When you arrive in the country, you have two checked suitcases, one duffel, and one large tote bag as carry-ons. That’s it. Those few bags represent all your earthly belongings. Everything else you sold or gave away before you left home. All you have left are some professional outfits for your new job, a handful of your favorite t-shirts, a few books in English that you couldn’t live without, and your laptop and phone to help keep you connected to the people you’ve left behind. Those, and a stuffed penguin your sister gave you as a gift before you headed off. Penguins, she said, were her favorite. She hoped it would be something to remember her by.
Once you arrive at the airport, you board another flight, then a train, then a taxi, and finally you’re there. Your employer made arrangements for your living space in your stead, and your landlord meets you at the door, with a tall stack of paper in hand. The place is already furnished with everything you might need - bed and linens, kitchen utensils, living room furniture. All you have to do is sign.
You and the landlord both go inside, so you can set down your things and walk through the place together. It’s small, but you expected that. The kitchen has a countertop rice cooker. You’ve never had one before, but you’re excited to try it out. The living room has a sofa, a coffee table, and a desk. There’s no formal dining room. The back door leads to a small garden - a yard no larger than the kitchen, fenced in on all sides. A small deck outside the door lacks the steps to get down into the grass, but that’s okay. You can’t imagine how you’d use that space. It’s too small to grow anything, too small to entertain guests - not that you’d have any guests anyway. You don’t know anyone here.
The landlord, a small, smiling man, sets the lease on the counter for you to look through once you’re satisfied at the condition of the place. It’s not a formal document - most of those were handled by your employer, prior to your arrival. It’s more a set of rules to document that you will be a good tenant in the apartment and not destroy anything over the duration of your stay. It looks like it’s been through an online translation app six or seven times, but after scanning the document, you get a basic gist, and it won’t be difficult to adhere to it. No loud music after twelve. No house guests that stay more than a week at a time.
And then NO PETS says the lease in large, block letters. It’s formatted differently than the rest of the page. The landlord clearly means business on this point. It’s emphatic, impossible to miss.
You sigh without meaning to. The journey over has you exhausted. You don’t know anyone in the area, and you don’t speak the language well enough to make friends easily. Something small - a fish, a lizard, a hamster - would have been nice. Animals don’t speak English anyway. You’re disappointed, but the price was right (for your employer, at least) and the neighborhood is nice enough.
You’d had a rabbit as a kid. You got it for your birthday and it was gone by Christmas. Your mother gave it to your cousins. They were older, she said, and more responsible.
NO PETS. Big block letters.
Your landlord is a patient man, and he gives you space while you look over the document. You sign it, and smile, and hand it back to him. He smiles and nods and response and wishes you a good stay. When he leaves, you feel completely, truly alone for the first time in your life.
Over the next few hours, the loneliness balls up in your gut like a fist, and you start to cry while you unpack your things.
You’d been so looking forward to doing this - living on your own for the first time, trying to adapt to somewhere totally different. And in most ways, you’re succeeding. New life, new country, teaching English at a small school. The administration supports you. Your coworkers are helpful. Your students love you, and you love them back. Once or twice a week you do extra-curricular language lessons, meeting adults and older students at one of the cafes in town, and go over conversational English bit by bit by bit. Hello. How are you. My name is. I will have coffee, please. Two sugars. No milk. Thank you.
But every day, when you get back to your place, your apartment feels so, so empty, save the few belongings you brought with you from home. Your favorite t-shirts are balled up in the back of a dresser drawer. Your books, which you’ve read two or three times now, are stacked on the coffee table. Your laptop is left half-ajar on your desk, and your phone is in your pocket. No one’s called you in days. It’s too expensive, so you understand, but it feels like every link to the people you know is deteriorating. The things you brought were meant to keep you comfortable. Now they make you homesick.
The penguin, the stuffed one that was a gift from your sister, has been so well-cuddled over the course of the past few weeks that that it no longer stands on its own and topples onto its stomach every time. You have loved it like a pet, and your sister was right - it does remind you of her - but the penguin isn’t real, it’s not alive, and it’s not the same thing as having a pet or your sister nearby, and finally, one night in a fit of anger and self-hatred for poor decisions (NO PETS NO PETS NO PETS ringing in your head) you chuck that penguin right out the back door, because it reminds you too much of home and how much you miss it. It goes right over the small wooden porch and into the grass. It lands on its stomach, and you clutch yours. That ball of loneliness is back, and it eats away at you inside.
In the morning you regret having gotten so angry. You can’t even enjoy your coffee while you know the penguin is outside, lying in the grass. You set your mug down on the coffee table and stalk over to the back door, opening it slowly. It’s so early that only a sliver of golden sunlight comes in over the fence, illuminating one small portion of the back garden. In that sliver of light lies the penguin. And, lying curled-up on the penguin, there is a cream-colored kitten with orange markings, one shaped like a heart along its side.
You crack open the door, and the feline looks up at you with wide eyes, its whole body tensing. You can’t resist - you slide open the door, sucking your teeth in hopes that the cat will stick around just a moment longer. But it hops to its feet and bounds over the back fence, and you regret everything all over again.
Later that day, after one of your extra-curricular lessons, you find yourself walking home along the main town square. You duck into a convenience store to pick up a few essentials - rice, ramen, toothpaste. You’re in no particular hurry, so you wander up and down the aisles for a few minutes, and you see something that catches your eye. A pet food bowl. A bag of food. You think of the kitten you saw that morning. Maybe she would stick around if you’d set something out for her to eat.
You pick up a bowl and a bag of Thrifty Bitz in addition to the items you came in for, and when you get home you set out a bowl and hope for the best.
You fill the bowl with food and set it out in the grass near the porch, close to where you’d left the stuffed penguin out overnight, where you saw the cat before. You begin to make your own dinner, and after your rice cooker is going and you pull a jar of pickled vegetables out of the fridge, you peek through your curtains to see if the cream-colored kitten has come back. You’re surprised to see a white and gray tabby nibbling outside.
You open the back door. The cat startles a bit, but the draw of the food is too great, and he stands his ground while you pad softly over and extend your hand out to the cat. He sniffs the ends of your fingers - vinegar, from the pickled veggies, makes him wrinkle his nose, but he purrs softly and presses his forehead against them anyway. He lets you run your hand along his back, happily eating the Thrifty Bitz while enjoying the attention.
You decide to call him Pickles, and you let him finish eating his dinner while you go back inside to your own.
You don’t see the cream-colored cat all week, but Pickles reappears nearly every time you refill the bowl with Thrifty Bitz, so the next time you find yourself in town passing the pet supply store you wander inside and wonder at the great variety of cat toys within. There are boxes and cushions and furniture, some so creative and imaginative you wish they came in sizes large enough for you to enjoy as well. You pick out something somewhat cheap and lightweight, so it will be easy to carry home - a cardboard train, labeled “choo-choo.” On your way to the register you also grab another bag of food, slightly more expensive than what you got before, but you don’t mind, as long as Pickles will like it.
You set out the Frisky Bitz and the cardboard choo-choo when you get home and send a few emails to your family while you eat homemade ramen for dinner. After you set your dishes in the sink you peek outside again. The sunlight is waning, but there is another cat outside, one you haven’t seen before. She’s calico, leaning outside the window in the locomotive, and… you might be going crazy, but is that cat wearing a hat?
“Hey there, Conductor Whiskers,” you say as you open the back door. You drop down to a squat and extend your hand, hoping not to scare this one off, hoping instead that she, like Pickles, will deign to be friendly with you. The cat leaps nimbly from the window of the train and ambles over to you, meowing loudly, announcing her arrival like a train coming into a station. Without hesitation, she pounds her head into your hand, circling around for more attention.
You are more than happy to oblige.
After all, the cat you’ve just named Conductor Whiskers is wearing a hat.
You don’t remember the last time you were disappointed to go home after work. It’s been weeks since loneliness grabbed you by the gut. You know that Pickles and Conductor Whiskers aren’t the cats’ real names. You know they have homes somewhere else in the neighborhood. But that’s the beautiful thing about it - you get to enjoy their companionship without any of the responsibility of pet ownership. Even better - you don’t have to violate your lease.
You upgrade from Thrifty Bitz and Frisky Bitz to cans of Ritzy Bitz (which smells like sardines), Bonito Bitz (now with extra bonito flakes!) and Deluxe Tuna Bitz, the most pungent of them all. You find a few more fun toys at the pet supply store, like a butterflies on wires pinned to a stand, and a fabric tunnel imprinted with a pattern like a dairy cow.
Over the next few days you cycle through them, leaving different toys out with different foods. Pickles comes back a few times, regardless of what food or what toy is out. Conductor Whiskers only shows up if the cardboard choo-choo is in the garden. And then there are a few new felines who drop by. You call the white cat with small black and orange markings Dottie. A dilute calico appears a few times; in your head you call her Pasty. The fattest cat you’ve ever seen sits on your porch whining when the food bowl is empty. You start out calling him Tugboat because his meows sound like foghorns. His size, though, eventually corrupts Tugboat to Tubby, and then simply Tubbs.
One day after work, you stop by the pet store for a dragonfly on a rope, and you recognize your landlord lingering by the exit. You struggle politely to say hello to one another, and he gestures towards the item you’ve just purchased. For a moment you blanch - you haven’t done anything wrong, have you? It’s not as though you have a pet. You’ve simply been entertaining them from time to time.
“You like cats?” the landlord asks in English.
You sheepishly nod. Now you’re worried that your friends will be banished from the back garden forever. You’re afraid you’ll never see them again. You’ll have to trash all the toys and food you’ve bought for them, and return to a silent, empty-feeling apartment every night, and the thought of that makes your gut ache.
“Many cats,” says the landlord. “Many cats in the neighborhood. That’s why no pets! Too many cats. Too many neighbor cats.”
For a moment your heart skips a beat, because you don’t understand what he’s trying to say. But the man is smiling, and nodding, and patting your shoulder.
“I hope you are making them your friends,” he says, and he wishes you a good night and excuses himself and walks away.
When your next paycheck arrives in your bank account, you decide you really want to invest in your feline friends and purchase a tall, creatively-designed cat tree. It’s black, red, and white, large enough to support several cats at a time, provided they’re smaller than Tubbs.
You’re wary of leaving your stuffed penguin in the grass, so you set it on the deck with a cardboard box and the butterfly toy, while the bigger items take up most of the room in the yard. When you see Dottie or Pickles or any of the other kitties curled up on it like a cushion, you snap a pic and send it to your sister. You start talking more frequently; the cats make it easier to start random conversations, give an avenue to get a hold of one another even if you don’t feel like you have anything to say. You feel more connected to your family than you have since you left.
If you thought you were surprised when you saw a cat with a hat show up, then you were positively shocked when other cats arrived with elaborate hairstyles and complicated outfits. There’s the one you call Lady Meow-Meow, and another you dub Miss Fortune because she wears a vibrant red collar and she likes to sit like a maneki-neko, with one paw up in the air, like she’s permanently prepared to swat something. There’s even a pair that always seem to come together, one dressed as a butler while the other is wearing a dress and appears to be carrying a parasol. Every time you see them, you’re charmed, even if the rational part of your brain thinks you might be hallucinating.
Over time you find yourself spending more and more time outside with the cats, even when the weather is cold or rainy. It’s easy enough to bring a space heater out with you, and it tends to attract more cats to the yard. Even the shy ones eventually warm up to your presence, rubbing against your pant leg and pleading for another bowl full of Deluxe Tuna Bitz when they can see the bottom.
But you long to see the first cat again, the cream-colored kitten with the mark of the orange heart on her side. You’ve started calling her Peaches in your head, based on her color. She hasn’t turned up in a while, but you’re not about to give up yet. One day, you know, she’ll be back. In some ways she’s the oldest friend you have in this strange new world, and you’re looking forward to getting to know her better.
Pickles purrs on the penguin while Pasty helps herself to some Bonito Bitz, and Conductor Whiskers hops in and out of the cardboard train. You sit cross-legged on your back deck, lean back, and close your eyes. Before you know it, you feel the warmth of a cat climbing into your lap, and instinctively you stroke its back until you feel its rugged purr against your palm.