My gray cat, Telemann, will be three years old next week. He has reached his prime, his peak, his zenith, his apogee.
I should have known, when I was signing his adoption papers and he jumped up and tried to grab my pen, that I was about to take home a certain kind of cat. But at the time, all I saw was kitten adorableness.
I was going to have a gray cat, just like the writer Colette,
whose last cat, la Chatte Dernière, was also gray. Maybe
it would help me write better! It would be glorious!
And in many ways, it has been.
In others, not so much. The last three years have been a continuous struggle to anticipate, outsmart, and outmaneuver Telemann. Every drawer in the house must be completely closed at all times, or he will pull out its contents. If I leave my laptop to get more coffee, I have to remember to put down the lid, or he will edit what I’ve written. And if you come to visit, do not, whatever you do, leave your purse where you can’t watch it, or he will scatter your belongings all over the floor.
But my main struggle with Telemann has been over houseplants. Now that I no longer have a vegetable garden, and the area around our cottage is too shady for anything more colorful than hostas, I depend on houseplants for my ration of botanical pleasure. The problem is, so does Telemann.
No matter what strategies I dream up, he defeats them. He is only a medium-sized cat, but when sufficiently motivated he can stretch his lean body like taffy and reach almost any spot in the house. And what he can’t reach by stretching he reaches by jumping, aided by the powerful muscles in his hind legs and fueled by the expensive diet of raw turkey prescribed by his vet.
When I brought a tall Dracaena home from Lowe’s a couple of weeks ago, Telemann set to shredding it at once. I surrounded the pot with a scat mat (a contraption that delivers a mild electric shock when touched) and for a few hours the Dracaena made itself at home undisturbed until Telemann figured out the angle of approach that would allow him to nibble the leaves without getting zapped. I sprayed the plant with a special herbal cat deterrent, and when that didn’t work, I swabbed it with undiluted peppermint essential oil. But Telemann nibbled on.
The thing is, the Dracaena, and the blood-red, sword-shaped Cordyline, and the gigantic Peace Lily I adopted at Walmart are all, according to the ASPCA, poisonous. I have watched Telemann closely for the slightest hint of drooling, gagging, nausea, vomiting, intestinal distress, and loss of appetite. But, in this endless war, if anyone is losing appetite it’s me.
I have lain awake nights trying to figure out ways to have both a cat and a few measly houseplants (is that really too much to ask?). And the only solution I have come up with is an exquisitely precise arrangement of each plant, at a specific height and distance from the furniture, that keeps it barely out of his reach, even at his most taffy-like. But if a table or chair is moved even a millimeter from its ideal placement, he’s on the plant like a vampire in the full moon.
Speaking of sleepless nights, I have, for various reasons, had more than my share of them lately. And that is when Telemann redeems himself. When I tiptoe out of the bedroom, he rushes miaowing to greet me as if he hadn’t seen me in a month. He throws himself on his back and wiggles ecstatically in a kind of horizontal belly dance. If I stoop and tickle his stomach he seizes my hand with his teeth, but charmingly inhibits his bite.
He follows me as I head to my study, arrange my afghan on the cot, and stretch out with my book. When everything is in place, he leaps up and, tail held high, circles seven times before he settles on my sternum with his nose against mine. Then he purrs and kneads, purrs and kneads, spreading out his white toes and digging his nails into my skin.
With all this going on, I don’t get much reading done. But there is something about that rhythmic thrumming against my rib cage that soothes and relaxes me like nothing else can, and I soon put aside the book, turn off the light, and go to sleep.
Because of this and other charms (the way he comes when called, the killer way he stares at birds, his sudden yowling gallops through the house) I forgive Telemann for his plant depredations. I wish him a long, long life, and if he’s still with me at the end of mine, I hope for the comfort of his weight on my chest and his purrs in my ear, as I say goodbye.