Wednesday, January 12, 2011

polyamory (a cat on the side)

The last time I visited Marcia, I met Bob.

Bob’s her new love. He turns out to be big and muscular. Big and muscular, with short white hair that stands straight up.

“Just wait ‘til you meet Bob,” she’d said to me over the phone. “You’ll really like him.”

“I’m sure I will,” I said.

“He drools though,” she added.

“Bob drools,” I said. “Bob drools? I’m sure he’s just excited.”

“Yeah. It’s really disgusting. But you’ll like him anyway.”

“He must have many other fine qualities.” I wasn’t quite sure what to think.

These are days of full disclosure. Everyone tells everyone everything. It’s not enough to come out as gay anymore; now you must come out as a Bear or an Otter. Or as a Power Bottom. Or as an Adult Baby.

Daughters squabble with their mothers about who’s qualified to be a pro-domme and who gets the keys to the dungeon this weekend. Acquaintances prattle on about Golden Showers weekends in Marin and about Puppy Play in the East Bay.

It’s gone pretty far: I see entire families of furries at Whole Foods.

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” as Allen Ginsberg would have it.

Secrecy is out. Wikileaks is in.

Kinks that have always existed now have names and social networks.

Marcia and I sit in her living room. It is barely after 5, but it’s already dark. There’s a noise on the front porch. Marcia jumps up as if she were expecting a visitor.

“That’s Bob,” she says. “I’ll let him in. Or maybe we should go see him outside. He does drool.”

“He drools that much?” I say. “He drools so much that you don’t want him to sit with us in the living room?”

I picture the living room filling with Bob’s saliva. Of snorkeling down the hall to the bathroom in a sea of drool. Of strange underwater creatures—feathery anemones, nine-armed octopuses, and phosphorescent crabs—evolving in her dining room, nipping the yarn hair on her Jerry Garcia doll and sidling up to investigate the radioactive red Fiestaware and antique postcards in her china cabinet.

We go out into the cold Palo Alto evening so I can meet Bob.

“If we visit with Bob out here,” Marcia says, “he can do his flopping thing.”

Bob is THE BIGGEST CAT I’ve ever seen. His haunches have the musculature of a cheetah. Of a bobcat. Oh. Bob Cat. Oh. I almost missed that. Not a LOL cat. A Bob Cat.

Yet I’m not sure that the name was intentional. I often see more than is there, but these days, even more is just disclosed, unbidden.

Marcia has developed something of a proprietary attitude toward Bob, even though he has a collar and a tag, and presumably a nice warm home down the block. I squat down to stroke him. He’s big enough to eviscerate me if he has the mind to. He seems placid though. Satisfied. Solid.

“You guys feeding him?” I ask.

“Bobby needs his treats.” Marcia says. “Bobby, do you want turkey? Some nice Christmas turkey? Does Bobby want some nice turkey treats?”

The cat does not say yes. But he doesn’t say no either. Bob looks like the kind of guy who wouldn’t mind a treat or two here on the doorstop, right in front of everyone, should one care to materialize.

Marcia disappears inside the house, leaving me to commune with her new boy. So far, no drool is in evidence. No lakes have formed on the doormat, although Bob is casually sharpening his claws on it. Then he stands up tall on his hind legs and tries to open the door with his front paws. His ears are cocked toward Marcia, and her audible doings in the kitchen.

“Hey, Bob.” I say. His winter coat is coarse and thick. His front claws are sunk high up on the screen door, waiting for Marcia to re-emerge. “Wassup, Bobby? Wassup Dawg?” I scratch the back of his neck, under his collar. He drops to the ground.

Marcia comes back out with an aluminum foil packet, a bindle of treats for Bob.

“Now he’s going to flop,” she says.

“Flop? What do you mean flop?” I say.

“Watch. He’ll flop.” She unwraps the pieces of turkey and arranges them in a pile on the aluminum foil. Bob looks at the turkey and swings his tail back and forth. He seems almost freakishly large. He’s white with undertones of orange. Hints of tabby markings show on his forehead, chest, and tail.

“He’s not flopping.” I look skeptically at Bob, who doesn’t seem inclined to do any flopping. Not now anyway. “And he’s not drooling.”

“He’ll flop,” she says. “He doesn’t drool so much anymore.” Bob sniffs at the turkey. He turns and puts his broad butt in my face.

“I don’t think he likes the turkey,” I say.

“He does. He’ll eat it. Won’t you, Bobby? Bobby likes his turkey treats.”

I try to pick up Bob so I can hold him in my arms. He is more than solid, more than broad-beamed. He must be at least 25 pounds. He squirms and jumps from my hold, then loves up the edge of the screen door with his cheek. Still no drool.

“He wants to go in. Can I let him go inside your house?” I say. “I’m getting cold.”

“Mike lets him in all the time,” Marcia says, and the three of us go into the living room, the turkey scraps forgotten for now. Bob leads.

“Bobby likes it here, don’t you Bobby?” Marcia walks down the hall, closing doors. The TV room. The girls’ bedroom. Her bedroom. The bathroom. The cat flops down on the hallway runner. Flop left. Flop right. Flop left again. It’s warm and he’s made himself right at home.

“Why’re you closing the doors?”

“Bobby’s snoopy. He’s like you are, Cath. He loves to nose around.”

I don’t take offense, although I never go back there into the bedrooms, and I doubt the cat looks in the medicine cabinet; we’re snoopy in entirely different ways. Anyway, to me it seems nastier to say someone is incurious.

“Cats are naturally curious. Where do you think that cliche about curiosity and cats came from?” I ask Marcia. “Besides, what do you think he’s going to do back there?”

“You know. And he drools.” She has picked up a towel. A big bath towel. As if Bob plans to become extra-moist.

After he’s done flopping, she follows him around the living room, towel in hand.

I watch the two of them tour the room. “A cat doesn’t shit on your pillow unless he’s your cat and he’s mad at you. Bob’s just visiting. He’s just looking around.”

“Bob slept here the other night,” Marcia says. “He was curled up with Mike.”

Oh. So that’s how it is. Bob slept here; Bob spent the night. Bob has become Marcia’s cat-on-the-side. And she’s secretly hoping to lure him away from his people, who live down the street. The people who had the great good sense to name their big white cat “Bob”.

In this era of Full Disclosure, I have now learned that Marcia and Mike are having three-ways with Bob. With Bobby. He spends the night.

But I’d be hypocrite if I gave her any shit about it.

“Did he drool?” I ask. “I mean, when he spent the night.”

“No. Bobby was a good boy. Bobby didn’t drool.” Nonetheless, Marcia continues to trail Bob with the bath towel. “He meowed when he wanted to go out.”

Perhaps he drools out of the simple indignation of being called Bob. Bob is not a good name for a cat, although Bobby might be worse.

I once had a boss named Bob. Bob played the saxophone. He traveled with it, his saxophone, and played it in the middle of the night when jet lag got the better of him. He’d cajole the flight attendants in the first class cabin into dealing with the instrument as part of his six-piece suite of carry-on bags.

“Please, please, Dr. ____” the flight attendant would say. “Please. Let me gate check some of these bags. I promise I’ll give them back to you the second the nose wheel is on the ground. Cross my heart!”

That Bob wheedled. That Bob flirted. That Bob was a million-mile flyer on United. That Bob was able to keep his sax—and his five other bags—with him in First Class.

Bob tortured those flight attendants.

Once when he was playing the saxophone, tunelessly and not at all quietly at 3am in the Rochester Marriott, the front desk called up to his room and told him his neighbors were complaining about the blatting and bleating of the saxophone. They apparently couldn’t sleep either.

“What did you do?” I asked him.

“Oh, I turned the TV up loud so they couldn’t hear the saxophone,” he said.

That was Bob.

Bob the Extra-Large Cat is not unlike Bob the Boss. He flirts and has an overactive sense of entitlement; he desires entrees that just aren’t on the menu. So perhaps it’s best that Marcia calls him Bobby. It’s easier for me to keep them straight this way.

Polyamorous Bobby, Marcia's cat-on-the-side.

I know: we’re not much better ourselves.

Even now, Mark is waiting expectantly for Sophie at the top of the stairs. Sophie is our cat-on-the-side. Or, more accurately, Mark’s cat-on-the-side.

Sophie—a lovely little orange, white, gray, and brown SLUT-of-a-tabby—is Mark’s flight into feline polyamory.

From our living room, we can hear the jiggle of the cement block in the garage downstairs. We’ve put two cement blocks on either side of Lumpy’s cat door as an assist to in- or outbound cats. From outside, a cat jumps on a cement block and through the cat door—a mailbox set into the side of the garage—then onto a second cement block. From there, it’s an easy hop down to the garage floor.

Mark and I look at one another.

“I wonder who it is,” Mark says.

“I wonder.”

The jiggle of the cement block used to be an unambiguous announcement of Lumpy’s impending appearance upstairs in the kitchen. He was the only in- or outbound cat in our household. These days, the jiggle of the cement block might signal the arrival of Sophie, Mark’s cat-on-the-side. Or it might be the round-eyed beauty, Juliette, Sophie’s older sister and fiercest rival.

Juliette and Sophie live two doors down. They’re the neighborhood wild girls; they stay out all night, partying with the raccoons, the skunks, and the tweakers who go through our trash, looking for shredded receipts they can tape back together.

The wild girls are waiting, hungry and tired, when Mark opens Lumpy’s cat door in the morning. These days, when Lumpy goes out, Sophie comes in.

For the longest time, we were faithful to Lumpy; it was an old-fashioned relationship (although in truth we had no idea what he did, nor where he went, after he jumped onto the cement block and popped outside through his cat door).

It was not a modern open relationship.

Lumpy is a William S. Burroughs of a cat. He’s tall, gray, stately, and eccentric, with a piercing meow, and an expectation of immediate gratification of his varied and esoteric appetites.

Although he does not usually wear a hat, you could easily pencil one in.

He hunts the delicate, jewel-like hummingbirds that thrum over the tree with the purple flowers (thumbing his flat gray nose at Jonathan Franzen, who claims that housecats kill a billion songbirds each year in the US).

Lumpy catches field mice from the ivy, brings them into the house, toys with them, lets them escape under the bed, and catches them at night when they make a break for it. He cracks open their heads like walnuts and eats fresh mouse brains while we’re trying to sleep.

KEE-RACK. CRUNCH. Nom. Nom. Nom. Mmmm-mouse brains. Mmmm-mmmm.

In spite of his taste for San Francisco's game animals (grain-fed squab, garbage-fattened rat, free-range young field mice, cage-raised lizard), Lumpy’s picky when it comes to those small, expensive cans of cat food. There are only a handful of flavors that he'll deign to eat at all, and, of those, only a few that are sufficiently toothsome for him to finish the whole can. Maybe if they held a few focus groups, Lightly Poached Mouse Brain or Hummingbird Frittata would make it to the menu, but as it is, there's no denying that store-bought cat food raises some fundamental issues for us.

"C'mon! You ate Chunky Chicken last week," I crouch beside Lumpy at his food bowl. "Don't pretend you didn't! You LIKED it."

Lumpy sits with his back to the bowl. He is just NOT INTERESTED. He will hold out. He will STARVE TO DEATH before he eats Chunky Chicken today. He taps his tail on the kitchen floor for emphasis.

In the best case, he'll eat more of the can than he leaves, but still there are usually a few tablespoons that remain in his bowl as a provocation to us: it's galling to throw out something that's both so nasty and so dear (Fancy Feast was a buck a can before Delano's, the store down the street, went out of business forever, for nonpayment of rent, just after last Thanksgiving).

Much as nuclear non-proliferation is a policy born out of a desire to blot out the nightmare of mutually-assured annihilation, our food bowl replenishment policy is a policy designed to reduce (but not wholly eliminate) between-meal yowling and foot-attacking.

The local policy (re: food bowl refilling, not nuclear non-proliferation) goes something like this: Lumpy must eat ALL of the food in his primary bowl (the freshest bowl of store-bought noms) before he gets more. Or ALMOST ALL. Or CLOSE to almost all. Or KIND OF close to almost all. Or just a few tablespoons shy of close to almost all.

At that point, a new can is opened, and a dollop is placed in a clean food bowl.

But because we worry that he’s so stubborn that he might starve, we also serve him three kinds of dry cat food in addition to the two cans of wet cat food (the penultimate flavor, and a tantalizing—or somewhat tantalizing—new one) and a saucer of milk.

You’re right. That’s 6 bowls of food. He sits in the center, and Rick Wakeman-like, takes a nom out of each, with a particular focus on the tastiest plate of wet food (which is, with any luck, from the most recently opened can, but might be from the older can which he's unambiguously rejected for the better part of a day).

Nom-nom-nom, he goes. Nom-nom-nom.

He looks around. Then he walks away, leaving 6 crusty, half-finished dishes of food.

“Meow.” He finds me and bumps me hard with his forehead. “Meow.” Bump. Then a harder bump. He sends telepathic waves: “The fucking food bowl is almost empty and you know it. C’mon, buddy. Let’s get a move on. Now.” Bump. “NOW!” Bump.

We walk together to the food bowl and discover—to no-one’s surprise—that none of the bowls are empty.

“You have to eat those, Mister,” I say to him. “At least one of them anyway.” Then I walk back into the other room, and sit back down at my laptop.

This was the situation until the wild girls, Sophie and Juliette, showed up on the scene.

And he’s the one who invited them at the outset.

What happened is this: Lumpy learned that Sophie and Juliette would eat the crusty lumps of old cat food out of his bowls so that ALL the bowls would be empty and he could request a fresh can with impunity.

Mark would let him out in the morning. We’d hear the jiggle of an outbound cat, Lumpy, on the cement blocks.

“RRRRooowwwrrrrroooowww.” Lumpy would sit in the back of the house, baying and keening, calling for Juliette or Sophie—he didn’t care which of the wild girls came to visit initially. After one of the girls responded to his call, he’d go about his Important cat business.

Then there’d be the jiggle of an inbound cat, Sophie, or sometimes Juliette, on the cement block.

This would be followed by the clumpity-clump of a cat on the staircase, and the nom-nom-nom NOM-NOM-NOM of high-decibel chewing.

Here Sophie had all the advantage over Juliette. Juliette was shy, and would flee if Mark or I came into the kitchen to see what the noise was about. But that Sophie: she was hungrier and more audacious than Juliette. She’d eat, and Mark would pet her. Comb her for fleas. Gather her up in his arms. Nuzzle her soft orange fur.

It got so that Sophie and Mark carried on openly.

A few weeks ago, I got home from work very late. Mark was asleep on the sofa and Sophie was asleep on top of him, her head on his shoulder.

Not long afterward, Mark started opening fresh cans of food just for Sophie (“Oh, that’s a flavor Lumpy doesn’t like anyway”), feeding her tidbits and loving her up.

When Sophie was still eating his leftover food and getting high on his leftover catnip, Lumpy was indifferent, disdainful. He liked the demure Juliette, and would bump noses with her when she came in, but Sophie—he just barely tolerated her.

For one thing, Sophie was sloppy: she sprayed his crunchies all over the kitchen floor when she ate, and she pushed the cat food bowl from one end of the kitchen to the other. What's more, she didn't know how to use the catnip efficiently, huffing it from the bowl provided for that purpose. Instead, she spread the catnip out on the living room floor, and rolled in it like a barbarian. But what was unforgivable was that Sophie, still kittenish, would sniff at Lumpy’s butthole like a dog. Normal feline etiquette clearly eluded her.

But it wasn’t until Mark was obviously besotted with Sophie that Lumpy registered visible irritation.

Now Mark scoops Sophie up in his arms and she snuggles into the crook of his elbow to get comfortable. He kisses the orange fur on the top of her head and talks to her softly.

Meanwhile Lumpy eyes Mark—and Sophie—with growing indignation, his mouth hanging open.

Then Lumpy gives me a hard look. His eyes are completely dilated. He is angry, frustrated.

Projecting. I hear you, flipping your desk copy of the DSM V open to ‘anthropomorphism’. “You’re projecting human qualities onto your cat,” you’re thinking. “That’s sick and wrong. Have you discussed this with your therapist?”

“You don’t smell as good as Lumpy does,” Mark tells Sophie, kissing her again.

Lumpy crouches at the top of the stairs, tense with rage, waiting for Juliette to come in. She will start a fight with her sister Sophie, even if Sophie is in the safe haven of Mark’s arms.

There will be hissing. Spitting. Scratching. Mark will get caught in the crossfire. There will be blood.

If I look at the expression on Lumpy’s face while this is going on, I swear I see him grin. “Girls. Look at them go at it,” he says.

If Bob is a Julian Assange-like provocateur (a spreader of secrets, a leaker of saliva, and a proponent of open relationships), Sophie is our own Kanye West. She is unsubtle. Narcissistic. On the crazy side. Always pushing her way to the front and center.

“Room service uuuuugh! I hate when I order fruit and I can taste the other food they cut with the same knife. Beef flavored pineapples,” tweets Kanye West.

“Meow,” says Sophie. “Meow. Meow.”

I know. It’s open to interpretation. But if you think about it in terms of cat food, it's close.

“Don’t sniff my goddamned butt, Sophie!” says Lumpy. “Enough is enough.”

Meanwhile I just have to go with it, accept the changing times and ubiquitous polyamory. The age of secrets is over, and these days, everyone seems to have a cat-on-the-side.


Blogger Michael L. Nelson said...

loved the story -- we (I) too have a cat on the side. several, actually.

we're down to just one main cat, but we have a cat food pipeline as you described. indoor kitty eats 0.5 - 0.75, then it gets crusty but you can't throw it out. off to feed the outdoor kitties. then you start buying cheap soft food just for the strays & neighbors' outdoor cats, but just the stuff that isn't good enough for indoor kitty.

but strays & visitors don't enter the house. in part b/c of dogs, in part b/c, like Ricky Skaggs*, you have to draw the line somewhere.

* =

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cookie is my cat on the side. I would do anything for Cookie, unless he draws blood, that's the line. I miss Cookie's wild young days, when he would run a quarter mile if I called. Keep up the excellent blogging.

2:00 PM  

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