CAT PERSON (republished by kind permission of the New Yorker)
Margot met Robbie on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. Some called it “autumn”, but Margot called it fall, because she thought it was a good time to fall for someone. She often had thoughts like this, and wondered, did it mean she was a genius?
She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown, trying to get the vomit out of the carpet and longing for the day they would let her work AT the concession stand, rather than being forced to stay in the shadows behind it. Robert walked up to the stand, his vast mass causing ripples in people’s water glasses and forcing small objects into orbit around his body. He ordered a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.
“What are Red Vines?” asked the girl working at the concession stand.
“I have no idea,” said Robert, massive jowls flapping like a cartoon bulldog.
“I know what they are,” said Margot, standing up with a shy smile.
Robert stared at her, transfixed. “Is that vomit on your hands?” he asked.
“It sure is,” she said with a wink. Flirting with customers was a habit she’d picked up in her old job as a cardiothoracic surgeon, and she had been warned on several occasions that she would be fired if she didn’t stop. But there was something about Robert — the way his dark eyes drank in her form, the way his pants were held up by a piece of sailboat rigging — that she found irresistible.
“Can I also have a Coke?” he asked, almost inaudibly, as if he was ashamed of his conventional beverage tastes.
“Fuck you, you pig,” she replied warmly.
Robert came back to the theatre the next week and ordered a large popcorn and box of Red Vines. “You managed not to insult me this time,” he said to Margot.
“Kill yourself, shithead,” she replied. Whoops, did it again, she thought to herself.
It was the next week, when Robert came back to the theatre and this time ordered a steak sandwich and a lobster, that she finally plucked up the courage to shrug at him. “Give me your number, vomit girl,” he said, and to her surprise, she spat in his face. Then she gave him her number.
“I have to warn you,” he said as he entered the digits into his phone, “I am a Cat Person.”
“That doesn’t matter to me,” said Margot, although truthfully she had never thought about having sex with a Cat Person, let alone sending him a large number of texts while at home on break.
From that moment, they built up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, the kind of scaffolding that at first seems to have ruined the aesthetic appeal of a historic city district, until you realise there is a fun construction worker standing on it make amusing shapes with his belly button. He was very clever, and she found that she had to work to impress him. “Work harder,” he would text. “Punch up your one-liners.” “That last joke lacked the crucial element of comic incognruity.” “I expect ten fresh gags on my desk in the morning.” She had known interning on an acclaimed late night show would be tough, but given she wasn’t doing that, it came as a bit of a surprise how hard she had to work. 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 he would send her a photo of himself pretending to be dead at the bottom of his stairs. “See what you’ve done!” he would text, but then she would ask him how he sent the message if he was dead, and he would have to admit he wasn’t dead, and they would have a good laugh.
One night during reading period, she was complaining about how all the dining halls were closed and there was no food in her room because her roommate had set fire to it all during a manic episode, and he offered to come to her room with a live calf and slaughter it for her. At first, she deflected this with another joke, because she really did have to study, but he said, “No, I’m serious. In fact…I’m already here.” And so he was, and the mooing she’d been hearing for the last few hours finally made sense.
Robert was wearing a rabbit-fur hat that came down over his ears and a thick, old-fashioned down jacket. She thought it was a good look for him, if a little dorky; the hat heightened the sense that he was an escaped mental patient, and the heavy coat hid his belly and the shotgun he carried at all times.
“Thank you for the calf,” she said.
“You’re welcome, vomit girl,” he replied, because she’d told him that was her legal name. She thought he was going to go in for a kiss and prepared to duck and offer him her cheek, but instead of kissing her on the mouth he took her by the arm and swung her around his head three times like a lasso, before placing her tenderly in the fridge for safekeeping. “Study hard, sweetheart,” he said. “I will ground you if you don’t maintain a 3.8 GPA.”
While she was home over break, they texted nearly non-stop, not only jokes but theories on the Zodiac Killer. They started saying good morning and good night, even in the middle of the day, and when she asked him a question and he didn’t respond right away she shaved her head and set fire to her bed. She learned that Robert had two cats, named Mu and Yan, and together they invented a complicated scenario in which her childhood cat, Pita, would invade Mu and Yan’s home, tie them up and beat them with a golf club, in a searing satire on the role of violence in modern entertainment.
“Why are you texting all the time?” Margot’s stepdad asked her at dinner. “Are you having an affair with someone?”
“You’re not my real father you creepy old pervert, go fuck yourself,” Margot said.
“My parents are asking about u,” Margot texted, and Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were black windows into an endless void.
When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down — he claimed it was because of his wrestling background, but she remained suspicious. Eventually he asked her to go to a movie, and she did. The next day he asked whether she would like to go to a movie with him this time, and she agreed to this also.
The movie he wanted to see was playing at the theatre where she worked, but she suggested they see it at the big multiplex in central Prague instead, because she’d always wanted to go there. Robert came to pick her up on a small white donkey, which he called “Smamwich”. “Smamwich will be seeing the movie with us,” he shouted in a surprisingly aggressive way.
On the ride, Robert was quieter than she had expected: checking the meter she saw he was several decibels below her anticipated level, and wondered whether these earplugs had been a waste of time. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to murder you,” Robert said, which was slightly unnerving until she realised he was talking to Smamwich.
At the theatre, he made a joke to the cashier at the concession stand about the Reverend Jim Jones, which fell flat in a way that embarrassed all involved, but Margot most of all, because she had written it for him.
During the movie, he didn’t hold her hand or put his arm around her: he simply crouched stock still on the back of his seat, sniffing his own armpits. Cat people, Margot thought, shaking her head.
“So, do you want to get a drink?” she asked as they remounted the donkey, as if he was asking her if she’d like to get some food, only in liquid form.
“We could go get a drink, I guess.”
“I have diarrhoea,” he said.
“I have diarrhoea” was such an unpleasant response that she sat silently until he poked her leg and said, “Imagine me doing this only with a sexual context. It would be, I imagine, very uncomfortable.”
She laughed, as if he had said something funny and she had responded to it in the conventional manner that humans did. “I could use a drink, after that movie.” The film he’d chosen was a musical version of Cannibal Holocaust, so inappropriate for a first date that she’d punched him hard in the stomach when he had suggested it.
But now, when she said that about the movie, he winced a little, and a totally different interpretation of the night’s events occurred to her. She wondered if perhaps he’d been trying to impress her by suggesting the Cannibal Holocaust musical, because he didn’t understand that she loathed all forms of music.
When he asked her where she wanted to go for a drink, she named the place where she usually hung out, but he made a face and stapled it to the front of his head and said he’d take her somewhere better. And so it was they found themselves in the Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
There was a line to get inside, and, as they waited, she grew fidgety trying to figure out how to tell him what she needed to tell him, but she couldn’t, so when the bouncer asked to see her I.D. she stabbed him and ran inside.
“Sorry!” she said. “This is so embarrassing.”
“How old are you?” he demanded.
“I’m twenty,” she said.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you said you were eighty.”
“No,” she said. There was an awkward silence.
“Don’t cry,” Robert said.
“I’m not crying.”
“Sorry, I was just trying to make conversation.”
“So would you like to have sex?”
“Yes. I’ve always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits.”
Even as he said the words, she suspected that he was just showing off, trying to impress her with his worldly experience of all the different kinds of girls he had always wanted to fuck. He kissed her then, on the lips, for real; he came for her in a kind of lunging motion and practically poured his tongue down her throat. It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing. Then she remembered: he was a cat person. It made sense: all the cats she’d known had been terrible kissers.
By her third beer, she was thinking about what it would be like to have sex with Robert. Probably it would be like all the times she’d had sex with cats, painful and scratchy and ending with kitty littler getting everywhere, but imagining how excited he would be, how hungry and eager to impress her, she felt a twinge of desire pluck at her belly, as distinct and painful as the snap of an elastic band against her skin. Actually, when she looked down, it was an elastic band snapping against her skin. “Stop that,” she said.
“Sorry,” said Robert. “I was bored.”
Outside, she presented herself to him again for kissing, but, to her surprise, he only gave her a shampoo and blowdry. “You’re drunk,” he said, accusingly.
“No, I’m not,” she said, though she was. She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him even though she was actually twice his height, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if he were a kettle being fellated by a particularly attractive goldfish.
Soon after that she was straddling him, and she could feel the small log that he kept in his pants in case he was every caught in an emergency situation without firewood. Whenever it rolled beneath her weight, he let out these fluttery, high-pitched moans that she couldn’t help feeling were a little melodramatic, and then suddenly he collapsed to the ground, twitching and foaming at the mouth. A few hours later, he was discharged from hospital and met her in the parking lot.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“I live in boiler room of an abandoned golden syrup factory.”
“Can I . . . come over?”
The bedroom wasn’t empty, though it was emptier than the living room; he didn’t have a bed frame, just a cardboard box and a small motorised weasel. There was a bottle of whiskey on his dresser, and he poured it over his head, then handed it to her and kneeled down and opened his laptop, an action that confused her, until she understood that he was playing Minecraft.
Margot sat on the bed while Robert transformed into his cat form. Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, a fish skeleton dangling from his lips, Margot recoiled.
The way he looked at her then was like an exaggerated version of the expression she’d seen on the faces of all the cats she’d been naked with, not that there were that many — six in total, Robert made seven. He looked stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a line drawing of a sentient grapefruit, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex — sitting around doing nothing.
As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She is champion Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard. She has won so many medals. Her times are phenomenal.
The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got, and soon they were rocking against each other, getting into a rhythm, and she reached into his underwear and pulled out a handful of Smarties. “Mm, delicious,” she said. He responded by mewing and rubbing himself up against her legs. He made that sound again, that high-pitched feminine whine, and she wished there were a way she could ask him not to do that, but she couldn’t think of any, so she karate-chopped him in the throat, which prevented him from saying anything for several hours.
Then he asked, urgently, “Wait. Have you ever done this before?”
By that time they were in the kitchen cleaning his oven, so it seemed an odd question, and she laughed. She didn’t mean to laugh: she meant to call him a moron. But she couldn’t help it. The fumes from the cleaning fluid in the enclosed space were going to her head.
“I’m sorry,” Robert said coldly, lying down and pretending to be dead again.
After a short while, Robert got up and hurried to the bathroom in a bow-legged waddle, the same way he walked everywhere because he was so fat and gross. Margot lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling, noticing for the first time that there was a malevolent demon clinging to it, staring down at her and laughing maniacally.
Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her. She didn’t hear him: she was too busy imagining a boy grabbing her leg and screaming at her. It was her favourite fantasy.
Robert said, “We could watch a movie,” and she agreed: they could. Having reached consensus on the theoretical possibility of watching a movie, he started talking about his feelings, of which he had more than seven at last count. He talked about how hard it had been for him when she went away for break, because she had taken his only comb with her and he’d been extremely unkempt. During those two weeks, it turned out, an entire secret drama had played out in his head, one in which she’d left campus committed to him, to Robert, but at home had married the king of the wood-elves, who took her away to his underground kingdom and would not release her unless Robert could guess his true name.
“How old are you, exactly?” she asked him.
“I’m six,” he said. “Is that a problem?”
“I should go home,” she said.
“I was hoping you’d stay over,” he said. “I have some old McDonald’s hotcakes left over from last week somewhere.”
The drive was endless, at least until it ended. The snow had turned to rain, which then turned to sunshine, which turned to hail, which turned back to snow, which turned to an apocalyptic rain of frogs. They didn’t talk. Eventually, Robert began beatboxing. Margot recalled how, when they first got on the highway to go to the movie, she’d imagined that Robert might murder her, and she thought, Maybe he’ll murder me now.
He didn’t murder her. Typical. He drove her to her dorm. “I had a really nice time tonight,” he said, stripping naked and dancing on her lawn. “I’m so glad we finally got to go on a date,”
“A date,” she said to her imaginary boyfriend. “He called that a date.” And they both laughed and laughed for reasons that were not immediately clear.
“Get the fuck out of my car,” Robert said to her imaginary boyfriend, and chastened, he wandered off.
She reached for the door handle. “Thanks for the movie and stuff.”
“Wait,” he said, and grabbed her arm. “You forgot this!”
“Thanks,” she said, fitting it back into its socket. “It keeps doing that.”
Every so often, over the next day or so, she would find herself in a gray, daydreamy mood, missing something, and she’d realize that it was Robert she missed, not the real Robert but Robert the Bruce, the fourteenth century hero of Scottish independence. “I wonder what he’s doing now,” she said wistfully.
“Hey, so it seems like you’re really busy, huh?” Robert finally wrote, three days after they’d fucked, and she knew that this was the perfect opportunity to send her half-completed breakup text, but instead she wrote back, “Have you considered switching energy providers? Big savings available NOW!”
“Just tell him you’re not interested!” Margot’s roommate, Tamara, screamed in frustration after Margot had spent an hour on her bed, dithering about what to say to Robert. “And why can’t you lie on your own bed?”
Then, abruptly, Tamara lunged, snatching the phone out of Margot’s hand and holding it far away from her as her thumbs flew across the screen. Tamara flung the phone onto the bed and Margot scrambled for it, and there it was, what Tamara had written: “Margot is ded this is the undertaker i stole her phone.”
Margot collapsed, laying her head in her hands. She felt as though a leech, grown heavy and swollen with her blood, had at last popped off her skin, leaving a tender, bruised spot behind. But why should she feel that way? She looked down at the leech on the floor. Maybe that was why.
Perhaps she was being unfair to Robert, who really had done nothing wrong, except like her, and be bad in bed, and turn into a cat, and also she had found evidence in his house that strongly suggested he was connected with the disappearance of Olivia Newton-John’s fiance. And he was a black market arms dealer, but he’d been upfront about that.
But then, a month later, she saw him in the bar — her bar, the one she ran illegally out of her basement. He was alone, at a table in the back, and he wasn’t reading or looking at his phone; he was urinating into his own mouth, in that endearing way that had first attracted her.
She grabbed the friend she was with, a guy named Albert. “Oh, my God, that’s him,” she whispered. “The guy from the movie theatre!”
“Ving Rhames?” Albert asked in confusion.
“Not the guy from the movie, the guy from the movie THEATRE,” she hissed.
Albert stepped in front of her, placing her into a clean ziplock bag, as they rushed back to the table where their friends were. When Margot announced that Robert was there, everyone looked at her blankly, having never really listened to anything she said, but when she explained about him being a Cat Person, they surrounded her and hustled her out of the bar and placed her in a lifeboat on a cruise ship with a six-month supply of rice and gave her the address of a safe house in Gaborone. It was all so over-the-top that she wondered if she was acting like a mean girl, but, at the same time, she truly didn’t give a shit.
Curled up on her bed with Tamara that night, the glow of the phone like a campfire illuminating their faces, Margot continued to marvel at the difficulty Tamara had in respecting her personal space, and read the messages as they arrived:
“Hi Margot, I saw you out at the bar tonight. I know you said not to text you but I just wanted to say you had toilet paper on your shoe. I hope you’re doing well!”
“I know I shouldnt say this but I find The Gilmore Girls very problematic.”
“Hey maybe I don’t have the right to ask but do you think the US would’ve entered World War Two if Perl Harbor never happened?”
“I saw a show today about sharks and they have two penises did you no that”
“Maybe I was too old for u or maybe I was too young. I find it difficult to grasp the concept of time so it’s hard to say”
“Is that guy you were with tonight your boyfriend? He’s hot, if he is single can I have his number”
“When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because Everybody Loves Raymond was on the TV”
“Are you fucking that guy right now”
“Ray Romano I mean”
“My birthday is next week you should come i am hiring a magician.”