Imagine if The Nothing from Neverending Story coupled with a bumbling cartoon bear forever getting its head stuck in pots of honey. That’s Milo! Born of the dumpsters, he spent three years living in a well-appointed cat rescue shelter in northeast Portland, passed over (they guessed) because of his age and because he’s black. Superstitions die hard, and more than one shelter volunteer has told me black animals don’t photograph well, their personalities don’t come through so easily. It’s true. In his most expressive photo from the House of Dream’s Instagram account, Milo is mid-silent-meow, and looks not unlike Sloth from The Goonies—which is to say, disoriented and asymmetric.
He was 11 to 15 years old when he appeared in a friend’s Facebook feed, resembling an older, scrappier, all-around thicker version of the cat we already had. (Carlos had been plucked from a skidrow flophouse as a kitten nine years before.) We agreed: This should be in our home.
Milo has the grace and gait of our state animal, the noble beaver. When a bumblebee appeared inside the house during the winter, we figured Milo had simply hiccuped it into existence. We’ve started taking viral quizzes, both real and imagined, on his behalf, deciding that if he were a fast food franchise, he’d be Arby’s; if he were a character from The Princess Bride, he’d be an R.O.U.S. His dog breed counterpart? The goofy, mighty Leonberger.
The best way to describe Carlos and Milo sitting side by side is to imagine that two animators—one with a background in anime, and one a veteran of the Soviet-era, "Vinni Pukh" school of illustration—attempted to draw the same cat.
There wasn’t anything terribly mysterious about Milo, aside from what we assumed to be a Dickensian early life. But when one of the publications I write for was running an article about an animal intuitionist, and they needed to photograph a reading in progress, I conveniently forgot the aesthetic challenge Milo presented. I could sense the guy was carrying around a good hobo-narrative, and I hoped a self-described psychic operating out of a suburban livingroom might be able to tease it out of him.
But I also volunteered Milo because I grew up in a New Age enclave in southern California. I wonder sometimes if my tolerance for the parapsychological is higher, similar to how people who grew up at high altitudes don’t get winded as easily as the rest of us.
We drove Milo to a condo in Beaverton, where everything was as it should be: “Rhonda” was middle-aged and with more than a hint of Brooklyn in her voice, her reading scored by an iTunes playlist stocked with unobtrusive Celtic concept albums. I remember she spoke fondly of her husband, and dropped him in conversation so often, still so taken with everyday examples of his thoughtfulness, that I wondered if they hadn’t been married very long.
Tracy and I were tight-lipped about Milo’s origins.
Rhonda stared at him for a moment. "He says, 'I don't want no trouble.’ He's got that kind of personality, ‘You talking to me?' He has a little bit of a street personality, like somebody who could swagger."
We thought back to the dumpsters.
“He used to live with a mentally unhinged person, who would scream a lot,” Rhonda said. “He didn’t spend much time with his mother or his siblings. He was taken away early. The family he lived with struggled with money. When they left, they didn’t take him.”
That’s why he ran at the sound of a friend’s four-year-old: he couldn’t save that other child, so now he feels shame around all children, Rhonda explained.
Milo told us, through the medium (of) Rhonda:
• He was a mouser. (We had seen him in flights of sudden fancy, chasing a stray Q-tip across the hardwood floors to create the thrill of the hunt for himself. It reminded me a little of growing up an only child.)
• He believes he is the alpha cat of the house. (If true, that’s a total misreading of the situation.)
• He believed he was five. When we told Rhonda he was off by about a decade, she paused and said, “Oh, he says he doesn’t get time. He says, ‘I’m a kitten.’’” (It might have been a quick save on her part, but to look at Milo, he is clearly a creature who cannot be too concerned with the unrelenting march of hours, years.)
• Everyone was just complaining in the shelter.
• He liked me. He thought I was kind. But I also had a tendency to get very anxious, he said.
“It doesn't bother him,” she told me, “it bothers him for you.”
• He’s a storyteller. He would like if sometimes, when I’m at my laptop, I let him sit in my lap and mentally telegraph his ideas to me. (The ergonomics of that arrangement are difficult to imagine, because of Milo’s girth. Also I suspect most of the premises he’s trying to pitch are of the buddy cop variety.)
• He thought the photographer’s shutter sounded like a snake.
• “Carlos does bad things when you’re away.” (Carlos does bad things when we’re there.
The boy’s a dendrophiliac, going through about three potted palms a year. But then he must be polyamorous, too, because he always carries on in full view of the throw blanket.)
It was kind of Milo, we later agreed, not to mention all the drinking.
“When he stands on your chest, when you’re laying down,” Rhonda said—with impressive confidence, considering she didn’t stop to ask if he actually ever did that, and he does, daily—“it’s because he’s trying to heal your heart chakra.”
This was consistent with energy work I’d witnessed in my hometown.
Then I asked, “Why does he hit me in the face?”
“I think he was a healer,” Rhonda considered. “There’s this thing called tapping. And he's basically doing the same thing, it's like a wakeup call. He's telepathic, he knows what you're thinking, what you're feeling at the moment. He’s trying to bring you out of negative mind chatter.”
She asked me to take note of what thought I’m in the middle of when he does it. To date, he has slapped some sense into me in the middle of the odd, unhelpful musing—specifically, Is getting to this age without a single unplanned pregnancy the result of luck and personal responsibility, or am I just infertile?—but also in the midst of a harmless wiki-tear, like when I’d just realized Gilda Radner was once married to G.E. Smith, better known (to me, at least) as that really cocky guy who fronted the SNL band in the early ‘80s.
Then Rhonda told me, on Milo’s behalf, “You do too much for other people.”
These readings depend on audience participation, and benefit from audience projection. So this struck me as a safe statement, even though I demurred. I don’t volunteer so often anymore, unless “not always claiming overtime” counts; my philanthropic streak peaked (then ended) with my record salary, in 2008; my parents live nearby, but they’re only just closing in on AARP memberships and are highly self-sufficient. Most people in my life are self-sufficient.
But it occurred to me that for the previous month I’d been falling into bed and going to sleep by about nine each night, exhausted from trying to strike that elusive work/“helping a former boyfriend through a mental breakdown” balance.
I didn’t think I’d done too much. I’d made phone calls, first to a former public defender I knew and then to the county mental health crisis line. I went with my former for his first court appearance for trespassing, because a disordered mind doesn’t always take seriously repeated requests to leave 24-hour diners. I reminded myself, “This is what unmedicated sounds like” when, in the waiting room of an outpatient clinic, he heavily implied I’d slept with Samuel Beckett. I visited him during his voluntary psychiatric hold, when he was stabilized and humble and taken care of and content and, not surprisingly, at his most likable. I fielded concerned phone calls from his mother, and self-righteous texts from his sister, who arguably wasn’t concerned enough. I maintained a basic understanding of criminal law and the county’s court-sanctioned drug intervention program.
To Milo, it must have seemed a bit incomprehensible, the way it seems to me in hindsight.
I’m sure he sensed some mild tension, but this debacle meant that other areas of my life quieted down, so we spent more time together. (Milo tends to prefer the company of whoever’s already on her back.) And so we experienced an especially confusing introduction to True Detective, when HBOGo played the first four episodes out of order.
The night after we read Milo’s mind, the man I couldn’t really do anything more for left me a series of haughty voicemails on my silenced phone. (Haughty voicemails are easier to swing than support groups or self-evaluation, I understand.) As I got ready to unleash the rapid-fire texts that come from exhausted indignation, Milo jumped onto my thorax. To heal my heart chakra, I guessed.
But instead he sat on my hands and rolled himself over my upright phone, muffling the whole endeavor.
Saundra Sorenson is a friend to animals and a journalist based in Portland, Ore.