Tinder was still somewhat new to me. Openly dating women was extremely new to me. I had maybe about fifteen matches in the greater Chicago area. I messaged them the same way I messaged new internet friends—with enthusiasm and a lot more extroversion than I tend to have in offline spaces. I was good at keeping the conversation going, but unsure how to escalate things to actual in-person dates. We talked about the weather (we were all, simply, cold), about IPAs, about the pop culture references in my bio. One night, bored and drunk on boxed red wine, I came up with the Fast & Furious prompt. At the time, six movies were out, and the seventh was on its way.
The most common answer—other than I don’t watch those movies—was Fast Five. The 2011 film features most of the franchise’s core players: Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel), his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and her man Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who assemble a team made up of previous side characters in the series. There’s Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), the team’s “fast talker,” a bullshitter who can charm his way into just about any room. There’s resident tech and cart parts expert Tej Parker (Ludacris). There’s Han Lue (Sung Kang), a quiet and skilled driver, and Ducatti-driving Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot). Together, they’re trying to steal a lot of money from kingpin Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) while also evading the human tank, federal agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson).
Fast Five is not my personal favorite in the franchise. Maybe it was at one time, but my Fast & Furious favoritism isn’t fixed. The number one spot changes just like I do. Lately, I’ve enjoyed telling people how much I love Tokyo Drift, mainly because it’s considered the flop of the franchise. I know, I know. It doesn’t have Dom (until that brief cameo at the end). It doesn’t have Brian. But it’s director Justin Lin’s entry point into the franchise (other than his 2002 movie Better Luck Tomorrow, which was retconned to have an F&F tie-in), and he is now inseparable from it. And it spotlights Han, who is easily one of the best F&F crew members. Many of the characters in Tokyo Drift only appear in that one movie. But that’s precisely one of the things I like about it: It feels like a genuine expansion of this cinematic universe.
My sample size of a dozen or so dykes on Tinder in Chicago is small, but it’s safe to say Fast Five’s popularity is by design. Universal Studioswanted a movie that would appeal to a wider audience than the previous films had, so the street-racing premise was jettisoned and replaced with a heist setup. It became less about fast cars racing one another, and more about them chasing and escaping each other. The hand-to-hand combat increased. More things started going boom. But cars undoubtedly still remained critical, almost extensions of these characters, as important and distinctive as their wardrobes.
Fast Five is the real start of what the franchise has become. It introduced that simple phrase: One last job. But there would always be another “last” job, and another. These characters are trapped in a cycle of heists, the target always moving, like a car chase without brakes.
Fast Five opens with Brian and Mia breaking Dom out of custody. They’re forced into hiding in Rio, and the “one last job” they spend the rest of the movie plotting and executing is all so they can have enough money to live without constantly watching their backs. On the surface, they’re after a vault of cash, sure. But they’re also after regaining some control of their lives.
I asked girls to tell me their favorite Fast & Furious movies because I thought it would be funny. That’s the surface-level explanation, at least. At that time, I existed at the tragic nexus of trying to do standup comedy in the Chicago scene, and being very young and inexperienced (sexually and comedically). So young and inexperienced that I believed “comedy inspired by Tinder” was a remotely interesting or original angle.
But it was always about more than just starting a conversation or finding something to screenshot, tweet, and turn into a punchline.
What’s your favorite Fast & Furious movie, I asked.
If they entertained the question, I’d send a follow-up: Rank all of the movies in order from your favorite to least favorite.
What I was really asking: Who are you and what do you want?
I think often of the girl who provided extremely detailed answers. She chose the first movie and then ranked the rest with little notes for each. I liked talking to her. She seemed obsessed with pop culture, like me. She was funny, and she sent multiple messages in a row, stacked one on top of another, without waiting for me to reply.
Then, late one night, she abruptly confessed she’d never seen any of them. Her confession wasn’t because of something I’d said; I’d had no suspicions. But we were inching closer and closer to possibly, hesitantly making plans to meet up, and maybe the guilt had become unbearable. Maybe she didn’t think she’d be able to keep the lies up in person. It would be harder for her to covertly consult Wikipedia while perched on a barstool next to me.
It was, in a way, an emotional heist. Taking something that belonged to someone else and making it mine.
Some people might have unmatched. Maybe I should have. Lying on a dating app is common, but also commonly understood as a red flag, right? But I recognized something in her. I’d been there. Pretending for someone else, even when the stakes are low.
I recently told someone I was afraid of slugs, and when they asked why, I blanked. It took me a second, but I remembered. My best friend in the fifth grade was afraid of slugs. I didn’t share her fear; I mimicked it. I kept it up for so long I’d tricked even myself into thinking it was real. It was, in a way, an emotional heist. Taking something that belonged to someone else and making it mine.
I thought about doing a heist the summer of 2019. Really, seriously thought about it.
One last job and then I could get out. Out of Brooklyn, out of New York altogether, out of a relationship that’d gone boom.
My friends encouraged me. They would be my crew. Q could be the fast talker. She was close to finishing law school, after all. She’d consult the astrological charts of everyone involved, too: mine, my ex’s (the mark). E would run reconnaissance. She lived a mere courtyard away from my ex and the apartment we used to share. E and I’d been through a battle zone together (San Diego Comic-Con in 2011). C ran the safehouse, a little under a mile from my old apartment. She’d be the muscle, too, ready to fight anyone who got in my way. And then there’s B, who has never met a hacking situation she couldn’t crack. Okay, so not actual hacking—she couldn’t get into any government databases or anything. But her internet sleuthing is unparalleled. The whole team’s got amateur hacker skills. After all, I met most of them on the internet. They speak my language.
A getaway car was already in motion. My parents were set to pick me up in a few days. There wasn’t much time. Just a few days to do the job and get out.
Just a few days to figure out how I could steal my cat back from my ex.
As well as introducing the heist trope, Fast Five is also the point at which the franchise officially becomes about family. The thematic through line has inspired many a meme, fanfic, and (I’m assuming) undergrad film class term paper. In 2009’s Fast & Furious, “family” appears in the script three times. Fast Five brought that count up to seven. Family is at the surface of the film’s quieter moments: Dom shares memories of his father. Brian talks about the kind of dad he wants to be to his and Mia’s unborn child. The crew expands, and the ties between everyone tighten.
Early in the movie, Vince, part of Dom’s original crew in 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, attempts to go behind Dom’s back and sell a computer chip to Reyes on his own. This is, seemingly, an unforgivable sin in the F&F universe. You don’t turn your back on family. At first, Dom casts Vince out of the team, out of the family. But Vince comes back. He saves Mia from someone following her at a market and, when she tells her brother as much, that’s all it takes. Dom asks Vince if he’s hungry. Later, when Vince hints he’d like to join in on the job, Dom interrupts him.
“Always got room for family,” he says. And just like that, he’s forgiven.
But in Fast Five’s family, something is missing. Someone is missing. Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty is gone, believed dead based on events from the fourth movie. Dom’s excitement over Mia’s pregnancy has a subtle undercurrent of grief. The family is expanding, but it has taken hits, too. Dom lost his literal partner in crime. He wears her necklace, and when federal agent Elena ends up with it around her neck, he risks getting caught to take it back. In a way, it’s his most important job. He’ll get the heist money. But this matters more. He has to take back this piece of his heart.
“I don’t understand,” Elena says. “Why come here? Why risk it all for twenty dollars’ worth of silver?”
“Cause it’s worth it,” Dom says without looking back.
My ex and I adopted the cat—full name Emmy Award Winner Sarah Paulson the Cat, just Paulson for short—on July 5th in a suburb of New Jersey during a weekend vacation with friends. Paulson was a small and quiet spotted calico with ears she’d yet to grow into. She’d previously been adopted by someone else, but they’d just called the shelter to back out. The first thing she did when we brought her home was scale the mattress we kept forgetting to get rid of, the one turned on its side in the hallway. Her tiny head with those too-big ears peeked out from above as she surveyed her new kingdom. She kept me company during the days while I worked from home. She wasn’t a lap cat, but at night, she liked to be spooned. I called her “squirrel” sometimes, but I can’t remember why.
How do you steal something that was yours, that was a part of your heart?
We hadn’t even had the cat for a full year before my ex started secretly sleeping with her coworker, someone we’d met and bonded with together behind the bar at our neighborhood’s Mexican restaurant, before my ex got her a job at the restaurant she managed. Less than a year I had that cat. That doesn’t seem right to me. Less than a year, and yet, she haunts me.
When we broke up, the first thing I said was that I’d be taking the cat. That seemed right. If you cheat, and then lie for months to cover up the cheating, you lose custody of the cat—right? Shouldn’t it be simple?
And yet, as with most breakups, the actual detangling of our lives was much more complex. I couldn’t move out right away. She wouldn’t move out right away. She stayed with a friend for a couple weeks, took some of her things, then brought those things back. The apartment became a haunted house. I wasn’t sleeping. The cat kept me company during the hours of the night when my local friends went to sleep, and then my Midwest friends went to sleep, and then my west coast friends went to sleep. There was no one left to text. So I lay awake, the cat pressed against me, our heartbeats syncing.
When it came time for me to take the cat, my ex said no. I thought we’d already agreed on it, but I had no proof outside of my own word and the word of the couples’ therapist. I’d already moved out of the apartment and in, temporarily, with C. I’d be leaving New York in a few days. With no claim to the apartment, I had no way to see Paulson.
If I wanted the cat, I’d have to steal her.
What if this really were a heist, I wondered. I wanted to make my ex into the villain. I wanted to make this mess fit the shape of an action movie, all movement and easy motives. But I could never figure her motives out. She kept changing her story: The affair was about polyamory or it was about sex or it wasn’t about sex at all or it was about her childhood or it was about spending too much time together or it was all or none of those things. I had no way to know when she was telling the truth. She made sure of that
There was one option: the heist. My friends were ready. They were my family. I’d slept on their couches, in their beds, at times when I’d been awake for so long, I’d practically pass out without warning. All I had to do was give them the go-ahead. But could I really do it? Could I really steal a cat?
If I’m being honest with myself and with you: If I were a character in a heist movie, I’d be the one going “guys, are we sure this is a good idea?” Which is, I suppose, a way to say I’d never be a character in a heist movie.
I am what I like to call a Reformed Good Girl. I know, I know. It’s supposed to go the other way, right? You’re bad and then you’re reformed. But I used to believe that to be good was to follow the rules. No matter what. I was a tattletale, a worrywart, a goody-goody.
I was obsessed with rules because deep down I felt like I was just on the precipice of breaking a big one. I was something I thought I wasn’t allowed to be. I wanted things I didn’t think I was allowed to want.
If I was gay, I’d hide it. I’d push it down. And I’d make sure I followed every rule thrown my way. Otherwise, people would know there was something wrong about me.
When I finally let myself act on my queer desires, everything went topsy-turvy. Realizing my queerness wasn’t against the rules—that so many of The Rules I’d been inundated with and internalized—changed everything. The rules were arbitrary. Worse, many of them were created by systems that sought to control and to erase me. I could ignore them, break them. I could even make up my own rules for myself.
When I came out, I also lost my ability to detect sarcasm. This was especially strange because throughout middle and high school I was, unfortunately, the type of person who would have self-identified as “fluent in sarcasm.” My favorite pairing on television was Dr. Gregory House and famously hot hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was my North Star for romance. I preferred quips to kisses; banter to flattery—Beatrice and Benedick were the blueprint. There are plenty of things I still don’t understand about myself from back then, but this makes sense. Snark was an easy shield, a way to calcify my personality into something simple and, I thought, entertaining.
After I came out, I started crying all the time. Maybe that sounds like a bad thing, but it wasn’t. I felt like I could finally be vulnerable. I stopped believing banter was the only marker of chemistry (though, come on, I still enjoy a good enemies-to-lovers trope). And I started embarrassing myself all the time by misinterpreting or altogether missing other people’s sarcasm. I’ve recalibrated since, but there are still times I trip over sarcasm, slipping back into that place of being newly out and too exposed. And that’s not such a bad thing, either. I can have my slick moments and then still be sincere.
Fast & Furious doesn’t conflate coolness with not caring. The movies are almost achingly earnest. There isn’t a drip of irony or snark to them. The humor skews dad-jokey. For action heroes, this crew is kind of goofy. They have their slick moments. But their overall energy is sincere, almost heartfelt. They simply love what they do and love doing it together. Dom’s like a dad at a potluck, always making sure everyone’s got enough to eat.
Fast & Furious doesn’t conflate coolness with not caring. The movies are almost achingly earnest.
The franchise also flips the rules of morality, complicating the concepts of Good Guys and Bad Guys. One of my favorite things about Fast Five is how no one lets Brian forget he used to be a cop. He used to be the enemy, and they rightfully give him shit for it. Because when you watch these movies, you root for the criminals. Hobbs is a souped-up fed who even admits himself he’s no match for Dom and his family. “The men we’re after are professional runners,” he briefs his team. “They like speed and are guaranteed to go down in the hardest possible way, so make sure you got your funderwear on. We find them. We take them as a team. And we bring them back. And above all else, we don’t ever—ever—let them get into cars.”
Good luck, buddy.
Listen, I won’t go so far as to say the Fast & Furious movies are anti-carceral or abolitionist—they are absolutely products of the capitalist and patriarchal systems they were created in. But there is something deeply satisfying about watching these outlaws run circles around corrupt, authoritarian law enforcement. It makes sense to me that I know so many queer folks who are into the franchise. Crimes and chosen family?! That’s the queer agenda! (I’m, like, half-kidding.)
In the official production notes for Fast Five, Dwayne Johnson characterizes Hobbs like this: “Hobbs poses a different threat than the other antagonist in the movie … He has a different energy because he’s not driven by money or power. Instead, Hobbs is driven by his code and his job. He believes that if you are a bad man and you’re toxic to the world, he’s going to rid you of that toxicity.”
Hobbs doesn’t yet know that his code is what’s toxic.
I haven’t forgiven my ex, and I think that’s okay. Movies overhype forgiveness, make it seem like the only way to achieve catharsis. But I don’t think you have to forgive in order to let go. Closure is a myth.
My one last job became this: let go of the cat.
When my ex told me she was keeping the cat, I told her I hated her. They were the last words I ever said to her. I wish I could say I regret that, but I think I’d be lying. She’d already taken so much from me, and then she still took this. I never even got to say goodbye to Paulson.
Instead of the heist, I chose to run away, escape to a safehouse. My childhood home, where I lived for four months and kept feeling like I was running into past versions of myself in the halls.
Every time the F&F crew goes off the map, disappearing into some safe house in some country with no extradition, something always pulls them back. “I thought that was our last job, Brian,” Roman says in Fast Five’s sequel, Fast & Furious 6. One last job is never really the last job, is it?
But I did it. I got out. I’m not pulled back to the danger and the explosions the way they are in the movies. I did the thing they’re always after: I made a new home. I got back some control of my life. I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder anymore. But something’s missing.
I miss the cat, and I always will. There are thousands of pictures of her on my phone: on top of that old mattress, curled next to me on the couch, stretched out like taffy in bed. My perfect little calico who liked to be invited into the bed before she pounced upon it, who loved sticking her face in front of the air conditioning window unit and over steaming mugs of coffee like she was at the goddamn spa, who preferred wet food mixed with a little warm water. Paulson’s Soup, I called it.
I’ve only let go insofar as I’ve accepted I’ll never see her, never hear her strange animal sounds again—not quite a meow, more like a chirp. But it still hurts. I can’t forget about her, though sometimes I wish I could. When Letty resurfaces in Fast & Furious 6, she doesn’t remember who she was before. She doesn’t remember Dom. Is it wrong, on some level, to want something similar—to want Paulson out of my head?
The cat’s haunting has become more of a whisper, but it’s still around, a barely-there echo.I’ll always feel the lack of her. I dream about her sometimes, and I wake up sad and stiff like I’ve been clenching muscles in my sleep. I dream, too, of the cat heist that never happened. Of my ex and I screaming. In my waking life, there’s no mid-credits reveal that Paulson’s going to come back, that she’s been here all along. But at least my ex hasn’t attempted to claw her way back in either. I’m grateful for that.
There’s no use in fantasizing about the heist that never was. I’ll keep the cat in a vault in my heart. There are worse things to keep locked up inside.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, fiction, and pop culture criticism. She is an upcoming fellow for Lambda Literary's Writer's Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. Her work appears or is forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Cut, Vice, Autostraddle, and Catapult.