|LIFE AS A LOSER #56: "THE ONE I LOVE."|
|By Will Leitch|
He was there when you were alone and needed a friend. Now your cat is dying, and you feel helpless.
When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my family was visiting some neighbor friends for a late-night cookout. As tended to be the case, the adults would sit around the grill and bitch about their marriages, or their jobs, or their children, whatever came to mind after a six-pack or two. We kids were relegated to the yard, free to roam around as long as we were within eyesight and able to stop, drop and roll at a moment’s notice. I was running around stupidly, freely, as children are wont to do, when I came across a small kitten, likely a stray. He was gray and dirty and had the cutest little nose. Unlike most cats I’d come across at the time, he didn’t seem to mind when I picked him up and did some roughhousing. He was sweet and funny and even jumped up on my lap when I was lying in the grass, daydreaming of Ozzie Smith and E.T. He was the friendliest cat I’d ever come across.
Way back in the Dark Ages, before The Sporting News, before Ironminds, before Life as a Loser, before New York, when I was a confused, scared kid retreating from Los Angeles (the city that had taken my ex-fiancee from me), storing myself in the Midwest comfort of St. Louis, a place that was home to the Cardinals and therefore could contain nothing but joy, I decided that I needed a friend.
After a year of living with as many as seven people in a cramped Santa Monica apartment, I wanted some space. When I took a job at The Sporting News and moved halfway across the country, I had only two requirements: First, I had to live alone, no more roommates commandeering the remote; second, I wanted a cat.
A cat seemed like the ideal pet for me. Heck, cats are easy. All you really have to do is feed them and change their litter box. Cats aren’t like dogs; they don’t need attention. They just go about their own thing, eating, sleeping, shitting, licking themselves. The world of a cat is a blissful one, and it is decidedly solitary. They just go about their merry way, living their content, spoiled little lives, and if you end up playing with them, it’s because they have allowed you to.
I loved that concept. As nice as dogs are, you could pretty much smack them upside their head with a two-by-four, and after the cobwebs cleared and the blood was wiped out of their eyes, they’d happily come drooling back for more. Not cats. They don’t need you. They’re just fine without you, thank you very much. You have to earn the respect of a cat. They figure out whether or not they like you, and then they conclude if you’re worth hanging out with. My father has the best way with cats. He has little interest in pets, save for our beloved family golden retriever Daisy, and he’s particularly not a fan of cats. So he just completely ignores them, not even implying any interest in their activities, a difficult task, since there are four of them roaming around his house. What happens? The cats, appreciative of not being picked up and snuggled when they just want to sleep, can’t get enough of the guy. He has to peel them off of him anytime he’s just trying to watch the ballgame. Dad claims this is also how you’re supposed to deal with women, which, well, is a notion that might be of some value.
We were just goofing off. I would grab a leaf, rub it against his nose, then throw it so he could chase it around. He’d grab it in his teeth, bat at it with his paws, knock it across the grass and then scamper after it again. Playing along, I’d swipe it from him, dangle it around his ears and giggle as he twirled wildly trying to find it. I even did that trick where you pretend to throw the leaf and keep it in your hand instead, tittering madly as he searched furiously for it. At last, I did wad the leaf up and throw it toward a fence that surrounded the yard and shared a boundary with the neighbor’s yard. Out of nowhere, I heard a chain rattling, a growl, a crunch, a shriek and, ultimately, a whimper.
So I decided I wanted a cat. I wouldn’t take an apartment that wouldn’t let me have one. I didn’t care what type of cat; as long as I had a kitten, something whose mind I could shape and warp in my own image. My mother, just pleased her son wasn’t 2,000 miles away anymore, went on the hunt and found a woman she worked with at the hospital whose cat just shot out a litter. The middle one will be perfect for you, she said; he’s sprightly and energetic and very affectionate. You’ll be living alone. You’ll need all the affection you can get.
Thus, on one Sunday afternoon, about two weeks after I arrived in St. Louis, a city in which I knew no one, a furry little tiger runt showed up at 631 Geoffry, announcing his presence by crying and sprinting under the bed. At first, inexperienced in having my own pet, I rushed after him, trying to calm him and instantly make him my friend. I learned quickly enough ... just leave him alone. After a few hours, he peeked his head out from under the covers, looked left, looked right, and slowly, slowly, slowly crawled tentatively toward the living room. I tossed him a play toy I’d bought for the occasion. He hopped back, frightened, and bolted out of the room. Within 30 seconds, he was back, gnawing on the toy. I just watched, quietly. A half hour later, he was attacking my feet. An hour after that, he was on my lap, sleeping, and I knew he was mine. Or, more accurately, I was his. I named him Wu-Tang, half after the group I was listening to most heavily at the time and half because I am very white and wanted desperately to seem down.
Many friends of mine had cats, and I thought they treated them too much like, well, too much like cats. They would end up either hiding under the bed anytime company would come over, or they would be the fat blob of hair taking up half the couch, a piece of furniture that needs to be fed. My cat wouldn’t be like that, I vowed. He was just my roommate, and he could do whatever he wanted just like any other roommate. Want to sit on the kitchen counter? Dude, go ahead; it’s your place too. Want to eat the leftover pizza? Want to scratch up the wooden couch? Want to bite my arm? Hey, it’s your prerogative. Who am I to tell you what to do? I have no business telling you how to live your life; like I know what I’m doing.
And he was awesome, the most personable animal this side of a car salesman. He would welcome any visitor with a hop up on the lap and a nibble on the wrist. He was just another guy - having him fixed was an ordeal I lamented for days - and he became more a pal than an inferior household pet. He would fall asleep wherever I ended up at night - whether it be the bed, the couch or, on those particularly rough nights, the bathroom floor - and he ran the place however he saw fit. He even helped me out by charming what few women I could coerce to come over to the apartment. (Sometimes being a guy living alone with a cat has its advantages.) It has always seemed to me that, in a way, we’re closer to our pets than we could ever be to another human being. You can pick your nose, fart, masturbate, whatever, the types of things you could only otherwise do alone, with your pet in the room and not even think twice, not even hesitate. It’s a natural closeness. I had that type of relationship with Wu-Tang.
I imagined how insane it would be for Wu-Tang, who as a cat was likely to live for close to 20 years, to go through changes with me, to move to new places, to meet the woman I love, to play with my children. You have a cat for a long time, and, sometimes, they’re actually a bit of work. With Wu-Tang, it was a commitment I didn’t think twice about making.
Immediately, it was obvious something was wrong. I hurried guiltily over to the fence and saw an enormous dog, blood dripping from its jaws, scurry away. And on the ground, eyes wide wide wide open, was my little kitten. There were two puncture wounds, one just below his neck and one just below his ribcage. The cat was feeling no pain, not yet; it just lay there, in shock, lacking understanding. I was vaguely aware that I might have caused this ... if I just hadn’t have thrown the leaf near the fence. And then came the gasps. Later that evening, my mother explained that the dog’s bite, its horrific CHOMP!, likely broke the kitten’s ribs and collapsed its lungs. But all I remember are the gasps. The desperate thrusts for air, a wheeze, a cough, another wheeze. There was simply no air to be found. He wearily lifted his eyes up to me, what happened, oh God I can’t breathe, what is going on? I found myself eerily calm. He is going to die. I ran to the bathroom, grabbed a wet rag and ran back out to him. And for the next two hours, until my parents made me leave, I lay there with my gasping kitten, wiping his brow, trying to ease his suffering, making sure he was not alone.
My cat is dying. It started about four months ago, when my roommate Brian complained to me that Wu-Tang, entirely out of character, had urinated on his bed. After buying Brian new sheets and apologizing profusely, I watched as Wu-Tang promptly hopped on my bed and pissed there too. I took him to the vet, who told me he had a urinary infection, common for male cats. He gave me some pills (he gave the cat some too) and told me to make sure he drank plenty of water.
Wu-Tang was better for about a week, but then he was right back at it again, this time not urinating, but instead depositing little droplets of blood across the apartment. It was almost cute; he was conditioned to the litter box, so he would only go on places that weren’t the floor, like the bed, or rugs, or pieces of clothing lying around. I rushed him back to the vet, who said his bladder was blocked, or his tract was swelling, or something, I didn’t really understand what. He said Wu would need surgery, and that it would cost me about $900. This was clearly money I didn’t have just sitting around, but there was no way I was letting my cat suffer. Plus, I think the place was starting to smell. Wu had the surgery and was fine for about three months.
And then last week. As you’re well aware, I’ve been in crisis mode lately, and the only solace, the only guy always there for me, has been Wu-Tang. So it didn’t escape my attention when I found a dark red spot on my loose copy of the New York Daily News (why, yes, it was on Mike Lupica’s column; how’d you guess?). I called the vet, bitching up a storm about paying 900 bucks for a surgery that would only help for three months.
“Yeah, we were afraid that was going to happen. Listen, we weren’t sure at the time, but this is a chronic thing. This isn’t going away. We can perform another surgery on him, but this is likely going to happen again in three months, or two, or one. And it’s just going to get worse. “
“So what do I do?”
“Well, he’s going to be in a lot of pain. I don’t think it’s right to let him suffer.”
“Yeah, but how do I fix him?”
“We’re not sure we can.”
“Wait, you’re not saying ... ?”
That’s what he was saying.
About a year later, I was riding my bike by the very same house we visited that night. It was the middle of the afternoon. No one was home. I noticed the dog, a big nasty mean ugly dog, sleeping in the neighbor’s front yard. Stealthily, I hopped off the bike and jumped the fence. Then, with all the strength I could muster, I kicked that dog square in the stomach, running off, leaping the fence and pedaling away. I felt little satisfaction. I was just empty.
I’m supposed to take Wu-Tang to the vet tomorrow. I am not certain what the vet will say, but I have a good idea. So now my cat is lying there, on my couch, silent, motionless, in agony. Occasionally he’ll move his head, look up, eyes wide wide wide open, and let out an anguished yet muted rowwrghhhhhhhhhh, then put his head back down. Christ, is there anything worse than an animal in pain? The poor fucking thing ... just lying there, crying, screaming, wondering what in the world is happening to it ... incapable of adequately communicating how much this fucking hurts.
As an “owner,” I have little control over my pet’s life. I feed him, clean his litter box, make sure he’s not living in total filth. That’s about all I do. Yet I keep thinking that I’ve done something wrong, that I fed him the wrong food, or I didn’t pay enough attention to him, or I didn’t change the litter often enough. I could have done something. This is my fault. It isn’t, or so people keep telling me, but it sure feels that way.
Oh, God, he just jumped up here, on my desk, next to my computer. Did he know I was just finishing up this column? How did he have the strength to make the leap? He’s looking at me. Does he know? Is he aware? Can he understand? Is he angry? Does he know how much he’s meant to me? Has he ever known?
Oh, Wu-Tang, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. We have been through so much. I don’t know what to do without you.