Breaking Through

“Which part of you will you let live again?”
-Mary Lambert, “Sum of Our Parts”

“Let ’em laugh while they can,
let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind.
I have been to the movies, I have seen how it ends,
and the joke’s on them.”
-Brandi Carlile, “The Joke”

The kittens arrived in early spring. Their mother birthed them in the plastic bin my sister and I had placed in the backyard as a winter shelter for the neighborhood’s feral and stray cats. We’d been living in our house for 10 months by then, after moving back to our hometown the previous year to care for an ailing parent. Our proximity to farmland brought a wide range of wild and not-so-wild animals through our yard, and a host of childhood memories, both good and bad.

That spring, we let the grass grow out and it was so long, it held the bin like a cradle. At first peek, there seemed to be a whole mess of kittens, an illusion created by fluffy kitten fur. A closer look revealed there were only two. One was just like its mother, a mixture of browns like the bark of a tree, a fairy creature from the deep woods. The other, a black kitten with a white star on its chest like a piece of deep space, was the spitting image of its father. We were afraid to utter names, afraid to alert the universe to such tiny and fragile beings. But death still came for the brown kitten. The mother let us take it and place it in a coffin of Tupperware. We tucked a wild rose inside. Which left only the skittish but charming Cocopuff.

*

I do have happy memories of the first grade: the smell of fresh crayons, my cardboard pencil box and the sound the lid made as it dropped perfectly into place, the prize I won for spelling elephant correctly. But the bad ones tend to overshadow the good, and new friends didn’t happen for a while. I was painfully aware of my solitude.

And I was desperate to fit in. But this felt impossible. I quickly realized I was wrong in almost every way. I had glasses, large, thick ones. I had a boy’s haircut (which I loved). And boyish clothes. I remember my favorite outfit being a pair of Hammer pants gifted to me by a cousin, and a green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt. I preferred boy’s toys, especially Hot Wheels, and one of the things I wanted to become was a fighter pilot, not yet understanding the horrors of war and nationalism. The only word I had for myself was tomboy.

That year was full of bullies and trying to escape them, bullies like the boy who lived down the street from me. We played together a couple of times; he had a trampoline, a luxury my parents couldn’t afford until I was much older. But he was mean. And one day at school, he told me one of our cats gave birth to kittens under the bush in front of his house. He said that his father was going to take the whole lot to that most dreaded of places, The Pound, and made it clear that the fault was mine because the cat was mine. I hadn’t known any of our cats were pregnant or how I could have missed that or how I could be responsible, but I took him at his word and felt ashamed and afraid for the kittens.

Our tiny animal shelter seemed anything but a shelter when I was a kid. It was dark and smelly and swiftly murdered any unwanted animal left there, or so I’d been told. I was horrified that this boy’s dad would take kittens to such a place. I didn’t realize at the time that the boy was messing with me, poking me in a tender spot, delighted to see me flinch. I was still too young to understand the dynamics of power and that some people enjoy seeing others in pain, especially when they’re the cause of it.

*

Cocopuff’s mother was very small, a wood sprite herself, and so instead of the occasional bowl of hard food, we started giving her a mixture of hard and soft food twice a day. The father was always resting nearby and would eat whatever was left after the mother was done. We took to calling him Shadow because he was so afraid of us that he’d vanish at the slightest noise we made and would return only when he thought we were gone. The mother we called Slinky because she had a way of slinking up behind us, her coat the perfect camouflage, and then staring into us with her intense eyes, cautious but unafraid. Both gave us a start on occasion, sleeping in the yard unnoticed until we were close enough to touch. Shadow didn’t seem interested in anything more from us than food. But Slinky seemed at times to enjoy our company, though she didn’t hesitate to hiss when she felt we’d gotten too close. One day she disappeared with her kitten, and we assumed she’d grown tired of our curiosity and moved on.

*

To save the kittens, I decided to sneak out in the dark and retrieve them, then hide them somewhere safe. I tended to bring home strays, and I knew my mom and dad wouldn’t approve. Hence the hiding. I didn’t think about how I would care for them. I decided I would solve that problem once they were out of immediate danger. I found a little plastic pail in my toy bin, and while I was supposed to be preparing for a bath, I snuck outside and to the neighbor’s house down our back alley. I don’t remember being afraid of the dark or the large field behind our house that could be filled with any number of creatures. I was focused on my mission. I slipped around the side of the neighbor’s house and looked at the bushes lining the front. It seemed clear.

There was a window between me and the bushes, and the light was on. Fear caught up to me then. Fear of the boy’s dad and what he might do if he saw me. He seemed capable of anything, villain that he was to me. I didn’t realize then that if the mother cat in question was in fact ours, so must the kittens be, and that my night rescue was not thievery, though I’m not sure that would have made me any less afraid.

I slid under the window and against the house until I came to the bushes. I waited. There were no sounds from inside, so I slipped underneath. There, not hidden very well, was the pile of kittens. A large litter. I put each kitten carefully into my pail, slid back under the window, and ran down the back alley to my house as fast as I could, trying not to jostle the kittens. I briefly considered hiding them behind the shed but was afraid they’d wander off, get attacked by animals, or get too cold during the night. So I took them inside and hid them behind my little plastic desk, my heart frantic over what I’d done.

*

A few days later, Slinky was back, waiting on the back porch. When she saw me peek through the kitchen window, she hurried up to the glass and stared up at me. I gave her a bowl of food, which she ate in large mouthfuls. Then she rested for a while before disappearing again. She appeared every so often for food, and after a while, Shadow did too. One day I stepped out on the porch with food in hand to discover Cocopuff curled under a chair on the porch, watching with interest. I cooed, Slinky hissed, Shadow vanished, and Cocopuff raced under the porch. And that’s how I discovered the family’s second home.

The parents would lounge on the chairs and the porch in the morning and evening, waiting for food while Cocopuff bounced around them, slapping at tails and biting ears. It felt good to be adopted by this wild family even though it meant the loss of our backyard space. Here, they seemed to say. We’ll give you the gift of watching our young one grow. We’ll distract you from the mortality of parents, from the bigotry of neighbors, from failing health and the failure of the U.S. healthcare system, and from the lives, friends, and community you left behind. And in return, you feed us those soft meaty bits. It seemed like a pretty good deal all around.

*

Of course my mom caught me. The kittens, alarmed by the sudden move, started to chirp almost the moment I hid them away. Then wail. Nothing but their mother would comfort them. My mom told me I had to take them back and confess to what I’d done, that they needed their mother. I told her what the neighbor boy had said, that the kittens were in danger. I can’t remember her response, but I lost the argument.

The next day, my dad walked me down to the neighbor’s house for the hand-off and apology. I don’t remember knocking on the door or what I said, but I’m sure my heart was tight and small and impossibly fast. I do remember walking back home via the alley, my dad behind me, the boy’s dad aggressively on my heels calling me things I would have been slapped for saying, things that made me gasp, things I locked away as deep inside as they would go. In that moment, I was somehow not a first grader anymore. I’d pushed myself through the door of adulthood to find the room much too large for my body. I didn’t know what else to do with the words, the man’s red-faced aggression, the fury hot against my back all the way home. So I swallowed them all and leaned into the shame.

I walked as quickly as I could, head bowed, trying to make myself as small as possible. Normally a quiet person, my dad was no match for this man’s rage, which pushed beyond the boundaries of the situation. I felt that if I slowed or turned around to face it, the verbal assault would become physical. It was clear my dad was appalled and angered by what the man called me, but he was trying to meet a conflagration with a garden hose, “now nowing” a person beyond reason. He was unwilling to throw a punch and so the verbal assault dragged on until we were safe inside our house. That remains one of the longest walks of my life. When I think back on the memory, I’m frozen in place half-way home, the angry men’s faces at my back.

*

It wasn’t long before Cocopuff followed his parents into the alley on his first adventure. I tried not to worry, reminding myself the little creature was not my child nor my property. I still worried. But Slinky brought Cocopuff back in a day or so, hungry and charming as ever. We bought a pack of cat toys and rolled the balls, which had bells inside, onto the porch from the cover of the back door. Cocopuff pounced on them immediately and batted them around the porch. Peeking out the back window from time to time, we caught Slinky playing with one as well, sitting regally with one paw slapping now and then, but her joy was palpable, nonetheless. We threw fake mice filled with catnip out next. Slinky and Cocopuff weren’t as excited about these, but the normally stoic Shadow went wild over them, carrying them all over the yard.

One day, I opened the front door to find the whole family sprawled on our front walkway. Shadow had brought one of the mice, and it sat near his front paw. I rolled a couple more balls out the front door, and the whole family spent some time batting them around the walkway and sidewalk. We also bought a nice outdoor cathouse for the backyard, but of course, they rarely used it.

It’s treacherous to love what’s wild, and yet we slipped into it easily, hearts like the cloth mouse Shadow eventually tore open and abandoned.

*

The boy’s father returned a day or so after the alley incident. He pounded on our front door, and I opened it with a trembling hand. His foot was propped on the step, a large box resting on his thigh.

“Well, their mother won’t take care of them now,” he said loudly, raising his hand in a dramatic arc above his head to punctuate his annoyance.

Then he said something along the lines of, “Are you happy now?” It wasn’t a question. He seemed energized by the fear on my face, my silence, the shame in my lowering head. He dropped the box roughly on the step and leaned closer, glaring down at me.

“They’re your problem now,” he growled.

Then he stomped out of our yard. His anger was that of the self-righteous, the powerful, the entitled. Confident because he trusted he would never be challenged, that this was his world, by God, and people would learn to obey his rules or else.

I looked down into the box at the silent kittens. I realize now that my feelings for them had shifted. Instead of being afraid for them, I was afraid of them. I just stood there, not sure what to do, letting shame pull me down and down. My dad came into the room. He hadn’t heard the commotion, so I explained what had happened.

“Goddamnit!” I imagine him saying, though I don’t remember exactly what he said. He proceeded to yell at me, angered by this sudden inconvenience of kittens, and I realized he wasn’t on my side. His yelling felt like a repetition of that walk down the alley as I stood before him while his voice boomed around me. After the yelling stopped, I threw myself on the couch, buried my face in the back of it, and sobbed myself to sleep.

*

Cocopuff’s health started to decline as summer neared its end, but I assumed it was allergies or a cold and that he’d get over it. We discussed catching him and taking him to the vet, but the thought of doing so scared me. What if the parents abandoned him? What if he ran away from a safe home and into the path of a car or dog or cruel person? What if he ran away and couldn’t fend for himself?

When Cocopuff started sneezing and coughing, we made a half-hearted attempt to catch him, hands covered with oven mits, but he was too fast for us. Soon, his eyes were sealed shut, and he stopped eating. I called the vet to see if there were antibiotics I could mix in with his food, but the answer was no, I’d have to catch him and bring him in. So I put on some gloves and grabbed a shirt to wrap him in, and we tried again. This time, he didn’t try to run away, seemed relieved even when I picked him up and wrapped him gently in the shirt, and he cried only a little in the pet carrier on the way to the vet. He let me hold him during the exam and while the assistant cleaned his eyes. When the vet left the room to grab medicine, Cocopuff tilted his head back and stared at me quietly, and I thought, What a gift, this trust.

When I released him into the backyard, I expected Cocopuff to run down the alley and keep going. Instead, he zipped under the porch. When I opened the back door the next day at dinner time, he was sitting nearby waiting for food. Within a few days, the medicine kicked in and his eyes cleared up. His sneezing and coughing went away, too. And his parents came back, sharing meals with him as usual. He widened the distance between us, zipping back under the porch if I tried to shorten it. But he stayed.

*

When I woke, the kittens were gone. My memory tells me my dad took them to The Pound to punish me, but maybe it was just to be rid of them. So I didn’t change the kittens’ fate after all. I simply swapped the fathers. The mother cat lost her children to our human drama. And the bully—the boy who told me the kittens were in danger—got away untouched, even unnoticed, as bullies tend to do.

I wonder if I had been a boy taking the kittens, if the whole thing would have been swept aside as something trivial, as “boys will be boys.” If the kittens wouldn’t have been taken to The Pound. If the fathers would have chuckled about the whole thing and slapped each other on the back. If this would have become a memory I could chuckle at, too.

Like many kids, I was taught the best way to deal with a bully is to “just ignore them.” This, of course, never worked. In fact, it often encouraged the bully to level up. And every time an adult said these tired words to me, what I heard was: don’t defend yourself, bullies are too strong to stop or we don’t want to bother stopping them, your pain is an inconvenience to us, and some lives do in fact matter more than others.

That boy was just one of many. Later, the girl bullies made that boy seem mild in comparison. They were meaner and more creative when it came to humiliation. Afraid to use the restroom, forced to hide at recess, and unable to eat lunch in the cafeteria, I was compelled to do more than “just ignore them.” So I went to the principal. His solution? I could sit in his office any time they bothered me. Not the bullies. Me. The girls continued to enjoy school unpunished and unrestricted.

I soon learned that, to survive, I couldn’t stand out. I went from being a fairly loud, obnoxious kid (my mom called me “yakety yak”) to a quiet, timid one. I stopped sharing things I was particularly proud of because, as my aunt told me when I said I’d received 100% on a spelling quiz, “no one likes a braggart.” I started dressing and acting like the girls around me. I endured the dresses I hated. I let my hair grow out. I replaced my baseball glove with bracelets and jump ropes. I swapped out my models of jets for horses and unicorns. I watched my mannerisms.

I locked myself away.

As a reward, the bullying eventually stopped, and I made friends. Though a lot of the time, these friends acted like bullies too, policing my behavior and preferences and appearance so that we remained a cohesive, homogenous unit. I became ashamed of anything that made me different.

When I think about my childhood, I want to hold my bullies accountable, just as I was held accountable. I want to push their sharp words back down their throats, make them feel as small as I did, and thunder through their childhoods on large, careless feet. I want to steal back the years they took from me and punch each one right in their little weasel nose and never apologize for this small act of justice. I want to tell them this story years later and not grant them the excuse of ignorance, as my six-year-old self was not granted that excuse.

The years I lost to their hate and my fear of their hate are more precious to me now that cancer and the pandemic and gun-toting, self-proclaimed “patriots” threaten to steal all or many of my future ones. The world is full of and often ruled by unchecked bullies, most much worse than the ones I faced as a child, unchecked because “we don’t want to sink to their level.” But their level seems like a pretty safe place to be.

I try to let them scatter in the wind, these bullies with their small, fearful hearts, and I try to forgive myself for giving into them, because we all make mistakes now and then, especially when we’re young and don’t understand the world in all its complexity, and our own motivations are a mystery to us. But letting go, like grief, is a process that doesn’t end. It continues on and on, the hurt and the healing, intertwined.

*

At night, Cocopuff makes adventures for himself in the yard, racing up our wooden fence posts with his fur on end, knocking over any lawn ornament we dare put out. Morning light brings little reminders that this is his home, too. Though he’s cautious, Cocopuff has become as confident as Slinky, his gaze softer but still direct. I imagine a gaze like that, strong as a fist, could break through anything. Could break and still race forward into all that new.

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