Every few minutes with no distinguishable pattern, a squeaky chirp emitted from the soft-sided cat carrier. Streetlights and headlights from passing cars illuminated the little guy inside as he shifted and pressed, looking for a way of escape. He pressed his face the plastic screen covering the top half. Whiskers poked through the holes and sometimes a curious eyeball stared up at me. And even sometimes he just jammed his entire head against it. Like he was going to pop out like a jack in the box. He had stopped meowing and instead his mouse squeaked chirped as he continued his escape efforts. I stared down at him, with a mixture of amusement, fear, dehydration and complete dread.
For anyone who has never had the opportunity to carry a live animal onto a plane, let me tell you how it works. Well, at least with the bus of the sky that is Southwest. You call their customer service number and tell them you’ve dragging a beloved pet onto one of their jets. Maybe you’re whisking your beloved furball on an exotic vacation or, in my case, you’re moving across the country to live with your boyfriend. I don’t own a car and have no need nor want to own one, so stop judging me for bringing a cat shaking dander into a closed space with circulated air lest someone traveling from Chicago to Philadelphia suffered from severe allergies. I love Kitty, I had gained him from my last failed relationship and he was coming with me.
Anyway, you call and tell them, hey, I’m bringing my cat. That okay? They say, sure, I’ll put you down for a cat, you lunatic. When you get to the airport, you check in, say hey, it’s me and my cat, they say, ah, yes, I have you down for you and your cat, you lunatic, then you pay them some monies and they affix a ticket to the carrier. Isn’t that cute? Your cat gets a plane ticket. How fancy. And my delight in this really puts the crazy in crazy cat lady. Away we go to security.
Now, the reason I was nervous and filled dread could be due to two things. One, I had quit my job and was moving in with a boyfriend in Philadelphia. My plans were to write. Write, then find a job. I had stockpiled lots of cash and figured I would be okay through the winter without employment. This was an idea I had had since I was 24. To not work and just write. And I was. Except I was not working and would write a screenplay or two while finally living with my long-distance boyfriend of almost two years. Isn’t that both romantic and terrifying? Don’t worry, it’s not that crazy. We had lived and dated in Chicago for a short time before he went to Philly. You know, when he was my manager and we lied about the relationship for months to everyone we knew. To-tally normal.
Maybe I was nervous because I was completely changing my life. OR maybe I was nervous because of what was about to happen in the airport security line. You can not send your pet through the x-ray machine along with your carryon and shoes. The pet carrier goes through, but you have to carry your pet through the human sized x-ray machine.
Now, I probably did have the choice to check my cat in along with the rest of my luggage. But I didn’t want to do that. I was afraid he would get lost or dead. It was November and it was cold out. I was bourgeois enough to be above that. However, I was not above letting Kitty slide on through to the other side of security along with my boots. What about radioactive rays? Whatever. This will most likely be the only time he’ll be exposed to them. Isn’t it the same as people getting MRIs? I was petrified because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold on to him. He’s scared easily, especially of strange people, let alone strange people in a strange place. I knew I would. Holding on to my cat is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to grasp an oil-slicked otter with needle like claws.
For weeks, I had been dreading this. I googled articles about it. I talked to friends and family. Family suggested I buy a harness for the cat. My brain suggested seeking out a vetrainian for drugs to knock Kitty out. The vet said I didn’t need either harness or drugs. He demonstrated how to hold Kitty. “Kinda tucked in to yourself like a football while holding the scruff of his neck with your other hand.” Kitty was rendered motionless. “Ahh…, “I said, nodding understandable, while knowing I would immediately fuck that up.
So here we are. I, in the last few moments, of piling my belongings onto the belt under the watchful eye of every single person around me, told myself that it would be okay as my heart visibly pounded under my shirt. A TSA agent saw the carrier. I’ve never seen a TSA guy become more concerned and caring. She told me, “You know you gotta take him out, right?” I nodded, slowly panicking inside. “Okay. After you carry him through and put him back into the carrier, another agent will swab your hands.” Again, I nodded. I was momentarily distracted from the task at hand by the hand swabbing part. What? Why? Do they think this live animal is an elaborate drug smuggling plot? “The cat is made of coke! It’ll be brilliant!”
The last of my things went through. No more time to stall. My sweaty palms began to unzip the carrier. The man behind me in line heard the TSA agent and saw my actions. “You gotta take him out?” “Yeah.” “Oh, man. That’s not a good idea.” “No, no. Sure isn’t.” I had no allies. My breathing became even more shallow.
I pulled Kitty out. He was docile. His eyes were huge. He was petrified. Perfect. Maybe he’ll be as malleable as putty. I tucked him in to myself like a football and grabbed the scruff. The TSA agent waved me through. I took a deep breath. I had one last belief that I thought would carry me through. I notice that when my anxiety gets out of control and I worry endlessly about something, it never comes to fruitation. Maybe this is a common mantra for the anxiety riddled, but if I worry about it enough, thereby preparing for all situations, I can avoid all pitfalls and mishaps. Therefore, I have never been pregnant, gotten a DUI or an STD. Nailed it. I believed that weeks of worrying would safely get myself and Kitty through that human x-ray machine (wtf is that thing called?) and place him back into his carrier and away we go to our new lives.
And we did. We got through it. Kitty remained absolutely motionless I stepped through the x-ray thing. I saw the carrier before me. And I exhaled. We did it. This was a good decision, a new decision. I was going to live happily ever after with my man and write an award-winning screenplay. Purrfect. Then Kitty backed away from my hand holding his scruff, backed through my tucked in elbow, landed on the floor and took off.
Phenomenal. I’m shoeless.
When Kitty’s paws hit the ground running, the TSA hand swab guy had just approached us. Maybe that guy scared him into that final struggle or maybe he took that distraction as a chance for escape. I don’t know. And I never will because he’s a fucking cat. Cats are impulsive. Where was he going to go? On the plane? I still had his ticket.
Kitty took off running. I lunged after him but he slipped under the x-ray machine belt thing and ran into another aisle. I, once again, had gained the attention of everyone in the security area. TSA Hand Swab Guy and took off after him. Initially, I was fairly calm. Or it was probably denial. Then Kitty ran out of the security area and into the great abyss that is Midway Airport’s food court. At that point, I stopped and covered my mouth. I reacted like he had run onto an active minefield. Good-bye forever, sweet Kitty. I’ll always remember how fucking weird you are.
TSA Hand Swab Guy kept going. That’s what snapped me out of my uselessness. It’s not even his cat and he’s going after him. What are you doing? Standing here, doing nothing in pink socks (good choice for today), watching your cat run away into nothing. Do something because no one else is here with you to do it for you. With that, I unfroze and took off after my terrified cat in my stylish pink socks.
Turns out, if you lose your cat in an airport, don’t expect anyone to help you. If I or my mother had seen a cat loose in a major transportation hub, we would have grabbed it. Now, we would have given it back? Probably not. “If they can’t keep their cat with their luggage, they don’t deserve it. I’m gonna name him Terminal A.”
Not the case that day. I learned two things as I watched Kitty scamper across that grand foyer into the food court and to the gates. 1) Even in times of extreme stress, I can still laugh. The sight of a cat running, low to the ground and desperate, in an airport was pretty funny. For a second time, this time much shorter, I stopped again. This time to laugh. 2) No one helped. People moved out of Kitty’s way. Maybe I’m making this up, but I could have sworn someone yelled, “Get out of this way! He’s late for his flight!”
The TSA Hand Swab Guy, at one point, made a valiant dive and grab for Kitty. No dice. I stopped for a third time and thought, where is he trying to go? A nearest hiding place. There are massive columns in this foyer area. People were leaning against one with all their shit piled against. That’s where he’s going. As TSA Hand Swab Guy got to his feet, Kitty still ahead of him, I cut the cat off and on his heels,s or tip of his tail, I guess, I chased him around the column with all the people’s shit and the people who, again, moved out of his way. I could admire people’s politeness, but really I’m going to focus on their stupidity. It’s not a lion. It’s a cat. Throw something in it’s way. I bet if this was a fucking puppy I wouldn’t have been having so much trouble.
Finally, he tried to smash himself behind a lady’s carry-on. I reached, falling to my knees and grabbed him. Thank God. TSA Hand Swab Guy came up a moment later. There was no tuck and scruff grab. This was a smash and headlock. I rested for a moment still on the ground, a grown woman clutching her cat, the fear oozing out of me. I can’t say the same for Kitty. The woman whose bag offered the final capture chuckled and said, “Oh, I didn’t want to squash him.” Did I forget to mention before I grabbed him she was about to move her bag out of the goddamn cat’s way? Awesome, you useless woman. As I got to my socked feet, I replied, “I wish you would have.”
I went back to the my shit at the security area and jammed Kitty into his carrier. TSA Hand Swab Guy swabbed my hands as I thanked him. Shaking from nerves, I collected my things. The guy behind me was just getting his belongings. What felt like an hour long chase only lasted 2 minutes. We made eye contact. “Having a bad day?”he asked. I laughed and took my cat to the nearest bar to have a drink, like anyone would.
Three hours later, I landed in Philadelphia. I took a cab to the boyfriend’s apartment. He met me downstairs, with a kiss, a hug and a “I can’t believe you’re here!” As we lugged Kitty and my luggage to the elevator, I could believe it. And I was happy about it. A new life, a new chance to do something great and new.
11 months later, I would be back in Chicago, right where I started, broke, without the boyfriend and without the cat.