Hi, you don’t know me but I got your number from [mutual friend]. I’ve found some kittens near my house who have been abandoned by their mother. They seem to be very young, and IDK what to do, but [mutual friend] gave me your number and said you’ll be able to help. He said you’re his cat lady friend.
It was 2 a.m. when this text, sent from an unknown number, flashed on my phone screen. The pandemic has torn apart my sleep schedule and any definition I had of what constitutes “healthy” screen time, so I was awake, online, and only too ready to respond. I quickly texted back a short list of urgent steps the sender could take to keep the kittens warm, dry, and safe in the moment, along with the phone numbers of a few local animal welfare organizations. For the next four hours, this new contact sent me updates and asked questions; by the time they confirmed that an animal welfare group was on the way to pick up the kittens, the sun had already begun to rise.
Short on sleep, but full of warm satisfaction at the thought of the kittens being safe, I scrolled back to the first message in our chain, finally having a chance to ponder this new personality descriptor that had been graciously but unsolicitedly bestowed upon me: “cat lady.”
I’ve always liked cats, but I’ve never had one of my own. (I live with my parents, and my dad is allergic to fur.) Over the years, I’d often tried to develop relationships, or even acquaintanceships, with my neighborhood cats. My efforts were mostly in vain. I’d make an attempt, get rebuffed, and move on, distracting myself with other things in life.
But in 2020, there weren’t many “other things in life” to keep me busy. When socializing was still out of the question due to COVID restrictions, I began taking long, solo walks around my neighborhood. Initially, I saw this as an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, but I soon realized that I wasn’t actually alone — there were a lot more cats than usual, triumphantly reclaiming the streets that had, until now, been overrun with cars and pedestrians.
I quickly went from noticing the cats to cooing at the cats to bringing food to the cats. At first, even with the bribes, they paid me little interest, treating me like an unpaid intern who fetches the bosses’ coffee. But I was dedicated. Feeding the cats became an event that added structure to my otherwise-empty day — I had no college classes or social events to attend, leaving me with vast expanses of time to fill. And so I spent that time on the cats. My walks became longer as I began the lengthy process of gaining their trust, trying to secure first their tolerance, and then their fondness.
It seemed almost Sisyphean at times: Right when I thought I had established enough of a rapport with a cat to try to pet it, I would receive a slap (and often a scratch) and the animal would promptly lose all confidence in me. But unlike my earlier attempts, now, I wasn’t so quick to give up. After each failure, I started fresh. With enough time, labor, and love, I finally succeeded. The cats and I became friends.
I gave them names: Garfield, the fat, cantankerous, orange cat; Mr. Darcy, a dignified, taciturn, and sophisticated silver-hued tomcat; and Kaju (the Hindi word for cashew), the most adorable kitten who was the exact golden-brown color of roasted nuts. The initially skittish and unsociable animals slowly got used to my presence, gradually letting me pet them and play with them. Kaju learned my schedule and started waiting for me in the park around the time he knew I usually came by with food. When he fell asleep in my lap, I considered the moment one of my biggest accomplishments to date.
At first, I chalked my single-minded quest to befriend these local cats up to pandemic-related boredom. But as our relationship went from one-sided to tentatively two-sided, I realized how much comfort they were bringing me. One recent Australian study demonstrated that pets helped people combat the unique loneliness that many of us, including myself, experienced during the past two years. I’ve been single for most of the pandemic, and I spent the first several months feeling acutely touch-starved and love-starved. “My” cats became a huge source of support.
Over time, I developed a reputation among my (human) friends. Much like new mothers spam people with baby photos, I’m guilty of spamming everyone I know with photos of cats — cats I feed, cats I pet, and even cats who simply turn tail and spurn me. People close to me know that I keep food bowls in my house and run a separate “milk” tab with a local shop owner, who lets me buy cartons on credit in dire circumstances (read: whenever I run into a cat on the street). At some point, my neighbors stopped being surprised to find me lurking on random street corners, hissing pspsps.
My notoriety as a “cat lady” seems to have spread throughout the feline world as well. One day, a cat I had never met before walked up to me and tangled itself in my legs as if we were old familiars, and caused a friend to eloquently dub me a “Gaelic woodland sprite.” When it happened again (and again), I was told that I was a “cat whisperer” with “witch vibes.” My personal favorite was when a friend called me a “Disney Princess,” then added, as an afterthought, “but without any useless prince stealing the thunder.”
It’s not lost on me that the “cat lady” trope is often used derogatorily, to refer to single women who either can’t or won’t find human partners, and instead spend their energy on and exchange affection with cats. The jokes stretch back to the 18th century, and these days, they often take on an almost cautionary tone: If you’re not careful, you could end up alone and lonely, unfit for human companionship, with only cats to keep you company. Some people are troubled by women who do not strive to meet societal expectations, just as some people are troubled by cats who do not freely provide affection.
I did get some “cat lady” jokes, even from close friends, especially in conversations about romantic relationships. “Your ideal guy would probably just be a cat,” is a comment I’ve heard one too many times, and it bothered me. During the pandemic, I often responded to questions about whether I was dating at the moment by saying some version of, “My hands and heart are full with my work, my friends, and my cats.” But people reacted by chiding or teasing me; sometimes, I even felt pitied. It made me wonder if there was something wrong with me. At one point, I felt so unsure of myself that I downloaded a couple of dating apps, swiped, and had half-hearted conversations with some matches. I also — self-consciously — reduced the amount of cat content I was posting on social media, because the “cat lady”-adjacent compliments I received had started feeling like backhanded insults about my singledom.
These comments may have been rude, but when I asked myself why they bothered me quite so much, I realized that I was, in some ways, internalizing the ideas that society has about what a single woman should want — a relationship topping that list. But my goal in life isn’t just to be partnered. Instead, I want to be happy, which means living in a way that is authentic to me. I began to think that maybe that desire is what made me feel so connected to Kaju and my other cats in the first place. They demonstrated qualities that I admired — and some that I already possessed, but second-guessed, as if allowing myself boundaries, pride in my independence, and being choosy with my time and love is a bad thing.
I have learnt so much from observing cats. They ask for what they want, including personal space. They feel no guilt about setting limits, with anyone; cats will absolutely bite the hand that feeds them if it disrespects their boundaries. As someone who struggles to hold onto my own boundaries when people push against them, often at the expense of my personal wellbeing, I think that’s admirable.
I know I’ll be interested in dating again someday — but my cat relationships also helped me realize that love and companionship come in many different forms, and there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing a non-romantic relationship when that’s what feels right.
Sometimes, it is hard to feel content by myself, especially in a society telling me that romantic relationships are the be-all, end-all of a person’s life. But some days, it really is okay. Days when it is sunny, and I have a cat snuggled into my lap and another napping not two feet away, and all my group chats go gaga over photos of them. Days when I have had a particularly hard time at work, and the neighborhood’s grumpiest cat benevolently walks over to get me to play with him, as if some feline sixth sense told him that I needed extra affection. Nights when I help find a new home for three newborn kittens halfway across the country, and in the process find a new adjective for myself. Sitting in a beautiful park, with soft grass and yellow flowers, writing about the cats I love, with one perched right on my foot as if it were the most comfortable bed in the entire universe, how could I not be content? Times like these, it feels more than okay. It feels perfect.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email email@example.com.