Sam does not love me in return.
I accepted this the moment I fell for him; I suppose with love at first sight you accept your job is to serve the beloved. That is all. There is nothing to be upset about.
A few days ago, I drove to Jim’s to see Sam and Rick, who has been telling me for months to scratch his belly (“This you must do”). Everyone knows you never touch the belly of a cat of any size, and yet he’d made this request. “It’s now or never,” he told me this past Sunday, when Jim had gone into the house and left us alone. “Just do it. Right in here. Ready, go.” So, I gritted my teeth and scratched the cougar Rick on his belly where, as an old cat, he can no longer reach to satisfaction, and he rolled over and yeowled and purred and fell into spats of ecstasy, which, to the human ear, sound like “NNnnnGAAAHHH,” “gack!,” and something like a diesel engine turning over underwater. Then he went down for a nap.
Sam watched from his enclosure, which is attached to Rick’s although they are separated by chain link walls. Sam watches everything, always. Especially Jim, his guardian, to whom he is bonded, although I remind you it is on Sam’s terms, not Jim’s. And they are bonded in an agreement quite different from human bonding and unlike the bonds we have with pets. English words fail to explain what is happening, what is. I can tell you Sam and Jim are friends, which they are, but it isn’t a human friendship, not even close. I can tell you Sam is deciding right now whether or not he is going to be my teacher, but it is not “deciding” as we know it, not “teacher” as we attribute. I also can tell you “I feel what Sam says to me,” not emotionally, but as a sense-exchange, which arrives in my mind either as pictures or words or, more ineffable still, as a knowing. Unscientific? You betcha. I don’t understand it, and I don’t think I can, at least not yet. Is it me projecting myself onto Sam? Hell, no. If that were the case, I’d be telling you Sam looked deep into my eyes and we connected on a supernatural level and are bonded for life. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be telling you I don’t know what’s happening:
I’d be telling you Sam loves me back.
But, Sam has not opened his end of the bond between us because he still hasn’t made up his mind about me. I love him, but he has not received me. This is the best I can do to tell you what it is like to sit with him on Sunday afternoons.
This past Sunday, as I was digging between Rick’s matted belly fur and he was rubbing the back of his head into his platform and gacking and burbling like some kind of servant in a Roman orgy, Sam settled himself on the ground to watch. When I was done and turned to speak to Sam, Sam stood and ambled into the side room of his enclosure, the room that shares a wall with Rick’s. I can see him in this side room, but it is more of the “bedroom” of the three sections of Sam’s enclosure–his private space.
“What are you doing in there, Sam? Did you want to come see me?”
I talk to Sam soft and quiet, the way I remember my grandmother talking to children. I even use her slow, Southern cadence, a dainty, Scripture-citing lilt. My natural Southern twang sounds like a banjo on bourbon, and I find it interesting that of my repertoire of accents, this is the one that popped out when I started conversing with a tiger. This day is the first time Jim has left me alone in the yard with the kids, and so I finally feel naked in front of them, so to speak. I can’t hide who I am with animals, I know this, they see through me, and for the first time in my life I am fully conscious of what it feels like to stand in pure judgment without secrets or shame. It’s a breathtaking moment, showing another living thing my nakedness, a living thing worthy of seeing it. I quite like it.
Sam stood and paced into the “living room,” where his big sheet-metal bathtub full of cool water sits, and his wooden platform. I stand or sit in the corner outside, where Sam’s enclosure meets Rick’s, so I can look into the “living room” and talk to Sam. Usually he crashes by the chain link for a snooze, but today he paced. He glanced at me. He paced. He leapt on the platform and stared into the back door where Jim had disappeared. Maybe he didn’t quite know what to do with me without Jim there as a buffer. It wasn’t an agitated pace. It was slow, deliberate, a thinker’s pace.
“Do you want me to rub you?” I asked. “Like I do Rick? I will. I just need you to tell me.” Sam glanced at me. He paced. “I’ll leave you alone, Sam. If that’s what you want.”
It’s at this point, when Sam sauntered into his bedroom and lay down, facing me, his big head propped on his paws, that I knew Sam was deciding whether or not to open the bond to me. I haven’t been there enough. I haven’t proven myself. Why should he? In this moment, I also knew without question that it makes no difference to Sam at all what happens between the two of us. None.
I have a particular outcome in mind; I have a wish for how this will go.
He does not. He opened his eyes.
“I’m just a tiger,” he said to me, then closed his eyes again. This is true but not all there is, the same way me saying I’m human is true but not all there is.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
In a few moments, he opened his eyes again and pushed himself up, lumbering through the door, through the living room, and into his “playroom,” a large, open-topped yard full of palm trees and surrounded by a 20′ chain link fence. He watched me as he walked the back fence line. I tried to feel something between us, but there was nothing there. A dead phone line.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” he said.
“For now?” I asked.
“Okay,” I said. And I meant it. The person I used to be would have embellished this moment, read into it, made it more, not been satisfied, refused to believe Sam didn’t love me. Detachment, the cleanliness of it, the wholesome freedom of living without getting caught up in other people’s traps, in my own traps–it looks like a tiger glancing at you as it walks away. It’s fantastic. It’s absolutely necessary for survival–physical and spiritual.
I waited for him to walk back into the living room, where I stood with my palms, fingers downward, toward the earth, pressed against the chain link. He lowered his head, like cats do, and moaned and chuffed–a sound like a 300-pound door creaking on its hinges followed by air sputtering from a truck tire. “Okay,” he said, and then shoved his giant forehead into my hands.
“Okay,” I said, rubbing my thumb across a jagged black stripe beneath his ear. “Whatever you want.”
We stood for a few seconds more before Sam finally lay down on his side and closed his eyes. I sat down on the damp ground, and soon I found myself growing tired. I shifted down in front of Sam, on my belly, and folded my hands underneath my head. Soon, all three of us–Rick, Sam, and me–dozed together in Jim’s back yard. I don’t think I fell into sleep, but when I opened my eyes again, I found myself staring into Sam’s great luminous tiger eyes, hooded and sleepy like mine, and there was nothing more in the moment than that. Yet that was more than what I need, and far more than what I deserve.
night night beloveds. Here’s a moan and chuff for you, too. Not Sam’s, but close. Love you guys.