The eminences at Time magazine, ever responsive to the shifting enthusiasms of midcult America, last week proclaimed that cats have become an Official Trend. They actually went so far as to put a feline creature on the magazine's cover, an honor roughly equivalent to elevation into the circle of the divine.
In the felicitous prose that is the magazine's hallmark, they declared that when it comes to cats, it's "love 'em or hate 'em." In saying that they merely helped perpetuate the ancient myth that humankind is divided into two distinct and irreconcilable classes: people who adore cats and people who loathe them. Like so many ancient myths, this is a canard.
I know this to be a fact because I hold joint ownership of two cats (if anyone can be said to "own" a cat), one of which I love and the other of which I detest. When it comes to these, the only cats of significance in my life, I am a house divided.
I have had cats for only four years. For the previous 38 I was a cliche': a cat-hater, the kind of fellow who'd toss a cat out the second-story frat-house window to see if it would land on its feet. (It did, and walked away with haughty disdain.) My wife, though not exactly a cat-hater, believed herself to be allergic to them. But then we bought a house, and decided that it needed beasts; since friends had kittens, we got cats.
We acquired them by grubbing around under a bush and pulling out whatever we got our hands on. The luck of the draw gave us a male, Rough, and his sister, Ready. But poor Ready, a fine cat, lasted only six weeks; her hind end started to sag and flop in alarming ways, the vet discovered an incurable, degenerative disease, and she had to be put to sleep. The next day we got Teddy.
This odd couple has been with us ever since. Both are black-and-gray, tiger-striped alley cats, both have a taste for "9 Lives Seafood Platter," and both like to sleep on the living-room radiator in the winter. Otherwise, they have almost nothing in common. Teddy is the light of my life, Rough the bane of it. Often of an evening I raise a glass in Teddy's direction and toast him: "Don't you ever die." Often I look across the room -- the farther the better -- at Rough and think: "We put the wrong cat to sleep."
Rough has one undeniable virtue: he is exceedingly handsome, a streamlined, lithe animal whose form would be the envy of a panther or a jaguar. The one flaw in his physique is that he has a tiny head; but that is because he has a tiny brain.
Rough lives for only two things: food and sex. Never mind that he was neutered 3 1/2 years ago. He may be as sterile as Cleopatra's eunuchs, but he can still become obviously excited. His way of expressing affection, if that is the word for it, is to slink around like a refugee from a strip joint, bumping and grinding and panting. Caress him in your lap -- something I have not done, I assure you, for a very long time -- and he slithers and slides as though approaching terminal orgasm. He is all body heat.
And all glutton. His entire life is structured around the 7 a.m. "9 Lives" and the 5:30 p.m. "9 Lives." But that is only the beginning. Make the mistake of setting a plastic bag of meat out on a counter to defrost, and in the blink of an eye Rough will be slamming it around the living room, madly clawing and biting at the plastic. The other evening he attacked a slab of parmesan cheese. He routinely dive-bombs the kitchen and pantry trash cans.
And what does he do with all this legal and illegal food once he has consumed it? He throws it up all over the house. Two sounds are immediately identifiable in our residence: the garbage can crashing on its side and, half an hour later, Rough heaving up its contents. His intestines seem to be jammed with one gigantic hairball, which won't get out and won't let anything else in. Small wonder he is lean and lithe.
Teddy is not. Teddy is an odd lump of cat who was put together by someone with a sense of humor. He has a white belly and white paws, and on one of his legs he has nice white spats; on the others, he doesn't. His nose is half white and half gray. He is swaybacked and appears to be overweight, but that sagging stomach turns out, on close inspection, to consist of folds of excess skin. Teddy is a mess.
He was discovered by a cat lady, when he was a tiny thing, on the parking lot of Miami-Dade Community College South. He had been mistreated within an inch of his life, and evidently acquired some traumatic psychological bruises. We assume that he was beaten by a man, because any time a strange male enters the house he heads for the highlands. To be more precise, he heads for my bed. But he does not hide under the bed. Instead he crawls under the bedspread. Wander into the room after the guest has left and you'll see a large lump in the middle of the bed; it's Teddy, approximately as invisible as an ostrich with its head in the sand.
But when the only occupants of the house are the familiar ones, Teddy is lord of the manor. If Rough is in a spot where Teddy wants to be -- a radiator cover, a sofa, a lap -- Teddy moves him along with nice dispatch: one or two sharp bites to the neck, and Rough is dashing to safety. If I am reading in bed and Teddy wants my attention, he simply marches up and positions himself on my chest -- right between me and the book. He moves through the house at a kingly pace, surveying his reign with benign indifference.
Teddy was born to rule and to amuse. Remove your shoes and put them on the floor, and Teddy blisses out; he shoves his head as far into a shoe as he can, sprawls out on his back, and writhes in the ecstasy that, for some reason, the odor of dirty feet arouses in him. Lately he has adopted a miniature rubber basketball, perhaps three inches in diameter, which he bats this way and that in a furious one-cat game of soccer; at other times he wanders through the house with the ball clenched in his teeth, making strange noises as he goes.
Early in the morning, when my wife lies down on the living-room floor to do her exercises, Teddy lies down with her; he lies on his back, just as she does, and rolls from side to side, just as she does. His infatuation with her is total. If she turns on her electric typewriter, he meows at her angrily for interrupting the blissful silence they share. When she takes a bath, he perches on the side of the tub, solemnly attending to the ritual; he keeps his vigil until the last drop of water has gone down the drain.
It is in fact because of Teddy that I find myself, however reluctantly, almost tolerating Rough for a few minutes every day. These are the minutes when they play, an exercise the pace of which is usually determined by Teddy and which is usually both violent and frantic, involving much biting and leaping and high-speed chasing, domestic theater of the most amusing variety. Teddy, of course, always wins these mock battles.
Or at least that's the way I see it. My wife, who for some reason loves both cats, says that Rough wins his share. What I say is that she has let impartiality cloud her better judgment.