February 2023

Fosbury Fiona

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

Oct. 20, 1968—Dick Fosbury at the Olympics in Mexico wins the gold in the high jump with his eponymous leap, the Fosbury Flop. A self-admitted lousy high jumper using the standard scissors method of his day, he married his engineering know-how with his body's natural inclinations to create a technique that lowered the center of gravity to below the bar even as the body sailed above it, naturally dragging the legs up and over without having to exert extra power.

Fiona, the youngest of our four cats (she shares that status with her brother, Seamus), shows off her own version of the Fosbury Flop—the Fiona Flop, which never fails to make us laugh and love her even more.

Fiona is one of five cats in a kindle birthed by her mother, Bandida (who still frequents our back-deck roadhouse, Chez Feline, for food and shelter). We were able to snag four of them at the same time but only managed to get Fiona a week later, which gave her an extra week of tutoring in how to be a feral outdoors cat.

At feeding time, I would put out five well-spaced dishes (to cut down on the poaching), and four of them would be bellied-up to immediately. It took Fiona a while to circle in from the edge of the room to her bowl because of all the testing and scoping-out she was doing to make sure no dangers lurked.

Post-prandial, when I just sat with the five and let them clamber over me, again it would be Fiona edging in, edging in, edging in until she parked herself against my shin, just out of arm's reach but still part of the gang.

Here is where the flop began. She would sidle up to my leg and instead of lowering herself down, she would stand an inch away and let her body fall against the bone and the flesh inside the denim. Then she would settle herself in, vigilant but moored.

I don't know why she did this or how she learned it, but it became her signature move.

Eventually, we found homes for three of the cats and added Seamus and Fiona to our first two, Cordelia and Banquo. As Fiona domesticated herself more and more, the feral skittishness receded, though never entirely—early imprinting does last forever. She allowed us to pet her, but we had to do it in specific ways and specific places.

Prime space: the bed. Here she zooms in from somewhere in the apartment, leaps onto the spread, and, with the barest pause as preparation, does her Fiona Flop onto her side and back. It is not a gentle lowering or settling of the body but a distinct and palpable throw-down, at which point she is ready to accept all caressing. We rub her belly or the triangle between her ears and the bridge of her nose or the sweet spot at the base of the tail, and as we do, she elongates her body and legs and toes and arches her back in a prone version of the Flop. And on and on it goes until she's had enough, at which point she swats the petter's hand (claws in), gets up, and leaps onto the dressers for a bit of outdoor gazing.

Similar rubbing-rituals take place on the back of the sofa and the pedestal at the back door (there for back-deck gazing).

Our cats have their own preferences for how we can make contact with them, which fascinate us because how do they acquire such preferences, much less know how to express them.

Fiona is not a lap-sitter and will only tolerate being held when we clip her nails (they all tolerate that), though she does like to nestle in the spaces behind our knees when we're sleeping (one of the best feelings in the world is to sense her weight as she wedges herself against the popliteal).

Cordelia, our oldest, is a sometimes lap-sitter, hates being picked up, loves being rubbed under the chin, and is a consummate bunter. She is also a wary and anxious cat, having had a rough beginning in her life, so we're always relieved when she manages to bypass her anxieties and settle into peace.

Banquo, who weighs in at about 20 pounds, loves being brushed, cuddled, belly-rubbed, head-rubbed, under-the-chin-rubbed, tail-rubbed and will take it in for as long as we're ready to dish it out. At one point he used to come rest on my chest as I lay on the bed to read, and together we'd doze for a bit, both of us reassured by our combined warmths. He's substituted for that a cuddle at night, when he leaps onto the bed and stretches himself against my chest as I lie on my side. Not every night, and he doesn't stay for long, but when he's there, the world stops being crazy and is a place of calm.

Seamus likes to sit on my chest when I'm in bed reading (which means a pause in the reading since he has now replaced my book) and then settle himself down for a bit of a visit until he's off to do something else. He also likes to sit next to me when we're watching something on the computer and have me wedge my hand between his legs against his belly—a warm and peaceful moment.

InThe Little Prince, in the section about the taming of the fox, the fox says to the little prince, "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." What the fox means by "tamed," of course, is "whatever you bring into your house with a promise not to throw it away." This is how we feel about the cats, of course, which is made easier by the fact that they are cute and lovable felines.

But the harder course, of course, is figuring out how to honor this teaching by applying it to not-so-cute and not-so-lovable human beings. Most people don't, preferring to "otherize" the others so that they can reject the notion of having any responsibility for them. Perhaps a workable short-term strategy but disastrous beginning the moment after the short-term ends.

We don't have any solution to this perplexity, but we are glad that we have these four cats in our home—taking them in won't save the world, but for these four cats, we have managed to keep them safe, well fed, and, above all, well petted. Definitely well petted.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, María-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2023 Michael Bettencourt
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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