By Carol Bouville
Bill did not always weight ten pounds. She didn’t always rule the house either. When we first met Bill, she and her sister, Boule, had just been found in a box outside Lake Forest Mall. They were probably not even ten days old. Their eyes were not open yet. The mother cat was nowhere to be seen. A kind person took them to a local vet, that happened to also be our vet. We had given them our name to call if they ever had two baby kittens brought in for adoption. Our cat of 18 years had died, and we missed not having a pet.
Bill and Boule were sent to live with a dedicated lady who rescued cats. She took very good care of the baby kittens. She fed them with an eye dropper five or six times a day. She got up in the middle of the night to feed them. She washed them with a damp cloth like a mother cat would lick her babies. She dried them with the hair dryer and put heated blankets into their box to keep them warm.
Bill and Boule came to live with us when they were almost three months old. After much debate, my husband, Andre, came up with Bill and Boule – French cartoon characters from the 1950’s. Boule was a young boy and Bill was his dog – and alter-ego – not unlike Bill Watterson’s classic series, Calvin and Hobbs. Given that both our cats were female, I wasn’t blown away by this name choice. But it was better in my view than Moet et Chandon – Andre’s other suggestion. Since he wasn’t as keen as I was about getting other pets, I decided it was a fair compromise.
We kept them in our bedroom with the door closed so they would not get lost in the house. Bill is all black with big yellow eyes and Boule is black with white on part of her face – including her whiskers – her chest and tummy, and half of all four of her paws. She glows in the dark. Boule was a normal size for a three-month old kitten, but Bill was tiny – probably the runt of the litter.
When they were able to jump from the floor onto our bed, we let them out to roam the house. We had to be very careful not to step on Bill, since she loved to crouch down and make herself even harder to see, unless we were staring at the floor all the time.
They both particularly liked playing on the stairs. One morning, I was coming down and didn’t see Bill on the step below. My foot skidded across her back and we both fell down the rest of the stairs. Bill was unharmed, but I hurt my elbow. A big knot quickly formed around the joint that turned black and blue. I didn’t care, because I was so happy Bill was okay.
Like all kittens, they became very playful. They loved to get into our houseplants – especially the Ficus and the Peace Plant. Sometimes they were very naughty and peed in the plants. They also liked to push objects on table and counter tops to the floor – pens, plastic medicine containers, and pretty much anything else that could roll. Another favorite game was to unwind and shred a roll of toilet paper or, better yet, a big, fat, new roll of paper towel. They loved to chase each other from room to room. They sounded like a whole clowder of cats had somehow gotten loose in our house. Sometimes things backfired, and they would get themselves closed into closets or the laundry room. Then we would hear weak mewing coming from somewhere and have to search all over the house until we could find them. At other times, they would hiss and swat at each other – fighting just like human siblings do. Then two minutes later they would lick each other and be friends again, like we do when we kiss and make up.
I love to pick up both cats, but Boule often struggles to get down. She isn’t keen on being held. Bill, on the other hand, loves it – when she’s in the mood. I hold her like I would a human baby. I love to wrap her around the front of my neck like a scarf. I used to call her my feather because she was so light. That’s not the case anymore, but I still hold her this way. Every morning and afternoon, Bill gets up on a stool in the kitchen. She extends her front paws up to the top of the stool, so she is standing on her hind legs. This means that she wants to be brushed. She arches her back and purrs. She often gives me kisses when I pick her up – licking my cheek with her raspy tongue that smells tinny and fishy. As she has grown older, I can say, “Bill, up”, and pat the stool, or show her my cheek and say, “Bill, kiss”. She will do what I ask if she is in the mood. But cats don’t obey like dogs do. They choose to comply with a request only if it suits them. I don’t say this as a criticism. It is the nature of the cat to create its own space that humans must respect. People try do the same thing. I think it’s one of the reasons why cat-lovers are cat-lovers: they respect a cat’s need for independence.
When they were six months old, we took them to the vet for a checkup. Boule already weighed nine pounds and Bill weighed five and a half pounds. Now at six, Boule weighs a little over 16 pounds and is on a special diet. Bill has settled in at 10 pounds. The vet is concerned about Boule’s weight. I have explained that she is just living up to her name – Boule means ball in French, like a bowling ball or a big round loaf of bread. Bill on the other hand is a much more finicky eater, loving something one day and refusing it the next. Don’t most kids do the same thing when they are small? We began putting small amounts of several flavors into Bill’s bowl in order to give her a choice. Sometimes this works and sometimes, for no apparent reason, she will refuse all of it. Instead, she will scratch the floor several times like she is trying to cover up something foul in the litter box. Then she looks at me a bit cross-eyed, as if to say, “Can’t you see this is total dreck?”
One would expect Boule to be the Alpha cat. But that is not how it has turned out. Especially when it has come to managing my husband and me. All Bill has to do is look at us with those enormous, golden eyes, and we drop whatever we were doing to focus on her. “Show Mommy what you want,” I say and follow her around to see what she might have in mind. Sometimes she shows me her empty bowl or gets up on the stool to be brushed. She has games she wants to play at certain times of the day. Her favorite is “Magic Box”. We have big boxes we’ve brought back from Costco scattered all over the house. Bill likes to crouch down in any one of them while I put my fingers through the holes and wiggle them. She lies low – her eyes round and wide – and then she attacks. When she is able to grab a finger, she bites down hard with her sharp front teeth. Fortunately, she gets bored after a few minutes and goes off somewhere to nap.
When I get up in the morning, all I want to do is have a cup of coffee and read the paper. But Bill is very jealous of the Washington Post. She jumps up on the table and slaps down the paper, trying to sit on whatever section I am attempting to read. No matter how many times I put her on the floor and say, “No!”, back up she comes. Those golden eyes will bore into me with a scowl, like, “What part of this don’t you get? Is it too much to ask for your undivided, fully focused attention for a moment or two?” If that doesn’t work, she will bat my coffee cup to the point of spilling some of my precious wake-up brew. It always works. I pet her. I brush her. I wrap her around my neck. When enough worshiping has occurred, she will give me kisses and a love-bite on my chin for good measure. Only then will she allow me to finish my lukewarm coffee and have a go at the crossword puzzle.
I don’t remember when it started, but either my husband or I once gave Bill a small portion of whipped cream. Now it has morphed into a ceremony. Every night around 7:00, she gets a special bowl of it. She won’t eat it if it is presented in her regular food bowl. But if properly served, Bill loves the stuff. It’s terrible for her teeth and her waistline, but it’s too late to change the routine. There are other ceremonies as well: The Shower Ceremony when she follows my husband into the bathroom and licks his wet, hairy calves as he gets out of the shower. Yuk! There is also “Le Coucher” – so named for Louis XIV, who allowed members of the court at Versailles to watch him go to bed at night, as well as to get up in the morning – “Le Lever”. Except that Bill’s “Coucher” is to put us to bed. We all know that dogs need jobs, but so do cats. If we are watching TV around 9:00, Bill start hopping on and off our lap, blocking our view. If we are working on a jigsaw puzzle or are on the computer, she will stretch out across whichever it is until we have to give up. She bounds up the stairs and jumps on the bed, purring so loud it sounds like a car or boat motor. She follows us into the bathroom while we brush our teeth, then again bounds onto the bed while we settle in. Once the light is off, she disappears for awhile. But later she will come back and sleep somewhere on the bed. Mostly it’s near my feet, so I have to curl up to avoid kicking her. But sometimes, on cold nights, she will curl up right next to my shoulder or chest, her head between our pillows, and sleep that way all night. This is Bill at her most precious – returning the love, attention, and affection we bestow on her everyday.
And what of Boule, you might ask? She disappears altogether for much of the day. Most evenings however, she will come with us to the basement to watch TV. I also have my art studio there. Boule loves to recline like a Roman goddess across whatever I’m working on. Cat hair and watercolor go so well together. If I am in my recliner watching TV or playing FreeCell on my iPad, she will climb onto my lap to be stroked and loved. If I stop petting her, she will tap my hand or cheek with her velvety, white paw, as if to say, “Not done yet.” She rarely sleeps on our bed but rather in another part of the house entirely. Once in a while, however, she will beat us up to the bedroom, already settled in between the pillows at the head of the bed. If she claims that space first, Bill allows her to stay there, but she isn’t happy about it. She stalks out of the room and will have nothing more to do with any of us. The next morning, when we are finally out of bed, Bill will be there to give us her deepest scowl, her golden eyes now an olive green. She has served notice that she has chosen to magnanimously make an exception that better not become the rule.
Why, you might also wonder, do we allow a 10-pound cat to run our household. Because our children live far away. We are getting older. Especially, though, we are perpetually drawn to the habits and body- language of cats. They provide a window into our own psyche. They drive the symbiotic relationship between us as we try to fulfill each other’s needs. They remind us that love can be shared among different species. They insist on their right to be treated according to their own priorities, and in so doing, show us humans how we can do the same.