Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hermione and Ursula alas!

The cats who are currently parked inconveniently near my computer and ogling my dinner while they shed and give each other the stinkeye have namesakes. They are named after the "two plain strapping sisters (Hermione and Ursula alas!)" of the hopelessly femme, self-styled super-annuated jeune premier of the Mapp & Lucia novels by E.F. Benson, George Pillson. Hermy and Ursy show up in the first book and terrorize poor needlepoint-doing Georgie, an incredibly good sport, with their brusque, hearty, otter-hunting ways: make fun of his toupee; play golf; beat him at bridge; unmask his yoga guru as a line cook from an Indian restaurant in London; then take off again. "Usually this month when Hermy and Ursy were with him was very fatiguing," Georgie says. Right.

Ursula and Hermione turn out to be pretty good names for me cats. I named Ursula first because she looked so much like a little bear cub (she still does sometimes) and then burdened poor Hermy with her pretentious name when I got her later--having a matched set just was too delicious to pass up. (Luckily the Harry Potter books mean that people usually know how to pronounce her name). My cats are incredibly fatiguing sometimes--they are in constant, gyroscopey motion, in tandem with each other, the world of sounds around them, me, dust bunnies, whatever, despite sleeping 23 hours a day (how do they do that?). Hermione, the one in the photo above, is older and theoretically more mature, but she's the one who is into heights, knocks books off my shelves (she is super-duper polydactyl and able to thwack things with big paddle paws) and the one who can't stay off my computer keyboard. Ursula is a baby thug. Her middle name is Entropinator, because she just can't bear the slow rate at which things disintegrate--she has to hustle it along by spilling, biting, tearing. Scratching. Tipping things over. Whatever it takes.

They get along, they are sisters, but in addition to sitting companionably and looking out the window this means that they constantly chase each other around, groom each other until the process disintegrates into hissing fights, indulge in what looks like kitty Greco-Roman wrestling, roll around rabbit-kicking. I've been very aware of one dynamic between them driving all this recently, the fighting and the non-fighting both. That is, despite the window-sitting, when they're just hanging around they rarely just are together, in any companionable, equitable way. Literally. Somebody is always higher, somebody lower. Somebody is always closer to the fud dish, somebody is farther. One is always closer to the big cat (that's me), one is farther. If I blink slowly it's a series of constantly changing tableaux: cat up, cat down. Cat down, cat up. Hermy is on a shelf, Ursula is higher. Ursy's higher, Hermy's lower. Always a power struggle. They are constantly colonizing any cardboard box I bring into the house for this reason. I'm higher. No, I'M higher. NO, I'm closer. No, I'M-- It's like a living binary code.

Today it refused to stop reminding me of an exercise in a modern dance class I took in college. (Suddenly in my minds eye, despite the fact that we are talking about the mid-1980s, it seems as far-off and sweetly innocent and palmy as The Group or a Victorian photo of punters at Oxford or something--the little dance studio at the back of the 60s? "women's" gym, surrounded as I remember it, with incredibly lush greenery all around through the glass windows, all of us young and earnest and unaware of cell phones and compact disc players and worshipping our charismatic long-limbed dance teacher.) Anyhow, the exercise in this class was that there was one person who was leader and the rest who had to follow her doing The Opposite--if she raised herself up, we crouched down--and vice versa. When you really get going with it, it's tricky and fun, not knowing which way to go and moving all around while you do it.

That's what my cats do---together they are a constantly morphing organism that is balanced only in the presence of both. My cats do, as I say, sometimes just sit with each other. But it's not when I'm not here--when I walk in the door they usually emerge from different spots in the apartment. What they do, I think, is be together when I'm around but they think I'm not looking. Sometimes in the middle of the night I'll wake and they'll be curled together in (as B.Pym described sleeping cats) a great "clot" of minky fur and whiskers. One time I swear they were stretched out next to each other like two kidney beans, holding paws. This evening when I woke up from a nap, they were both (an unheard-of level of accord) parked on their new favorite cardboard box that hitherto Ursy had appropriated with much hissing and fistfights. I keep thinking--am I dreaming this? Is that really both cats? Do they know what they're doing? Why aren't they hissing? It doesn't last long, in any case--once they know I'm paying attention, then it's back on the gyroscope. One of them got booted off the box (can't remember which).

All this is one reason why living with cats is not the purely decorative activity that it appears in an Ikea catalog. Cats look like they are just sitting there, but in reality you are living in the middle of constant, complicated series of movements and counter-movements, a nest of sometimes invisibly articulated challenges and nose-thumbings and power struggles. And since you are one of the planets around which these little satellites orbit and change, it's not that relaxing. Sometimes you wanna say--can't you just sit there?

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