I’m beginning to understand what it means for a cat to have nine lives. Formerly, I took that to mean that they lived nine different times. That it took ten tries to kill a cat finally and completely. When I was growing up, cats seemed to have the reincarnation thing all wrapped up. Kill it once, it lives again. Kill it a second time . . .
Bill lives a life of his own outside the house. He came to us from the outside and goes outside many times every day. Sometimes he waits at the front door until one of us—Virginia, Nick, Sydney, or I—opens the door for him. Then, he stands for a second and surveys what the territory outside has for him. Most times, he scoots through the door as if he is afraid you will close the door and cut off his tail. Sometimes, he looks outside, hesitates, and looks like he’s going outside. Then, he turns away, leaving me feel like a boob letting the heat (or cold) in.
He learned pretty early on how to work the doggie door. But I wonder. After six years now, he comes up to the door and paws it, like he’s figuring out for the first time how to use the thing. After a batting at the flexible plastic sheeting, he gets a paw through. Then, he sticks his nose out after the paw, finally moving his body through the door. Watching this exercise is like taking one of those manual dexterity tests. How quickly can you fit the pegs in the proper lots in the board?
There are times when we let him out the front door and he immediately comes back in the house through the doggie door. Figure that one out.
I often wonder what he does out there. I have driven up and seen him dart across the driveway and make for the side of the house. He slinks sometimes across the terrace out back and jumps—flies—to the top of the rock wall, only to run down the steps to return from where he jumped. I walk outside at night from time to time, and he is sitting at the end of the driveway watching the pavement cool.
Who knows what’s Bill’s outdoor life is? Except for finding him perched on his hind legs in the middle of the street once, his outdoor existence is a complete mystery. I’ve seen videos from people who attach cameras to their cats’ collars. The life we see through the camera darts and sweeps. It feels all the time that the cat’s in charge, that he or she is showing us only what they want us to see. We get none of the motivations, none of the intentions, only moments of brisk activity among long periods of, well, sitting around watching the pavement cool.
Some of those videos are supposed to be object lessons. The cat attached to the camera runs out in the street and the screen goes all fuzzy, meaning of course that the cat really is dead and there are no more lives to be had.
I feel a grave sense of irresponsibility in letting my cat cruise the outdoors. Aldo Leopold used to carry a cane that he killed stray cats with. The cats, he minded, were killing songbirds needlessly. They were, he argued, killing machines, coming down hard on all wildlife small or big enough to take down: rabbits, snakes, lizards, frogs and toads, etc. I can attest to just that fact. Bill has brought us several birds, tattered and bloody, and laid them out carefully in the middle of the floor or on the ottoman, like sacrifices or gifts to us, the people that keep him fed. Once in a while, he leaves us a present of a gutted mouse or mangled garter or ringneck snake.
I also fear for his life. At some point, Bill is going to run out in the street at the exact wrong moment. But if we don’t let Bill out, he turns into a wild maniac until we do. The only way Bill can live with us, it seems, is if he can have an outdoor life and an indoor one.
Bill leads a different life with each of our house’s occupants. When I am in bed for the night or for a nap, Bill drapes himself over me like a scarf. He lays still and quickly falls asleep. When I stir, he does. When I roll over, he runs off for a second and rearranges himself on me like so much clothing.
He begs for my attentions. He does the same to Virginia and Nick, and when Sydney comes over, he does it to her, as well. He treats each of us differently. For instance, he just likes to be in the room with Nick. He will get close to Nick and let Nick pet him in ways he doesn’t allow me. When we are watching television, Bill has his choice of laps in which to sit. He will use one for a while, getting the kind of attention from that particular lap owner, and then move on to another lap and another way of getting attention and affection.
Then, there’s the life Bill lives all by himself in the house. We often walk through the house after not seeing him for a while, asking, “Hey, where’s Bill?” We will find him in the box springs of the beds in the guest room. We might find him alone on the bed, licking himself or just sleeping. Sometimes, we know he’s in the house but there’s no finding him.
The point is that he lives separate lives with each of us in the house. There’s three distinct lives, plus the one that he leads all his own in the house. Count those with the life he experiences outside the house, and that’s five lives altogether.
Then, there’s the dogs. The dog/cat dynamic I have yet to understand. He can walk through the living room, where the dogs are laying on the couch or floor, and nothing happens. Molly, the squat, long dog we have, keeps an eye on Bill wherever he goes. Sadie, the big, handsome dog we have hardly pays Bill any mind.
But the room will often erupt in a spurt of firework-like energy, with both dogs taking out after Bill, who is agile and smart and knows how to get under or behind a couch at lightning speed. Dogs and cats have their reasons: a wrong look or a catch of an eye or the fact that boredom has drilled down in them deeply enough to tap a wellspring of interspecies animus.
Bill also acts differently when the two dogs are in separate rooms. That is, when he is in the room with Molly, he has a way of acting that’s different from the way he acts when it’s just Sadie in the room. When it’s just Molly, Bill will stay up high on the backs of the couches, on the television stand, and on the window sills. When he in the room with Sadie, he’s low, slinky, ready to get behind a couch.
So, five lives and one with both the dogs and a life with each of the dogs. Adding that up, it’s eight. But there’s one more life, and that’s when we are in bed at night. Virginia and I have a king-size mattress, which allows us room to move in our sleep. But it also gives the two dogs places to sleep between us.
Then, there’s Bill, who generally stays away from the dogs and goes between Virginia and me. But he doesn’t live the same kind of existence as he does with each of us separately. Instead of draping himself over me, he takes up on a little slice of bed between my legs and the edge of the bed. He comes up and expects a pet, and when I don’t give it to him, he jams himself under my hand and gets it by himself. He does this at no other time.
I have no idea what he’s doing with Virginia over there. What I know, however, is that he is acting differently at night than he does in the daytime. He is living another life, or if you’re picky, another aspect of living, which brings us to nine.
Do they make him happy? He keeps too much to himself for me to know.