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Joan Wickersham

The dud pet

By Joan Wickersham
April 29, 2011

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IT’S SOMETHING many of us have experienced, but we don’t like to talk about it. Seems pointless — unsporting — to complain. We should be able to deal with it. It can happen to anyone, without any warning.

I am speaking of the delicate problem of the dud pet.

Let’s say she’s a cat. Let’s say she’s black and white, rather attractive, but with an eerily small head. Let’s say she’s sitting across the room right now. Let’s hope she can’t read.

The dud pet is the one you just can’t bond with. Your relationship is like a plane that taxis and taxis and never quite lifts off the runway. You try. You feed her and stroke her and talk to her. You do your duty, but you never feel the love.

You are confused: What’s the problem? She’s a cat, and you like cats. You like them as cats; you don’t pretend that they are people, or that they have human personalities. But you like it when they have some personality. This one doesn’t. After 14 years, you barely know her. Has it really been 14 years? You look at your watch, which seems to have stopped. She’s 14. She was 14 the last time you checked. You think of the terrific pets you’ve had. Ashes the cat, hit by a car. Hannibal the cat, dead of a tumor. Fundy, another cat, a gracious and gentle stray of uncertain age, who died after one of those long, increasingly expensive veterinary sagas. Moose, who lived to be 19 and was a cat of unmatched intelligence and aplomb. Even Asteroid, Meteor, Comet, and a number of other astronomically named Woolworth’s turtles you kept buying with your allowance in fourth and fifth grade, whose circumscribed lives — plastic bowl, plastic ramp, plastic palm tree — absorbed you and whose funerals in the flower garden you carried out with tearful pomp. All of them evoked your affection.

But the dud pet is just kind of . . . there.

Is she actively unpleasant? Sometimes. She hissed and scratched at Fundy (who spent a lot of time hiding from her, under the couch) and Moose (who just looked at her and went on, unperturbed, with whatever he’d been doing). You’ve realized that it’s important to view this behavior with compassion and understanding: she’s anxious, and is probably happier now that she’s the only cat left in the household. (Though you do think: Why her?)

What can you do? She’s yours. You’re bound to take care of her. Ah, but you have fantasies. She likes to sit on the steps in front of your house. Sometimes ladies strolling along the sidewalk stop to talk to her. You can hear them through the open window, telling her how pretty she is and saying that they wish they could take her home. You wish they would.

Here’s another fantasy: There’s a store near your house that has a cat, who sleekly patrols the aisles and sleeps in the sunny window. This cat looks exactly like your dud. You imagine going in with the dud in a bag and making the switch while no one is looking. You feel guilty for having these thoughts. You should be able to love her. You look at your watch again. She’s still 14.

Then one day you meet a woman in the waiting room at the vet. She is reading the newspaper, next to an open cat carrier in which a large tabby is sitting, comfortable and alert, waiting for his appointment. Every now and then she addresses a remark to him in baby talk. Somehow you get into a conversation — she brags fondly about her cat’s intelligence and general amazingness. She peers into your cat carrier and says something complimentary. You are not even aware of having a sour expression on your face, but you must, because she says, “Oh. One of those. I have one of those at home.’’

She confides; you confide. It feels vicious and deeply comforting.

The vet calls your name, and you take your dud pet in for her exam. The vet checks her over. The news is good. Or is it?

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com