This Freelancing Life: Comfort Me With Cats
August 20, 2008

People who say that cats are disinterested and standoffish are idiots.

One of my childhood cats, Nutsy, couldn't bear any family member being sad. Soon after someone started crying, they would get a visit from Nusty. He'd trot into the bedroom, kitchen, or bathroom and stare with green eyes out of a black face.

"Don't cry," those eyes would say, "There's really no need, because I am here now."

My mother said he did it because the noise of crying hurt his ears, and he wanted it to stop.

I don't think so. For one thing, we weren't a family of loud criers, and for another, even crying behind a closed door didn't prevent him from rubbing the door open with his face and trotting in with green eyes and black face.

"Don't cry," he'd say, "There's really no need, because I've pushed the door open with my face and I am here now."

My own two cats have a routine that tends to revolve around me. As a freelancer, I'm home the most hours out of the day. In the morning, I wake up with them asleep on either side of me. I get up and have my breakfast in the living room, in front of the computer. Somewhere between checking my mail, clearing the TiVo, and getting started on work, the cats will get out of bed and follow me to the living room.

Hunca Munca will get in the Scratch Lounge or kip out on the suitcase under the occasional table by the window. Poppadum will arrive in the living room at exactly 11:00 and get up on the couch next to me. She'll purr and bump her head on my hands. She'll try to lick the milk out of my cereal bowl. After awhile, she'll go in the bedroom and spend the afternoon sleeping.

If I decide to work in the bedroom, they will both haul themselves to their feet, stretch, and follow me onto the bed. Hunc will try to sleep on any piles of paper I have lying around, while Poppadum makes every attempt to convince me it's more important that she, rather than my computer, be in my lap. After tiring of being moved off of piles of paper and laps, both cats will sleep, either in the old box we don't have the heart to get rid of because it's their fifth bed, or in the dog-sized carrier we used to car-trip them from Boston.

If I go out in the middle of the day -- for a run or errands -- they will notice I am gone. Because they notice when I get back. Poppadum, in particular, will swarm all over me as soon as I walk in the door. Even if I'm gone for under an hour, it's purrs and head bumps and wet nose nudges and rolling onto her back to show her white stomach that peeks with pink skin.

"Don't leave," she says, "There's really no need, because I am here now and I miss you."

If I don't go anywhere, the day is quiet and companionable. There are two other heartbeats in the house, but I don't need to see them to know they are with me. At four o'clock precisely, Poppadum appears from wherever she's been napping and climbs up to wherever I'm working. She'll arrange herself comfortably next to me, and if I don't start petting her, she'll stretch out a soft, white paw and lay it patiently on my forearm.

"Don't type," she says, "There's really no need, because I am here now and I'm pretty."

Around about five o'clock, Hunc suddenly realizes that he's being starved to death and starts noisily eating paper. He's not really eating it. He's just biting it to make noise. Dr. Mathra calls it "orienteering." (I'm sure it's more accurate to call it "punching," but Dr. Mathra is an Eagle Scout and I don't argue with him.) Hunc thinks if he makes enough paper noise, one of us will get up and feed him. He never seems to expect the usual response, which is to squirt him with a water bottle if it's not yet six o'clock.

"CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH," he says turning round, innocent eyes on us, "CRUNCH."

Dr. Mathra once returned a paper to a student that Hunc had orienteered. Since Hunc's marks don't really look like a fourteen-pound cat bit the paper as a ploy to move up his feeding time, I don't think he even tried to explain it to the student.

Yesterday both cats broke their routine for me. It wasn't a great day, yesterday. In fact it was really not good at all. However, in the middle of all the pettiness and bitchery that seems to exist whether you work in an office or out of your own home, in the middle of me being upset, Poppadum and Hunca Munca came into the living room -- several hours before normal -- and got onto the couch next to me. Hunc didn't even try to orienteer so much as a Post-it.

They dug their warm little bodies under either side of my crossed legs. Hunc's heavy, nasal purring soon turned into heavy, nasal breathing, punctuated by surprisingly loud snores for so small a head. Poppadum turned her triangle face to stare up at me.

"Don't worry," she said, "There's really no need, because I am here now."

Then she squirmed even closer and went to sleep, purring out waves of love and understanding.

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