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Our Secret Selves: The Joy of Barking Alone
Many years ago, I knew a woman who couldn't wait for her boyfriend to go out without her on hot summer nights. That way, she could stay inside and scrub the floor in her underwear. And by underwear, I mean the genuine female article: white cotton, saggy, stretched elastic. She didn't want her boyfriend to see her like that, I assumed, because it conflicted with the rare but crucial poetic fictions that a couple often needs to survive long term.
These days, I know friends who indulge in all kinds of secret activities: say, smoking a forbidden cigarette or overeating alone. In my case, I wait until a night when my husband has to work really late and watch mindless romantic comedies back-to-back until 1 in the morning, while guzzling Diet Coke and a 2-pound bag of fat-free Twizzlers. Nobody, not even my husband, needs to see me passed out on the bed, mentally wounded (by choice!) from Kate Hudson movies, aspartame and artificial strawberry flavoring.
Then along with 4 million other people, I saw this video of a cat barking.
Here was this cat, in his hour of presumed privacy, barking away like a German shepherd. What was he thinking? Was he trying to protect the house? Did he have some kind transspecies issue, i.e., inside, he was secretly a dog? Or was he barking—like so many dogs do—just for the joy of it? This was what it felt like to me. Then again, I am not a cat.
The important part came when the cat realized that his owner was taping him and began instantly to meow. I wanted to say, "Don't change yourself for anybody! Bark it up! Be different! Be yourself!"
Instead, I thought about my old friend. I called her up. "Is the reason you don't wash the floor in front of your boyfriend, now husband, because you're embarrassed and you think he'll think of you differently?"
"Oh, no," she said. "I think he'll think it's sexy. Every time I hear him on the stairs, I throw on my jeans and turn on the TV."
"I just want to wash my floor," she said. "I want to enjoy it. Running around in my comfy cool undies when it's hot out, washing off all the black gunk off the floor—it's one of the great pleasures of my life, and I want to keep it as mine. I don't want to share it. I don't even want to tell him about it so that I'll have to explain about not sharing it."
I sat there stunned by the obviousness of a thought that had never occurred to me. Sometimes the point of a secret isn't hiding something that's shameful or self-destructive. It's just about hiding something, and that something could be delightful or pleasurable or even good for you: a cathartic bark, a deep, soul-cleansing floor scrub in nonbinding panties. What if that cat stopped barking not because he was embarrassed, but because acting like a dog in front of his owner wasn't as fun as acting like a dog by himself? What, I wondered, could I do alone that I would feel so positively about that I wouldn't want anybody to know about it?
I considered my romantic comedy DVD binges, which now all of a sudden didn't seem like funny, self-indulgent secret pleasures. They just seem like slightly empty evenings that left me with a sugar hangover—a cat growling quietly, as if he suspects that his owner is around the corner but can't resist a little dogness.
Worse, it was me policing myself. Back when I younger and didn't have kids and bills and window boxes with no flowers in them, and didn't feel that I should be doing something useful and constructive at all times, I used go to the movies with no particular film in mind. I just walked into a show and watched it, then went and saw another one and another, until I felt sated. I would not eat fat-free candy or drink diet soda in some kind of fumbled attempt to be healthy, as if somebody was with me, watching me. I would get a Coke and a hot buttered popcorn. I would not watch movies that I felt were silly but okay to see on the small screen. I would see the big visual whoppers, full of explosions or gorgeous scenes of Africa. And I would be in Africa too, gone—an invisible character in the movie because I was so swept up by the story, and an invisible person in this world because nobody on the planet knew where the heck I was.
So much of life is about being recognized. But there is a joy to being not seen as well. Next week, I am hiring a babysitter. I am going to my local Cineplex and work my way through several blockbusters. If anybody asks, please tell him I'm doing Jell-O shots at the corner bar with a group of sailors or...maybe just grocery shopping. I don't want people to get concerned and come looking.
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