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I want a cat

I promised myself I would declutter my apartment before I even considered it. I told myself that I should have done that before -- maybe I would've ended up with a better cat for me than the City of New Orleans. I told myself I don't want another cat, anyway.

And I'm not sure I do, for two reasons. One: what I really want is another Wabash Cannonball. Two: keeping an animal in your home is a strange thing to do, and it has felt stranger and stranger to me over the years.

The Wabash Cannonball was a unique cat. I suppose every cat owner says this, every infant's parent, even. They all look alike to folks who don't have one, but when it's your own, its every little quirk and habit are the landmarks of your adoration. Not that the depth and sense of your love is any different from anyone else's, either.

He looked exactly like at least 10,000 other grey tabby cats, although I thought he was unusually perfect. Stripy in the front, more spotted toward the back, he had a pink nose and black paw pads -- not a spot of white on him anywhere. Cats are remarkably consistent-looking animals, and so every picture in any book of a cat with such regular markings did, in fact, look exactly like him, down to the expression in its eyes.

Wabash was different, though. He had a genuinely sunny and affectionate disposition, accounted for, I suppose, by never having been mistreated a single day in his life. He was utterly open and curious and friendly from the day I first saw him, in the tall grass, looking for people just as we were looking for him. And after his illness, he became even more so.

Not his fatal illness -- that just drained him away little by little -- but his other illness, really the only time that he was afflicted with anything other than fleas, until the end. This first illness was an infection, caught most likely through the bite of another animal, perhaps a raccoon.

When I first took Wabash to a veterinarian, two days after I brought him home, she noted a bite mark on one of his back legs but said it was healing nicely. Two weeks later, I woke to find him dragging himself across my bed, his back legs useless.

I was terrified and distraught. It had been a difficult summer for me. I was holding on, working about 30 hours a week and taking a full load of classes at the University, but something was terribly wrong inside, and I was propped up with caffeine all day and dulled with alcohol most nights.

I had awakened at 6 AM but the vet's office didn't open til 9, and I had to pass the hours somehow. I don't remember what I did, but I remember wrapping him in my receiving blanket and taking him to the vet on the bus. I didn't have a car then, and I always took him to the vet on the bus. He'd sit quietly in my lap, even if a dog got on, but of course, he couldn't have gone far this time.

They admitted him right away and gave him intravenous antibiotics. They didn't do many tests on him; veterinary medicine is a fairly simple thing: treat for infection, then explore other options. It's a reality-based approach.

It worked. Three days of antibiotics in the cat hospital, then discharged with another week or two of pills, the Wabash Cannonball was partially paralyzed for many weeks but eventually walked normally, if weakly. He could never jump like other cats, but he could make it onto the bed and other soft surfaces.

One thing Wabash never regained was his feline aplomb. He made it onto the bed, yes, but not every time. Falls were common, even years later. Other cats right themselves and glance about haughtily, washing their faces and then executing the failed moved to perfection. Not Wabash. If you were there to see it, he looked up at you, openly, and was happy to be lifted to the out-of-reach spot.

The Wabash Cannonball purred almost continuously when touched. He liked to be held, and he would place a paw on either side of my neck and nuzzle me, or just rest his chin in the hollow of my collarbone. He was the perfect pet: focused, affectionate, tolerant, well behaved. On my way home in the evenings, I thought -- and often said aloud -- "I'm seeing the wumpus in 45 minutes!" then 30, then 15, and I smiled every time.

The Wabash Cannonball would have died within weeks had I not found him in the horse paddock that day. Whatever animal clipped him running might well have found him again when the fever set in, or he'd have been food for another. Even if he had been able to hole up long enough for an infection to clear on its own, his weakness would have numbered his days.

But what of healthy animals, animals that can still hunt and run? A cat is so different from a dog, it likes you, but it doesn't need you. And most cats yearn to be outside, even if the human home is a convenient source of food and warm bedding and gratification of narcissism.

I can't bring a new cat to this prison. No matter how safe and warm it is, no matter how decorated the fire escape is with birds, no matter that outside is only cars and other animals and fleas. Even if I gave in to the illusion that I, at least, could leave, we'd be trapped in here together, me missing the perfect cat, my new cat missing everything that cats were made for.

May 25, 2002