Love Me

Photo by Paulette Perchach

The internet had promised me the “cutest, fluffiest day ever.” So when we saw the sign for the cat cafe while out shopping in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, I squealed. On it, cartoon cats pranced around photos of the real cats waiting upstairs to love us. I turned to my boyfriend with eyes wide and hopeful, and he smiled and nodded, said with his ever-indulging attitude, “We can go.”

I hadn’t had a cat at home for more than a decade. Tiger, who wandered onto our porch as a kitten when I was five, had lived 18 years, jumping on our laps and nudging her cool nose under our hands to pet her. The small engine of her purr, the rise and fall of her contented lungs under my fingertips as I watched TV, my lap warmed by her small life — it had been too long.

I didn’t have my own cat for the same reason many people in Seoul don’t: tiny, tiny apartments. Starting in 2018, when I lived in a 150 sq. ft. box myself, Seattle ranked with the smallest apartments in the country, smaller even than New York City’s.

We peeked in the window before opening the door. The narrow room with the observation window gave off a tone of sanitarium, but cat towers and toys, along with a yellow wall and tables like any other café, livened things up.

As we went in, a feeling surprised me, a feeling I usually associate with strip clubs: excitement mixed with shame about what you’re excited for, all in an environment where the thing you want is manifest simply by your presence there. Like at strip clubs, we paid an entrance fee: 10,000 ₩, about $8.50, which included a coffee drink and a full day of feline access.

In the gated entryway, we slipped off our shoes in exchange for black slippers with white kitty faces embroidered on them. Per the posted instructions, we sanitized our hands from a pump on a liter-sized bottle of clear gel.

The only other participant, a grown man half lounging like a nerdy mermaid on the floor near our feet looked up at us as lazily as the cat he was petting. He seemed like he was here on some kind of long-term work trip and had just been whispering to the cat about how none of his friends liked his Instagram posts.

The attendant, a woman in her 30s, sat behind a computer at a desk with a baby-gated entrance. Two cats sat on stools next to her, as if they themselves were on a coffee break from their regular rotations. We paid our fee, noticing that she also sold cat food as bait for 3,000 ₩. That felt too desperate. I wanted the cats to love me for me. She rang us up, then returned a Bengal hiding back there into the main area, its body falling out of her hands like water out of a bucket. As I admired its black to beige ombre fur, it ambled away.

We turned around and wondered what to do next. Cats lounged on carpeted half-pipes by the panel of windows. Patches of fur poked out of the windows of cat towers. Boxes of toys lay unjingled among the tables.

Music would have helped. The silence gave it the ambiance of a doctor’s waiting room.

I wanted to sit all the way in the back, as if hiding myself. There, taped to a carpeted tower that held a white cat in its innermost sanctum, the same clipart cartoon cats dancing on the poster out front danced across the top of a sign with red letters and a jazzy font titling it “Notice.”

“Don’t grasp tails nor hit the rumps,” it said.

I mean, fair enough, but that it had to be said concerned me. 

“Don’t hug and pick up cats by force,” I read, suddenly wondering who I was.

“Don’t touch cats when they eat, drink, and sleep.”

But, what else does a cat do?

“Please wait for them.” 

I looked around, at cats lying on their beds, calculating the chances they would willingly approach us, two people they’d never smelled before in what I pictured for the first time as a nonstop string of strangers trying to get some fur.

We had brought books, hoping to recreate days at home reading and cuddling furry friends, and I opened mine now only in a gesture of reverse psychology. My boyfriend cracked open his laptop and dove in, hunched over and typing. My brain couldn’t focus for a full sentence before peeking above the page to see if any cat was not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, and might be construed as approaching.

Fluffy, the white one in the tower behind us, teased us with her soft fur, her eyes opening and closing, as if she knew that as long as her eyes were closed, she was off limits. I’m awake, oh no I’m not, oh yes I am, oops, nope too late, nice try.

I gave up on the focus needed for reading, stood, and picked through the cat toys, a selection of bells, a feather, and something that looked itself like a cat’s tail, all attached to rods, like bait with which to fish for love. I dangled some over Mittens, and she kept her gaze so straight ahead I wondered if she had military training. I combined a feather and a cat tail for what I hoped would be an irresistible combo and flicked it around like a piñata. Any second her evolutionary drives should take over and force her to hurl her body at the toy in a way that was both exciting and hilarious.

And yet, nothing.

After 20 minutes, we started to crack. If a cat wasn’t sleeping, eating, or drinking, we ventured a quick pet of the head, to which the cat usually responded by rising up and walking away, staring back at us with its third eye.

“That one over there bit me!” said my boyfriend, pointing to a cat with ears bent back as if he had held them in that position for so long, they stuck.

“Was it sleeping?” I asked, ready to reprimand.

“No!” he insisted, as if the cat had signed up for this gig and should have come to understand these rules during orientation.

Suddenly, the cream-colored Mr. Whiskers jumped up. In the silence, me, my boyfriend, and the other lone customer watched as he ran to the center of the room. Finally, some action. We all hoped he would start leaping for the jangled feather bait, making us laugh 10,000 ₩ worth of laughs.

But he only heaved once, a pulse shooting up his body, ending in a wet snap that stretched long his neck and open his mouth.

And heaved again, head pushed toward the floor.

Together we three who had paid to be in this room watched the space below his mouth. With one more contraction he flung forth an oatmeal-colored ball glazed with goo. He then darted into a tower.

The owner meandered over, sprayed the floor and wiped it up, folding over the paper towel to dry the floor completely.

We resigned ourselves to standing back and admiring their colors. The Bengal had truly the most stunning eyes I’d ever seen, iceberg blue. As I captured them in a keepsake photo, they stared back at me with a look that said, “I hate everything about your kind.”

Mittens looked out the window, wishing, I imagined, she’d listened to her mother. By the litter box, Princess stubbed out a cigarette under her paw. “Just one more year,” she said to Sassy. “Til I get my degree. Then I’m out.” Behind the litter box, Muffins hit the catnip.

Eons ago, wildcats roamed the Fertile Crescent, now here I was trying to tantalize Teacup with a bell into batting a paw, so that I didn’t just pay $8.50 for a too-sweet coffee and an emotional mélange of rejection and shame, enjoyed amid the enclosed scent of a half dozen litter boxes.

We resisted calling it and admitting defeat, or naiveté, or the fact that we should have known, with all previous intel we had via so, so many memes about how aloof most cats are to their own loving families, that this would obviously have been a terrible idea.

Then the children arrived. Two of them, bouncing in the holding area with an innocence I remembered from half an hour ago.

The gate opened. They ran in. They did not read the sign.

Cat fishing poles waved in cat faces. Sleeping cats pet roughly. Cats hugged without consent. Their mom paid for cat food, and they held it out for the cats to come near, like total cheaters, free to enjoy that childhood innocence about how much animals hate you.

We got a little more brazen ourselves. I reached my hand into the cat tower, to Fluffy’s white fur, and I pet Fluffy without Fluffy coming to me.

I got what I paid for. I nodded to my boyfriend.

We sanitized our hands on the way out.


Photo at the top of the page is by Paulette Perhach. 


One afternoon in the early spring, Yasmine and I ended up in a department store on the way to Itaewon, a section of Seoul sometimes referred to as Little America. A nickname born of its close proximity to an American military base, and the fact that shops, restaurants, and clubs catered to American soldiers. As we passed the jewelry counter in the mall, Yasmine suggested we buy matching rings.

“Why?” I asked incredulously. Except for earrings, I didn’t wear jewelry.

“I always thought it would be nice to have a friendship ring. But until now, I never had a close enough friend,” she looped her arm through mind and pulled me closer to the display.

I felt flattered, but by then, somewhere deep in my subconscious, something had begun to nag at me. At random moments, I’d feel a prick, a pinch, as the notion attempted to bore its way back into my conscious mind. The secret I spent so much energy frantically attempting to bury. Lately, I had learned to successfully refuse its entrance, but in quiet, solitary moments when it grew persistent, I swatted at it like a buzzing, bothersome mosquito.

“A ring…might be nice,” I looked at my hand, wondering which finger I’d wear it on. At the moment, I was so focused on my finger and my subconscious dread that I barely noticed the word I had used, the bland, noncommittal adjective. Nice? Isn’t that what people used when they didn’t have anything good to say, but didn’t wish to say anything negative either? But why would I shy away from her gesture? From her overt proclamation of how much she valued our friendship?

Looking into the glass case, she pointed to simple gold band, which too closely resembled a wedding ring. “What do you think of that one? We could even have our names engraved. That way when you leave, when you go back to America, you won’t forget me.”

“I wouldn’t forget you anyway.” I laced my fingers through hers, and she gently squeezed my hand.

“You will. If only you could take me to America with you.” Then she smiled again and led me back outside. “We’ll come back.”

But we never did go back. We never did purchase rings because a month later, Don arrived from Canada and started teaching at Wonderland. Blond, blue-eyed, thin, and overly enthusiastic about learning Korean, his first priority was in finding a Korean girlfriend. Dating a Korean girl, he reasoned, would embed him more deeply in Korea, make him more vested in society. Why he felt so driven to immerse himself I never did ask. At the time, I didn’t care. I only prayed he would disappear.

Because the moment he stepped into the faculty room for the very first time, he settled his attention on Yasmine. His second Saturday in Seoul was the first Saturday night in weeks that Yasmine and I did not see each other for even a few minutes. It took her only a few days to succumb to his pleas, promising to go out with him on one date. But one turned into two, which turned into three and soon ushered in a serious long-term relationship. Even when Yasmine invited me along, remembering how inseparable we once were, I often declined.

I’d never felt so jealous of anyone. So threatened. Yet I knew I shouldn’t feel that way. She was only a friend, I repeatedly reminded myself. Just a good friend, the best friend I had made in Korea. But if she was only a friend, why did I feel so empty without her? Why, at night, when I lay in bed alone, did I feel as though I had been shipwrecked and tossed up onto a deserted island?

A couple weeks before my contract expired, Yasmine invited me to join her and Don for a night in Itaewon. At first, I balked at the idea. Don was the last person with whom I wished to spend an evening. But after thinking about it, considering my options, I changed my mind. In two weeks I would be gone, and then what? I’d miss Yasmine, and it would be too late to undo my stubbornness. To avoid regret, I agreed to go.

When I met Yasmine at the subway station, our agreed upon meeting place, I was surprised to find her waiting for me alone.

“He’s sick,” she smiled, putting her arm though mine and leaning against me as we sat down in the subway car. I was elated. In no way would I miss him, but I worried that she would.

After a quick dinner at Nashville, a burger joint, we crossed the street to J&Rs, the bar we frequented before Don entered our lives. Since it was still early, the place was relatively empty. Sitting down at the bar, we ordered beer. I didn’t care for Korean beer, but it was cheap, and both Yasmine and I drank as though we were parched. By our third round, the place was packed with Americans. Music pulsed around us and when No Doubt started to sing “Don’t Speak”—a song that still reminds me of her—Yasmine leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I smiled, and her deep-brown eyes sparkled. My chest tingled, and I held her gaze until out of the corner of my eye I saw Don lurking in the doorway. Had she done it to provoke him? Or was she genuine in her affection? Either way, I was irritated by his intrusion.

Anger and disdain rapidly dislodged the euphoria I had felt seconds earlier. Scowling, I confronted Yasmine, “I thought he was sick.”

“He was.” She looked as genuinely confused as I was, but instead of anger, her eyes seemed to twinkle with delight, the way a child’s might just before executing a prank.

“Let’s dance,” she grabbed my wrist and dragged me to the dance floor. I’m a terrible dancer. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I rarely danced. The exception, of course, was when I was drinking. After a few beers, I didn’t care how awful I looked.

Don watched us as we disappeared into the crowd. Instead of following us, he headed over to the pool tables. He quickly made friends with three other guys and joined their game. When the music slowed, I tried to excuse myself and exit the dance floor, but Yasmine, as inebriated as I was, pulled me closer. I don’t know who initiated. Whether the alcohol blotted it out or my own subconscious wiped the memory clean matters little. What matters is that her lips were suddenly pressed to mine, and I kissed her with more emotion, more feeling than I had ever kissed anyone. The song ended, and a faster song started to play, but lost in our kiss, we were oblivious to everything else.

That’s when he noticed, and his rage erupted, reverberating throughout the bar. His scream echoed in my ear, and the force with which he pulled me away from Yasmine knocked me to the ground. The crowd swam around me. As if through a tank of water, I heard Don shouting at Yasmine. Yasmine, completely unnerved, turned her back on him, offered me a hand, and when I stood up, she embraced me. In defiance of Don’s wrath, she kissed me again. When my hands slipped up the back of her shirt, Don punched a wall, then dragged us both out of the bar.

Outside, he hailed a cab and shoved me and Yasmine into the backseat. Unperturbed, Yasmine pressed against me, her lips warm as we continued to kiss. I thought for certain that when the cab pulled up to her apartment, either she or Don would dismiss me, and I’d be left to walk home alone. But instead, the three of us stumbled up the steps together. When Yasmine opened her door, she nudged me inside, then barred Don from entering. Confusion clouded his face, then fury flashed in his eyes. She slammed the door, and his fist pounded the metal. “No,” he shouted, no doubt waking everyone else in the building. “You can’t do this. You can’t let her stay.”

Yasmine locked the door. Angry voices, shouting in Korean and spilling out of other apartments, eventually silenced Don. Without words, Yasmine and I fell onto her bed. Half dressed, we curled into each others arms. While I let her hands roam at will, fear prevented mine from going too far. What I wanted was wrong. My upbringing had taught me that. And so I stopped myself, content in the moment that I, not Don, was falling asleep beside her.

Furious, Don returned to Yasmine’s apartment early in the morning. This time, she opened the door when his fist smashed into it. Immediately, Don sighted me in the living room, crouched down next to Yasmine’s CD collection.

“She’s not a dyke, you know.” Breathing heavily from running up the stairs, his eyes threatened violence if I got too close.

Blankly, I stared back him, trying to process the meaning of his words, the meaning of my actions, actions I so desperately wished to blame on the alcohol. But now that I had sobered up, I didn’t exactly regret them.

I had kissed a girl. I enjoyed it. But what exactly did that mean? Why did it have to mean anything?

“Do you hear me?” His voice rose. “She’s not a dyke.”

“Neither am I.” The label unsettled me, but as I sat there, my eyes uncomfortably locked with Don’s, I knew that he had shattered the last of my illusions.

“Yes, you are!” Don pronounced the words like a life sentence, and I stoically swallowed them, knowing that an appeal would be futile.

We glared at each other for another moment. I knew he would not back down, and I had nothing left with which to defend myself. Abruptly turning away and stepping past him, I smashed through the door and thundered down the stairs. Outside, the morning sun pulled me into a warming embrace, but wanting no comfort, I broke away.

In the shadows cast by a truth I could no longer deny, I cried.


Photograph at the top of the page was taken by Elizabeth Jaeger.