CATCHING FIREFLIES

A DRUNKEN TALE OF A NEW TABBY DADDY
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS NELSON
The doorbell rang repeatedly, echoing through my beer-soaked dreams. It was the morning after the Fourth of July, and I had celebrated America’s birthday in the woods of a small town in Michigan, listening to a local band twang out bad country songs as I chugged cheap brew flowing from a sweaty keg into half-gallon milk jugs.
Despite an oppressive hangover, I managed to roll out of bed, stumble down the hallway to my front door, squint through the peephole, and see my neighbor, Mandi, smiling and holding a small plastic animal crate. I opened the door and stared into the big amber eyes of a tiny orange tabby and, in that moment, remembered that I had drunkenly agreed to take in the kitten, who was spotted as she tried swatting fireflies out of the night sky.
It’s been 10 years since I got my sweet girl, Luci — short for “Luciole,” which is French for “firefly” — and she’s been the sweetest, most loving friend I could hope for. I didn’t know what to expect of my first cat, but I most certainly didn’t think she’d have as much moxie or swagger as she does. She saunters up to strangers, sniffs their faces with whiskers wiggling, and then tenderly licks their eyelids. I still melt when I hear her chirpy, soft-spoken meow that she never really grew into, and one of my favorite things to do is rub her big, pink belly that hangs low like cow udders. Luci not only changed my life but also the lives of a few of my most important humans. Two of my best friends are now proud cat dads to the credit of Luci, who charmed them with her easygoing attitude, and my mother, who is horribly allergic to cats and fomented a childhood aversion toward felines, never hesitates to say, “Luci is the first cat I’ve ever loved.”
The cat and I have grown close over the past decade, but admittedly we had a rough start. In the first 15 minutes of our cohabitation, she silently slinked between my feet, and I accidentally punted her halfway across the room; I immediately went out and bought her a collar with a bell on it. Then she introduced me to her claws by climbing up my body, from ankle to ear, leaving behind a trail of thin, bloody scratches. When it was time for bed, I tried to keep her outside of my room, worrying that in my sleep I might roll over and squish the tiny tabby, but a few seconds after I closed my door, she sprinted down the hallway and slid into the door at full speed. I tried to ignore it, but then she started pawing under the door jam and knocking her skull against the wood, so I gave in and let her into bed, where she slept on my throat, curled up into a tight little ball.
The next morning, I heard a strange squeaking sound and discovered Luci on the kitchen counter, attempting to eat packing styrofoam. It didn’t take long for me to realize that little Luci had a ferocious appetite, and a very selective and somewhat beguiling palate. If I had to describe her taste in food, it would be like that of a drunken college girl on a late Saturday night: Luci goes crazy for ranch dressing, marinara sauce, and anything from Taco Bell. And I mean it when I say that she goes crazy; get between Luci and a chalupa, and she will shoot you murderous side-eye, let out a guttural hiss, and slowly unfurl her claws until you back off.
Luci’s wild side peeked out now and then, but I didn’t fully comprehend how feral she was until we moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Long Beach, California, where hundreds of stray cats roam the streets and alleys. A well-known neighborhood cat, Zephyr, had the hots for Luci, and every day he came by the house to coo at her as she sunbathed on the windowsill, which caused Luci to go into a red-mist rage and angrily chuff at him until he took off. One day when I was at work, a neighbor called and — through his tired, panting breaths — told me that Luci had smashed through a window, gotten into a fight with Zephyr, and clawed off half of the tomcat’s face. Luci had a big bite gash on her back, which required a fabric drain to avoid abscess and a huge cone to keep her from licking the wound, but after that day we never saw Zephyr again.
Coming off that incident, Luci mellowed out a lot and has since spent most of her days sleeping in a suction-cup hammock that hangs in the front window. Passersby stop to gawk and take pictures of the adorable orange cat who contorts in her kitty dreams, but their adoring looks turn to disgust when Luci wakes up, pushes her hind paws against the window, and splays spread-eagle to lick clean her butthole. This effortless devil-may-care attitude is as hilarious as it is inspiring, and over the last 10 years I’ve come to understand and admire Luci in ways that, as a lifelong “dog person,” I never would have known had I not drunkenly decided to become a “cat person.”

The sweet-faced, firefly-catching cat helps me appreciate the simplest joys in life, whether it’s an afternoon spent sleeping in the sun or a late-night order from Taco Bell. Her charmingly indifferent attitude toward most things in life is in stark contrast to her darling compassion for me, and not a day goes by that I don’t deeply and truly appreciate her love and admiration. Ten years ago, if you had asked if I wanted to be a cat dad and I was sober, I would have laughed in your face, but thankfully that’s not how it played out for me and Luci, because she changed my life for the better and always.

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