When they were informed that their son was allergic to cats, my parents did what any parents would do: They went out and got four of them.
OK, that's a little misleading. We never have four cats simultaneously. Our suburban home was situated on a particularly dangerous corner of a major road, which led to the demise of Muffin, our first feline family member. I won't say I was happy to see Muffin go, but I will say that I didn't miss her growling and hissing and glaring whenever I so much as approached her. Years later, I did some volunteer work serving meals to senior citizens in our town. Many of them were delightful, but the bossy, ornery, impossible-to-please ones -- well, the experience of living with Muffin was probably good training for that.
Muffin was quickly replaced by Charlie Brown, a rambunctious scamp who made up with playfulness for what he lacked in basic situational awareness. One day shortly after acquiring him, we were backing out of our driveway and from the backseat I suggested that my dad might want to tap the brake. There, a few feet behind the bumper was little Charlie Brown, lazily rolling around on his back, swatting at some imaginary enemy in the air, oblivious to the 3,000-pound death mobile bearing down upon him.
"He'll move," my dad said, tapping the horn.
Charlie Brown paused to process the sound, then apparently determined it was some kind of signal to carry on. As I rapped on the rear window glass, my sister rolled down her window. "Charlie Brown! Move! Please!" But he just kept on swatting. Finally, my dad threw the car into park and got out and moved the cat out of the car's path. As we drove off, I suggested that maybe we shouldn't let Charlie Brown go outside anymore, on account of the dangerous road and his apparent belief that automobiles were no more dangerous than catnip. When my parents scoffed at that, I knew Charlie Brown's fate was sealed. A few weeks later, just after a particularly touching episode of "Growing Pains" had concluded, we got the knock on the front door. The driver was really sorry -- the cat just ran into the road at the last second. There was nothing she could do.
Then there was Tiger, a big Persian cat who was smarter than Charlie Brown and less sociopathic than Muffin. Well, to a degree. Tiger took a particular liking to my sister, which triggered feelings of jealousy and inferiority in me -- feelings that my sister skillfully amplified by periodically informing me, "Tiger hates you." I tried to remind myself that it was for the best; less time spent around Tiger and his constantly shedding fur meant less time sneezing and itching my watery eyes and breaking into hives. But still: I was young, I was irrational, I wanted an animal that would be loyal to me and not my sister.
The cheapest solution was fish. The pet store at the mall sold them for ten bucks, and the small plastic tank didn't cost much more. I bought two -- Gill and Finny, I named them -- and set them up on the dresser in my room. And sure enough, they drove my sister crazy. Not because she had any interest in them, but because Tiger did. Suddenly, he started paying visits to my room, hopping onto the dresser and pressing his face against the cheap plastic bowl until my sister came running in to reclaim him. He'd growl at her as she pulled him away and I'd just smile.
The fatal flaw in my scheme, it turned out, was duct tape. I could have easily used it to anchor the base of the bowl to the dresser. But that idea didn't cross my mind until a loud crash rousted me from my slumber in the middle of the night. A puddle of water was expanding across the wood floor, and in the middle of it was the shattered plastic bowl and Tiger, with one of the fish -- I didn't know if it was Gil or Finny; I never really learned to tell them apart -- hanging out of his mouth, squirming. He looked up at me and took off.
I caught up with him in our kitchen, where he'd skillfully positioned himself behind an old wood-burning stove. By the time I dragged him out, he'd already finished his snack. I held him in the air and started screaming at him, calling him a killer and telling him I hated him. This woke my mom up, and when I explained what had happened, I fully expected she'd be on the phone with animal control immediately. Instead, she just shrugged. "He's a cat. You put his favorite food right in front of him. What did you think was going to happen?"