"Oh, hell," I said, turning around to look as we walked down the drive. Sure enough, Benito and Santana were following us. We can't walk out of the yard without them on our tail. This is odd, because otherwise they obey the strict feline rule against going anywhere near the busy street. It's only when they see us leaving for somewhere on foot that they try it. I suppose they think it's safe if we're along. I suppose we should have been flattered, but we just couldn't have it. The Metuchen Inn doesn't take cats.
I tucked the two of them under one arm and hauled them into the house. Anyone who's ever herded cats will be unable to picture any cat going along with being transported like this, but this happens so often here that the two brothers have come to expect it and just go limp, like they tell you to do in civil disobedience training. Nobody gets hurt, not them and not me. They are like sacks of meal.
I suppose we could have taken them -- our reservation was for a party of two, but they would have given us a bigger table. Ben and Santi could have sat on their haunches on their chairs. Except they're pretty short -- maybe they have booster seats. We could have tied their napkins around their necks. Probably we should have brought them to the restaurant. They could learn some manners.
Me: "Well, isn't this nice? The four of us should go out more often."
Ben quacks in reply. The diners at the next table look over when they hear him, and I can see that they are surprised that he is a cat and not a duck.
Santana: "I'm really not very hungry. I'll just have the porterhouse, very rare, and a side of the osso bucco. Maybe the salmon for dessert."
Waiter: "What can I get you folks from the bar?"
Q orders an obscure Italian aperitivo and the two cats ask for Brandy Alexanders. "Just the cream," I tell the waiter quietly. "And could you maybe bring those in saucers?"
When the drinks arrive, Ben and Santi leap up onto the table and begin lapping up cream. "No, no," I tell them, "keep your back feet on your chair and just your front paws on the table. Just your paws. No elbows. Like this." I put both hands on the table and bend over my plate to demonstrate. The people at the next table watch for a moment and then look away again.
"Do cats even have elbows? Q wonders, sipping his aperitivo.
"What a stupid question. Of course we have elbows."
"Sant," I said, shocked, "you don't let somebody drop seventy dollars on you for a steak dinner and then call him stupid.". And that didn't include the Brandyless Alexanders. But I don't know why I was shocked. Feline etiquette is different from ours.
"Why don't you?"
"Because it's rude."
"Well, who decides that? Who gets to say what's rude and what's polite?"
"it's, um, sort of a cultural consensus. About what makes people feel treasured and what doesn't."
The waiter arrives with our food, including Santana's enormous steak. He can't help himself; he leaps up onto the table again, upsetting his saucer of cream as he does so, and crouches over his plate, growling softly at Ben, who quacks once and turns his attention to his calamari. The waiter returns to mop up the cream. Q rescues the porterhouse just as Santi is about to knock it to the floor, and begins to cut it into bite-sized pieces. I arrange Santi back in his chair, realizing that I didn't order anything for myself. Q orders another aperitivo. I long for a gin and tonic.
Ben finishes his calamari quickly and commences a post-prandial bath, beginning with his paws and face. When it becomes clear that he is about to give his genitals a good scrub, I intervene.
"Ben, you don't do that in public!"
Ben quacks inquiringly.
"It's rude. You take a bath at home."
"I'm done," Santi announces, licking his chops. All the steak and most of the osso buco is gone. "Let's go home. What a dump -- you can't even take a bath in here."
In a flash, both cats are gone -- out the front door, their napkins still around their necks --without so much as a thank you. I'm sure they'll find their way home. The restaurant is only half a block from our house.
Life with other species is not easy. Even within our own, life together is no cakewalk -- we misunderstand each other, offend without meaning to, sometimes without even knowing that we have. It takes most of us a while to figure out the rules. Some of us never do.
So indifferent to our cultural consensus, the cats. They have their own manners, I guess. Be clean. Bring your people presents once in a while -- a dead mouse is always right. Defer to the alpha cat. When in distress, be very quiet but shed lots of fur. Announce your availability for sex unambiguously to anyone within earshot. Leap onto high shelves, the tops of refrigerators, the mantels of fireplaces and crouch there, so you can look down on those of whom you would otherwise be afraid. Don't take up more than half of your human's bed. If you must throw up, do it on the oriental rug, not on the off-white wall-to-wall Berber. If you must die, go off by yourself and let your next life begin in privacy. If they take you to the vet for this, purr right up to the very end. Remembering that you did that will help them afterwards.
Humans are funny that way.