Relay: Nelson, Nelson, Where Is Nelson?

I got Nelson a year ago, when he was a teenager, I suppose, about 9 months old

    When my cat Nelson went missing the other night I was beside myself. I knew in my bones that he was gone for good. Why else would he disappear for hours on end?

    I got Nelson a year ago, when he was a teenager, I suppose, about 9 months old. He had been found as a kitten by a friend in an abandoned gopher hole in her yard in Hoboken, N.J. After fostering him for a while it became clear her cat was never going to accept him, so to East Hampton Village he came, where he happily became an indoor-outdoor critter, coming and going at will through cat doors.

    In January we moved into a house in Springs, and I didn’t let either cat out for two months. It’s not that I was being overprotective, it’s just that it was so cold and snowy. Well, maybe I was being a tad vigilant. Once I had them all to myself, I was loath to let them out, especially into unknown territory.

    A couple of weeks ago I started letting them out a few minutes, then an hour, then a couple of hours at a time. Last Wednesday night around 9 Nelson began to meow to get out the front door. When I opened it something must have spooked him because he dallied inside. Around 9:30 I let both cats out. An hour or so later I let Savannah in. She sashayed around the kitchen, raising her tail and wiggling her backside in a proprietary way. She’s half Bengal and, though female, marks territory like a male.

    Lately Nelson had prolonged his nocturnal meanderings a bit. A frisky young male, he needed to sow his wild oats. For the next several hours I went to the door and called him in my signature way: “Nelllsonnn! Nelsie. Sweet boy.” Blah, blah, blah — all the embarrassing ways by which women can talk to their felines. But I was met only with dark silence.

    About midnight I started to worry, feeling that familiar tug of panic weighting down my insides. Savannah followed me, apparently under the impression we were on a great adventure, as I went deep into the neighborhood, shining my flashlight under bushes and up in trees. I was amazed at how she scoured fences into neighbors’ yards.

    But no Nelson. I put on the late shows, which I rarely watch, to keep me alert to a possible scratch at the door. The mugging-for-the-camera antics of Craig Ferguson, whom I’d found endearing in the past, was particularly annoying when gripped by fear and grief. As I write this now, I see that I was overreacting. My sister reminded me the other day that, as our mother died when we were young, we tend to think the worst first. I woke up repeatedly throughout the night to call him.

    The next day each bird peep and distant child’s cry I was sure was Nelson, who can be a talkative bloke. I hung out on the back deck talking loudly on the phone so he’d hear my voice, and worked on my laptop in the glaring sun so as not to miss the sound of paws on dried leaves. I called and called. I put out food in a loud way, opening the can as if it were the main act of a Vegas show, shaking a bag of treats as if it were a pinata.

    I called a friend who lives upstate and has a male cat I knew had disappeared before. “He’s taken off for up to a day and a half,” she comforted me. I was already up to 16 hours at that point and though my mind wanted to be at ease, my stomach still felt like a battery had leaked in it.

    I remembered that I had bought an herbal mood relaxer called 5-HTP a while back. I took one. It softened the edges of my anxiety remarkably. I looked at the label. Only two a day. Within another hour of his not reappearing I wanted another. Hell, I wanted a vodka, a Valium, anything to take this feeling of dread away.

    There were things I should do. Eat, was one of them. But that was something my digestive tract was unprepared for. I had made some squash soup the day before. Nothing seemed less appealing. I remembered that I’d bought some cheddar-coated popcorn for a party I’d never had. Where had I stashed it? Only junk food would do at a time like this. I devoured some healthy candy bars, not really an oxymoron, raw chocolate and peanut butter cups that supposedly contained as many antioxidants as a pound of kale. They filled the hole in my gut, sort of.

    Overcome by the deep exhaustion of worry and lack of sleep, I could barely lift the kettle to make some chamomile tea. I knew I needed to make posters and scout the neighborhood again. I was supposed to meet friends for dinner but felt I couldn’t leave. What if Nelson came back when I was out? A friend advised me to take a nap then go out. Savannah climbed under the covers. She didn’t seem to notice that Nelson was missing. I found it hard to fathom that she didn’t miss her pal, with whom she frolicked day and night, but didn’t fault her.

    I went to dinner and managed to have a good time and mostly put Nelson out of my mind. But as I drove home, I returned to our old village address to see if perchance he’d returned there. He hadn’t. Then I sailed the car at five miles an hour the last half-mile home calling his name. As I turned the car into my driveway, I was crushed, despondent. It had been 24 hours. And then there he was! Making his little squeaking sound and waiting for me on the front porch.

    On Saturday I found myself reassuring a friend whose male cat had been missing a few days. “Don’t worry, he’ll come home.” And I’m sure he will.

    Debra Scott is a real estate columnist at The Star.