The monkey’s name is Em Dee, which is long for “M.D.” as in medical doctor. Jim, her current owner, which, in monkey terms, means her butler-slave, altered the spelling to give it a more feminine look. Her first owner, which, in monkey terms, can also mean hostage, depending on the human’s disposition, gave her the name when the owner-hostage came to believe Em Dee was smart enough to go to med school.
I call Jim her “man-monkey,” which he loves and hates, the same way new mothers love-hate the way their toddlers own them. It’s all much like Gollum and the one ring, in essence, those relationships. But as the man-monkey, Jim can not touch me or even get too close to me when I am at their house. Em Dee has an affinity for me, and I don’t know why, but this affinity (whether it is a true kinship feeling or merely not-disgust I have yet to determine) does not stop her from biting the shit out of me from time to time, nor does it prevent her from pick-pocketing me, nor does it stop her from sticking her hands down my shirt and groping at my bra like Yezen Hamad in the back of Matt Geoffrion’s brother’s car in 1990. She snatches at my layers of clothes with the angry exasperation of Italian grandmothers (WHY THIS SHIRT? WHY THIS STRAP? WHY YOU WEAR THESE THINGS, MARLOWE? YOU TOO GOOD FOR YOUR OWN SKIN? AI, MARY MOTHER!)
Em Dee came with a reputation. “Be careful of the monkey,” was what people would say about her, then roll their eyes, and Jim would smile because he loves her. Jim grew up with monkeys, which his parents bought from the local Sears in the 60s. So, he’s used to their ways, and Em Dee, who was raised in isolation, suffers the effects of no early family bonds or affections. She often hugs herself or rocks herself in her house, and she can be, if she wants to, somewhat sociopathically moody.
I expected some awful terror, some kind of lab experiment gone wrong, but when I first met Em Dee, she was so sweet and loving, making cooing noises as she stroked my skin. She lifted my finger into her mouth, which alarmed me, but Jim said, “no, capuchins do that as a sign of acceptance. You should let her.” So I did, and she suckled on my pointer finger and stuck it in her cheek, then nibbled a little. “She likes you,” Jim said. “She doesn’t do this with everybody.”
This moment was the first contact I’d ever made with a primate, and I was humbled, deeply, by the intimacy I felt between her five-pound fuzzy little being and mine. Briefly, she’d lift her round black eyes to mine and make another peep followed by miniature clucking sounds, very quiet, in the back of her throat. I’m not going to lie, my nerves were on edge because I didn’t know the first thing about monkeys except that I’d seen Em Dee flip out when Jim got too close to me, and I did NOT want her to do that with any part of me inside her mouth.
And let me tell you this: if you think a five-pound capuchin monkey isn’t strong, you’re dead. ass. wrong. Let me explain it this way: if I had Em Dee’s strength-to-body size-ratio, I could rip my front door off the house. Of course, I don’t know this fact yet as she’s got my hand through the wire of her enclosure with my pointer finger in her mouth.
“See?” Jim said, far behind us by the door. “She likes you.”
Em Dee the Terrible liked me. Well, didn’t I feel fancy when I went home. So, the next time I went to Jim’s and sat with Em Dee and she pulled my fingers into the enclosure, I didn’t think twice about letting her hold my pointer finger, slide it into her monkey mouth, and look deep into my eyes. This time, though, when she made eye contact, she stared deep into my soul and bit the daylights out of my finger, her pointy little penny nails of teeth driving down into my nailbed and quick.
“OW!” I snatched my hand away. A bruise was already forming under the fingernail. Then Em Dee grabbed the wire of her enclosure and rattled it like a mini-King Kong, the entire side of the cage clanging and shuddering. Then she whooped and shrieked in that monkey way and hopped from platform to platform before running back to me and thrusting her hand out to me, begging me to give her my hand again. Please, Marlowe. Come on, please.
I didn’t. I was that strange cross between ashamed that I’d fallen for her monkey-kindess-ploy, angry because getting bitten triggers fear, and excited because this bite meant that I was learning about her behavior and that Em Dee and I could define a relationship, which, as an animal person, I wanted to explore. But I did hate her a little bit for biting me. The same way she hates me a little bit when I sit at the kitchen table and laugh with Jim.
The next time I saw her it was dreamy. She cuddled me and groomed my hair (which hurts, by the way. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever gotten African braids), and she wrapped her prehensile tail around my waist and and snuggled her cute little capuchin head in my palm. That day I also showed her an unloaded German .32 six-shooter pistol that Jim had as a photo prop, which she got real excited about, but I had a moment watching a monkey spin the barrel of a pistol that made me feel odd about the circumstances of my life, and so I took it from her, which she did not like, but she still clutched my forearm with her hands and petted me before I went home.
The next time I saw her, though, was when I had to learn not to punch the monkey. But I wanted to. Believe me, I wanted to.
Everything was normal: I show up, I see the cats, I say “Hey, girlfriend!” to Em Dee like I always do when I drop my stuff off in the kitchen, and then, I guess, Em Dee had expected me to come by and love on her a minute and I didn’t. I went straight to the cats and stayed with them until it was time to leave. Jim was in the yard talking to a failing Ewok, whom you all met last week and who died shortly after I posted the blog about him, and I stood next to Em Dee’s enclosure on the back porch and asked her what was up, how she was doing.
She wrapped her tail around my waist and grasped my left hand with both of hers, then, out of nowhere, she snatched the collar of my t-shirt and when I pulled away she shoved my hand into the side of the enclosure and bit hard into the meat of my thumb; it was a hot and sharp pain, sudden; the pressure of her jaws and the puncture of her teeth feeling like I’d gotten my hand slammed in the door of a Lincoln stove. “GodDAMMIT, Em Dee!” I yanked my hand back and saw the imprint of her incisors and bottom teeth in my skin, and I had a moment where I wanted to reach back through the cage and punch her face in. I wanted to kill that monkey for biting me; for a flash that passed through me like lighting I wanted to kill her, but then it was gone, and she stood in her enclosure and watched me washing my hands with lots of soap and hot water, and I shot her a mean look when I grabbed my things and left. I didn’t say goodbye to her, and I wonder if she can sense when she has hurt someone’s feelings. I think she’s capable of it, sensing the “sense” of others, but I’m not dumb enough to think Em Dee would never bite me again because she hurt my feelings. Right now, I’m not sure what I think, but I know that my interaction with Em Dee is teaching me about controlling my fear response. When I drove home from Jim’s that afternoon with capuchin-sized puncture wounds in my hand, a few layers of skin flapping loose from the holes where her bottom teeth had been, I recognized the emotions flaming in my heart.
They were the same ones I felt in the cab ride home from the Pelohurino my last day in Brazil, when I almost punched a gypsy woman who had fleeced me out of about $15. She’d also snatched me, and in Portuguese told me (I thought) that she was going to bless my money, and, because I am sometimes naive and stupid, I didn’t think she was then going to keep the money. By the time I realized I was getting robbed, she had 30 reis, about 15 dollars. It’s not a lot of money, but it was the principle of the thing. It scared me to be in a negotiation with someone speaking a language I didn’t understand, and then I realized that I had misunderstood what little bit of the language I thought I’d understood, and suddenly, I thought to myself that I ought to just take my money back from her because it wasn’t like her prayer was real, anyway. So, that’s what I did. In a few minutes, a crowd had gathered around me and this old Brazilian woman. She must have been about 70, and she wore a saffron robe with gobs of sparkly beaded jewelry. I had hold of her wrist with one hand and was attempting to pry my 30 reis out of her clutched fist with my other hand–I mean I was digging into that impenetrable sphincter she’d created, and I couldn’t budge it. Gypsies, too, are deceptively strong.
Just punch her, grab your money, and run, my head said. You’re in a foreign country, no one will know you punched a gypsy. But I didn’t. Because, what if I missed? What if the other gypsies jumped me–I felt like I could do alright with all these old ladies, but there was the chance that I’d misread the public opinion of gypsies and maybe if one got punched by an American woman with a boy’s haircut that suddenly the whole Pelohurino would turn on me, and I would never know what was happening because I don’t speak their language. Anyway.
The other gypsy women began to gather around, pointing at me and yelling something about me being unholy and cursed. One of them got in my face and gave me the thumbs-down, and she was really old, like pruny-faced old and I remember her robe was this dazzling Caribbean-blue which contrasted unforgettably with the sour “you suck!” face she was giving me as she pumped the thumbs-down. I heard “let’s go, let’s go!” and I looked up and my friend Maureen, from LA, had gotten fleeced next to me, and she grabbed me by the shoulders and took me to a cab. I hated the gypsies then, and not just a little bit.
But it is so frustrating to know that a situation could be so drastically different and un-frightening if only I spoke the language; if only I wasn’t outcast by my inability to communicate and stunted by my fearful response to my state of being on the outside of understanding what is happening to me. So it was with Em Dee and the gypsies, and yet all of them have made me wiser and more focused on how I want to move around in the world. I don’t want to punch the monkey. Or the gypsies. But I don’t want to get bitten and robbed, either.
With Em Dee, the truth is that I think she needs a bond with a female, but I don’t know how to do that yet because I’m in the process of learning to communicate in her way, and I suspect she and I can learn to communicate so she won’t bite me when she is feeling out of sorts. It’ll take time, but I am willing to learn because I want to, and I sense that Em Dee is like a lot of people who have trust issues and the dominance games that rise from those issues; of course, Em Dee is also a monkey, and they have their own rules and order which I only know a little bit about, but that is why being around her is fascinating. I’m learning. And I can’t learn anything helpful if I’m afraid; so it goes with the gypsies of the world, as well.
I could have learned that monkeys are dicks and that Brazilians are dirty thieves, but I don’t think either of those ideas is true. I look around the world a lot at people who pump out these ideas created by their fear responses–look at any political “argument” in the United States these days–and I see disaster. So, I forge ahead with Em Dee, and the next time I’m in Brazil, you can damn well be sure I won’t stop and say hey to the gypsies–and, by the way, you shouldn’t either.
night, night beloveds.