Crawlspace Toilet

Day three. Still no poop or pee in my cat’s litter box. No amount of digging in the corn-based, eco-friendly, “if you were hungry enough you could eat it!” cat litter produced a sign that my cat was doing two of the few things that she’s supposed to do on a daily basis. Full disclosure: I have no idea how bodies work. Human, feline, or otherwise. But I have enough experience with going to the bathroom to know that if I didn’t do it for three days, the odds of me dying would be high. And the same stuff comes out of the cat. Therefore, I deduced that the cat is dying. 

To silence the part of my brain repeating “the cat is dying,” I did the thing that I do best – 30 seconds of frantic internet research. “Cat+no+poop+pee+3+days” produced thousands of results, all saying the same thing – if your cat isn’t dying, it’s already dead. I tried reasoning with the results. “But I’m looking at my very much alive cat right now, she seems fine.” The word “NO” flashed on the screen, followed by pixelated skulls all screaming the words, “CAT KILLER.”

It was time to gently break the news to my wife that the cat was dying or already dead. Maybe I could start referring to the cat in the past tense, reflecting on the good times we had before her excretory system shut down. But wait, no. Too confusing. The charade falls apart when the cat is rubbing on my leg as I tearfully recount the time we had a cat that was alive. Instead, I used my best “this is an extremely casual conversation” voice. It’s the voice I use to hide the fact that my brain is broken by even the slightest change in routine. The voice that I run through a calming translator, that turns indecipherable sentence fragments into complete thoughts, punctuated with very cool chuckles. The voice that says look, I could totally handle this situation on my own. But I was wondering if we could have a quick talk about the cat and her toilet and also everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life for the next six hours. 

“OK, first of all you need to calm down,” was my wife’s response. It seemed my calming translator was malfunctioning. “She’s probably just going somewhere else in the house.” This notion seemed ridiculous to me, as her top-of-the-line litter box was the winner of the 2009 International Contemporary Furniture design award, and I was promised “an unparalleled experience” not just for my cat, but for me as well. It was a fully enclosed space capsule looking-thing that could almost pass for an end table in which sometimes there’s a cat inside of it taking a shit. Or in this case, not taking a shit. A built-in scoop caddy, reusable liners for easy disposal. Imagine kicking back after a long day and resting a drink on this thing. I suppose that would be an unparalleled experience. After years of uninterrupted use, the cat decided otherwise.  

This is my first pet. As a child I was told that I was allergic to cats, a lie that was fabricated so that I would stop asking for a cat. I am not allergic to cats. I am however allergic to every tree known to man, which I discovered during an allergy test, the results of which lit my arm up like the surface of the sun at the mere mention of oak. The cat and I have formed a co-dependant, symbiotic relationship over the years, and our daily rituals are specific, complicated, and vital to our survival. We’re both creatures of habit, and anything out of the ordinary for one of us sends the other one into a state of panic that can only be resolved by things going back to normal as quickly as possible. The cat gets upset when I don’t feed her at exactly 8:20 every morning. I get upset when she doesn’t use the bathroom at regular intervals. 

My wife called the vet. I helped by curling myself into a small ball on the kitchen floor. I could overhear her “uh-huh’s” and “ok’s” as I tried to see if it would be possible to wedge myself behind the radiator. Just, y’know, disappear for a bit until this whole thing blows over. The call ended. “What did he say? Is she dying? Is she dead?” I braced myself for the news, thumbs hovering over my phone’s screen, ready to start googling a fresh round of deadly symptoms and misspelled diseases. “He said she’s probably just going somewhere else in the house.”

We checked under the beds. We checked the closets. Nothing. Then I remembered the crawlspace underneath the basement stairs, where we store junk that we have no memory of inheriting, like a single folding chair, and broken electronics, like two dustbusters that came with the house. I turned on my phone’s flashlight to illuminate the dark corners of the crawlspace and saw what could only be described as the gates of hell. Three days of cat waste in awful piles. Rivers of urine staining the concrete floor, obscured only by the shadows of hot pipes overhead. It was like a missing scene from the Nine Inch Nails “Closer” video that they could only show at 2 in the morning. A naked woman, blindfolded and lounging near a side of beef. A crucified chimp. Cat poop near two dustbusters.  

Cleaning the crawlspace involved shuffling on my hands and knees, scrubbing the concrete floor with heavy duty pet urine cleaner, waiting five to ten minutes for the chemicals to do their thing, then wiping up the runoff with a thousand paper towels, all while bashing my head against the previously mentioned hot pipes. We moved her space-age litter box into the crawlspace, since she was making it obvious that this dark, spider infested slab would be a great place to go to the bathroom, but still, she preferred the floor. This continued for a week, and after the third day, which also happened to be Christmas, my brain started to produce a chemical that made me think I was smelling cat piss twenty four hours a day. I kept this fun development from my wife until I brewed a pot of the fancy coffee she gave me for Christmas, and had myself a merry nervous breakdown when it tasted like the floor of the cat’s crawlspace toilet.

“Don’t you like it?” she asked. I held up my index finger, which as we all know is the sign for “Give me a minute while I google ‘coffee+urine+taste+?’ and get depressed about the ways in which my brain doesn’t work in stressful situations.” There’s a straight line running through my mind labeled “everything is fine,” then the cat goes to the bathroom on the floor, the line skyrockets, and then nothing is fine. There are bigger problems in the world, sure, but this one is in front of me right now, and in order to feel any semblance of control, I need to rock tumble the problem in my brain a few hundred thousand times. I obsess and then obsess over the fact that I’m obsessing. But I can’t let anyone know that I’m obsessing, so I bottle it up and then obsess some more until, ultimately, coffee tastes like cat piss.

I was on the verge of a full mental break, so it was time to throw money at the situation. A normal, pedestrian, open air litter box was purchased, along with normal, non-corn-based, non-edible litter. In terms of bathroom downgrades, this was like going from a self cleaning, self flushing, bluetooth enabled toilet from Japan to a wooden bucket or a hole in the ground. But that’s all it took. Almost as quickly as it began, the standoff ended. Waste was deposited in the litter box again. Coffee tasted like coffee again. I gave the floor one last chemical scrub and we packed every large bin in the house into the offending area, leaving just enough room for the litterbox. Since that now meant we couldn’t reach it without climbing into the crawlspace, we bought a long extendable claw arm to grab the box and drag it closer for daily scooping. This setup turns litter box maintenance into a bizarre crane game, where every prize is sandy cat waste. 

The instructions that I leave for cat sitters are pure madness. “Ok now you want to grab the box with the extendable claw arm, but don’t pull too hard because you’ll dump the box all over yourself. When you’re done scooping, I’ve found it’s best to squeeze the handle on the claw arm so that it’s in the closed position, like a fist, then use it to slide the box back into the crevice. Also I’m sorry there are so many spiders. Funny story, they’re not actually spiders, but something called cave crickets! They look like spiders, but they can jump. Please help yourself to anything in the fridge.”  

In the end, all the cat wanted was a less complicated box and a dark quiet place to call her own. And who couldn’t relate to that? For once the internet was wrong. The cat wasn’t dying or already dead. She was just getting weird in the crawlspace. 

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