He glares down at me like a gargoyle from the top of the six-foot bookcase, lashes his tail, blinks. “What!” he says, and goes back to administering the death by a thousand cuts to my spider plant.
I have, since Telemann came to us from the mean streets of Philadelphia two years ago, disposed of most of my houseplants. The ASPCA’s list of plants that are toxic to cats lists 417 species (including, for some reason, catnip), so I am now down to a couple of citrus trees, a jade plant, and my once-flourishing spider plant, which is not poisonous because, if it were, Telemann would have died long ago.
When Telemann first arrived, the spider plant was busy making babies on a shelf in the sunroom. Swaying in the slightest breeze, those babies proved irresistible to a kitten who had, poor thing, until now been deprived of toys, stimulation, healthy food, veterinary care, love, and a warm home. As soon as he saw those plantlets, he knocked down a couple and ate them.
I moved the plant to the dining table, but by the next morning several more babies had perished. I thought that the sideboard would provide refuge, but it didn’t take long for Telemann to enact the botanical equivalent of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.
I transferred the grieving mother plant to the highest spot in the cottage—the top of the tall bookcase in our bedroom. There wasn’t a lot of light there, but spider plants are tough, and after a while it started to look more cheerful. But that was before Telemann figured that it was only an easy five-foot leap (I made my husband measure it) from the nightstand to the plant. We covered the top of the bookcase with loops of packing tape, sticky side up, but that didn’t deter Telemann, who is probably the only cat on earth who doesn’t mind sticky tape on his paws.
Why are cats so amoral? Why do they do bad things and not care? Dogs try hard to be good, and if they sometimes fail, they suffer pangs of conscience. When Bisou used to do bad things, she always felt guilty. (Now that she’s ten, she hasn’t done anything bad in a long time.)
You’d think that after all I’ve done for him Telemann would let us have one measly spider plant to purify the air while we sleep. But reciprocity is not in his repertoire. If, as the cliché has it, dogs give humans unconditional love, cats expect unconditional love from us.
Still, despite his disastrous effects on my houseplants, I always manage to forgive Telemann, partly because in a weird way I admire his après moi le déluge attitude, his focus on his own desires, and his confounded nerve, which remind me of various autocrats, past and present. Luckily Telemann, with his velvety gray fur, little white paws, and slender body, is much easier on the eye. Plus he does have his sweet moments, when he becomes a purring, kneading machine, and exacts all the unconditional love I have to give.