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When I woke up, the Professor's cat was gone and there was just a big patch of sweat on my chest where the cat and sun had been. I drove back to my house to look for the pile of white kittens that had been living in the bush. They had disappeared, leaving a small matted circle of grasses. I asked a couple of neighbors. They didn't know anything.
I drove to the animal shelter nearby and I was directed to a small room that had about 30 cats held in individual cages and told to wait to speak with an "Adoptions Counselor." It wasn't like the dream: All of the cats were sleeping, peaceful, uninjured. The white kittens weren't there, but at least none of the cats was screeching.
A woman walked in shortly after me and we waited for a minute or two in silence until she said, "I can't believe they left us in the room with the cats."
"You're not here for the cats?" I asked.
"For a dog," she said. "I hate cats."
I looked at her incredulously, and she offered a long story about growing up. Her mother had been afraid of cats and, though she couldn't say why, she had taught all of her children to regard cats with a kind of wary, suspicious attitude. The woman said that she didn't feel safe around cats.
"But," I stammered. "But what about, like, funny pictures of cats on the Internet? Do you like those?"
"Yeah, of course, but those aren't these," she said and pointed to all of the living, breathing cats in cages around us.
"Do you think it is possible that cats on the Internet aren't actually cats?" I asked the Professor. "I mean, maybe I've been going about this all wrong, thinking that we're actually interested in cats right now. Maybe we're not interested in cats at all."
"I thought the whole premise of your story was that we're very interested in cats right now."
"Yeah, but maybe we're not interested in cats, but about this deeply cynical need to validate what we do with Web traffic, with more likes on Facebook, more retweets on Twitter. Cats are just this perfect metaphor for that sort of bullshit personal validation, for something completely flat and meaningless that nevertheless means something profound because it got a lot of attention on the Internet."
"Well, we have somehow associated these inhuman robotic functions with actual human emotions. I read a study the other day that said the more 'friends' you have online, the more likely you are to be an asshole."
"But what does that actually have to do with cats?"
"We just care about cats if the cats can fit in our iPhone or if the cats are, like, images of cats that can be clicked into or out of existence at any moment. I mean, I think maybe the reason that I wanted to write this story in the first place is some sort of cynical desire to write about something with a bunch of meaningless SEO-friendly words in the headline."
"Are they really meaningless?"
"I don't know. Sometimes when I'm looking at these pictures of cats I feel like I'm staring at the Sphinx in the desert trying to find some sort of meaning in a stone that will never speak to me."
"Have you heard that story about the pyramids in Giza? They say they're the ears of a giant cat head built down into the desert sands."
"I feel like that's the only thing I ever hear anymore. Like, I just reread Freedom and now I think the whole last scene where Walter has a cat-proof fence built around his lake property is just a metaphor for the futility of trying to keep the Internet out of our personal lives."
"So, wait, is this story just about how we pay too much attention to the Internet and not enough to the stuff right around us?"
"No, I mean, I hope not. I was going to give all of these facts and figures about how many feral cats there are in Atlanta and how many are euthanized every year and put those right next to all the numbers about Web traffic related to cats and how much we look at them. I was going to go a shelter where they euthanize cats and watch one die while looking at lolcats on my phone, but the animal shelter that I kept on visiting and trying to talk into letting me do this stopped returning my messages and started telling me their director was 'out of town on vacation.'"
"They stonewalled you."
"Yeah and they probably thought I was a creep. And it started to sound like a big stupid PSA, anyway. People know that they should adopt cats if they want cats and I don't need to tell them that."
"So, what is the story about?"
"Just cats, I think. They're a big story right now."