Toby


When Stephanie was a child, she never had a pet. Well, she had an iguana for a while, but reptiles barely count as pets – they don't bond with their owners.

What Steph really wanted was a dog or a cat, a pet she could literally pet, and hold in her lap. Whenever she asked, though, her parents always said no. In a work of fiction they'd have eventually relented, and you'd have a heartwarming scene of the girl hugging her beloved new puppy or kitten, but Mr and Mrs Webb never relented. My guess is that they had two children and a house and a mortgage, and those responsibilities seemed like enough; they didn't want to also be taking care of a hungry, shedding, pooping animal. I never had children, never had a house, and always had pets, but in their situation I'm not sure I'd have decided differently.

As a teenager, Stephanie developed allergies, including an allergy to cats. And after being barked at and nipped at by a few of her friends' dogs, she decided she liked dogs but couldn't quite trust them. So when we fell in love and merged our lives, we agreed that we couldn't have any pets.

One fine Missouri autumn afternoon while Stephanie was at work and I was home alone, an animal wandered in through an open window. I stepped out of the bathroom and saw something blurry dart behind the couch. In a moment of freaking out, I grabbed a broom from the kitchen to defend myself from what I wondered and worried might be a raccoon or a bobcat, or a very small bear or a very large rodent. Tomorrow's headline might be, Kansas City man mauled by coyote.

Approaching the couch and cautiously peeking around the corner, I met the eyes of a full-grown black-and-white housecat. It was obvious at a glance that it was completely tame, but the cat seemed wary of the fat man waving a broom, so I disarmed myself, and spoke silly words in a calm tone of voice. Within a few minutes I was sitting on the couch with a cat purring on my lap.

Obviously, this was bad. Steph's allergic, and she'd probably start sneezing as soon as she gets home, so the cat had to go. But petting it was hypnotic. I wondered, was this an abandoned cat? Possibly, as it did seem a little skinny, and meowed as if to say, "Feed me." I opened a can of tuna, put it on a plate, and put the plate on our back porch/patio — outside the apartment, in deference to Stephanie's allergies. After the cat finished his meal I gently nudged him down the stairs, and away from our apartment.

When Steph came home from work, I warned her that a cat had been in the living room, and apologized for not having chased the cat out instantly. She entered the apartment with caution, warily sniffing the air. Something was tickling her sinus, she said, and within minutes her head started "almost hurting," she said. "If it hurt any more it would hurt, but it's more like my head is telling me 'This could hurt', but it doesn't yet."

I told her which side of the couch I'd been sitting on when the cat was in my lap, and Steph sat on the opposite side. After a while, she bravely came over and sat with me on what had been the cat's side of the sofa.

After dinner, Steph said, "My head is still saying 'This almost hurts', but now it's just a suggestion instead of an alarm, if that makes sense. So how long was the cat in the living room?"

"It was maybe fifteen minutes," I said, "from the moment I first saw the cat until I put him outside on the patio. But there's no knowing how long he was inside the apartment before I spotted him."

"Well, I'm not sneezing and my head barely hurts," Steph said. "I thought I'd be sneezing and miserable, but it's not much worse than my ordinary hay fever."

"Well, that's a relief," said I.

"More than a relief, it's a re-think. It's possible that I've misjudged how allergic I am to cats. So let's conduct an experiment, OK? Let's see how much cat I can tolerate. If you see that cat again, let him in to the apartment."

"Well, I gave him some food," I said, "and the rule is — if you feed a cat, you'll see him again."

The next day we bought some cat litter and cheap cat food, and that evening we heard a meow, looked up, and saw the cat standing in the window sill, looking at us. Stephanie approached him, and the cat wasn't skittish.

"I want to pick him up," Steph said, "but I'm not sure the right way to do it."

"Makes sense you wouldn't know. You never had a cat and always kept your distance." So I demonstrated. "Move slow, and always back off if the cat objects. Open hand like a handshake, under the cat's front armpits, and gently lift." Cat in my arms, I added, "Have a seat on the couch."

She sat down, and I carefully transplanted our guest from my hands to Steph's lap, where the cat immediately curled up. Steph stroked him, and the cat purred, and Steph's smile was so huge it almost overflowed her face.

"I can definitely feel my allergies," she said after a few minutes. "My head hurts, but just a little — and there's a cat on my lap!"

After half an hour, we put the cat outside on the patio, with a bowl of food. Next time he stopped by, we kept him inside for an hour, then two hours. Stephanie's head pain and occasional sneezes actually seemed to be diminishing as she grew accustomed to the presence of feline fur and dander.

By his third or fourth visit we'd given the cat a name — Toby — though we never knew why we chose that name. Maybe Toby chose it himself.

For weeks, he was a frequent visitor who wandered away after his meals, but he never quite became "our cat." Instead, Toby was soon adopted (and re-named) by an upstairs neighbor in our building, which saddened us, especially since that neighbor already had a cat.

"Why does Mrs Flanagan get two cats, and we get none?," Steph mused.

"Well?" I asked, leaving the question unspoken.

"Absolutely," she answered, "Let's get a cat!"

At that point, though, circa 2004, Stephanie and I had already decided we were leaving Kansas City. We were planning to move to Madison in just over a month, and we agreed that it wouldn't make sense to adopt a cat and then promptly pack up and move. But we'd decided to add a cat to our household, as soon as we felt settled in Madison.

We always held a soft spot in our hearts for Toby. Steph called him "the miracle cat." Was that an exaggeration? Having a cat had been completely out of the question, and then one walked into our lives uninvited. Surprise! There's a cat in the living room! To us, Toby's visit seemed nearly as improbable as that other miracle Steph and I meeting, when we lived a thousand miles apart.