“I’m sorry, I just don’t think you can be a cat, you’re a boy.”
I’m 10 years old, Halloween is approaching, and I’m in the store shopping for costumes with my Mom. It’s difficult being 10 years old. For me, the transition into double-digits was a a major milestone. Sure, 10, 11, and 12 don’t end in “teen,” but the addition of another digit was enough of an epoch to mark the beginning of my adulthood. Puberty hadn’t even begun to wrap its nasty tendrils around my hormones, nor was I even aware that it would in the first place, but I became disdainful of youth. In my heart I held a hatred for all things infantile. “That’s for babies,” I’d say, “I’m not a little kid anymore.” And yet, here I am, hairless, following my mom around the store as she buys me my Halloween costume.
“What do you want to be for Halloween?” she asks me. It’s a tricky question. I definitively want to be something that reflects my age. Something violent, maybe. Boys are violent. Especially teen boys, or so I’ve heard. They vandalize things, smoke drugs and smash mailboxes, if the movies are to be believed (and they are). So as someone on the verge of teen-hood, I should be something tough, and cool, and violent. I consider buying the classic “bleeding scream” mask. It’s cool, it’s bloody, and it has a pump-activated special effect that will make people want to talk to you. That’s what Tony wore last year, and his parents got divorced and let him watch horror movies by himself, so he was going to start having sex way before the rest of us, and we all knew it. I want the Scream mask. I need the scream mask. I wish so desperately I could be the kid that pulls off the bleeding scream mask, but I’m not. There’s something too… scary about it. The long, contorted face. The blood. I love Halloween, I don’t want to scare anyone. Besides, I’ve never even seen Scream, scary movies give me nightmares. I hadn’t even seen Scary Movie. Tony had, though. He asked me about it once and I lied and said I loved it. Now he quotes it to me in the hallways and I laugh and pretend to be in on the joke. I don’t understand it, but it feels good to be a part of something.
So scary is out of the picture. I’m not Tony. My parents are doing just fine (for now), and even if they let me watch a horror movie I wouldn’t want to. If I wanted to buy the bleeding scream mask then my mom would buy it for me, even if she didn’t think it was appropriate. She’s not overbearing, she’s just looking out for me. She knows me better than I know myself. At this point I don’t even know who I am. There’s nothing consistent or unique about my identity beyond my favorite TV shows or movies. My go-to fun-fact at icebreakers is “loves animals”. I like swords and magic because I liked Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter. My favorite video games are Super Mario World and the Legend of Zelda (specifically Wind-Waker). I’ve never played Fire Emblem but my favorite Melee character is Roy. I loved Roy so much that I eventually tried to play Fire Emblem, but my attention span couldn’t handle the tactics of turn-based combat. My favorite band is The Beatles, and maybe the Rolling Stones. I hate rap because the kids who dislike me at school love rap. The thought of a bunch of 10 year old white bullies shouting “free Weezy” just didn’t sit right in my brain. I can’t blame them though, they learned it from their older brother who smokes pot. I judge them and consider them beneath me, but deep down I wish I had an older brother to smoke pot with me and show me rap music. I wish I had an older brother to tell me that middle school is no big deal. I wish I had an older brother to fuck up and get into hard drugs and make me look great in comparison. I wish I had an older brother to go to med school and make me scramble to get out of his shadow. I wish I had a sister, of any age, to teach me literally anything about befriending or even speaking to girls. I almost did, but she was miscarried and never spoken of again. In the end, all I had to teach me about life were my parents and the Internet. Everything about my identity is chance, the people I’ve met and the music and shows I’ve been exposed to. I like the things that my Dad and my friends like, and I dislike the things I haven’t heard of. I wish I could be a Tony, but Tony’s already a Tony. I just wished I knew what Jake was. Were other kids shopping for costumes, wishing they could be like me? I’m just trying identities on and seeing what fits. Isn’t that the whole point of Halloween shopping?
So it’s convenient to have my mom shopping with me. She can easily decipher between the things I genuinely want and the things I convince myself to want in order to fit in. She knows I don’t want the bleeding scream mask even though I asked for it. She knows that that’s not me. It’s nice to have someone that knows me so well, and yet a part of me wishes that she didn’t. A part of me wants her to be wrong. The idea that my identity is arbitrary and out of my control is an idea I’m not yet ready to grapple with, and my mother’s presence is a constant reminder that I am young and wrong about nearly everything I have an opinion on. Not that that’s her fault, she’s right, but it makes me feel powerless, like my identity is spiraling out of my control and there’s nothing I can do to wrangle it back. This turned out to be only the beginning of a long struggle to contain and form my identity throughout high school and college, and would eventually lead me to a point of surrender, giving up on my identity and leaving it in the hands of the society that sought to define me as they please. It turns out I didn’t need an identity or a “thing” to make me me. I was me regardless of who I pretended to be, and society would define me as it pleased regardless of my efforts to control it. If I had the intellectual capacity to understand that at 10 years old, I could have saved myself a lifetime of unnecessary struggle, but I did not. Instead, I wanted to be a cat.
Not just for Halloween. I wanted to be a cat every day of my life. A few years earlier, when I was around six or seven years old, I thought I was a cat. Literally. I thought I was once a cat in a past life, and had reincarnated into a human, cursed to amble about on two legs for the rest of my life. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I believed that I was cursed by Voldemort. This wasn’t just a healthy game of pretend, this was my life. This was what I literally believed as a child. I was so certain, I had even done all the calculations. Yes, calculations. I had my own personal reincarnation notebook where I would sit down and analyze all of my past lives and calculate what percentage those lives made up. I’m making these numbers up, but I think I was about 40% Cat, 20 % Snake, 10% Meerkat, and 10% Human. Meerkat Manor had just premiered and I was super into it. I assumed that the reason I was so into it was because I must have been a meerkat once in the life of my eternal consciousness. I would have dreams, memories, of my life as animal. I remembered being a snake slithering amongst my tribe (which was what I called my friendly group of dream snakes), and getting captured by an evil capitalist intent on harvesting us for our snake milk. I would wake up in terror and fall back asleep, re-entering my captivity and fearing the loss of my snake milk, which apparently existed and was a delicacy to my dream capitalists. The entire operation was very similar to the “Jellyfish Hunter” episode of Spongebob Squarepants, where Mr. Krabs exploits Spongebob into capturing jellyfish for the purposes of harvesting their jelly. In retrospect, the belief that I was once a free animal cursed to become a human as punishment was far wiser than I ever realized.
So I wanted to be cat. I no longer believed I was a cat though, I was 10 years old and had to put childish thoughts behinds me. Instead I believed in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father. That, and a secret dimension where I could commune with my spirit Ice-Wolf, Leung. If I couldn’t pull off being a scream-mask guy, then I figured I might as well just be myself. After all, that was what everyone had told me. My father, my mother, my friends, Leung. “Don’t try to be something you’re not,” they told me. And I agreed. The only problem was that I didn’t know who, or what, I was. Only a few years ago my identity was fragile enough to believe I was a snake harvested for my precious snake milk, how can I trust anything that I know about myself? “You just know”, I was told. Okay! So, if I am 10 years old, and I am a mature adult who does mature and adult things, and adults know who they are and who they want to be, then I need to be who I want to be. And I want to be a cat.
“I want to be a cat for Halloween!” I told my mother, proudy.
“Ohh… a cat?” she responded, nervously, “That’s cute. Let’s see if we can find you something.” Immediately I could tell that something was wrong from her voice. Something about the idea of being a cat for Halloween was incorrect. My mother would never tell me I was wrong, but she could still know objectively that what I wanted was futile in our society. We wandered around party city aimlessly, looking for the perfect cat costume for a 10 year old boy. Inevitably, we would pass the “adult” costume section and I would be forced to experience adult humor with my mother. Now if this were a 90’s cartoon - passing through the oasis of sexy nurses, stewardesses, police officers, “Indians”, and army officers would have been a formative moment of sexual awakening, perhaps accompanied by the sound of “schwing!”. But the emotion I felt when passing the adult costumes wasn’t arousal, but guilt. Guilt that I was growing up, guilt that sooner or later I would leave my family, my mother and father, and be like the mature, hilarious adults on display in front of me. Perhaps it was because I was gay, but the adult outfits just made me feel sad. The children’s outfits were fun! Pirates, ninjas, my favorite cartoon characters. They were full of life and imagination, the joys of playing pretend as a child and becoming your personal hero. The adults had far fewer options. If you were a woman than you could be a sexy laborer, if you were a man you could be a drunk laborer. That was it. No adult had the option of being something, the only options available were grotesque, punny parodies of occupations. Adults were denied the ability to play pretend. Their costumes were so boring, so literal. It scared me as a child to think of becoming that, that one day my only costume choice would be “Drunk Mexican in Poncho”. The adult costume section seemed to me to be the graveyard of imagination.
Finally we reached the accessory section. There were no premade cat costumes for young boys, and the cat costumes for young girls were boring and uninspired. A black shirt with black ties, and an attachable tail and ears. They didn’t even supply whiskers, it was assumed that girls could just draw them with their makeup. So if I wanted to be a cat, I’d have to make the costume myself. I found ears, a tail, and nothing else. I looked for full sized cat costumes, even the oversized “Cat in the Hat” would suffice. But there was nothing. There were sexy cats for women, cute cats for girls, but nothing for boys. Boys had to be dogs, even though I didn’t have any dogs. I only had cats and therefore wanted to be one, but it was not an option for me. So I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror with cute cat ears, a tail, and a set of makeup in my 10-year old hands. To the best of my ability, I was the closest to a cat that I would ever become. But it was wrong. It was all wrong. Looking at myself, the shy effeminate cat clutching makeup in his paws, all I could feel was shame. I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t be this person no matter what. If I decided to be a cat then the next 10 years would be marked by relentless bullying. No, I was not a child any more. I was a teenage boy in his double digits. I was a cool, masculine, teenage boy who would never be a cat no matter how badly he secretly wanted to be one. Society would no longer accept this from me, I wasn’t permitted to be cute. From here on out “cuteness” would be forever synonymous with weakness and childish foolishness. Any adherence to cuteness would be stamped out by society at large, myself included. So I did what any boy would do when crumbling under the unsurmountable weight of social pressure, I went as an Ice Ninja instead.
I would never be a cat.