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October 29, 2019

My “One that Got Away” …was a Cat.

I hear a cat cry outside the window, and I turn to look. 

It takes me back to the time I lost my own beloved tabby cat on the side of a highway in Laramie, Wyoming, outside a truck stop diner. 

I was ten years old, and traveling from Idaho with my mom and brother to a new life on a Nebraska farm. We were leaving my dad behind because of his cascade of bad choices and chaotic unraveling. My uncle and my cousin came to pick us up and drive us east over the sparse, high-desert landscape to the pastureland of Nebraska, where my mom could be with her family. 

I was devastated to leave my home and friends and family in Idaho. The only thing I could bring with me on the journey that was of any value to me was my beloved cat, Cinnamon. My uncle and cousin made me put him in the back of the pickup truck in a crate for the journey. That’s where a cat belongs, they said. I knew that a cat shouldn’t be in a crate in a truck bed, but I didn’t feel I had the right to say anything. I was the child, and they were the adults.

We set out on our journey, packed in my uncle’s old Ford sedan. My cousin drove behind us in his blue Chevy truck, cat in crate up against the tailgate, couched among suitcases, boxes, and a few beloved pieces of my mom’s furniture.

After leaving Idaho and curving through the mountain passes of northeast Utah, our group stayed the night in a scrawny motel in Rawlins, Wyoming. Cinnamon the cat was freaked out and crouched under the bed all night. The next morning I cuddled him up and reluctantly tucked him back into the crate, and we took off down the highway.

We stopped outside Laramie at a truck stop for breakfast. As I passed the tailgate on the way inside, I slid my fingers through the slats of the crate to give my kitty a comforting scratch on the chin. The slats were wide apart, and the Wyoming wind had blown his rusty coat into a haphazard pattern. Ears tucked back, he didn’t like the ride, but he seemed to be doing ok. 

We took a table next to a window. While we were eating, I heard a cat meowing from somewhere outside, nearby. I didn’t think anything of it. Stray cats hang around diners; it wasn’t an unusual thing. The little cries came a few times, then quieted, and I forgot about it. It wasn’t until hours later I would realize what I had been hearing. 

We hopped back in the truck to leave, and I don’t know why, I’ll never know why, but I didn’t check on the cat. I must have been talking, or thinking about something else. I must have been not paying any attention at all.

Two hours down the road, we stopped at a rest stop, and I hopped out the back passenger door to check on Cinnamon. And what I saw shattered my heart.

The crate was empty. 

“We left Cinnamon! We left Cinnamon!” I cried, waving my arms in the air, tears beginning to stream down my face. “We left him at the truck stop!” I immediately understood that what I’d heard outside the diner window was my own dear cat, crying. A truck stop. On the side of the interstate. In the middle of nowhere. Stray cats don’t hang out around diners on the side of the highway. What was I thinking?

I straightened up and tried to regain my composure. “We have to go back and get him.” I announced plainly. I choked back tears, chest heaving. “We can’t leave him there.” To me, that was the only option. No one leaves a cat behind, after all. And I was used to getting what I wanted.

I looked at my mom for backup. She had tears running down her cheeks too. She looked at my uncle, her brother, with worry in her eyes. “Can we please go back and get the cat?” she asked. “He’s not safe back there,” she said, cocking her head west in the direction of Laramie. “And,” she added as if predicting his potential objections, “it’s really not that far.”

My uncle shifted his weight from one hip to the other. He tossed his keys in the air a couple times and caught them in his hand. He looked at me, then at my mom.

“We ain’t gonna go back for a cat,” he said flatly. “Ain’t got time. We gotta keep movin’ if we wanna make it home by dark.” He looked at me again, with a slight bit of sympathy on his face. “Sorry, kid.” 

My cousin nodded his head in agreement. “Yup, we’re on a deadline. Gotta unpack all this stuff yet tonight. Don’ worry, girl. There’s a lotta cats at the farm and you’cn have yer pick of ‘em.” He turned back toward the truck, and I swore I saw a half-cocked smile on his face as he walked away. He was my cousin, but he was older than me by at least ten years. It was somehow understood that his opinion was more important than mine.

I stood in disbelief for a moment. And then I started screaming. 

“No! He’s my cat! We have to go back! He’s gonna die at that truck stop! And it’s only a couple hours away, and I heard him crying outside the window, and I know it was him and he’s all alone and scared, waiting for us to come back and get him.” I wailed and stamped my feet. “We can’t leave him there! Please, can’t we go back?”

I looked at my mom in desperation through my tears, and she looked at me. I could see it in her eyes: just like my cousin trumped me, her brother trumped her. We wouldn’t be going back. 

After what seemed an eternity at the rest stop with me protesting and crying, somehow someone got me in the car and we kept going. Not back west to where I knew Cinnamon would be waiting, but east to where Nebraska was. Where getting somewhere before dark was more important. I was furious. I was heartbroken. My mom sat silent in the front seat. No one said a word.

I sat slumped against the back door, tears falling on my purple and turquoise-striped t-shirt. I stared blankly out the window, watching the landscape blur past as we sped down the highway. I watched as hills of desert sagebrush gave way to golden fields of wheat, an expanse of cloudless sky, and open farmland as far as my eyes could see.

“My cat,” I thought. My cat. The thought bounced back and forth in my mind. I brought him with me so he would be safe, so he would have a home, so he wouldn’t be left alone in the house with my dad. And now he was alone in a much scarier place than that.

During the rest of the drive that day, I grew to hate those endless fields of wheat.

We lived in Nebraska for almost a year. I hated that place, too. I hated the ticks and the tornadoes and the long bus rides to school in the country with farm kids who came from a different world than me, kids who had farm cats. I hated the gravel roads and the smell of silage, and our drafty trailer house with centipedes scurrying up and down the cracks in the shower. I hated being alone in the middle of nowhere, and the view of nothing outside the window.

But mostly, I hated the endless fields of wheat. I hated that I had to walk through them for a mile to get anywhere I wanted to go. I hated that they made me sneeze and itch and burn. Even after the crop was harvested in the fall, and the grain once grown tall in the fields no longer stood, the hate stayed with me. 

We returned to Idaho the next Spring, after the school year ended. My mom decided to give my dad another try. She said she was going back to Idaho for him. But I knew the truth: she was also going back for me.

I had no spirit in Nebraska. Some part of me was missing there. Don’t know if it had anything to do with missing my cat. But it did have something to do with being hurt and angry, and that place had become connected to my pain.

We moved back into our old house with my dad. The two cats we had left behind when we left for Nebraska were still there. Socks and Pepper. I missed Cinnamon.

“I should have just left him here with my dad,” I scolded myself. “If I had, we would be together again now.”

I had heard stories about cats who became lost, far from home, and had miraculously made their way back to their families over a distance of hundreds of miles. I hoped and prayed, during the year in Nebraska, that Cinnamon would be one of those cats. I prayed that he would one day show up at my dad’s door back in Idaho, with his rusty fur a little roughed up, but safe and alive. A cat hero. 

When we did move back in with my dad, back in the old neighborhood, I went looking for my cat. I walked up and down my block, peering into backyards and windows of my neighbors’ houses, searching for someone that might be my Cinnamon. Maybe, I thought, he crossed back over Wyoming and Utah, and made it almost home. Maybe one of my neighbors saw him on the street, thought he was homeless, and took him inside their house. Maybe he was a miracle cat, and he was just a few doors away. 

One day, I spied a cat in the window of a house at the other end of my block as I was walking by. He looked just like Cinnamon. “It’s him!” I whispered excitedly to myself when I saw him. I stepped on the grass and cut across the lawn to get a closer view. The ledge of the window was high above my head, and I stood on my toes and squinted up at the cat on the other side.

It was him. 

I climbed on the branch of a juniper bush beneath the window to boost myself closer. It bowed and bounced under my weight as I struggled to pull myself up to the windowsill with my hands. I rose my face toward the window until, suddenly, I was face-to-face with my cat. There he was, right in front of my eyes! But…

Those eyes were not his. The shape of his face was a little bit different. His coat was a little more brown, not the rust-colored coat of the kitty I named Cinnamon because he was the same color as the spice. This cat looked at me like a stranger. This was not my cat. 

I stood silent on the craggy branch locking eyes with that foreign tabby cat, someone else’s cat inside someone else’s house. I stood suspended in time, and felt juniper needles digging painfully into the skin of my legs. The cat stared back at me and didn’t blink. “Let it go,” his eyes seemed to say, kindly.

I always hoped that Cinnamon somehow made it to a safe place, that a welcoming stranger picked him up and gave him a home. Or that he cried loudly enough at that truck stop to get the attention of some nice waitress, who gave him to another little girl like me who needed a good cat. He crosses my mind, sometimes, when I think of things I’ve loved and lost, and always when I pass through Laramie, Wyoming.

Eventually, I forgave my uncle and my cousin for putting my cat in a crate. I forgave my dad for being the reason we left in the first place. I forgave myself for missing the cues, for not recognizing my beloved cat crying outside the diner window. And I even forgave Nebraska for not being my home.

But I never forgave those endless fields of wheat.


Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

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