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Cuter Than Junior?

The question that begs to be asked: Do I think my son is actually "cuter than Junior," my cat?
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In the last year I've wed a beautiful woman, sired a genius child, and at last become a writer (with my first book released and my articles published in periodicals from The New York Times to Hustler). It has been, by any measure, an extraordinary year, which is why I was as shocked as anyone to recently find myself weeping in the Oklahoma City airport. I wouldn't have expected it, but there I was, a grown man with a family and a career, huddled in a corner with tears pouring down my face, a turn of events all the more surprising (even to me) when you consider that I was crying over my cat.

Yes, I publicly wept at the Will Rogers Airport over the sudden death of Junior, the gray American short-haired who'd been my friend and companion for the better part of 10 years. I wept because the cat who wanted nothing more than to weasel his way between my legs to take a nap on the ottoman was gone, gone forever from snuggling up beside me, sleeping beside me, sleeping atop me. I wept because my friend was gone.

I'd adopted Junior and his mother in Iowa City a decade before, when a friend with a little crack problem planned on dumping his cats in a cornfield and moving to Seattle. When I objected to his plan, he suggested that I screw off or take the cats myself, so soon Junior and Big Momma were living on Brown Street in my Gaslight Village home, bathing in the sunlight of the window seats and patrolling our loft apartment for mice.

In truth it was Big Momma who hunted for the mice, as Junior was three months old at the time and probably weighed a pound. I originally assumed Junior's indifference to those rodents -- and there was no shortage of them in the old commune that was Gaslight Village -- was attributable to his youth, but over the years I realized that Junior's continued disinterest in mouse-hunting had less to do with age or inexperience than the fact that my little friend would rather take a nap.

Once, near Princeton, N.J., a bat invaded the farmhouse I lived in, sequestering itself in an upstairs bedroom and driving Big Momma nearly apoplectic with fury. I say this with love, but Big Momma is not exactly the picture of feline grace; she is a roly-poly cat with a pot belly, circular markings and crossed-eyes (surely the result of too much crack smoke in her earlier life). Big Momma's round look is that of a cartoon cat, but she pursued that bat with murderous intent, uttering a terrifying growl to alert me to its presence and later, comically, coming up about eight feet short when trying to hurl herself straight up into the air to get at the bat, hanging from a ceiling beam. Junior, meanwhile, now grown into a big, strong, 22-pounder, remained downstairs on the couch in front of the TV, keeping an eye on the late innings of a Red Sox-Yankees game.

Still, while I loved Big Momma (and respected her willingness to take on her cat responsibilities), it was Junior I was crazy for. I joked with my girlfriend at the time that, while I hoped nothing tragic ever happened to anyone we knew, I prayed in particular that, if so, it happened to "anyone but Junior." Meanwhile, when people asked that girlfriend and me why we didn't have children, I scoffed and asked, "Why? No kid could be cuter than Junior."

Junior had weaseled his way into my heart the way he always weaseled his way between legs, persistently nudging his way in. In Iowa City that first year I pulled open a desk drawer to find Junior curled up and sound asleep, the very epitome of cat cute. On 9/11 the next year, in our Princeton cottage Junior sat somberly beside me (and Big Momma next to my girlfriend) as we watched the pictures of the towers coming down. When I later used to return from months-long business trips to my apartment in Norfolk, Va., Junior would immediately forsake his snoozing spot in the crook of my girlfriend's arm to sleep between my legs, a rejection my girlfriend invariably felt, but a move Junior invariably made. In Maine, living alone in the unheated attic of my brother's home, I saw myself as a failed writer and man, but every morning I still enjoyed coffee and newspaper with Junior on my lap, and every night I was kept warm largely by him snuggled under the blankets with me.

It was in New York City, however, where Junior helped me most, when living in the East Village I tried to write the book that had long tormented me. For years I'd worked in the standardized testing industry, and it was a job I rather loved, filled with smart people, interesting experiences and lots of great business travel / expense-account living. If only I hadn't found the entire experience morally bankrupt, I could've kept at it forever, but the constant thought that maybe we shouldn't sacrifice this country's children on the altar of corporate profit made it difficult for me to keep plugging away. Instead I decided to write a book about my career, a book I recognized as traitorous to the people who had befriended me and the companies who had supported me but that I still felt needed to be written.

It wasn't easy, in other words, to write that damned book, and I did it with guilt in my heart and only Junior at my side. On the mornings when I woke up early to type away, Junior got up with me, and I would sit at the desk of my studio apartment with my legs up on the windowsill, Junior nestled on the bridge of my lap for a good couple of hours. On the "mornings" that I got up at about 2 p.m. -- having dealt with my demons the night before by staying at Vazac's till closing time and drinking altogether too many monster-sized cans of Labatt's Blue -- Junior got up with me, too, seemingly uninterested in the hours I was keeping and disinclined to take any moralistic view about the life choices I continued to make. On those late "mornings," Junior just waited until I tottered home from the bodega on the corner, fully supplied with coffee, Gatorade, and egg sandwiches, and at that late hour he took his accustomed place on my lap to chew on some bacon and help me write a book.

There were writing days -- and I swear it was the days I felt most lost -- when Junior seemed to wake from his slumber expressly to calm me, opening his eyes and reaching up from his perch on my legs to press the soft pads of his feet into my face, his paws seeming to soothe my soul as much as massage my chin. On nearly all the days we wrote together, Junior would eventually retire to the loft bed in the back of the apartment, and I often looked up from my computer to see him looking down at me. I may have been crazy, but in his eyes I was sure I could see interest and support.

Things happened for us quickly after that, Junior and me, and not all of it happened well. I met a woman whom I loved enough to forgive her cat allergy, and when I knocked her up and moved into her Midtown home, I had to leave my cats downtown, Big Momma and Junior remaining a permanent fixture in that apartment when a friend moved in. While I tried to visit as often as I could, "as often as I could" was infrequent indeed, but still not so rare that Junior didn't always welcome me at the door and try to make his way onto my lap.

If Junior always forgave my absences, I'll never forgive myself for not noticing his weight loss. In retrospect I know his weight loss -- as well as the stories I heard of him drinking his water bowl dry -- were the symptoms of kidney problems, but those were things I learned later. I never stopped loving Junior and never stopped wanting him (and Big Momma) to live with me, but by then my wife and son occupied most of my time. Then, before I imagined such a thing was even possible, I got a call in Oklahoma informing me that Junior was sick, very, very sick. While I paid a lot of money to give my friend every chance, he was gone even before I flew home the next day.

These days, I try not to think of all the waiting Junior used to do for me, whether when I traveled for work or to trek in the Himalayas, or when I left him with my girlfriend or downtown. I especially try not to think of him that last day in the vet's office, with just my loving but allergic wife at his side; I especially try not to think of him then, my poor, sick, cat, wondering once and for all if I would ever show up.

Today I have a son, the glorious Phoenix Farley, a strapping little boy on whom I've pinned only the small hopes of winning a Nobel Prize and the World Cup. He is indisputably adorable, both a hellion and a ham, and few would argue that he hasn't pretty much buried the needle on the cuteness quotient. Still, the question that begs to be asked: Do I think my son is actually "cuter than Junior"?

The easy answer, of course, is yes, because Phoenix is my child while Junior was (even to me) just a cat. The more honest answer, however, is no -- in fact a rather resounding "no," because while I recognize my boy as the most gorgeous thing I've ever laid eyes on, I also realize he's not cute enough to fill the hole in my heart where once my Junior used to be.

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