On my second night in San Francisco, Karin took me to a bar on Valencia Street. The place was the size of a trolley car and oddities were displayed along its walls in glass cases: shrunken heads, a stuffed alligator, ancient eyeglasses, women’s lingerie, and a flea circus. I looked closely, but I didn’t see any fleas.
“You deserve to celebrate your freedom,” Karin declared once the bartender served our Cosmopolitans.
The drinks looked as pink as Kool-Aid in this light. “I’m not sure there’s a whole lot to celebrate,” I said.
Karin patted my hand. Her nails were long and painted an elegant mauve; mine were short and bare, the tips of my nails as ragged as a child’s. I curled them under.
“I never did understand what you saw in Peter,” she said. “It’s better that you ended things before you actually married the guy. Peter was as stupid as soup.”
“Peter’s sweet,” I countered. “I never saw him get angry, not in three years. He paid for his sister to go through college. He helped his mom buy a house! And he always remembered my birthday with flowers. Once, he even made a Valentine’s Day card for me stuffed with little paper hearts that fell onto the table when I opened it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Mr. Excitement. Hold me back.”
“Oh, come on. You can’t tell me you’re immune to that sort of thing.”
Karin shook her head. “One does not live by Hallmark moments alone.”
“My parents liked him,” I offered. “Dad gave Peter the seal of approval the day I brought him home. Said he was glad I’d found a decent, hard-working Republican with good tires on his car.”
Karin howled, showing the row of big teeth that Peter thought kept her from being truly beautiful. “She looks like she bites,” he once said, but I’d always liked Karin’s teeth. Big and square and white, her teeth were a metaphor for the fact that Karin was just what she seemed: a woman who knew what she wanted and went after it. None of my mother’s, “You catch more flies with honey,” philosophy for Karin. Whether she was going after a job or a man, Karin favored the flyswatter approach.
We’d known each other forever. It was Karin’s idea to marry our hamsters in a back yard ceremony when we were eight years old, mine to run a neighborhood babysitting monopoly in high school. I became a teacher and Karin studied nursing; when I moved to Boston from our small, central Massachusetts town to earn my master’s degree, Karin followed and worked at Mass General before moving to San Francisco.
Now an operating room nurse, she went through lovers the way most women go through lipsticks.
“Remember how you and I always imagined that we'd be brides on the same day?” I asked her now. “We thought we'd marry movie stars and have mansions next door to each other. Even in college, we were sure that was the plan.” I licked sugar from the rim of my glass. “Well, maybe not movie stairs,” I amended. “But we thought we'd be wives and moms together, like our mothers were friends.”
“Yeah, well, forget that plan,” Karin said. “You already broke Rule Number One: never get serious with a guy your parents think is good for you, or you’re doomed to repeat their mistakes. And do you really want to be married to a guy who spends the whole weekend mowing the lawn?”
I laughed. My father once said I could work for money all my life, or marry Peter and earn it in five minutes. I told Karin this and about how, on the first morning after I’d left Peter and moved back in with my parents, Dad shook a fork at me and sent a sliver of egg sailing through the air. At my advanced age of thirty-three, he assured me that I was more likely to meet a roof sniper than another potential husband.
“Was Peter any good in bed, at least?” Karin asked.
“That’s the thing. He’s so great looking, so sexy! Much better looking than I am,” I conceded. “But he had so little interest in sex after the first few months! Peter tracked our lovemaking on his iPhone so that he could print out a spread sheet if I complained, just to prove we were above the national average of 2.5 times a week.”
“Twice a week? That’s for married couples with kids, or maybe people in body casts.” Karin shook her head. “Will you please quit feeling guilty for leaving him? Peter was good looking, sure, but like a Ken doll is good looking, with all of that tidy black hair and his manly jaw. Boring. Besides, from what you’ve told me, it sounds like Peter would’ve left you first, if he’d only had the balls. Face it, Jordan. Your relationship wasn’t just fizzling. It was a flat line.”
I sighed and nodded, too exhausted to argue. I had driven alone from Boston to San Francisco, choosing this city as my destination because it was the farthest place I could drive and still know people: Karin and my brother Cameron. Once I’d announced my intentions, Karin magically pulled an affordable apartment out of thin air for me to sublet. I hadn’t been able to reach Cam at all. This worried me, but it wasn’t a surprise. My younger brother was a drifter, and other than one Christmas, he had been particularly incommunicado since moving West two years ago.
I stayed in one cheap motel after another during my solo drive cross-country. Each was gussied up in the same oranges and browns and then forgotten, as if one person bought the linens and carpets for every hotel under $60 on Route 80. Two of my stopovers were equipped with massage beds. One had a lava lamp. And every motel room had burn rings from coffee pots on the dressers. In my Denver motel, a man tossed beer bottles out his window all night long, so that I stepped outside onto a shimmering crystal carpet the next morning.
When I finally arrived in San Francisco, I stalled my car several times on the roller coaster hills. I blamed my poor driving on the strangeness of the houses, which bloomed like children’s crayoned drawings, pink and orange and purple and terrifying yellow. I had two more days until I could move into my apartment, so Karin had offered me her couch; when I got to her place last night, she fed me chocolate bars and sourdough bread with a bottle of beer.
Now, Karin was asking about my plans. I reminded her that the school had renewed my contract for next year and my teaching salary carried through the summer, so I wouldn’t have to work. I could just stay in San Francisco until August, when I’d head back to Boston to prepare my classes and crash with my parents until I found an apartment. “I don’t know what I’ll do, other than spend time with you and Cam. I’ll probably just go nuts.” I wasn’t joking.
“Oh, poor you, with too much money and free time.”
“I don’t know. I might really blow a fuse with no structure to my days. I usually teach at one of the private schools during the summer.”
“You’re not sick of teaching?”
“Never. They even let me put together the science curriculum last year for the entire elementary school. Should have seen our fossils lab.”
Karin tipped her head back to finish her drink, then said, “You know, we do have schools in California. There’s no law saying you’re doomed to go back and live in the same state as your parents your whole life.”
“I've already signed a contract,” I said.
I didn't bother adding that I just couldn't see myself ever fitting into San Francisco, which might as well be a foreign country to a staid East coast woman like me. Here in the Mission District, open air Hispanic markets and burrito bars vied for space with cafes where men wore berets and women scribbled in journals with the intensity of second graders mastering cursive writing. Earlier today, I’d spotted a Chinese restaurant sandwiched between a Vietnamese grocer’s and a Salvadoran pupusa stand, and passed a thudding alternative dance bar.
The people were just as diverse. Tanned skate boarders and joggers sped along the streets, homeless people hunched over shopping carts of possessions, business people squawked into cell phones, and Hispanic women clutched cloth bags of groceries.
As I shouldered through San Francisco’s version of the American Dream, anything seemed possible. But where did you begin a new life?
“With a party!” Karin said, as if answering my question.
“That’s it! You need to start right in and meet people. I’m planning the Party of All Parties to welcome you to San Francisco. We’ll have it tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I squeaked. “How can you give a party on a day’s notice?”
She gave me a pitying look. “That’s why they invented social media. Will you come?”
“I’m staying at your place, remember?”
Karin grinned. “Good. That’s settled, then.”
She paid the check and we left the bar. The air was balmy and smelled of oranges and the sea. As we rounded the corner onto Church Street, a trolley car rattled past, sparks flying from its wires like manic lightning bugs. It seemed like all of San Francisco had decided to stay up late. Through the windows of the houses I could see blinking television sets, Chinese lanterns, red and purple curtains, and silhouettes of people sitting, gesturing, eating, even dancing.
“Doesn’t anyone ever sleep in this city?” I asked.
“Sleep’s overrated. That’s an East Coast obsession.”
On our college campus, Karin’s housekeeping was legendary. That hadn’t changed much in twelve years. Karin now lived on the top floor of a triple decker, and the windows were so smudged that at first I thought it must be raining. The walls of the living room were painted a medicinal pink with orange trim; the kitchen’s violet counter tops were so splattered with food that they looked speckled by design. Unwashed glassware and stacks of plates competed for sink space and a pyramid of empty beer cans formed a centerpiece on a drop-leaf table, where the remains of a pizza were arranged like flower petals around an overflowing ashtray.
I’d been cleaning since late morning, about the same time that Wally, Karin’s disgruntled boyfriend, slammed out of the house, gym bag in hand.
“What’s wrong with him?” I had asked, watching Wally’s stiff back retreat through the door.
“Oh, he doesn’t want me to have a party on a night he’s working.” Karin waved a hand.
“Should we be doing this, then?” Karin had been seeing Wally exclusively for nearly six months--a record length of time for her to keep any man in her sights--yet all I knew about him was that Wally worked as a bellhop in a big hotel, played in an emo band, and lived on a steady diet of cigarettes, coffee, and tuna straight out of the can. This morning I had collected the tuna cans to prove it.
Karin had raised an eyebrow at me. “Honey, the minute you start letting a man tell you what to do, you might as well give up on yourself and wear elastic-waist jeans, too.”
By now, it was late afternoon and I had filled seven garbage bags--the hefty size. I tripped over a pair of wet running shoes and lined them up neatly in the hall closet despite my temptation to stuff them into a garbage bag, too.
“I just don’t get it,” I sputtered. “How can you be an OR nurse and live like this? The doctors must always be sewing misplaced sponges and scalpels into your patients.”
Karin sniffed. “I have an impeccable nursing record. And, let me tell you, after sterilizing and organizing all of those shiny little tools all day, I don’t want to clean when I get home, too. Now find me a can opener. I’m making us some dinner.”
“Where is it?”
“Over there.” Karin gestured vaguely towards the drawer beneath the oven.
I performed an archeological drawer dig, unearthing nail clippers, pens, a dog collar with tags, packets of neon condoms, sheet music for Christmas carols, rubber bands, and a man’s athletic sock. Finally, I laid my hands on a rusty metal can opener that looked positively toxic.
“Maybe you should try keeping your can opener with your cooking tools,” I muttered.
“Oh yeah, I will, soon as I have my personality makeover. Now get back to that dusting! I’ll make us some fabulous spaghetti sauce and you can do the dishes.”
“Oh, there’s a good deal. A year’s worth of dishes and all I get is a canned dinner.”
I washed while Karin cooked, taking a break to phone and text my brother. Still no answer. I hoped Cam hadn’t left the country again without telling us; last year, I received a postcard from India just days after sending a birthday present to his address in Oregon.
After dinner, Karin insisted that I take a bath and relax. I started filling the tub and studied my face in the mirror. Karin’s bathroom was wallpapered in tilting blue sailboats, and my face floated like a giant white buoy among them.
Maybe Dad was right and I was on a downward spiral toward a raggedy, husbandless future. Should I have stayed with Peter? At the very least, I could count on Peter to come home for dinner on time. As an added plus, he always remembered to pick up the dry cleaning.
Over the past three years, our relationship had crossed one commitment threshold after another without stumbling: dating, engagement, then living together, a process that forced us to whittle down our glassware and linens to fit into a single apartment’s built-in shelves.
As Karin saw it, I’d stepped onto a conveyor belt to matrimony, moving along without thinking because it was all so easy, and because I had celebrated my thirtieth birthday in a subdued state of panic three years ago, the month before Peter and I met. She was right. Yet, I already missed elements of my sensible life with Peter. Days with him were calm. Predictable. Sweet. Contented, mostly.
We played Scrabble and chess, held dinner parties, spent weekends exploring Vermont, talked about getting a dog. It was almost as if we’d already put our courtship, wedding, and children behind us, and were now companionable retirees in our golden years. Without Peter, I was afraid that I’d become that quintessential stereotype, the old-maid teacher with chalk on her sweater, ink on her upper lip, and seasonal dangling earrings--bats, candy canes, bunnies--to complement my embroidered holiday sweaters.
To distract myself from this dire thought, I read the labels of Karin’s mind-boggling array of bath oils lining the shelves: Eucalyptus Dream, Peppermint Pep, Calming Camomile. “What about Lascivious Lime?” I yelled at Karin from the bathroom, stripping off my clothes. “Got any of that?”
“Coming right up, Toots!” a man shouted up from the yard below.
I scrunched beneath the window and yanked the shade shut, then ducked into the tub. I settled for two caps full of Peaceful Plum.
“How do you look in red?” Karin popped in, dangling a sleeveless dress the size of a tube sock.
“I’m not wearing that. I’m a respectable elementary school teacher.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to look like one,” Karin scolded. “What were you planning to wear tonight?”
I nodded at my neatly folded khakis and t-shirt, which I’d left on the chair in the bathroom. She wrinkled her nose and plucked the clothes off the chair between two fingers, removing them from the room like a dead rat.
“Hey, yourself!” she shouted back. “I’ll return these in due time. For God’s sake, Jordan. You dress like a woman on safari studying elephant dung.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
Karin reappeared in the bathroom, shaking her head. “The only women in San Francisco who dress the way you do are the ones in the Marina, and they can’t help themselves. Trust me on this one. I’m going to hide all of your clothes until after the party. And promise me you’ll use the condoms I’m putting in the pocket of your outfit.”
“I will not have sex with a stranger!”
“They won’t be strangers. Every single person at this party tonight will be a friend of mine. Did you reach Cam, by the way? Can he come tonight?”
“No. What’s going on with him, anyway? Have you seen him? My parents are frantic.”
Karin shook her head and reminded me that she’d only spoken to Cam once last year, when he got back from India. “He called to see if I knew of any jobs at the hospital, but he never followed through. That’s not surprising, though. I’ve never been Cam’s favorite person. I’m too abrasive for a dreamy pot head like him.”
I piled bubbles up to my chin and let my arms float upward. “Is he still, do you think? A pot head?”
“Who knows? So many people are on Klonapin or Zoloft these days, I don’t think nearly as many need to smoke dope.” Karin left the room again and came back a few minutes later to display a black knit jumpsuit for my inspection. “How about this? Very chic! Very retro!”
“Very Catwoman. Very not me.”
“Well, you’d have to wear a body shaper to smooth out the profile,” she admitted.
“Forget it. I enjoy my oxygen too much.”
Karin sat on the toilet and arched her back, her thick black hair moving like an animal curling along her shoulders. She had on tight jeans and a black tank top. Suddenly, I felt self-conscious and vulnerable in front of her, sitting naked in her tub. My own hair was the pale brown of underdone toast and hung below my shoulders, its bushy tendencies tamed only by headbands. Soon my face would sag beneath the weight of all this hair, like an ornament hung on a Christmas tree branch too scrawny to support it.
I was taller and thinner than Karin, but curvier, too. My breasts bobbed about in the water like a pair of tennis balls and it was all I could do not to cover the left one, the breast that still bore the scar of my surgery six months before. I’d gone in for a routine mammogram that turned out to be anything but. The radiologist had outlined little white flecks on the film, raising his eyebrows in a way that made me think I might be in for something.
I was: the white flecks were actually calcifications clustered in a pattern around a small tumor, he’d said.
“Maybe benign, maybe not.”
Two weeks later, I was in the mammography room again, having what the radiologist breezily called “a needle loc” in preparation for a biopsy. This procedure made me feel like a radio-controlled car, with a long wire shot straight through the side of my breast and technicians controlling my every move.
The mammography staff, perhaps determined to take my mind off the wire, explained the hazards of their profession, like the time one of them flicked the switch to squeeze the mammography machine’s plates shut, and accidentally trapped the head of another technician between the plates instead of the patient’s breast.
Meanwhile, the two women opened and closed the metal plates against my breast, flattening it up and down, side to side, working the machine like some sort of exotic sandwich-maker.
Afterward, one technician patted my arm. “There, now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked.
“Only when I imagined kissing my breast goodbye,” I replied, just to see her wince.
There followed the biopsy, more waiting, and then the diagnosis--yes, breast cancer; no, it hadn’t spread outside of the tiny pinpoints of light in the milk ducts--and surgery. Then more waiting for the results of the lumpectomy. Five interminable days later, the call had come.
“We got it all,” the surgeon crowed over the phone. “Clear margins all around!” No need for radiation or chemo, he said, going on to pronounce me “cured” before hastily adding, “Well, not that there’s really any such thing as a 100 percent cure, is there? With cancer, we can only say 99 percent. Still, pop the champagne while you can.”
That one episode had lasted just a few short months of my life, yet I had gone from 0 to 60 mph during that time, looping through the entire Rocky Mountains of my emotions. Of course I was terrified of dying. At the same time, I felt newly awake: things that had mattered so much to me before—PTO meetings, fund raising for the school science trip—shrank to gnat-like proportions, while things I hadn't thought about in ages—like my brother, and why he'd dropped off the family radar screen—suddenly seemed vitally, achingly important. I felt relieved to be in the clear, yet oddly guilty about dodging the breast cancer bullet this time, while others in more difficult circumstances—a neighbor down the street with three young kids, for instance—hadn't been able to beat it.
Now, scarcely six months later, there was nothing left to show for my experience on the outside but this ugly scar: a raised line half as long as my palm and still red, like a dogwood branch laid against the side of my left breast. Inside, however, I felt that I might never be the same.
When it was all over, Peter wouldn’t touch that breast at all. He simply treated me as if I were the one-breasted woman we were both afraid I’d become. What had prompted me to leave Peter in the end wasn't boredom or the fact that he wasn't as interested in me physically, but the idea that, if he couldn't handle this kind of scare, what would happen to us if the breast cancer returned and a surgeon couldn't tell me to pop the champagne?
I explained this to Peter as I broke off our engagement. He accepted the ring I returned with a curt nod, no argument. He was probably relieved.
I had told Karin all of this through weekly phone calls coast-to-coast. Her response was as pragmatic as I had expected—one reason I loved Karin was that she always, always told the truth, as boldly as possible.
“I understand that you're upset, but really, Jordy, did you think you’d be the one person in the whole world who never got cancer?” she had asked. “Don’t you dare wallow! The surgeon says you’re clean, which is as good as medicine gets. It’s a lesson in mortality, sure, but use it to toss the deadwood and get on with your life.”
I knew that, by “deadwood,” Karin was referring to Peter. I also knew that Karin was busy with a single woman’s preoccupations, just as I had been before. Love, work, and everything else in Karin’s future still stretched before her like a straight, smooth highway.
Despite being my best friend, Karin had yet to realize what I now knew: each of us carries a sleeping tiger inside, and we can’t predict when that cat will wake, stretch, and sharpen its claws. Having to face the tiger's presence inside myself was what made me finally leave Peter. It was also what drove me to seek out Cam and Karin: I felt an intense need to reconnect with what little family I had, and to live a bold, truthful life that went beyond the carefully orchestrated domestic existence I'd shared with Peter.
Karin was still talking about Cam. As far as she remembered from their last conversation, my little brother was working a part-time job in Berkeley and sharing a house with a group of people she'd never met.
“Cam always was different,” she said, reaching into the medicine chest for a pair of tweezers. “He’s nothing like my three brothers, all gung ho about sports and money.”
It was true. Cameron was the family dreamer and video gamer, while I carried the itchy mantle of Responsible Oldest Child. Cam had earned better grades than I did in college, but he dropped out senior year to travel and work odd jobs.
Meanwhile, I went on for my master’s degree and found a job, preparing to marry, provide grandchildren, and show up for Sunday dinners. Eventually, I would be called upon to puree my parents’ dinner in a blender and push their wheelchairs around the block. I didn’t resent Cam, exactly; I only wondered why he’d turned out one way, while I was another.
Oh, for heaven’s sake! Stop thinking! Leave yourself alone! I commanded, and sank into the bath water until I wore a crown of bubbles in my hair.
Karin made me leave her apartment an hour before the party. “Take a walk or grab a coffee. You can’t be both the guest of honor and the first arrival.”
“I’m not just the honored guest,” I reminded her. “I’m also the cleaning crew and caterer.” Still, I humored her and left the apartment, aimlessly wading into the inky purple night. I wore the outfit Karin had loaned me--tight black leather pants, high black leather boots, a turquoise leotard top, and beads that clacked against my breast bone--only because she had hidden my suitcase.
I followed Dolores to 24th and then turned left into Noe Valley, where I was soon mingling with the wine bar crowd. The feathery tops of the palm trees were etched black against the sky. A few lights glimmered in the houses, and I saw a woman moving about in her second-floor kitchen. A man read his newspaper by kerosene lantern on the rooftop garden just to the left of her.
From Noe Valley, I continued up a hill so steep that it made my calves ache, then descended into the Castro, where the gay bars were buzzing and the windows were flung open to the night. The sight of so many beautiful men snuggled together on the benches in one ferny bar sent me into a deep gloom.
What was I doing here, walking alone in someone else’s ill-fitting clothes, with only a plastic tourist map for comfort? I wondered where Cam was, and fervently wished that my brother would miraculously appear to save me from showing up solo at the party. I checked my text messages again, but still nothing.
I stopped to catch my breath in front of a diner surrounded by drag queens in fantastic wigs, long eyelashes, and short skirts. Their horsey muscular legs tapped impatiently on the sidewalk as they waited in line on the sidewalk for dinner booths. No doubt about it, they had more fashion sense than I did. Better make-up, too. And where did they get earrings that size?
I studied my map in order not to stare, and was suddenly reminded of the Treasure Map game that Cam and I had played as children. We drew our treasure maps on white construction paper, elaborate scrawled illustrations in smudged pencil, then deliberately chewed the paper’s edges to dampen it before we rolled the maps into scrolls and left them to yellow in the sun for that authentic treasure map look. I always felt slightly bored during this game, but my brother leaped into full character every time I agreed to play. He’d pretend to hobble along on a wooden leg as a pirate, or sneak like a stowaway behind the kegs of gunpowder disguised as living room furniture.
Whatever his role, Cam’s mission was to steal the treasure map. And I was always the captain of the pirate ship, except for the one time we convinced our father to play this game with us. Our father had roared and swung an egg beater inside his sleeve like a fake metal arm. Cam and I fled, shrieking, into the garage.
Just as my father came flying out the back door, the screen slamming behind him like a musket firing, Cam yanked me to safety into the dark space behind the furnace. We hid there in the oily smelling dark, hearts pounding, until our father tired of looking for us and retreated.
“We fooled the Captain,” Cam had giggled. Where my brother was concerned, it was always us against the scary outside world.
“Well, brother,” I whispered, pocketing my map and turning back towards Karin’s apartment. “Where are you hiding now, in this scary, scary world?”
When Cam suddenly flees the country, Jordan follows, determined to bring him home. Her journey takes her to the farthest reaches of majestic Nepal, where she encounters tests—and truths—about love and family that she never could have imagined.
Funny, heartbreaking, and suspenseful, Sleeping Tigers reminds us all that sometimes it's better to follow your heart instead of a plan.
Get it for the Kindle and in paperback
Holly Robinson is a journalist and comic whose work appears regularly in national venues such as Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Huffington Post, Ladies' Home Journal, More, Open Salon and Parents. Her first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir, was published by Harmony Books in May 2009 and was released in paperback in June 2010. It was a Barnes & Noble memoir selection as well as a Target Breakout Book.
Ms. Robinson holds a B.A. in biology from Clark University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She and her husband have five children, two cats, a single gerbil and two very stubborn small dogs. They are currently renovating an antique house north of Boston, and will probably never finish it.
To learn more about Holly Robinson, please visit http://www.authorhollyrobinson.com/