One of the first things I noticed about Birdie was the bald spot around her neck, just a slight line of skin that breaks her coat, furless and smooth. I felt it, wrapped around the circumference of her neck, as I pet her sitting cross-legged in an old woman’s dusty, cluttered closet. It made me pause, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, a perfect circle of baldness, choking the neck.

My hand reached through a curtain of hanging clothes, peering my head down to see her nervously curled up on a yellow towel on top of a cardboard box. I reached through a row of canes stacked together in an antique wooden stand. She extended her neck to meet my hand, the bald spot slightly more in view.    

Birdie turned her head so it cradled in my hand, revealing her white chest and chin under her gray tabby markings, pressing down further into my palm as I scratched the base of her ear a little harder. A light brown marking covers just her nose, mouth, and chin like a sip of hot chocolate she forgot to wipe. She purred with a hum, politely asking for more, loud enough so I could hear. 

“She really is the sweetest thing,” a woman said behind me. She was a friend of the old woman, middle-age, put in charge of rehousing her four cats as she moved into an assisted living facility. She couldn’t bring her cats with her. I felt bad for the old woman. 

Birdie continued to stare up at me, pupils dilated to meet her black waterline, her green eyes only visible in faded hues around the edges, eager and sincere. One eye was slightly shut and swollen, and dried gunk and fluid pooled in its corner. I instinctively tried to clean it off with my thumb, but Birdie turned her head the other way, her purrs remaining steady.

“I think one of the other cats must have scratched her eye or something. This one is definitely bottom of the pack. I think the other cats beat her up a little bit.”

Two of the others had already been adopted, but one of the remaining cats slinked in and out of the closet, checking on what was happening between me and Birdie before something else caught its eye. I found its curiosity cute, but overstimulating. Birdie knew exactly where she wanted to be, or at least stayed with what felt familiar. 

“I’ve been worried that no one was going to adopt her since she’s a bit shy and not very energetic. I think she’d do really well as the only cat in the house.”

“Honestly, it’s a perfect scenario for me,” I replied. “I just moved into my own apartment, and I’ve always wanted my own cat.”

It was over for me when Birdie reached her paw out to touch my forearm. 

“Yeah, I’m in love. When can I take her home?” 

Within moments of taking her out of her carrier, she curled into a ball behind the toilet. Crouched low near the plunger and eyes darting and wide, she stared ahead at the wall. Treats were uninteresting and left untouched, once irresistible ear scratches turned numb. I nestled a blanket behind her back, covering her back legs and tail. Her belly still touching the cool bathroom floor, the bald spot in full view as she tucked her hot chocolate chin to her chest.    

I let her be as best I could – she just needed time to settle in, right? – but my concern revealed itself through anxious attentiveness. I’d peer through the cracked door to see if she had moved. She hadn’t. I’d tiptoe into the bathroom in quick intervals to bring her food and water, or a soft toy, or a toy with a bell, or a different treat, or another blanket. Still no response.  

My studio apartment suddenly felt smaller, the new unused scratching post next to the boxes that still needed to be unpacked. My bathroom, only the width of the bathtub, was now converted into a plushy-nest-safe-zone for a little stranger who continued to push herself as firmly as she could into the wall. Seven years old, how many homes has she lived in before mine? Is she thinking to herself, “oh, this again?” This poor sweet girl. I’ll flush the toilet tomorrow, I don’t want to make any scary noises. I’ll take a shower later, I don't think Birdie would like the steam. 

The weight of independence and responsibility I had brought upon myself, all within a matter of months, made my stomach turn. There are plants that need watering, and sinks that need cleaning, and toilet paper that I ran out of, and compost ranking beneath the kitchen sink, all in an apartment on the first floor without a spare key. This is now Birdie’s forever home. Did she know that? Is it enough?

I eventually sat on the bathroom floor, leaving enough distance between Birdie and me. I offered my hand, gently stroking her back with the tips of my fingers. She gave a quiet mew in response, only the slightest twitch of her head, breaking eye contact with the wall. I tried again, this time my fingertips meeting the top of her head. I might have heard the faintest purr. I continued down to her neck, pausing at the bald spot.