We have a joke about monkeys. Maybe it’s because I’ve always found monkeys in general to be ridiculous. Maybe it’s because I called him my “willing monkey” once and he laughed so hard he had a coughing fit in a restaurant. Anyway, we have a joke about monkeys.
Our first Valentine’s Day he took me to a clay studio. We were the youngest kids there. I say kids because everyone else was an adult deep into marriage with their partner, or sporting pregnancy bellies (just the women).
I remember there was a sort of cocktail hour first where you were supposed to wander around the gallery looking at the artwork, being impressed by the paintings and pottery and marveling at the beauty of the works. The thought, from what I gathered, was that we were to figure out what pieces resonated the most with us.
I pretended like I could pick out all the smoky notes in the burgundy wine they gave us with its supposed aftertaste of lavender and hints of fairy dust but it really just tasted like burnt tar. The wine mimicked the art in that way, lacking in significance. To hear his clear, beautiful laugh, I found the ladies’ bathroom sign and marveled at how it spoke to me on a deep, physical level.
Thirty minutes later they called us to an upstairs studio to which we had to ascend a spiraling staircase that I didn’t quite trust with all its creaks and groans. The stairs were wooden and winding and had flecks of paint and would’ve been a nightmare for my uncle with the trick knee if he had to get up them. There were no handrails but there was a mosaic of tile chasing the ascending stairs that was made of dark burnt yellow toast-like colors. Maybe signifying the sun? There were women figures in the mosaic maybe. It was hard to tell but it all felt very feminist. Good, I remember thinking.
The studio was small, dimly lit, grimy and perfect. The kind of place that made you feel like you shouldn’t place your hand on any surface because you might come away with any array of stuff on your fingers. My germaphobia heightened to spider-sense level and as we walked single file to get to our seats between shelves lined with racks of dripping paintings struggling to dry under the florescent lights.
They instructed us to sit at a long wooden table, something I’d expect to see at an inn keeper’s tavern somewhere in calm northern Amsterdam before the Holocaust. On painted pottery dishes lined in the middle of the table sat single candles that must’ve just been taken from some elegant, old chandelier off the set of Phantom of the Opera. All night they cried wax down their sides. At everyone’s place setting was a slab of shapeless grey clay and placed around it were cut-off bottoms of plastic soda bottles that were filled with paint and water. The plastic soda bottles disturbed me; they were an obvious mistake in an otherwise charmingly rustic, romantic clay setting.
We sat down next to each other, he and I, setting down champagne glasses by our slabs of clay and smiling shyly at one another, his knees knocking mine on our spinning stools. I remember studying his dark almost black eyes and not feeling quite at home in their depths yet, but somehow, impossibly, even in the midst of my shyness, I was becoming aware of some new bubble that had just now taken root in my chest, right there in this clay studio. Still looking into the deep sea depths of his eyes, the bubble started growing, expanding. It scared me.
I was saved from becoming too intimate with my feelings: the instructor called our attention. She was a really unattractive woman, with dreads in her mousey-brown hair and an awkward way that her jaw was set. I could discern no beauty from her and the slightly condescending fashionista in me began mentally coaching her on her clothing choice: perhaps no more striped shirts with holes in the elbow, darling, and let’s see about getting jeans that actually reach down past our ankles, shall we? But as the instructor stood in front of the class at a sort of pottery-teacher’s lectern, I took a quick inhale as I watched with everyone as she wove magic from her hands into the clay. She worked the clay like it was fabric and it became soft and obeyed her fingers’ movements and rapidly taking many forms. I don’t remember what she made but maybe that’s not important. As she worked she gave us tips on how to utilize the water to command the clay. Her eyes remained downcast the whole time. I had a feeling she was uncomfortable with the attention yet also appreciatively aware of our amazement of what she could do with an otherwise Frankenstein-like slab of colorless nothing.
It was our turn then. After a few careful sips of the tar-tasting wine, we got to work on our pieces. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we would create our pottery together. He and I ended up making together what looked like a oddly shaped tea cup with an accidental hole in the side (not very practical) and a piece we dubbed a vase that had a wide bottom and a tiny, tiny opening for maybe one stem of a flower if you cut it carefully in half and then cut the half of the stem in half again. It was complete crap but we were proud of the pieces, probably in the same way a you become obsessed with a TV show that everyone else thinks is silly. The couple next to us were obvious artists and treated the clay with careful fingers. They told us they were celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary and with their eyes still on their pieces, softly complimented our tea cup and vase as they continued delicately painting intricate patterns on whatever gorgeous things they were going to give to their kids.
We gave the hole-y tea cup and vase to the instructor and she placed them in the kiln. They would be ready in a week for us to pick up.
We realized we had a little bit of clay left to play with.
I wanted to make a snowman because those are easy but he, the real artist between the two of us, snatched up the clay before I could roll it into circles and started crafting.
Watching him work with the clay was moving to me. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about him: his literal hands-on approach. Watching him sketch some medical instrument for work, watching him holding a pencil while he writes, hell, even his fingers on his video game console is beautiful. There’s a gracefulness in his hands, an artist’s precision of which even a master pianist would be envious.
I smiled to myself as I watched him work the clay. The smudge of dried clay (the “war paint”) I’d smeared on him earlier in the night seemed perfect there on his left cheek. His tongue poking out the side of his mouth as he worked made him a true craftsman and his dark brown almost black eyes narrowed and widened with focus and the dripping candles’ flickering light cast different shadows on his face.
He didn’t let me see the masterpiece until he’d painted it and then he moved back to show me.
It was a little monkey, a willing monkey, he’d corrected me. It sat on it’s bum, two legs extended outward and its little arms raised parallel to its legs. The only thing that made it a monkey, besides the brown paint was its sweet little monkey ears sticking out from its head. I smiled wider than my face could allow and fell a little more into the depths of his eyes and somehow, I knew instantly what that bubble was that was taking up space in my chest. Frighteningly, three words came to the back of my teeth. I knew enough to swallow them back down my throat and locked them into the bubble in my chest for when I knew he was home.
But as it turned out, he wasn’t exactly home for me and it took another two years to come to that realization.
It’s been six – gosh, no almost seven months since we decided not to see each other anymore and even longer since that first Valentine’s Day and I only bring this up because I broke the monkey today. I didn’t do it on purpose and I have a feeling it broke on its own, like it meant to break but I was holding something like a stapler and suddenly I wasn’t holding it anymore and it fell on the monkey’s head which sat on my desk and an ear broke off and fell into the trash and the leg of the monkey fell onto the floor and a few other shards of the monkey’s arm shattered across the keys of the computer I’m typing on right now.
Einstein said to each action there is a reaction but I haven’t had a reaction from the break yet. And now I almost don’t know to which break I’m referring.
What I do know is that there was a wild second when I picked up the broken monkey with half its face smashed off and didn’t know what my body was going to do.
That was four hours ago and I’m still sort of suspended in a type of limbo and the monkey’s ear is already in the trash where it fell and I’m still feeling the shards in my computer keys poking me as I type this even though I cleaned them all off and wiped down the entire computer, even the screen for no reason.
But I think I know something: I’d like to believe that at the moment the monkey broke and the ear fell into the trash by itself and this work of art he made me that was once malleable clay decided to fly apart, that it actually symbolizes that he’s healing and getting over us and beginning to see that I was never the source of his strength and that it was in him always and that despite what he claimed that horrible devastating shit-show of a day when we called it off, that he can love again and will, soon hopefully, and that the perfect match to him, more perfect than I could ever be, is making her way to him now across some universe of pottery and broken shards stuck under computer keys and that pretty soon, this new person he’ll meet will dab her finger in a dash of water and heal him, smoothing out the clayed crease I made.
I’d like to believe this is true. I’d like to imagine the monkey willingly sacrificed himself to show me that.
But for now I’ll just mentally send him positive energy and think of his creased forehead and in the morning I’ll worry about why I can’t cry anymore.
In the morning I’ll wonder if maybe, finally, I should throw away the rest of the monkey, too.