It is Becky’s special day, so she gets to choose what we do. She could have chosen anything. She chose the zoo. We see the turtles, a giraffe, the elephants (of course), and a mountain lion that probably hasn’t spent a single day of his life anywhere near a mountain. But it isn’t the menagerie of birds or the countless exotic fish she wants to see.
“Monkeys!” she says, her too pale face lighting up as she races to the railing.
“Honey, don’t get too close,” Her mother says trying to keep up.
There are five of them in the grotto. One walks around the perimeter, shaking branches. The others take refuge in a rapidly shrinking area of shade underneath a large climbing rock. It rained earlier but as the afternoon wears on, the temperature soars. The heat threatens to reignite the dying embers of an early morning headache. My shirt is damp from the humidity.
“Did I ever tell that I was never really a fan of monkeys?” I say, washing another ibuprofen down with my final sip of water. The faint odor of stagnant water and animal feces wafts through the air.
“Banana envy?” Becky’s mother says. Becky has quickly become engrossed in the animals and giggles when one of them begins batting around an old tire swing.
I force a smile and place the empty bottle in an overflowing rubbish bin. “You can’t trust them,” I say. “People see a monkey and they think ‘Oh how cute’ but the truth is they’re not that nice. Sure, you can throw a diaper on one, have him smoke a cigar, or pal around with Clint Eastwood, but they’re still animals. Damn strong animals, too. And if you let your guard down, if you get too close, they’ll chew your face off.” I pause briefly then add, “And then they’ll maul your genitals.”
Becky’s mother once found me funny. But that was a long time ago. “You do know those aren’t monkeys, right?” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Monkeys have tails. Those are apes.” Her tone is reminiscent of a harsh schoolteacher or unforgiving grandparent.
I press on. “Monkeys. Apes. Same same. Doesn’t matter what they’re called; the point is they are dangerous, nasty creatures. I believe it was Charles Darwin who said, ‘Show me a monkey who can talk and I’ll show you a monkey with peanut butter on the roof of his mouth and a finger up his ass.'” I again pause briefly then add, “Or was that Will Rogers?”
She looks at me, not smiling, not saying a word. Her head tilts a little to the side. I used to find that gesture cute. Now it reminds me of a cocker spaniel. “Well they’re Becky’s favorite,” she says, turning her back to me in order to watch her daughter more closely. “So try to keep your peanut butter fingers and mauled genitals to yourself, please.”
Monkeys might be her favorite, but the heat has rendered them lethargic and boring. She walks over to us. “I want a snow cone,” she says.
“Great idea, Peanut,” I say, smiling. I am doing everything I can to keep the mood light. I kneel down to adjust her hat. “I think I saw a guy selling some back near the petting zoo,” and then as a polite afterthought, “You want one, Monica?”
Becky’s mother ignores me. “That’s too much sugar, Honey,” she says.
“A snow cone isn’t sugar, Mommy. It’s snow.” Becky pauses briefly then adds, “Colored snow.”
“She’s got a point,” I say. She has always been a smart kid. “Come on. My treat.”
“Thanks for the help, Good Cop, but I don’t think this is the best day for her to be eating colored snow. We have sandwiches back in the car.” She turns to Becky, “You can wash your pills down with a juice box.”
“No. I want a snow cone,” she says. She crosses her arms and sticks out her lower lip.
“Just let me buy her the snow cone,” I say. “It’ll be fine.”
“No.” she says. Her tone indicates there will be no further negotiations.
“You are going to let me buy her a snow cone,” I say, a flash of anger in my voice.
She ignores me, “Honey, maybe we can get an extra snack after lunch.” It is a lie. We both know it. “Now go back and look at the monkeys for a minute while mommy and daddy talk.”
This seems to satisfy Becky for the moment and she walks back to the grotto, carefully adjusting her hat as it once again threatens to slide off. It is her special hat, and she does not want to lose it.
“Why do you have to do that?” Becky’s mother says.
“Jesus Christ, Monica, it’s a fucking snow cone.”
“She needs to conserve her energy and that won’t happen if she’s hopped up on sugar and bouncing around like a Gummi Bear. Now, I didn’t have to invite you along and I would appreciate it if you would stop undermining my authority.”
“Your authority? Your authority? What about my authority?”
“If I recall correctly your authority extends to supervised visits twice a month and this isn’t one of them.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t play that card on me. Things are different now.”
“Really? Things are different? You know your lies are much more convincing when you’re eyes aren’t bloodshot and you’re not swallowing ibuprofen every thirty minutes.”
My silence tells her everything she needs to know. “I didn’t deal these cards,” she says, “but I’ll play them however I damn well like.” She walks away to again remind her daughter not to stand too close to the railing.
And just like that, the conversation is over. I stand by myself, a neutered dog. She won. She would always win. When it comes to Becky, I know she will always get the last word and she will always have the final say. She has earned that right. Even if there were more time for me to get squeeky and make amends, I probably wouldn’t ever amount to much more than a glorified babysitter. All the snow cones in the world wouldn’t change that.
When I was in college, I once heard an author of some renown compare his children to Greek Islands. The wife and kid were still a few years away and, at the time, I thought it was a rather strained metaphor. “People get paid to write this crap?” I said to my creative writing teacher. The teacher had looked at me with the eyes of someone who would forget your name a week after class was finished (probably even less than that) and told me I had no right to criticize. He said I would understand someday when I had my own children.
For a while, after Becky was born, I thought he was right. I bought into the cheap sentimentality and the saccharine banality of the perfect child into which all hopes are put. I believed in the happy family, even as I did everything I could to destroy that happiness. Now, as I watch mother and child together, the mother acting like everything is OK when it isn’t, when it never really was, I realize my mistake. Children aren’t Greek Islands or rays of sunshine or any of that other bullshit so many writers and so many poets and so many doctors are so quick to label them.
They aren’t abstract concepts. They aren’t cheap analogies of the things their parents never did or the dreams they never fulfilled. They are human beings, just like the rest of us. They go on for a little while and then they stop. And they don’t deserve to be put on a pedestal or condescended to. They don’t deserve to be poked and prodded with needles and talked about in hushed tones behind half closed doors. Because they already know what is being talked about, even if they aren’t always able to pronounce the bigger words.
My own hypocrisy is not lost on myself and it stings the corners of my eyes.
“Daddy! Daddy! Look at the funny monkeys!” Becky says as I approach.
“Yeah, look at the funny…” well, it isn’t that funny.
“Look Daddy, a piggyback ride,” she says.
“That’s not a piggyback ride,” I say before thinking.
She looks at me, her head tilting a little to the side. “Then what are they doing?”
I kneel next to her. The hat is sliding off again. It never really fit all that well when she had hair, and now it nearly engulfs her tiny head, making her ears stick out in a way which is almost comical.
“They’re…well they’re…” I look up at Monica and she gives me a smile. It has been a long time since I have seen that smile. I miss it, even though I thought I never would. She has aged ten years in the past ten months but the smile is still the same and her eyes still sparkle. “Have fun with this one,” those eyes say. I look into my daughter’s eyes and see that same sparkle. And I do what I did every time I saw that sparkle. I do the only damn thing I am good at.
“Oh you mean those monkeys?” I say as the child giggles in my ear. “I thought you meant the other monkeys. The ones with the tails. Yup, that’s a piggyback ride. Wow! Look at ’em go. They must be really good friends.”
In the grotto below the happy family, the male has succeeded in mounting the female. He barks and grunts, oblivious to any delicate sensibilities that might be nearby. The female just lies there. Waiting for it to begin. Waiting for it to be over. He begins to thrust. In and out. Fast. Faster. Very faster. It goes on for a little while and then it stops. The whole thing is over rather quickly and as the female rolls onto her back and begins to clean herself, the male walks sluggishly away, probably wondering to himself if there is any shade left underneath that large climbing rock.