Though we had a cat and later a dog when I was growing up, I'd been out on my own 15 years before I really considered getting a pet of my own. I'd been young, in school, out of school and on the move, married (with a horse inherited by marriage), divorced, then back in school to change careers. But the time came when I'd been working freelance long enough to think I might be able to consistently feed a mouth other than my own.
Along the way in photography, I'd met several “studio dogs” named Kodak. And when I did, I always thought to myself, “some day I'm going to get a cat, and name it Fuji” (my personal film of preference back when film was more than just a memory). Without any real plan for it to be that way, 1992 became that year.
My good friend Marti (the first person to hire me as an assistant when I got out of photo school in 1987) had gotten involved in a benefit project for the Atlanta Humane Society, and my name got thrown in the hat.
During October, the Humane Society sets up several photography sets where people can bring in their pets and have their picture taken with Santa Claus. It's often used as a fun Christmas card by the folks who come by, and the Humane Society makes enough money to pay an entire year's worth of utility bills. Of course, you need photographers, I volunteered, and that's how the story begins.
Over the two weekends of the Santa shoot, when I'd have a break I often gravitated to the cat and dog adoption rooms. I'm a total sucker. By the end of the second weekend, it's a foregone conclusion. I've decided to come back the next week and pick out a kitten. The one I will name Fuji.
It doesn't work out exactly that way. But when it comes to certain things, I believe in fate, and “meant to be.” The following Tuesday, I was supposed to wait for my then girlfriend (a fellow cat lover) to get off work and go with me to pick out a kitten. But, well, I was off work that day, impatient, and she wasn't getting off until 5. So, I bailed on her and went about 1:00 (I did mention she was a former girlfriend, right?).
When I walked into the cat room, I could see there were maybe half a dozen cages that had kittens in them, so I started at one end, just to do a quick walk through assessment. When I got to the third cage, I leaned over as I had with the first couple to see what kind of reaction I got. This tiny tortoise shell kitten, mostly black with eyeliner markings and big Ross Perot ears (it was 1992), walked over with her tail straight up and greeted me with the cutest meow. I talked back to her for a minute, and then went to move on to the next cage.
But my head met slight resistance. I had on a baseball cap, and this tiny kitten had threaded her paw through the bars, then hooked the bill of my cap with her claws. I looked at her, and she blinked and gave me that cute meow again.
Though I'd come here to pick a kitten, it would appear this one had picked me. In that moment, I decided to accept that, and took her out of the cage to gauge her reactions. She was totally friendly, and when I put gentle pressure on her paws to manipulate them, she merely looked at what I was doing, but didn't freak (I'd heard this was a good thing to try to test a kitten's temperament).
In the end, I never even got a peek at the other kittens in the remaining cages. Fuji had been found. And I knew because she told me so.
That first night in my home, Fuji would be introduced to her life long involvement in photography (all of the surrounding photos above are from that first night). While the other cats Susan and I have today, Bosco and Coco, aren't quite sure about that clicking flashing black box to this day, Fuji accepted it as a regular part of our life from the very beginning. She always seemed happy to pose.
Of course, she grew up in a photo loft. It was a giant kitten race track, 60 by 30 feet of mostly open polished concrete floors. A tall wall of bookshelves at one end, with a library ladder angled enough for a kitten to race up it in about three bounds (except for that time she slipped on the way up, made a bad landing, face planted into the wall, and then turned around and walked away with a look that said “I meant to do that”).
In one corner of the loft was the bathroom, and in the corner of the bathroom, a stand up shower stall. For a kitten moving at rocket speed at the end of a 60 foot sprint from the opposite corner of the loft, this shower stall was perfect for making a high speed 180 degree turn. At full speed, she would bound from the floor to one wall of the shower, then bounce to the second wall, and then use the third wall to propel herself back onto the floor headed the other direction, still at rocket speed. Like the stunt guys you see driving a motorcycle on the walls at the state fair.
This was great fun. Until the day she did it ... and I was in the shower. Water greatly affected her kitty calculus for this high speed turn, and soon there was a splash and a thud, followed by the sounds of a wet and pissed kitty, and one very startled human. In the future, she opted for the power slide rather than the high speed shower stall turn.
Over our early months, we developed our routine together, and it started in the bathroom. In the morning she would follow me into the bathroom to observe what she considered to be my bizarre behavior. She would jump up on the seat of the toilet, and watch me take off all the layers of my fur, then deliberately get into the water torture device. Every time I got out of the shower, after briefly assessing that I was OK, I got a look that said “I simply cannot believe you do that, and it somewhat disgusts me.” Like a feline version of a train wreck, she simply couldn't look away.
Later in life, my wife marvelled that I not only was “pretrained” about leaving the toilet seat down, I actually admonished her for leaving the lid up at my place. That's because of the morning I got up very early, and when I sleepily made it into the bathroom, Fuji somewhat sleepily followed me in. She jumped up onto the toilet ... and the seat was down, but the lid was up. Soon there was a splash, followed by the sounds of a wet and pissed kitty. Fuji continued her interest in morning bathroom preparations, even when Susan moved in, but she mostly stayed away from the shower and toilet.
By late '93, the recession had done a number on the advertising industry (and my associated photo income), so to cut expenses I had to move out of the loft and into a cheap apartment. Cats hate having the routine violated, so I tried to make it as easy for Fuji as I could. She got cooped up in the bathroom, and got to listen to lots of thuds, grunts, and other sounds made by big men moving all our possessions. When it was time to go, I found her wide eyed and insecure, but she willingly got into the pet carrier. When we got to our new place, she got cooped up in the bathroom, and the sounds of big men started again.
Of course, “cheap apartment” means “older apartment,” and this one had some lovely late 70's vintage burnt orange shag carpet. Thick shag. And when I let Fuji out of the bathroom after the movers finally left, she got up on one piece of furniture, then hopped to another, and finally stayed on the couch with me, very insecure. I finally realized, after growing up with concrete floors, she had no idea what this fuzzy floor was all about, but she refused to walk on it. For a couple of hours, she hopped from couch to table to chair.
Until she finally realized how the combination of the shag carpet and her claws made for a newfound level of traction for her high speed runs. Then she decided carpet was OK after all.
Another new addition to her life was windows, at least, windows at a height she could access. The loft had lots of windows, but way up high. The apartment had both a sliding glass door in the living room and floor level windows in the bedroom. Many days I'd come home from working, and when I'd pull up in the parking lot, Fuji would be in the bedroom window looking out at me, meowing as if to ask “where the hell have you been?”
But in 1995, it was time to move on up into home ownership. While I was excited about moving day, Fuji was decidedly less enthusiastic. Since it had only been about a year and a half since the last move, when I cooped her up in the bathroom and the sounds of big men began, she probably put 2 and 2 together.
Whereas she'd been insecure but compliant for the first move, when it came time to “load up kitty” this time, I found her coiled in a feral ball in corner of the cabinet underneath the sink, givin' me a loud kitty version of “F.U., I ain't going'!” One large towel and one loud hissy fit later, I exited the bathroom with grumbling Fuji in the pet carrier. You should've seen the look on the faces of the movers. It probably sounded like I was trapping a Tasmanian devil in there.
At our new home, I again left her in the bathroom. After the movers had left, I opened the door and looked in. She was coiled up on top of the toilet tank, and she greeted me with a hiss for my trouble. “You bastard. What have you done to us now?” A half hour later I saw her slink out of the bathroom to grudgingly explore this new frontier. Within 12 hours she was running the full length of the condo, establishing a new kitty race track.
Now three years old, Fuji had a well developed personality and habits. She had long ago learned my sleep habits, and unlike a lot of cats, seemed willing to accommodate them. Mostly. In the morning, she would raise up on her hind legs, lightly put her front paws on edge of the bed, and emit a muted meow that sounded more like a barely audible ... “eee.” If I then continued to lie there unmoving, she'd go on about her morning kitty business, and let me sleep. But if I even slightly cracked one eye, she'd hop up on the bed, tail in the air with a full meow ... “you're awake! Feed me! ”
She was a talker. Over the years, I came to know her many meows and other little sounds. She had a quite a vocabulary of them, and she also clearly understood a sizable number of phrases and words from me. I truly think she liked being talked to as much as she liked being petted. She would do a real call and response with me, and would go on as long as I would. And always get the last “word.”
Over time, I observed one particularly curious habit. Of course, being a cat, she was very curious. But with Fuji, it was always a “watching-from-off-to-the-side” curiosity, not an “up-front and in-the-middle of it” curiosity. Except when you'd screw up.
At first, when she came running I thought it was because of the loud sound of whatever I'd dropped. But I came to realize that the cue was vocal. And not specific words, like %$#@!! It was the tonality of frustration. If I emitted a Homer-like “Arrrgh-Doh!,” Fuji would come running, looking up at me with an expression that said “what'd ya screw up?” And if there was a spill obvious even to a kitty, she'd look at it, and then look at me. “Wow, what a mess. You gonna clean that up?”
In 1996, her personality, these antics, something new called the world wide web, and my first computer all combined into my very first web site: Fuji's Feline Tour. Launched on April 14, 1996, after an “intensive” 45 days of studying what passed for HTML a decade ago, it featured her as much as me. Ah, those innocent days of web sites about your kitty. Well, we had one, and I've kept it intact all these years as an artifact of that time.
The years went by, just Fuji and me in our 2 bedroom condo. Oh, yes, in addition to other human visitors, Fuji had seen a short series of women come and go. But they rarely stayed very long, in the short term or long term. She was a one person cat, and queen of a one cat household. In fact, only on very rare occasions in her life had she even seen another cat.
In the fall of 1999, that would all change. This time, being put in the bathroom and hearing the sounds of big men didn't mean we were leaving, it meant others were coming. Though my wife-to-be had certainly spent plenty of time here, now this other human was here ... all the time. Sleeping with her human!
However perplexed Fuji might have been by that, it was far eclipsed by the arrival of two new cats, Bosco and Coco. The Big Boys. Now, I did all kinds of research to prepare for their arrival. I read lots of material about introducing cats to each other to form a happy new feline family. It was all very encouraging. Didn't work worth a damn, though.
Fuji had always been a one person solo kitty, and now there were multiple people and multiple kitties. Plus, every damn bit of furniture had been moved. The routine had been seriously violated. Plus, Bosco, who has always acted like a mischievous teenager, was absolutely obsessed with her. And she wanted nothing to do with him. She clearly found his presence distasteful.
But over time, they established their mutual spaces, new habits, and new routine. They came to grudgingly accept each other, but there would be no fraternizing. It helped that at night, the Big Boys would get shut up in the bedroom with us, and Fuji had the run of the place. In the morning, Coco (who we call “our special kitty,” 'cuz he's a little slow) could walk within two feet of Fuji on his way out of the bedroom, and she'd hardly even react. She seemed to recognize he was no threat. But if Bosco got anywhere near that close, she'd have a loud hissy fit.
That was another thing. The arrival of the Big Boys definitely expanded her already extensive vocabulary. Now in addition to her varied meows, she'd added a series of growls that sounded like something out of a horror movie, and some serious hissing, too.
At the age of seven, she'd finally learned how to speak cat. She'd always loved to play pretty rough, but now when she did, I got a series of growls and hisses I never had before. She was clearly still playing (a pause in growling revealed purring), she was just talkin' smack in a new language.
A couple of months after Susan had moved in, Fuji was still being pretty standoffish with her. One night before dinner we were in the kitchen, giving each other a hug while standing about two feet from the washing machine, where Fuji was perched. Right then, Susan's stomach growled pretty loud ... and without missing a beat, Fuji growled right back at her.
Susan also was not exempt from Fuji's obsession with human errors. If Susan dropped something in the kitchen, or emitted a %@$#! or Grrrr ... Fuji would come running, exactly as she did with me. “What'd ya do? Wow, that's a mess.”
Over time, Susan told me that Fuji became quite sweet with her ... when I wasn't around. Susan arises much earlier than I do, and she'd tell me how Fuji would come into the bathroom in the morning and visit with her while she was getting ready (as she did with me from the beginning). And sit on top of the washing machine meowing for her attention (as she did to me all the time). Then as soon as Fuji would hear me get up, it was a whole different story.
Who knows what went on in her kitty head. Perhaps after all the years of it just being the two of us, she thought it was somehow wrong to be affectionate with this other human (even though she saw me being affectionate with this other human). The only predictable time I ever saw it myself was when Susan would make tuna fish for a sandwich. She was Fuji's best buddy then, whether I was around or not.
But other than tuna and turkey, Fuji had little interest in “human food.” She preferred a more natural diet. Even if domesticated, she was true to her roots. She was a real hunter. If a moth or other flying insect made it into our home, Fuji was quickly on the case. If it landed at a height she could not reach, she'd start howling for me ... “come help me get this thing!” But she rarely needed my help. She was amazingly good at it.
In fact, I came to rely on it. One summer night after Susan and the Big Boys had gone to bed, a common house fly was driving me absolutely crazy as it noisily buzzed back and forth between the various living room lights, and my head. Fuji's radar had already detected it, but this frantic fly was all over the place. It was truly bugging me. And Fuji was giving me the meow that said “come help me get this thing!”
So I turned off all the lights in the living room except for my desk lamp, and then put a powerful flashlight on the floor of the kitchen, aimed to light up a wall and one corner of the kitchen. Then I sat back down at my desk and waited. I knew it was just a matter of time.
The frantic fly's instictive search for light quickly led it into the kitchen. This was followed by perhaps two minutes of the sound of a cat moving about wildly and rapidly in a small space. Then silence. Followed shortly thereafter by the meow that meant “awww, the fun's over, get me another one!” I used this method to get rid of pesky flying critters at least three times that I recall.
Fuji took her hunting seriously. If one of these flying beasts introduced itself into our home during the daylight hours when Coco and Bosco were lounging about the living room, Fuji's disdain for them was quickly put aside. She'd suddenly run into the living room after the bug, and give them a quick glance that said “hey, time out, man, we're talkin' a moth here.”
I've always told Susan that if Bosco had to survive out in the wild, he wouldn't make it past lunch. He'd be lunch. But Fuji would be just fine. The huntress would be in her element.
Just this side of Heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies who has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to the Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all our special friends, so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food and water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable...
The animals are happy and contented, except for one thing: they miss someone very special to them who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. The bright eyes are intent; the eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to break away from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. YOU have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together...
A Pollyanna construct designed to soothe those left behind? Perhaps so. But it worked on me. Reading that the first time seemed to pull a plug within me somehow. It struck a real chord, and, its essential truth aside, it allowed me to emotionally accept what I already knew intellectually: that Fuji's better off now.
And writing this has helped me look past the surprisingly overwhelming grief I have felt during some very dark days, and remember how full our thirteen and a half years together really were. She filled my life, and my heart, in ways I never imagined that day in October, 1992, when she picked me.
I'll always treasure those times, and I'll always miss my Sweet Girl.