The taming of Boris

No need to be scared of black cats

Boris wasn’t the first cat I’d lived with, but he was the one who changed my mind about cats. I like to think that, in return for that favor, I helped change his attitude toward those around him, too, and I have some evidence that that was the case.

Growing up, I was very much what you would call a dog person. I didn’t dislike cats, I just thought they were not as interesting or as fun as dogs. The cats who were occasionally part of my family household were all fine and wonderful animals, but it was the black Lab who slept on my bed; the cat stayed with someone else who appreciated her more, and I can’t blame her.

But when I got to know Boris, I came to appreciate just how much personality and emotion could be stuffed into that tiny, furry body.

When I first met Boris, he was a scaredy cat. He was distrustful of pretty much every human and a bully to other cats.

His backstory explained why he was so scared. Before I met my partner, he lived in an apartment in downtown Chicago. When a couple across the hall broke up and the girlfriend moved out, she (somewhat bizarrely) left her black tuxedo cat with her ex-boyfriend. That would be all fine and dandy, and I’d be willing to blame the breakup on her — perhaps she was embezzling money, or she cheated, or she was never home because she worked too much, I don’t know — but I can’t leave her ex blameless. Because he promptly embarked on a six-month remodel of his unit. For six months, he lived elsewhere but kept the cat in his old unit, which was under construction, returning only to feed the cat and change his litter box. For half of a year.

My partner offered to take the cat off his hands, which was agreed to, and so the skinny little black cat joined a household with one human and one other adult male cat, Max. The black cat was quickly named Boris, and he and Max settled into a tolerate-hate relationship that would last the rest of their lives.

Years later, when I came into the picture, Boris was better but still showing signs of his six months of affection deprivation. When people came to visit, Max was a showoff; he knew he was the most gorgeous cat around, and he loved to have people pay attention to him. But Boris would run away and hide in another room. He didn’t like to be picked up, and he definitely did not want to sit on your lap.

When I joined the household, I was greeted by an arched back and a hiss from Boris, and I decided on the spot that the two of us were going to do whatever it took to become friends. So began a slow process of building trust, of learning just how much he wanted to be pet, where that spot is between his front shoulder blades that he can’t scratch himself, how to approach him in a way that didn’t startle him, and how to talk to him in a soothing manner.

He and I did in fact become friends. A few months later, during our housewarming party, Boris climbed onto my lap and settled down to sleep while I pet him. Some folks who had known him when he was a skittery, defensive scaredy cat couldn’t believe their eyes. “That’s the same cat?” said one woman who had known him from the start.

Soon Boris seemed to be happiest climbing onto the stomach or back of one of us while we were lying down. He would then do his ablutions, curl up, and fall asleep, purring. He got to the point that he liked doing that so much that we could never lie down to read or watch TV without him climbing aboard. He had made a 180-degree turn, from a cat fearful of everybody and putting out a tough-guy vibe, to becoming a stereotypical pussycat who loved to receive and give affection.

Boris never made it out here to San Francisco with Max and the rest of the household; he died of cancer back in Ithaca, N.Y. But I take comfort that at least for the last few years of his life, he was able to live happily and securely, free of the fears that had driven him for years.

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