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We Are Only So Much Monkey: Lessons Learned From Failure

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The earliest piece of advice my mother ever gave me was simply this: “Marry a man, Amy. Not a monkey.”

We were at a waterpark in Orlando. I was five, or six maybe, and my brothers were I don’t know where, sliding down things that would only ever give me a rash. So, my mother and I walked to the tidal pool at the other end of the park, or, rather, we sat beside it, because it was summer and it was hot and there were many soggy toddlers. We can be honest about this much: superabsorbent polymers are only going to keep in so much pee. Still, this was our moment of relaxation, and we took it in together—the real palm trees, the fake waves, all those tiny bodies rising and falling inside their shape.

And that’s when it happened: a man walked towards us—nearly brushing into my mother—clad in nothing but a Speedo: the skinniest piece of thin, black fabric. And he was covered—no, I mean, covered—in tiny, crescent-shaped, wiry hairs. Even ‘covered’ isn’t right, because that is to put it mildly. Too mildly, I believe. To say this man was, in fact, closer to our evolutionary origin is perhaps scientifically invalid—I can hear my scientist friends now, saying, “Amy, that’s impossssible,” saying, “Amy, you can’t be serious,” as they do when I suggest that aliens are A Thing or we’re on the cusp of discovering time travel or gravity cannot be real because what do we make of hot air balloons?—but it does the work I want it to. So picture him primate-like.

Do you see him on his knees, scrounging around as he picks up berries?

It was grotesque, is all I mean—a gratuitous amount of hair that any other human being would simply shave off, or wax to oblivion, or attempt to remove by ingesting one of those Japanese medicines advertised on late-night infomercials that make your skin red and flaky but the hair disintegrate. Perhaps I’m being cruel. But the point is simply this: he was a gross, gross man, and my mother—an otherwise perfectly grounded, reasonable, polite and affable woman I have always admired—looked at me and said, “Amy, whatever you do: when finally of that age, marry a man and not a monkey.”

I think about this memory now and find it startlingly out-of-character. It is the only memory I have of my mother, in fact, where she’s being judgmental, perhaps even cruel, looking down on this strange and shaggy man as if a pion from her throne of perfectly kempt hair hygiene. But even now, I’ll admit: my mother was fucking right. A monkey is not a thing I want. Really, it is the very last thing I desire when I roll over in the night, moonlight pouring in like liquid and casting glows across an afghan in what I’ll admit is my Romantic Vision—this image that I go to when I admit that I am lonely. My Romantic Vision is the reason I do everything: why I loofah, why I buy expensive soaps that contain hand-picked Provencal lavender, why I still dabble with OkCupid despite the many “hey wut up”s. And what I do not want, more than anything, is a handful of thick, brown hair mucking up my Romantic Vision.

I do not want to have an ‘extraction process.’

There should be no work involved.

My future mate does not have to be strong, exactly, and he can have some jiggly bits, because what I care about most of all is his soft, warm, doughy flesh that I can run my fingers across and press my lips against and whisper into, very softly, “This is a space meant just for me, and you’ve shaved it because you care.”

Of course I know that for many, hair’s a problem. I’m not naïve enough not to know that. As human beings, we are inherently flawed, bound by the biological container we arrived in, and I know a great many folks who go to great lengths to shave their hair, or they wax it, or they sit there on a blind date, embarrassed about their forearms. And perhaps if I were a better woman—less judgmental, more accommodating—what I would be saying is not, Ew, but, It’s okay to be who you are, or, Some of us have hair. But my mother’s advice was specific and it was meant for me and only me—as if she knew who I’d become—and I find myself grateful for it even now.

But what of you? And what, again, of me? Last week I turned another year older, and I find my Romantic Vision is fulfilled now only by the great many pillows I press against, as if a body. But sequins and paisley prints can only do so much. Her advice, I’m beginning to realize, is simply not enough. I want more: a whole inventory from that tidal pool memory—a guidebook, if you will—for the men I should and should not date. It would save me so much time. Dating, as it turns out, is so much more complicated than a man’s hair-to-no-hair ratio. Hair, lo and behold, is likely the least of my concerns.

Because I’m all about justifying my behavior, I’ve read lots of studies lately that assert that 30 is the new 20 for men. The economy, the oversaturation of college graduates, the kick-assery of females everywhere—whatever the cause, men are increasingly delayed in terms of financial success and maturity. I’m not saying all of them, of course, but certainly many of them. Things are taking longer, and so things are taking longer to acquire. Mature relationships, for example.

I cannot tell you how many relationships I’ve already endured at my young age—some for an embarrassingly long amount of time—where I’ve found myself putting in nearly everything while my partner puts in nearly nothing. Look, I want to say, I’ve been up all night reading your short stories and I made you this home-cooked dinner and, later, I’ll make us brownie sundaes and we can watch this old film I rented because I love you and I care.

But they have beers to drink. They have rambling alleyways to walk. They are pensive and they are moody and they have so many things to do.

This is not to say that I am perfect. I am often consumed by want and I can get obsessed with my aloneness and I am deathly afraid of spiders and I will judge you if you voted for Romney. Nor am I saying that I have given up on men entirely; I’ve simply begun to look for them in other places. I have a very good feeling, for example, that my next boyfriend will be a good 10 years older than me, likely more, and this suits me even now. I am very into the idea of responsibility and maturity and perhaps the wisdom that comes with age. I am into you not drinking. I am into you admiring me for my clean and nicely-scented home, and how you realize it’s not my duty but a thing I choose to do. Is your house lined with vintage bookshelves? Do you maybe own a car? These things get me hot and bothered. For whatever reason, my deepest and most private fantasies now involve making a man a roast chicken and then sitting beside him on a couch as we watch documentaries about deep space, or black holes, or old black-and-white movies while he doesn’t drink a million beers but instead asks if I’ll share my blanket.

“God damn,” I’ll say, “of course,” and the sweetness I’ll find within that moment will seem so gratifying I might explode.

“Like a death star,” I’ll joke gently. “Like I’m evaporating into the fucking cosmos because of how satisfied you’ve made me.”

What I’m getting at, I guess, is that wouldn’t it be great is if we could somehow bypass all of the nonsense that comes before we meet the person we’re actually meant to be with? If—in that waterpark that afternoon—my mother could have told me everything? 

So here’s an addendum—a list of the many things my mother didn’t think to list, likely because they’d be inappropriate and anyway, I had no notebook. Here, instead, are the things I’ve learned only by going on dates with men who ‘dip,’ men who refuse to take off their bicycle helmet—first in the restaurant and then the bar—men who tell me I should “just let it happen,” men who tell me sexy stories they’ve repressed about babysitters. I’ve dated men who eat only sausage and others who pry bread from toasters with metal forks, and men who treat me as if I’m a book—bend my spine a little bit, then shortly thereafter, put me back, and later tell everyone I was your favorite and that you learned an awful lot from me.

“She was the best,” they always say, as if it’s some weird, strange, sad sort of pride: how they treated me like garbage.

Once, I dated a man who donned a ski mask and let himself into my apartment in the middle of the night, and what the fuck is that? Isn’t he supposed to love my face? Isn’t he supposed to be kind and big-hearted with weathered hands and framed artwork?

So, a supplement to my waterpark memory—a list of Dos and Don’ts. These, dear readers, are what my friend Rachel calls “non-negotiables.”

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1. Do not date the man who only ever wears Christmas-themed boxer shorts. It is not a “passing phase.” He is not “asserting” anything. It may seem cute to you at first—how you’ll stock up at Gap at Christmas so you can gift him with a reindeer print in June—but it’ll grow tiresome with age.

2. For reasons I cannot explain, walk away from the man who mentions Bob Dylan on your first date. I will defend this only by saying that I, too, think he’s great. But for whatever reason, this is a sign. “He’s, like, my idol,” he might say, or, “He got me into writing,” or, “He got him into love.” “He’s kind of like my Jesus,” he’ll say, and you need to roll your fucking eyes. It doesn’t make any sense, but this seems a universal shortcut I’ve worked out so you don’t have to.

3. Do not date a man who tells you your “future selves” are incompatible.

4. If he fetishizes poets.

5. If he’s never left the state.

6. Trust him if he’s good with dogs.

7. And especially with kids.

8. Never, ever take back the man who once took you to look at Christmas lights and then broke up with you beside a cornfield. The drive home, remember, was awkward, and he broke up you because why? Because you reminded him of his father. It was December, for Christ’s sake, just two weeks before the holiday, so no matter how much he begs—no matter how fiercely he claims he’s changed—do not let that man back in. You know enough to know: a man who dumps you while looking at Christmas lights is kind of a shitty, fucking person who is not worthy of your love.

9. Be especially dismissive if, years later, that man writes a “fictionalized” account of said-dumping for a literary journal in which he takes on the persona of the wounded, troubled man, jaded by childhood ambivalence in a house with line-dried clothes. He was doing you, he’ll write, a favor.

10. Most especially peace the fuck out if that man doesn’t tell you about that story first, and instead you must read it for yourself in a public bookstore in New York City, and you’ll do your best not to cry, but you are you, after all, and it ruins the sleeve of your favorite sweater. It had little turtles on it, even.

11. Do not date the man who tells you it’s unsexy that you drink beer and like to watch football on rainy Sundays. It’s the Lord’s day, after all, but most of all, “it’s awfully masculine.” Be a badass and watch that game in absolute defiance of ‘femininity.’ A real woman does what she wants.

12. Be wary of a man whose Dinner Making Ratio is greater than 3:1. You should never, ever make a fourth meal until your date’s cooked one for you. (Note: it doesn’t particularly matter what he makes—grilled cheese or peanut butter spread over crackers—because the point is he did the work. The point is consideration. Helping someone with their life. Being an active, contributing person who considers others’ needs.)

13. While we’re on the subject of ratios, note the Writer-Reading dynamic should be no greater than 1:1. Do not read his manuscript unless he offers to read yours. Otherwise, you’ll eventually find yourself reading his novel five times in a row, making line edits and drawing hearts, drawing smiley faces over lines you love, and he’ll only ever steal your notes and never read your four page essay. And you can forget about “Acknowledgements.” Your name will not appear.

14. If he’s a writer—and of course he is—do not fall in love with him as a narrator. They’re often markedly different people.

15. Do not—if you’re listening to me at all—date the man who fears emotional intimacy, because intimacy is the most important thing and you know this and you have known this since you were five years old in that muggy waterpark, watching that man with so much hair embrace the woman who loves him most. Do not lose faith in love just because you’re getting older, or because here is yet another birthday, or because you’re spending your days with pillows and a box of Snyder’s pretzels. Do not give up on the Romantic Vision. Love is special, and so, too, is intimacy, and it is scary but no less necessary, and forming a genuine human connection is the most important thing.

And if—by some stroke of luck not even your mother could predict—you find a man who meets these qualifications, or even if he doesn’t meet all of them but you’ve decided he’s an Okay Egg, love him with all your heart. Make him dinner and read his books and pull him close to your beating chest. Put your running sneakers away. Learn how it feels to feel at peace. Then let yourself imagine it: first the porch with the splintered floorboards and then the dog everyone thinks is stupid, and then the Sunday mornings spent in the sunny living room that is lined with vintage bookshelves, texts of all different colors, the photo albums of your life—like still-frames from a movie—and allow yourself to see it: those doe-eyed, eclectic children, standing just before those bookshelves, running their fingers over the smooth, flat binding, and see it as it happens: how you bend down until you meet their level, how their faces are aligned with yours, and how you look at them and say, It will take a lot of time, say, it will take an awful lot of failure, but don’t you think—for just one second—you didn’t deserve this from the start.

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Amy Butcher is the current nonfiction fellow at Colgate University and is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays and stories have appeared recently in The Indiana Review, The Colorado Review, The North American Review, and McSweeney's, among others, and she lives and teaches in upstate New York, where she's at work on her first book. More from this author →