I go into the bedroom to prepare for a zoom session. My dog Bisou is with me because she’s always with me, unless I’ve accidentally locked her in a closet into which she has followed me. I close the bedroom door, open the laptop, and wait for the host to start the session. Out in the hallway, the cat Telemann gives a melancholy meow, and sticks his little white paw under the door. If there is one thing I cannot resist, it is Telemann’s little white paw. I would interrupt a zoom meeting with the Pope himself if Telemann stuck his paw under the door.
The session hasn’t started yet, so I get up and open the door. You’d think that he would rush right in, but no. Instead, he backs up against the little bench across the hall and performs his marking ritual. This consists of raising one hind foot after the other while making trembling motions with his upright tail. You have probably seen male tigers do this against a jungle tree in nature documentaries. Unlike the tigers, Telemann is neutered, so he does not spray urine, for which I’m grateful. When I described this ritual to the vet, he said it was a sign of affection. “You are loved,” he whispered.
I beckon with voice and gesture for Telemann to come into the room, but he’s not done with the marking ceremony. I know that if I simply close the door, the meowing and pawing will start all over again, so “Heeeere kitty” I implore, in my most dulcet tones. He looks at me as if he’s never seen me before.
Surely by now the zoom session has started? I go to check the computer, and while I’m turned away Telemann ambles nobly into the room. I leap to the door and close it before he can change his mind. Both pets are now in the room—Bisou is already snoring—and I can center myself as I wait for the session to begin.
But where is the cat? He’s sitting by the closed door, staring at it as if to bore a hole through which to escape. Is he thirsty? Is he bored? Does he need to use the litter box? How urgent is his need? If I let him out, he’ll insist on coming back in. On the other hand, if I ignore him there may be a heavy price to pay.
The host has appears and the session begins. The minute Telemann hears voices, he jumps onto my lap and presses his damn little white paw on the keyboard, which causes the zoom screen to vanish. When I get it back, he maneuvers himself with his derrière to the screen, tail raised to the sky. It’s a good thing I’m not zooming with the Pope.
Despite his many quirks, I find Telemann entrancing, because he is so mysterious. Dogs have their own mysteries, of course, but compared to a cat, a dog is an open book. Living with a dog is like watching a foreign movie with subtitles—you miss some stuff, but you get the general idea. Living with a cat is like watching that same movie minus subtitles, and having to figure out what is going on by guesswork and paying close attention to the actors’ facial expressions.
Few things are as puzzling as trying to read a cat’s face. Perhaps this is because the cat’s facial expression often bears no relation in human terms to what he is doing. When Telemann in a playful mode “assaults” Bisou or leaps after a string I’m wiggling for him, his face remains as solemn and composed as when he does his nails at the scratching post. Dogs have play faces. Cats do not.
There is one situation in which a cat’s face does what a human’s would do in the same circumstance, and that is the purr face–the cozy-comfy face, with the eyelids at half-mast. It’s the kind of face that, when a human makes it, we think of as cat-like. But for the most part, a cat expresses himself with his body—tail up or lashing, back flat or arched, and so on. We humans are a face-oriented species, however, and we scrutinize eyes, cheeks, and lips before we remember to look at the body, so cats appear sphinx-like to us, hieratic and unfathomable.
I like to live with both a dog and a cat for the same reason that some married men keep mistresses: the dog (the wife) offers reliable comfort and companionship, while the cat, like a capricious mistress, is in charge of mystery and drama.