That time my cat typed an emoticon

It was a Monday morning about four and a half years ago. As usual, I was running late for work. Incidentally, now I work from home and am a stay-at-home mom, and I’m still always late. My son’s bath never happens at the time it’s supposed to, I turn on my computer 20 minutes after the expected time to get started for the day (and I can’t blame the latter on the aforementioned son — I just get caught up in other stuff I have to do).

So all that to say, although my life is extremely different from what it was when this incident (miracle?) occurred, some things will probably never change.

That morning, I was hopeful. My bag was packed, my outfit laid out. I took a quick shower, did my daily unibrow wrangling, and so on. At last, ready to go, and only about five minutes late, I came back to the living room to turn off my computer. It was then that I noticed what my cat was doing.

Growing up, my husband had always had black cats as pets. When he moved to Paris, he was too focused on his job and his personal life to think of having a cat or any other animal at his place. But when a four year relationship ended, he understandably felt lonely.

His brother was in veterinary school at the time. One day, the brother’s former girlfriend was strolling through the woods near the school, when she came upon a cache of wild kittens. The couple took them in — and decided to give one of them, the only all-black one, to my husband.

When he got the kitten, my husband was advised to give him a moniker that started with “A,” since it was the year of “A” for naming pets. He chose “Ali,” a simple, two-syllable name that recalled memories of a pet monkey his grandfather had once had. He didn’t know at the time how astute this name would be.

In their early days of life together, Ali found every place to hide in the apartment — even squeezing himself behind the oven. The only way my husband knew he was alive and well was that food was missing from his dish and there were deposits in his litter box. But slowly, my husband’s quiet ways gained him Ali’s trust. By the time I met the former, he told me how every night he would fall asleep with Ali on his chest, one little claw ever so slightly resting on his Adam’s apple. He told me that he didn’t need an alarm clock because he only fed Ali in the morning, so the cat woke him up. If you knew my husband, you’d know he was telling the truth about this.

I don’t remember my first meeting with Ali, but we quickly became friends. Since I was only working part-time back then, he became the living being I saw the most every week.

He’s good company, affectionate, and, like all cats, he has his own strong personality. Like a dog, though, he comes when I call him (often leaping out from improbable places, like the shelves of an armoire, or inside the casing of our water heater) and hates being alone.

Lots of pets and/or babies do things that impress their owners/parents/guardians. Ali is no exception. But this is still the single act that’s most amazed me, and made me wonder if my cat is living a double life (of course he is).

On that fateful morning, I came out of the bathroom and saw Ali sitting on my laptop. In a panic over the state of the essential instrument, I took him off it. It’s strange that he would have sat there; my husband is an electronics nut, among other things, and Ali’s grown up with so many wires, computers, video game consoles and other gadgets around him, that normally he’s quite blasé about it all. What was going on?

Then, I looked at my computer screen and saw this:

Actual photo

After a lot of thought, I’ve come up with two theories about what it all means.

1. It could be an incredible coincidence that our cat happened to sit on just the right keys to open Google and make what appears to be a smiley face.

2. Ali was trying to send a message. I don’t think this message was intended for me. During that time, my husband had been really down about some problems at work. My thought is, maybe Ali figured out that we communicate with the computer (I regularly use email, not to mention Skype, when he’s sitting on my lap), and he wanted to try to send him a “cheer up” message. Of course, a cat can’t be expected to know the difference between Google and Gmail, but he was pretty darn close.

I’m inclined to believe the second theory.

I mean, maybe James Howe, author of the fantastic Bunnicula series, was right: cats are literate! We have a lot of books — it would be all too easy for Ali to learn to read. Maybe I sound crazy, but since I’ve arrived at the apartment, he’s also learned to speak English. He can understand the words “ham,” “food,” “come”, and “Tandoori chicken” in two languages. And if he’s bilingual, who’s to say he can’t master the written word, or at least emoticons?

So, that’s why I ended up being 15 minutes late to work that momentous morning: I had to marvel, then take a picture of the computer screen, which contained perhaps the first in a series of communiqués from our cat, the genius.

I have no regrets about my lateness. Well, just one: since I was in a rush, I didn’t think to take a photo of the Control +F search window, which was also open. If I had, we could have tried to analyze the seemingly random letters and numbers typed there. Who knows what secrets we would have learned?

Ali hasn’t attempted typing since, but I still hope to receive a full email from him one day.

Lately, he’s been sitting with me at night and moving his paws oh-so-invasively onto my computer’s mousepad. I’m keeping my camera at the ready.

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

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