Walk like a Gorilla, Talk like a Gorilla
Apr 22 ● BY Michael Horton
I put on my gorilla suit and sit at the table to eat my cereal, a whole-grain brand Beth buys for the fiber. It’s Saturday and Beth has gone to her exercise class and the store. Our daughter is away at college. There’s no one home but me, and I am wearing the suit to think and to run the vacuum.
The Saturday after we bought the suit, I roamed the house in it, making the bed, starting the wash, running the vacuum. Before I took it off, I sat in the sun on the back deck and looked at the line of shaggy, dark green spruce that bordered the yard. When the suit grew hot and sweat dripped into my eyes and started running down my stomach, I returned to the shade of the kitchen. I removed the head and held it under my arm. On the refrigerator door, notes, pictures, and appointment reminders curled under pineapple and banana shaped magnets. I mopped my face with a paper towel and stared at the desert-colored floor tiles Beth and I had installed. I wanted to capture what it was I was feeling.
Excited—I felt excited.
* * *
When I first saw the gorilla suit at the garage sale, it lay in a pile next to a plastic jack-o-lantern, a stack of jigsaw puzzles carefully taped closed (as if that detail guaranteed all the pieces would be there), and a carrom board with a blown-out pocket. The suit looked like a puddle of black hair, like a dog had died in the corner. But the head was a giveaway. It lay cocked sideways on top of the pile, staring eyeless across the garage, its lips serious, but not angry or despairing. When I picked up the head and held it cautiously in my hands, I had to laugh. I held it out for Beth to see, offering it to her like it was a joke—but underneath I had a feeling.
“We should get it,” I said.
My wife, a third-grade teacher, wasn’t convinced.
“At Halloween I’ll wear it to scare the kids who come to the door,” I told her. “Plus, it will be a change for you from that witch costume you wear every year in your classroom. That’s got to be getting old.” She listened, half-smiling. “And when you do your unit on habitat, this will grab their attention—guaranteed.”
“The unit is on ponds and streams,” she said, then frowned, considering. “Do you really think we need a gorilla costume?”
“We don’t have one.”
“No, really. It’s just one more thing to add to everything else.”
“There are always going to be things we only need once or twice a year,” I said. “The rest of the time they get stored: Christmas lights, your pottery cornucopia, the Easter baskets.” I watched her thinking. “And our bag of birthday hats and noisemakers.”
She nodded. “I wish we didn’t have to store those, either.”
“But we have to.”
“We should get it.”
“All right.” She looked at the mask, then back at me. “If she’ll take five.”
“Too low,” I said. I knew somebody had spent good money on the suit at one time—it wasn’t some discount store costume. “But no more than fifteen.”
“Five.” She took the head, tucked it under her arm, and walked to the woman in the lawn chair, who wore a floppy sun-hat even though she sat inside in the shade of the garage. An older couple had entered and were making their rounds, the man trailing, the woman filled with purpose.
I hung back feeling a slight tension. The woman in the lawn chair laughed at something my wife said. They both turned to look at me. The woman smiled, then took the five my wife offered.
The hands and feet were strikingly realistic underneath the suit. Even though they were rubber, they looked real.
That night after dinner, when Beth got in the shower, I put it on. First the black hairy body, the same color my father’s hair had been. I struggled to get the zipper all the way up in back. The chest of hard molded plastic pressed cold against my chest, and I thought I would have preferred it to be black hair as well. I found all that armored muscle off-putting—too serious—but I quickly grew accustomed to it.
It felt baggy, like I was covered in loose skin, but not too baggy. I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled one gorilla foot over my sock. It was big, designed to fit over shoes, but it stayed on when I waggled it in the air.
I pinched my nose between my thumb and index finger—a habit of consideration—and then rested my chin in the palm of my hand. I raised my foot and turned it one way, then the other. The gray gorilla foot lolled from side to side with a slightly jerky motion. I slipped on its mate and stood up. My white sport socks disappeared under the black pant legs. I slid my hands into the gorilla hands—they fit nicely—and picked up the head. I held it at arm’s length, the cheeks cupped in thick gray gorilla fingers. Slowly I settled it over my head onto my shoulders.
I took a turn around the bedroom, walking slightly bow-legged to accommodate my oversize feet. When I heard the shower shut off, I quickly removed everything, put it away in the closet, put my robe back on, and awaited my turn in the bathroom.
That next Saturday, when Beth left for jazzercise and grocery shopping, I put it on again.
I wandered around the empty house doing my normal Saturday routine, and that’s when I knew it changed me. Not just because I looked like a weird upright gorilla, not like myself, a regular guy, but because I felt changed on the inside. I felt a new confidence. Even as it got hot in the costume and sweat began running off me, I felt a sweaty new confidence.
In the suit, no one would know it was me. Standing in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom, even I didn’t recognize me. If I walked down the street in it, people would know there was a person inside, but they wouldn’t know if I was a clown, or a killer, and that would go double if it wasn’t Halloween.
In the suit, I could do things and people would assume I was pretending, even if I was doing things I’d always wanted to do. Things I would hesitate to do for fear of embarrassment. In the suit I could be aggressive, hairy, strong. A mountain gorilla has the strength of six normal men. That’s not all they have over normal men.
I found that out the night I wore it to bed. Not the hairy black suit or the rubbery hands and feet. I just wore the gorilla head and nothing else. As a joke. I came into the bedroom with my arms swinging and my legs splayed and bow-legged, everything swinging in the breeze. Beth was already in bed with her reading light on, her book held close to her face, and her lips barely parted. She wore her scotch-plaid pajamas, not her navy negligee. It was a weekday. She was reading like we do before we go to sleep.
I meant it to be funny, but the growl came out deep. I felt it reverberate in me. Beth must have felt it too. It wasn’t a mean growl. It was just a very powerful growl that went on longer than planned. It rumbled like native drums in my ears. It vibrated in me. I could feel my blood pumping through every inch of my body, leaving me standing straight up. Beth, wide-eyed, looked down at me, then back up to my gorilla head where my eyes must have shone darkly from below my jutting brow, my jaw clenched, my lips serious.
I growled again, but it came out a guttural moan that vibrated the furniture, nearly moving it. That’s when I moved to the bed and took Beth’s book and dropped it on the floor.
“Aren’t you going to take off the mask?” she panted at one point. I growled something unintelligible and left the gorilla head on.
Later, Beth lay propped up on her pillows, breathing heavily. The reading light was still on, and her arm was flung around my gorilla head where I rested it against her breast. I felt her squeeze the head, give a throaty, watery chuckle, and squeeze again. She didn’t say anything. She’d said a lot before. Things I’d never heard her say. It made me feel as strong as six men, made my hands feel huge and hot like there was a fire in them. Like there was a fire in me and I could fight lions, crush bone, or touch with a sensitivity, even a tenderness, I had never experienced.
Beth leaned down. “My big gorilla,” she whispered before she turned out the light.
It has changed the way we are together. Not that I wear the gorilla head to bed every night. It’s just that we move around each other with more awareness now, greater care. It’s like both of us are bigger and take up more space. We touch more, like taking up more space makes that happen. When Beth rests her hand on the back of my neck, instead of falling away it brushes my collar, trails along my spine, and hesitates at the small of my back.
Before I began wearing the gorilla suit, there were things I didn’t want people knowing about me, not my co-workers at the plant, or the handful of people Beth and I went out with socially, or people at the grocery store. Silly things. Embarrassing things I was afraid I might be called out on if they were revealed to the light of day. Like me wanting to learn line-dancing, or collecting old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, or thinking seriously about stealing items I didn’t want but that looked easy to steal.
When I was young, I believed one could die of embarrassment. I have a vivid image of me as a small boy in my first-grade class, paralyzed at my desk, bowels seized in a treacherous attack of diarrhea, face so hot it blurred vision, and the boys in the desks on either side of me, first one, then the other, holding their noses, pointing, the girl behind me, my friend, telling the teacher. Death, I thought, would be preferable.
Since I’ve had the suit, I’ve noticed fewer things embarrass me. I am less driven by the need for the approval of others. I worry less about what people might be thinking about me. I have the sense now that if anyone tried to pin me down to something embarrassing, tried to force the embarrassment on me as though it was what I was—some public joke, I’d tear out their jaw, break their spine, and toss them away like a kleenex. Not that I really have the strength of six men, but—
Wearing the gorilla costume gives me a sharper sense of myself when I vacuum, or hunch down to press my gorilla hands deep into the couch cushions, or sniff at the bowl of fruit (where the smell of over-ripe bananas catches me like a physical pinch), or stand in the shadow of the hall, alert, but perfectly still, perfectly still, and listen to the postman drop something in our box.
After I’ve been dressed up like a beast that can tear out jaws and snap spines—not that gorillas ever do that—I feel calm. Deeply, innately calm, like nothing can provoke me.
Sometimes I stick my tongue out through the lips and blow a raspberry. It is wet and sounds funny, hearing it from inside. But it makes me laugh and hop and bob my shoulders and squeeze my eyes tight. I throw my head back, ball my gray fists, and thump my chest good and solid, first with one fist, then the other. Just being silly. No one to know. Just me.
Sometimes when I wear the suit, all I do is sit on the couch with my legs crossed, one arm and rubber gorilla hand stretched along the back of it, my square gray foot swinging, and look out the window at the trees. Out of the eyeholes of my gorilla head, I can see things as if I’m not getting in my own way, as if I’m seeing things clearly, seeing the light.
At times I see things that aren’t actually there, as if the suit channels them. Me as a boy. Timid, hefty—a description my mother used in kindness, in contrast to my big sister’s description: fatty-fatty-boombalaty. Me as a young man grown into myself, smiling in amazement at the girl, exactly as I saw her then, who would become my wife.
I see my daughter, barely born, her hair tight black squiggles that look like someone meticulously drew them on with black marker. I see her in her prom dress, but that image is blurred as if seen through tears.
And though they are both dead, I see my parents. Staring through the eyeholes as if I am in a tunnel looking out, I have seen each of them.
My father at the end of the tunnel is big, as big as in my memories. Big and dark and hairy. Not as hairy as my gorilla suit, but hairy enough that my mother trimmed his back with hair clippers.
His wheelchair is absent. He doesn’t speak at the end of the tunnel, just stands there. My father wasn’t a big talker. I try to remember conversations we had—we spent hours together when I was a boy—but we must not have spent them talking. On weekends my father and I would drive out together. Alone, we explored the back roads, always driving around the next bend, over the next hill, going as far as we could, looking for the end—my father drinking. I made it my job to take care of him when I was so young I thought I could. The smell of Ten High bourbon is the smell of back roads—and of hospitals.
The accident changed everything I ever knew about him. I had moved away, so I only imagine my father’s car turning cartwheels in the air like in a movie. That would have been the moment before he was paralyzed and four years before he gave up and took off all his clothes (a feat he learned in rehab—how to dress, how to undress) and lay naked on his bed and took all at once all the pills he’d saved up.
At the end of the tunnel, my father stares off to the side of me somewhere, looking big and dark and quiet, looking at a distance. After he died, I realized that I had mourned him already. I have been afraid that it was part of why he did it—that he knew he’d already been counted out. But seeing him at the end of the tunnel, I see that wasn’t the biggest part of it. Just one more thing.
Unlike my father, my mother at the end of the tunnel shifts from one image to another, all different times, merging and re-emerging as she held things together, anchoring us.
It has been difficult for me to think about her death—embarrassing.
I was there for the end. I flew in from Ohio. My sister lived in Florida already. One or the other of us were with our mother, all the time, in shifts, being there for her. There was nothing else to do.
It had been years since my father died, when my mother’s cancer returned for her a second time—after she’d had the stroke. I knew she didn’t think it was fair. She never said anything, she just looked disgusted. She lost her hair almost overnight. The treatments all seemed shorter. Everything happened so much quicker the second time. She slipped into a coma on the third day I was there, and we thought it was the end, including the doctors and the shift nurses.
It turned out the end was still days away. My mother had never been a quitter. Not on my father, not on us kids. And she didn’t quit then; she wasn’t ready to be done. She fought, eyes closed, breathing breaths that took forever to come, but she kept them coming. One night on my shift, as I looked at her, with her eyes closed, her head bald and surprisingly small, her mouth open, the pulse in her throat as fragile as a candle flame, I told her, “It’s OK.
“If you want to rest, it’s OK.” I said it quietly, not to be overheard. It was between us. “If you’re tired, Mom—if you want to rest . . .” It was the end. There was no way she was going to get over this. Yet she was struggling so hard. I thought if she just relaxed, just stopped fighting, it would be so much easier. She wouldn’t have to struggle anymore. I said it with the best of intentions, being sensitive. I’d done some reading about the end of life. Preparing myself.
“It’s OK,” I said, my voice low and understanding.
I wasn’t prepared when her eyes opened, and she looked at me with absolute clarity, fully conscious, making me feel ridiculous. The image of that moment is sharp as glass at the end of the tunnel. There may have been fear in her look, desperation, fury, but there wasn’t a hint of giving in. Her look lasted only a few seconds, then her eyes closed on my foolishness. Her look shut me up, just like when I was a kid talking stupid. She knew I knew better.
Breath after breath, she held on for two more days, until she finally breathed the last breath left in her. When it went out, it just kept going.
Seeing her at the end of the tunnel, I realize she doesn’t hold it against me. She was only setting me straight. Through the eyeholes I see her sweet, small, bald head, her thin lips, transparent eyelids, and infinite stillness—following great fierceness. From beneath the jutting brows, I see her clearly.
* * *
I’ve finished my cereal, the vacuuming is done, the wash is going, and I am sitting on the couch in my gorilla suit, in my gorilla head, and I wonder if it is time to stop. Wonder if it is time to put the costume away. Not just for now, before Beth gets back and sees me in it, but for good. I rumble deep in my chest, thinking about it. Out of habit, I reach up to pinch my nose, though my mask is in the way and doesn’t really have a nose to pinch. I rest my gorilla chin in my gorilla hand.
I know there are worse things than wearing a costume around in the privacy of one’s own home. Still, I wonder if it is time I live forward from here in my own skin—pale, not hairy, not protected with the strength of six men.
As I consider, I hear the car pull into the drive. I sit very still, perfectly still.
After a moment, I get up and go to the door. Beth has the hatchback open and is reaching in for a bag of groceries. I take off my gorilla head and hold it with two fingers through the eye-holes and my thumb in the middle of the forehead like a bowling ball. I breathe in and keep breathing in until my chest is overfull. Then I let it all go and step out.