LTF: If Life Could Only Be a Catnap — Part V

Steven Bergom

The guards were actually pleasant to us when they understood that Marie was not bringing a 'pet' into the Tucson International Airport. Of course, if a full-grown tiger suddenly stood up and started insulting your intelligence, you'd be unfailingly polite, too! This probably wouldn't have happened if I was walking on my hind legs, but as I said once a long time ago, it was much more comfortable to walk with all four feet on the floor.

I am admittedly nervous, and I have noticed that lately when I get nervous or confused, I shrink into myself and become just a little more catlike. It wasn't completely healthy but it's a lot better than what I was like at the CDC.

This time, though, I feel that I have a very valid reason for being more nervous than usual; my mother is arriving today and this is going to be the first time in months that I will see her. Marie had accompanied me both to provide emotional support and because I did not yet have a driver's license — or car — suited to my new form. At the moment I am sitting on the floor at the end of a row of uncomfortable airline seats while Marie sits next to me in one of the aforementioned uncomfortable chairs, idly scratching me between my ears and watching the planes take off.

The publics reaction has been varied. Some ignore me — or look like they're ignoring me — and some hurry past, looking over their shoulder at me and hoping that they won't get mauled. Teens look at me curiously and the younger children get told by their parents that it isn't nice to point whenever I walk past. Their reactions are as varied as sand on a beach and a little part of me is always playing armchair psychologist and cataloging all this away for later study.

"Hey, Missus! Can I pet your cat?" asks a little girl in front of us. She's about six and reminds me a lot of my niece.

Marie quirks a smile and tells her simply, "Ask him."

The girl, with the faith of one so young, seriously asks me if she can pet me. Just as seriously I look back at her and say, "Yes, please." She is stunned for a moment but quickly reaches out to scratch me just behind the ear where I can't easily get at.

She stays for several minutes until a person who I assume to be her mother comes up to us and starts pulling her away. "I'm sorry," she apologizes. "Tonya's always getting away from me and I hope she didn't bother you or your… uh… pet?"

"No," I said noting the look of surprise on the lady's face and forcing my whiskers just a little bit more forward in feline smile. "Tonya was no trouble at all." Tonyas mother is silent for a moment before more nervously tugging her daughter away, giving us backward glances.

Marie chuckles. "You like doing that, don't you? The surprising people thing. 'Look at me, I'm just an animal! Nope, I can talk. too!' "

"If it'll get more people scratching my ears, I do!" I'm completely honest in my response; if you've got, flaunt it! I'm a good looking tiger, if I may say so myself, and the more people come up to me and talk to me, the less likely they are to run away gibbering in terror. It's my little way of desensitizing the public and it's worked pretty well so far.

My transition into 'normal' life was rather smooth when I left the CDC compound. At first I didn't think it would be but Marie, who I found out actually minored in Journalism in college, acted as my public relations advisor. With her advice I figured out how I would deal with the curious public, how to avoid open conflict with discriminating people and, most importantly, how to get the press to avoid me altogether.

That's right, I got the press so bored with me that they left me alone after a while. That's why you haven't seen much of me on national television; first, I was whisked out from under the news organization's noses by the timely interference of the CDC. Second, by the time I got back, much of the furor over the transformations had died down and third, I didn't give them what they wanted. I freely gave interviews to several area news teams, but whenever I started to get bored with the conversation — usually about five minutes in — I started directing my answers to the plight of several species of feline who were facing extinction in the African and Asian continents. After a while they stopped calling and that was just fine with me. Remember that: don't give the press what they want, but don't provoke them and you'll get the general populace to love you and the media to be bored with you.

The converse of this is that I was approached by various animal rights groups to be a spokesperson for their organization. The Reid Park Zoo, of course, got first dibs on my services because they are involved in several conservation programs, Marie works there, and I could get free medical benefits. Hey, who else is qualified to work with someone of my species? The University of Arizona even offered me a free season pass to all sporting events if I would play mascot for them. Their mascot, however, is a wildcat (whatever that's supposed to be) and, like I told them, since I attended a different college I would be forced to cheer for my alma mater if the teams ever met. They didn't bring up the offer again. As a result of this local attention I became a fixture of the community, as lovable and irreplaceable as Smokey the Bear. I would have it no other way as it made me an integral part of the city and not some outsider whom no one knows anything about.

And now I sit here trying to keep my mind off the fact that my mother will step off a plane and see me in the fur for the first time since that fateful day in January. It's nerve-wracking, and the only thing keeping me from flying apart is Maries calming presence.

The crowd around me is oblivious to the tension, chatting on cell phones, pressing their faces to the windows, getting a capuccino from the coffee bar in the concourse. I notice that somewhere off in the distance there is a maintenance worker collecting trash and that one wheel on his cart is in need of oiling. The squeaking stops when the cart does but shocks my sensitive hearing each time it starts again.

There is a boy not too far from me with too much energy, running the same path that he picked ten minutes ago while his dad just sits there tapping something important on his laptop. Behind me someone laughs a bit too loud at a joke that probably wasn't all that funny to begin with. Someone else snaps their gum continuously, newspapers get folded and refolded, a baby cries, an amateur drummer taps their fingers against a briefcase, someone sneezes, and…

…the plane taxis into the gate. Zero hour has arrived and an anxious crowd presses against the door where they expect to see their loved ones any moment. I hold back but, with a supporting nod from Marie I move closer, holding my position in the second rank of family and friends, just where I can see between two bodies. The door opens and soon the passengers begin to trickle out. The bodies around me press closer as hugs go around and I wrap my tail around my feet so that it doesn't get stepped on — again. I watch the door anxiously and then I see her, looking around the unfamiliar gate for her son. It's now or never, I tell myself. If you're going to do it, do it now.

Taking a deep breath I rise up to my full height of something over eight feet. There are a few gasps and one shriek but the crowd parts before me like the waters of the Red Sea before Moses. My mother sees me then and mirrors my nervousness as she walks forward and stops a few feet in front of me. "Steven?" she asks. "Is that you?"

I don't trust my voice so I nod. Tentatively she touches my furry stomach and then, with only what I could describe as wonder in her eyes, she puts her arms around me and hugs me.

We stay in that embrace for several minutes, the world around us all but forgotten except for the flashing of cameras from various directions about us. I ignore all the distractions, concerned only with the woman, three feet shorter than I, sniffling into my fur. We pull away at last and I bend down to bump my forehead against hers in ancient feline greeting. "I missed you, Steven," she says while wiping at her nose.

"And I missed you, Mom! Welcome to Tucson." I pick up her carry-on bag and put one arm around her shoulders. "Now," I said guiding her down the concourse and to the luggage carousel, "you can help me find a house."


I know, I know, you wanted to hear a tale about a sordid, bestial love affair between Marie and myself. Well, get over it, because the fact of the matter is that this account will probably fall into the hands of children and I don't think they need to be reading that sort of thing.

If you really want to know, all that I'll say is that Marie and I didn't part company but have stayed friends and close companions for quite a while now. That house that I told Mom that she was going to help me look for I share with Marie. Of course, I had to have it specially zoned for exotic animals; the county would have no less, and their request was quite reasonable. After we had gotten settled in I found out that the zoo worked with various animal conservation groups and I soon found myself sharing my house with ocelots, servals and the occasional bobcat when Marie brought her work home.

Our neighbors weren't too enthusiastic when I first moved in and we started having our "houseguests", but once they noticed that the housecat disappearances and coyote sightings went way down, they didn't complain!

There was a certain amount of tension at work when I arrived back to take my old place, but it quickly disappeared since I had continued working while in Colorado. I still wore only the modified shorts; it's not like we had a dress code and even the company founder could be seen occasionally roaming the hallways barefoot. The only problem I ever really had with any of my co-workers was that some of them were vegetarians, and at company picnics I ate my hamburger — usually five pounds worth — raw.

Occasionally I had a few religious zealots scream Bible verses at me with a fervor that would have been funny if it wasn't so scary. Mostly, however, the community was on my side because of my association with the zoo and other community programs. Maybe I'll write about those confrontations some day. We'll see.

All in all, my reintroduction into society was relatively uneventful. The people of Tucson are a very laid-back group in general and seeing me in public didn't cause too much of a stir. I guess that it's because the tiger along with many other felines have played such a generous role in the folklore of many cultures and have retained an air of mystery about them. I still get a thrill every time a wide-eyed child comes up to me and pets me, because I know that they will be just a little less afraid of the monsters in the world. They have caressed the tiger, and have lived to tell about it.

And now my tale is done. There may be others in the future, but this is the one I wanted to tell; the one about my greatest crisis in dealing with my transformation. Maybe it'll help you a little, maybe it will give you hope; I don't know. But whatever you take from this story, I ask you to take this: do not be afraid. Black-suited men with weird guns and fancy sunglasses do not wait around every corner, and the only fear that you need to conquer is the one of who you are. I am a tiger, and I am proud of that. That fact cannot be taken away from me and no one, especially me, needs to be afraid of me because of it.

Now, if you would excuse me while I take that long-awaited catnap.