My ‘Cat Person’ memories

    13 June 2018

    The other day a friend told me that a friend of hers found herself having consensual sex with a man who suddenly repulsed her so much that she urgently had to shimmy out from beneath him in order to rush to the bathroom to be sick. I told my oldest girlfriends and we were practically sick ourselves, laughing. Recognition all round (though none of us had actually thrown up in flagrante, even if we’d felt like doing so).

    That thing of finding oneself allowing a situation to progress further than one might wish, because one is not entirely sure. Ambivalence in a woman means many a man has scored in the absence of desire. Often he does so, even if he doesn’t know it, due to her indecision, politeness, loneliness, hope beating lack of lust, weariness in the face of the effort required to extricate herself and, on occasion, her fear of inciting wrath, contempt, aggression or worse.

    Any combination of the above. Inebriation is another, obviously, though I can’t really claim that one as I am a dull teetotaller and don’t drink more than a shot or two of vodka once every few years (when, invariably, I do behave even more misguidedly than usual).

    ‘Cat Person’, the New Yorker short story about a young woman’s desultory sexual encounter with a man, hit a nerve when it came out last December. It went viral, and recent interviews with the author have kick-started the conversations about it again. Kristen Roupenian does capture brilliantly the hot-cold patches a young (or older and not entirely wiser) woman can feel as she decides to sleep with someone for the first time; someone she doesn’t know well, and about whom she has conflicting feelings.

    I can remember, alas all too well, many such encounters in my youth. Regrets: way, way too many, largely myself to blame. There was a staggeringly handsome, feckless, selfish undergraduate, who to my idiotic mind was glamorous in a damaged sort of way and who took me to a squat on the Isle of Wight (single bed, filthy sheets, orange pile carpet clotted with dried stains the origin of which only forensics could hazard a suggestion). And a film director, 20 years older, psychologically abusive, who nearly killed me on the M1. I still went ahead, eyes wide open. To mention but two (but there were my fair share of good’uns, too, if more out of luck than wisdom).

    Until I read ‘Cat Person’ and talked to my gorgeous girlfriends, I thought I was the only one to have been so wrong-headed. I thought other women had more pride, self-esteem and oomph than me, and were generally more assertive so didn’t allow themselves to wind up in bed with arseholes they didn’t even fancy.

    Or sometimes not even arseholes, but perfectly agreeable souls for whom they didn’t feel the merest smidgen of attraction. I remember one who was clever and funny and evidently, in Mrs Bennet terms at least, eligible. He took me on a date. I won’t be so crass as to say that he smelt but the pheromones were wildly skew-whiff. Sleeping with him was out of the question. Only when it came down to it — cinema ticket, dinner, walking on the outside of the pavement (top marks), kind, pleading eyes, and no one else on my scene at the time — it turned out to be rather less out of the question. I won’t be so patronising and arrogant as to say I felt sorry for him. But I also will be so patronising and arrogant. Pity kind of swung it. Thereafter, flowers and emotional cajoling came winging. I wish I had bowed out gracefully before rather than after the event. It would have been kinder and a whole heap more honest.

    But sometimes, like Margot in ‘Cat Person’, we recoil but just go along with things anyway. More women than I supposed — and I suspect some men — turn out to identify with the narrator’s observation that, ‘The thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming.’ Even sassy, beautiful women who I’d put down as more confident in these matters than me, and less daft, will recognise that.

    I say all this because it is oddly reassuring that I wasn’t the only one. And also because, a few decades on, I no longer find myself in those predicaments. I have become at long last marginally less feeble. #MeToo— and about time too.