Like A Bengal

"Chillin' Like A Villain" Los Angeles, California 2020

Since we first met, Jesse and I have bonded over what seems like an endless plethora of notions, including the fact we’re both cat people. I kinda think this is because we’re both introverts who require our alone time, and cats facilitate that need much more effortlessly than dogs who crave attention and cherish the pack. And while we both grew up with simple tabbies of no particular breeding, when we finally got a cat of our own we decided early on we really wanted an exotic like a Bengal or a Savanah. There was some romantic notion we had about the uniqueness of owning an exotic cat that looked almost like a tiger or a cheetah, but also had a low probability of killing us if it had an off day. And I had promised Jesse we would get this small beast when we moved into a bigger house where a feline could really have room to roam. So, after finishing the remodel on our house early last year — and with a new TV project recently sold — the time had come. It was all going to be a surprise. I planned to drive down to Orange County one afternoon, the Friday before Christmas, and pick up a 12 week old Bengal kitten from a breeder who seemed to have very positive reviews online. As I took the ridiculously traffic clogged trip, I imagined how cute it would be, a tiny little Bengal kitty with a red bow tied around her neck presented to Jesse next to our exquisitely decorated Christmas tree in our newly remodeled, perfectly appointed formal living room. Jesse would be so happy. I would be so proud. And the little kitten would literally be the cutest, sweetest little baby in the world. Well, of course, life never turns out like we think it will.

When I arrived to pick up the fur ball at the breeder’s house, she was beyond skittish. She barely let me even touch her, racing from underneath one couch to underneath another, popping out only to claw at a couple feathers dangling off a fishing pole toy I jangled around. Immediately I sensed, this was not the kind of animal I had dealt with in the past. The farm cats we raised when my sisters and I were young were ridiculously cuddly and wanted to be held and pet like they wanted food and air. But this little baby was not a cherub that relished human affection by any stretch of the imagination. This little kitten seemed positively insane! Of course, what was I supposed to do now that I was sitting in the breeder’s home with a crimminal-sized wad of cash in my pocket and no time left for me to find another Bengal anywhere else in Southern California in time for Christmas. So, I bought the seemingly feral demon and loaded her up in my car to drive back to LA. Well, the drive back could not have been more stressful for me and the new kitten. She didn’t just cry. She seemed to scream to be let out of her cat carrier, to escape the car, to go back to her momma and her old house. Two hours later, this banshee like screeching was enough to make me question every single decision in my entire life. And I sincerely began wondering if perhaps there was something seriously wrong the animal for which I had just forked over a small fortune. Luckily, when I got the little baby to the house, Jesse was gone. So, I planned to put her in the master bedroom while I set out some kitty litter, food, and water in the master bathroom. Then, I would find a little red bow to put on her and try my best to comfort her until Jesse got home and we could have the holiday presentation I’d dreamed up.

Unfortunately, the moment I let her out of her cat carrier, the kitten ran under our bed. Mind you, this is not some little queen-size bed either, this is a huge, low-setting California King, which meant that kitten was so out of reach, she might as well have been back in the OC. And of course, because it was the Friday before Christmas Jesse got off work early, and he showed up to the smell of freshly poured kitty litter still in the air, the kitten and me engaged in an endless scramble of wills, and the general stench of stress radiating off the master bedroom walls. And though usually he lingered in the kitchen looking through the mail and grabbing a snack, tonight Jesse headed straight up the stairs where I knew he would wonder why the hell the master bedroom door was closed. So, before he could even ask, I stopped him short on the stairway, and I told him, “Sweetie, I got you a Christmas present. And well, she’s under the bed.”

Now, the funny thing is, I love to tease. So, Jesse never knows when I’m being completely serious and when I’m pulling his leg. Thusly, he he was skeptical about looking under the bed for his supposed “Christmas present.” Still, like the sweetly compliant target he always is, he looked under the bed anyway, and was astounded to realize, I wasn’t joking. There she was, his Christmas present — a little Bengal kitten. And a half hour later, when we finally managed to drag her from her hiding place, her claws dug deeply into Jesse’s flesh and her eyes lit up large and black as an otherworldly beast, I apologized. This was not the way I intended for things to go.

Within a couple days, Jesse decided to name our new, little baby Sasha, which ironically, I discovered means protector of men. And what I have learned over the last six weeks raising that little Bengal is that there are two ways life can go. It can be tough. And it can be less tough. What I mean is, I quickly realized Sasha is the most intelligent animal I’ve ever owned. She can play fetch. She talks to us with different meows in order to tell us what she wants. She watches the world outside our windows with keen interest, and she remembers everything. She's also determined to get her way. For instance, when it’s playtime, there’s no petting her. There’s no picking her up. There’s no trying to cuddle. It’s time to play. And when it’s nap time, there’s no rousing her. There’s no playing with her. There’s no getting her to come when you call. It’s simply time for her to curl up in a ball and sleep. Fuck you very much. And maybe all of this doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary, but given my background with cuddly fur balls who clamored to be on top of me and my sisters anytime we were around, Sasha is very different. She truly is an exotic. But I realized the other day as I was driving home from a meeting, just how much more Sasha means to me because she’s got such a particular identity. In fact, I realized just like with Jesse, I love her so much more not because of what I want her to be but because of what she actually is. I appreciate her singularity. It makes her distinct. It makes her unique. It makes her one in a billion. And yes, I love the fact she's not apologetic about who she is. Why should she be?

And that got me thinking about humans and our culture where identity is simultaneously celebrated and rejected with such frequency it’s hard to remember what’s acceptable and what’s not these days. And while I believe the majority of Americans embrace the notion of live and let live, there are those on the fringes both left and right who demand that identity be limited to the constructs of their particular belief systems. Basically: You be you as long as you’re like me. And with the advent of social media, these otherwise ridiculous voices get a megaphone amplified by anyone who wants to help push whatever agenda defines their cause. This is an impossible way to live both for those who are demanding it and those living under such oppression. Human beings simply aren’t one size fits all. We are vastly, beautifully, inconceivably complex organisms made up of infinite pieces both seen and unseen. And this individuality is what makes our world worth living in. It’s what gives life meaning, and to try and stuff all the mystery of life into some preconceived mold is literally going against every notion of LIVING! Why look up to the stars? Why close our eyes and dream if there's no color, no depth, no chance that something different might happen, that there might be some other possibility?

More and more these days, I wish when I was growing up, I’d been appreciated for the queer boy, the gay teenager, and the homosexual young man that I was. I wish I could look back and see how the people who were supposedly caring for me loved me for my unique identity instead of wanting to cast it out of me like a devil or beat it out of me with a belt. I was so angry when I was a young man, and I hated myself for that anger, but I didn’t know how to change it. Now, of course, I understand I was hurting. My identity was continuously being crushed in an attempt to snuff out the parts of me that the people around me didn’t like and which I had been taught to hate. I shudder to think how I once hated myself like I did, especially as a young kid who didn’t know any better. Unfortunately back then, I didn’t have a choice but to live in that pit of pain, but thank God as an adult, I do get a choice. I get to be with those who accept me, love me, and on a day like today — my birthday — celebrate me for the unique identity I have. Basically, nowadays I get to be like my little Bengal kitten, Sasha, who is infuriating, unpredictable, shy, brazen, wild, curious, cuddly, funny, sweet, and yes... perfect just as she is.

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