To have a pet monkey was unusual enough; to have it live in her shirt was even more bizarre. My aunt kept her pet like a child, close to her chest. It wore small diapers. It nestled there, peeking out like a scared little man, between her large, augmented breasts. I remember thinking it must be like a water bed in there for her cleavage monkey. As children, we were frightened and fascinated by the wide eyed, hissing wild thing tucked into her shirt. It became a part of her in our minds.
My aunt was tall and leggy. She wore tight jeans, low cut shirts and high heels. I thought she was like Cruella De Ville billowing in fur coats, smelling of perfume and cigarettes. But, she was young and beautiful. Her face was always made up, and she jingled and clicked when she walked. She modeled. One time Jose Canseco tried to pick up on her behind stage at a fashion show while she changed the monkey’s diaper.
It was good that she joined the family for a traditional campout. All the aunts and uncles and cousins and my grandparents were glad, I think. She did not do a lot with us in those times. The grownups prayed for her and exchanged meaningful looks behind her back. Bits of stories trickled down to me and the other children like fables with warnings. Had she really smuggled drugs from
Hong Kong in her enormous hoop earrings? We knew she had come home from that trip with the monkey. Was she held at gun point by a black man? Did she sleep with men? These things were incongruous with my life, they did not happen in my family. But she had come to camp with us with lips outlined to look larger and eyes traced in black. She smiled a lot and gave us gifts and sweets. I struggled with my unsanctioned admiration of her.
I agreed to walk her monkey in the woods. I held the leash with trepidation and pride. I felt cool and anticipated the fun. Bright rays of light shot down through the trees like stage lights as our stroll began. I tugged gently at first on the leash and the little creature responded hesitantly. His round eyes were demanding and suspicious. He wanted my aunt. He needed to retreat to her bosom. I was in charge and continued to pull him along. Attempting to dominate a wild thing, I stumbled onto a realization: a leash cannot save you.
I became uneasy when I heard the deep purring sound, but before I could even assess the situation there was a blur of brown flying toward my face. My arms flailed to block the attack. I could feel the painful pinch of the monkey’s teeth on my arm through the sleeves of my sweatshirt. In self defense I flung the tiny body away from me. To my horror the monkey hit the ground and bounced back immediately before I could even draw a breath. Repeatedly I thrust the assailant down, but each time he sprung back, undeterred toward my face. I was losing. My attacker was beyond reason, his eyes bulging, baring his teeth as he screeched and clawed. There was only one thing I could think of doing to keep the monkey at a safe distance. I grasped my end of the leash, tossed the angry creature off me one last time and swung my arm quickly and deliberately. I rotated my arm like a windmill around and around my head.
The element of surprise was on my side. The monkey helplessly flailed at the end of the leash as it rotated above me. I felt as if we would lift off the ground. I almost laughed out loud in relief as my enemy became dizzy at a safe distance. But, my moment of triumph was short lived. The monkey began to curl around, grabbing at the leash. Then, in terror I watched as I realized what it was doing. Hand over hand it pulled itself toward me on the leash, wild faced with fury. In my panic I could only let go of the leash- hoping the outbound flight would buy me time as I turned and fled in the opposite direction. As the monkey screamed through the air like a deflating balloon, I ran and did not look back until I heard nothing but my own heart pound between my gasps. When I reached the camp I was safe… my aunt was there to intervene. She laughed and gathered the monkey as it trembled with rage. She patted and cooed at it until it was soothed. I was shaken and she joked about it until I could relax. Once out of danger the absurdity of the event struck me.
I don’t remember my aunt before her monkey era. I doubt I would have childhood memories of her at all if not for the monkey. The other adults were only a watercolor background to my childhood. She stood out. I do recall when the monkey left. He had matured and become very aggressive. He grew fangs and raged with hormones. One day the monkey bit right through my grandfather’s hand as he fed it. They sent the monkey away. Ironically, the new owners trained him to be the hands for a paraplegic man.
Around that time my aunt got rid of her awful husband and began coming back to church. She stopped smoking and causing a ruckus. I never asked her the details of her life back then or what had caused her to lead such a lifestyle. But, she came out of it- probably slowly in reality. It only seemed suddenly to me as a child because the change was dramatic. Only the residue of her former wild life remains in her sometimes crass and loud manner. She is kind, generous, resilient, and a crusader for the underdog. But, I think she was always like that, even when she was “bad”. She has always thrived on chaos but has sublimated to be the mother of a large family who runs her own business. Experiences like she has had may leave scars, but it also can bring wisdom and pluck. I enjoy being around her, in fact she is a friend. Of course, she is flawed like the rest of us and she is monkeyless.
As I have grown older, when I think about the monkey I wonder what vices I carry in my bosom, nourishing and cherishing them only so they can turn on me and those I love. What does it take to put them down? Will I outrun them? Deep down I know I’m not all that different from her. My mistakes have been different ones but only by degrees. Many of my virtues are untried, I have never had her beauty, money or career. Would I have been any different in her shoes? I honestly can’t be sure.
My aunt was the example all the parents used any time we made a mistake. “This could happen to you…it only takes one step in this direction so beware.” I can see their fear and as a parent now I understand it. It is easy to imagine worst case scenarios when children rebel and that was what my aunt represented for all of us. But, when I think of my aunt and see her life as it is now I feel differently. Now, she exemplifies hope. She is living proof that we can fall hard and far, but thank goodness we can come back and leave the monkey behind us.