I’m usually not a “hot take” writer, but it’s about that short story from the New Yorker, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. It was a story that was buzzing on Twitter over the weekend. I listened to her tell the story, which I suggest you should do.
It’s a timely piece, as we’re going through a revolution of how women are seen and treated. And, it’s a well-written piece. It reminds me of being in grad school–I read the New Yorker for a whole semester. It was good to read literary fiction again.
If you haven’t read or listened to the story, you should stop here because there be spoilers ahead…
One thing that has been sticking out to me about this story is our relationship with technology. When I started my novel in grad school which I have completed the first draft for during #NaNoWriMo, I was trying to wrestle with a story of being enchanted by and then ghosted by a man via our blogs. The novel went a completely different and to me lovely direction, but I want to get back to that topic next year.
What I realized after reading “Cat Person” was how analog I am in a digital world, especially in the land of love and relationships. But I always thought it was something I was doing wrong. If you want to count me not understanding how to be in the 21st century as wrong, then I’m hella wrong.
But really, though–it’s about how we communicate, or don’t effectively communicate with each other.
I’ve been on social media since I was 18 years old, starting with sixdegrees (RIP). I’ve had countless friendships and a few relationships or situationships–through that site and other sites. It seemed like an outflow of what I was doing offline with people–connecting on viewpoints and hobbies and passions.
Right around when I was basically fed up with dating or whatever I called my love life, the smartphone came around. “Cat Person” has so much to do with texting, and I am not really a texter.
Here’s a big section from the story that stuck out to me:
Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did. A few times, she got distracted for a day or so and wondered if the exchange would die out altogether, but then she’d think of something funny to tell him or she’d see a picture on the Internet that was relevant to their conversation, and they’d start up again.
This really stuck out because it described what the story calls a dance, but one that actually makes me quite dizzy and ill. It’s the 21st century form of the chase, except the gender roles have been reversed.
(And, by the way, I hate gender roles, I hate “the chase,” I hate all of that proscribed bullshit about how people should relate to each other since it’s so heavily steeped in misogyny and patriarchy anyway.)
Beyond this tech-heavy period and the fair and equitable treatment of women, this short story resonated with me because of how real (and really flawed) the characters were, and how real the situations were.
I was reminded of being in that dizzying dance with someone–pre-smartphone. I had a relationship while I was in college with an older man, this futures and commodities broker from a yuppie part of town–and I had met him in a chat room. I can’t even remember how we got together. I just remembered going out and drinking in his yuppie part of town, going back to his place, rinse repeat.
It was fun, even though clearly he was not my person.
Eventually, as I got a little closer and wanted to be just a tad more serious, and maybe the turning point was helping me move after I had to take a leave of absence from college, he ghosted.
I never blamed myself for that (I just wanted my Maxwell CD back!). Also, I’ve ghosted a dude–and this was still pre-smartphone.
But in other instances, especially lately, I have, a lot, like there is something really, really wrong with me. It’s not something that’s obvious. It’s just this dull, heavy weight that I drag around, of being some sort of misfit.
Yet through this story, I realized that in terms of how I communicate with people, I’m still stuck in the past where the internet enhanced life, not where it became life.
Back in college and soon after, being online wasn’t as prominent as it is now. You couldn’t drag a desktop computer with you. Online life and offline life were two distinct things. Online life connected you to offline life. But now, being online is so much more easier.
There are smartphones, tablets, smart watches, laptops, and notebooks. On a larger scale, we have the Internet of Things with wearables, smart thermostats, smart sensors, smart TVs, and remote doorbells and cameras. Bluetooth anything and everything. Through mobile apps, people can always know where you are.
We’re so much more accessible and have so many more forms of communication, and yet miscommunications and disconnections happen so much more often.
I’ve tried to adapt. I’ve been on dating sites and that’s just a lesson in being ignored or disrespected. But connecting with people in general just seems…fleeting.
Yesterday and today, I was talking to a friend about this story both on a literary and cultural level, and it was all just coming together, the realization of that dull, heavy weight that had been dragging me down. There was so much more clarity about the last 13 years of my life.
Although Margot, the main female character, is not at all like me, that section I shared above made me realize how much I’ve done that very thing–of trying to keep conversations going, of trying to contort myself into someone I’m not, just to get or keep someone’s attention.
Things fizzling out aren’t necessarily my fault. Sometimes, it’s that men generally really do suck at communication–that’s been an issue since time immemorial.
The Twitter account @MenCatPerson posted screenshots of men reacting to the short story. It showcased that not only do so many men fail at communication with women, but also fundamentally and obstinately fail to respect, understand, and appreciate women, which, I would dare say, is a major theme of this piece.
But layering on the technology piece, there was something that really rang true about how Margot and Robert were communicating and not communicating.
It wasn’t a line-by-line fit (I’m twice as old as Margot, so I’ve got a lot more maturity under my belt), but the spirit of it: the incessant waiting for intentions to be made clear, the self-doubt and constant questioning of one’s own intentions, the trying to make things fit when they really aren’t supposed to, just waiting for a reply or a phone call–all of that will haunt me for some time.
Granted, how Margot and Robert treated each other was nowhere near optimal (which is putting it lightly), and Robert, with being older, he should have had more experience in treating her better–ideally, anyway. But the gender and power dynamics that were happening, especially at the end of the story–again, I will be haunted.
What this story did for me was liberate me from being hurt or upset when communication drops–especially with men. I won’t be blaming myself to see what went wrong, trying to comb through every word I said.
Also, if I, being an early adopter of social media, can’t seem to get it right online (and sometimes offline), then how can I expect others to do the same? It’s a bit of a crapshoot, and it’s because this is all so new still, and we’re still trying to get the hang of online communication.
Just this year, I feel like I’ve found friends that are really there, as people. Even if the geography stinks, as it tends to do when you find friends online, it still beats forced solitude.
So, I may be stuck in a pre-smartphone mentality for the rest of my life, but it seems the better way to be. Although I am online most of the day because I write, I do try see people as people, who have feelings, hopes, dreams, and regrets.
I know my words have impact, and I know people’s words have impact on me. Just because I turn off my phone or shut the lid on my laptop doesn’t mean everyone’s lives are frozen in time or that people sublimate into nothing.
Yet beyond words, beyond intentions, beyond thoughts, beyond feelings–there are actions. Actions are so much easier to go by than a fictional storyline of what could possibly be be happening.
There could be some other person, or an illness, or too busy at work, or…just being done and over you, but doesn’t have enough guts to say it…or is completely about you and doesn’t have the guts to say it (yet?).
And, the actions that truly matter involve kindness and consideration. People hook up and get together all the time, and then it doesn’t work out. But because we think we can just turn off our phones or close our computers, that person will just disappear, like you were talking to some AI bot or a ghost.
That mentality has to shift, and soon. It’s dehumanizing and painful to be treated that way, to be seen as expendable.
Relationships are messy because people are messy. I want to be with people who don’t run away from the mess but embrace it. So I’m grateful for this story because it reminded me that, for now, where I am in my life, those kind of people are rare, and I cherish them as such. Yet it’s sadly a chronic symptom of a culture we live in, a very lonely and isolated culture.
We’re really not that good at keeping in touch and letting each other go.
Wanting to get closer to people, whether it’s for a night or for the rest of my life, is not a bad thing–even if I have to risk looking stupid, getting ghosted, being snubbed. It’s still worth it. I don’t have to transform into anyone else to find someone who isn’t afraid of a little mess, of seeing me as a whole person, of seeing me as someone with autonomy and worthy of respect.
I’ll leave you with a tweet I sent out last night:
And, good night, and don’t let him play with your emotions and waste your time.
Find your person, not your cat person.
— 🎄👶🏾Full Moon Christmas Baby 🤶🏾🎅🏾🎁❄️☃️🎂🎉💃🏾🍾🥂 (@sunoppositemoon) December 12, 2017
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