Before the cat, I always wondered why people got offended when you referred to their pets by the wrong sex. Say there's a man walking a Pekingese outside your apartment building. You want to share your admiration as well as reinforce someone's poochy pride. "That's a great little dog!" you chirp. "She's a gorgeous little thing."
Instantly the man turns defensive. His face hardens. It's the expression Mark Wahlberg makes when he goes to the bathroom after eating cheese. "It's a he. A HE."
You apologize, but you walk away mystified. I mean, who really cares? Masculinity doesn't feature very prominently in Hairy Pawter's life. He wasn't going to the strip club with his buddies after a hard day at the quarry. No, he was going to find a sunbeam and warm his tummy. He was going to yap at a butterfly for eight hours before chewing up a rubber donut. Is there such a huge gulf between him and a chick?
Besides, what's the option? I wanted to hear these pet owners verbalize their thoughts. "I know you can't tell the sex of my pet with zero outward evidence, but it's offensive to the both of us when you guess wrong. In the future, please lift Mary Puppins and visually inspect for either a penis or a vagina before addressing us."
I stopped talking to people about their pets, but it never stopped bothering me. I mean, if misidentification is such a horrible crime, why don't pet owners do like human parents and give us a clue? Human parents determinedly avoid misunderstandings: it would mark the end of life as they know it if they're pushing little Briantha in her carriage and somebody comes up and says, "My, that's a handsome lad!" They were on their way to Connecticut Muffin, but now they run to Psychiatrists R Us. Dad snaps a tiara on little Briantha's head and pokes two chandelier earrings through her earlobes. Now he swaggers while pushing the stroller, all but daring bystanders: "Now say she looks like a dude, motherfuckers!"
Still, the first time somebody misidentifies my cat I get it. I'm irritated. It's a personal insult, and it's demeaning. It says, "I don't care enough about either of you to use the correct pronouns. Does that bother you and your, um, thing?"
I smile, but inwardly I scream at them. "He is not a she. He is a he. You think a male cat can't be fluffy? A male cat can't be soft? I'll thank you to keep your tired gender stereotypes to yourself. This is 2016, and my cat is free to be whoever he wants to be. If he wants to go into fashion, he can go into fashion. (I'm pretty sure he can't, since he's a complete fuckup on a sewing machine.) If he wants to be a race-car driver, he can be a race car driver. (This is likewise pretty fruitless, since he dives under the bed when he hears a bird chirp.) If he wants to be a giant pudding-shaped paperweight that only stays awake long enough to bite me, then it's fine with me! (I didn't just pull that out of thin air; I'm the kind of person who only tells the truth when he's mad.) But you will not cow us. You will not intimidate us. You will not bully Chairman Meow!"
Of course, I don't say any of this. I don't even correct them. I understand my anger, and control it. I just got the cat, and in a month or two it won't even bother me. It's exactly like what happened with my third husband. On one of our first dates he says, "I'd like to go dancing," so we go to dancing. "I'd like to have Thai food," he says, so we have Thai food.
A month later we're on my couch reading newspapers. "I'd like a foot rub," he says.
I flip to the next page of my paper and don't even look up. "You like a lot of stuff," I say.