Everything is Connected: A mixed-up cat

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Everything is Connected by Nick Mattos
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
“What book do you want to read?†my mother asks. It is 1989, and every time my mother brings me to the library, I get to pick out one book for her to read aloud. “‘Pickles the Fire Cat!’†I exclaim. “But we have that book at home,†she says. “Do you want something new?†I am far too young to know how annoying it must be to read the same books over and over. “No,†I say with 5-year-old stubbornness, “I want ‘Pickles.’†She sighs. “Alright.†I know exactly where on the shelf it is — I don’t understand alphabetization, don’t know where author Esther Averill’s name falls in the great scheme of writers, yet still I slide the book off the shelves and hand it to my mother. “Pickles, you are not a bad cat,†she reads aloud, her pink-nailed finger running along beneath the text to show me her place as I sit in her lap. “You are not a good cat. You are good and bad. And bad and good.†My mother’s finger taps the page beneath each word: “You are a mixed-up cat.†Many years later, I sit in a chair in front of the bishop’s desk, sweating through my crisp white dress shirt. Behind him are two framed photos — a swarthy Jesus to the left, square-jawed and frontier-masculine the way Mormon representations of Christ always are, and Joseph Smith with his stately nose to the right. “So, am I understanding things properly?†the bishop of the Olympia, Wash., Young Single Adults Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints asks me. “You had sexual relations with another man?†It’s such a long story — how I ended up in church in the first place at age 19, and then how I ended up in the surprisingly large-yet-underground world of gay Mormons, finally tumbling into an affair with a guy about to leave on his mission. I know that the bishop doesn’t know the nuance of the situation, but for brevity’s sake, I answer: “Yes, bishop.†He sighs. “Brother Mattos, you’re a good man. I know you’re a good man. But this isn’t good, not for a holder of the priesthood.†“I understand, bishop.†“I have to ask you,†he says, looking at the papers on his orderly desk, “is this deep-seated in you?†I pause for a moment. “I … I don’t understand your question.†“Is all this deep-seated in you, or are you just mixed up?†the bishop queries. An hour later, I get into my car in the empty church parking lot, turn the key in the ignition. I take off my tie, unbutton my white shirt, and crumple them into a ball. I lean back against the driver’s seat in my white tank top, the summer sun hot against my bare skin, and sigh, then put the car into drive. As I pull out of the parking lot, I put my brown aviator sunglasses and reach into the glove compartment — far at the back are the pack of cigarettes I’ve kept there “for emergencies.†I could never articulate what “emergencies†would necessitate Camels, but now, I have found out. The cigarette lighter clicks neatly into its place, the coils glow orange against the tip of the cigarette, the smoke leaves my body in a heavy exhalation. The sun shines hotly down on Olympia and upon me, distributing its light down equally upon good and bad, bad and good. Now, I am in Bingo Used Books, shopping for a gift for my baby niece. I’ve already found some presents for myself — Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories,†a collection of Mary Oliver poems, and a guide to quitting smoking. My eyes scan over the spines in the children’s rack, and before I can think, my hand reaches out for one: “Pickles the Fire Cat.†I open it: “You are not a bad cat,†I read aloud softly. “You are not a good cat.†I close my eyes, recite aloud from memory: “You are a mixed-up cat.†I wonder about that Mormon boy, the one who kissed me so sweetly and so urgently, the way he felt so bad and so good in my arms. After I left the church, he left on his mission and we never spoke again — but all these years later, I still think of him. I wonder whether he believed that he was a mixed-up cat, too, or if he knew the thing I knew there in the core of me, sitting in the chair across from the bishop: the sun keeps shining down on us with Christly equanimity, the stories of our failings and redemptions replaying over and over in our lives, unfolding word by word and articulated by a universe as patient and benevolent as a mother. I knew that we are neither good nor bad, that we can get mixed up sometimes but that the Truth was what lived deep-seated within us. With all of me, I send out hope that he knows this, too, wherever he is — and close the book softly. Nick Mattos is a writer and yoga teacher who hopes his niece enjoys “Pickles†as much as he did. He can be reached at nick@pqmonthly.com. BlogTail_NickMattos