by Andrew Cothren
Not wanting to offend, the newlyweds said nothing about the cheetah.
When they entered their suite, it lay atop the made bed, ears perked. Bits of fur stuck out at tufted angles, as though someone careless had stroked its coat in the wrong direction. Nothing else in the room was out of place; matching bathrobes sat folded near the cheetah’s paws, and a bottle of champagne waited in a bucket of snapping ice cubes. The couple paused in the doorway, arms tired from carrying luggage across hotel carpet, across airport terminal, across ocean.
Maybe every hotel room in this part of the world has a cheetah? the new wife said, breaking a lengthy silence. Or just the hotel rooms of the newly married. A ritual? Tradition?
That seems sound, the new husband said, though I read nothing in the guidebooks.
Poking their heads out to scan the long hallway, things looked normal. Housekeepers relayed towels and sheets into and out of rooms. A family walked toward the elevator bank, two small children hopping from shape to shape on the patterned carpet. Polished shoes sat outside the doors of late sleepers. There were no signs of other large animals: no scratch marks on furniture, no coarse hairs drifting in the near-still hotel air.
After several minutes of indecision, the newlyweds dropped their bags on the floor. The cheetah paid no attention, instead staring out the window at a passing flock of birds. The newlyweds left and began their honeymoon.
They flew in a small helicopter around volcanoes, the pilot pointing out plumes of steam rising from the peaks and explaining the tumult below the surface. Outside a cafe, they met an elderly couple from Buffalo who offered unsolicited marriage advice. During a walk through the market district, a fortune-teller read the lines in their palms and made vague proclamations about their future but said nothing of hotel jungle cats. They ate dinner at a restaurant on the harbor, the new wife insisting on a meal with octopus that looked too much like octopus for the new husband’s taste, though he ate it anyway, swallowing rubbery chunks whole.
Late in the evening, the newlyweds stopped at the hotel bar for a nightcap. They sat silent, exhausted, each mulling over the things the elderly couple had said, everything their friends and families had told them before and during their wedding, the hopes so many people placed in their union. Their disappointments, too. The new husband’s mother was still baffled by her new daughter-in-law’s unchanged last name. Paperwork from insurance companies, health companies, and the government all awaited them back home, as did their friends who’d already crossed the finish lines of marriage, parenthood, home ownership. The newlyweds clasped hands, each sensing the other’s unreadiness.
When they entered the room, the cheetah lay just where they’d left it. The animal lifted its head, as though they had interrupted its sleep. What should we do? the new husband asked. Shoo it out the door?
Though she didn’t believe any of the fortune-teller’s talk of omens and signs, something gave her pause. That doesn’t feel right, she said. Let’s let it be.
When she removed the sandals dangling from her feet, the new wife saw the bony outlines of her toes and remembered when she’d first bought them, on that weekend maybe four months into things, in a town at the tip of the Jersey shore populated by kitschy hotels. The first time she wore the sandals, the two of them walked down the shore, not holding hands because they never felt the need to hold hands, one of the first things they’d loved about each other. Stinking of sweat and sunblock, watching children chase the receding waves to the edge of the sand, then run from the incoming water, the new wife—then a new girlfriend—felt so acutely aware of her happiness that she imagined wind ripping a beach umbrella from the sand and the spiked end piercing her heart, killing her instantly, and she felt an odd sense of peace at that image, a feeling that in the midst of that moment she could die calm and unregretful.
While the new husband took cushions off armchairs and spread bathrobes and towels over them, making a bed on the floor, the new wife walked slowly toward the cheetah. Tail wagging atop the comforter, it regarded her careful approach. The new wife reached her hand out and, like other cats she’d known, the cheetah moved its head to her fingers, encouraging her to scratch behind its ear. A rumbling purr vibrated the bedsprings as the new wife took a seat on the mattress.
See? she said. It’s harmless.
I don’t know.
Come here. She beckoned with her free hand.
Holding his breath, the new husband ran his fingernails along the animal’s chin. The purring grew louder. The three of them sat for some time like that, the cheetah nudging them with its snout whenever they stopped.
Exhausted, unspeaking, the newlyweds finally rose to their feet and undressed, leaving their clothes in a heap near their unopened suitcases. They lay down on either side of the cheetah, wrapping their arms around it and each other in a fur-flesh tangle. The animal squirmed between them at first, making quiet grumbles of discomfort, but soon grew accustomed to their embrace. Head lowered to paws, it dozed. Running their fingers along each other’s skin now, feeling the small hairs on their arms, the newlyweds watched each other fall asleep in the foreign dark, between them a new, warm, animal weight.