I. Dating Deal Breakers
After my first queer relationship ended, in no small part, over a cat, I debated adding cats to my growing list of dating deal breakers.
On one hand, ruling out anyone with a pet would significantly narrow an already shallow queer pool but, I didn’t think I could handle playing the role of Cruella De Vil in my next romantic situation.
After my first girlfriend and I broke up, I moved from San Francisco to New York City, hoping that the queers of the City that never sleeps might have less time for pets. Shortly after moving into a room in Harlem, I ventured onto OkCupid, the popular queer dating website of the time (circa 2011).
While OG OkCupid did have a section for potential matches to note lifestyle preferences (i.e. drugs, drinking, pets, and children), I decided not to filter out dates with pets just yet. Rather, I inspected profiles for photos and mentions of felines before crafting or responding to a first message. Surely, the true fanatics would mention or depict their kitty babies somewhere in their profile.
Martina’s dating profile mentioned that she, lamentably, suffered from a serious cat allergy. I messaged her immediately.
Because she felt a bit “under the weather,” Martina proposed we meet at a Pho shop. Casually slipping in that she had to commute back to her home in New Jersey after dinner, Martina selected an eatery in Time Square near Port Authority.
New to online dating in New York, Pho struck me as slightly unusual. But still, riding high on the cat allergy, I ignored other, even more concerning, warning signs—i.e. that she lived in Jersey and had invited me to meet her in the veritable arm pit of New York City. Not yet a jaded New Yorker, I worried far more about cat ownership than the prospect of sacrificing hundreds of hours of my waning youth to the whims of New Jersey Transit.
When I met Martina, I realized she may have understated the direness of her physical condition. Our Pho came quickly, and, as we awkwardly slurped up noodles and spicy broth, my eyes and nose began to water almost as much as hers. Just as she started apologizing for a growing cold sore on her mouth, I changed the subject to cats. Martina disclosed that her cat allergy had caused tension in past relationships with feline-loving lesbians. Because, like me, she worried about narrowing her pool of future available daters, she had started an experimental allergy therapy.
“Do you even like cats?” I asked in a leading tone that I hoped would allow her to reveal her true hatred for felines. Apparently Martina did like cats quite a lot. In fact, she hoped that the allergy therapy might allow her to adopt a cat one day soon.
II. Pets as Relationship Wedges [Warning: This Section contains graphic scatological content]
Growing up, I loved our dog, Goliath. A white German Sheppard, weighing in around 100 pounds, my father elected not to neuter Goliath out of some bizarre anthropomorphic empathy.
Goliath would steal human food, and then leave behind piles of excretion fitting only to his name. Because he still had his testicles, Goliath would routinely escape in an attempt to reproduce with the female dogs of the neighborhood. When Goliath got out, our entire family would give chase as he, looking like an escaped polar bear, inadvertently terrorized our suburban neighbors with his sheer canine mass.
Further, the activity in Goliath’s undercarriage left a 7-year-old me with more questions than answers. I spent the majority of my early years sure Goliath would soon perish from an ongoing infection down under. (Later, I’d try to convince my dad that his choice to leave Goliath’s testicles intact had made me gay).
Sometime in the mid 1990s, my mother, at the tail end of her rope with my father, threatened to leave him if Goliath shit in the house again. Of course, just hours later, Goliath got sick, ran in circles around our attic pool table, and left behind piles of watery sickness in heaps every few feet. Taking my mom literally, I enlisted my younger siblings to assist in the cleanup. They, of course, declined.
When I started scooping the watery piles of diarrhea into a plastic bag, I hadn’t accounted for my active gag reflex. Certainly, child throw up atop doggie diarrhea would lead to an even swifter marriage dissolution. Panicked, I grabbed our vanilla scented Lysol spray for after-toilet use from the bathroom. For what felt like few hours, I sprayed the shit with vanilla, held my breath, scooped, bagged, and scrubbed.
The good news: my parents never found out about this particular “round” of defecation.
The bad news: to this day, when I smell artificial vanilla, I also smell shit (and impending divorce).
After Goliath passed away, my dad agreed to neuter or spay our dogs. But, as with Goliath, our future canines (and my dad’s perpetual desire to adopt more pets) provided my parents of decades worth of fodder for their ongoing doggie wars.
By the time I moved to New York City, my family and friends understood that I was just not “an animal person”—a phrase my dad somberly disclosed to his friends as if I suffered from a treatment-resistant personality disorder.
III. The Epic Story of Zeus
While in law school, in some clandestine but odd preparation for coming out, I visited an independent bookstore in San Francisco and purchased a book about lesbians published more than a decade before (copyright 1996), called, “So you want to be a lesbian?” The book started with a Lesbian Aptitude Test (“LAT”) (which I apparently never finished—more on this in another post), and, on page 9, it lovingly assured future lesbians that cat ownership need not prove an integral part of queer life.
Citing to a heightened sense of smell discovered among lesbians and, of course, allergies, it offered a modicum of reassurance to baby dyke me. Still, the book implied strongly, I might want to get used to cats. (On the smell note, I have never located a peer-reviewed study on this alleged phenomena but I have been invited to several “scent free” queer brunches. The invitation has included bans on perfume, cologne or even scented shampoo or deodorant).
While I’m not certain if “So you want to be a Lesbian,” helped much, I came out during my 1L year in the fall semester, and by spring, I had met my first long-term girlfriend, Jessica. Jessica, of course, had a cat named Zeus.
Zeus seemed like a lesser threat to my relationship than Goliath had been to my parent’s marriage. After all, cats generally use litter boxes and demand less attention than dogs. But Zeus did not take kindly to my intrusion on his very intimate relationship with Jessica.
When I started to stay over on weekends, Zeus would attack me in my sleep, jumping on my bladder and chest while sticking his asshole in my face and hissing.
Early in our dating relationship, Jessica understandably handled the problem without the long-game in mind, getting up in a sleep-induced stupor to open a can of Zeus’s favorite wet food whenever he disturbed my slumber. Inadvertently, Jessica had classically conditioned Zeus to attack me. Or perhaps, Zeus had classically trained her.
Zeus also had a chronic ear infection such that when he would shake his head, pus would escape and land on anything in its path, leaving stains on every wall. But, love drunk, I didn’t mind a few sleepless weekends away from law school and the Zeus problem, I thought, might eventual resolve itself as he got used to me.
When Jessica and I moved in together during my 3L year, I had high hopes for my relationship with Zeus. Perhaps if I spent more time with him and gave him wet food in the sober light of day, he’d come to accept me (or at least let me sleep).
Our studio apartment, located in a dense urban area, felt cramped but, we realized the true gravity of our error when Zeus demonstrated a complete intolerance to becoming an “indoor only cat.” We soon learned that Zeus had a primal needed to go outside to work off some of his energy but the apartment had no easy exit and, even if it had, Zeus would have likely met his demise from the surrounding traffic. Knowing we could not afford to break our lease, vainly, I hoped I could comfort his wiles by showering him with love, attention and kindness.
When Jessica went to work before I left for class, I’d cradle Zeus in my arms, and take affectionate selfies of our cuddles. In the days before smart phones, I’d position my laptop in front of us and try to snap some photos to reassure Jessica of my affection for Zeus. Often, he would purr for a minute or two before launching into attack mode, sending my laptop crashing to the ground.
Our studio apartment had a built-in loft bed at least 10-12 feet off the ground, and, as part of my “starting over” campaign, I had hoped that Zeus might not be able to jump up to the bed (we used a narrow ladder to get to the bed that Zeus couldn’t climb). Limber and cunning, Zeus immediately taught himself to jump from one book shelf to another, propelling himself onto my bladder at precisely the moment I entered REM sleep.
Even though I didn’t eat meat at the time, for two months, I had a recurring nightmare that I ate Zeus alive, fur and all. One night, after his evening assault to my sleeping body, dazed on sleeping pills, I apparently chased him down from the loft bed, threatening to murder him. Chasing after us, Jessica got to me before I could inflict any harm. But felicidal ideation haunted me even in my waking hours.
Something had to give. And it did.
Even though we lived in San Francisco at the time, a Brooklyn investor in the business of flipping affordable housing owned our apartment (perhaps foreshadowing of things to come). As if Zeus had lovingly hissed in the ear of our landlord, we received a modest least buyout offer only three months into the lease. With that money, we moved to an area where Zeus could finally prowl the neighborhood to his heart’s content.
We immediately ordered Zeus a cat door fit for a king, but, for the first month in the new studio, Zeus stood in front of said cat door and cried like a baby until we pushed the flap open for him. In addition to the bladder and boob jumps, now my nightly routine involved playing door person to Zeus. Once outside, we knew very little of Zeus’s activities aside from the fact that he had met “Fluffy” (as we called him), an enormous white neighborhood cat. This seemed like a positive sign: We had hoped he might make friends.
A few weeks after we moved in, I started to hear a baby wailing in the night. On the second or third night it got louder, and I woke Jessica up. “What kind of baby is that?” I asked her. Running outside without explanation, Jessica found Zeus locked in battle with Fluffy. Fluffy, twice Zeus’s size, still stood no chance as white tufts of hair flew every which way. Heroically grabbing Zeus from the fray, Jessica returned with bloody arms and threw him in the bathroom to help him cool off. But just as we finished cleaning Jessica’s wounds and slipped back into bed, we heard a terrifying crash. Zeus had broken the bathroom window to try to escape and murder poor Fluffy.
As the sun came up over San Francisco, Jessica and I surveyed the damage. Broken glass, bloody arms, and tufts of white hair blanketing our deck as if we’d had a mutant snow storm. She collected her thoughts and sighed, “it’s you or the cat, isn’t?”
Jessica and I drove down to LA over Christmas to deliver Zeus to her parents who had a much larger house to occupy his attention. He immediately murdered the family canary by knocking over its cage and hunting it. And, he once sent Jessica’s mom to the ER. But, overall, he managed to get on pretty well with her family and the other pets that he allowed to live. Jessica and I, of course, stayed lifelong friends, and, when we’d visit her parents, we would find Zeus docilely strewn across her dad’s lap.
While I think Zeus might have benefited from the move, Zeus’s absence drove an irreparable wedge into our already transitioning relationship. When I got a job in New York City, we decided Jessica would not come with me. Moving out of our second studio in just one year, I sadly scraped the last of Zeus’s ear pus off the wall and wondered if I had failed my first test as a baby dyke. The owner also kept part of our security deposit for allegedly disturbing his new paint job (which, by the way, is illegal but alas).
Dating in New York City had many twists and turns (some of which you can read about here, here, & here). I even co-habitated for a short time with another public interest lawyer who, on paper, seemed like a perfect match. From our choice in careers to our disdain for pets, I thought, for a time, I would never date again. But, as it turns out, checking all the boxes (even the aversion to feline box) does not a long-term relationship make.
After my feline-adverse ex moved out and left me with a lease I could not afford (more on the consequences of this choice here, here, here & here), I decided to turn my attention away from long-term monogamous relationships, largely discarding my list of deal breakers. For me, dating now meant dating people who did not check the boxes: I tried dating people who fully embraced polyamorous lifestyles; I dated people well outside my general age range; I dated way too many “hetero-flexible” (i.e. sort of straight) people; I even dated people with dogs (cats remained off the table).
But, not unexpectedly, it would be a bad date with a puppy owner that ended my more casual dating years as well.
I had seen Kelli’s dating profile a few times on various websites, noticing her edgy femme energy. Sporting a leather jacket and an undercut, Kelli looked fun, and, on the first date, conversation came easy even if it did include quite a few mentions of her new puppy.
After a second date of bar hopping in the East Village, I asked Kelli how she wanted to end the night with a frankness and directness that I developed only in my 30s. Now that I lived in Brooklyn, I needed to consider my end-of-evening transportation plan home. Kelli invited me over to her hip studio with a build-in loft bed (eerily familiar), excitingly mentioning her new puppy for perhaps the tenth time that evening. When we got back at 2:00 am or so, Kelli picked the new puppy off of a pee pad for play time. I politely feigned interest for 10 minutes.
When we finally made it up to the loft, the chemistry felt off but worthy of a potential third date. A few hours later, Kelli woke up at 6:00 am to “walk” the puppy (who had happily used pee pads the night before). By 7:00 am, she had been playing with the puppy for 20 minutes, barely looking in my direction. Finally announced she had a “ playdate” coming over for the dog (I believe a human playdate), Kelli asked me to vacate the premises before the playdate arrived.
Without an offer of any of the essentials (shower, toothbrush, coffee), I began my inter-borough weekend MTA commute home—an epic journey during which I would switch trains no less than three times and wait at least ten minutes for each transfer.
Outside, it had started to rain, with the temperature dropping for the first time that October. Clad only in skinny jeans and a leather jacket with no umbrella, I started to shake. To add insult to injury, my period started within a block of Kelli’s house. Still in Manhattan, I purchased some meds for my hangover and $30.00 worth of tampons. But, in my stupor, I left the tampons in the Manhattan CVS (which made for an awkward visit to retrieve them the next week). By the time I got home, soaked from the rain, bleeding and tampon-less, I decided to take a dating break.
During “No Sex November,” I resolved to rebuild my circle of platonic queer friends.
Just around election day, at a public interest lawyer queer mixer, I met Lena. Lena had a fun, light energy and, while we talked about work, our conversation flowed through a wide range of topics, including her favorite queer social events. Also a public interest attorney in her 30s, Lena twice brought up her cat, by name, during our first conversation, cementing a platonic place for her in my heart. Lena ended the night by telling me she had to go home and feed little Tucker. Adorable.
But, lulled into the myth that Lena had only platonic potential, I took emotional risks with Lena. And, when our platonic dates starting to creep towards romantic, I almost didn’t notice. Lena held my hand during karaoke (though she swears I held hers first). We sat close around a fire at Union Hall, a bar in Park Slope. Finally, we kissed outside her apartment in the crisp November air.
As I skated dangerously close to my no cat line, I reminded myself that I had sworn off dating and that, even if Lena and I fooled around, we could keep it casual. But, of course, we didn’t.
The first time I met Tucker, I jumped back in horror at his size. At nearly 20-pounds, when he leapt onto my lap and slung himself across my body, I wondered what kind of damage a cat of his size could cause to a human.
As I tentatively pet Tucker, still slung across my lap, I heard him purr and I prepared for the attack. No attack came.
When I slept over, Tucker excitedly jumped up on the bed, often landing with his full body weight right on my full bladder. A familiar sensation, I would wake up abruptly, violently toss Tucker off me, and stay up all night vigilant for the next attack. Because Tucker kept me up, Lena and I limited our sleepovers to weekends, thus slowing the pace of the average lesbian relationship and offering me small, digestible, doses of Tucker.
But even with the distance, Tucker finally started finding ways to gently incorporate himself into my sleeping routine. I’d find him perched on my legs, sleeping on my pillow next to my head, wedged like puddle between Lena and I, or eventually directly on my bladder. A year or so in, I started reaching for Tucker in my sleep, swaddling him with my body like a stuffed animal rather than recoiling in fear.
Soon, I found myself worrying about Tucker:
Did he have enough food? Did he have too much food? Would he get feline Diabetes if he kept gaining weight? Why does he over-groom? Does he need more toys? Yes, always more toys.
Before our relationship had reached its one year anniversary, Tucker got his own Instagram account that I secretly (not-so-secretly) curated with a surly but, of course, lovable tone.
Despite my stubborn belief that during all his hours of apparent feline convalescence, Tucker had been devising plans to murder us so he could consume all his food in one sitting, Tucker’s photo became my desktop background on my work computer. Assuming that I loved cats, new co-workers started incorporating a cat-theme into cards and gifts. I even shamefully found myself talking about Tucker at social gatherings and parties.
When Covid 19 hit New York City, and the state ordered us to stay in place, Lena announced that she and Tucker were moving into my tiny studio.
For the last seven weeks, Tucker, Lena and I have live literally on top of each other in 300 square feet. Tucker’s litter box stays in my bathtub, and moves around the studio when we have to shower.
I get jealous when Tucker chooses to cuddle Lena over me. A few weeks into quarantine, I put Tucker on a serious diet after performing ample internet research about the ideal feline weight (he must live forever). Tucker has posted no fewer than 50 adorable photos to his Instagram account (hashtag #catsofquaratine) for nearly every day since early mid-March.
But, I realized how much I had lost my sense of self as a pet hater when Lena and I had a fight a few weeks ago. In a fit of passion, Lena announced, “fine, Tucker and I can just pack our things and move out.” I immediately ran to the one place I could sort of hide (the bathroom, with Tucker’s litter beside me) and felt a wave of emotion that I’m ashamed to admit related largely to Lena’s vicious threat to take Tucker away from me.