How long have you and I known each other? Well, by my calculations we go back 13, maybe 14 columns now. This can mean only one thing: It's time for the monkey story.
There are those who will suggest that even to hint at the monkey story is to bring immeasurable shame upon the good Kogan name, that its mere mention invites the sort of familial acrimony and heartache seldom witnessed outside King Lear. Still, I will tell the monkey story not because I want to—but because I must.
The monkey story takes place in the late 1960s. It was, as Simon & Garfunkel used to sing, a time of innocence, a time of confidences. I wore a That Girl flip and white vinyl go-go boots. Those boots were made for walking, so I'd walk two doors down the street to the Sapersteins' house because the Sapersteins had the biggest color TV on the block, and it was impossible to fully appreciate a masterpiece like Batman in black-and-white. Anyway, at some point between Nixon's election and Elvis's comeback concert, my mother and father, brother, and cousins all went to visit the grandparents in Miami Beach...but not the Miami Beach you're thinking of.
You see, before Miami was filled with fabulously sexy models eating fabulously sexy food at fabulously sexy boutique hotels, it was filled with old people who had dinner at 5:30 and worshipped Eleanor Roosevelt. As for entertainment, a kid could check out Ponce de León at the wax museum, play a rousing game of bingo and still be bored silly by noon. And that, my friends, brings us to the monkey story.
There was—and I believe there probably still is—a place in Florida called the Monkey Jungle. It had funny little monkeys swinging from vines overhead, it had monkey memorabilia that made monkey memories last forever, it even had a monkey that was trained to put his hairy little arms around your neck and smile for the camera. I could go on, but suffice it to say the place was lousy with monkeys, and my cousin Suzie Gale and I thought we'd found paradise, complete with souvenir shop and snack bar. Then it happened.
Fact: Suzie was holding a peanut.
Fact: There, high above a large cage of spider monkeys, hung a gigantic sign that read do not feed the monkeys.
Fact: I was always an inquisitive child, a sucker for an educational science project, if you will, and...Hell, I wanted to know what would happen if I fed the monkeys. Okay, strike that, I wanted to know what would happen if somebody fed the monkeys.
And there was sweet Suzie with her cherry pink cheeks and her enormous angel eyes and her layers of dark, curly hair that rioted around that innocent freckled face, tangling and untangling according to the humidity, and, lo and behold, there was her peanut. "Suzie," I whispered with perfect nonchalance, "go see if that monkey wants your peanut."
This next part happened rather quickly, and my recollection is a little hazy. If memory serves, Suzie walked over to the monkey cage and held the peanut up to the bars. The monkey took the peanut, and I could see Suzie beaming with pride as she turned to look at me. Unfortunately, I could also see the monkey toss the peanut over its shoulder, reach its menacing monkey paw between the bars, grab a chunk of Suzie's hair, and yank it out of her terrified little head.
I don't know how many of you have ever had to act as lookout while your mother crouches in a closet as she attempts to hide from her mother-in-law while phoning every pediatrician in the Greater Miami area to inquire about any potential issues that might arise, "if, say, for example, your 5-year-old niece happens to be mauled by a deranged monkey." Wait a minute, I do know. None of you have had to do that, because I'm the only person in the universe who's ever sent her darling cousin out to be attacked by a monkey.
In any case, the name of the column is "Lisa Kogan Tells All," and now I've told you all the monkey story. It was the first bad thing I ever did—and I remember being shocked that Walter Cronkite didn't lead with it that night on the evening news. I guess Paul Simon knows his stuff—it really was a time of innocence. My family hadn't yet been touched by debt or divorce or death, and betrayal never amounted to more than a little bit of monkey business.
The grown-ups smoked, the children tanned, we all ate red meat, and everybody thought they would live forever. But by the summer of '67, my hometown of Detroit was burning around us, and—thanks to James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, and a war we were assured was winnable—the shelf life on forever officially expired in 1968.
Suzie Gale eventually became Suzanne Rubini, an Atlanta attorney with a lovely husband, two terrific kids and a major aversion to Curious George. Because my cousin is a charitable soul, and because she understood that I would do a much better job of beating myself up than she ever could, and mostly because her hair grew back, Suzie still speaks to me. Of course, these days the conversations tend to include a lot more about politics and eye lifts than we ever would have imagined back when we played shuffleboard at our grandparents' condominium.
The monkey story does occasionally come up, because it turns out you can't really have a monkey take a swipe at your head without mentioning it from time to time. But for the record, Suzie laughs when she tells the story. She's always been slightly sunnier than me—on a bad day, I can make Sylvia Plath look like a rodeo clown. And I've always been slightly funnier than Suzie—though she might argue that this is because I've never been attacked by a giant spider monkey.
I still struggle with impulse control and guilt and the deeply unsettling truth that I am actually quite capable of hurting the people I adore, that, given the right set of circumstances, we all are.
Suzie and I are both a lot older and a little wiser now, and we've learned to pay close attention when a warning sign is posted right there in front of our eyes. We fasten our seat belts, we leave the tags on our mattresses, we refuse to operate heavy machinery after a tablespoon of Robitussin—and under no circumstances do we ever feed the monkeys.
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 19, 2013