They said he was a baboon. They said he was ugly and hairy and that he smelled, but I was drawn to him immediately. I will admit that I’d always had a thing for him: I had noticed him before, in the past, when he used to be on television, and he had stuck in my mind because, one would assume, it’s not every day that you see a baboon playing the drums like he can. But that’s not what caught my eye. What impressed me was how comfortable he seemed with himself, a baboon in the world of men, the possessor of some magical secret. And when, years later, I walked through a certain door and into a fateful party, I recognized him right away. It was like he was waiting for me.
I’m not young anymore. I glance out at men from underneath my eyelashes because I can no longer accommodate the direct stare. I’m a widow of a certain age, as the French say, but the baboon is a star, surrounded by young girls who are typically skinny and blond and drawn to him despite his famous ugliness. But who can blame them? His smile and his warmth encourage you to move in his direction and to imagine what could happen if the two of you should wind up alone in a room somewhere. And it was in a room somewhere that I realized he was making me sweat.
We had both ducked off to use the bathroom at the same time, and, after he gestured for me to go ahead, I told him that I only needed a quick peek in the mirror. “Me too,” he said with a big baboon smile. So we went in there together, studying our reflections and eyeing each other, smoothing our hair and tugging at our clothes. I was close enough to see that he really was a baboon. (Yes, I felt compelled to keep looking and looking, as if expecting his otherness to give way.) You can’t get past the hair, the long face, the smell. It reminded me of going to the zoo as a child. But what can I say? I was carried along by his kindness, his warmth, his sexiness. He let me walk back out through the bathroom door ahead of him, of course, motioning with his hand like a gentleman baboon, and then, so lightly that I could barely be sure, he touched my ass.
He apologized before I could protest. “Sorry. It’s just that you’re so attractive.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure there are lots of young girls out there who would be glad to play with you.”
“Hey, look, I really am sorry. Sometimes I can’t control myself.”
“Stop,” I told him. “Please–I don’t want people to noticeâ€¦”
He laughed. “Notice what? I’m just going to ask you for your number.”
“Well, I’m not going to give it to you.”
“Why not? I’m a nice guy. Ask anyone.”
The air was warm that night, with a slight breeze. I wanted sex. It was like remembering a good movie or a great recipe that I wanted to try again. But I made myself tell him, like a child reciting the rules of a game, that I could not possibly get involved with anyone. He was politely amused.
“I’m not asking for involvement. I’ll just take what I can get.”
I turned to leave. He touched my arm, and the electricity almost knocked me over. “I cannot do this–I’m serious.”
“You won’t even go for a drink with me?”
“This can’t happen.”
“Why not? Look, why can’t we just go somewhere and talk? You’re widowed, right? I am too. I know how it is, believe me. We have a lot in common.”
That’s how we came to be sitting together at an outside table at the coffee place near my house, surrounded by college kids. Immediately I understood the most important way in which the baboon was different from me: he was famous. He was recognized. Several people came up to verify that he really was the drummer they thought he was, and he shook hands with every last one of them, then turned to me with that winning smile, as if to tease me for ever having doubted that he was a great guy.
At one point a young girl came up to take his picture with her phone, and the baboon graciously submitted before waving her on, all in the space of a second. In that same little second I scooted back in my chair to get out of the picture and avoid any possible Facebook misery. It was a close call. It was also my introduction to the baboon’s world, a place that existed in some ever-shimmering public periphery unknown to me. But the baboon came right out of that scary place, winked and turned to give me his full attention.
We talked about our children, how mine were in college while he still had a daughter in high school. We talked about our respective cities, and that made me think about the impossibility of long-distance relationships. We talked about books and music, and everything fell out of my head as I forgot all the titles I’d read recently and the concerts I’d been to. Each time I lost control, each time my mind let me down and my body cried out, demanding its due, he sat back and waited. At one point, for no good reason, I started to cry.
“Don’t worry. This happens to all my women.”
“It’ll take a little longer for you.”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“It’s all right, baby. You’re just falling in love.” And with that he wrapped his arms around me. I felt like letting go and leaning into him, but we had only just met. I didn’t like what he was saying, but he said it with such an air of generosity that it made me want to trust him. I would not admit to falling in love, especially not with an ugly baboon, but I could not deny that I wanted badly to take him home. It had been so long since I had felt that way about anyone. I did not take him home, however, because he had mentioned his other women. Later, refusing to get out of my car, I dropped him off at his ritzy hotel and promised myself that this evening of sweat and flattery would remain nothing more than an ego boost.
He begged me for my phone number, my e-mail. I gave him neither, and when he went to kiss me, I surrendered only my cheek.
The problem with being with a famous person is that you are tempted to believe that you, too, must be special. If someone so important can see your worth, then it must be real. People are nice to you; you are suddenly somebody. But I had no claim to fame.
There was no way to argue with his money. My baboon could put me on a plane whenever I wanted. He could buy a little house next to mine. Or, if I preferred, he could keep his distance. “You like a little privacy, don’t you, baby?” Enormous smile. This baboon saw no limitations. His constant argument: why would I fight happiness? Why not be together?
And then, when I was still clinging to the tiniest shred of fear or doubt, he would carry me off to the bedroom. This is serious. This is crucial. Sex has always been a very important language to me, a way of speaking when I’ve lost my voice. The baboons know how to speak it too. In their culture, as the drummer explained to me, sex is the first thing a male and a female do after making eye contact. Everybody has sex with everybody else, and all the politics, all the danger, all the emotional complication, drop out of the picture.
“For us baboons, there’s always a sexual revolution going on. It never ended,” he said, his trademark smile lighting up the bedroom that I had shared with my husband for so many years.
I nodded, suddenly drowsy. This baboon was drugging me. I made a mental note to check out all his information on the Internet. It wouldn’t be the first time that a man had tried to convince me that what he wanted was perfectly normal back where he came from. Nevertheless, I attempted to give the baboon’s version of happiness a chance.
Don’t think it was always easy. At some point people will show their true colors. Women I had known for years pulled me aside to ask me how I could possibly do it. They could not see beyond the baboon’s physical appearance, even when I pointed out that he was talented, wealthy, famous, kind. He had redeemed himself in every other respect, so why couldn’t they forgive his being a baboon? I assured them, though it was none of their business, that he had pledged sexual fidelity. Then they asked me how I could stand the smell. These people, mostly women, could condemn my lover all day long, until they turned blue in the face from trying to destroy my happiness.
“Come on,” my ex-friend Suzy insisted once at happy hour. “Be honest. That assâ€¦ how can you stand to touch it?”
How could I explain? I thought back to our first time together. The very qualities that disgusted poor Suzy–the hairy body, the long face, the ass–were what had permitted me to start my life over again. When I say that this guy was different from all the others, I am telling the truth. He showed me something new long after I had grown tired of the world and of myself. And it transformed me. At some point my own smell began to change; I could not wash the baboon off. I remember the nostrils of all the happy hour ladies flaring at me as I sat, sweaty and nervous, unable to erase a smile from my face.
“Come on, girls,” I murmured. “You know how much I miss my husband. I’ve been lonely for such a long time.”
“I think you’re insane,” Suzy said, finally, slamming down her margarita. “I think it’s disgusting.”
“What’s disgusting, exactly?” I asked her. The rest of the table, dotted with faces that ranged from curious to angry to sad, floated away from me.
“He is. You are. Carrying on like this. As if there isn’t a world of ordinary men out there who could make you happy. Think of your daughters.”
“They must be ashamed of you. Is it really worth it? Are you going to give up your family for a baboon?”
I plead innocence. I did not know that I was giving offense by being with my baboon, or that the baboon offended some by merely existing. I did not imagine that my daughters were ashamed of me. Can love be wrong? I had loved before, and it was good, until death came and committed the ultimate theft.
As for the sex, perhaps that is where I am at fault because I never did explain to the happy hour ladies what was behind my smile.
And so now, for the record, let me explain: he pleased me. Every time. I never missed with my baboon. I never had to pretend that the sex was just fine because it was always more than fine. I don’t know what his secret was. I don’t know how he knew how to do the things that he did. But he knew, and he did them. (I will say that the additional pulsing caused by his tail provided no small assistance in this ancient male enterprise of trying to put something truly worthwhile inside of a woman.) So, yes, it was about the sex, but also about his remarkable intuition–an animal sense, perhaps? When I walked out of the restaurant that night, for instance, his limo was waiting for me, as if by magic, as if he knew what kind of a un-happy hour I had just experienced. I slid into the limo like a glamorous woman, my head held high, but my baboon laughed when he saw my face.
“Baby,” he said, pulling me onto his lap, “you should know by now that you can’t fool me.”
“What?” I asked, though my tears had already started.
“Your face can never keep a secret. And I could have guessed, anyway. The things you suffer for loving me are things that I have had to live with every day of my life. It never goes away.”
I melted into him. I felt, I knew, that I had been exiled. But we were in a prime position for exile, thanks to the baboon’s wealth and fame. We could find somewhere to be safe and in love, some zone where we might even be admired.
Before my baboon lover, I had never had front row seats at a concert. And before those seats, I had no idea who I was dating, not really. Nothing can compare to sitting in a huge crowd and hearing people scream because your boyfriend has just come out on stage. I looked at the people around me. Who were they? Perfect strangers. Yet I belonged there in the front row, didn’t I? I had taken the baboon into my bed, my life, my heart. I brought my daughters with me to that show, and while they were carried along by the exuberance of the crowd, they still flinched when my baboon came out onto the stage. There was no getting around what he was, and at such a moment, I saw him as my girls saw him. My daughters didn’t know about his good qualities. They weren’t fans of his music. And they declined the invitation to come backstage. I went, though, escorted by an enormous man with a badge, and just when I was getting ready to throw myself into the arms of my famous baboon lover, I found that another woman had beaten me to it.
He had brought his daughter with him.
She was the prettiest, most horrifying thing I had ever seen, a true hybrid, a powerful tribute to our two species. If you could open your mind as you looked at her, if you could allow her sparkling purple eye shadow to compensate for her hairy face, if you could politely view those parts of her body that weren’t quite human, if you could not flare your nostrils at the strange perfume that rose off of her, then maybe you could feel attraction. But I felt fear and horror over what I was doing. First of all, this in-between creature was a symbol of our potential union. She was what the baboon and I would produce if we were to have a child, never mind that we were both too old for that. Secondly, I could tell from the very first glance that this gorgeous she-monkey looked upon me with all the suspicion and disdain of the classic stepdaughter. She didn’t like me, she didn’t trust me, she didn’t want me. I was not good enough for her dad. I was not her late mother. I had stupidly assumed that I would never have to deal with her since we lived in different cities and she was almost an adult. I had forgotten how, when another woman hates you, it only takes a moment in a room together for her to make you feel threatened. She said nothing to me at first, but she may as well have declared war.
Smelling the tension in the air, the baboon wavered between us, uncertain of what to do. He told me that he was going to call for the car, and then he stepped out into the corridor, leaving the two of us alone. As I bit my lips and tried to think of what to say, the daughter, Chiara, spoke up.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You’re not even pretty.”
I endured the flashing of cameras and the ride in the limo and the gourmet dinner with a gaping wound right down my middle. It was impossible for me to rally after Chiara’s remark, especially since she was received as a princess everywhere we went. The guys could not get enough of her, despite the fact that, or perhaps precisely because, she was half-baboon. I began to understand what they were after: they wanted to know what she was like without her designer clothes. They wanted to be in her bed. I was sympathetic, as I had had the same unholy curiosity with respect to her father. It’s easy to be swept away by the exotic. When you’re attracted to The Other, you can’t tell if you’re being open-minded and brave or a perfect asshole. It should be enough to say that you love and want somebody, but it’s not so straightforward. It’s hard to separate the person you’re in love with from that thing which makes him alluringly different. It’s doubly difficult when he’s famous.
When we were alone again, late in the night, I could not stop crying. My baboon tried to make love to me, but I couldn’t respond. For a long time we did not say anything. My baboon knew that his daughter had hurt me. It was almost as if he had expected this.
“I’m sorry Chiara hurt you tonight. She lashes out sometimes. I’m sure it’s not easy for her–”
“Stop! You can’t apologize for someone else.”
My baboon bowed his head and shrugged. “Anyway, we need to talk. There’s something that I have to tell you.”
Instant panic: “You’re not leaving me, are you?”
“Baby, I don’t know how you could think that I would ever leave you. I was so happy to have a girl out there tonight. You have no idea how important the right girl is when so many are always throwing themselves at you.”
As usual, he was saying just the wrong thing. I was about to counter that he had no idea how hard it was for me to fight an amorphous mass of beautiful young girls, when he said yet another thing, one which stopped me in my tracks.
“I’ve got something to ask you. I wish the circumstances could be different, just the two of us off somewhereâ€¦”
Call it vanity. Call it old age. Call it whatever you want. Naturally I thought he was going to propose–not that I had been hoping for a proposal. I was surprised. I could not help but feel a little pride regarding my conquest, as well as wonder over my capacity to conquer.
“So,” he continued, smiling that giant smile, “you know that we’re going on tour soon.”
Lurch. Thud. “Noâ€¦ I didn’t know you guys still toured. I thought tonight was a special thing.”
“Yeah, well, it appears we’ve got another tour in us. They’ve already booked some dates. I won’t say no to the money, and, at the end of the day, I really do love to play.”
I tried to give him a smile that would match his, but I had no luck. His easy grin was fast becoming the main difference between us.
“See, my publicist wants to get us more exposure–”
I scoffed. “Are you kidding? More exposure? Every place we go–”
“Now hold on a minute, baby. You’re in this now, too. Listen, they want to do a photo spread of all of us in our daily lives, and they want to include the wives–or the girlfriends, as the case may be. Don’t worry: I won’t allow them to photograph the children.”
My mouth went so dry I couldn’t swallow. “I’m not comfortable with this,” I said.
My baboon considered me for a second and then asked, with genuine surprise, “Why the hell not?”
“You know how shy I am. I die whenever someone takes a picture of us. I’m afraid to even look at a newsstand. It makes me feel unsafe, but it’s more than that–it’s like a violation. Can’t you understand?”
“I can’t really understand, no. I’ve been completely honest with you. You know who I am. I think there’s another problem. I think you’re ashamed of me. And don’t you dare look away from me now, baby.”
I said, “That is not true.” But I could not look into his eyes and settled instead on his mouth. There was an element of shame to this–he was right.
“Then you’ll do it?” he asked, and at that moment I saw that he was very comfortable in the role of victor. He knew how to play and how to score. He always got his way, a fact that I had somehow failed to notice before.
It was already four in the morning. I turned to go and get ready for bed. My baboon’s phone rang, and he blew me a kiss before telling somebody, “Everything’s cool. She’s going to do it.”
The photo shoot was in a sparsely furnished loft space downtown, a room that existed only for photographs. I didn’t see how this could be a reflection of our daily life, but I had figured out that much of celebrity imagery is pure fabrication. Even if you see a picture of someone’s chateau or Porsche, you’re not really closing in on that person. You’re actually being shut out.
I had my hair and makeup done at the same salon I’ve used for years, and my younger daughter came over to help me choose a dress, eventually letting me borrow one of hers, which I took as a goodwill gesture. We were both keenly aware that I needed to look as young as possible. As if to highlight my main worry before the camera, the dazzling Chiara met me at the door to the loft and smirked at my approximation of youth and beauty.
I nodded by way of greeting and said, “Your father told me that he wouldn’t allow any of the children to be photographed.”
“Oh, that. Trust me, no matter what he says, I’m featured in every single one of these spreads.”
I was taken aback by this news and by Chiara’s ringing laugh. “How many of these have you done?”
“Lots and lots. Go Google it.”
“No, I don’t think I will.”
“Well, anyways, it’s no big deal. Everyone in the band’s doing it. But you’ll never really be in the band, will you?”
I was about to say of course not, I’m not a musician, when the baboon walked through the door with all the assistants and experts who constituted his entourage. He exclaimed over my prettiness, as always, but before his lips even touched my cheek, I could tell that something was different about him. Today he was in perfect control. While he was a master of the drums, especially onstage, now he would become king of the image game. He would be dead certain of the self that he was projecting out into the world, a self that included me, a self that would somehow carry over into the tour. I began to understand the source of my shame, which had to do with his exquisite attention to this public self, this personal lie. And I was ashamed of myself for playing along. All through our courtship, in the back of my mind, I had been fashioning him into a baboon I could love. Maybe that was why our sex life had worked: I was flying along, holding onto an idea of him that worked for me, all the while insisting that my baboon was completely natural, unassuming, kind. I had made him into what I needed him to be.
And now it was my turn. I had to become the woman he needed. His whisper was like a caress: “All you have to do is smile, baby. This is the best part, don’t you get it? This is our vengeance. We’ll show everybody what we want them to see, we’ll make them say what we want them to say.”
Naturally, I failed him. I became like a woman of stone. I could not smile to save my life.
Chiara, the only other female in the room, took me by the hand and pulled me into the bathroom about twenty minutes into the shoot. She laughed at me as she showed me my face in the mirror. “You look terrified. Luckily I have just the thing,” she said, pulling a little baggie of white powder from her cleavage.
I watched her fill her nose with the stuff, which I could not identify, having long since left that scene. I declined the powder and turned away.
“What’s the matter, anyway?” Chiara persisted. “Just smile a little. I will say that you are a lot better looking when you smile. You can think of it as a favor to my dad–if you really love him, that is. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I could tell from the start that you were just stringing him along. You’ve got something that he thinks he needs: you’re the refined lady. So quiet, so discreet. And he feels bad about himself–he’s never been truly accepted. It’s all he can do to bang on those drums really loud and hope you’ll love him.”
As if to prove this, my baboon began banging on the bathroom door while his daughter kept on ranting with all the volume and confidence that the powder had given her. She called to him to give her a second.
“Time is money, young lady,” he cried. I didn’t like it when my baboon admitted that money could be an issue for him.
“We’re almost done, Daddy,” Chiara said. “We’re just fixing our makeup.” And with that she winked, drawing me into her feminine conspiracy.
Chiara essentially rescued me with her little speech. It bought me some time, and it forced me to look at her father in a new way. Even as I realized that she was trying to flatter me, I wondered if what she had said was true. Was I really, or could I pretend to be, the benevolent, rescuing lady doing her anxious lover a big favor? I promised myself I would try, but in the end I couldn’t suppress the feeling that I was not equal to this script, and I could not look my baboon in the eye when Chiara, her own pupils grown gigantic, pushed the bathroom door open.
I went back out there.
We tried and tried to capture some image we could use. Someone rolled out a Persian rug and threw velvety, jewel-colored pillows on top of it in an attempt to get us to relax. The more Chiara and the baboon spread out on the floor with their animal ease, the stiffer I became. I could tell that the photographer, who spoke politely and with an accent I could not identify, was growing impatient and angry because his reputation was on the line here. Chiara began striking sex-kitten poses, and the baboon tried to restrain her, which made for some interesting pictures that never actually appeared in the magazine. And then, at long last and by accident, there was the pose that came about of its own accord, the one our shrewd photographer captured. As I heard the click, I knew my fate was sealed.
It made the cover. I myself looked at it only once, long and hard, with the intention of averting my eyes if I ever came across it again.
I had grown tired of Chiara. When she grabbed my foot and tried to pull me down next to her, I kicked, missed, and fell. That was when the baboon caught me. I look like the out-of-control animal in that picture, and my baboon comes off as the rational one, while a young hybrid girl in the background stares at us in delight, laughing. The baboon looks powerful and in charge and even justified to behave as he does in a world of crazy females who are trying to eat him alive but with whom he is unfailingly generous. That takes real talent. You see, in the picture, he’s not just a baboon, or a drummer, he’s the one who puts things right. He comes between me and the force of gravity.
Next week we leave for the tour. I don’t know what to expect, but everyone tells me it will be grueling. I don’t see how it can be any worse than what I have already been through. And I can’t imagine where else I would go or what I would do without him. I have been captured, tagged, defined. There is constantly reproduced evidence of me being rescued by the baboon, scooped up in his arms because of my own bad judgment. There is no getting away from it.
The baboon was wrong about one thing: we didn’t show everybody what we wanted them to see, or make them say what we wanted them to say. No matter how good the photographer is, people will see what they want and say what they want. You can guarantee, after presenting such an image to the world, that people will know your name, but you cannot control what they attach to your name. I’m pretty sure the baboon knew this going into the photo shoot. He got his way.
I guess I knew all along that he would.