For the last while, many of my running conversations with friends have revolved around the forms that a queer family can take. And it’s a question whose knots get exponentially sharper when we’re talking about queer folks of color. A lot of us didn’t grow up with accessible models for that….
The protagonist of this story and his boyfriend navigate similar questions – do we ever really let go of the relationships we’ve carried with us; what can be discovered if we abandon how we’ve “told to be” for who we actually
wanted to become – and while neither of them finds an answer, I took a lot of solace in their realizing that this non-resolution was totally fine. And that their coupling doesn’t have to look like anything they’ve seen before. One of the tricks of this story was trying to delegate that epiphany into prose, which felt pretty impossible until the cat came along.
Bryan Washington, BASS 2022 Contributor Note
I’ve spent a couple of days trying to figure out how to write about this story. It’s not that it’s complicated or difficult: it’s about a justifiably commitment-phobic guy trying to not louse up a pretty good relationship, told with backstory sprinkle throughout. It reads beautifully: a touch of humor, rampant symbols and nuance, subtle progress, an ending that, to my great relief, feels cautiously optimistic. And a cat. I have a thing for cat stories. But I have a lot of questions. It’s hard to write about because you need to know everything all the time. It’s definitely a two-read story, even for a casual reader.
I made a list of things to mention. Maybe I’ll just go through the list, and assume you’ve read the story. But remember, though all this is packed in there, it’s about fear of losing someone important, told through the eyes of someone who’s never had anyone much to begin with.
He isn’t any kind of cat that I’ve ever seen. The paws look like something out of a storybook. And his fur shines an IKEA-bag blue. Some Googling tells me this means he’s a shorthair, maybe – but my older brother’s letter just called him a stray.
You have that in common, my brother wrote.
It’ll give you two something to talk about, he wrote.
So that’s what I think of him as: a fucking stray.
A woman I can’t responsibly call my brother’s girlfriend dropped the cat off at my apartment in Montrose. Literally tossed him on the sidewalk. She didn’t wait for me to stumble outside before she drove off. There was a crumpled note, along with a food dispenser, and then this cat in his box.
I’m a little puzzled as to where the cat came from. We find out a little later that the brother has been in prison for three years. So the girlfriend has been taking care of it? And three of its siblings? And is just now finding homes for them? This doesn’t track for me, but I suppose, given other glimpses into the brother, it fits with his rather casual relationship with reality. It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but it starts the story, so it has significance.
And what’s the thing about responsibly calling the woman the brother’s girlfriend? I have no idea what that means. Is it slander to call her his girlfriend? It’s a little weird that it’s taken her three years to get rid of his cat, but I don’t get out much, maybe that’s how it goes when your boyfriend goes to prison.
On a micro level, there’s an ambiguous pronoun antecedent in the sentence “So that’s what I think of him as: a fucking stray.” Obviously this he should be the cat, but the most recent noun, in he wrote, was the brother. This technique crops up a few times. It could be by accident, but I don’t think so.
While it’s an engaging introduction, it’s also a little off-balance, so it sets a certain tone.
So you’ve just been calling him Cat, Owen says.
Mr. Cat, I say. Excuse you.
Monsieur Chat, Owen says.
Your big brother didn’t think to tell you his beloved’s title?
He can be a little careless, I say. But it doesn’t matter. This is temporary.
These cheeks aren’t temporary, Owen says, holding the cat in front of my face.
Don’t get attached, I say.
So Owen sighs, and the cat on his belly sighs, too.
Naming the cat takes up a lot of space. Eventually he’s named Taku, after a man the narrator (don’t worry, I’m getting there) spent considerable time with in Japan while on a research assignment. When the backstory is revealed – to the cat, not to Owen, who has stomped off after a fight – it’s not clear if the man was a lover, or even gay. What is clear is that he and the narrator were important to each other, and their sudden parting, an employment matter, was distressing to them both. That makes it an interesting choice for a name. Both a reminder of something akin to love, and a reminder of something akin to heartbreak.
More generally, nearly everyone who appears in the story has a name, even the minor characters: the vet, the narrator’s coworker. Everyone except the narrator (see, I told you I’d get there), his brother, and the girlfriend. The narrator’s boss doesn’t have a name, but she’s only referred to, she doesn’t appear in the story. So we have this group of anonymous people. It’s not unusual for a first-person narrator to be unnamed – Jake and I even have that on our BASS Bingo Cards – but it seems to have significance here. Names create intimacy, indicate a personal relationship. Names create family. This is the family that lacks family.
Three times the narrator and Owen have sex; the first two times, they get it up but can’t finish it off (I hope I’m not being to indelicate). I wonder how unusual that is, for two men to have that problem at the same time. I’m pretty sure it’s a signal of general rather than sexual dysfunction.
The third time, after the coughing cat appears to be getting better, they manage to get the job done, at which point the protagonist turns a minor comment about keeping an eye on the cat into a big deal, bringing up Owen’s marriage and his family’s pressure to marry – a woman, that is – again. Improved sex can be scary to someone who isn’t sure he wants real intimacy.
This is where Owen takes off. He isn’t living there, so there’s no big departure, but it’s clear he’s pissed and leaving because of it. The narrator later tells his coworker he’s worried that he’s ruined “a good thing.”
Calling us estranged gives our relationship more formality than I prefer – like most of my family, my brother and I simply don’t talk. And then, homicide. Every first of the month, I sent some cash from my shitty assistant’s stipend at the university. For months, I didn’t know if my brother actually received it.
Then, one time, I sent the money a few days late. My mom called to ask me what the fucking holdup was.
Family – or lack thereof – is one of the major touchstones in the story. There’s the brother he doesn’t talk to. The mother who only calls to ask why his check is late. But look at that closely: he doesn’t use the more distant “my mother,” but “my mom.” And he does send his brother money, even if they don’t talk. Then there are the letters he gets from his brother. The one about the cat was simply the latest; we don’t know what’s in the others.
What’s really interesting is that he answers the letters – sort of:
I put the letter in an envelope and stick the envelope in a book under the bed.
Then I stick that book inside another, larger book, and shove it even farther back, against the wall, brushing up against every other letter I’ve never sent.
This is the same under-the-bed where the cat goes, where he can’t reach him: “My brother’s cat watches me straining, flexing my fingers toward his fur.” Remember that first ambiguous pronoun antecedent, where he could refer to the cat or the brother? They’re both there, under the bed, just out of reach. One deliberately put there; one takes refuge there. And for that matter, Owen is there, too, via another ambiguous pronoun.
Owen has dealt with the family thing head on; he declared, on their first date, that he’d never marry, having tried that with a woman, at the urging of his family. But Owen doesn’t rule out other types of attachment:
This was where I came in.
We’d form our own sort of family.
When Owen asked if I’d be up for that, at first I didn’t say much.
Then I said, fuck it. Why not.
But here is the truth: sometimes family doesn’t last.
Owen knows this as well as I do.
If he can crash into my life, then he might, eventually, run out.
And I don’t need that.
It’s one thing to be alone, and another to be thrust back into loneliness.
The two of them are family-phobic, but Owen is open about wanting to try some kind of permanence. The narrator is not as sure; he’s rather flip about the idea, but underneath, you can see his fingers reaching for the fur hiding under the bed. Everything about him says “I want this” – Owen, his brother, the cat, all of it – but, like the sex that fizzles, he can’t bring it to a close, and when it all comes within reach, he sabotages it.
I have other smaller topics:
The end of the story again features the brother who just isn’t capable of fulfilling the role of big brother, but might be able to be something else. I get into that all the time: maybe this relationship, be it friend or family, won’t give me exactly what I need or want, but maybe it’ll give me something that fills some small need, and I try to appreciate it for what it is, rather than resenting what it isn’t. that takes a kind of self-awareness our narrator might not yet have, but he’s getting there: he did mail the letters, and show other small signs of willingness.
There are small comments about race. Most satirically, since his Japanese research grant fell through, the narrator works at the university as an assistant to a white lady who tours with her book on ending racism. He and his coworker clean the office. Not literally, of course, but they process her receipts and do her paperwork. Thing is, there’s some truth to the idea that it’s white people who need to act to end racism, but it’s that fine line between alliance and appropriation.
Greer’s Introduction included a comment I took exception to:
The dialogue is told without quotation marks, a choice that creates a distance for the reader (quotation marks make reading dialogue “easy,” which is why you always see them in juicy airport novels).
Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022
First, I got a bit peeved at the elitist attitude towards “airport novels” and the association with quotation marks. David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy more or less turned quote-less prose into a thing, so I guess the association with highbrow literary fiction is somewhat warranted, but plenty of literary novels still use quotation marks.
Then I was surprised that he finds quotation marks easier. I’ve read just the opposite. I’ve also read that they clutter up a page visually, especially when there are a lot of short dialog lines, which there are in this story.
When I look at the physical page in BASS (I have no idea what it looked like in TNY), I see all these short lines resembling poetry. I thought at first they were poetic inserts into the prose, but no, they’re short paragraphs, brief lines of dialog, without quotation marks; it just looks like poetry. Given Washington’s comment about translating an epiphany into prose, I have to wonder if the physical layout is deliberate. At the very least, it’s consonant. I was doubly surprised to find this quote-less approach as imitating poetry backed up by an article in The Millions.
I like this story more and more each time I read it. So many ideas cross-reference themselves throughout the piece – family, distance, reaching, caretaking, intimacy, silence, communication – yet it isn’t confusing to read. What might seem a casual sentence takes deeper significance later, and often later again, as we cycle through different layers. It struck me as a spiral structure: we read about the present, then go back to the brother, then to the present again, retrace the earlier relationship with Owen, then about the brother again, adding more to the picture each time. A spiral ends at the center: that makes the brother the center, maybe the genesis of the narrator’s fear of attachment. But we get there after he mails the letters, so can appreciate his attempt to reestablish contact, to try again.
It’s also a nice piece with which to end the volume. No one at BASS would’ve known this at the time the volume was put together, but right now cautious optimism feels like a good way to go forward. Maybe they did know it; or maybe they just hoped really hard.
* * *
- In his post at Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber makes a brilliant and well-supported connection between this story and… well, no, that would be a spoiler, go ahead and read it for yourself.
- Jonathan Russell Clark wrote about quotation marks, and the lack thereof, at The Millions.