Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Napoleon Complex

My cats aren't just companions; they're gurus, after a fashion. They teach patience.

My older cat, call her John-John, runs the house. Yes, the younger, lither, more agile boy dressed all in black, call him Jacqueline, has his moments. Finally, however, his feral origins lead him to cowardice. Unlike people, he knows when to retreat, and retreat he often does. His retreats are dignified; he'll idly provoke me or John-John, but as soon as either of us responds in kind he'll streak to his redoubt under the living room futon, where he'll remain for five minutes, or five hours, keeping his counsel.

Meanwhile John-John, whose eyes follow Jackie's swift comings and goings with unconvincing indifference, bides her time, and stakes her claims only when a situation has revealed itself entirely to her. When I shower, she waits just outside the door; as soon as I close the taps and reach for a towel, she lopes into the room as though she just happened to be in the neighborhood and looks up at me like I have something to answer for.

I lay on my bed, or on the sofa, or on the floor -- anywhere I am uncovered -- and John-John finds her way to me, sniffs around my border emphatically as though my outline were chalked in catnip, then surveys the landscape of my body at rest. Sooner or later, she identifies an angle of approach, jumps onto my back, or my stomach, or my side, and fits her viscous body to my shallow curves, fur onto wool or cotton or skin.

Sometimes she paces, Napoleonic, along the length of my body, claiming me in defiance of all challengers. Other times, she slinks into my lap or along my thigh covertly, perhaps in the hope that I'll fail to notice her intrusion and thus proceed, undisturbed, to nap or meditate or otherwise still my agitated hide to permit her lingering.

But there's a particular posture that proves especially inviting to John-John: me laying on my side. When I assume this posture, John-John needs no invitation. She steps up onto my thigh, her paws pressing into my muscles awkwardly as she reveals the mystery of her masterful balancing in pressures applied at four carefully calibrated points, and stalks over my hip. Eventually she finds the proper place, hind legs folded beneath her just below my hip; belly embracing the hip; and forelegs dangling over either side of me, a sigh, perhaps a yawn, a palpable settling of her weight in phases, stops and starts, suggesting a reluctance belying her rough confidence in scaling my body to begin with.

It's only fitting, since nothing is more captivating than a beautiful woman laying on her side, a classical Rubens pose, perhaps, though I tend away from the Rubenesque. I lay on my side, lacking the feminine curves, yet still evoke in John-John an analogous emotion, in manifestion if not in origin, to occupy a nexus of nature's variegated perfections.

Jacqueline, for his part, will have nothing of this. He chooses his battles, and fights them vigorously, but they occur mostly around the food bowls in the morning (John-John has learned the hard way that a feral cat, no matter how diminutive or cowardly in other respects, knows how to guard his food), and on the living-room radiator in the evening, two of only three small areas John-John has failed to dominate in their 12-16-month negotiation for possession of the apartment they both -- secretly -- know is mine. Actually, John-John may think its hers, but Jackie knows better.

Nothing is quite so singular as having a cat claim you as her hill, territory to be defended against all would-be intruders; nothing, in the world of domestic animals, quite so moving as the quiet challenge she transmits, before settling down to doze, toward anyone who might dare question her superiority. Jackie declines these challenges, and though he sometimes lurks about the perimeter of my bed before I sleep, he's never there in the morning. By then, John-John has established her bedroom dominance, which she enjoys at rest coiled like a centipede nera my feet, while Jackie sleeps in the black chair in the living room, her sleek coat camouflaging her against unwary observers, her fur collecting imperceptibly in the seams.

This is not a metaphor.

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