This essay is the ninth installment in a monthly series of creative essays for the year 2021. Each month’s topic is selected from cards from the party game Apples to Apples. December’s card was “X-rays.” I know at this point I should be on my twelfth essay. But whatever, time is relative. I’ll get caught up eventually.

I wanted to put off writing this essay until the weekend when I would have more time. But all these thoughts keep swirling through my head and I have to get some of them down on paper, which is why (should you keep reading), I must now tell you all about my cat’s constipation.

Westley is probably one of the better looking cats out there. He has dainty little paws, a sleek, tabby coat, long whiskers, and big, puss-in-boots eyes. Ladies who meet him always gush about how sweet and how handsome he is, and he earns every compliment — the shameless flirt.

Sadly, Westley and I found ourselves at the vet’s office today. He has been sick to his stomach recently and we were told he would need to have some tests run. We waited a long time to be seen by the vet. After about 30 minutes a vet tech came into our exam room to explain, “Sorry, the Doc’s sewing up a horse right now.” A loud neigh coming from the back of the office a few seconds later seemed to confirm this.

When the vet did come, he explained that Westley would need some blood work and an x-ray. As he picked up my beautiful cat to take into the back room for the tests, the vet stepped aside and waited at the door. At first I thought he was waiting to hand off Westley to the vet tech, but instead, Captain walked into the room.

Captain, as it was explained to me, is in charge of the office. He is an ancient-looking black cat with bristly whiskers and a commanding presence. He walks with a pronounced limp as he is missing a hind leg, and he has a deep scar below his left eye, the result of a series of three surgeries to remove a tumor (all seemingly unsuccessful as the tumor is growing back for a fourth time). On first look, Captain could not more perfectly embody his pirate-inspired name.

Everyone who knows me knows that I like cats quite a bit; and most who are familiar know that my fondness extends especially to black cats. I’ve always owned black cats growing up, Westley being the exception. There is something so fetching about them. I love how striking their little white teeth and big, green-yellow eyes are against their dark fur. I love how closely they resemble their wild cousins — black panthers — with their shiny coats and sleek bodies. I love how they all but disappear when they decide to nap in a shady place. And I love how when they get old, they gracefully show their age as you start to see little salt and pepper speckles in their fur.

I jokingly told my aunt a few weeks ago that I thought black cats were little messengers sent by the universe to deliver tidings. It was my explanation for all the black cat sightings I’d been having. It started this summer as I was on my way to the hospital for surgery. My dad, who was driving, had to slam on his breaks as a small black cat streaked across the road. I wondered aloud if that was some sort of omen for the surgery ahead. “Yes, a good one,” my dad said.

Since then, I’ve seen a black cat playing on the railroads crosscutting downtown Idaho Falls, one napping outside a late night pizza restaurant, one hunting for mice in the potato fields west of my neighborhood, and one wriggling out from between two bales of hay off the side of the road. And now Captain at the vet’s office.

But if black cats are really just messengers, what were they each trying to tell me? Or, to start with what’s immediately in front of me, what was I supposed to learn from Captain today?

Some metaphors have to be coaxed out. But with Captain, it more or less hits you like a truck. For every bit of him that appears grizzled and gnarly, he is snuggly and sweet tenfold. After sniffing my feet, my bags, and Westley’s cat carrier, Captain allowed me to pick him up. For the next ten minutes he luxuriated in my lap, letting me scratch his neck, his belly, his ears — all while purring like a lawn mower. As I pet him, I noticed other markers of his appearance that weren’t immediately obvious. I noticed how soft and clean his fur actually was — he smelled of soap, as if he had just been given a bath. His big, tom cat paws actually contained rather approachable, well-trimmed claws. And even his wicked scar, terrible at first sight, revealed a deeper truth: he was loved. He was adored, even. Enough for him to be impeccably groomed, and enough for his caretakers to have tried — albeit fruitlessly — to remove his eye tumor more than once.

More than all that, I noticed that Captain was not held back because of his appearance or physical impairments. He was proud of his office reign, and was willing to accept my affection freely and without restraint.

I continued petting Captain, and my thoughts turned to Westley. Westley was beautiful on the outside, much the foil to Captain, but as the x-ray and a $275 vet bill would confirm, the poor darling was filled to the brim with excrement (don’t worry, he has been prescribed a kitty laxative and special food).

I think the message in all this — the one the universe needed me to know today — is the one you’re all already thinking: beauty is skin deep, and our value and worth isn’t tied to our appearance.

Okay. Great. Pick up any American Girl magazine from the mid-2000s and you’ll probably read the same thing. It’s a nice idea, but not an original one.

But does an idea have to be original to be worth learning? I think the hubris inside of me would like that to be true. Maybe that’s how, at the age of 27, I’ve managed to burn through eight different therapists without ever mentioning to any of them how deeply and often I’ve struggled with my own body and self image? Unlike Captain, I’ve yet to figure out how to be unbothered by the flaws in my appearance. I struggle to reconcile the times when I’ve been called pretty, and yet felt so intractably unattractive.

Still, being insecure about your body seems like such a millennial woman problem — practically commonplace. Somehow down the line I’ve developed this opinion that unless my issues are as unique as they are disruptive, no one will want to hear about them.

Or maybe I derive some sort of sick superiority through thinking that my struggles are (or should be) original, unmatched. Like no one in the world could possibly feel as deeply as I do. Has anyone ever been this sad, this frightened? Of course not. I’m special, dammit.

This is one of the times when I don’t have all the answers — I can’t easily freeform this lovely, touching narrative with a happy ending. In truth, I’ll go to bed tonight just as plagued with the same insecurities and self-doubt that have compounded for years inside my brain. I won’t know for sure why I’ve been battling with them so much more this year than others. And no x-ray will tell just why a part of me is so ashamed to even admit any of this to myself in the first place.

We may each find ourselves on different sides of this allegory — pretty on the outside like Westley, or beautiful on the inside like Captain. But I hope that I (and perhaps you, reader — if it applies) can one day recognize that there is a good chance each of us is compelling and entirely wonderful in our own right. Captain is already sure of this fact for himself, but I think we’re all probably worthy of affection.



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