Love and Otherness’ Drugs: On Desire, My Best Friend, and Pajtim Statovci’s “My Cat Yugoslavia”
A love letter to not being alone, my best friend, and a book about a talking cat.
On the iOS user interface, sending a text message or, god forbid, a picture message — what was once lovingly called MMS for the unromantic “multimedia messaging service” — is about anticipation of connection. The thin blue line that slides its way across the top of the screen is as integral to the experience as the silent acknowledgment or notification of its delivery. It is as anxiety inducing as the bubbles that taunt the user, indicating that the other person is composing either a curt reply or a novella length response; as heart stopping as the meager proof that one’s message has been read, what title power you once had now vanished and in another’s hands. When that cerulean thread’s travel is smooth, it’s like watching a syringe work in reverse. When its travel is interrupted, it’s like the mental and digital and metaphysical equivalent of imagining oneself biking uphill. Almost there, but not quite. At the end of the track is connection. Sometimes the simulation or illusion of it, but here, real, thorough, non-judgmental connection. And connection about connection.
It was with a heavy heart and (possibly) disproportionate amount of anxiety that I sent pictures of passages from a book to my best friend and “wife” Phuong. Much of our relationship is built upon the nearly hourly exchange of excerpts from articles, tweets, pieces of music, clips from films, gifs, etc. that encapsulate our feelings. We love feelings and hate feelings in equal measure, the hate from feeling too much, the love from being able to feel at all. Our band would have been called “Very Feelings”, and it would have been, as she put it, ambient noise of crying. When she stayed with me for three and a half weeks on a visit to New York, the casual domestic quality of her short residency was proof that it was and is the most functional relationship I’ve ever had. She quipped, “It’s like a test run for our marriage.” And so we talk about feelings a lot, and what to do with them, and our inability to dole them out efficiently or effectively. I can’t speak for her, but regardless of where she is, I can connect with her like no one else. It’s like being Frances and Sophie, without caring who’s whom; it’s the ease and intimacy of the dynamic that counts.
I started reading Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name while she was visiting; we spent a couple of hours in McDonald’s reading to one another. “Ouchy,” she said at a particularly sharp passage about desire. A finished the book after she left, on the train, and, while my defense from a steady stream of tears on the train was nonexistent, the issues I had with the novel didn’t dissipate. When asked what I thought about it, I kept returning to the phrase, “It was mostly very good. And it fucked me up.” But the book’s preoccupation with class and stark inability to coherently or cohesively merge an intellectualizing of desire and a personal narrative of navigating one’s desire kept me from loving it the way others had. Although I heavily identified with the book’s ideas about being wanted and felt, touched and held and fucked, I could never be friends with its protagonist, Elio; who transcribes music for fun and then casually mentions it in mixed company? However much there is a universality about the profound sense of yearning, the insularity of the book was alienating, somewhat marring the more sensorial aspects of Aciman’s writing. When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it burrows itself in its class context, it becomes detached and cold. Aciman’s world is gated, however appealing the sun’s lights falling on the iron outside may be. You’re still outside looking in.
I did not feel the need to send pictures of sections of the book to Phuong. Call Me By Your Name may have, and I say this positively, been like rubbing salt into a wound you thought had healed, and may have colored my interactions and general ability to breathe, thus igniting a completely useless and illogical work crush, but it remained mostly, thoroughly embedded in one track of desire.
Rather, I sent Phuong passages from a book about a man who lives between two worlds, has trouble fitting into both, and, in the interim, falls in love with a talking cat. There were a dozen pictures from different parts of Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia. The book’s dual narratives track a young gay immigrant from Kosovo living in Finland, almost cripplingly lonely, and a young Muslim girl in Kosovo in the 1980s, married off to a man whose charm gives way to abusive tendencies. It is the antidote to being alienated by books about queer desire that remain mired in a strict, unself aware whiteness, of bourgeois privilege, and of apoliticality. My Cat Yugoslavia has an acute awareness of the multifaceted nature and implications of desire and loneliness, of masochism, and of fractured selves.
Not that Emine’s narrative is uninteresting (it is surely a crucial part of the book), but I naturally gravitated towards the story of Bekim, whose occasional hookups contain skeletal promises of intimacy — the acting of closeness only for the other man to leave and lead his other life, for the ecstasy of thinking “Everybody wanted him, but he only wanted me, and I loved that” a wisp of smoke that disassembles the moment he’s gone –whose expectations that have been placed upon him and that he sets up for himself cause him anxiety, whose relationship with his parents has had being known wrenched from possibility, and whose relationship with masochism is like knowing the sleekness of cat hair too well.
For Statovci, and his lead Bekim, loneliness is paradoxical, like MC Escher has transmuted his mind games and eye puzzles into emotion, just as prison like, both self-imposed and something to desperately get out of or find relief from. The young man finds solace in what he can, even if it means telling a boa constrictor of how lonely he is. Bekim writes like a whisper to the reader:
I wanted to tell it that I was lonely. So lonely that I sometimes spoke to myself in the apartment, that every now and then I walked to the park, sat down on a bench, and spent hours watching people who had come there with their loved ones, and I wanted to tell them how small and insignificant I felt when they started to eat and laugh together, how it never ceased to amaze me how people could find a shared rhythm like that, and I wanted to tell the snake that all those years of loneliness had been so brutal that sometimes it felt as though nobody knew I existed.
In response, the snake turned slightly and slid its head across my chest so that I could see myself reflected in its eye.
“Shared rhythm”. I wonder every second of every day what that feels like. It must feel like the way that cream being poured into coffee looks, the way they bleed together.
The author puts you on the inside, you feel loneliness palpably take control, like you feel your lips cracking from the dry air. His loneliness is political, as Bekim’s desire to assimilate hardly works, a mere question that could possibly alleviate loneliness only exacerbating a sense of otherness: What’s your name? Where are you from? Etc. Statovci pulls no punches; his writing is at once able to unpack its characters’ thoughts and ideas without lingering on words and sentences on a fetishistic level and retain a level of intimate compassion. My Cat Yugoslavia unearths the political implications of loneliness, that it is not only the personal is the political, but the political is the personal is the political, a hall of mirrors that shatter and leave one in solitude — which feels particulalry true of those that seem to live within liminal spaces, as queer racialized immigrant or queer racialized adoptee — left to be interpreted and interpellated by the world that you bump into on the city streets, or caress underneath your sheets at night. It’s a book that has something that exists outside of itself.
Bekim’s approach to (self) loathing, a cousin to loneliness, is precise, writing, “I hate this too, all of it, I wanted to tell him, ask him how we ended up here and why it has to be like this, but that’s not something you say to a remorseful man, because loathing is so much stronger than anger. You can give in to anger or let it take over your life, but loathing works in a different way. It burrows under your nails, and even if you cut your fingers off, it won’t go away.” It consumes you in an unspeakable way, effortlessly destructive.
I started painting my nails recently. Sometimes they’re emerald, like Sally Bowles’. Right now they’re ruby red. I have not bothered to do a base coat or a top coat. I slap it on, the middle grey area of doing something with care and without it. Perhaps, I hope, the people who won’t care anyways will politely compliment it and the people who could care about me will notice and hold my hand and tell me that I should do a better job and they might help me next time. The only person who would know about the slapdash job without me telling her is Phuong.
I was inclined to send her pieces of the book because she, too, lived as an immigrant. Displaced desire and the question of where one fits in are not strangers to us. I think we know them intimately, like grime married to the underside of the nail. “The cat wanted a story whose protagonist’s life began from a set of impossible circumstances, a story that would be so heart-wrenching that it might make him shake his hand at the state of the world. But he wanted the story to end in such a way that he was able to applaud the protagonist’s ability to take matters into his own hands — despite the fact that the protagonist had learned that skill specifically so that he could shake off the burden of other people’s pity — and in order to reaffirm his own beliefs,” Bekim recounts, when meeting the talking cat for whom he will fall. Such stories of displacement, racial and/or sexual, inextricably connected to one’s sense of self, become reflexive to tell, especially to strangers. Yes, I have been financially independent from my mother for several years. Yes, my father’s death was sad, but I’m still here. No, my mother and I do not speak regularly. Yes, I moved to New York on my own. And so the story goes. The applause or the tilted head are pandering, and it’s only fine if they’re buying the next drink.
But when you’re so tired, depleted of the energy to treat yourself the way your friends tell you how you deserve to be treated, you relent. Even when Bekim returns to “home”, it’s not necessarily in the terrain that he can find comfort. It’s in the arms of another who will disappoint, or at least not fulfill his needs. Connecticut is foreign enough to me already, so I doubt I would find any hope in China. Statovci conceives of a complex relationship with oneself, that weakness is human. The talking cat that Bekim meets at a gay bar is everything that has taunted him: a bigot, a provocateur, a homophobe, emotionally unavailable, stubborn, willful, manipulative. And yet his presence is enough for Bekim.
To mine from the stereotype of gay men owning a cat is almost too perfect a metaphor: masochism is a social, emotional, personal tradition in queer history. The above traits aren’t just a cat, it’s probably your ex. Statovci’s conception does a brilliant balancing act, at once perfectly resembling a romantic relationship of inequity (Bekim is made to clean up after the cat, sleep in the hallway, etc.) and precisely resembling a relationship with an actual pet cat (Bekim is made to clean up after the cat, sleep in the hallway, etc.) Queer people are taught to accept a kind of love that is fruitful for no one, the kind of love that, well worn by admirers of Stephen Chbosky, is one we think we deserve. We’ve watched each other go through a melange of emotional and romantic and sexual ups and downs. Why else stay in a two and a half year drawn out long distance thing with someone who refused to acknowledge it was a relationship? Why else allow ourselves to be led on by someone whose words are only as solid as the drink he pour you over dinner, or the curt email he sends? Because that’s all we thought we had. And maybe it’s a little intoxicating, feeling so helpless.
But it’s not. We have other things.
Our lives parallel and intersect, as if the emotional turmoil Phuong and I experience complement each other, ricocheting off past experiencing, informed by the unspoken deep insecurities that find themselves revealed in the strangest of ways: between she and I — with little more than a nod or a sigh, through screencaps of Anna Karina, and by the people who we think serve the most potential for brief respite from our waking nightmares. Our experiences are certainly distinctive and unique, but they cross paths, like a snake and cat in the same room.
The personal and political complexity is spread across the novel, expertly compressing time and articulating fleeting feelings of pain, pleasure, pain again, and hope. The way he tries to use his past to assemble who he is now is crucial to his sense of identity, as much as it was ignoring the past. He’s left with thoughts of his father and how their nonexistent dynamic shaped him. War, too, has shaped Bekim, as well as the writer, the kind that shatters lives and minds and hearts and selves, and leaves one to pick up the pieces, or, as Gabrielle Bellot in The New Yorker puts it, “folding in on itself, elaborate as an origami swan, until it is torn apart.”
I often joke with people about when I’ll be able to speak or think about Connecticut, where I spent most of my life, without shit talking it. If I’ll ever get enough emotional distance from whatever amount of trauma I experienced there, or however much baggage contains the romanticized autumnal leaves. But I forget, in spite of how much I detest Connecticut, the place was where I took my first steps to accepting myself as queer — walking home from McDonald’s no less; where I started writing seriously; where I found my best friend.
On a Christmas a couple of years ago, when my mother had decided to travel and leave me alone, Phuong and I watched the Glee porn parody together, only our second meeting in person. Every day she has sent me a picture of a pug. And I, to her, a random twink. (We’ve agreed that she can have a pug and I can have a snake.) I think we know exactly what the other is talking about. And feeling. When she was staying with me in June, she came and went as she pleased, and we went to dinner, and we talked, and we sat in silence. Phuong is the only person who knows how much I crave domestic intimacy with someone and won’t pander to me. The only other seems to be the author of My Cat Yugoslavia. She’s almost the only person worth loving. When she was here, everything seemed right, no longer tethered to iMessages or FaceTime. I did not feel alone. She and I have both had asshole talking cats in our lives. And we know what to say when another one sidles in, begging for us to pet it.