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March 27, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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When In Rome


My mother used to say I never fell in love with the things that mattered. When I was fourteen, I brought home a little cat from the street, named him Julius Caesar. His fur was matted with dirt and blood and last night’s rain. When I searched for a collar under the fur of his neck, all I found was hair. When I told my mother, all she said was, that’s ridiculous, it’s a kitten not a Roman dictator. I stuck my tongue out, said, you’re hurting his feelings. 



Julius Caesar had a small pink nose. Every morning, he nudged it against my skin and mewed softly into my hair. He left golden brown fur everywhere like dandelion wisps, and I found bits of it all over my clothing. I told him everything: how we went on a class trip to the ocean, how the water could never quite catch on my fingers, how if I squinted enough I could pretend to see a whole new city. At home, I spent hours sitting in the garden, gluing sticks and leaves together into a crown and putting them on his little head. I pretended it was the Olympics and that we won, every time. When I saw my mother glaring at me from the kitchen window, I quickly went back inside.

On my fifteenth birthday, my mother baked me a chocolate cake. I was halfway through my second slice when Julius Caesar coughed up a hairball on the dining room floor. My mother had been in the middle of telling me about a new bookstore that had opened up recently. She stopped and stared, her mouth slightly parted as Caesar padded away to the living room. I jumped up, dropping my spoon on my plate with a clatter. When I went to put Julius Caesar’s rubbish in the trash, I saw the scrunched up plastic package of a cake from New World.

Stop spending so much time with that kitten, my mother said to me, and I said instead, watch this, look what we’ve been doing. Then I said something in Latin she didn’t understand and Julius Caesar raised his paw up to me, tilting his head slightly as he waited. I shook his paw softly and said, nice to meet you, then looked up at my mother. Isn’t he smart? I said and my mother whispered, yes, smart just like you, and walked away.



Julius Caesar died in 44BC and Julius Caesar died in 2014AD. The first was cremated and the second was buried in the garden. When my mother asked where he was, I just said, gone, and brushed leftover cat hair from my shirt. I turned another page in my textbook and went back to repeating conjugations in my head. A week later, the scholarship offer came in the mail.

Julius Caesar had been dead for two thousand years and Julius Caesar had been dead for two months when I took the taxi alone to the airport. My mother stayed standing at the doorway of her home and I told myself not to turn around. When I finally gave in, it was far enough away that she’d turned blurry and I could pretend her eyes were red with tears. After the four-hour plane ride, I sent her pictures of the buildings and the ocean and the sky, said, isn’t this place beautiful? I’m in love. She didn’t reply.


Emma Shi is a writer and poet. You can read more of her work on her Facebook page —

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