My Husband, the Orangutan

They say Nature makes us in pairs, but I don't know. It isn't as if I'm happy about the hirsutism. The hair on my arms is so thick and dark, I could audition for gangster roles. Whenever Fred catches me tweezing the coarse dark hairs on my chin and jaw, he says, "You're beautiful the way you are." I'm not convinced.

Fred's arms and legs have grown hairier, I think, since we moved here. Maybe mine have, too. I don't know. Hair grows faster in summer. It's hot here -- the Arlington Primate Research Facility and Laboratory in Borneo.

Fred's a primatologist. Orangutans are his passion, his purpose. I'm just here for company. And to take notes.

Fred comes into our cabin after a long afternoon in the trees.

"Know what Jibba did today?" He doesn't wait for me to say, Who cares? "She returned my sign. I said, 'Lipstick' and Jibba made the sign for lipstick!"

"Knowing how to ask for lipstick isn't exactly going to stand a Borneo baboon in good stead."

"Take that back!" Fred shrieks. Fred hates baboons, you see. Baboons are monkeys. He shows no patience for anyone who mixes up monkeys and apes. It's like confusing quarters with pennies. Sooner or later, if you can't figure out the difference, you're not worth Fred's conversation.

When we met, when Fred was writing for "Urban Dweller" magazine and dreaming about life in the wild and I was surreptitiously tweezing my face in the bathrooms our offices shared with his, we would eat lunch in the building's courtyard and dream out loud. I wanted to model. Paris, New York, Milan. I'm tall and, when I could keep the hair under control with treatments, pretty. At least, I was. Fred wanted to be an orangutan. It was obvious. The way he'd rhapsodize about building a leaf tent high in a tree, estimating his weight and speed to reach nearby branches without crashing to the ground. Orangutans don't often miss branches, so they rarely fall to the ground and get hurt or killed. But they weigh a lot, so it can happen. Even as a little boy, he said, he assumed he'd grow up to be an orang. No one in his family ever had, but when we're young, you know, we're optimistic.

Orangutans are peaceful. Unlike chimps, they don't wage war or hunt. Fred gets rages sometimes. All men do. All human men. He'll throw his primatology books around our cabin or apartment or his parents' spacious Colonial. These fits just happen. I don't think there's any real reason.

He is, however, solitary like the orangutan. They don't mate that often, either. It's why the species is endangered. Let's just say I'd rather Fred was peaceful.

Once, we kept a baby orang in our cabin. Its mother had been killed. The baby clung to Fred ferociously, making it hard for him to shower, sleep or dress. Babies stay with their mothers for eight years. I told Fred he couldn't keep Sheila and me for eight years. I knew who he'd choose: baby apes are useless. I can transcribe notes and open cans. Mostly, we eat canned food because of the number of bugs, snakes and lizards that live here. And mice as big as grapefruit. We have a small battery-powered refrigerator but mostly, we use it to keep bugs and snakes off our food. The bugs here are gigantic and we're always sick with one jungle malady or other.

Professor Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee taught an ape to talk. The creature's name is Chantek; he lives at the Atlanta Zoo. Chantek can't talk the way we can, of course. He knows American sign language -- about 180 words, roughly the vocabulary of a two-year-old. He has four-year-old intelligence, though, and can tell lies and even make jokes. Not good jokes, though. Stuff like, "Chantek is a flower in the ground" or "Chantek is a cloud." Still, funny stuff for an ape.

Fred bought Chantek a ViewMaster online today. They haven't met but this Chantek is like Fred's best friend. Fred goes online every day to read about Chantek's high jinks. As far as I'm concerned, Chantek is a 400-pound brat. He undoes his cage door -- orangutans are excellent lock pickers -- and, when confronted, signs, "Chantek is a good boy" and mugs for his keepers. When a female ape moved into his cage, he pretended to pick flowers for her to smell, then smacked her in her ape face. Fred cracked up when he saw this on video. "You show 'er!" he hooted.

We used to watch pornography sometimes, in our old apartment and, at the very beginning, when we moved here. Now, Fred says we have to conserve the video player. Electricity in the wild is spotty and we'd have to buy three extra VCRs to pay off corrupt government workers. Fred watches primate videos all the time, though. "It's work," he says.

I've noticed Fred using fewer words, shorter sentences. After sex, he'll give me a little smack -- "Fred playing," he'll say with a gesture -- and scamper to our little kitchen for some fruit. His arms are getting hairier, I think, and his face is growing wider. He says he takes after his Sicilian parents. I'm not sure.

I uncork a bottle of warm white wine I bought the last time we went into town, about a month ago. When I part the curtain to enter our room, he raises his eyebrows, the classic primate "hello." Fred calmly pulls nits from his beard and examines them quizzically with his deep brown intelligent eyes.

About the author:

Chelsea Lowe's work appears frequently in the Boston Globe. She has also written for TV Guide, Newsday, the New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications. An excerpt from her recently completed novel, Excellence In Advertising, appeared in a prior Pindeldyboz.