Three Cat Portraits

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Hold the cat like you did a baby the first time you picked one up, cradled belly-up between your arms. All four of the cat’s sherbet-striped paws will wave in the air, and he will twist his snaggle-toothed face upward, looking directly into your eyes. A perfect tabby, maybe obese, with green eyes and a smile. The sun itself on a winter day.

If someone like Zadie Smith, the one speaking in “Joy”, can talk like a dog with her husband and then write about it, then surely I can write unabashedly about the cats we keep. The one above, and two females, one tiny and black, the other fluffy and fast.

The black one, Boots, finds dark corners in which to disappear. She’ll stay there for hours watching you with a scornful look. It’s not that she’s shy, but rather that she demands privacy. She swishes her tail, a bony instrument, and meows loudly to announce her entry into a room, as though to warn you to clear a path. Boots never sprawls out on her side. A wound coil even when resting, hind legs tensed and prepared to launch her at the slightest disturbance.

A window chain snapped one day, releasing its pane like a guillotine rushing down on Dusty’s front paw. The window only caught her, and she dangled like that for three hours. By the time she was found, it was too late; the leg had to go. Now Dusty runs from room to room, proving she’s still nimble, impossible to catch, even with only three legs. Often she’ll dash toward one of the other cat’s food bowls, where she’ll nip up a quick bite before exiting the scene. When caught, her cloud of brown fur puffs out. She hisses, but just for show, since she doesn’t have standing to swat away her foe.

If you’re loud, you might never see Copernicus, the third cat. He’s skittish, and will only let himself be seen if the crowd seems right. Sharp noises and heavy steps send him skittering beneath the nearest bed frame, where he will sit until hours after the perceived threat has gone away. Those determined to make his acquaintance, however, will find the attentions of this cat worth waiting. When he finally decides that you’re safe, the tabby’s love will exceed all other felines’. Once he climbs your legs and flops over on your lap, you’re stuck. There’s no escaping his heft once he’s settled in: You will pet him. What do you want to touch? His fur is velvety behind the ears, soft and feathery on his belly. His purr grows as you stroke him, from a quiet gurgle toward a deep, gravelly grind. Sometimes, when he really wants to feel good, he’ll hold out his two arms in front of him until he catches them on your hand. Without opening his eyes, he’ll rub your hand against his nose til the urge is sated. Petting him, if you want to do it right, takes at least twenty minutes.

Cats only ever seem to have one or two personality traits, bundled alongside a handful of predictable behaviors. If you touch him there, he will bite your finger; if you move the string this way, he will bat at it; shake the treat jar just so, and he’ll run to you. Until I had three in my house, I never could sympathize with cat collectors. But if it’s so easy to understand a trio of them, why wouldn’t one want to add more to the brood? Five, six, ten padded-foot housemates, I can imagine, lining shelves like books and lazy-licking their paws or chasing clods of dirt, as it may go.


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