When Stephanie was a child, she never had a pet. Well, she had an iguana for a while, but reptiles barely count as pets, and Steph said she never felt a bond with the iguana.

What she 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 Stephanie's parents 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.

As a teenager, Stephanie developed allergies, including an allergy to cat fur and dog dander. If a friend's dog or cat sat in Steph's lap, she would sneeze unstoppably. So when she got her own apartment, she still didn't get a pet. When we fell in love and merged our lives, we agreed — no pets.

One fine Missouri autumn afternoon while Stephanie was at work and I was home alone, 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 rodent of unusual size. 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.

The living room window was open, and that must've been how the cat had wandered in. Obviously, this was bad. Stephanie would probably start sneezing as soon as she got home, so the animal had to go. I carried it out to the back porch, wondering, was this a lost or abandoned cat? It had no collar and it seemed a little skinny, and meowed as if to say, "Feed me."
I put the cat down on the porch, but instead of scampering off, it sat down and looked at me with too much cuteness and maybe hunger. I went inside, and looked at the cat through glass from the kitchen, and it looked at me.
So I opened a can of tuna, put it on the porch, and the cat ate it up as I went to the living room and closed the open window. After the cat finished its meal it went to sleep on our back porch, but I knew the cat couldn't stay. 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 soon her head was "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 ten 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'd been inside the apartment before I spotted him."

"Well, I'm not sneezing and my head barely hurts," Steph said. "I thought I'd be 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," she said. "If you hadn't told me there's been a special guest cat, I would've just thought it's a high-pollen day.  Maybe I'm not as allergic to cats as I used to be, so let's conduct an experiment, OK? Let's see how much cat I can tolerate. Leave that window open, and if you see that cat again, let him in, and let him stay for a while."

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

The very next 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.