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After a lifetime of nearly pristine mental health, I believed I was unarguably entitled to my “monkey phobia.” It was a small gift to myself. My wife and children disagreed on two counts.
First, they contended that my inventory of quirks, obsessions, delusions and social deficits, when combined, more than equalled the clinical magnitude of a full-blown psychotic disorder.
Second, they insisted that “all this monkey stuff” was nothing but a scam designed to cheat them out of a much-deserved Costa Rican vacation.
Primate-free Scottsdale, Ariz. – my destination of choice – had been rejected by a vote of 3-1.
No one was buying pithecophobia, or “fear of apes.” My children gleefully pointed out its absence from psychiatry’s revered Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
To my wife, usually an exceedingly sensitive woman, I confided that early-childhood exposure to the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz had left me forever damaged. Her reply? Get over it. But of course, I didn’t.
As a life-long party pooper, I have rained on innumerable parades, but never once had I pooped, so to speak, in the heart of a rain forest. The challenge was not without considerable attractions.
My family voiced wary puzzlement at my pumped state as we landed in Costa Rica.
They immediately embraced the cloying local habit of randomly proclaiming “pura vida” – a colloquialism with the disturbingly jubilant street value of “This sure is the life!”
My mood, however, had been darkened when the tarmac appeared to be entirely monkey-free, laying waste to my much-rehearsed inaugural, phobic acting-out episode.
Greater disappointments were in store. March is the dry season in much of Costa Rica, and our resort was four hours from the nearest rain forest.
As my travelling companions tanned themselves silly, I scoured the grounds, though I suspected no fur-coated monkey would choose to live in such a scorchingly hot place. I had fantasized a poolside, holiday-destroying tantrum while a herd of hairy beasts scampered off with my Ray-Bans and my quesadillas. But drama evaded me.
With every passing monkeyless day, my malaise intensified. At daybreak, when legions of vacationers soulfully promenaded the length of our beachfront Nirvana, I glumly patrolled the sands on the lookout for paw prints.
At every day’s end, while the entire resort population risked their irises to stare stupidly at “the most spectacular sunset ever,” I faced east, toward the thatched roof of our sports bar, where an amorous twosome was rumoured to have dropped by occasionally.
Late one afternoon, I was thrilled by the glimpse of a dark form between stacks of beach chairs. The creature turned out to be disappointingly human, outfitted in UV-ray annihilating head-to-toe swimwear, and two years old. He had been inadvertently misplaced by his mother in her desperate dash to a 4:30 aromatherapy session.
By day 4 of our weeklong vacation, I had relinquished almost all hope. The concierge proudly assured me that while monkeys flourished year round throughout Costa Rica, our American-owned resort had undergone a fabulously expensive, eco-friendly de-monkeyfication makeover. Their favourite fruit trees had been uprooted and replaced by alien-looking palms. As a result, the pool area resembled a certain indoor shopping mall I once passed through, just outside Buffalo.
Entirely room-bound, I passed all of day 5 watching episodes of Law and Order. My not-altogether-uncompassionate wife and children interpreted my behaviour as a sign of impending psychic disintegration, and hastily arranged a day trip to some monkey-infested bushland 50 potholed miles away. With my family’s blessing, I was to be granted an 11th-hour phobic freak-out, one last-ditch histrionic, party-pooping salvo.
It was not to be. This reputed motherlode of monkeys was a dismal place, offering up only one solitary old fellow, high up in a weedy and leafless excuse for a tree.
Monkeys are largely family-oriented beasts, and my lonely guy was likely diseased, depressed or demented. Possibly all three. This mangy specimen was not the stuff of phobias. He made me sad. More importantly, he made me feel ridiculous.
This year’s family vacation had spotlighted my very worst personal qualities: Pithecophobia was indeed a scam. It was all about Scottsdale and my obsession with a certain football-field-sized cheesecake emporium.
Deceitful, selfish, cruel and above all savagely manipulative, I bowed to the incorruptible innocence of this primordial monkey-soul.
In the flash of an epiphanous moment rare in a mid-budget, all-inclusive vacation package, that monkey became my whale, and I Ahab of the Apes.
I’d work on this heady stuff at home, maybe, if I could find the time.
With our bags safely aboard the airport shuttle, a hotel employee dutifully inquired: “Did you have a good time in Costa Rica?”
“Not exactly Planet of the Apes,” I snapped, leaving the poor fellow visibly rattled.
My arcane cultural reference had clearly overshot its mark. He hadn’t seen the movie. “Forget it,” I mumbled.
Regaining his composure, he smiled. “Pura vida” was all he said.
Farley Helfant lives in Toronto.
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