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Non-intimacy issues

The first night of the cat being in the house, everyone slept with their bedroom doors open. It might have been the first time my family had been that intimate, but our household dynamic had been unsettled. There was a kitten to accommodate, and I think we were hoping that leaving our rooms open would entice her to enter sometime during the night, jumping onto our beds like an animal familiar, choosing one of us for a quest we had been waiting all our lives. She didn’t – she was too small and scared to leave the soft bed my parents hastily bought on the way back from picking them up from a surprise box of new litters – but the next night the doors were still open. It was a roundabout, passive-aggressive way of saying to kitty, “choose me, I have love to offer.”

As a family, we weren't big on verbal intimacy. My parents apologised by discontinuing the conversation and pretending like we didn't have a disagreement an hour ago. The last time I hugged my siblings was when my little brother was a baby, and I cradled him to my toddler-self like he was my own. Nowadays, we share our days in versions of condensed humour. Each topic is discussed under timed conditions, like we were reading tweets to each other. Otherwise, it would get too personal, and we didn't have a precedent on how to navigate those emotions. The best part about this roundabout relationship was that we don't fight. But we also don't cry together. Vulnerability was a foreign language and we were all too old to bother to learn it. This sort of relationship made coming out to my siblings feel like another everyday aside.

Enter ME, visibly nonchalant but internally shaking, a storm approaching. After a decade of non-stop gushing about boys and boys and boys again, this felt worse than confessing a rejection.

ME (aside): Hey, I'm hanging out with my girlfriend on Saturday.

THEM (without batting an eyelid): Cool.

Exeunt both.

It was monumental. I could hear the orchestra swelling in the background, the timpani hammering along with my heartbeat. Between them and I was an identity I had built up over a decade crumbling onto the kitchen tiles. But it was over in seconds, and suddenly we were bantering over who knows what, except now they made masked references to the girl I was ditching class for.

My parents on the other hand were devout conservatives with a habit of internalising right-wing politics as mantra. Talking to them was no different to performing or playing a swift but nonetheless careful game of minesweeper. It wasn't like the blasé ambience of being around my brothers. It was a tense exchange of snippets of our lives that was enough draw an outline without the incriminating details. We fought only when I finally showed some colour, or changed the pattern, but then our home life would hit a mine I should’ve seen coming and everyone would make the eyes-crossed-out emoji, and the game would restart again the next day.

The cat, though, was the family member we were most intimate with.

However, there were consequences to opening all the bedroom doors in the house all at once.

Here’s the thing about raising cats: they communicate in their own secret body language and expect you to be immediately fluent. Tail up means happy! They will approach and circle your legs but if you bend down to touch, they will run away. Ears back means tentative; approach slowly, but only if you have snacks to offer. Crouched down with blown-out pupils? Do not approach, or they will run and hide under the couch which they know they’re too big for. Eventually, we become capable of navigating this foreign territory and it’s as if we’ve become cat whisperers – although it’s much simpler than that. We come to understand because we pay attention, because we recognise and remember the patterns.

The night before I went to the city to stop my girlfriend from leaving me, I had my door open as my kitten padded through with her tail straight up, chirping for attention. Hello! She was telling me, I’m happy to see you!

My brother followed her path, trying to see if he could grab a cuddle too.

“I’m going out on a date tomorrow,” I remember throwing out into the room. I was busy giving the cat a well-deserved belly rub, too drunk on happiness that I forgot to close the door or lower my voice. My brother too was busy trying to get a share of the joy, nodding along and not commenting much about it. This was normal. He asked what we were going to do, I replied “trying to save my relationship.”

“Rip,” he sounded out. “Have fun lol.” And this was normal too. I was comforted by it, because I knew by the way he winced, also having recently survived a break up, that he hoped I got the better end of it. In our own body language, we sung compassion. Him laying on my bedroom floor, sharing the same space and the same silence, was an unsound solidarity.

It was the easiest thing to keep this secret from my parents because we didn’t talk about anything to begin with. But silence amplifies even the smallest of noises, and I never expected that, in the middle of an argument about how I couldn’t properly communicate my feelings, I would get a text from my mother about her knowing everything.

I had been going back and forth to her about what time I was getting home, and within the conversation I told her I was out with a girl space-in-the-middle friend. It was a half-truth, which I realised then was worse than an outright lie because you get a bit of yourselves caught up in it.

You know I don’t, and never will, tolerate it.

What the hell was she talking about? And then it hit me, and I couldn’t believe that I had convinced myself my parents were that stupid. The atmosphere in the house had been palpably tense after same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia, and they were upset that their door-to-door advocacy about the dangers of the gay agenda hadn’t gotten through to the neighbourhood. Even worse, it hadn’t gotten through to their own children, who sat in hostile quietude whenever politics came up and they took control of the conversation.

My door had been open last night, and I was careless enough to be intimate. I was too distracted by my secret relationship that I forgot to lie. The truth was I was tired of lying. I wished that love wasn’t political, but I had been wishing that for a while and I was old enough to know that wishes get swallowed up by reality.

I looked at the text. Really looked at it, and what it meant. I thought I didn’t have a home anymore, so I called my brother. For the first time, I hated that he answered with absolute nonchalance.

The house sounded quiet through the receiver. It was always quiet, but the terror which overtook me made it feel uneasy. I asked him why mum thought I was out on date with a girl (why did she know the truth). He sounded like he just woke up from a nap, groggy and slow, and asked me what I meant. Nothing was wrong, mum was completely fine.

But the text burned a hole into the very ground I stood on. She knows, I screamed.

“No, she doesn’t,” he said. “She believes it when you say you’re just out with a friend.” And when I got home, everything was fine. My cat greeted me at the front door, tail up, and my dad asked about my day. My mum was concentrated on the TV and hummed when I announced my entrance. It had been a bay day for her and anger sent her assuming things that were wildly impossible, I predicted, and I was too scared to bring it up for confirmation.

It was like the text had never been sent. It washed over our relationship like the tide, and just as quickly was sucked back into the sea.

Now, I’m the only one in the house that keeps my door open. One by one everyone had closed their doors to the nocturnal wanderer that is the cat, but I relented because feeling of being the chosen one still hit like the first time she entered my room. I could recognise when she needed company, and in some human solipsistic way I think she knows when I want it too. Whenever I’m engaging in the truth of my identity, somewhere in the back of my mind I think back to the text, and I’m struck with fear all over again. I used to think that forgetting arguments was in our genetics but now I know they linger, and because we never address it, it grows with a life of its own.

But I leave my door open anyway, just in case my cat wants to leave in the middle of the night. I leave it open just in case footsteps approach my room, and I can change myself to greet whoever approaches at my door.