When seconds turn into a lifetime of guilt

If I have a purpose, it’s to help animals. It often feels like a burden. When I was in high school I found a baby bird hobbling by the entrance of a mall. A few years later I came across a German Sheppard who was about a foot from colliding with a streetcar when I grabbed his short chain and yanked him toward me. Thankfully, he was a sweet dog, so I brought him to the shelter where he was later reunited with his owner. A couple of years later I found two more pups wandering around and tracked down their owners, and in both cases, they didn’t even realize their dogs were missing. While waiting for a cab in Mexico back in 2007, I noticed a kitten drinking from a puddle. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a vet’s office getting her treatment for parasites and an eye infection. Then there was a pigeon with a twisted neck that I scooped up in a box against my friend’s wishes. He thought helping the bird was ridiculous, because we had dinner plans, you see. It later died — and was going to anyway, it turns out — but at least it died in peace. Lost or injured animals have a way of finding me.

I recall these tense moments every so often, but honestly, they didn’t have a lasting impact. I feel neither sad nor satisfied when I call up these memories.

But I’ll never forget the streetcar cat.

On Sunday morning I’d taken my cat Olive to the vet after discovering she’d ripped off her toenail. Except I couldn’t take her to my usual vet because most are inconveniently closed then. So I schlepped it from Little Italy to the Beaches on the TTC. After the appointment, we got on the westbound 501 streetcar, and headed home. Olive doesn’t like taking the streetcar (and really, who does?) so I was pretty focused on her. Between the odd “Hey, Olive, you OK?” and giving pets through her cage, I’d noticed a troubled man making a bit of a ruckus just a few rows ahead.

Seated in the first row was a man clearly agitated, and in hindsight, disturbed. He was aggressively slamming his cane and small duffel bag around. Given the size of the space, and how close I was sitting to him, it was the kind of situation I’d normally keep tabs on. Not that morning, though. I was too busy fussing over my cat. At one point I heard a slight, muffled meow. It sounded like a cat in distress, and my instincts told me to look up. I’d worried there was a cat stuck inside the streetcar, somewhere. “Is that even possible?” I thought. “No, no chance.” But I didn’t see a cat anywhere in sight, and the meowing stopped.

Moments later, I was back to checking on Olive. Then one more slam from the front. That’s when time slows down.

I watch the man get up and notice just how large he is. 6'2" maybe 6'4" but I am suddenly fixated on his small, rounded bag. As he’s walking off I connect the movements and the meows and turn to the woman behind me, in absolute disbelief. “Wait. Does that man have a cat in his bag? Did you hear a meow?” I asked. “Yes, yeah. I did hear a meow. And it sounded like it was coming from the front,” she said. Silence. “Fuck. He has a cat in his bag.” I grab Olive and I run to the front of the streetcar, but we were already on our way. All I can do is watch him walk away.

I get off at the next stop, and I’ve no idea where I am. I didn’t bother to check the name of the stop, or even record the streetcar number. I just run. I run and run and I run, all while carrying an injured, scared cat in a carrier. “Sorry,” I say to Olive “But we have to get this cat!”

It’s cold, hovering just above freezing, my arms are growing heavy and I’m desperately trying not to cause more injury to my cat. Finally, I arrive at the next stop. I look around and I can’t find him. I wonder how far an old man with a cane could get.

“Where is he?” I look around but don’t see him anywhere in sight.

Panic sets in, tears start falling, and I’m gassed.

I keep going, this time asking Leslieville residents if they’d seen a tall man in black carrying a cane and black duffel bag. “No, sorry,” they all say.

“Where the fuck is he?” I scream to myself. Locals out for their morning walks are starting to notice me.

After ten minutes I know I’ve lost him, but I keep going. Back and forth down the street. I no longer even know which stop he got off at. I call up to people on their porches who seem observant but aren’t. I eventually end up at Greenwood Ave. where a few people are walking. They’re all wearing black, and they’re too far away to see clearly. I have no idea if one of them is him, but I walk anyway. I can’t run anymore. I’m worried about Olive and her injury, and I’m frozen. Again, I ask each person I pass if they’d seen the man, and still no one has. I reach Woodbine Park and wonder “Did he come here to maybe let the cat loose?” This in my mind is a best-case scenario. Throughout this ordeal though only worst-case scenarios crossed my mind, which inevitably led to more tears. But for a moment, in my mind, there’s hope. I ask two dog walkers chatting at the park entrance if they’d seen the man but they shake their heads. Defeated, tired and cold, I stop inside the closest bus shelter to put Olive down and I cry. I know it’s too late at this point. I know I’ve failed the cat that only 25 minutes earlier was crying out for help.

One of the dog walkers approaches me and asks if I’m OK. “No, no I’m not.” I proceed to tell her the story. Horrified, she gets on her phone and tells me she’s going to post info to her local Facebook group and gives me her contact information. I thank her and we part ways.

I eventually head home, hands trembling, with only one cat in tow. Back on the 501 westbound, where it all began.

I retrace those last moments, where I was too slow to piece it all together and I feel like an utter failure.

I had plans yesterday afternoon, but instead, I spent the rest of the day in bed sobbing. If Olive meowed, I heard the other cat’s meow. I couldn’t shake what I’d seen and how close I came to making it right.

I eventually texted a friend and told him I couldn’t live with this. So now what? I know I’ll forever retrace those last moments where I could have done something but didn’t. I’ll wonder what became of the cat, and where the man was taking it. Sometimes I’ll forget that he was knocking the bag around and hope that maybe he didn’t have a carrier and was bringing it to someone who would care for it. Most days though, I’ll think the worst more likely scenarios. The streetcar cat will haunt me forever, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.

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