Rykobiography, Part 7: The Lever

A lazy morning in Hollywood. Los Angeles, CA. July 2009.

On Monday, November 28, 2016, at 9:45 PM, I lost my best friend and lifelong companion, Ryko, to complications from alimentary feline lymphoma. She was 18 and a half years old. In order to keep myself somewhat sane as I learn to process the loss of my girl, I’m going to be writing her story here in serial form. Hope you enjoy. Part seven: Ryko lays over in the Midwest.

It all seems like such a blur in retrospect.

I’ve been combing through diaries, e-mails, old correspondence, audio recordings, photographs, Google chats, and even hard files trying to distill a coherent summary of what went down in the years from 2006 to 2008. Those years are the bridge between an earlier era, when I had to be much more deliberate about keeping a record of my life, and the present, where I have continuous evidence of my day-to-day preoccupations thanks to the long memory of social media.

Somewhere in those few years, life appeared to speed up dramatically.

Nowadays it feels quite ordinary to know a free-spirited acrobat who will spontaneously invite you to a gigantic party in the desert with many thousands of your soon-to-be friends. Our contemporary social networks operate that way unconsciously. And although Burning Man was nobody’s idea of a secret by 2006, those kinds of connections still had a shimmer of romance and novelty for someone coming from a completely different world, as I did then.

You would be perfectly justified in rolling your eyes when I say that Burning Man was a life-changing experience. Without it, for example, I never would have ended up lying on the floor of the Delta terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, trying in vain to soothe Ryko’s addled nerves before boarding the second leg of her journey from Chicago to Los Angeles in January of 2008.

As someone who traveled extensively as a kid, I’m no stranger to the quotidian traumas of the in-flight experience. But Ryko’s remonstrations reached Wagnerian heights during the five-hour flight from MSP to LAX. She was a non-stop vomiting and caterwauling machine, and none of the tricks recommended by her vet seemed to help. By the time we finally deplaned, with her carrier reeking of regurgitated “calming” treats, Ryko and I were equally shell-shocked.

But it was worth it. In the end, Burning Man was the lever that sprung us out of our increasingly complacent second life in Boston and into an adventure neither one of us would have foreseen. (Even if getting there proved to be a bit of a challenge.)

Do I need to tell you? It started with a guy. Or maybe it started with the death of my mom’s beloved twin sister, who was the bad-ass, streetwise version of my actual mom who wasn’t afraid to give me unvarnished straight talk. Burning Man, you see, is quite useful when you’re trying to navigate an uncomfortable crossroads in your life. It lends utterly unearned significance to all the random nonsense that happens out there. So when I met this guy who seemed to tune directly into my grief, despite the partying going on around us, that was all the confirmation my pattern-seeking brain required. And when I told him that my aunt had left me some pocket money to move to California, our desert romance flared up with real-world possibility.

Within two months, I’d quit my job and bought a ticket home to Chicago. My mom was in dire financial straits after dropping out of the workforce to take care of her sister. As a result, no one had been able to make the mortgage payments in those agonizing final months. So after she passed, we lost the house I grew up in. Mom enlisted my brother and I to move all of our possessions into storage in preparation for the foreclosure. In the meantime, I needed to find a temporary home for Ryko while I figured out where exactly I was going to live in California.

In a Hail Mary pass of generosity, Ryko was rescued by my long-estranged father, who was already maintaining a domestic menagerie of sorts with his new wife and son. Ryko had her own guest bedroom in the basement, far away from the rest of the various birds, dogs, cats, and other domestic critters he had accrued on a whim. (Unlike her last basement, this one was clean, temperature-regulated, and well-appointed.) Dad did not have a particularly excellent track record with quality-of-life for his cats, so I made him swear on his own grave that Ryko would be reliably fed and kept with a clean litterbox until I could return for her.

I arrived in San Francisco on November 29, 2007, and spent a month deciding I didn’t really care for it before moving to Los Angeles on December 28. I flew back to retrieve Ryko on January 8. Fortunately, she was alive and in fine shape, although her food, water, and litter were a shambles, as I predicted. I only wish I had recorded the outrageous noise she made when she saw me again for the first time.

Two days later, after much purring and wagging of tails, we were on that ill-fated flight through Minneapolis. We would experience life as newly-minted Angelenos together.

Ryko and Myke, reunited. January 15, 2008.
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