Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories 2020, a pandemic pivot that sees these tales recorded in sharehouse bedrooms and bathrooms, on outback properties and in suburban homes, rather than at the big celebratory Queerstories events of the past five years. For example, any intrusive panting you hear in the background can be attributed to the rather large puppy laying at my feet, wishing I would hurry up and take her for a walk.
Our first storyteller is Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, who has written for The Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings and Frankie, among others. She was an inaugural recipient of The Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter fellowship in 2018, and works by day as a bookseller and copywriter. This story was recorded under a blanket inside a built-in wardrobe. I’m reliably informed it was the quietest place in the house.
It’s called The Dangling Conversation.
It started with a pink patch on the back of his neck, which I noticed one morning as I fed him: a perfectly round spot where the fur had rubbed off, leaving fresh, raw skin.
“What do you think that is?” I asked my boyfriend, rubbing it with my finger. The cat didn’t react.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but maybe you should get it checked out.”
I called the vet and told them that my cat had a strange pink bald patch that did not seem to be hurting him, and asked whether I should be concerned.
“It may just be an allergic reaction,” the receptionist said, “but keep an eye on it. He’s got his vaccinations coming up next week, anyway, so we’ll have a look at it then.”
The morning of the vaccination, I bundled the cat into his carrier and walked the seven minutes to the vet. He anxiously crawled out onto the table as the smiling vet cooed.
“What’s this on his neck?” I asked, as the vet fondled his underbelly. “Should I be worried?”
The vet’s brow was furrowed as she continued to inspect him. She looked up.
“His neck is fine,” she said, “but his kidneys feel irregular. Do you mind if we do some tests?”
A few hours later she called me to tell me that he had stage 3 kidney disease, and that they’d have to do more diagnostics to figure out if it was an infection or something more serious.
A few days later, she called again to tell me that actually he had chronic kidney disease and kidney stones, which could not be removed. The prognosis was 18 months. Chronic kidney disease is common in elderly cats – mine was only five years old.
A few hours after I received that phone call, I got another phone call. It was my boyfriend, and he was breaking up with me.
The next day, Melbourne’s first lockdown began, and I was left alone in an apartment, heartbroken, with a dying cat.
Before he got sick, Funk was never a lap cat. He was the opposite of what I had always imagined life with a cat would be: a soft, purring ball in a perfect circle on my lap as I worked, drinking endless cups of tea while Sufjan Stevens played softly in the background. Having grown up in a strictly dog people household, cat ownership was unfamiliar to me, but I’d been around enough friends’ cats, and interacted with plenty of friendly street ones, to guess what I might be in for.
It was almost an accident, the way he came into my life. I’d recently broken up with my third rebound after a five-year relationship, and I’d just about had it with romance. My sister had also just come out of a relationship, and our mum flew her down to Melbourne from Sydney so we could spend some sisterly time together. The year before she’d adopted a dog, and she tried to convince me that getting a pet would solve everything.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s such a huge commitment.”
But then somehow I found myself in a car going to see a little black kitten, and somehow I found myself falling in love with his black and white brother, a boisterous little guy named Oslo. And then, somehow, I found myself in another car a week later, with that little black and white kitten bouncing madly on my legs.
I renamed him Garfunkel, or Funky for short, but after a while he just became Funk. As I got to know him, I realised that he was, like me, completely neurotic. He was scared to get too close to anyone, but also desperate to: he’d jump up and try to climb onto my shoulders, but often fall short and dig his claws into my back instead. He would attack my feet at night, or bite when he meant to be friendly. My housemate and I simultaneously adored and were terrified of him.
After realising that it wasn’t just a teething kitten stage and that there could be something very wrong, I took him to a cat psychologist, which was not something I even knew existed. At the low, low price of $320 an hour, she gave me tips on how I might be able to deal with my little feline terror. So I changed it up: I gave him more toys, I hid food around the house, I tried to entertain him. But nothing really seemed to work. Vet visits were similarly nightmarish, as several nurses would have to hold him down to get even the smallest task done.
Sometimes he would get so fired up that I would hide in my room and cry, terrified of what he might do. Sometimes he’d get so agitated that I wished he could talk to me, tell me what was wrong. He wasn’t the cuddly cat I had dreamed of; he was, like me, an anxious mess.
When I moved into my own place, it became just me and him. I developed tactics on how to escape his rage: the best way to jump onto my bed at night without him catching my feet, the best way to calm him down when he was angry. It was nice not to be alone, but it was also stressful, and having people over was an exercise in prayer that they wouldn’t leave my house with actual blood dripping off their arms and legs.
My friends joked about my weird cat, a demon in a small, furry body. “He’s going to live forever just to spite you,” they’d say. “You’ll be 70 years old and still dealing with this devil cat.” I never even considered that he could get sick in a physical way – like me, he was not mentally well, but he was unbreakable physically. He had to be.
Sometimes I resented him. A few people suggested that I rehome him because it was causing me so much stress, but it was never a question to me of whether or not I would keep him. Of course I would.
Everything changed so fast. One day I was in love with someone who was in love with me, and I had an annoying cat who was probably immortal, and I could go outside – the next, the person I love does not love me anymore, and my cat has 18 months to live, and my apartment is the whole, entire world.
Though I had long dreamed of the day when Funk would stop being so chaotic and ruining my life, watching him become more sedate was at first difficult. He did not seem like himself, spending more time sleeping than doing backflips off the walls. He lay in my lap like I’d always wanted him to, but it felt strange and sad. Once very food-motivated, he began to leave his bowl untouched.
But caring for Funk gives each day purpose during a time when I just want to stay in bed. I know I have to feed him morning and night, special diet food that costs a small fortune. I know I have to give him two painkillers per day by breaking the capsule open, sucking it up into a syringe and then squirting it into his mouth, or sprinkling the insides over his food. I know I have to hide an appetite stimulant in his wet food so he’ll actually eat, and half an anti-nausea tablet to keep him from throwing up. I have to brush him and make sure he is eating and call the vet if anything seems off.
I have become well acquainted with the people who work at the vet, walking the seven minutes there every other week to pick up more food, more medications, or to bring Funk in for a check-up. I have a crush on the cute girl who works there, with her colourful socks and handmade mask. My interactions with these strangers is comforting, especially when I can’t see anyone close to me who might understand how it feels to be caring for a cat who is dying, or who might say something – anything – to make me feel better.
Funk has begun to sleep in my bed with me at night. Now he walks up to wherever I am sitting at any given time and deposits his entire weight onto my chest or lap. Because of the pandemic, I am at home most of the time, which feels a little like a blessing, to be able to spend so much time with my cat who is dying. I talk to him, little one-way conversations about nothing. I read poetry aloud to him, and sing to him while I cook. Though at first it was odd to see him so quiet and still, after a while, it has become a source of great comfort – we are both going through a hard time, and we are all the other has. He can’t speak back to me, but he is here, and that’s enough. I’d always assumed that he would live forever, and now that I know he won’t, every day counts – and we have nothing but days.
Sometimes he is his old self, eyes wide and claws at the ready. It’s still annoying, but tinged with a sadness, too – that something that once caused me so much anxiety is now a glimpse at a life we no longer know. There was a kind of comfort in the madness, because at least it was normal. Sometimes I long for it again.
I began to remember the times in the past, before he and the world got sick, when he had helped me. I remembered the time that I didn’t sleep for three days, how I had a psychotic break and could not stop crying, and how the only thing that helped was feeling his weight on my chest. I felt somewhat anchored by it, knowing that this funny little creature who lived in my house could be there for me like that. I’d almost forgotten, until the prospect of him being gone became real.
There isn’t an end to this story. It’s not even really a story at all. The world has shrunken and my cat is dying, and there is nothing I can say that will make that untrue. Some days I help him throw up, then apply carpet cleaner to the floor and watch it disappear. Some days he’s good and it’s like he is not sick at all. But my cat is dying, and I don’t know when it will be. It could be tomorrow, or in a year, or maybe he’ll defy science and live long past what his prognosis says is likely. The possibility dangles over us every day, a conversation I’ll never really be ready to have that started with a pink spot on his neck that became a diagnosis that became a waiting game. But we’ll always have this strange year, one of heartbreak and loneliness and home and love, love, so much love.
A woman in my apartment building started a Facebook group for us all, so we could connect and make sure everyone was ok. The demographics of my building are a strange mix, situated in Newtown next to a theological college, we’ve got a middle aged gay couple below, weed smells wafting up from their courtyard, butting up against an alarming number of young Christian families with matching prams and bible quotes in their windows. The Christians would gather outside to check up on each other during lockdown, perched in gutters, leaning against doorframes, but for the rest of us, there was Justine’s Facebook group. Despite her best efforts, it never really took off, though the occasional post about lost keys proved helpful. Justine still posts her check ins on Saturday mornings, just to see how everyone’s doing.
Our next story is by Farz Edraki, writer, editor, TV producer and researcher whose credits include Tonightly with Tom Ballard and The House with Annabel Crabb. She is currently the Deputy Editor at ABC Life.
Farz performed this story at a small, socially distanced Queerstories event I hosted in July 2020. In that brief sojourn between infection rates, we all emerged from our homes to gather with community for the first time in months, all of us a little giddy – having forgotten how to talk to people who weren’t our housemates.
It should come as no shock to you that — throughout my life — I’ve been described as a “nice girl”.
I mean, look at me: inoffensive haircut, round face, overalls like Claudia’s from Baby-Sitters Club.
I’m not exactly edgy. Even when you factor in my Evanescence CD collection.
For a long time, I was comfortable — proud, even — of this identity.
“You’re too nice,” the kids at school would say after I swapped my saffron rice lunches for their sandwiches.
“All good,” I’d tell them. “I love stale whitebread! And is that… tuna and mayonnaise?”
There was only one other Farzaneh in my year at Ironside State School in Brisbane, and she was the loud one. “You’re not like her,” mum would say. “She has opinions.”
Being ‘nice’ is a trait my Iranian family encouraged.
Nice girls served their relatives black chayee on silver platters. Nice girls did well in school, then went on to marry nice men, have nice children and eventually — nice, quiet postpartum mental health breakdowns.
I knew I didn’t want many of these things from a young age… certainly not a breakdown but definitely not a husband — but still, trying to put other people’s needs ahead of my own wasn’t just something I valued because my family did. It was part of me.
When I was a kid, my parents and I squeezed into a one-bedroom brick flat in Taringa.
There were other Iranian families in the building, but I wasn’t really friends with them, or… anyone.
That sounds sad but in reality was Just Fine: I’d spend my weekends riding my bike around the block and watching Art Attack on TV and making imaginary villages from my mum’s sewing kit.
While she was out delivering pamphlets (her part-time job) and dad was typing in the room next door (his PhD), I would sprawl out on the mustard carpet, arranging the sewing equipment around me.
I’d assign roles to the thimble, needle, pincushion and rotary cutter. One week, the thimble (Stacey) might be having a fight with her needle best friend (Nelly) over a hot pincushion. Another week, the rotary cutter might come clean about having an affair. The pincushion was often embroiled in these affairs, naturally.
I loved drama, even back in the ‘90s when reality TV was a distant blip. But the characters in my imaginary Sewing Village would always kiss and make-up. They, like me, were ultimately agreeable.
This is the formula for a ‘good migrant’ in Australia: you are amenable, you don’t complain, you work hard — and someday, people might not throw up in your taxi.
Being nice has never landed me in trouble. Except for two occasions:
Once, in uni, I accidentally agreed to host a friend of a friend from debating club at my relative’s house… in Iran. It took me weeks to tell him my extended family maaaybe wouldn’t be down with it. After he bought his ticket.
And the second time was recently, in lockdown.
It was during the early stages of coronavirus encroaching on Australia, somewhere between the initial panic sourdough starter phase… and the current freefall we’re in where time is meaningless. The weeks were still crawling into autumn. My world had become a series of small boxes: a computer screen, a studio apartment, a book.
It all starts with a woman called Maya. That’s not her real name. And no, it’s not that kind of queerstory. Sorry. Although by the end of it, I will get fucked around.
Maya lived in the apartment directly below, and when she knocked on my door, she looked flustered.
She was the first person I’d spoken to in the building for a month, apart from my girlfriend, Tacita.
Maya explained her roof was leaking.
“There’s water just gushing down,” she said. “It’s caused a short-circuit with the lights!”
Then she asked to look in our bathroom, and even when I said, “I’m sorry I haven’t noticed any leaks, are you sure it’s coming from us?” She walked in anyway.
“This whole place floods all the time,” she scanned the bathroom, taking photos on her phone. “It’s the grout in the tiling. Most of the bathrooms have been redone, but yours…” her eyes narrowed.
I was a little taken aback, but I felt sorry for her. After all, her apartment was flooding and she had possibly just been electrocuted.
So it didn’t register as weird when she asked me if I’d had a shower that day. I told her yes, and from that moment, she was convinced our shower was the source of the leak into her apartment below.
She gave me a stern warning not to shower again, took down my number in her phone, nodded, and left.
I didn’t shower for a day, for Maya’s sake, as her messages rapidly took on an alarming sense of urgency.
12.45: Hi it’s Maya again… just checking in
1:14: Still getting some leaking. Have you showered smiling emoji question mark
3:08: I hope ur agent has agreed to put u somewhere nice exclamation mark
3:11: Hi Farz just wondering if ur getting my messages multiple question marks
With little else other than work and food to focus on for weeks, Maya’s messages were the perfect distraction. She became a sort of lifeline to another reality: a world where non-pandemic concerns still existed. A world where it was still possible to harbour a grudge or foster a nemesis. I stopped worrying about my family interstate and overseas, or whether I’d still have a job in five months… I was focused only on this.
And it continued. The day after I first met Maya, there was another knock at the door. She’d called the Strata plumber.
His name was Jack, and he was youngish, holding a toolbox and wearing khaki shorts and boots.
When he came in, he immediately started hacking his way through the bathroom wall with a hammer to try and find the source of the leak.
By the time he heard me yelling, “IS EVERYTHING OK?”… there was a hole the size of a pangolin below the sink.
“What did you say?” Jack smiled, as though nothing was happening. “I’ve got hearing aids, I didn’t catch you.”
At this point, I remembered I was a tenant and not the owner of this apartment, and that maybe the owner would want to know what was going on, so I texted our real estate agent, Mike, a photo.
He called me.
“Why would you LET SOMEONE INTO THE APARTMENT?” he yelled.
I tried to explain, but Mike’s barely-restrained anger had me stuttering in half-sentences. “Wh.. what do you mean?” I said. “He’s the Strata plumber. Plus it was an emergency.”
What then ensued can only be described as a Larry David-style comedy of errors: on the one hand, Mike was yelling at me on the phone — on the other, Jack was continuing to hack a hole in a bathroom I didn’t own. Things got worse when Mike asked to speak to the plumber directly — but Jack explained that because of his hearing aids, he couldn’t understand strangers on the phone properly and so *politely* declined the invitation.
So I rested the phone against the bathroom mirror and put Mike on loudspeaker and started to translate the exchange.
“BLOODY HELL WHY DID YOU HAMMER THAT FUCKING WALL?” became “The agent’s just asking why you hammered through the wall.”
“I’M GOING TO FUCKING CALL THE COPS ON YOU” became… “You might need to consider leaving soon.”
Jack’s hand was halfway through the wall, there was tiling and dust all over the floor, I was sweaty, I hadn’t showered, I had Maya texting me, and it wasn’t until about an hour of this that Mike calmed down a little, and stopped threatening to call the cops.
“I was trying to do the right thing,” I said to him.
“I was just trying to be nice.”
“Nice?” he said. “This is what you get for being nice.”
After Jack took his tools and walked out, leaving a tarp-covered hole in our bathroom, I was still getting messages from people in the building who somehow had my number now.
Hi this is Karl from 15, I’m on level 2 below Maya. Winky face. I’m still getting a leak, any word? Smiley face, bath emoji
Ordinarily, I’d write back straight away. I am, after all, a Nice Girl. But Mike’s words were still ringing in my ears. I tossed around in bed like a sweaty hog, thinking about what happened over and over.
Why had I let little Jack inside? Was I too nice? If I thought hard about it, it was pretty obvious I was completely clueless about the legal relationship between landlords, real estate agents, and an apartment’s governing Strata body. And I hadn’t wanted to make a fuss. Call our agent… after hours?
I’d tried to do the right thing, and accommodate everyone, but I’d ended up making no-one happy. Mike thought I was an idiot. Jack was mad at me for not letting him do his job. Maya thought it was all my fault for showering. Karl was… Karl.
The whole saga — which only ended weeks later, after a different plumber found a different leak in a different part of the apartment — taught me more than basic tenancy laws.
[serious voice]: I’ve realised … what we need now, more than ever, is kindness.
[laughs] I can’t leave you with that, although I did think about it. But it’s dishonest. And I’m not gay Oprah. I mean, I’m not saying being nice to one another is wrong. And if I had to do it all again — and let’s face it, given the state of our building’s pipes — I probably will, I’d still try and save my neighbour from flooding. But it’s taken me 30 years to realise I don’t need to carry this Nice Girl Energy around with me like a protective shield. And if I’d spent more time asserting myself around real friends rather than playing with sewing kits, I probably would have come to that conclusion earlier. I guess I have the pandemic to thank for something.
Thanks for listening.
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