“I want you to do me like that,” Sam says to me, pointing at Rick.
“Okay,” I say. But I don’t know how, and my breath is caught because he has asked this of me.
I have just spent the last twenty minutes going over Rick’s 17-year-old cougar body (they live about 10 years in the wild, so Rick’s a very old man) in what is becoming our ritual: Rick leaps on his platform, yeowls and rubs his cheeks against the chain link and growls and spits and generally lets me know he’s glad to see me, then flops on his side and commences licking his paw. That’s my signal to start, so I do. There is a slightly larger hole in the chain link for this purpose, and Rick positions himself using this hole as a guide. I rub him across his body, the hairs fanning from black to brown, the flicker of his pale blue skin running underneath, and I palpate his hip joint with my thumb–a technique from Michael that I can be eternally grateful for, as I do struggle with resentments on so many other aspects of our lives’ collision. Rick then instinctively flexes his leg, the toes separating and splaying, then pointing, the final, satisfied punctuation of his feline stretch. It is yoga and a ballet tondue and post-modern art, all performed to the soundtrack of his grinding bleats of ecstasy. Rick is a talker, he is emotive, and Sam the tiger watches, and listens.
After I work Rick’s hip joint, I run my hand back across his body, feeling for lumps or weirdnesses, and I massage his shoulder just for a moment because he doesn’t like it as much as what I do next, which is reach my fingers under his chin and stroke right along the ridge of his jawbone until he reveals his throat to me, the soft cotton of it. I whisper I know your secret spot, baby and he purrs, his pink tongue rolling up over his fuzzy muzz and around his nose. I scratch him, almost but not quite too hard, rough, downward-only strokes in this tender morsel of his neck, and that 140-lb cougar’s back leg shimmy-shakes until he’s digging his claws into the wood. I told you before that he asked me to scratch his belly, which is now part of our routine, and yesterday he opened his chest to me, where his really nappy Rasta dreads are, and wondered if I wouldn’t mind scratching around in there and pulling a few of those loose. So, I did. He belted out his industrial-gears-overheating caterwaul of satisfaction, which translates to something like thank you/AWESOME/love it/SWEET JESUS.
Then he licks his paw while I pick out the knuckle-sized mats in his fur, and he talks while I listen and make affirmative, loving noises and baby talk. Rick and I have a very simple relationship. We’re friends, and we’ve understood each other from the very first day we met. I don’t know why it has always been so clear between us, and let me assure you I don’t have special powers. Maybe it is Rick’s open and unassuming personality, who knows. It’s easy between us, and we’ve melted away hours together until he gives his “I’m done!” kind of bitchy sound and then falls asleep. Sam usually paces while all this is going on until he, too, lays down for a nap–except that I told you last time I was there he watched. And paced. And watched.
Yesterday, he chuffed. This tiger noise is also called a snuffle, and if you say chuff, snuffle, chuff, snuffle quickly, you’ll have an idea of the sound if you have never heard it before. It is the tiger equivalent of aloha. If you do it back, the tiger will respond in kind. (I’m no tiger whiz, here, I learned that bit of info from We Bought a Zoo, the Matt Damon movie, which Jim loaned me. So, what I’m saying is that Scarlett Johansen, who played the zookeeper, taught me how to do that.)
The reason I don’t do this ritual with Sam is because he doesn’t let me. Sam takes me in, he assesses me, and although he sleeps next to me and tolerates me stroking his fur when I can manage to sneak it in, Sam had never indicated that he wanted to be touched the way Rick so obviously enjoys being touched. Yet. I thought maybe? last time I was at Jim’s because Sam was acting differently, but then I suspected I may only be hearing the voice of my wishful thinking. I love Sam, but I gave up the thought of ever touching him the way I touch Rick.
This day, a dynamic formed: I’d rub Rick, who’d yeowl. Sam chuffed and walked. I chuffed. Sam chuffed. He was trying to tell me something, that much I finally figured out by his body language because Sam is still closed to me (if you don’t know what I mean, check out my last blog: The Tiger Lessons. Two: Detachment). Before I was completely through with Rick’s massage, Sam moaned, looked at me, and crashed his head into the chain link, digging the top of his head against the fencing.
“What is it, baby?” I asked, even though I knew, I suspected his desire the last time I was there, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Sam moaned again and dragged his face across the metal, then turned and rubbed the other side of his face. I abandoned Rick, who continued licking his paw until he dozed off.
That’s when Sam told me I want you do to me like that.
“Okay,” I say. I stop breathing.
Me, too, I say. But I don’t know how.
“You have to say it out loud,” he says.
“Because. It’s how I know you’re serious.”
I don’t like asking for what I want. But.
This is how the universe works the way I have been instructed: speak the truth within, then wait. Go on about the business of living. When opportunity appears–and it will, without fail, but usually not in the way I expect and NEVER in what I consider a timely manner–take it. If I miss that opportunity, another will appear. If I keep missing the opportunities or refusing to take them because I’m scared, I get sent back to the drawing board to review how to step out of fear. I know I’ve been sent back to the drawing board when I have a series of interactions or circumstances in which I have to confront fears, real and imagined. I used to think these episodes were some sort of punishment or proof that I sucked as a human, but those ideas turned out to be false. It’s taken me several years to realize this cycle is the learning process; it’s God interacting with me so we can get closer.
[The trick here is that it has to be the real truth within and not the ego’s desire, which is a totally different ballgame, and it takes work to separate the wheat (truth) from the chaff (ego’s desire) which is why I journal and write this blog. Otherwise, I go asking for a bunch of bullshit, except I think it’s important, and that’s how I ended up in the romantic and financial scrapes whose consequences I am currently mending. What can I say? I am learning as I go.]
So, when Sam tells me to say it out loud, I know what I’m being asked to do. This is the opportunity, and I take it.
I push my palms against the fencing where his big head is, and I throw my body weight into his forehead. My lips hover between his ears.
“I want to, Sam. I’ll do what you ask of me, but I can’t reach you. Help me.”
For the next few minutes, Sam makes small circles, passing in front of me, and crashing his head into the fence, into my hands. He rubs and moans, trying to get my hands on his head. The problem is that there is no large hole where I stand. I can’t get to him. He tries to rub his cheeks and lips against my fingers, but the chain link is too small, and his weight crushes my little fingertips against the metal the few times I managed to touch him.
It is frustrating for both of us, and eventually Sam starts pawing at the fence and growling. At first I don’t know what he is doing; I think he is mad at me, and then I realize he is trying to pull the fence from between us. As a baby, he was declawed, and the impotence of his efforts to hook into the chain link and rip it out of the ground so that I can reach his head deflates us both.
He backs away from me.
“Wait, Sam. Wait. Come over here to your platform, you have a hole like Rick’s.” It’s a larger opening to accommodate the massive cuts of raw meat, and Jim and I have patted Sam through this hole before. I show it to Sam, but he doesn’t want to. He wants me to rub on him down there where I normally stand, and I would.
But there’s no way in hell I’m sticking my hand inside a tiger cage without a wide enough berth to get it out very, very quickly.
The clear line of thought between us now is full of static and then goes silent. Sam paces back into his playroom, the large open-topped “yard” that is his more jungle-like room in his enclosure. The moment is over. I look down at my fingers, my fingerprints visible from the thick coat of dark cat oil covering them.
“We’ll figure it out, Sam,” I say out loud. “I promise.”
I try a few more times to get him to come to me, to throw his head into my hands again, but he won’t. He acts like he cares nothing for whether I go or stay, and he sits, then walks his front legs out until he’s on the ground, the majestic cat in repose.
“I’m just a tiger,” he says. “I’m not what you think I am.”
When I look at him, I see a vision of him a cub, the little baby who got separated and put in a cage. You’re just a kid, I think, and then I’m laughing at the thought because Sam is a 16 year old, 500 lb tiger. He’s no kid. Why would such a vision, such a thought, come to me? And I was surprised because the vision and thought didn’t bother me; Sam understands his life, so it felt in that moment, and he’s at peace. I notice, as he sits there, indifferent, that the line between us is merely silent.
It isn’t dead.
“Okay, then,” I say. “Okay.”
I walk inside to eat dinner with Jim, who has no idea that Sam has told me he wants me to scratch his cheeks and lips and the special area behind his ear at the base. There is a part of me that is very scared that all of this is happening, and it comes inside with me, so I mention none of this to Jim.
But the part of me willing to speak out loud stays behind, somewhere next to the chain link, wondering. Marveling next to the big tiger under the Florida sky.
“Send me a text or call when you get home. I worry.” Jim shuts my car door and waves me goodbye. “I don’t mean to be weird, but I’d like to know you got home okay.”
I feel safe when Jim worries, and I like it, but he is horrible at taking compliments, so I smile and wave. “Will do,” I say. On the drive home, the image I can’t get out of my mind is that enormous tiger trying to pull up the obstruction between us. It wasn’t an entirely comfortable moment for many reasons, but what bothered me the most was the sense of conflict I felt. I’m not supposed to want the fence to be gone, but I do.
HEY! I’M HOME! I text. I pause, but that’s the lesson. Say it.
ALSO, SAM WANTS ME TO RUB HIM ON HIS HEAD LIKE I DO RICK. CAN WE MAKE A BIGGER HOLE DOWN THERE WHERE I STAND? I type. Jim gets what’s happening between the animals and me. But I can almost guarantee you he’s not real thrilled about the thought of me getting anywhere close to Sam’s face. PLEEEEEEEEEEEEASE? I add.
Then I hit send.
night night beloveds. To the sound of your truth within, whatever your prayer may be.
SPECIAL SECTION: HAFIZ POEM SENT TO ME AFTER A CERTAIN VERY FRUSTRATED CONVERSATION WITH GOD IN WHICH I IMPLORED FOR HELP ON THE PATH OF MY LIFE, WHICH I DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND SOMETIMES. An old work colleague and dear friend from Wilmington, NC happened to send this to my email. She has no idea what I’m really doing down here, but she came across this beautiful poem and passed it along. So, I’m passing it to you.