The dilemma — I knew even as a nine-year-old boy to be a “good problem” — was I’d unwrapped a blue plastic horse from Mrs. Golding during the fourth-grade classroom Christmas party and all the girls wanted horses, as girls will, but the boys wanted monkeys because boys will be… monkeys. But I liked horses. The gift horses bore a royal azure while the monkeys wore a shade Crayola couldn’t name, a non-beige, not-tan, unburnt sienna. Other horses in blue, the Colts of Baltimore, we worshiped alongside our fathers on Sundays and half my classmates and I had been born in the Horse’s Year. Like horses, I liked girls, the nice ones, yet I wanted the boys, all of them, to like me. I had to choose between wanting what I wanted and wanting what the boys wanted me to want.
But every girl who’d received a mud-colored monkey had traded it to a boy, grateful to unload her offbeat creature. Had I been more impulsive, I could have swapped sooner, bartered my equine for a primate, made a young lady’s Christmas, danced like a chimpanzee with the boys of the not-quite-tan troop, pretended I didn’t care what girls thought and told myself I belonged amongst the males of the sub-species: we Peters didn’t need no Wendys to reattach our shadows to our soles with needle and thread and gentleness. But, because I’d hesitated, to move from a stallion owner respected by the girls to an ape-man accepted by the boys, I could follow no straightforward path.
I had a girlfriend, a girlfriend named Amber who’d have stepped in front of a tranquilizer dart for me, a girlfriend with sea-green eyes, freckles, cheeky dimples, soft brown curls tethered in red ribbons and deep kindness in her heart, a girlfriend who’d received a spotted giraffe from Mrs. Golding. Out of the gate, Amber’s idol, Colette Lemarc, had gotten a blue horse and had decreed that girls should ride; Amber’s giraffe placed her second amidst the hoofed clique, Amber the runner-up, a girl with a serviceable animal and measured pride and no reason to feel belittled — I justified. I could have compromised and made Amber happy but since no one would trade me a monkey for a giraffe, I couldn’t swap my horse to Amber and still acquire the creature the boys insisted I desired. I told myself I preferred a sweetheart who ran apart from the blue herd; I liked Amber how she was, with her freckles, her giraffe spots.
Wild-haired Isadora Davies liked me despite November’s chocolate-milk-in-the-water-balloon cafeteria incident after which her school-aide mum had branded me a “most uncouth youth.” Isadora, from Wales, had been gifted a pink toucan, but another quandary applied: a fourth-grader couldn’t finagle a monkey for a toucan — not even by convincing Troy Jackson, who’d tailored a purple construction-paper tunic for his monkey and giggled with the blue horse girls by the pencil sharpener, not even convincing Troy to swing a three-way swap — because by the time said nine-year-old had concocted a sufficiently Byzantine horse-trading formula, the exchange rate would have escalated and said fella would have had to bolster his offer of a barnyard animal with a promise to dance — no guarantee it wouldn’t be a slow dance — at the upcoming hoedown with a certain Welsh girl, a lass considered the most fey, the most feral girl in school — she smelled like a cave — and wasn’t a horse, his heart was whispering, his true-blue wish? The trade routes didn’t meander Isadora’s way.
Debra Green. She’d scored a blue horse but her cousin, Danny, was at Disneyland for Christmas and we persuaded her to unwrap his unclaimed gift and she opened a… monkey? Nay. Too simple a solution. Danny’s animal was a red alligator, the only one anyone had received. Alligators outclass monkeys, true? An alligator will dominate a monkey all day long. Catch a tiger by the tail? Gators over monkeys, any time, every time. Eat people? Forget about it. Climb trees? Advantage monkey, admittedly, but the alligator in honest red will forever outshine all the vaguely khaki monkeys in all the fourth grades in all the classroom jungles in all the world. I had to obtain the reptile, then be inducted into the circle of monkey boys lest I patrol the corral of stacked chairs and huddled desks while protecting the fillies from simian incursions.
Interrupting the soirée, Mrs. Golding announced she was heartbroken we couldn’t graciously accept the gifts we’d been given and we were making each other unhappy when we declared some animals more unequal than others and would those of us with bipeds please not bend the animals’ arms into their laps?
We’d not learn about the bees and the birds for another year but the fourth-grade man-children who’d opened or extorted or bribed or swindled or conned or connived or racketeered their way onto Monkey Island had older brothers. Having none, I hadn’t understood the appeal of a plastic monkey — until our teacher spelled it out. Thanks, Mrs. Golding, for the gift of lost innocence, for the knowledge of good and evil and opposable thumbs folded into ochre crotches.
In the party’s final furlong — partly to do the proper thing, partly to sooth my guilt from the summer’s county fair when, without even saying hello to her, I’d jumped in the bouncy castle where she worked but, mostly, mostly because of those freckles — I gave my horse to Amber. She wanted me to have Gerome, her giraffe, but Debra Green re-wrapped him for her cousin and — after I’d promised Debra I’d two-step at the hoedown with Isadora — I garnered the red alligator, for which I was offered my choice of three different same-colored monkeys by three different junior reprobates. The problem was, and I knew it then, a monkey isn’t much good when its little, brittle arms break off from being bent into a compromising position too, too many times. Chomp.
Sean Jones says: “When I read other authors’ bios, they talk about their cats. I don’t have any and I wonder if other authors really do. After all, they’re creators of fiction. Let me tell you about my cats. Jasmine is black Siamese with green eyes and she loves to scamper on the back porch and catch moths in the moonlight. Thor is a tabby who sleeps all day, ironically through thunderstorms. Then, there’s Penelope, a Persian…”
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