Dan asks what I do for a living.
“I’m a writer,” I say. “But I’m taking a break to work in a neonatal kitten nursery.”
“It’s a shelter that only takes in kittens less than two months old.”
His face brightens. “So you get paid to play with kittens all day? That’s amazing!”
Incapable of playing it coy, I explain the less-than-twee realities of my job. (I fail to mention my very real fear that I have cat litter in my hair thanks to the cardboard litter box that collapsed over my head at work as I was pulling it off a shelf.)
“Uh, nope, sadly. I spend half the day deep-cleaning cages, and the other half frantically running back and forth preparing food and bottles of formula for the youngest ones.” I explain how — working at said nursery four times a week for 9-hour stretches that begin at 7 a.m. and are a 90-minute commute away — I’ve never been so chronically exhausted. I tell him that about 25 percent of our kittens die. I tell him I have a senior cat at home, and two newly adopted kittens from work. I’m not sure why I’m doing this, I say.
But I’ve always loved animals, and I needed a change. After I tell him all this, I watch his eyes start to crumple — Crazy Cat Lady alert! — as he suggests we close out the tab.
Most of my dates have gone a little something like this since I moved from Washington, D.C., to Brooklyn in April to start my unique and uniquely draining new life.
I used to be your average freelance writer — I spent the bulk of each day home alone, hunched over my MacBook in loungewear. Periodically I’d bumble into my kitchen for coffee or chocolate; anything to break up the endless expanse of minutes. I had a lifestyle some folks might kill for, but in the process I’d developed carpal tunnel, insomnia and a chip on my shoulder. I was sick of struggling to string together meaningful sentences for websites that might not be around in a year. I was sick of compulsively hiding Facebook posts about faraway friends’ shiny new book deals, engagements and offspring.
Dating in D.C. had been fine, meh, whatever. But despite my feminist sensibilities, I was lonely. No, I didn’t need a partner to be whole, and yes, I’d rather be Forever Alone than with the wrong person. But I’d never planned on being single THIS LONG.
Throughout my 30s, I had half-listened as New Agey friends lectured me about arranging my life — and my newly purchased home — as if Mr. Imaginary Future Perfect were already in it. Some of it was feng shui lite: “Display pairs of trinkets instead of solo ones.” “Toss the sullen single-girl artwork.” “Make your house the spatial equivalent of a cozy, oversize blanket.” My new cottage’s second bedroom, which I’d envisioned becoming a baby nursery, instead became my office — and I grew increasingly irritated by the idea of building my life around a beautiful fantasy relationship that might never materialize.
Putting my career as a writer on hold to work with animals was a dramatic leap. But when I told well-meaning friends that I was thinking about adopting two kittens from the nursery, they grew palpably alarmed: “But what if you start dating someone? What if he has animals, too?” That wouldn’t be surprising, actually. A recent study from the research firm Mintel found that three-fourths of Americans in their 30s have dogs and 51 percent have cats. So why did my friends think that working in a shelter and owning three cats had nudged me over the wrong side of an invisible line from “normal but unlucky in love” to “utterly undateable?”
The thing was, I didn’t care. I’d killed a surprisingly high percentage of my vanity the moment I began working in that nursery. Not only was I wearing heinous purple scrubs, but I was making just over minimum wage scrubbing kitten poop for 9 hours a day. Looking cute and feigning interest in tepid dates was no longer a top priority.
While my work at the nursery has been infinitely more stressful than I anticipated, it has also reminded me that pursuing the things I genuinely care about is more important to me than hiding who I am to remain “datable” for a man who may or may not show up. I am a cat lady — the non-crazy kind, thanks — so I’ve started putting my love for animals front and center on my dating profiles. For the right man, it’s going to be a good thing. Hey, maybe he’ll have three dogs, and we can move upstate and open a shelter of our own. I can’t imagine a more perfect pan-out … but of course, I’m not planning on it.