The year of our Lord 2017 was an overfull one, in which many things, both wretched and good and sometimes wretched-but-ultimately-good, happened. It was also the year a short story went viral.
“Cat Person,” a short story by Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker, was an unlikely viral sensation. Countless outlets produced think pieces and reactions. There were hordes of women for whom the story resonated, juxtaposed against the men who had such an aversion to the story, many could not even recognize it for what it was, frequently referring to it as an “essay” or an “article” when it was clearly short fiction. A Twitter account popped up to chronicle some of the male takes. The Cut put together a delightful video of cats responding to the story and the Awl published a version of the story from the cat’s perspective. The photo accompanying the story was, to some, off-putting: An extreme close-up of two mouths about to kiss. After reading the story, I agreed that it is perfectly suited to the story, but every time it showed up in my Twitter feed, I shuddered, said a mental “HARD PASS” and scrolled hurriedly.
I eventually got over my aversion to the photo and read the story.
The simplest summation is this: a 20-year-old college student, Margot, goes on a bad date with a 34-year-old named Robert.
But the story itself is complex, just like Margot’s experience. And in its complexity, it exquisitely shows the interior life of a young woman. A friend of mine pointed out that it is common for literature and other art to depict the unknowability of women for men, but “Cat Person” shows us the unknowability of men, for women. And it goes further, showing how women sometimes cope with that unknowability by speculating about the man, concocting some sort of explanation in the presence of silence or moodiness. (Roupenian spoke beautifully about this in an interview with The New York Times.) An early example occurs in the story when Robert asks Margot if she’d like to get a drink after taking in a movie about the Holocaust, and she says she “could use a drink, after that movie.”
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 Holocaust movie, because he didn’t understand that a Holocaust movie was the wrong kind of “serious” movie with which to impress the type of person who worked at an artsy movie theatre, the type of person he probably assumed she was. Maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her. The thought of this possible vulnerability touched her, and she felt kinder toward him than she had all night.
Finding him vulnerable repeatedly softens Margot to him, compelling her to try to like him more than she really does, like when he kisses her and is a terrible kisser.
Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing. It seemed awful, yet somehow it also gave her that tender feeling toward him again, the sense that even though he was older than her, she knew something he didn’t.
Despite being much older than her, Robert is threatened by Margot’s intelligence. He mocks a loathsome snobbish version of her that he concocts, and out of a desire to put him at ease, she laughs along with him at his belittling and makes herself vulnerable:
She was starting to think that she understood him—how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded—and that made her feel closer to him, and also powerful, because once she knew how to hurt him she also knew how he could be soothed. She asked him lots of questions about the movies he liked, and she spoke self-deprecatingly about the movies at the artsy theatre that she found boring or incomprehensible; she told him about how much her older co-workers intimidated her, and how she sometimes worried that she wasn’t smart enough to form her own opinions on anything. The effect of this on him was palpable and immediate, and she felt as if she were petting a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear, skillfully coaxing it to eat from her hand.
The excruciating part is that as Margot creates reasons to find Robert nicer than he is, to excuse and justify his insecurity and consequent meanness, Robert does not seem to be making any corresponding effort to know the real Margot.
Some criticism of the story asserts that it “fat-shames” because of some descriptions of Robert’s “thick” and “soft” belly. But Margot doesn’t describe Robert as fat, or take issue with his body until she is about to have sex with him and realizes she doesn’t want to but can’t figure out how to get out of it. Her aversion to the situation results in revulsion at Robert’s body. The descriptions of his body, to me, made sense in the context of how a 20-year-old would be surprised by the body of a 35-year-old.
The description of that realization for Margot is excruciating because it is so acutely relatable:
The thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.
Many of us, clearly, can viscerally remember what it was like to be young and overwhelmed by the power that your youth — the novelty of your existence and, of course, your body — has on men, particularly older men. The confusion of suddenly discovering that you have that power, that you seem to have exerted it without meaning to. The sense of guilt, of responsibility. That resignation. Roupenian writes, “She knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter has disappeared, but that she would carry through with it until it was over,” and we wince in almost-unbearable recognition.
The sex with Robert is predictably atrocious. It becomes clear he has fetishized her youth. He talks dirty to her, saying things she has to fight not to laugh at in their absurdity. So many of my women friends and I saw our past in this scene. I remember reluctantly sleeping with a man in his 30s when I was 21 and telling my friend afterward how he treated my body, throwing it around, changing positions every 10 seconds. “Like he thought he was in a porno,” I told my friend. “Like he thought I was a doll. I’m young, but I’m not in Cirque du fucking Soleil.”
The story doesn’t end there, of course. I could go on; I highlighted or circled more than a dozen sections. But you should read it. It won’t take more than 28 minutes of your time, according to a Longreads estimate, so even if you hate it, what’s 28 minutes in the grand scheme of your life? Certainly less time than Margot spent on Robert.