Cinnamon entered my life the way important characters do–via chance. My boyfriend and I were walking on a warm summer Sunday. Outside a tiny, New-Agey pet store, we saw a double-stacked row of cat carriers, each containing one or two felines. This being the East Village in New York City, the group hosting the adoptions was clothed in black (fake) leather and tattoos.

I’d never been good with animals. My mother took in stray cats, let them propagate, and then drove to rich neighborhoods, covertly dropping them off in the supermarket. We moved so often, we ourselves seemed like strays, perpetually looking inside windows at warm hearths.

My boyfriend, an architect into tai chi and pottery, exuded sensitivity toward animals, caring loyally for a perpetually sneezing and drooling orange cat abandoned by a previous owner. The cat and I ignored each other, our only contact the occasional sneeze in my face.

I’d once taken in four black kittens to help out an acquaintance who was in-between apartments, but after finding them embedded in my chimney (extricated with the help of Friskies tuna), I promptly returned them.

Such was my unimpressive history.

But on that Sunday, I looked in the carriers and found myself deciding between a large grey male named Sneakers and two females crammed in one carrier–a big chubby tuxedo and a very small white cat with calico markings. I decided on the pair. Supposedly never separated, they turned out to be a disparate couple, perhaps mother and daughter–in any case, a relationship prone to squabbles and jealousies.

Cinnamon, the white one, kept me up all night for a week, running from one end of the railroad apartment to the other, her sprints including a bound over my face. Ma Mere was quiet, gentle and under Cinnamon’s paw. She caused no trouble at all, keeping to herself.

A week later, I broke up with the sensitive boyfriend–who wasn’t surprised, claiming he knew I would replace him with the cats. I never considered giving them up. Loyalty, affection and other somewhat admirable traits I never knew I possessed suddenly appeared, seemingly sparked by exposure to animals who were more self-centered and vain than even I was. My self-absorption had apparently inspired the same traits in boyfriends of the past. And just as they’d been ultimately rebuffed, Cinnamon’s lovely but cold green eyes showed little compassion. When I cried, she’d bite me on the chin.

This makes me wonder if character isn’t a matter of chemistry–a reaction between a person and another person, animal or event. What years of therapy couldn’t do was accomplished by an overly confident cat named Cinnamon.