Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Champagne the cat

Picture taken from Site

I wrote in an earlier post that my first real job was an unpleasant one, and indeed it was a terrible place to work.  The only good thing about it was a chance for me to see first hand what happens to people who are too afraid to leave, in that my first job was priceless.  However, outside of work, my life in the Ottawa area was not at all horrible.  I have made one long lasting friend, and another I will never forget.

Being a big city girl all my life, I was not eager to live in the small town where my company was located.  Instead, I rented a room in the city of Kanata, a nice suburb area of Ottawa, also dubbed the silicon valley of the north.  My landlady, Vidya, had only just purchased the house, which was a large one in a quiet neighborhood, with woods to the back.  I had my own room and bathroom on the second floor.

The day I arrived, movers were bringing in furniture and Vidya was busy directing the men, and so I went on a quick tour of the house on my own.  And as I looked around, I took an instant liking to my new home, seeing the possibilities clearly amidst the chaos of the move.  The rooms had good light, tall ceilings and wide windows, and the kitchen had a good view of the gazebo in the yard.  My room was a spacious one, and Vidya provided me with a nice bedroom set; the pieces were already in the room but strangely positioned and partially covered in cardboard wrappings.

"Jackie, do be careful with your closet room.  Champagne is in there."  Vidya shouted urgently from downstairs.

"Alright, I'll watch it."  I answered back.

I shut my bedroom door and prepared myself to open the closet.  Vidya and I had discussed much about her cats prior to our meeting, and I had a strong curiosity to see them, especially the tomcat Champagne.  Vidya had three cats, two girls and one boy, they were all elderly I was told.  She made particular mention of Champagne in her correspondence.

"He is a rambunctious man."  That was the way she puts it.

I opened the closet door and I heard a bit of growling.  A fawn colored cat walked out with his tail down signaling his displeasure at being locked up for more than an hour.  I looked inside the closet and I saw two other cats cowering in the corner, I let them be.

"Well hullo Champagne.  I have heard much about you."  I said to the famous cat.  He gave me a sidelong glance and continued to survey the room, the furniture, the height of the desk, the workings of the lamp, the zipper of my suitcase..etc.  I sat at the edge of the bed watching him, fascinated.  I had never really lived with a cat before, though I had always wanted to, and here was the finest of his kind, who was once awarded the title of second household cat of all of Ontario.

Vidya and I had an interesting start.  She was a newly divorced woman with a young son of five, and she shared joint custody of the boy with her ex-husband.  She purchased the house to start a new life, and me the renter would help to fund it.  I first witnessed her tense meeting with her ex a few days after we moved into the house, it was a Saturday morning and I came down the spiral staircase in my pajamas.  Vidya didn't bother to introduce us but ushered the boy to leave with his father.

After the father and son left, Vidya immediately turned around and asked me:

"Isn't he an idiot?  Have you ever seen such a stupid man?"  She looked eagerly at me to confirm her opinion on the father of her child.

"Well, I only saw him for a few minutes, we barely spoke so I cannot say."  I answered reasonably.

"You have no idea."  Vidya rolled her eyes.

A few days later I would have to agree with Vidya over the stupidity of the situation, when she came back all riled up after speaking with her lawyer.  Apparently after seeing me at the staircase, Vidya's ex husband was not satisfied with the explanation that I was a renter and decided instead I was the lesbian lover of his ex wife, and somehow such a claim would help his legal case to lesson child support, gain custody to the boy...etc.  I was surprised.

"I need to do something."  Vidya was livid, pacing back and forth in her lovely sitting room raging to bring her nemesis down at all cost.  I tried to calm her with words, but it was no use, they just sparked new ideas in her head.  Champagne however did better, he jumped on top of the entertainment unit and commandingly meowed a few times, and he stood there like a sphinx; it seemed to trigger something in Vidya.

"Oh Champ, you are the man of my life aren't you?  I can always count on you can't I?" She said dejectedly.

I took the cat's cue and asked her for stories of Champagne to distract her.  It worked, we spent the night talking about his past.

Champagne was fifteen years old when I met him, and he was with Vidya since he was a kitten.  She purchased him from a pet store for $100.

"He was a funny kitten, completely unmanageable."  She said, laughing as she spoke of him.

A long time ago she said, and in better days with her ex husband, she purchased a new couch and was transporting it to a new house when they heard sneezes from inside the cushions.  Champagne had somehow found a way into the inner compartment of the chair and got trapped there, in the end they had to cut open the cushions to get him out.  Another time Champagne sneaked outside through some opening at night and got caught in the rain, the next morning she found some wet dirty thing outside her front steps and she shrieked from thinking he was a possum.

And over the next few months, I found out on my own what it was like to live with Champagne.  I have two words to describe it:  pure joy.  At nights he gave us gifts.  I could hear him in my half sleep dancing some hunting sequence downstairs, he howled and chased his fuzzy bite sized toys around, then ceremoniously marched upstairs and delivered them to us while we slept.  In the mornings I'd find colorful little things at the foot of my bed, but I always had one less than Vidya, which I am sure signified something in Champagne's feline logic.

The one thing Champagne valued more than anything was freedom.  There was no end to his effort to break free from the house.  He learned how to open doors, sometimes he organized a joint effort with Snowflake his white cat girlfriend.  One time he followed a boy we hired to mow the lawn all over the house, we found out it was because he figured that when the eventually boy leaves the house, it would give him a chance to escape.  Yet despite his love of independence, he very much enjoyed people's attention, on Halloween he proudly wore a black bow tie and stood waiting at the door for trick or treating children.  It was delightful.

I was content in being a homebody back then, my job was horrible and it was very cold in Ottawa.  I loved being in the house and me sitting at the breakfast table on Sunday mornings observing Champagne's ingenious ways to steal my bacon.  But Vidya was full of plans, she was determined to meet the man of her life after her divorce.  We spent interminable hours talking of her hopes for a new romance and my wish for a new job, while Champagne stood quietly next to us.  I gathered he took real pride in being the man of the house, and in his own way he was taking care of us, just as he cared for his kitty girlfriend Snowflake.  Champagne and Snowflake curled up and slept together everyday, and whenever she made the slightest demand, he would diligently lick her inch by inch.  On some nights Vidya and I sat watching their romance while snow fell and a cup of tea in hand, and I never felt so entranced by any other sight.

Vidya and I both agreed Champagne was the man of our dreams.

The ugly legal battle continued throughout the winter, it seemed Vidya and her ex could not agree on anything.  Every time her ex called, Vidya would spend hours analyzing his words to sieve for something to use against him in court, and the legal fees mounted.  Up to that point, divorce was some vague idea in my mind, but in the Ottawa area I witnessed the realities of broken families when I saw scores of fathers with young children in McDonalds on Wednesday nights, it was sad.

Vidya's son reacted by throwing the worst temper tantrums imaginable, and he took to kicking Champagne in the gut.  Sometimes I'd see Champagne flying across the hallway because the kid went mad, it took all my restraint not to shout at that moment.  For some reason though, Champagne never gave up on the kid, he seemed to understand the situation and pitied his abuser.  I talked to Vidya about it.

"You know Champagne really cares about my son.  When my son was a baby and cried, Champagne would insist I come to the crib.  He could not stand to hear my son cry."  Vidya told me.  Yet she didn't do enough to end the problem, I suspected it was because she felt more guilty about the stress of the divorce on her son.

Over time, as the temperature dropped, Vidya and I got closer as friends.  We went out together, I even concealed my age and accompanied her to singles dance for the over thirties. I came to respect her resilience.  After two failed marriages, one being physically abusive, it was a marvel she didn't loose hope on men.  I admired that positivity.

One day in spring I got a new job in the US, it was considered a very good thing, but I was sorry to leave Vidya and Champagne.  They both saw me to the door and watched as the taxi drove me away to the airport, and I saw Champagne meowing at the window for the last time.  Vidya and I kept in touch over the years, we'd call to debrief each other on our love lives and career status.  She had never found the right man, but as time passes that no longer mattered to her.  

About a year ago I received a phone call from Vidya and she informed me Champagne had passed away.  I was stunned though not surprised, he was by then twenty-two years old.  The old devil outlived his two younger feline companions, as I was sure he would, and lived to the fullest till his very last breath.  Through her sobs, Vidya told me Champagne demanded his freedom all the way to the end, despite being in pain, and the last thing he did was smelling the flowers in the garden.  He died in the gazebo in Vidya's arms; I have a vivid picture of them together in my mind, I often think of it.


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