg twitched. Twenty-eight minutes. What about the time Pippa and my dad tried to take Max to the liquor store? Twenty seven minutes. Cats. Nineteen. Cats. Seven. Cats. Thirty seconds. Cats, cats, cats. The word almost lost its meaning, I repeated it so much.

It wasn’t until I was in the shower two hours later that I thought of the scene on the highway again.

I like stories, knowing how things came to be and how people or animals felt along the way. And when the story isn’t entirely evident, say the history of that vintage dress I bought–the one from the fifties with a poofy skirt, big black polka dots on white, and that low back–I just imagine it.

I see a young woman wearing it to a wedding where she dances and meets a nice boy. She wears it again when the two of them go to parties, and she wonders if he’ll notice that she’s worn it twice, three times, four. If he does, he doesn’t say anything. They get married, and she wears it at the first dinner party she hosts, trying desperately to pull off an image of domestic perfection. It works, and she smoothes an invisible crease, thanking the dress for the luck its brought her. Finally, it doesn’t fit anymore, and it gets jammed into the back corner of a closet, never to be seen again until her son gives it away last year. The woman who buys for the store spots it, and it ends up in a rack in a shop where I try it on, knowing that it’s a little to big, but too perfect to leave behind. It gets placed in my closet, lying dormant once again. A month later, I put it on to show my friends possible dresses for prom, but it still doesn’t fit, and there probably isn’t enough time for tailoring. But  Tal needs a dress, and it fits her beautiful. Her measurements match the woman’s who owned it first. She wears it, and her night is wonderful, just as much fun as the woman before. A week later she gives it back to me. And so on.

I can go on like this for a while particularly if I’m feeling somewhat poetic. So I got going on the story of that cat. It got longer and longer, concluding with it dying in a pile of leaves when it got leukemia at the age of eighteen. The water had long gotten cold, and I was sitting on the bath mat feeling a little bit silly about how sad I was over the future death of a cat I had only seen once.

Stories make me fall in love with people and things. I become full of compassion for something I don’t actually know. But because of the story I do know it in a way. My world of make-believe becomes real. The cat isn’t just a guess-what-I-saw story, it has a deeper meaning. It is alive and just as complex as the person I’m recounting the incident to.

I wish everyone saw people and things the way that I see that dress and the cat. Nothing has one characteristic. The citizens of the United States aren’t just a mass of fat people wearing their own flag on their shirts, they’re 307,006,550 individual people with histories and relationships, and that person or group you hate may have opposing political views or even engage in acts of terrorism, but they’re still a person who loves their family with as much passion as you. Imagining stories, even if you’re just reading someone else’s, inspires empathy. And the Lord knows the world needs more of that.

It’s late, and I know I’m rambling. I feel like this is going to be one of those posts that I’ll wake up tomorrow, read, and wonder, “What did I even mean?”

*My command of grammar is so embarrassingly poor. I just punctuate creatively based on the rhythm of the words in my head.

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