In my life, I have seen a few superheroes. Teachers, soldiers, cops, and a few robbers, but there was never anyone who compared to the Tigress.
She was my little cousin. A year younger and the boldest and most fearless person I ever knew. She was filled with fuck you from her toes to her little brunette head. I knew her all my life. She was loud when she needed to be, sly all the other times. She could lie, bite, fight, and run. She knew how to tell a story, knew how to instigate trouble, and knew how to talk her way out of it. She was like watching a waterfall, like witnessing a volcano belch up a ball of flame, like a stone, unbreakable and solid.
Besides Cage, Tigress was the only person I could count on. She took everything I gave her. All my fears, all my hurt, all my stories and all my love. I spent the night at her house every chance I got. She had the better room. Her mother was usually busy doing other things, and we could get away with stuff at her house.
I will never forget the popsicle incident.
Popsicles were a staple in both our houses. Our parents loved to buy us popsicles. My mother caught them on sale one day and bought over one hundred popsicles. Every flavor from cherry to root beer was on tap at our house. They were the big ones that had two sticks and a dip in the middle so you could break them in half. That was the kind we ate most often at my house, but at Tigress’s house it was the Fla-vor-ice brand. You know the ones, plastic packaging that you rip at the top. The plastic sleeves filled with kool-aid that you ate as you pushed up.
Tigress could eat a Fla-vor-ice pack in less than a minute. She would chew like a beast and take it in quick.
I had cold-sensitive teeth, and I had to suck my popsicles. When we were given permission to get a Fla-vor-ice from the basement, Tigress pulled me in the corner and grabbed two popsicles. “Eat it as fast as you can,” she whispered. “You gotta eat it fast when you come down here. Then you take a second one upstairs and Mom doesn’t know you have eaten two.”
I was used to my mother using scissors to open mine. Tigress grabbed hers, bit into it, and tore it open like she was tearing into a gazelle. She spat the top and within a minute had devoured the entire popsicle. She looked up at me and mine wasn’t open yet.
“What are you doing?” she said. “Let’s go! She will know if we don’t hurry.” She grabbed it and with a savage bite and a twist of her neck, she had opened mine. “Now hurry. Go fast!”
I panicked. I couldn’t bite into it or my teeth would scream. I couldn’t let her down or she would laugh at me. I could only suck the popsicle as fast as I could and stare at her, frantic she would hit me or make fun of me.
She never made fun of me a day in her life. Even though I feared it from her, she never said a foul thing about me. But she was a hitter for sure, and every time I slept over at her house, I would come home with a couple of bruises.
“Will you eat that thing?” she snapped. Her eyes were starting to get frantic as well. “She is going to come down here any minute. My mom is going to kill me. She will know about my trick, and you will ruin it all if you don’t eat that damn popsicle now!”
I tried. I fought with that thing, just knowing she was going to hit me. Just knowing that any minute I was going to see her rip it out of my hand and eat it herself.
Not long after that, she ripped it out of my hand and ate it herself.
There was nothing like Tigress. She was my hero back then. When I was eight and a boy from her neighborhood pulled a knife on me, she leapt on him and drove him to the ground while I stared terrified, mouth agape. She wrestled him, holding his wrist tight. She was on top of him and drove her knee into his chest as she pulled at the knife. He could not breathe and started to cry. She took his knife, then tossed it to me.
Then she kicked his ass for trying to stab me.
Nothing scared her. She was, and still is, a legend in my eyes.
You need to know her if you are going to understand that in those days I had no one to put my back to. I had no one to count on. My sister was unpredictable. No matter how much I gave her, she took more. My mother was distracted, she had a life in mind for me but didn’t really have a handle on the one I was living. My stepfather was a mess. My dad was a nightmare. Everything back then was chaos and pain. Everything, from the neighborhood I lived in to the dreams I had at night, was fear and uncertainty.
Not Tigress. Never her. She was a solid rock. She was a deadly protector. She was my favorite person in the world, and every moment I spent with her was fun.
Except the night we watched Rocky 3 together. You know this one. This is the one with Mr. T. His character’s name is Clubber Lang. And he is the deadliest, most vicious, most horrifying man any of us had ever seen.
When we got as far as Rocky fighting Clubber, Tigress and I sat on the floor before the TV, our fists balled into knots, our hearts pounding. Clubber is beating Rocky. He is punishing him. Rocky is getting hurt. And for a moment, we are sure that Clubber has won this fight.
Then the turn. Rocky gets mad, hits him a few good times, and he looks at him and says, “At least I’m not breathing hard.”
We notice then that Clubber has no breath. He can’t keep it up. He was so ferocious that he never had to fight past the third round. But Rock can take a punch, and he is wearing out Clubber fast.
One round after the next, more punches to Rocky, more gasping and groaning from Clubber. One round after the next and Rocky is fighting hard.
I should have known I was in for trouble when Tigress stood up. She started punching and jumping back and forth. We were chanting, “Rocky! Rocky!” I was up now, shouting right beside her. “Rocky, Rocky.” Nothing in the world can do this to a person like a Rocky movie. No experience you can name can get you so hyped up that you can’t sit still, you can’t stop the beating of your heart, and you can hardly suppress your dire need to punch something.
She punched me. She started pounding on me yelling, “I pity the fool.” Mr. T’s famous line. I hit the ground and curled up. There was no fighting her. She stomped on me for a while before my aunt yelled at us to shut up.
When the movie was over and her blood cooled, Tigress felt awful. When it was all over, she apologized over and over again.
To this day, she apologizes for that night. But she never had to. She still doesn’t know that she was my hero back then. The hard stone to put my back to. The other person I could always count on.
To this day she wonders why I never told her about the abuse I was suffering. Never told her about the horror of my life with my father and the visits that were slowly breaking me.
To her I say that she was strong and powerful, and when I was with her I felt safe. I felt loved. I was happy. And in honesty, the last thing on my mind was my father. But if that cloud ever did pass over my mind, she made me brave enough to face it.
When the worst of it was happening to me, when the nightmare was real, I would summon up her face. I never faced him alone. She was never far from me. I would not have made it had it not been for Tigress and the strength she gave me.