Playing Percussion with a Chimpanzee

Mexico wasn’t ending up quite like I had expected.

The Peace Corps officer on the payphone surprised me with new information. It turned out the big-eyed, playful young man I had driven across the United States and across the border to visit, because he was saving sea turtles with the Peace Corps, had been sent to save sea turtles elsewhere. No record of where the organization had sent him.

I put down the phone and stared. Time to make the best of my journey.

No reason to keep learning Spanish. Well, I was relieved about that, anyway. I wasn’t very good at it. No reason to go farther into Mexico. Well, not sure if that was a plus or not. I wondered what I would do next.

I could go to the zoo nearby. That seemed to be the main thing of interest here. And it would be a good chance to practice my Spanish. Oh yeah. I didn’t need to do that.

The zoo was one of the saddest things I had ever seen. I’d never really liked seeing animals captured out of their free lives and put on display, though I had gone to the zoo with my brilliant husband sometimes: the leopard there was civil to everyone else, but why did it always immediately lunge with fury at my ex as if it wanted to tear him apart?

I’d grown up deep in the countryside, rescuing birds that hit the windows or fell out of their nests, got stuck in melted asphalt on the hot Indiana road. A sick raccoon had approached me in the back yard, asking for help, and I kept it in the bathroom with all the robins, closing the door to the dogs and cats roaming free in our house.

I’d volunteered at the humane society for years, taking five dogs at a time out of a single cage to clean up, and then, when they escaped the cages, I ran after them in circles on the slick floors to the sound of their claws tap tap tapping.

The animals at this Mexican zoo hunkered with goo in their eyes and hands over their faces. It made me cry to see them in cages, especially the gorillas. The little whooper monkeys were cute and enthusiastic, and I liked whooping with them. But I moved on in a kind of a daze.

I’d gone to Mexico to see the sea turtle fellow based on a letter, and after living a fine, but contained life of domesticity and professionalism, I had no other home at the time than just — the world, wherever I was. I hadn’t slept in the car along the way, I’d searched for places with enough soft dirt to put down my blankets. Cemeteries, public land, across rolls of wheat in fields, or in the untamed worlds accessed through holes in the fences at rest stops.

I felt right sleeping outside, but not yet ecstatic.

I’d once gone to see the Big Apple drop at New Years with my husband and I saw a man dancing with complete abandon on a rooftop. My husband didn’t dance at all. It was that moment, seeing that man on the roof, that my longing first stirred to experience something that was animalistic and free.

At the zoo, I felt like I was in a slow dream. My goal of being around someone who understood living wildly (sea turtle man) was suddenly abandoned and a mystery laid ahead of me.

I could go back to painting. But I knew the art pieces would be nothing like what I had done before, back when my husband still allowed me to take the time off from chores to paint. The Fauvist (Wild Beast) style I had adopted had been only the beginning. It was outdated. I had to go beyond. I had to become a Wilder Beast.

It no doubt wounded my husband when I had taken off, inspired to lead a life of adventure, spontaneity and spiritual honesty. Uncaged, my experiences were to be not colored by the default expectations of shelter or limitations. I would express the intense force of nature that was my love unbridled. And there I was, at the zoo, with nothing defined except for the pack of thirty peanuts in my hand.

A chimpanzee got my attention. It was the only creature in the large area set aside for it, which resembled reality outside the fence, with trees, water and vines to swing on. The creature didn’t seem as sad as most of the others. It had some room to play. This one seemed to be beckoning to me to liberate it in a specific way.

It had a stick in its paw. It was standing on a boulder and it was banging it on the concrete. In a rhythm! I moved my head with the cadence. No one was around, so I bopped my head goofily. The chimp seemed to smile. I think it was a smile, anyway. Yeeeee haa!

I fumbled in my purse frantically. I wanted to play along and I didn’t want to miss my chance. A ylang ylang essential oil bottle. Would break. A mascara stick. No, too clangy. A pen: too high pitched. The chimp looked at me expectantly, and there was magic in the air. A hairbrush! Yes!

I quickly disentangled it from the tape measurer. I showed the hairbrush to the chimp, who was on the other side of the moat, still hitting the concrete with the stick. How did it know I would be the one? Did it try that with everyone? Was it my armpit hair? The Fauvist colors in my aura?

I hit the metal fence with the hairbrush, as hard as I could, in sync with the chimp’s stick.

It started making some excited little sounds, the happiest things I had heard in weeks since I’d left the dark house of my finished marriage, where my husband never opened the blinds and had once lashed out at my mother for doing so. Where my spiritual quest was seen as silly.

I loved this little chimp. I loved myself. And music. And the fence the chimp was caged by, because it made such a satisfactory sound with my hairbrush. Plastic would have made a stupid sound on metal. I was glad I used a wooden one. Yes, they’d had to cut down a tree. That was bad. But it wasn’t plastic. It was real.

Bang! Bang! Bangbang! Bang! Bang! Banghang!

I started dancing along with my beat. My face could hardly contain my smile. I put everything into it. The chimp could hardly contain itself either. It was dancing too! It jumped with the beat it played. It stared in my face. Its eyes were divine tunnels to forever. I believed it was the moment it had been waiting for its whole life in the zoo. Finally! At last! Halleluiah!

My arms were getting tired but I pressed on as long as I could stand it. We didn’t look away from each other’s eyes for a second. I felt my heart merge with it. I didn’t want to ever leave. I varied the beat, making it more interesting, adding to the complexity. The chimp kept up with the most advanced syncopation. It was a master drummer.

I gave up all I had hoped for Mexico. This was it. I was initiated into the world of the wild. This was the beginning of my feral future. I was free.

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