The Spatial Dynamics of ‘Cat Person’

Friday, September 9, 2022

Most of the ongoing debate around Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story “Cat Person,” published in The New Yorker in December 2017, focuses on character motivations, unreliability, consent, and misogyny in literature, the nebulous Venn diagram of fiction and creative nonfiction, and the ethical repercussions of copy-pasting telling details about a person who might (and did) read the work in question. However, while it’s convenient to categorize “Cat Person” as a study in character, the entire narrative becomes more telling—and perhaps more sinister—if considered through its various central settings and spatial dimensions.

“Cat Person” begins with University of Michigan sophomore and Michigan Theater employee, Margot, selling Red Vines to Robert, an older man whose age remains ambiguous for most of the story. The story’s concrete locations are never explicitly given, other than the Quality 16 movie theater later, but the knowing reader (e.g., me, a townie) can easily identify the landmarks of Ann Arbor, where the author lived when this work was published and completed her MFA. Margot and Robert’s first conversation is literally transactional. Margot opines, “I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before.” It’s an offhand comment, but Margot has been conditioned to flirt with customers from a previous job. She understands this rigmarole, i.e., making polite conversation, in terms of its pecuniary benefits:

“Flirting with her customers was a habit she’d picked up back when she worked as a barista, and it helped with tips. She didn’t earn tips at the movie theatre, but the job was boring otherwise, and she did think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class.”

Margot’s initial attraction to Robert is primarily situational, a throwaway interaction in isolation, but not harmless. It’s only innocent flirting as a one-time occurrence, and, even then, only because Margot initiates it. But Robert returns a week later for more Red Vines and another movie, after which he asks Margot for her phone number. Regardless of whether they share mutual burgeoning interest, Robert’s sole approach for maintaining his flirtation with Margot over time is to corner her at her job, where she is guaranteed to frequently be, likely on a regular schedule Robert has already been able to infer.

It’s not so bad in the beginning. Margot and Robert begin a lengthy rapport via text messages and their shared affection blossoms in the safety of this manufactured forum. It’s easy to be clever and charming over text, to develop a sense of trust and security not marred by the uncomfortable and unpredictable realities of meeting face to face. “Cat Person” is one of the first stories I’ve read that employs text messages with emotional accuracy that goes well beyond plot device. Here, texting helps Robert (and Margot too) develop a facade of personality and affection. Sometimes designated a touchstone story about the ails of modern dating, “Cat Person” begins to offer signs that things will go awry in this interim of friendly distance. From afar, Margot and Robert’s relationship remains ostensibly positive behind the curtain of technology. But if Margot was not forced to make the quick decision to offer her contact information during work hours, perhaps she never would have given Robert a chance at all. In some ways, the entire narrative arc of “Cat Person” hinges on how young women are conditioned to present themselves as socially and sexually available in hospitality and service industries, particularly for an older, financially secure clientele, especially in an expensive midwestern college town full of students, half of whom are doing everything they can to not get priced out and the other half who will never have to pay for a damn thing. This is to say, asking “concession-stand girl” for her number while she is behind the counter is never an entirely innocuous or naïve decision. Only a few paragraphs into this story, Robert has already revealed something potentially compromising about his character. He immediately exploits Margot’s obligation to be in a set place at a designated time all while having to maintain an air of professionalism. Similarly, Margot and Robert’s next in-person encounter is—on some level—transactional.

“Then, one night during reading period, she was complaining about how all the dining halls were closed and there was no food in her room because her roommate had raided her care package, and he offered to buy her some Red Vines to sustain her. At first, she deflected this with another joke, because she really did have to study, but he said, ‘No, I’m serious, stop fooling around and come now,’ so she put a jacket over her pajamas and met him at the 7-Eleven.”

Robert, who (let’s get to the point) is thirty-four years old, courts her company once again through situational necessity. Margot is a hungry student, likely without much disposable income (though later details make this debatable), who is being offered free food. Margot even says, “Thank you for my presents,” but the snacks are not literal gifts so much as a convenient meal option in exchange for spending time with Robert—on which he is insistent—until the dining hall reopens Monday morning.

To be clear, at this juncture, before all that happens next, I can still theoretically understand Robert’s side of the story, even if he is terse and oblivious and somewhat unlikable. Love comes in many shapes, and the age gap shouldn’t be judged on its own. Moreover, the problematic power dynamic does not tacitly stem from the fourteen years between them. It would be harmful to discount on age alone the early possibility that these two could have a healthy, sustainable relationship, even with the abundance of red flags. But it’s on the never-ending date that serves as the central scene of “Cat Person” where Robert (in my mind) controls Margot’s movements in numerous pernicious ways that pivot from socially awkward to calculated and predatory.

Before that date, there’s an illusion of maintaining a long-distance relationship over Christmas break (this is an important breadcrumb for later). Margot returns to her parents’ house in Saline, which is less than a 15-minute drive from campus down a single, well-maintained road. Many people have longer commutes to get to the closest grocery store. During this brief interlude, Margot and Robert are texting “non-stop,” but it wouldn’t be difficult for them to see one another. By the time Margot returns to her dorm, she’s ready to see Robert again, but he avoids her so that “it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie she agreed right away.”

The date is a sequence of cringey moments both parties seem fully aware of but never course correct. Margot elects to go to the “big multiplex just outside town” instead of her workplace—to avoid coworkers and anyone else she might know—but it is Robert who steers the direction of the evening through a series of small but significantly consequential manipulations. Robert has a car, so he drives them, creating the first scenario in which they’ve been forced to share a private space. Weeks of communication have led to this moment, but all through the safety net of phone screens. Now that barrier is gone, resulting in Margot suddenly remembering that being trapped with a relatively strange man in a moving vehicle is a potential source of danger. It’s the first of several occasions throughout the evening that she wonders if Robert could be capable of raping and murdering her.

In an interview with American Short Fiction, Danielle Evans notes, “the anxiety of being in a space where something is happening and you can’t get away from it eats at the characters, or drives them to dramatic action…Knowing whether the character wants a door open or shut can tell me a lot.” Margot’s interiority makes it crystal clear she already feels trapped and helpless. What’s running through her head tells us a lot. She wants the door open in case a quick escape is necessary.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to murder you,” Robert says after Margot has already thought of it. Even now, we’re supposed to appreciate this as their shared brand of quirky humor, and without Robert’s interiority we have no idea what he is actually thinking, but this is an early cue in the night that Robert is not only fully aware he holds the power, but is also cognizant he could use it to cause immense harm. The movie portion of the date—we later find out they saw a depressing film about the Holocaust, whereas Margot wanted something lighthearted—is covered in a couple efficient sentences. Robert embarrasses Margot with a joke about Red Vines at the concessions stand, they watch in silence, and then return to the parking lot in the course of a split paragraph.

For most, this many uncomfortable moments might be enough to call it a night. Instead, in a short stint of dialogue rife with subtle gaslighting, Robert asks Margot if she wants to get a drink then makes it sound like her idea. Interspersed with backstory, this brief exchange causes Margot to spiral into self-doubt. Robert’s casual negging and frustrations result in Margot worrying that she’s not giving him enough of a chance. Of course, Robert remains the one with the car, and so no matter whether Margot is convinced to grab a drink or decides to go home, he remains her most convenient and affordable ride.

Robert’s ability to decide where he takes her next becomes immediately significant. “When he asked her where she wanted to go for a drink, she named the place where she usually hung out, but he made a face and said that it was in the student ghetto and he’d take her somewhere better.” At this point, there’s no sure sign Robert knows Margot’s exact age, but with the amount they’ve been talking it’s frankly ridiculous that he would not consider the possibility she can’t legally drink. He knows she is a sophomore in college. He knows she lives in a dormitory. Margot’s suggested drinking establishment isn’t coming from a place of preference, but rather it’s one of her few options. There are bars she can get into and those she can’t. In Ann Arbor, like most college towns, it’s fairly common knowledge who will check your ID at the door and how much scrutiny it will be under. I’m hesitant to even suggest Robert could be so oblivious as to not take this all into consideration. More likely, he is intentionally placing her in an uncomfortable scenario that reinforces his control over her. They go to a pretentious speakeasy (easily identifiable as The Last Word, for the locals) where Margot is bounced for being underage. Robert thus comes to her rescue while simultaneously humiliating her. It almost feels rehearsed. She cries and he comforts her and somehow this moment of kindness rekindles the evening. They share a terrible kiss before ducking out to another bar where Margot can sneak in without being carded.

After enduring all of that, it’s easy to understand why Margot downs three beers and tries to rally, so that by the end of the night it is in fact she who asks, “Should we get out of here, then?” There’s a direct conversation in which Robert acknowledges Margot is drunk before they make out in his car. He proposes going to her place but knows she lives in the dorms and thus doesn’t have privacy. It’s a hollow suggestion, one he once again uses to make transparent his control over the situation. Robert has to have known since Margot first hopped in his car that there was a possibility of returning to his house together. He takes her there even though he’s been watching her get buzzed. One of the biggest challenges presented by “Cat Person,” and one of the reasons for so much debate and frenzy, is that without access to Robert’s interiority there’s no way of knowing whether he is a bitter misogynist or a pretentious hipster bro who does not recognize the extent of his toxic patterns, at least for now, though the final scene offers concrete evidence he veers closer to the former (we’ll get there).

Margot assesses Robert’s house and while she is happy with the main room worries that the others might be “empty, or full of horrors: corpses or kidnap victims or chains.” The moment they are truly alone, her fear returns once again. The bedroom is relatively bare. The cat is nowhere to be found. The sex scene is lengthy and, at times, agonizing in its discomfiting detail, especially since Margot’s internal monologue guides us through the experience.

“During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head.”

Afterward, Margot, feeling intense regret and humiliation, pretends to sleep while they watch a movie. Robert confesses that he imagined her hooking up with someone else while she was gone over break, but again, the distance during this interregnum was manufactured, and the whole subplot he’s allowed to play out in his head reveals the depths of his insecurity. Margot finally asks Robert his age and then to take her home, but is met with derision and an offer for scrambled eggs, the breakfast trope rendered that much more cliché and grotesque after watching the slow-mo train-wreck of an evening. On the drive back to her dorm, Margot once again imagines Robert murdering her. The incessant nature of this fear is crucial to understanding Margot’s sense of vulnerability and relative lack of agency throughout the evening. By now, she has imagined Robert murdering her on three occasions: when first driving with him, when first entering his house, and on the ride home. She feels the acute threat of violence throughout the entirety of the night: beginning, middle, and end.

For a while, Margot ghosts Robert, until eventually her roommate steals her phone to text that there’s no future between them. Robert’s response is surprisingly understanding for what we know about him; however, it’s the final scene in “Cat Person” that reveals who Robert really is and the extent of his lingering malice.

“But then, a month later, she saw him in the bar—her bar, the one in the student ghetto, where, on their date, she’d suggested they go. He was alone, at a table in the back, and he wasn’t reading or looking at his phone; he was just sitting there silently, hunched over a beer.”

It’s no accident Robert is there, a place he has already implied is beneath him—“student ghetto” is not exactly a neutral term—alone nonetheless, waiting for Margot to arrive. This calculated invasion of Margot’s space—to go to a place he deplores in hopes of forcing her to engage with him—alters the entire perception of their night together. There’s no way of knowing how many times Robert has sat alone biding his time for this confrontation.

This leads to one of the most memorable spatial movements in the story, as well as a moment of brief comic relief:

“When Margot announced that Robert was there, everyone erupted in astonishment, and then they surrounded her and hustled her out of the bar as if she were the President and they were the Secret Service. It was all so over-the-top that she wondered if she was acting like a mean girl, but, at the same time, she truly did feel sick and scared.”

The story concludes with Robert sending an increasingly insulting and violent string of text messages, ending with a one-word note—“Whore.” His earlier toxic masculine tendencies can no longer be seen as incidental; instead, they reveal an alarming pattern of misogynistic behavior, and one can now imagine the earlier snippets of dialogue inspired by angry men in chatrooms and bad porn, the casual insults he flings at Margot as pick-up artist mantras, and that the never-seen cats might even be of Robert’s invention, with the goal of making him more relatable and trustworthy.

Trying to decide whether or not one or both of these central characters are in the wrong is an oversimplified (and dangerous) reading. Instead, it’s imperative to consider the dramatically disparate considerations Margot must take into account for her own wellbeing and safety. Robert impairs Margot’s ability to make thoughtful momentary decisions in public and private spaces. After severing the relationship, Margot is forced to endure Robert’s violence through the lingering technological connection, even though the distance provided via that connection once offered security. Both characters can be emotionally manipulative and capable of making bad decisions, but it’s solely Margot who suffers broader societal constraints designed to control women, and it is only her spaces—her bar and her phone—that are involuntarily invaded after trying to move on.