Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories.
This episode was recorded in partnership with Byron Writers Festival. I was meant to be hosting a live event up north but due to Covid restrictions that obviously couldn’t happen. However, with support from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, we recorded a very special Byron Writers Festival Queerstories podcast. And you can enjoy the whole thing as part of their Conversations From Byron series at byronwritersfestival.com or you can listen to the stories one at a time here.
Sally Rugg is an LGBTIQ rights activist, writer and public speaker. She is executive director at change.org, and was previously campaign director at GetUp where she led the campaign for marriage equality. She wrote How Powerful We Are, her first book, about that campaign, and you can order it online or from your local independent bookseller.
Just as we were warned from the screeches from late-night cable television talk shows, the stutters of far-right Senate motions defeated, and the leaflets lobbed into letterboxes during the horror show that was 2017, I have fallen in love.
With the cat.
I love her.
I love her.
How did she get such a soft fluffy belly, I sing across the living room. A big stretch? How did you get so long? I love her little pink paws and her funny tail with the white tip. It matches your white chin!
I love the little black dots on the tip of her perfect nose, and I love pulling back her lips so I can get a glimpse of those teeny tiny teeth. I love how she gets winky when she’s sleepy. And how she tucks her paws away in a secret underneath her body when she’s resting like a loaf of bread. Where are your arms?
‘She’s a girl,’ I correct each person we talked to over Zoom. Yes, her name is Henry Beans – Beans for short – and yes, she is a beautifully handsome ginger cat, and ginger cats are almost always boys. But Beans is a girl and not because of her surprise vagina discovered by the vet at her first visit. We would not assign Beans a gender, and indeed I believe many if not all pets are genderqueer. But because Beans is a lady.
If you could see the way she extends her leg, toes splayed and claws extended, to lick clean her undercarriage, you would see that Beans is a lady.
If you could see the way she prowls on her toes, her primordial pouch, belly swinging beneath her, and her white-tipped tail, swishing the air, you would agree Beans is a lady.
You may not move if Beans has drifted into a slumber upon your lap, lest you disturb her rest, for Beans is a lady and will not be startled.
Do not place your beastly hands upon Beansie’s tail. She will now have to clean it for hours.
Beans is a lady.
Until it approaches dinnertime. She then becomes a Dickensian street urchin wailing for her supper. Unlov’ed! Neglected! Never given a morsel in her poor lonely existence!
Beans is an orphan.
Don’t listen, Beans, your mommies are here!
My partner Kate found her on the side of the road one rainy winter’s evening about 9 years ago. A teeny tiny baby covered in fleas, gunk in her eyes, too little to be outside in the rain all alone. Abandonment!
Kate took her home and fed her years before she and I met. Kate, I mean. A time when I never knew, really, what it was to be in desperate, insatiable love.
Until I met Beans, I mean.
Growing up, I had a cat called Tibbles. She was black and white and once scratched me across my face when I was a preschooler. I am certain I deserved it.
My mum had a cat called Lucy who I took to the vet to be put down. She was very sick, and the vet recommended that outcome, which is fortunate for the story, and unfortunate for Lucy.
I’ve never really liked cats. That’s not why I took Lucy to be put down. It just felt like something I had the capacity to take off my poor mother’s plate so she could say goodbye to the cat at home and I could do the awful vet thing. I just— I never really found an entry point with cats. Can’t take a cat to the beach or to a beer garden pub.
There are no videos on YouTube to make myself cry of cats feeling excited that their owner has returned from war. No cat has ever smiled at me from another car window at the traffic lights or run to greet me in the doorway of a friend’s house so it can torpedo its nose into my crotch.
Just kidding: a dog’s nose is one of my least favourite things in my crotch. And why does it always happen in front of people you just met and really wanna impress? Like, I understand that dogs’ noses are hypersensitive and we should never feel ashamed of our bodies’ naturally occurring and beautiful smells, but like come on, I’ve literally just walked into this person’s house and now their parents know I have a vagina!
But Beans, Beans would never sniff my vagina.
Does she know that I love her?
Does she love me? One night, Kate enters the bedroom and I quickly hide my phone as if I was busted looking at porn and as if that was something that I would need to hide from her. I wasn’t looking at anything. Nothing. She ignores me, for I am odd.
But later that night, when we’re lying in bed together, I absentmindedly open my phone and the website. It’s there, its title, a fluorescent beacon laser beaming into our eyes in the dark. It reads, ‘Does your cat really love you?’
‘Honey, I told you,’ Kate, animal expert and devotee repeats to me.
‘She doesn’t love you. She doesn’t love anybody. She needs you to feed her so her animal behaviour might appear to you like love, but she does not feel love. That is anthropomorphism, and it serves no utility to animals. She is a cat, and your lap is warm.’
Is it true, Beans?
Do you not love me?
I’m almost certainly projecting from Beans upon myself and from myself unto Beans.
I have barely left the house since the 12th of March and the waggy-tailed love and affection I’m so accustomed to thrusting upon my friends like an unexpected nose into a crotch has been long left unthrusted. Like the unloading of a cis het man who can afford a therapist but instead chooses to wait until you’re stuck next to him at a party because girls are such good listeners, I have emotionally ejaculated my heart and soul and neediness onto Beans the cat.
‘Should we set up a time to Zoom your sister? Or maybe Bec Shaw?’ Kate asks me, noticing my social soul collapsing in on itself.
But I don’t want another screen.
I don’t have the energy to talk anymore.
I just want to hold the cat until she falls asleep in my arms and starts twitching, dreaming of chasing the mice she fears in her waking life.
‘Rrrrwoww’, she wails to me at dinner time. Starved and tortured Beans paws at my arm. I’m starved of the touch of friends and it feels like love.
And that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?
Yearning for love.
Young women are warned that unless we find a husband before we’re 30, we risk a slow descent into becoming a crazy cat lady. Those conservative misogynists were right again. I am 31 and will nary a husband find and it has happened to me already.
Why is it cats get to us?
Perhaps you are listening to me speak and thinking, ‘I hate cats. They’re so aloof and mean’. But I need you to know I used to be like you and it can happen to you. You think you are a well-adjusted woman and then wham, you’re alone in your home in the middle of the day with the cat slung upon your shoulders like a dance partner, and you’re dancing, eyes closed, to the sound of your own voice singing ‘Beans, oh Beans, oh Beans oh Bee-ee-eans’ [to the tune of ‘Jolene’].
And there is something about women and cats, particularly odd women and cats, and I am allowed to say this because, as I have indicated, I am odd.
I know nothing about pop culture, learning just last week that Kevin Bacon is an actor and not a funny unit of measurement about global population growth or something. But even I know fondness for an abundance of cats is used time and time again in pop culture as a big red flag warning of a woman who is repulsive to men and crazy.
Indeed, between the 16th and the 17th centuries in England, an estimated 40,000 women were burnt at the stake, accused of being witches by their country’s judiciary. An analysis of the legal records of 200 trials during this period – because let’s make sure these ladies are given a fair hearing before we set them alight – showed that cats were so favoured as companions of women accused of being witches, that their presence beside odd women was ruled by the courts as an incriminating indication of witchcraft in and of itself.
Dogs are a man’s best friend, but cats, cats are a crazy lady’s making and undoing.
During this lockdown, I am a crazy lady. During this lockdown, like most others, I leave the house to go to the supermarket, the bottle shop, or to the chemist. And while I am there, I give zero hugs and receive zero social interactions beyond Narelle from Dan Murphy’s telling me I should really get a loyalty card from how frequently I’m buying more gin.
I can’t keep track of a card, Narelle. I lost my bank card two years ago and simply never replaced it because I cannot be responsible for a small plastic rectangle, Narelle.
Here in Melbourne, we are also allowed to go for short walks within our neighbourhood, so Kate obviously bought a cat backpack. Now when I say cat backpack, I don’t mean a bag with a leopard print. I mean a backpack for carrying Beans in for when we go for our family walks.
Kate too is a crazy cat lady. Beans has grown used to the carrier bag, preferring us to wear it on our fronts like we are attachment-parenting a baby, and in a way we are.
Neighbours and passersby stare at us in bewilderment and amusement. Our five-year-old shrieking in laughter ‘Beans, Beans, Beans’ as if she’s very excited about legumes.
I suppose even though we’re suffering a pandemic, it’s fortunate that we’re not living in Salem – our little family of witches.
Our days blend together as we remain in our house and before we know it, it’s August.
Beans doesn’t know this, though. Beans doesn’t give a fuck.
Through the highs and lows, the triumphs and the terror, this little orange ball of fur could not care less. She knows nothing of the curve. She has never heard of the virus.
She’s unbothered whether kindergarten will go back in Term 3 or not, disinterested during the Daily Dan – everyday’s 11am press conference with the Premier. She does not miss her friends. She does not care that the lady at Dan Murphy’s knows my name because we’re drinking every night, or that I long to hug strangers in the supermarket and chemist. She does not care.
Maybe she doesn’t even love me.
But I think she does. [Sound of purring]
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