“Exile in Catville” by Helena de Bres

Julia de Bres and Charnce Williams

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about Mittens, a twelve-year-old Turkish Angora who lives a ten-minute drive from my pandemic residence. His coat is fluffy and soft like you can’t imagine, light ginger for the most part, with a white mane that reaches, lion-like, down the full length of his chest. His paws are snowy, his legs faintly striped, and his caramel feather-duster tail extends for days. An alabaster blaze runs down his forehead and nose, dividing a pair of expressive chartreuse eyes—often zen, occasionally stern, sometimes party-boy manic. While his face isn’t classically beautiful, his charm and grace are off the charts, and they say that to see him is to want to plunge your hands into his fur forever.

Like me, Mittens grew up in the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, then moved, like me, to Wellington at the age of seven. That’s where our similarities end, not only because he’s a cat and I later emigrated to the United States, but because he’s a clinically extroverted social media celebrity. His daily routine involves wandering up to a mile from his central city apartment, to interact with humans with a gregariousness way outside the norm for his skittish species, and for New Zealanders in general. He visits tattoo parlors, yoga studios, medical centers, real estate agencies, noodle bars, hotels, museums and office buildings. He curls up on people’s laps while they’re having haircuts, participates in employee health and safety presentations, drops in to the Anglican church for choir practice, and attends university lectures, meowing during the group discussion. There are pictures of him posed on the leather seat of a moped, sleeping on a suitcase in the window of a vintage store, perched on an amplifier at a music venue, and sunning under the windshields of dozens of parked cars. He once crashed the New Zealand Film Commission’s Thursday night happy hour—it’s on the third floor, he took the elevator—drank water heavily from a crystal glass, then passed out on top of the photocopier. At the end of the day he hitches rides up the hill in citizens’ arms and jumps off at his door. It’s rumored that he lost his collar one night at a strip club and his owner had to be called at 2 a.m. to carry him home. He went to church the next morning.

Someone at the SPCA created a Facebook page for Mittens in 2018, as a way of discouraging Wellingtonians from dropping him off at the shelter. “Mittens is not lost,” the page says. Also “No speculating or asking where Mittens is…If someone sees him, they will post about it. He finds you.” The page now has seventy thousand followers, a higher-status portion of whom share daily reports of personal encounters with “The King” for a rapt international audience. The “pawparazzi” and their selfie ambitions clog Mittens’ progress through the city, but so far he remains both tolerant and unmolested. Everything about him feels like a miracle.

Mittens’ fame and honors surged last year, shortly after New Zealand emerged from its first national lockdown in May. The Mayor of Wellington, dressed in full regalia, presented him with a Key to the City, accompanied by a miniature key for his collar (which was already majestic: a red ribbon suspending a gold medallion on which his phone number was engraved.) He then had a personal exhibition at the Wellington Museum and was nominated for New Zealander of the Year, alongside the country’s prime minister.

I was late to this party: I only heard of Mittens’ existence last August, when I fled the U.S., to ride out the pandemic in my childhood home in Wellington. After my distressing departure from Northern California, which was in literal flames as I left, the idea of this universally beloved cat lolling about louchely in the laps of strangers, enjoying a level of freedom and social contact that few humans on the planet currently possessed, instantly lowered my blood pressure. In that dismal pre-election period, Mittens seemed like the anti-Trump: orange and attention-hungry, yes, but also dignified, wise and public-spirited. His photographic calendar had raised money for homeless animals, and the proceeds of his song (which reached #1 in all genres on NZ iTunes) were to go to the Mental Health Foundation. I felt that Mittens cared about me, a refugee of sorts who had not been sleeping well for months. I signed up for his page.

Until this point in my life, when it came to New Zealanders, I’d been obsessed not with Mittens but, like everyone else in my progressive demographic, with Jacinda Ardern. Her swift, rational and empathetic response to the pandemic was only the latest in a series of classy moves that had my American friends rabid with envy. Foreigners are always fetishizing New Zealand (“it’s so beautiful!”) and I generally don’t pay much attention. Every country has its pros and cons, and growing up somewhere tends to inure you to its particular charms. Beyoncé’s kids probably don’t spend their childhood saying, “OMG, Mom, you’re so hot!” while she’s making them breakfast. But this time around, I admitted the Americans had a point. New Zealand was turning into some kind of political paradise—from a distance, anyway—and its people were also not dying in huge numbers as a result of assholery and incompetence. I started to feel more homesick than I had in two decades.

Back in pathogen-ridden, ashy, white-fragile Palo Alto, I had a recurring dream about chasing Jacinda Ardern around the streets of Auckland, trying to get her to have a drink with me. The most efficient way to do it seemed to be to kidnap her baby at midnight and get her to bring the ransom—herself—to the top of Mt Eden, one of the city’s dormant volcanoes. In the dream she refused, but, you know, politely, and then set her security forces on me. “Go hard, go early,” as she says in her COVID response briefings. I respected the move.

After I arrived in New Zealand and joined the Mittens page, an association began to form in my mind between Jacinda—omitting her surname is sexist, but I pick my battles—and Silvio Bruinsma, Mittens’ owner. Silvio is something of a mystery: a baby-faced handsome man of indeterminate nationality who works in “Assurance and Advisory” at Deloitte, whatever that means. His wardrobe is corporate-casual, but his apartment, which appears in the background of the Mittens pics he posts, is plastered with a baroque chocolate brown wallpaper covered in garlands of creamy roses. The general picture is confusing and mildly alluring , in a reassuringly vanilla way. Silvio has something the whole of Wellington wants, but he wears his privilege lightly. His infrequent posts about his famous cat are restrained and wholesome. He and Jacinda are both constitutionally calm and collected: letting the New Zealanders in their charge roam free, like treasured pets who deserve their liberty, then locking us up swiftly when necessary out of concern for our safety.

When I woke at 3 a.m. in those first few months and checked Facebook to distract myself, I often migrated to Mittens’ page. Then I fell back asleep, sometimes into a fitful new dream, in which Silvio and Jacinda were romantically involved. Why was I shipping them? Maybe because, with my long straight dark hair and misaligned teeth, I’m repeatedly told I look like her, and with his civilian cat-owner status and exotic, possibly Dutch surname, I feel a broad kinship with him. Them making out is a bit like each of them making out with me. What can I say, it made me feel better.

My everyday life in New Zealand has been extraordinary over the past year, in being almost totally ordinary. The country shut its borders to non-nationals shortly after the pandemic erupted, and everyone who’s entered since has had to spend two weeks in a government-run “managed isolation facility” (in many cases, a commandeered luxury hotel), until they’re confirmed COVID-negative. There have been only three minor outbreaks of cases outside these quarantine stations, and so far they’ve been swiftly crushed by decisive and transparent isolation and distancing requirements, with which the population has generally complied. As a result, with the exception of those whose work depends on international tourism, most people have gone about their business and social lives as if the virus never happened.

I’ve spent my average pandemic day writing in one of a range of excellent cafés, then driving round the waterfront to swim at a gorgeous mid-century pool that juts ship-like into Wellington Harbor. After my leisurely laps I head to the hot tub, on a raised terrace, where I exchange steamy air at close quarters with random virus-free compatriots and enjoy the view of gulls dipping through the blue against a backdrop of forested hills. Would it be self-pitying to say that the sheer pleasantness of this has also been hard? Yes it would, but it’s nonetheless true that living in Eden while the Hell you actuallylive in is falling apart is psychically unsettling. Everything is fine! my senses tell me. The fuck it is! my mind buzzes. It can make you feel a little crazy.

I’ve dealt with this dissonance by focusing on work. Part of that has been online teaching for my job back in the USA, which has come with the standard struggles. During one lecture my parents’ cat Daisy dropped a live mouse on my foot; while a student was giving a presentation on the value of achievement, the other cat quietly vomited. The rest of it has been writing my book , in those seaside cafes or at the university library. Getting to the latter involves going up Mittens’ street, The Terrace, past one of Wellington’s managed isolation hotels. A newspaper reported last August that Mittens had made several illegal attempts to enter the facility, like a saint administering to a leper colony. The paper said the guards “don’t want people who could potentially have COVID to fawn over him, creating a risk he could carry the virus back out to the unsuspecting public.” One employee said “Mittens isn’t allowed into the facility. We’ve got to try and get him out if he gets in. It was the first time for me seeing Mittens yesterday and he was here three times.” I sensed a kindred spirit.

When my father gives me a lift up to the library on rainy days, I make a habit of calling Mittens’ name as we drive up The Terrace, sort of to entertain my dad, who is not a cat lover, but also to conjure Mittens to me. I am desperate to meet him, like all the children of Wellington living with their parents. I have not managed it, despite going on an actual expedition with my sister, her kid and our cousin, in which we circled his regular haunts, dividing the collective visual field exhaustively between us as we advanced in a grim phalanx down the sidewalk. Prior to the outing I went through the recent backlog of Mittens sightings, trying to triangulate in on the exact house he and Silvio live in. There is in fact a Mittens map that does this for you, but that feels like cheating. There’s also something untoward about it, like purchasing indulgences. He finds you. My own efforts feel counterproductive, like trying very hard to have an orgasm. I haven’t given up.

So far my contact with Mittens remains indirect, through checking his FB page every night. It’s not as feminine an environment as you might think. A man named Jon recently posted a close-up of himself with The King, with the caption “soft as cashmere.” A daughter in Colombia reports that her chief way of interacting with her father, who has dementia, is responding to his daily demands for Mittens content. There’s a lot of fan art, which, through well-meaning lack of skill, often twists Mittens’ angular yet affable face into an alarming grimace. Someone recently posted a pic of their Mittens tattoo, still red around the edges, which features our man rolling around with come-hither eyes under a New Zealand native fern.

The page is my link to Mittens, and also to my official home country. Americans are all over it. “Greetings from the USA,” says a popular post, “For those of us who can’t make it to Wellington, there is a course on a treadmill that can allow a virtual fake Mittens sighting!” They can’t post photos of actual Mittens encounters, so instead they share pictures of themselves or their cats with merch they’ve ordered from New Zealand: mugs, tote bags, sweaters, baseball caps with “His Royal Floofiness”’s face emblazoned. According to a recent announcement from the official supplier, if you buy enough of this stuff you can go into the draw to win a morning tea with Mittens himself. “I live in Michigan!” the Americans scream.

One thing the United States does have on New Zealand is that they got hold of the vaccine early because they are so big and have so much money and are so corrupt. Admittedly, we respitorally clean South Sea Islanders were not exactly a global public health priority. But this put me personally in an awkward situation, given that I had to return to America in the fall to teach on campus, and my demographic wasn’t going to get the shot in New Zealand till late August at best. I applied to Jacinda for an early vaccination, but her henchmen rejected my plea. I understood their position: it wasn’t clear why they should give me the precious juice only to have me instantly quit the joint. But the decision hurt my feelings anyway. Was New Zealand really so ready to fling me into the abyss unprotected? Didn’t it feel some responsibility for me, its native-born citizen? True, I’d left it twenty years ago of my own volition, so this made about as much sense as getting mad at someone for moving on after you’ve dumped them. But, god, we’ve all done that, haven’t we? It’s only human! Soaking in my hot tub at Freyberg pool, antibody-free and flourishing, I felt stateless and on the verge of death.

In the early hours of the morning I made a list on my phone of great things about living in the U.S.A. My friends, it said. Cheap books and magazine subscriptions. California. I looked at it the next morning, in the cold light of day. Was that enough?

When I told my American friends of my anxiety about returning unvaccinated, they assured me that things were really okay—yes, the Delta variant was exploding, yes, ICUs were filling, yes, half the country was refusing to obey basic public health precautions, but most people were getting out more, they were living with it. This was like hearing a drowning man gurgling “Come on in, the water’s fine!” I decided to just wait it out down here, and hope things sped up. A bonus of this policy is that it gave me more time to meet Mittens. Part of me began to feel that even if I didn’t get the vaccine in time, touching Mittens’ fur might provide some of the same benefit: a little pre-booster shot, a talisman against evil.

The weather has been wintry and Mittens hasn’t been out much recently. The pictures posted are mainly of him at home, sitting in his cat tree, disrupting Settlers of Catan, rolling about in Lego, baking biscuits with Silvio’s children, his face plunged in vases of flowers. But I remembered a photo I’d seen a while ago of someone’s baby lying in the trunk of their car, waiting to have its diaper changed, with Mittens leaning benevolently over it. The baby and Mittens make eye contact: Mittens seems to be beaming pure wholesome goodness into the infant’s vulnerable form, preparing it for the perilous journey ahead. Jesus, I wanted a piece of that. I’d had quite a year, like all of us. Didn’t I deserve it?

In early August, miraculously, my decision to hold out for the vaccine was vindicated. A further batch of Pfizer arrived at the border, and I was granted access to it, by virtue of living with my septuagenarian parents. The vaccine went into my arm, just a little prick, like being gently clawed by a cat. It meant I could leave in five weeks, a dubious prize, but one I felt lucky to have.

Around the same time, Mittens’ first official biography was released. It’s a children’s picture book, written in surprisingly graceful verse by Silvio. Shortly after the publication day, Mittens’ page was flooded with posts saying “My Mittens book just arrived!”, each of which instantly received 200-300 likes. Many people included photos of their own depressed or hostile cats posed next to the book, allegedly being read it as “a bedtime story.” “Poppy Honey can hardly wait to get into Mittens’ book,” one person captioned hers. The cat looks like she’d shred anyone who came near her.

“Where can I get it” the Americans asked insistently in the comments. The obvious answer was the internet but that didn’t seem to satisfy them. They seemed to be asking a different question.

I don’t pose my own cat, Jasmine, next to Mittens merch because, in a move that will surprise you, I haven’t bought any. Jasmine is a reserved and anxious homebody who hasn’t gone further than the perimeter of my parents’ property since I shipped her down here last October. But I do let her out, and last week I discovered she has confused her indoor litter tray with the long and wide stretch of loose gravel covering the path leading from my parents’ letterbox to the door. It seems she has planted a tidy row of feces along its full length over the past ten months, close up against the house, almost out of view.

We’ve christened this Te Ara Paku, which translates in Māori, roughly, to The Path of Shit. Te Ara Paku resembles a set of runway lights, and it leads directly to the family car, which two weeks from now will take me to the airport, to fly back to the United States. I imagine myself walking down it with my suitcases, farewelling my loved ones, and lifting off in the plane. I settle back in my seat, look out the window and see a flash of butterscotch sashaying down the hill–now for an indefinite period, and perhaps forever, out of my reach.

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Helena de Bres writes essays, memoir and humor pieces and teaches philosophy at Wellesley. Her pieces have appeared in The Point, The Los Angeles Review, the New York Times, Aeon, Psyche, the Rumpus and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her book, Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir (University of Chicago Press) came out in 2021. She’s working on a memoir about the nature and value of philosophy and a collection of personal essays on twins.

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