Jessie Raymond: Housecat is head of household


When it comes to humans and cats, we all know who’s in charge. In our house it’s our gray shorthair, Lily.

I’m bigger. I have opposable thumbs. But somehow, she makes the rules.

Example: I like to feed her twice a day; she prefers to eat on demand. Since I control the food, technically it’s my call. But I work from home now, and any time I have a Zoom meeting, she sprints to the cat flap in the basement door, behind which her empty food bowl sits. Looking at me, she pokes relentlessly at the flap — clackety-clackety-clackety  — loud enough to disrupt the meeting.

These days, she eats on demand.

Lily was born a barn cat. We took her in as a kitten about eight years ago. She’s pretty, with yellow-green eyes and a ladylike if aloof demeanor. She tolerates us, letting us feed her and sometimes even pet her, but only when she initiates contact.

I still do pick her up on occasion, holding her tight and stroking her head and telling her what a sweet girl she is. She responds with wide eyes and a tense body, certain that these are her last moments.

When I release her — with great care, as she launches herself from my arms with all claws sprung — she flees to another room to catch her breath and calculate how many of her nine lives she has left.

So I was surprised and delighted this fall when she jumped onto our bed one night and curled up next to my pillow. It wasn’t a fluke; she kept coming back, adding new elements to her ritual every few nights. Now it’s a whole thing, and my participation is not optional.

Every night at bedtime, she gives me 20 minutes or so to get settled in. Then she hops onto the bed. If I do not pay attention to her — because I am asleep — she begins casually rearranging the items on my nightstand.

“Nice water glass you got there,” her prodding paw seems to say. “Be a shame if something happened to it.”

The threat works. The sound of the glass being nudged toward the edge of the table snaps me into consciousness, which she requires for her next step: lying down.

It’s a process. First, I must turn onto my left side to face her, with my left elbow bent at 90 degrees. This creates her target zone. Entering it, she turns around twice and lies down in the crook of my arm, but only for 30 to 45 seconds. That’s just the warmup.

She then stands up again and waits until I lift the covers up with my right hand. She enters the blanket cave as if touring a new house. Eventually, she returns to the target zone (under the blankets this time), turns around twice and lies down again, facing away from me.

At this point, I have to drape the blankets over her body and tuck her in, with her head sticking out, just like mine. (Picture me as the “big spoon.”)

From there, with my right hand, I am allowed, even expected, to stroke her chin and cheek and neck. She begins purring loud enough to wake Mark up.

When she has had enough, she moves her chin out of range or, if she’s feeling benevolent, lays it in the palm of my left hand and goes to sleep. For this alone, I forgive all her bossiness.

If I have to get up during the night, and I always do, she allows me to carefully extricate myself. When I return, we go through the entire production again. No variations are permitted.

She’ll let me lie on my back, as long as I keep my left arm in contact with her body. I can even sleep on my right side for brief periods, in which case she curls up against my lower back. She lets me know when it’s time for me to return to my left side by rubbing up against the bedside lamp until it begins to tip, causing me to leap up with an adrenalin-fueled yelp to steady it.

We then restart the process, and she returns to the cradle of my arm until the alarm goes off.

Lily may be more after my body heat than my affection, but I can’t say no to kitty snuggles. It’s too bad the only way I can get them is to take part in her nighttime routine at the expense of my own sleep.

On the other hand, it’s not like I have a choice.

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