Margot, the protagonist of Kristen Roupenian’s story “Cat Person,” faces issues of consent, control, and conformity during a brief relationship, unable to fulfill contradictory cultural expectations that she has unconsciously adopted. Faced with the choice of honoring herself or pleasing others, Margot suppresses her intuition and undergoes humiliation to conform to “nice girl” behavior.

The story’s inciting incident occurs when Margot, a twenty-year-old sophomore, surprises herself by giving her phone number to a stranger with whom she flirts when he buys Red Vines at the theater where she works. Robert is a “cute enough” chubby man who she guesses is in his mid-twenties but who, she learns later, is actually thirty-four.

The rising action unfolds as Robert and Margot spend the next weeks texting playfully about Red Vines. Margot enjoys matching Robert’s witty tone but notices that it’s up to her to keep the exchange going. Late one evening she texts that she is hungry, and he offers to meet her at a nearby convenience store. When she says she needs to study, he texts her to “stop fooling around” and come, so she does. Robert kisses Margot’s forehead and sends her back to her dorm with snacks. Feeling cherished, Margot doesn’t notice that Robert overrides her objections.

Over semester break, Margot and Robert text funny stories about their cats. Margot feels anxious when Robert’s texts are delayed. Back on campus, she agrees to their first date. As they drive, Robert seems distant, and Margot muses that she knows little about him—just that he has cats. Yet she is in his car, in his control. He could take her anywhere and do whatever he wanted. As if reading her mind, Robert says he won’t murder her, and she jokes apologetically, “[Y]ou can murder me if you want.” Because she wants to be perceived as pleasant and easygoing, she feels contrite about even having doubts about this man she hardly knows or about being concerned with her own safety and comfort.

As the evening progresses, Margot’s capacity for control disintegrates. Robert ignores her during the movie, suggests a drink at a bar that bounces her, and then insists that she told him that she was twenty-one. When she becomes tearful because “somehow everything had been ruined,” he hugs her comfortingly but then kisses her disgustingly and aggressively. Wanting once again to be viewed as a nice girl, Margot decides to regard the “shockingly bad” kiss as endearing.

As they drink at another bar, Margot tries to read Robert, who seems nervous during their long, face-to-face conversation. To please Robert, Margot laughs at jokes she doesn’t find funny, excuses biased comments, and denigrates herself before agreeing to go to his house for sex. When they arrive, however, she realizes that she is on his “turf” and imagines that he might kidnap her. He begins clumsily “groping her ass and pawing at her chest,” and when she sees him undressed, Margot no longer wants to have sex. But now, having willingly come to his house, Margot feels helpless to withdraw consent. She drinks some whiskey to “bludgeon her resistance into submission” before he weighs her down with his large body.

Margot makes a final attempt to exert control over what is happening by enjoying Robert’s desire for her, but she makes the mistake of laughing during his rough foreplay. He pauses, loses his erection, and regards her distrustfully before pinning her beneath him and subjecting her to dehumanizing sex, as if she were a “a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient.” The story climaxes as Robert does, and as he flops down on Margot, she puzzles over having agreed to this date. She imagines laughing about it someday—but also about killing herself.

During the story’s falling action, Margot wants desperately to break things off, but she wavers, not wanting to be labeled a “mean girl.” What she wants most—to ghost him—would be “inappropriate, childish, and cruel.” She thinks about the man she imagined during their witty text exchanges and absolves him of treating her like a “prop.” When Margot cannot escape “nice girl” behavior, her roommate, Tamara, sends a blunt text dumping Robert. So fearful is Margot of the consequences of failing to placate Robert that she feels sick, and when he reacts indifferently, her relief is profound.

Yet the story’s resolution adds a bitter twist. When Margot sees Robert a month later, she feels “sick and scared,” indicating that she is not past the guilt and fear about what happened between them. As she and Tamara huddle on her bed, Robert’s increasingly angry and controlling texts arrive. He interrogates Margot about other sexual partners, orders her to explain herself, and, when she finally refuses consent, succinctly states his opinion of women who fail to conform to his expectations in the story’s final word: “Whore.”