About a year into dating, he told her his theory over dinner. He said it was a truth universally acknowledged, that in every relationship one person was the cat and the other was the dog.
Here’s how you know you’re the dog: You sing along to the radio. You watch action movies starring what’s-his-name. You don’t complain when the waiter forgets the mayo. You had a job in service once. On sunny days, you say, “Let’s get outside and enjoy the great weather!” You like tough mudders. And board games. And Christmas. You’re the dog when you talk about that podcast you just heard. When you want to cuddle. When you’re grateful. When you say, “Call me when you land.” If you’re the dog, you go in on the group gift. You RSVP. You get caught love-staring. Then get embarrassed. You’re the dog because you laugh at bad jokes just to be nice. Because you called somebody your partner. Because you told them about your dreams.
“But that’s not me,” the man said, arching back in his chair. “I’ve always been the cat.”
The thing about cats is they don’t care about birthdays. Or anniversaries. They don’t like surprises. Cats only laugh when something is actually funny. They read the news without telling you they read the news. Cats aren’t afraid to send their meals back, and they don’t order dessert. They drink their coffee black and never tip more than 15 percent. Cats don’t like summer or 5Ks, and they don’t need to talk about it. They say goodbye and don’t look back one last time. Cats understand art and don’t believe in horoscopes. They worry about climate change, though, and aren’t sure about procreating. At night, cats wear earplugs to bed. They never take baths. They hang up first and say I love you second. Cats don’t like holding hands. Cats are misunderstood.
“It’s not an exact science,” the man said, “but you’re always slightly more one than the other.”
“So which one am I?” the woman asked, even though she already knew. She licked a shard of crème brûlée from the corner of her mouth and waited for his answer.
“You’re the dog,” he said. “Definitely the dog.”
“But can’t there be two dogs in a relationship? Or two cats?”
He conceded that, sometimes, in the early dating phase, the chase could make things blurry. But once two people settled into a relationship – “the way we have” – it became clear who was what.
She wasn’t sure she liked being somebody’s dog, but she had to admit this new line of logic made it easier to get through the day-to-day. It became one of those shorthand things couples have, like pet names or words for sex positions; it united them in their view of the world.
“Should I tell her we can’t make it?” he’d ask about another couple’s invite to a barbecue.
“Tell him,” she’d say. “He’s the dog.”
When she was negotiating her salary with one feline boss, she asked him for advice.
“Don’t reply back for a few hours,” he said. “Cats love that.”
The more they used this secret language, the more she saw the whole world as cats and dogs. She was a cat to her mom, who called too often. And a dog to her best friend Rachel, who had been cooler ever since she got plucked up to join a sorority freshman year. She was a cat to her coworker Sarah who was always down to grab lunch. And a dog to her father, who still made her feel, all these years later, like a kid he was too tired to play with at the end of the work day.
“What about your parents?” she asked her cat.
His dad was a dog who fixed bikes for the whole neighborhood. His mom was a cat who ate a tuna fish salad every day for lunch and had never actually said the words “I love you” to her son.
“My mom’s the ultimate cat,” he said.
“So are you the dog to her cat?”
“No, I’m still a cat.”
“But doesn’t that break the rule?” she asked. “You and your mom both being cats to each other?”
“You’re overthinking this one,” he said, which was such a cat thing to say. Then he said he wanted to change the subject. Then he needed some alone time. He could be pretty catty.
Sometimes she envied her friends who’d partnered up with dogs. Dogs bought you flowers for no reason. They remembered your sister’s birthday. They asked about your day. He didn’t do those things, but she tried not to let it get to her. She’d fallen in love with a cat, and she had to accept him for who he was. You couldn’t just go around expecting people to change their ways.
They’d been together for about five years, when, one Saturday morning, she was cleaning the bathroom. Her hands were cakey and pruney from all that Clorox, and she had a brief scare that this might affect her fertility, not that they were at that point. He had told her he wasn’t ready, and she was willing to wait. He was upstairs, in his study, when she called up to him, saying, “I’m going for a walk to get some fresh air!” She didn’t expect that he would want to join her.
He wasn’t outside for long, though. He got to the point. Said he’d met someone. And on and on.
“I want to know one thing,” she said, standing up straight. “Who’s the dog?”
He looked stunned. “What kind of question is that?”
“Tell me,” she said, showing her claws.
“Jesus!” He liked getting Jesus involved when he felt guilty.
“Who’s the dog?” She bared her canines. He trembled in front of her.
“Please don’t do this.” He was droopy and puddle-eyed like she’d never seen him before.
“Now,” she barked. “I need to know.
“I’m the dog.” He stared at his feet, as if that would hide the mess he’d made. And despite all she’d felt while questioning him, his answer flattened her. She couldn’t hear his moaning, which was more vindication than apology. It was a nightmare, imagining him bringing somebody a cup of coffee. Folding somebody’s delicates. Waiting for the right moment to cuddle up to somebody. Worrying this somebody might slink away. And that was only the beginning. How far would it go? Dogs got down on one knee. And cut up oranges for the soccer game. They made blueberry muffins for the back-to-school breakfast. They wanted to grow old together.
The man and woman stared at each other. An ice cream truck went by, but they didn’t chase it. Two dogs who weren’t each other’s dogs. Who never were. Who never would be. Who never could be.
Well, the only thing she could do now was to get her own dog. A real dog. Then, she had to get a therapist. And get her aura read. Get some hobbies, horseback-riding and ceramics. Then get a box and fill it up with all his cat stuff. Get a new apartment. Get drunk. Get high. Get laid. Get lost. Get out of town. Get around to making that dating profile. Get set up. Get let down.
And when getting didn’t work, she tried giving. Giving too much thought to the people in her life, who was a dog and who was a cat. Giving her friends the creeps when she classified them. Giving up on the love reversal spells. On the call that wouldn’t come. On the therapist who said, “Why cats and dogs? Why can’t people be people?” Giving in to the urge to call him just once to talk to someone who understood the world her way. Which was first his way. And then their way. And still her way, even with him gone. But when the phone rang and rang, she had to give up for good. She gave up on whole cities. An entire religion. A language she’d never speak again. A belief system ground into dust, because that’s always the last thing to go.
But eventually it did go. Or she did, out into the world, to find out what she would be next.