Cat Seeks Dog

When my husband and I moved from Massachusetts to Oregon in June, we lived with my lovely mother-in-law for two months while we waited for our new lease to start. She’d just adopted a rescue dog, a comely—if hyper—chihuahua / spaniel mix. As dogs go, she’s a good little pooch, and getting better all the time. But I’m simply not a dog person. I get why people love dogs. I can’t criticize the impulse; dogs are charming. But dogs demand more than I personally am able to give.

I can’t say I’m a cat person either, if only because I’ve never had a pet cat. (I grew up with birds, shock of shocks.) But I’m starting to suspect I’m a non-practicing cat lover. Put a good-tempered cat in my vicinity and I will develop an immediate crush on it, wondering what I can do to win its attention, all the while wanting to appear cool in front of it. Whereas with a dog, I spend a lot of time and energy trying to deflect the love-assault. That’s the thing—dogs give out their love like buckshot sprayed at your face. Cat love is held in reserve and will only be dispensed at the cat’s own fickle discretion.

We recently settled in our new place, and a stray has been coming around—a handsome and nosy adolescent black cat I’ve named Sam Friendly. He’s even burgled his way into our house a couple times, sneaking in through a second-floor window, then sauntering past us like he has every right to be there. I sort of want to adopt this ballsy bastard, but at present I’m slightly more infatuated with my new couch, which I’d hate to see ripped up along with my newfound interest in cat guardianship. Still, I did swing by the local clinic to ask how much it would cost if I could lure Sam Friendly into a carrier and bring him in for chipping and basic medical care. He’s a good guy. He deserves that much, at the very least.

In addition to all this real-life cat and dog intrigue, I just finished revising Give It All, the second Desert Dogs book, and there’s this scene in it where the heroine, Raina, is talking with her ex, Miah (Jeremiah), about why they never worked out.

“You saw things about us I refused to,” Miah said. “Like how I’d probably have come to resent you a few years down the road, feeling like I was giving so much, when you can seem so…”

“Cold.”

“Not quite. But indifferent.”

She nodded. “Like cat love. You’d have been stuck settling for scraps of me.”

He laughed. “I’ve always hated cats.”

“That’s so my style—stingy little morsels of affection. Give a man a taste, then wander off and do my own thing. Dogs are…”

“Dog love is like a hose you can’t turn off,” Miah offered.

“Yeah, one that never runs dry. Too much. All you can do is try to dodge the spray. Sloppy.”

My husband and I share this same dynamic. I’m the cat, he’s the dog. His well of love is bottomless—it will never go dry, and it can never be overfilled with incoming affection. It’s never not a good time to touch him. He’s never uttered the phrase, “I need some space,” in the seven-plus years we’ve been together. Not once, while I bet I say it weekly.

My well of affection, on the other hand, is finite. It needs time to replenish after it’s been tapped, or else I’m left exhausted and cranky. I mete out my more earnest and tender thoughts in tiny parcels, and it’s about a fifty-fifty split, the likelihood that I’ll be receptive to casual physical attention or not. Hug me when I’m in an anxious or pensive mood and it’s probably about as satisfying as cuddling a rock. I’ve worried more than once that if we end up having a child, I’ll be the frazzled or distant parent, compared to my husband, the all-you-can-squeeze love buffet. I’m hoping that what some friends have said is true—that parenthood opens up untapped reserves of affection and fondness in even us frosty types.

I used to feel like something in me was broken, until I noticed that dogs and cats operate in these exact same ways. If a cat’s in the mood for attention, it trots straight over and pushes itself right up against you. Once it’s content—or if you don’t pet it to its standards—it simply wanders away. Dogs, on the whole, can’t get or give enough affection. As Miah put it, dog love is a hose you can’t turn off. As a cat, that makes me feel like I’m drowning, sometimes. And my husband, as a dog, must feel like he’s giving everything and getting a bum exchange rate.

Except in our case, it seems to work. Probably because we both know how the other person operates, so no one takes it personally. He might wish I was a little less twitchy about my personal space sometimes, and I might wish he understood what it was like to be a sponge, instead of a bottomless well—I get both oversaturated and wrung out pretty quickly, when it comes to receiving and giving emotional sustenance. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to will myself into a more doggish disposition.

I’ve dated fellow cats before, and I can admit it’s not a ton of fun. Maybe I worked a little harder to earn those precious droplets of affection, and maybe I take the deluge for granted now that it’s mine to swim in whenever I like. But I have to say, I’ve never felt so secure with a man as I do with my love-hose of a husband. Like a dog, he never leaves me doubting his feelings and loyalty for a second.

And I think I’d rather drown in love than spend my life feeling thirsty for it.

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someday I will be kissed in the pouring rain

Sometimes I think I know the spaces of my partner’s body better than I know anything else about him.

I know how to fit myself to his every curve and angle so that every part of me isn’t touching every part of him.

I know where to put my hand so that my little finger aligns with his, close enough that I half-imagine I can feel the heat of his skin mingling with the heat of mine. But not so close it looks gay, you understand.

I know how to make a thousand secret symmetries between us, my shoulder to his shoulder, the angles of our elbows and forearms, the distance between my thigh and his, the turn of a wrist, the brush of a knee.

Sometimes I think this is all gaydar really is: intense awareness of negative space, an ability to read between the lines. If you want to be able to recognise queer couples, all you have to do is watch for the innumerable, significant ways they don’t touch.

Because this is how we live in public. In lacunae. Endlessly calculating these tactile geometries.

And, for the record, I don’t want to dry hump my partner in Trafalgar Square. I, honestly, just want to hold his hand sometimes. Smooth down the collar of his coat in winter. Stand too close when we say goodbye.

I don’t want to live on the brink of some helpless betrayal that transforms these everyday banalities into someone else’s business.

But here’s the thing: I live in a relatively cosmopolitan, relatively liberal town in the industrialised west. I’m not illegal. The likelihood of actual physical violence is incredibly small. The worst I’m probably going to suffer are some jeers and catcalls, a handful of words that have close to lost their edges for me, some tired jokes based on some false assumptions about what it means to be who I am.

So what I am right now—what I have been all my life—is a coward. If I want to hold my partner’s hand, I should damn well hold his hand, and stop whining about it. The way to effect change, after all, is to live it. But, hilarious as it may sound considering I do occasionally—in some very small and unimportant way—make myself a talking point on the internet, I’m private, and taking my partner’s hand is always, inevitably, undeniably, inescapably, a political act. And sometimes I am simply too weary and too small to live my politics.

I just want be quietly, unimportantly, inconspicuously in love.

I don’t want anyone to find it disgusting. I don’t want anyone to find it hot. I don’t want anyone to give a damn, except the broadest, most universal sense that love is a good thing for people to have, and the world is a better place with more love in it.

Back in the early 2000s, I was maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, and I’d fallen in love for the first time in my life. I can’t even remember what this honey-drawling, silk-and-satin, golden lion of an all-American boy was doing in my city. But there he was for the whole summer. Maybe you talk to people differently when you know you might never see them again, trust them more, take more risks, I don’t know. But I remember being caught in a thunderstorm one night and taking shelter in the lea of one of the boathouses as the river rushed by, sitting side-by-side, faces angled close so we could hear each other over the beating of the rain. “If you don’t move, I’m going to kiss you,” I said, and he didn’t move. So we were actively in love for the last two weeks he was in England. Though, of course, we’d been in love all along.

It feels odd, remembering it. I don’t think I’ve ever been so innocent as that summer, which was long after I’d dispensed with such concepts. I’m sure we slept together—I can remember faking being bad at blowjobs so he wouldn’t think I was a slut—but I think maybe only twice. Nowadays I can’t imagine feeling that strongly for someone and not turning it into a bedfest, but for some reason love was in other places then, in the amber haze of an English August, wild flowers and cheap weed, streets of silver and gold, everywhere we shared our secrets and stole our touches.

He left in grey September on a bus that departed at 7am. And I kissed him, because it was the last time, and I couldn’t not.

Nobody called us homophobic names, or threw broken bottles. But there was laughter, and it wasn’t kind. It wasn’t fair.

I didn’t need the romcom ending. I didn’t need the soaring soundtrack and wild applause from a group of strangers. I didn’t even need him to jump back off the National Express and into my arms. I just wanted to say goodbye to my lover the way humans have been saying goodbye to their lovers for as long as there’s been love and humans and goodbyes.

For all the legal and social equalities we have fought for and (occasionally) won, the truth is that same-sex love is still widely perceived as being outside that human context: that when we’re talking about love, we’re basically talking about straight people. And don’t get me wrong, it’s undeniable that same-sex love exists within a different cultural framework to heterosexual love. But when you strip it all back to the simplest truths: the pain of loss, the joy in being together, that red hot filthy need to be unashamed and heart-deep naked with another person, that’s just love.

Part of the way teach ourselves to understand what love means is through the stories we tell each other. Maybe when there are more stories about people like me, my love won’t seem so out-of-context any more. Maybe it won’t be funny or unreal or disgusting or otherwise noteworthy. Maybe it will just be love, the same as any other love. And maybe I’ll be able to hold my partner’s hand in public because people will stop caring who we are, and instead they’ll just be annoyed that we’re one of those limpet-glued couples who should really be out of the honeymoon period by now.

But this is why romance is so important, and why queer romance is necessary, not as tangent or sidebar, but simply as part of the genre. To stand as manifesto and reminder that really the only thing that matters about love is that it’s love.

Queer Romance Month is a thing that is happening in October. I hope you will support it. You can also follow them on Twitter at @QueerRomance.

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Everything old is new again

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a new show on FYI called Married at First Sight. It’s reality TV, and it is heir to all the ills of that genre, and it’s probably crushing all our souls, yes, yes. But. As a writer, as somebody who’s interested in narratives, I find this show fascinating and really do have to recommend it for your next binge-watch.

The setup is: arranged marriages. At the start of the season, a team of experts–including a psychologist, a sociologist (the show calls itself a “sociological experiment”…more on that in a sec), a sexologist (Logan Levkoff!), and a spiritual advisor–sift through profiles of applicants and apply various rubrics to match up three couples. And then…the couples get married. They haven’t met prior to the wedding, and they have to spend a month together before deciding whether to stay married. So basically, a modern spin on the arranged marriage trope. And then the audience gets to watch the drama unfold, because of course there is a great deal of drama. If there weren’t, the show would create some for us, which is the beauty and the curse of reality television.

I do have a quibble with the attempt to characterize this as any type of valid “experiment.” For one thing…we’re talking about three couples. That’s a few anecdotes, not data. And there are too many unquantifiables here, things that simply can’t be controlled for, when you’re talking about people and self-awareness and emotions and whatnot. The sampling isn’t remotely random (for one thing, and it’s a very big thing…everybody involved is willing to be filmed and have their life aired on TV. Regardless of their motivation for that, it’s a huge factor in the types of personalities that’ll end up on the show). The criteria for matching up the couples aren’t all objective. This isn’t science. This isn’t even soft science. It’s entertainment, which is fine. It’s even thought-provoking entertainment, that has the potential to lead to some interesting discussions about the way we select mates, the conflict between our expectations and reality, and how those things impact on the long-term success of relationships. I do wish the show just acknowledged that, rather than trying to lend it some veneer of faux scientific credibility.

That said, I got the impression from the first episode that the matchup process did involve a lot of algorithms of the type that online dating services use…but on steroids. I’d be interested to see if, at the end of the season, they break down any of the specific factors for the audience in terms of which things seemed to be good predictors of compatibility or not. Dating sites actually do have an advantage in terms of statistics, because of the sheer volume of participants, and I think it’d be interesting to see them discuss a bit more what they did on the show that differed from dating algorithms and whether or not it seemed to work.

But whether it’s science or not, the show is pretty fascinating, and I think part of the reason it’s so fascinating is that this arrangement is a perfect pressure-cooker to provide tons of mini-dramas in a short time. It’s basically like a little narrative factory. When you’re first getting to know a romantic partner, there are all these moments of mystery, then potential conflicts, then possibly resolutions. The person drops a casual reference into conversation, you aren’t sure what it means, you sound them out on it and find out more to make sure it isn’t some deal-breaker of compatibility, you engage in that mental calculus (does this person’s physical appeal outweigh the possible implications of their being a libertarian?) then move forward based on the result (okay, sexy libertarian, you can stay…for now). This is a familiar dynamic, but MaFS raises the stakes dramatically by isolating this period in the relationship, compressing the time frame and adding the joint pressures of marriage and the awareness of being filmed all the time. Really, there’s no way that could fail to generate drama. And there are three couples. So each episode offers us three perfect, miniature examples of the classic conflict/resolution cycle, as well as bonus cliffhangers! Good, clean, narrative fun.

I confess part of the draw (a big part) is the schadenfreude. But it’s also that good old category-romance-style appeal. Because despite the modern trappings, the technology, the medium…it’s an ancient story, this one of matchmaking that sometimes succeeds. It’s why we’re still finding ways to fabricate arranged marriage circumstances even in contemporary romances. It’s one of the reasons some people read historicals. Heck, it’s one of the reasons Fiddler on the Roof is such an enduringly popular musical. We all love a fated-love story, we all want to believe that any or all of these couples will work out, will end up with the Best Story Ever about how they met. We want them to succeed…or perhaps to fail spectacularly. On camera, for our amusement.

And possibly, we want them to succeed because we want to think that a team of experts might have finally worked out the secret formula that will instantly hook us up with the perfect mate, and all we’d need to do is fill out a questionnaire in order to find true love. Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match!

By the way, I’m team Jason/Cortney, have conflicting thoughts about Jamie/Doug (in part because I doubt her sincerity), and feel that Vaughn and Monet should probably go back to living in different states. And I think part of the reason Jason and Cortney are doing as well as they seem to be doing is that they are younger and have fewer preconceptions/expectations to get in their way as they go through the process of getting to know one another. Which…surprised me, because I started out thinking the older participants would probably do better at least maintaining the appearance of getting along/working things out.

Anybody else watching this? Thoughts? Team?

 

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