Mai Tran began catsitting in 2021 while Tran was on pandemic unemployment, often staying overnight in people’s homes. Tran has now cared for twenty-two cats and traveled to ten apartments all over New York City, observing the interior lives of cat owners and appeasing their neuroses. From home vet visits to black eyes to refugee cats, Chronicles of a Catsitter documents the most memorable days on the job.

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The Upper East Side lesbians refer me to their friends, another lesbian couple, who live in Brooklyn Heights. They arrange to meet me on Zoom, where they flip their iPad camera and carry me around their apartment. The cat doesn’t make an appearance, because he is too shy or sleeping, and I’m also too shy to ask to see him. I’ll be staying there for fifteen days, the perfect amount of time to get to know a place before I start itching to leave, or more specifically, before I start getting anxious about my plants dying and all the mail that’s inevitably piling up on my desk.

I pack a small suitcase and lug it onto the subway. It’s the first week of January, one of my favorite times in the city because it feels emptied out and quiet. All the students and transplants are back in their hometowns, and tourists tend to avoid visiting in the winter. After carrying my things up and down multiple flights of stairs, which would have felt bad if it didn’t make me feel so masc, I arrive in Brooklyn.

I continue following Google Maps until I get to the building. In my memory, I had to roll my suitcase down a cobblestoned street, but when I went to fact-check myself, it was just a normal, paved road. The building has its own driveway and looks like it was once a garage or barn. Inside, I receive the keys from the doorman and head up. As soon as I open the door to the apartment, I’m hit with an immense vastness: a wall of windows, multiple couches and armchairs, swathes of wooden floor, and an array of heavy, decorative sculptures on pedestals. I go from room to room, peering at things as if I were in a museum. It takes a long time. The couple’s photos are filled with smiling family members. They have travel books and the latest Elena Ferrante, purchased from the bookstore down the street.

In the couple’s bedroom, I come face to face with the cat, who is slinking towards the underneath of the bed. We both freeze. He’s a beautiful tuxedo, the most regal one I’ve seen. I wait for him to move. When he doesn’t, I slowly get on my hands and knees, then my stomach, and reach my hand out. Hi, Socks, I whisper. He shifts forward to sniff me, then we both pull away. I take a quick photo for the couple, then crawl backward until I’m out of sight so he can continue on his way.

I carry my suitcase to the guest room so it won’t scratch the floors. I lay my things out and lower myself onto the bed, assessing the height of the ceiling and the sound of the neighbors, which is nonexistent. The guest room alone could easily be the size of one person’s apartment. The whole place is so large and recessed that it feels like I’m in a bunker.

After settling in, Socks and I establish our routines. Some cats are like roommates, where you walk in, say hi, check on them, maybe share some food and that’s it, while others are like your friends. Socks is the secret third cat: my elder. He doesn’t come to the door to say hello to me but makes me come to him, and he would never cry or wheedle for attention. In turn, I don’t disrespect him by picking him up. We take to sitting next to each other while reading, working, grooming, or sleeping, with him in one chair and me in another. I text photos of him to my friends, and they all say he is dignified. When I look at him, I know there are thoughts behind his eyes. He quickly becomes my favorite cat, graceful and sentient.

As the days go by, I try not to go into too many rooms or sit on too many things so I won’t have to clean them up later. Socks forms a cat-shaped indent on the couple’s bed, where I pop in to take a photo of him, then immediately leave. The room is too neat, with a designated place for everything. I prefer the kitchen counter, where I do my nine-to-five. I also fill out an application to be on my local community board, work on a draft of an article that will eventually be killed, and participate in a university lab’s study about eating habits and body image. The study requires me to create a video diary and complete a survey every day for two weeks, which makes me feel worse about my eating habits and body, because I usually don’t think about either. In exchange, I receive free counseling sessions and a series of gift cards, which I spend on household items and used books.

On the weekend, I sign up for a Brooklyn library card and go to the nearby New York Transit Museum, where I dodge children and sit on old subway cars. I text photos of the vintage trains to the couple, who return a photo of them riding camels in the desert. It’s the first mention of where they are in the world. I rarely inquire about where clients go, because it’s not my business, although I can often glean it from photos, time zones, and chatty neighbors.

I emerge from the underground museum and head back to base camp, walking past brownstones and groups of children connected at the waist with neon orange tethers. Their leaders kneel down and lecture them when they throw tantrums or otherwise fall out of line. Women who I assume are nannies because all the children are white and they are not push babies in strollers. There are hardly any bars or pubs lining the streets. The neighborhood feels reminiscent of Park Slope, if everyone were older and didn’t care about co-ops or naming their kids after Greek letters.

I have to use the bathroom and keep my eyes peeled for a suitable locale. I decide to try Brooklyn Poets, a cozy space where they host readings, writing classes, and a small retail shelf. I don’t personally know anyone who works there, but I have a general feeling that poets are my friends and will let me use their bathroom without buying an up-charged bottle of water, and I’m right! I quickly shuffle in and out to express my gratitude and urgency.

Back at the apartment, someone I hook up with pings me to send him photos. I would’ve called him a “friend,” but a few months later, after I learned he was not, in fact, single but had a wife and two kids, he clarified that we were “casual strangers.” It kind of sucked and also made me feel acutely trans, as if I were taking part in some sort of historical trope. For a while, I thought I might write a book about it, but then I couldn’t think of anything more embarrassing than writing a book about a man.

For the casual stranger, I undress and prop my phone against a table lamp. We’ve been hooking up for so long that I have no nudes to recycle. I set the camera to video, then move between different positions until I think I have adequate stills. I take screenshots and scrap the rest. Socks is in the background of some photos, and I feel bad that he was involved. I tell the casual stranger we can fuck with the windows open to drive the real estate value up or down, depending on what the neighbors are into. It’s enough to get him to commute forty minutes. I don’t host at my apartment, because I don’t want people to know where I live, but the catsitting places are transient enough that I’ve hosted in about half of them—another secret between me and the doormen.

The casual stranger arrives, and we spend a few hours nestling in bed. I leave the room to get a glass of water. When I come back, I see that he’s draped himself over the blankets in a way that’s intended to make him look good, which is annoying because it does. He’s visited me at multiple apartments, and one time, the Upper East Side lesbians sent me a photo of a man’s sock they found underneath their guest bed. I claimed it in case it was his, but when I forwarded the image, he didn’t recognize it either. They gave me the sock the next time they saw me. I still don’t know who it belongs to.

A day before the couple returns, I do a deep clean of the apartment. I empty the trash, sweep the floors, push chairs in, stow pots and pans, clean Socks’s dishes, and change the litter. I do multiple walkthroughs to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Two separate clients have described my footprint as “like a mouse.” In reality, I let my mess accumulate until the last minute, artfully angling and cropping the photos I send to avoid exposing my sprawl.

The next morning, I wake up early to vacate before they land. I strip the bed and tell Socks he is perfect, then make the trek back to my apartment. The couple later texts and gushes about how everything was so well cared for. They say they will reach out the next time they travel. It’s now been a little over a year, and I haven’t heard from them since. Sometimes, when I walk through the neighborhood, on my way to the waterfront, or to visit a friend’s workplace, I think about Socks and our brief winter together. I look at the happy families, and I miss him.