Exposure Therapy IV: Homer

by Bucky Miller January 16, 2023

Read part one of this series here; part two here; and part three here.

Photo of a landscape reflection on a pool of water

All photos by the author

Time to talk about Homer. Not because I now live in the relative safety of having my security deposit back from my then-landlord; not because I miss him, although I do. A lot. It is now Homer time because I have been saving him for last, and I am tired of thinking of new angles on the weird, terrible, actually kind-of-good-in-some-ways-that-are-tough-to-admit year of 2020.

He was the best part, and like most best parts was a complete surprise. Some of the other topics I have covered in this little series of covid texts probably had more to do with what Glasstire does, which is Texas art. I could have squeezed out a few more in that vein. Maybe something on the handful of distinct animal-shaped mailboxes in my neighborhood, or the woman who stood out on the sidewalk with a folding table and sold greeting card reproductions of her terrific paintings. I could have even perhaps written something about the house that I snuck by guiltily, the one with the big cartoonish sculpture of a bathing man sitting in the lawn. Almost certainly the person who lived there was the same man who, right after I moved to town, was very kind to me at a museum. He toured me and my visiting friend Rosa around, then gave us his phone number and warmly told us to come by his house whenever. The piece of paper with his info written on it is still in my old wallet, unused. I regret not following through, but my pre-pandemic time in Houston was wobbly at best.

Anyhow, these anecdotes could have made fine “Exposure Therapies.” But I just saw Houston again for the first time in almost two years, and I have an urge to shed the past while also feeling it as much as possible. The last task is to indulge in sentimental thoughts of Homer, an orange tabby cat who was not mine, but nevertheless enlisted me as his vassal.

A mailbox ornament of a cat

We met on April 18, one of the days in Houston when the weather was so nice that it was possible to forget it soon wouldn’t be. I had an apartment on the second story of a mostly empty building in a nice area. My place faced the street, which I could monitor beyond a strange scraggly area where squirrels played. He came in through the living room window. While standing in my kitchen, I heard a complicated thud behind my back. An interesting and deeply primitive part of my brain understood the sound came from a set of four deft animal paws as they made immediately successive, but not concurrent, landings. He must have come up the outdoor stairs onto my patio, avoided the pitfall between the railing and the first floor awning, and slinked along the wall before plopping into my life.

I turned around, the cat looked at me and gave an overly familiar meow. Hello, I said. Without hesitation he began inspecting every corner of the living room, and then inspected my ankles. Immediately and forever a confusing cat, in some areas he was well groomed, while other tufts of fur were deeply muddied. Within a few minutes he had decided that I was the most interesting thing in my apartment, and I felt the same about him. Whatever I had been doing in the kitchen when he showed up was completely forgotten; my job was only to be near a cat. His bright purple collar had an orange, cat head-shaped metal tag. “HOMER.” A little self-portrait. On the back of the tag I found a phone number, which I called. A kind-sounding feminine voice answered:

“Hello?”
“Do you have a cat named Homer? He just came into my apartment.”
“Oh yes, he does that. I’m sorry. You can send him on his way if he’s bothering you.”
“He’s actually not bothering me at all. He’s nice.”
“He’s sweet. He’ll hang out as long as you let him.”

I let him. What fun. He found a corner of my rug where he could preen himself in relative seclusion, and I watched him like he was a television. At the time I considered myself primarily a dog person, but once lockdown kicked in all the dogs I encountered were nothing more than objects that barked at me from behind neighbors’ fences. There was quiet promise in cats. Here was my proof. After weeks of anxious and solitary living, to have another breathing creature in my apartment was a miracle. But then I thought too much about his breaths. In that stage of the crisis, there was some rumbling about cats being able to transmit covid to people. My anxiety around the pandemic was probably at its peak then. I was a grocery bleacher, a glove wearer, panicked to cross paths with someone on the road. It is my nature to ignore problems for as long as possible and then dip into the most dramatic form of dread before stabilizing at a reasonable level of worry.

Regretfully, I shooed Homer out my front door. Was it already too late? This very social cat could be a superspreader. Oh no, I thought. Then he jumped back through the window. I panicked and shooed him out again, or I gave up and cuddled him because he was neat — some details are entirely lost to the tangled traumas of the early 2020s. Either way, he eventually left, but not before attempting a third trip through the window after I closed it. As I would learn in the coming months, Homer had his own agenda.

Photo of a cat peeking through a window

In the days that followed, my friend Jessi told me, in her kind and convincing manner, that I was dumb for thinking the nice cat had murdered me with germs. Relief and regret entered. I should have let him stick around.

Photo of a blue tarp above green bushes

Photo of standing water

A month or so passed before I saw Homer again. Big Covid — a term I like for delineating the weighty era between pandemic declaration and vaccine rollout — was a time of almost nothing but walks. From my apartment, inside the orderly, gridded streets of Houston Heights, there were nearly endless routes a person could take on foot. An ambulator might even visit the high school that kept its running track open after classes went virtual. Mostly, I liked to crisscross the neighborhood, maybe take pictures, monitor the slow or sometimes abrupt changes in people’s front lawns.

As the months passed I expanded my boundaries out to the major highways that hemmed in the Greater Heights, and found cold joy in quiet parking lots. But the school track occasionally provided a nice break from routine. There was nothing to look at, and plenty of room. It was like one of those labyrinths monks do, but just an uncomplicated oval near some little bleachers and abandoned football stuff — a real thinkin’ route. On one of my trips to the track, someone had left a half-consumed bottle of Gatorade on the bleachers, which I avoided as if it was radioactive. On another occasion, after I’d done my laps and was headed home, I noticed Homer for the second time. He was stalking a bird in somebody’s front lawn about three blocks from my place. Like any overconfident amateur, he looked endearingly foolish doing it. The pigeon clearly saw him, half behind a tree with head low and tail high, and knew itself to be in no danger whatsoever (why does it feel sadly impossible to refer to a pigeon by any pronoun other than “it?”).

I made matters worse with a too-quick approach, which caused the pigeon to fly off and Homer to roll over onto his back in search of a little belly scratch. It was as if the bird had never been there. Homer and I began to chat. As he flopped around all goofy-like, I told him it was nice to see him again, that I hoped he’d come back to visit my place sometime. It is pretty likely I actually said “don’t be a stranger” aloud when I eventually headed home and he switched back to looking for something to kill.

Photo of a cat lying on cement porch stairs

A water bottle on top of a tree stump

Reader, I kid you not, he showed up on my patio within a week. So much of me knows it was a coincidence, but so much more of me knows it was because I invited him. This time he announced himself not with a dramatic entry, but with a meek meow from the other side of my front door. I was reading a book. As soon as I heard him whining I knew it could be no other animal. He was inside before I had the door half-open, darting past me and resuming the home inspection bit he’d begun on his first visit.

This time he made for my bedroom, where he found instant delight in the weighted blanket crumpled up on my bed. It belonged, he decided, in his mouth. I realized at this moment, for my sake more than his, I needed to do everything I could to give him a pleasant stay. If he wanted to chew and claw at my bedding, he could. Luckily, cat logic dictated the blanket was my only possession he ever needed to wreck. Two years later his bite marks are still perceptible, little frayed ringlets that stick up from the otherwise smooth surface. If I got in bed with him, he bit my chin instead. It was possible to watch his brain switch, without a transitional moment, from one task to the next. Blanket sufficiently eaten? Time to hurry under the table and stare at empty space. The tone in my apartment shifted completely once he came around. A joyous occasion, the return of not my cat. I tried to feed him something, maybe some cheese.

A cat lounging in a bed

Rebar, a picket fence, and cement

Not because of the cheese — which he rejected — he started coming around every few days. He learned that he could show up at pretty much any hour for a bit of attention and shelter, or to continue destroying my blanket. During rainstorms I practically left the door open for him. If I was on a walk or something, he stretched out on my patio between potted plants until I came home. He strictly left before dinner time — would be fully asleep atop my camera bag and then abruptly decide it was time to leave and paw at my front door until I opened it. A few times I encountered him out in the world and he followed me home. He steadily trailed about fifteen feet behind me, and if I turned to look at him he stopped in his tracks. Exactly like the ghosts in Mario. As soon as I spun back around and started to move again, so did he. This could go on for blocks, and up my stairs, before he sped past me and into my place as I opened the door.

An orange cat next to a halloween decoration

Still of a movie being watched on a computer

A cat lying on a blue carpet

Homer became, for a time, the most regular character in my life and a real companion in everything I did. Maybe he saved my mind. He was a warm and calming presence, posed for my art, and would test my scattershot furniture mock-ups in their capacity as pedestals for self-grooming. His face made it impossible to give in to worry. We spent a whole year — a long time in a restless life — in each others’ company. My living situations as an adult have never felt stable enough for me to acquire a pet, but Homer was more like a visiting spirit I relished in accommodating. I like to think we both benefited. It was fun to say his name in a low tone, drawing out the “o” sound for as long as possible. I did that a lot, whether or not he was around. Loving a nonhuman is cool and easy. I have no interest in debating whether I was loved back. 

Bucky Miller standing next to a box replica

Cat lying with an orange with a smiley face

He sometimes lost his collar and showed up naked, then a few days later it would be replaced with a similar one in a different color. I remember blue, green, and orange. The one time I met his actual owner was around Christmas. Homer stumbled in with a big chunk taken out of his cheek, looking like he’d had a violent altercation with some other creature. Not knowing his vet, I called the number on his tag for the second time. She came over and, with gratitude, took Homer home. He stopped coming around after that, and I grew more worried about him by the day. But a few weeks into the new year I returned from a grocery run and found him freshly healed and eager to come inside and do nothing with me.

Since I never got her name, his owner’s number was saved in my phone as “Homer.” She only contacted me one other time, a text that said: “Have you seen Homer today? He hasn’t been home.” It read like a transmission from a tragically introspective cat.

Photo of bare trees and a night sky

We played with shoelaces.

A cat paw through a red picket fence

Spring eventually returned and brought available vaccines with it. I had been, before covid, terminally detached from my surroundings and in need of motion, change. As I received my first Moderna injection I decided conclusively that I would skip town when I got my second. This meant letting go of a few things, like the newly reemerging immediacy of some friendships and a tranquil job alphabetizing novels.

More than those, it meant losing someone else’s pet. One morning around this time I was sitting at my table, drinking coffee and looking out the same window through which Homer first made himself known. I recognized his owner walking along the street with what I assumed was the rest of the family. There was a man, and at least one kid on a scooter. Some fifteen feet behind, there walked Homer. He was intently stalking his kin, faithfully keeping his distance. He’d be fine. I simply had to go.

A cat lying on a bed

He happened by as I was loading the U-Haul. That was tough. I remember how squishy he felt that day, as if my friend had been a plush toy that whole time. We took a selfie together, my idea. I got in the truck and cried to music. Then I moved out of the state.

October, 2022. While visiting Austin for work, I stopped back in Houston to see some art (a failure; why is the museum closed on Tuesday?) and some friends (a success!). The other item on my agenda was to search for Homer, whose framed portrait was displayed in my new bedroom. After driving by my old apartment (straighten the blinds, current resident!), I parked by the high school with the track (now behind a locked gate) and walked familiar circuits around my former neighborhood. It struck me, with force, how many pictures I made on those streets during Big Covid.

The challenge was to not appear like a prowler in the eyes of porchbound residents. Most things looked the same, though there were agreeably more live pigs around than there used to be. I walked until it was dark, kicking around thoughts of how deceptively simple our complicated year in the Heights had been. Along the way I double-checked all the hidey holes from which Homer had once greeted me. He wasn’t there. I couldn’t find him. Then again, I never could. He always just showed up. I have to believe he’s doing well.

When returning to Houston after a substantial absence, the warm dusky air feels especially thick. It is kind of like wearing another layer of clothes, one made out of particles instead of fiber. I let it hug me as I drifted, catless and resigned, down the middle of a dim residential street. My car’s headlights blinked at me in the distance. There were places I needed to be. It is easy, I find, to be angry at the things one desires from life. Too often, those aspirations rend away a Homer. I genuinely have no idea what to do about it. But I have all these pictures, and we had that year.

A cat sitting on a fence

 

2 comments

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2 comments

Hannah Dean January 17, 2023 - 13:26

Aw, Homer. Really love this. PS, I’m pretty sure my s-i-l has sent me video of some of those pigs 🙂

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Pat Johnson January 17, 2023 - 15:00

That was lovely. I’m sick at home with covid after avoiding it for three years. I needed to hear about Homer

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