There were about six gray cats walking around from place to place, each cat worse-looking and more sinister than the other. For one thing they were large cats, they were long cats, they moved slowly, staring momentarily at something and continuing on to eat cat food from their bowls or kill something outside. And I thought cats were supposed to be so cut and funny.
I described them to a cat-owning exercise teacher. First she laughed. Then she said, “They must be old, they sound like old cats. They’re old cats.” Her style was to say things over and over, as if that would make them more true.
“Like what do they do?” she asked.
“They walk from one place to another and sit back down,” I said.
“That’s what the old ones are like,” she said. She knew about all kinds of animals. Her youngest son owned a lizard and the lizard was always outgrowing his cage. A science homework project at school required something that involved a rat going through a maze. They had a hamster at home, but they’d been told by rodent experts that hamsters wouldn’t go through a maze. The exercise teacher and her son had to go out and buy a rat. They asked the pet-store owner whether they could return the rat after the science project. They didn’t want a refund, just to be rid of the rat because they had too many animals already. But then they all grew to love the rat.
“The rat was nice and friendly,” the exercise teacher said. “He was smart, too.”
It was a white rat, and when they approached his cage, he’d come to greet them. When I laughed, she said, “Really rats are nice, they are, they’re nicer than people.”
When they brought the rat back to the pet store the proprietor tried to persuade them to keep it. They still didn’t want a refund, they wanted only to be relieved of the burden of the care of the rat. The owner tried to scare them by saying snake owners came in to buy rats to give to the reptiles for dinner.
“She did scare us,” the exercise teacher said. “We all loved the rat. My son was starting to cry. A teenage girl, a customer, heard the whole thing and said she would take care of the rat. But when they told her the price of the cage, she couldn’t afford it. I said we’d pay half and the store owner offered to pay the other half. The girl was so happy to get the rat. Really, the rat looked so adorable. It was love at first sight.”
“It must be the same way women love rats in the human species,” I said.
“No,” the teacher said. “Rats are nicer, they’re not like men.”
-from The Unprofessionals by Juile Hecht (2003)