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The Utility of a Shoelace

photo taken by Ema Solarova

It’s about midnight, I’m in the second production meeting of the night and I’m dozing off. Pulling off professional scale film productions on the nights and weekends while being a full time student is the nature of film school, so this is nothing out of the ordinary. They’re talking about lenses right now, anyway. Being the casting director, that’s far enough from my department that I use my wakeful moments to think about the reading on utilitarianism I need to do tonight. We touched on utilitarianism in the elective I took last semester, so I can just skim through it. If I get home at 1 AM and send out the callback invitations right away, I can do the reading and be in bed by 3—

My phone buzzes with a text from my roommate: “Marla ate a shoelace. I tried to catch her but she ran away.”  Marla is my cat. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I believe animals have strong natural instincts and thus can take care of themselves. If my cat ate a shoelace, surely she knew what she was doing and she’ll be alright.

When I get home my roommate tells me she saw Marla with just a little bit of the shoelace hanging out of her mouth and tried to grab her, but Marla got away. She tells me one of her cats growing up did the same thing and had to have surgery. Not my cat, I think. Marla’s smart. My roommate closed Marla in the bathroom because she threw up on the carpet after eating the shoelace. While I’m not sure what to make of the whole shoelace thing, this provokes an emotional reaction in me. My darling kitty locked in the cold bathroom alone. 

When I enter the bathroom, Marla greets me with her usual loud meow–she’s a very vocal cat. I play with her and she seems perfectly fine. I bring my laptop into the bathroom to search the internet for advice and observe Marla, who behaves like she always does. The concerned pet owners of discussion forums separate into two groups: the first one says that it’s not a big deal and the shoelace will just come out, while the second one says that I need to take her to the vet immediately. It’s 2 AM, I’m tired, my cat seems fine. Maybe I should just do the reading. Mulling over my options, I pass out on the bathroom floor. 

Having successfully navigated my way through that utilitarianism reading discussion, I arrive home the following night to find a lethargic kitty. By the look of her bowls, she didn’t eat or drink all day. After agonizing over it for a bit, I decide to take her to an emergency clinic I found online–it’s about 11 PM now, so my vet is closed–that’s pretty close and advertises a $50 diagnostic exam. Wrestling her into the carrier is less impossible than usual, so it is clear that she’s not feeling well at all.

The doctor at the ER tells me that “swallowing an elongated object” is a common problem for domesticated cats and dogs. She suggests feeding my cat barium and doing a series of X-rays overnight to determine where exactly the shoelace is. I suspect this is not included in the $50 exam, but when I ask about the price, she smiles and assures me they’ll bill me at the front desk.  

The front desk lady presents me with a bill for $800.  I stare at it and contemplate my options. I always judge the people who try to crowd-fund their pets’ medical bills, I think it’s wasteful to spend so much on animals—especially if you don’t have the money—when free puppies and kittens are easy to come by. Marla herself was free on Craigslist and I didn’t even want her at first–my roommate gave her to me against my wishes when I was grieving for another cat. I suppose I could take Marla home. But to do what? Slowly die of thirst and hunger? I want to ask them for other options, but I quiet the thought the moment it forms.  “Other options” sounds like a nice way of asking them to kill my cat. My mom just wired me the deposit for my class trip to the Sundance Film Festival, so I have enough money for this. 

An uncomfortable feeling squeezes my stomach. Wait, this is just to find out where the shoelace is. Then what? Am I spending money earmarked for a trip I’ve been dreaming about for years just to find out Marla needs a medical procedure I can’t afford? It still seems like the best option right now. I hand my debit card to the smiling lady and sign the bill. It’s 2 AM and I drive home alone. I am confused and scared, but I try to stay hopeful. I think about the kitten that’d hide under the bed in her new home while I was on the porch weeping for my previous cat that had just gone missing. I think about how I felt back then. Despite my expectations of that previous cat coming back, despite being upset at my roommate for making this decision for me, the most powerful feeling I had was to be nice to the cat who got caught in the middle of it. I would lift my mattress off the bed frame and scoop up a little ball of fur that would start purring instantly. She still does that. But for how long? I try not to think about that.

I send a begging email to my mom, who tells me that I really shouldn’t have a cat that’s this expensive. It feels like a punch in the guts. What exactly are you saying, mom? I completely agree, but I didn’t want this to happen and certainly didn’t cause it. She must understand that, because she does wire the money, saving my Sundance trip. I happily accept this in lieu of a few birthdays and Christmases to come.

The next morning I go back to pick up Marla, fully expecting to hear she needs a surgery I can’t afford. Over the barium-bright intestines of my cat on the X-rays, the doctor points at the grayish scramble she maintains is the shoelace and tells me Marla will simply poop the shoelace out. Before I can process this information enough to ask if I’d just spent 800 bucks on medical care just to find out that no medical care is, in fact, needed, she says that the contrast fluid can sometimes help things move along better. I am happy to be reunited with my cat and choose not to question things much further. I’ve never been so excited about poop in my entire life.

A day and a half later, however, the shoelace poop is nowhere to be found and I call my vet. They tell me to bring Marla in.

I’m crying the whole way to the Pet Hospital. That is to say, I’m ugly sobbing. They do an X-ray to confirm what I already fear: Marla needs surgery. I am bawling all the way through the conversation. The doctor shows me an estimate for $1600. She explains they’ve tried to keep the costs down, they’re not billing everything they’d normally bill for.  I appreciate it, but I still don’t have that much money. She offers me a special credit card for health emergencies, but I just swallow my tears. Thanks to my non-resident alien immigration status and lack of US income, I don’t get to do credit cards. The doctor is extremely nice and understanding. She disappears to talk to her manager and comes back with a payment plan: if I pay half right now, I can pay the other half in $100 monthly increments. I am overpowered by happiness and gratitude. Goodbye, Sundance Film Festival, goodbye going out in the next eight months, I don’t care. I sign the papers and hand over my Visa. I just got a payment plan out of the goodness of my vet’s heart.

Once again, I go home alone. This time, however, I’m feeling much better about everything. I email my mother and good family friends asking for their help, offering to give up a few more birthdays and Christmases. To my surprise, I get a quick response: they will help me out! Even my mother sounds more understanding than last time.

I am happy I still get to go to Sundance, but even more excited to pick up Marla after her surgery. The next thing I do is sign her up for medical insurance. Her policy is better than mine, but that feels appropriate. In just a few days, I completely reinvented my views on pet medical spending and insurance. 

I struggle to morally and intellectually justify what I did. How many perfectly healthy cats are killed in shelters every day? How many people die each day around the world because of conditions preventable with a $3 vaccine?  How many malaria nets does $2400 buy? 

It’s a good thing I’m not a utilitarian because I get to keep my cat. The formerly shy kitty now actively showers me with affection. Every day, I come home to a loving creature. She purrs loudly and demands to be held. She climbs on my back and sits on my shoulders. “Thanks for not putting me down,” she seems to say when she licks my lips, overjoyed. It’s hard to measure happiness, but this feels like the best way to spend that money.

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