Smelly Cat

By Chiara Bullen

 

You know that feeling you get when you’re watching something on TV – or watching a film, or reading a book you love – and something big is going to happen? And I mean, change the story big. But you already know what’s going to happen. The story isn’t new to you. It’s the second, third, fourth-and-beyond time you’ve consumed it.

Just as the moment is about to arrive on the screen, on the page or through your headphones, you recognise the steps and plot points that will put this action into motion and you plead to the fictional entity about to do something catastrophic: please don’t!

Please don’t listen to Scar, Simba!

Please don’t kill Dumbledore, Snape!

Please don’t follow that noise into your garden shed, Will Byers!

Of course, if these things don’t happen then the inevitable outcomes and climaxes of the story you love so much would not come to be. The character development needed to make certain characters become the one you’re absolutely obsessed with rely on these moments. So, it’s worth it in the end.

Still. It would have been nice if Kylo Ren hadn’t done that in The Force Awakens.

Anyway. That squirmy, clenching, anxious feeling has me in its grip right now. On my bed, in my room, in my dad’s flat in Glasgow. I know something is about to happen on the show I’m watching and I really, really wish it wouldn’t.

But we aren’t watching anything epic. Nothing scary. Nothing twisty, nothing turn-y.

We’re watching Friends.

My scratched, chunky iPad I got from CEX is propped up on the top of my washed-out looking bookshelf, the sounds jarring from the small speaker on its right side. Eleanor is lying on the floor, arms propped up on a pillow as she lazily scrolls through Twitter. Olivia is on the bed with me, her legs crossed tightly, up at the top end against the wooden headboard covered in old stickers. She’s engrossed by the events unfolding on the 9.7” screen (she’s never seen Friends before – she’s only just got Netflix). I’m leaning on the pink wall my bed is shoved up against, one leg stretched out whilst the other is still on the duvet, my toes digging anxiously into the soft sheet.

It’s a lazy Sunday. A ‘Sunday Funday’. I know this because it said so on several Instagram stories. I’m tapping my screen now, flipping through the stories so fast I only get a glimpse of faces, gym gear, steaming cups of tea and books arranged so beautifully it makes me sad I never really took care of mine.

I barely register the weekend life of my friends and mutuals. My eyes flick back towards the iPad screen, squinting a bit at the distance. I can’t remember the last time I got my eyes tested, but I’ve watched this episode so many times I don’t really need them. Phoebe Buffay is picking up her guitar. My relationship with her is more than a little bit complicated, and within the next few minutes it will be strained, once again, to its limit.

The episode is called ‘The One After the Super Bowl’, but it should be called ‘The One with Phoebe’s Biphobia’, if you ask me. Which I suppose nobody did, least of all the creators of a show who wrote the lines well before I was born.

The knot in my stomach tightens, and I can only imagine it resembles what my white earphones look like inside my jacket pocket. All twisted and chaotic, so tight that my stubby, bitten nails will never be able to pry them free with ease.

I suppose it’s my own fault for loving this show. Members of Gen Z aren’t supposed to like Friends. I read an article about it on Teen Vogue. Plus, my eighteen-year-old cousin said Friends is ‘problematic’ on Twitter, and she’s about to study journalism. So, I know she’s right. Then, amidst the claims of us being another snowflake generation, the article I read pointed out all the issues with the sitcom that my progressive generation is sure to find problematic.

And I agreed with them. There are plenty of reasons why this show is problematic – and I don’t feel this way because I’m as ‘soft as a snowflake’ (I try to be as sharp as an icicle, personally).

There’s racism. Sexism. Fatphobia. Homophobia. Double-standards, and some really shoddy editing work for something so embedded in my sister’s (a die-hard 90s’ kid) pop-culture.

So, I get why people my age aren’t supposed to like Friends. I really do. I’ve always known this. Our generation is the hope for change, tolerance and acceptance – I read that on Tumblr. I felt the slow burning of the beginning of hope and ambition. But, Joey Tribbiani from Friends’ hurtful stance on dating fat women is the same as my pal Craig McKenzie’s views on it, too – and these opinions are at least fifteen years apart.

Then there’s the improbable, frustrating, irresistible case of Phoebe Buffay.

She’s still on the screen and almost ready to sing now.

Right.

Now.

Her blonde hair is in an impossibly high ponytail, a scrunchie thicker than the iPhone in my hand keeping it firmly in place. She’s about to perform her song to the chic café she’s always in, which makes me wish I had a Starbucks in hand even though I don’t like coffee.

I feel the clamminess in my palms and put my phone down on the bed. I know what’s coming next, I know what will make me feel the sting of hurt and the forced feelings of shame and embarrassment her words elicit, as they have done every time I’ve re-watched the show over the past three years.

And to make it worse, my friends are here watching, too.

“So, Oliva, who’s your favourite Friend?” El asks, twisting awkwardly to look up at us on the bed. There’s no room for three of us up here, and only barely room for two people on the floor. It makes for awkward sleepover arrangements. I hope student halls are bigger, if I get into university.

“I donno yet,” Olivia replies. “Rachel. No! Joey. Uh… It’s too hard! Who’s yours, El?”

“I think Ross is hot. What about you, Lauren?”

“Oh, Phoebe, probably,” I reply a little too quickly, not taking my eyes off the screen.

The sound of real laughter – not fake, blaring, audience laughter – drags me back into my room away from my impending doom. El is looking up at me with an eyebrow raised, and Olivia is giggling.

“What?” I ask, snapping a little.

“She’s your favourite, or you find her hot?” El asks, teasing.

“Um…”

“Both?” Oliva suggests, her right eyebrow raising to match El’s, before they both relapse into a fit of giggles.

“Em, yeah!” I respond, trying hard to make it sounds like a joke and laughing a tad too loudly at myself as they both turn their attention back to the show.

I haven’t ever told them properly that I’m bisexual. I was just sort of hoping they’d figure it out.

That happens, right?

I didn’t even tell myself I was bisexual until recently. When I was younger, I started to get crushes on women around me and female celebrities. Keira Knightley in Bend it like Beckham had me slayed. Then she did the same in Pirates of the Caribbean.  Convinced at first I was a lesbian, I spent many a night on Google searching how I would know if I were gay. It was only after I realised that I fancied both Lupin and Tonks from Harry Potter that I altered my search terms slightly, and found what I was looking for.

Bisexual.

‘Bisexual’ fitted me like my snuggest knitted jumper. I know not everyone is happy with labels, but I leapt into the arms of mine.

I practised saying the word over and over, enjoying how it felt slipping from my tongue and imaging how I’d tell the people I loved most in my life. I knew it was scary, but I thought; doesn’t everyone in the LGBTQA+ community say, “It gets better”?

But then, as I was taking time to gain the courage to tell people, I was sitting in registration class and heard Jess Wallace joke that bisexuals were only good for threesomes.

At a sleepover, Amy Barrie told me, fearfully, that she thought her sister might be bisexual, and her sister’s boyfriend was terrified that he’d be cheated on because of this.

She was never invited to mine again after that. It was the only small stand I could take.

I couldn’t share the hurt with anyone in school, or my family. They didn’t know I was bisexual in the first place. I didn’t even want to find people online to talk about it.

And so, my knitted jumper became impossibly tight, the neckline stealing and squeezing the breath from me so that it would be impossible to utter those defining words comfortably.

Phoebe Buffay begins to sing.

            “Sometimes men love women…”

It isn’t fair.

            “Sometimes men love men…”

Without warning, I feel the sting of hot tears as she strums the lullaby-like melody to her audience. Each word sang with such authority that for a while, I believed them. I wonder if a tiny part of me still does.

            “And then there are bisexuals…”

            Please, don’t!

            “Though some just say they’re kidding themselves…!”

The laughter of the studio audience is a deafening roar, each guttural sound a punch to my stomach, a personal insult thrown my way. Sometimes I wonder if I’m overreacting. Isn’t it OK to joke around sometimes?

But if those jokes hurt, shouldn’t people listen to how I feel?

The sound stops.

I look up towards the small screen, and an even smaller pop-up has appeared. “Are you still watching Friends?” Netflix asks.

If Netflix was a person, I would kiss them. Passionately. Has there ever been a time when anyone actually wants that message to pop up? It gives me a second to compose myself, get ‘over’ myself as my friends would probably say.

“Lauren, can you start it again?” asks El, even though being on the floor, she is closer to the iPad on my bookcase than I am. I nod in response to her plea, grinning slightly as she continues scrolling through her Twitter feed.

            I stand up to tiptoe over to her, and end up standing crushed against the wooden shelves, the top one just level with my shoulders. Before I tap the screen to continue, a rush of bravery floods through me.

“You know, I think that’s one of Phoebe’s worst songs,” I say lightly, restarting the programme and turning the volume down a bit. Adrenaline makes me light headed and I have to be careful not to stumble and step on El as I gingerly edge back towards the bed.

What am I doing?

            “Hmm? Why?” asks Oliva, the Friends novice who cannot yet recite every single one of Phoebe’s songs off by heart.

            Please… don’t?

“It’s just not funny,” I reply, twirling a strand of my loose hair lightly as I take my seat on the bed. I can hear my heartbeat thundering in my ears, drowning out the rest of the episode. “I mean, I’m bisexual, and I know I’m not ‘kidding’ myself.”

Silence. I can feel Olivia’s surprised stare, catch her mouth forming a small ‘o’ in the corner of my vision. My heart is livid at my mouth’s betrayal.

I am furious at myself. Furious. I’ve potentially just ruined two friendships. I know what everyone thinks about bisexuals and I’ve just—!

“We know, Lauren,” El replies, obliviously smashing into my downwards spiral like a juggernaut, not looking up from her phone.

I don’t reply, don’t dare let the hope that has ballooned inside me carry me away.

“And,” she continues, “I know ‘Smelly Cat’ is your favourite Friends song anyway.”

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