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Campus Cats

December 13, 2006

When I was a freshman, I lived in the south side dorms.  Every day in my walk from my dorm to my classes, I walked right past the green houses.  Between two of the green houses was a sidewalk that would be no more than an alleyway…  If it weren’t for the garden.

The garden isn’t much.  Just a green place between a parking lot and a sidewalk.  But someone had made it beautiful.  A fountain burbled over rocks into a small pond, where fish swam lazily in the warm months.  A great and graceful crape myrtle sheltered it, sometimes covering the sky in pink blooms, and sometimes covering the ground.  Herein lived birds, bugs, and a graceful white cat.  “Greenhouses” was scratched into one side of her tag with an amateur hand.  “Gypsy” was scratched into the other.

Gypsy was skittish, as most feral cats are.  But I was farther away from home than I had ever been in my life, and I needed her to love me.  I passed through the gardens as often as I could, saw her only a small percentage of those times, and while most of the time I simply sat next to her, sometimes she would let me come near her.  Eventually, she even let me pet her.  Not for very long, but it always brightened my day.

Over the years, I would make it a point to walk through that garden.  Gypsy wasn’t always there, but sometimes she was.  Sometimes she even hand other human company.  She was as much a part of my college experience as the buildings and the classes.  A small white cat who let me love her, if only for a few minutes at a time.  I moved back into the dorm for my last semester, and the garden was directly on my way to work.  Though I walked through it every day, I usually only saw her shelter.  Cats aren’t exactly morning creatures.

When I finally came back here a year after graduating, one of the first places I visited was that garden.  Gypsy never showed up.  One morning, at one of the Greenhouse’s plant sales, I finally asked what had happened to her.  The woman looked sad, and then answered, “Someone poisoned her.”

Poisoned her.  It shocked me that this was something someone on this campus would do.  That someone who called themselves a part of this university family could be so cruel.  The woman at the Greenhouse told me that Gypsy was the reason that they no longer let the other feral cats they had adopted out into garden.  They didn’t want to lose another baby.

Today, while on my late lunch break, I took my book over to the garden in front of one of our buildings.  It’s not nearly as fancy as the one by the greenhouse.  Just a waist high wall filled with soil and plants.  It has tall grass, deep ivy, and a ginger and white tomcat.  He’s recently started to warm up to people, and I thought it would be nice to have some company while I read.

He’s not quite used to the idea of laps.  And he’s just as likely to put a pleased claw into something (usually your leg) as he is to let you pet him.  But he loves to be talked to, and the people who work on that side of the building have remarked how the traffic on that side has increased since he became more outgoing.  They walk by, peering into the tall grass, hoping to catch a glimpse of ginger and white in a nest of green.  If they’re lucky, he’ll be in a good mood and will come out to be petted.  If not, they get the usual result of petting a strange cat who is unhappy with being disturbed.

I noticed as I read how people seemed to veer slightly towards me and the cat as they passed by.  They would stride up, waver a little over whether or not to pet him, and then keep walking.  It amused me.  Finally, a young man in BDUs slowed, peering into the grass in obvious intent.  “He’s over here,” I said, pointing down into the nest of grass beside me.

A smile broke out over his face.  He stood a respectful distance from the wall I was sitting on, and watched the cat for a moment.  “You can pet him if you’re careful.  He’s in a good mood.”

The young man reached out his hand to the cat, carefully not coming within clawing range.  “Here boy.  Come here,” he murmured, waggling his fingers at the cat.

The cat was unimpressed.

“Curl your hand up,” I told him “And offer it closed.  It’s okay to get closer.”

The young man closed his hand, pushed in a little closer to the cat.  The cat curled up, turning away from the man and settling in for a nap.  The man pulled his hand back, disappointed.  He looked at me and smiled.  “I see this cat here every day.”

I nodded and smiled back at him.  He looked down once more at the cat.  “I guess that’s just one of the constants here at A&M,” he said, and then walked away.

I looked down at the ball of orange and white, and suddenly felt sad.  Someday that young man would graduate and go away.  And he would always remember with fondness this cat in his nest of tall grass.  This cat who only recently learned to love then feel of hands on his fur, who still doesn’t know the joy of a good lap, who was learning to trust human hands holding food.  To the young man, this cat was just another part of his college experience.  For me, the cat was suddenly every cat I had ever loved and lost.

I reached down into the nest of high grass, and gently stroked the sleeping body.  I had to go back to work soon.  I didn’t have time to cry.

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