A year ago I sat on a rooftop in Hong Kong and watched the cats roam Sheung Wan’s streets from far above as the day’s heat soaked back out of the concrete towers and into the sky. In Houston this last month I have watched them again, how they prowl and play once evening approaches, content out of doors once the sun has fled. In this complex of houses become apartments there are many, of all colors and temperaments. With time, patience and an interest in their doings, we become familiar with one another.
Winnie, longer-haired orange and sleek, a rescue from Galveston who spent ten days on a rooftop post Hurricane Ike, is the new king. The tufts of fur behind his ears attract attention, and he spends the evenings on his brick doorstep, content to watch others antics in the fading heat.
Magic, skinny young and short-haired black, chases a bullfrog into the shrubs, wild-eyed and bounding. Winnie waits a moment and then ambles after, as though curious to see what Magic would do with this strange-sounding beast. Unimpressed he slinks back to his stoop, and ten minutes later Magic is sitting on the wooden bench licking his paws, the bullfrog forgotten.
“How long do their memories last?” a friend wonders, sitting outside on the patio furniture watching a large orange and white cat flirt with Winnie, lured by his low profile and huge ear tufts. “Do they remember each other or just vague impressions, do they know people or just where they are fed?” None of us know the answer, and in the perfect warmth of ten pm no one moves to discover it. Instead we speculate on their behavior, watching Boo Boo, an indoors-only Siamese mix with light blue eyes who has come to the window, his fur pressing through the screen as he watches Winnie and these people.
Milo is the old man of the neighborhood, in time here if not in years. His family has cut a cat door into the building entrance, dignifying his comings and goings beyond meowing for a helping hand. Yet he is uneasy as the population swells, Winnie’s arrival followed by another smaller orange and white, and then a black and white hunter, a grey tiger indoor cat, and more. Milo eyes them from a tree across the street that only he seems able to climb. Finding him there one evening I think he remembers a less-crowded block, where he could prowl behind shrubs by his lonesome.
How long is a cat’s memory, we asked. Packing this apartment, with it’s squirrel highway and it’s windows, with it’s odd hiding places, I wonder instead how long is the memory of a place? Will Winnie remember us when we leave? Milo? This apartment? How long until no one remembers us standing here in the fading light, seeking out the hunters where they stalked behind the bushes?
The black and white, name unknown, chases a lizard as we pack the car, dropping it’s squirming body from mouth to pavement only to bound upon it again as it races away across the pavement. It is a favorite activity, the lizards numerous and slow in the morning heat before all things retreat to shade near noon. They do not remember, I think, these small creatures that flee vertically, climbing the brick out of the reach of Milo’s claws. This apartment has no memory, save that of holes and scrapes, of hangars left in closets and marks where the dresser touched the wall. Like the lizards it will be here tomorrow, no outward sign of vacancy.
How long do even we remember, though, haughty in our questioning of cats? Hong Kong, a year ago, has already begun to fade, and this apartment too will be shrunk down, condensed to a smattering of images, like those cats seen from rooftops and visits from old friends. We move on, inhabiting one place after another, confident in our memories, though less durable than these walls and their scars. Maybe Magic will wonder where we’ve gone, lying mid-driveway in the morning light where we used both to watch the mail arrive.
For a little while so will I.