The noise from the playground filtered in through the open window in the back of the classroom. The smell of fall leaves, sweat, and grass was somewhat unappetizing—somehow, even the romantic smells of fall seemed tainted by asphalt in Dallas—but I wasn’t hungry, anyway. I was trying to finish writing my performance review, but more than that, I was ignoring Richard, who taught fifth grade English down the hall. My own classroom was the only safe place in the entire school.
I hadn’t written an essay, not a reflective one, in years. I tried all the standby attention getters I’d used in college—opening with a quote, or an anecdote—but everything rang false. I wound up settling on my least favorite introduction. I looked up the dictionary definition of the word “goal” and began with that. I had to choke back a little self-hatred to even finish the sentence, but I knew it was the kind of schlock expected from me. I taught first grade. The only expectations my principal had for me was that I keep the children from killing themselves and each other. It’d be different if I had to teach a grade with standardized testing.
I spent the rest of my lunch poking at an unappetizing bologna sandwich—the last one I would ever eat. I’d finally cleaned the refrigerator out and replaced the crap with fresh foods, berries, sprouts. I was done answering to weak cravings. They didn’t even seem attractive to me anymore.
Goal. The word kept flashing on my screen. I answered with nonsense I knew Mr. Thomas would want to hear, but all I could think of was last week, getting drunk enough to tell Richard what my real goals were. It was almost out-of-body—first there was a glass of wine, then a bottle. I laughed, he told some stories about his students, and then his eyes—which looked so much younger than the rest of him—changed, and I knew he was going to try to be romantic.
“So tell me something about yourself. Something that isn’t about work.”
I tried to think of something, anything but the obvious, but I was drunk, and my real desires were floating up around the surface of my personality. The small restaurant was spinning in a carousel of colors of dimly lit conversations. I went to brush my hair behind my ears and then remembered there wasn’t any—another recent change—and I said it. I said it out loud.
“I want to be a tiger.”
He looked so confused. You’re so stupid, I told myself. You knew better.
“What do you mean? To be like a tiger? How?” he asked, laughing softly.
Almost as if I had no control over it, my mouth kept talking: “No, to be a tiger. I love tigers. It seems like it would be easier to be a tiger. I used to watch them at the zoo,” I said. After that, his sweet smile faded, those wrinkles re-formed around his mouth. Oh my God. He thinks you’re crazy, I told myself; of course, maybe he was right.
“I’m kidding. Of course. Like a tiger. I want to be… strong,” I settled on, because it was the easiest, and because everyone wants to be strong, so what’s so goddamned special about that? I knew he was judging me, but suddenly, I felt myself judge him too. Why does he want me to be like every other stupid person?
He laughed. “For a minute, I thought you were serious,” he said. If I were a tiger, I would have growled. Hell, maybe I was growling, with my eyes. The rest of the evening was fine, but I didn’t invite him home, and I certainly wasn’t going to his, not after what I learned about men in their domains in grad school.
I was shocked out of my memory by my phone buzzing on the desk, the vibrations knocking against the wood hard enough that I almost choked. When I looked at the text, though, it was Richard—he’d sent me a link to the video for Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and wrote, “LOL, want to go out again?” Who does that? I deleted his name and number out of my phone directory and turned the lights off in my classroom, just in case. I looked at the clock: fifteen more minutes before the kids came back inside. That was almost no time at all.
In first grade, so much of what kids are learning is how to become people—how to line up in little rows, how to stay quiet in the hallway even when their instincts command them to be noisy, how to ask for things they want instead of taking them. There are times I look at the tiny humans in my room and I feel sorry for them, because I know this is the first step to limiting who they are. When I was in first grade, my dad left, and I never saw him again. He’d been around—taking me to the zoo or McDonald’s every other weekend—but after that, it was like he was a ghost. He moved to North Dakota or some equally fictional sounding place with a new woman and her children. No matter what choices I made in life, I couldn’t get away from that.
When the students came in from recess, they all began their coloring sheet—matching words to pictures and coloring them in. They were getting pretty good. There was still an occasional line from “woman” to a picture of an umbrella or something, but overall, I could see a lot of progress. One small girl, who honestly didn’t look older than four, giggled and said, “Miss Trimble? I still think it’s funny that you got a boy haircut.”
The rest of the class started giggling too, and I tried to smile warmly. I hated moments like this. The whole reason I worked with kids is that they were easier to deal with than real people—at least they said what they were thinking. The only thing an adult had said about my hair was, when they thought I was out of earshot, “Wonder if she’ll be burning a picture of the Pope this week…?” But sometimes, it was still terrifically uncomfortable, the kids in all their truth.
“I told you, Heidi, it’s not a boy haircut. I’m a girl—so it’s a girl haircut.”
She smiled, but clearly didn’t buy it.
“Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll shave your head,” I said, and all the kids laughed. I laughed, too, but I was just playing along. I took the whole thing seriously. One of the many ways I was transforming was to eschew traditional human vanity practices.
When I first decided to shave my head, I immediately felt free, but when the buzzing razor finally sawed off a foot-long section of hair, my first mental image was of the tabloid picture of Britney Spears from years ago. For the first time, I wondered if I was crazy, but then that loud, angry voice told me tigers don’t worry about their own sanity, and if you do, you will never be free to become one. Push through your stupid human anxiety and shave your head. I took a deep breath and looked at the inches and feet of shiny, human hair on my bathroom floor and felt sleek and powerful.
Of course the kids were confused about my haircut. Just a few months ago I’d practically hidden behind the curtain of hair that covered my face. I dyed it dark colors and wore heavy makeup. That was all over. I wasn’t living to appease them now. A tiger wouldn’t do that.
“Miss Trimble?” a boy in the back called out. I went to remind him to raise his hand instead of yelling for me, but I realized I hadn’t been paying attention. He could have been sitting patiently for minutes. “Yes, William?”
“Can you show us that tiger video again while we’re working?”
I smiled. “Of course,” I said, pulling up my favorite video of a tiger from a zoo in Cleveland. The kids were all transfixed as the tiger nuzzled the zookeeper, chuffing and rolling onto his back. I was conflicted. This habitat was not beautiful or wild enough for such a beautiful creature. If I were a tiger, I thought, and then self-corrected—when I am a tiger, I will not chuff at people.
“He’s purring!” Anna shouted out.
“Tigers can’t purr,” I reminded her. “He’s chuffing. It’s a tiger’s way of letting someone know he’s happy.” Even as I said that, I wondered if it was true. It’s so hard to know how they really think. That’s the last phase of transformation, I comfort myself. You aren’t expected to be there yet.
When this whole thing started, it was a joke. I had sent out over a hundred résumés, and no one had shown any interest in hiring me. With a degree in elementary education, I was working as a checker at the local grocery chain. One night around midnight, I’d finally settled in, pulling the sheets and comforter off my bed to sleep on the couch. I turned the TV on, the blue glow making it look like someone was active in the house, warding off anyone else who might want to come in. And I sat in a pile of blankets, and I looked out the window, and I hated myself for becoming the kind of person who had to put a TV channel on to go to sleep because I was scared. I was surrounded by cover letters and cardstock copies of my résumé and talk show hosts, and suddenly, I realized that what I really wanted to be was above it all. Suddenly, I was stuck with a mental image of a tiger: specifically, a Bengal tiger. And then I knew exactly how it would feel to be one.
I imagined my own coat, not just orange and black, but a bruised-sunset blend of orange, brown, yellow, and black. My colors bled together between stripes, highlighting my stringy, ropy muscles. They pulsed under my skin, slinking over my tiger bones. Every time I sauntered, my fur gleamed—first golden in the sun, then burnt like a dying fire. I became a moving, walking fire with stripes. When most people think of a tiger, those stripes are their first thought, but not me. I knew better. Tigers aren’t stripes. Tigers are what happen between the stripes, behind them, underneath them. I would never be the prisoner of some pattern. I was going to be a tiger and have a tiger’s soul.
The feeling didn’t last, but I immediately knew I would do anything to get that feeling of control and power back. Absolutely anything. I began a list of how to become a tiger, borrowing ideas from how you become anything else. The first entry in my tiger journal was simple:
First, you have to absolutely believe that you can become a tiger. Don’t let logic interfere. People have become all sorts of strange things—presidents, gravediggers, evangelicals—most of them could not have imagined being what they became, either. Remember when you were a toddler and people would ask if you were a puppy dog or a kitty cat? You just hit the ground and barked or meowed. This is like that, sort of. You have to believe you are what you could be.
It was so grandiose, so naïve. It’s so much harder than that, I know now. But it seemed like a good starting point. The second entry, titled “WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE A TIGER?,” was much longer, much more complicated. I left blank pages behind it so I could keep going back and adding to it. Initially, it had started as a list—“because I loved watching them at the zoo when I was a kid,” “because they are magnificent,” “because they are not limited the way people are”—but the explanations were getting longer and longer, and pretty soon, it felt like an essay I was writing to myself. Like I’d become my own personal tiger coach. The longer it went on, the more that voice was in my head, yelling at me all the time. It became comforting. It helped me know I was making progress.
I remembered my dad, once, when I was four or five, staring at the tiger at the Fort Worth Zoo with me. The poor beast was skinny and I could see his ribs. All of his magic was extinguished as he paced behind the glass. “Look Angie, look at the big kitty,” my dad said, and even as a small kid, I knew he was full of bullshit. He was trying to shrink the thing down into something I could fit in my brain, but I already knew better. Tigers are bigger than my comprehension. That’s what I want. I want to be bigger than I am, so big I can’t even imagine it, so real I can’t ever be misinterpreted.
So now I have a goal. I want to be a tiger. Not strong like a tiger, not gorgeous like a tiger. I want to actually, physically be a tiger. When I look back on my life, in every bad situation I’ve ever been in, I could have escaped or overpowered or won if I had just been a tiger. My flimsy human body and my anxious human mind have been holding me back all this time.
Almost a week later, the performance review had been turned in and I had fully switched my diet to that of a tiger’s (minus, of course, the raw meat: there was almost no appropriate way to kill animals with my hands and then consume them still bloody until I was actually a tiger). I had begun thinking, “Would a tiger do this?” before each and every decision I made, and I was in the middle of that reverie when Richard snuck into my classroom. I had a PowerPoint up on fun addition tricks—I had hand-drawn some of the illustrations for the word problems. “If Janie has four tigers, but really wants six, how many more does she need?” The students were still counting on their fingers, but because this was a new way of looking at the problem, I let it slide. I wanted them to be creative—not machines.
Richard smiled sheepishly at the PowerPoint, and I clicked to the next slide. “We’ll come back to that one,” I said, hoping that there wasn’t a tiger on this slide, too. I couldn’t bring myself to look. “What are you doing here, Mr. Jackson?”
“Just stopping to check on you. Hadn’t seen you in a few days,” he said. The kids all made oohing sounds, and some of them giggled.
“I don’t know why that’s so strange,” I said, but I thought, Don’t be coy. You cannot allow this to make you weak. I told the students to draw a picture for a moment, and I walked to the doorway he was standing in. “What are you really here for?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I hurt your feelings,” he said, “and I honestly didn’t mean to. I think we had a misunderstanding.”
I nodded. “Sure. You know, I would have called, but—it’s not you—”
He cut me off. “Let’s start over. I’m Richard. I’d like to take you out for drinks or something sometime, but let’s start slow. I’m having a Halloween party in a few weeks, and I’d really like it if you came.”
“At your house?”
“But there will be other people there?”
He laughed. “No, I’m luring you into my empty house. Of course there will be other people there.” I felt every hair on my body stand on end, felt my muscles tighten and become tense.
“Do I need to bring anything?”
“Just you. Oh, and a costume. I’m hoping to have a costume contest if I can get enough interest drummed up,” he said. He still had beautiful eyes—his whole face was covered in charming wrinkles, except right around his eyes. They were so blue.
“Okay,” I said, looking up at the board. More tigers.
“Good,” he said. “I’ll email you the details later.”
The students smiled and laughed, but I couldn’t focus. I was going to go into Richard’s house and hope for the best.
One of the reasons you need to be a tiger, I wrote in my journal when I got home that night, is because then you will always be the strongest person in the room. You will always be the most terrifying.
Rebecca, a girl from my grad school cohort, had gone overseas to do mission work in Africa and eaten lion meat once, and she said that it was disgusting—that, quote, literally anyone would rather eat a kudu than a lion—and she said the reason was because carnivores taste of blood. “You can’t cook out predatory instinct,” she said, white human teeth gleaming. She said the meat tasted like metal, iron-tinged strands of fat and muscle and skin.
You will taste like Rebecca’s lion now that you are going to be a tiger. You will be able to go forward in life knowing that even if someone kills you, they won’t be able to enjoy your body. I know as a human, you’ve worried about that—that once you were captured, someone might play with you, have fun with you. With a tiger, no one captures you for fun. They go up against you knowing that you are at least as strong as they are, and a gun doesn’t necessarily equalize things. Just look at those teeth. Just look at those furious, dilated eyes.
I was born in 1986, the Year of the Tiger. Everything changed again in 2010, another Year of the Tiger. That took the pressure off—it would be years before the Tiger came around again—2022—and that, that would be my year. I didn’t have to be ready to transform until then, which really took the pressure off of the present. Everything I was doing now was preparatory. Every time I’d blow my savings account on a car accident or break an arm, I’d be disappointed, briefly—then I’d remember it didn’t matter if it was my year. It wasn’t going to be for some time.
The first real transformation was from me, from Angie, into whatever I am now: meek, quiet, scared. Sleeping on the couch in a pile of blankets and playing Dr. Phil on the TV to scare away imaginary bad guys.
You can’t grab a tiger by its messy ponytail and throw it on a dirty couch, I wrote in that journal. You can’t tell it to be still, this will be over soon. You won’t have to hold your stupid keys between your fingers like claws when you walk to your car at night. You will be a monster. You will have the claws.
Of course Richard seemed nice, but Jason had seemed nice too, hadn’t he? He’d taken me out to dinner and I’d stood out at his car and bummed a cigarette even though I don’t smoke. I remember the way his cologne mixed with the smell, and it was intoxicating. We’d had bottles of wine, too. Or I had. Every time I tried to piece that night back together, I couldn’t actually visualize him drinking too. And then he asked if I wanted to come watch a movie, and somehow eased into a false sense of security by the fact that we saw each other every day in class, I said yes. His roommates were home. They heard everything.
I guess the thing that still bothers me: why didn’t I say anything? You couldn’t, the voice says, and I know it’s true. I was scared. I didn’t know what could be worse than the way he was moving on top of me, that smoke and cologne mixing with angry sweat. You’ve never had the power to do anything. You live behind a glass wall. You chuff for your next meal. You are not anywhere close to being a real tiger.
“Shut up,” I said out loud to myself. “Just shut up.”
But there was, of course, no one there. Just me and the radiator, kicking on and off in my empty living room, and the fuzz of a TV left on with the volume muted. It was just me and that stupid Lisa Frank journal, Technicolor tiger smiling back at me with hearts in its eyes.
October rolled on slowly, gently, almost like the fall breeze itself. It’s a misconception that Dallas is hot all year round, and it was getting bitter cold in the evening. I would pull whatever loose wool sweater I had on tight against myself, cloaking myself in a fake layer of fur. My students were working on learning to tell the time—a skill that I often wondered why we bothered with, since they will always have access to digital clocks—but again, a lot of first grade is just learning the signs and signifiers of humanity. If they see a clock, I’ll make sure they know what all that means. Our final day to talk about time happened to fall on Halloween, and all of the kids were in their little costumes. I had opted not to dress up, but to wear seasonal colors—a black and orange striped dress with a cat ear headband—but when I looked out at the classroom, it was a grab bag of tiny princesses, doctors, police officers, super heroes, and even one Michael Jackson. It was somewhat disorienting to look out on them like that, themselves, but transformed, smacking their lips and slurping whatever sugar products I would let them get away with.
Billy—who was dressed like a large pumpkin—was the first to get the class off topic, and we never got back. When I asked him what time it was, he smiled and yelled, “Halloween time!” and everyone else squealed with glee. Even I giggled.
“What are you for Halloween, Miss Trimble?” a small Sherlock Holmes asked.
“I didn’t dress up.”
Anna laughed. “Yes, you did,” she said. “Look at your stripes!”
Everyone in the class started giggling, and I blushed. “If I wanted to look like a tiger,” I said with all the confidence in the world, “I would have done a lot better than this.”
And that was true. Ever since Richard had invited me to his party, I had been working on a tiger costume for the evening. I’d gone to Jo-Ann Fabrics and picked out the nicest fur fabric they had, which still didn’t come close to as nice as I was looking for. It had rough cheesecloth type thread holding the fur together from the inside. (I looked up actual pelts on the Internet, but wound up spending hours in tears: the way humans treat tigers is so awful, so—inhumane. It made me question, just for a second, if being a tiger was really any better than being a human, but then I realized—I wouldn’t want to be anything that had the capacity for that kind of cruelty towards another living creature.) Every night when I would come home from work, I would teach myself how to sew—slowly but surely. First, I put together the legs and the waist, and eventually, I got the torso and arms. But what was really challenging was creating paws and claws. I knew that the claws could be a good five inches long—which probably wouldn’t be appropriate at a Halloween gathering—but I also knew that the more accurate this was, the more amazing I was going to feel. I wound up going with three inches, surmising that I could be a very young tiger. I attached five-inch dewclaws to my thighs as a consolation, and they did make me feel powerful.
I found fingerless gloves to attach front paws to and built up the pads. Eventually, I had done work on a face mask and a hood: my entire human body, minus my fingertips, was covered in a sunset of orange and black. I had painted the eyes and the chops: there was dimension to them. Hell, I thought there was life in them. And when I looked in the mirror, even though I knew I was wearing cheap fur fabric and a painted face, for the first time, I could see what life was supposed to be like for me. The night before Halloween, I actually slept in my bed again—in my costume, but in my bed nonetheless. The outfit wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing. It would prepare me for how to see the world once my transformation was complete.
When I got to Richard’s building, I could feel my chest tighten with anxiety—staccato breaths like a rollercoaster climbing a peak. It was hard to propel myself forward. What if he’s lied? You’re putting yourself right back there. How can you be so stupid?
But I did it. I knocked on the door to his apartment, which faced the exterior of the building and the parking lot. It wouldn’t be hard to get out, if I needed to. Worse to worst, I could break the sliding glass door. I looked back at my dewclaws—made of thick plastic husks I’d spray-painted black. If I dug my foot into the door hard enough, surely that would protect me.
The moments between knocking on his door and him answering felt like an eternity. I practiced seeing the world from tiger’s eyes: it was still threatening and scary. It had to be because I knew I wasn’t a tiger, not really, not yet. But the more I focused, the easier it was to see myself as powerful, sleek, important. Perhaps endangered—but never weak.
Richard opened the door, and all I could see were those clear blue eyes, the harmlessness in his smile. For a split second, I thought, I could destroy him. I was embarrassed for a moment, but then I realized that was probably the most tiger thought I’d ever had. I wasn’t afraid to go in anymore.
He laughed a little. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “You look—well, nice.”
He was dressed as Dick Clark, which was only apparent because he was wearing a suit, a polka dot tie, and a “Hello! My Name Is Dick Clark” badge. His hair curled perfectly at his temple, but was still wet from hair gel. I couldn’t help but smile.
“So do you,” I said. Every inch of my body was covered, literally from my fingertips to my toes. I was safe in my tiger skin.
“Come in,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulders. My muscles twitched, but I was sure he couldn’t feel it through all my fur. “Let me get you a drink.”
“I don’t drink,” I said. He looked at me with one eyebrow cocked, as if to say, what about the other night? But he didn’t say anything. He just nodded.
I smiled in agreement and began looking around the party. There were so many people from work in ridiculous costumes. Mrs. Gentry from fifth grade math was dressed as a sexy Little Bo Peep, a ruffled skirt cut all the way up to the top of her thighs and puffed out with a crinoline miniskirt. Our principal, Mr. Kinkaid, who had been so intimidating a few weeks ago when my review was due, was dressed as Elmer Fudd. He had a fake plastic shotgun slung over his shoulder and a glass of beer in one hand, wine in the other. I heard him say “be vewy qwiet” to Miss Thomas, who was standing next to him dressed as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, scarf wrapped around her head. It matched the bemused or disappointed look she was giving Mr. Kinkaid.
“I don’t have any lemon,” Richard-as-Dick-Clark said, rounding the corner of his small apartment. I smiled, not knowing how to continue the conversation. I could tell he was talking to try and engage me, but I couldn’t cooperate. I didn’t know where to go from here.
“These are the most adults I’ve been around since grad school,” I finally choked out.
He nodded. “It’s strange to be around the little guys all day and then come out to this. How were classes?”
I was mapping exits. Glass door. Front door. No bathroom window—bedroom window? No way to see from here. “They were fine. I loved seeing the kids in their costumes.”
He laughed. “In first grade, they’re always so cute. It’s like they’re dressing up like what they would be if there were no limits placed on them, if they could literally be whatever they wanted.”
I nodded, knowing he couldn’t see that my look was anxious. I was hidden behind my fur. “I had one dress up as Michael Jackson,” I said.
“Did you have him moonwalk for you?”
I shook my head and sipped my water. It didn’t taste like he’d put anything in it, but how in the hell was I supposed to know? My panic was coming in waves, but it was going out in waves, too, like a never-ending tide of fear. I kept chanting You are a tiger in my head. “Life would be better if we could just be what we wanted to,” I said, hoping that would stop the conversation.
He laughed, and it was a thick, frothy sound, almost like a swamp. I would have to get through this. “Right. I guess we’re dressed like this because I want to be a famous TV announcer and you want to be a tiger?”
“I’m not sure that’s so funny,” I said. “Look around. Miss Thomas is the Girl with the Pearl Earring because she wants to be enigmatic and beautiful. Mr. Kinkaid is Elmer Fudd because he seems himself as a fundamentally nice guy who is there for comic relief. You’re Dick Clark because you’re the ringleader.”
He smiled, but it was a small, tight smile. “I see. And you’re a tiger because… you want to be strong?”
No. Because you want to be a tiger. Tell him. But I couldn’t tell him, not again, no matter how my body screamed out. “I am strong,” I finally settled on. “This is who I am on the inside.”
Richard looked at me and for a second, I think I saw pity on his stupid handsome face, but it retracted and turned quickly to amusement. “I wish I had something I loved the way you love tigers,” he said. “Where do you get it? Did you go to the zoo a lot as a child?”
“That’s not why,” I said.
He nodded. “It’s too bad you can’t really be a tiger,” he said, and then he walked back into the kitchen like he hadn’t just kicked me in the guts. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.
Oh honey, my voice said, but quietly, just in my head. You had to have always known that. No matter how hard you try—you can never be a tiger. Are you stupid?
“No,” I said out loud, and a few people turned around. Coach Jackson, who was dressed as someone from the Fruit of the Loom commercial. Ms. Gregory, the office secretary, dressed as Marilyn Monroe with saggy breasts. “No,” I repeated quieter to myself. This was the voice that had been encouraging—the one that came from deep inside me, and now it was mocking me with everyone else.
“Are you okay?” Richard said, crossing from the kitchen with several full wine glasses. He handed them to people as he walked past.
“I’m fine, please—please, I’m fine.” I sat down on the couch and put my gloved hands on my knees, steadying myself. I knew I was repeating myself, but that voice—that interior monologue—it had been so constant and driving, and now it was as negative and scary as the world around me.
You can never be a tiger. You can never be what you want. You will never be safe.
I had fought so hard, and put so much energy—and all at once, it hit me. I could never be what I wanted to be. Not in a million years. I could not change what I was. A tiger cannot change its stripes, the voice said in my head, and I would like to think I didn’t hit myself in the head, but I knew I did, and I said, “Shut up, shut up,” too. I know because suddenly the room was looking at me. A man dressed as Prince. A woman dressed as Cleopatra. A man dressed as a baby. A woman dressed as a sexy cat. Someone dressed head to toe as a ninja, just eyes showing. They were all looking at me and judging from behind their masks.
And then of course, there was Richard, his TV-smile slick and pretty, his wrinkles folding into his face as if they were nothing, and his mouth moving and saying, “Are you okay?” over and over again while I sank into his couch. I could see all of the escape routes from my seat, but I didn’t have the power or the courage to claw out the glass and go home.
Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.