Jane’s Story

“You can’t be serious,” Father said.

Roger, Father’s young friend and fellow adventurer, stepped into the tent. “Are you two fighting?”

“Jane says she won’t be returning to the States with us.”

“What?”

“She intends to give up everything for this . . . ape-man.”

“The same man who kidnapped you?” Roger said to me. “The same man who took you against your will to his jungle lair?”

“Yes,” I said. “The same.”

“I blame myself,” Father said. “If I hadn’t brought you on safari this never would have happened.”

“On the contrary,” I said. “I owe you a debt of gratitude.”

“I can’t leave a girl, a white woman, in the middle of equatorial Africa. Talk sense to her, Roger.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, isn’t it? You’ve quite made up your mind, haven’t you, Jane?”

“I have.”

“My God,” Father said. “What am I going to tell your mother? What possible explanation can I give her?”

“Tell her the truth,” I said. “Tell her I’m in love with Tarzan, Tarzan of the apes.”

I stood arm in arm with Tarzan as the plane rose above the tree line.

“Is Jane sorry she not on silver bird?” Tarzan asked.

“Not at all, darling. I’m exactly where I want to be.”

“Tarzan want Jane to be happy.”

“Jane is happy. Jane has never been happier.”

“Come, Cheetah.”

The chimp climbed up on Tarzan’s shoulder. We watched the plane disappear over the horizon, my last link with the civilized world severed. I’d done what no woman of my race and social station had ever done, turned my back on the security and creature comforts that men had worked for generations to give their women. Looked at another way, I had done nothing more out of the ordinary than cleave to my mate.

And what a mate: able to run with the speed and grace of a gazelle; swing from tree to tree like an orangutan; communicate with any species of animal, his earsplitting yell alone bringing a herd of elephants at a gallop. He was also preternaturally handy. When I couldn’t adapt to sleeping on a large tree limb, Tarzan’s bed of choice, he built a bamboo tree house and the furniture to go in it. From the local trader I acquired drapes for the windows, straw mats for the floor and, being much less fond of raw food than Tarzan, a brazier for cooking, along with pots and pans, dishes and utensils.

I exchanged my restrictive modern garb for a halter top and loincloth made of animal skin. During those first heady days clothes were a false skin, as unnecessary, as silly, as pants on a giraffe. From a high tree limb Tarzan would strip me bare, toss me into the lake below, and dive in after me. When we weren’t pursuing each other across the water, I was climbing on his back and riding him like a porpoise. Once onshore, Tarzan would lay me down on a bed of palm leaves and commence his powerful lovemaking, the bestial pleasure he aroused in me more than compensating for the brevity of the performance.

That said, there was a period of adjustment for both of us. Tarzan wasn’t the neatest of men. He could be extremely untidy. Our first little tiff involved the upkeep of the tree house. I argued for equal responsibility. Tarzan asserted in his mild-mannered way that the one who cared more about cleaning should clean more. Neatness, of course, would be low priority for anyone living indoors for the first time. To his credit, after hearing me out, he made every effort to help maintain an orderly living space. There was the related question of manners. Tarzan ate with his hands and tended to make unpleasant noises at mealtimes. I reminded myself that he had been raised by apes. If there was a crudeness about him, that was hardly surprising. Over time I managed to break him of his gaucher habits while overlooking minor breaches of etiquette.

As much as I might have wanted to, there was one aspect of Tarzan’s makeup I couldn’t overlook: his speech. I dearly wished he could express himself better. I understood that English wasn’t his first language. His first language, his template for verbal communication, was ape. By definition its rules of grammar, syntax, diction, etc., were primitive. He’d picked up bits of other languages and dialects from the local tribes but they didn’t seem any more evolved. Tarzan was just too laconic, too terse. He invariably got his verb tenses wrong. He seemed allergic to contractions. And the man had no concept of the pronoun.

One night I jostled Tarzan awake. Listening to the unceasing cacophony that was the jungle after dark—the shrieking, the growling, the cawing—I couldn’t sleep.

“Let’s talk,” I said to Tarzan.

“What Jane want to talk about?”

“Anything. You decide.”

“Tarzan smell rain on the wind.”

“Not that. You had a childhood unique in human history. You must have some reflections on it, some insights. Does it bother you that you missed out on a typical childhood?”

“What mean ‘typical’?”

“Normal. Average.”

“Tarzan not miss.”

Of course he didn’t “miss” since he had no idea what a typical childhood consisted of.

“You were a feral child. Your parental figures were apes. Your friends were apes. How do you think such an upbringing shaped you? I know it gave you physical abilities beyond those of ordinary humans, but how do you think it influenced your view of the world, your philosophy of life?”

Something shrieked in the night. A gentle breeze rustled the drapes. Tarzan was silent.

“Are you awake?” I asked.

“Tarzan awake.”

“So what do you think? Surely you have some thoughts on the matter.”

Again, he didn’t answer. How could he? These were big questions that called for complex answers, answers he lacked the skills to articulate. After two months of cohabitation Tarzan still sounded like those Indians in old Hollywood Westerns. “Want to smokem peace pipe?” Knowing that a discussion of any depth was impossible at his current level of fluency, I began correcting his grammar in a more structured fashion.

There was some initial resistance.

“Jane not like how Tarzan talk?”

“It’s perfectly charming. I love everything about you, darling, including your pidgin English. But wouldn’t you like to express yourself more fully? Wouldn’t you like a vocabulary of more than a hundred words? For that matter, wouldn’t you like to read?”

“Tarzan can read.”

“But at what grade level?”

“What there to read in jungle?”

“I’m glad you brought that up. Yesterday I gave the trader a letter to mail, asking Father to ship all my books. I also spoke to him about purchasing a couple of oil lamps. We’ll be able to read in the evenings. Won’t that be nice?”

“Tarzan want whatever Jane want.”

“ ‘I want whatever you want.’ Use your pronouns. ‘I want whatever . . .’ ”

I spent the following two hours grilling him about some of the finer points of English grammar until, growing fatigued, he said, “I not need any more—”

“Stop right there. We’ve talked about contractions. Without contractions, a person can sound stilted and, frankly, unintelligent. It should be, ‘I don’t need any more . . .’ ”

“Tarzan don’t—”

“ ‘Tarzan doesn’t’ is perfectly correct but only if you’re speaking in the third person. You’re speaking in the first, which means it should be, ‘I don’t need any more . . .’ ”

I don’t need any more of this,” Tarzan said, and stormed away.

“Good use of your pronouns,” I called after him.

As angry as he was, the next day he was my willing pupil again. The truth was, he could deny me nothing.

Living with an ape-man was one thing, living with an ape another. Cheetah’s antics—peeing out the tree house windows, mimicking our lovemaking, swinging from the drapes—were wearing thin. But there was a subtler and more inimical problem. Cheetah was a bad influence on Tarzan. They spoke the same primal language—mostly grunts and screeches—and they spoke it all the time. I wasn’t threatened by Cheetah. I was Tarzan’s mate. I could do things for Tarzan a chimpanzee couldn’t. But the time Tarzan spent communicating with Cheetah was time spent away from improving his English. It might have even had a regressive effect, undoing my efforts to educate him in a civilized tongue.

Climbing back up the tree ladder one morning with fresh-cut flowers, I saw multiple household objects flying out of the tree house. I hurried the rest of the way up.

The day before I’d exchanged three zebra hides for some used but perfectly decent china from the trader, four complete place settings. Standing at one of the windows, Cheetah was tossing out plate after plate, saucer after saucer, to Tarzan’s tremendous amusement.

I tried to snatch a serving platter from Cheetah’s grip. There was a tug of war that ended with broken crockery.

“That’s it,” I shouted. “That’s the last straw.”

“What mean ‘last straw’? ”

“It mean—it means either Cheetah goes or I do. Either Cheetah returns to the jungle or I take the first plane—the first silver bird—home.” I didn’t mean it, of course. I was just upset.

“Come, Cheetah.” Cheetah scampered over and jumped into his master’s arms. Tarzan threw the animal, clawing and screeching, out the window. “That better?” he said.

I had never felt so completely loved. If ever a husband was attentive and devoted, it was Tarzan. He did whatever I asked him to do without complaint. He listened to me like no man I’d ever known, despite not understanding half of what I said. He did the little things so vital to any marriage—as I’d come to think of our relationship. He paid me regular compliments. “I like what Jane—what you have done with hair.” He let me have the tenderest slice of wildebeest. He made sure the tree house was free of snakes and lizards before turning in every night. He wasn’t without his faults, of course. What spouse is? He could have bathed more often with soap and I wouldn’t have minded more variety in our lovemaking, but these were trivial matters. I took none of Tarzan’s virtues for granted, in other words. I had everything I wanted in a husband, save one thing, for me the most crucial, the most indispensable—a shared life of the mind and spirit. It was an eventuality I anticipated as soon as Tarzan’s English was up to speed, as soon as he’d attained the vocabulary to release the original and probing intellect within. He’d made some strides. He was coming along. But impatient by nature (I was not without my own faults), I was eager to accelerate the process. The trader’s messenger boy had recently brought news that my shipment of books was due any day. It would include a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an up-to-date grammar.

Using the paper and writing utensils I’d also asked Father to pack, I made five hundred flash cards to help Tarzan with both vocabulary and verb tenses. Four times a day we went through the thick stack. In addition, I introduced him to the eight parts of speech, making sure he understood each one fully before moving on to the next. I read aloud to him from the classics. When the first chapter of Silas Marner left my pupil with a furrowed brow, I switched to Great Expectations but got the same reaction. Not until I was reading to him from Jane Eyre did Tarzan get caught up in the narrative. During the part about Jane’s difficult school days at Lowood, Tarzan interrupted to express his anger at how she was being treated. His vehemence struck me as excessive.

“You do understand, don’t you,” I said, “that Jane Eyre is not a real person?”

“Not real?”

“She exists only between the covers of this book.” His eyes darted to the book. “It’s a figure of speech. You remember what a figure of speech is, don’t you?”

“Jane Eyre is only person in made-up story.”

“That’s right.”

“Then why read?”

“Well, because a good story is no less good for being made up. Sometimes the best stories are lies that reveal some universal truth.”

“Tar—I don’t understand.”

“It’s a paradox. A statement that seems contradictory but is nonetheless true. Don’t worry about it. For now, just enjoy the story.”

Tarzan began reading on his own. I watched him discover that one-to-one relationship, that special communion, between author and reader. Since our discussion about Jane Eyre he’d shown a marked preference for nonfiction, but at my urging he continued to tackle the great works of literature.

“What do you think of Hamlet?

“Many hard words.”

“Here’s the question: Is it Hamlet’s indecision or his madness, his craziness, that causes so much grief by the end of the play? Which do you think? Indecision or madness?”

“Hadn’t thought about that.”

“You must have. You can’t read the play and not have an opinion about Hamlet’s mental state.”

“If Jane want—”

“If you want.”

“If you want opinion I will have opinion.”

“Darling, that’s not what I want. What I want is for you to reflect on Hamlet’s behavior, then tell me what you honestly think about it.”

Tarzan pursed his lips. “Hamlet . . .”

“Yes?”

“. . . is sometimes mad, sometimes not.”

“But when is he one and when the other? Is he mad, for instance, when he’s being so awful to Ophelia?”

“I’m having a headache.”

“You’re getting a headache. What about the play itself? Don’t you find it beautiful? It was Keats who said, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ Can you see that Hamlet, the work of art, is as true, as beautiful as, say, a sunset?”

Hamlet. Sunset. Same thing.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“No difference.”

“Now you’re just being condescending.”

“Tarzan lie down.”

“I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean to tax you. Perhaps it’s too soon for aesthetics.”

I was impatient, I admit. There were times, I knew, when Tarzan would rather have been doing anything other than slogging through Daniel Deronda. But he did it. He did it for me. Was that enough? I couldn’t help being encouraged by his rapid progress. Tarzan was a smart man. Not particularly witty or clever, but intelligent certainly. In a sense, he was a genius. How many people could survive—could thrive—in an environment as hostile to human life as the jungle? He was a man of action. That was one reason I fell in love with him. I didn’t want to change that. I just wanted, I needed, a husband to whom I could also toss the occasional idea and have him bounce it back.

Months of intense study were beginning to pay off. I postponed questioning him about the collected works of Conrad, curious as I was to hear Tarzan’s take on Heart of Darkness, for the obvious reasons. I decided, for the moment, to put aside classic literature and, now that he was more conversant in English, address him about more philosophical matters.

“There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you,” I said. We had just finished a lunch of yucca slices and fried agouti. It was the rainy season; pots and pans had been placed around the tree house to catch the leaks. “Do you believe in God?”

Tarzan glanced over at Cheetah, who was straddling the window and tearing the skin off a banana. I’d allowed Cheetah back for short visits.

“Don’t look at Cheetah,” I said. “He can’t help you. Do you believe in a supreme being who created all life?”

Tarzan inserted his right hand inside his loincloth up to the second knuckle, a pose he assumed whenever he was trying to concentrate.

“Yes,” he said.

“You do?”

“The trees, the sky, you, me—they are no accident.”

“Contractions.”

They’re no accident.”

“Do you know what evolution is?”

“Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species.” Tarzan had become an avid reader of my Encyclopædia Britannica.

“So you don’t think populations evolve from lower species?”

“I don’t.”

This surprised me, since I’d assumed Tarzan was more pantheist than theist.

These few conversations notwithstanding, by the one-year anniversary of our marriage Tarzan and I were still having the same conversations—the best way to cook antelope, Cheetah’s latest prank, a turn in the weather. Despite his new and growing facility with language, Tarzan didn’t talk that much more than he had before. He remained a man of few words, despite having thousands more at his disposal. I continued to wait for his submergence into deeper waters.

Meanwhile, I was learning that Tarzan and I had very different tastes. Except for the humorists, he found twentieth-century literature depressing. While I liked Plath and Larkin, Joyce and Kafka, he preferred Whittier and Longfellow, Trollope and Wilkie Collins. He mocked modern art, particularly abstract expressionism. After looking through a book of midcentury art prints, he suggested that Cheetah could do as well.

“That’s what everyone says,” I scolded, Pollock and Rothko being among my favorite artists. “That’s such a cliché. You don’t want to speak in clichés, do you?”

“I’m sorry I’m not more original,” he said.

I invited Cheetah back into our home full-time. It had become a bit uncomfortable—somewhat strained—with just Tarzan and me together all the time. I became more frequently out of sorts as our various differences became more and more apparent. What chiefly concerned me was Tarzan’s resistance to analytical thinking. Tarzan, I was discovering, was essentially an optimist, a glass-half-full kind of guy, and it gave him no pleasure—he felt no need—to probe a subject beyond a certain point. Whenever I tried to expand our dialectic, really delve into some issue, whether it was a historical event, the nature of space and time, or Matisse’s late phase, he would become demonstratively bored, which disappointed and frustrated me. Afterward, he would attempt to lift my spirits by bringing me extravagant bouquets of flowers, reading me long passages from P. G. Wodehouse (Tarzan thought Bertie Wooster and Jeeves were hilarious; I found them puerile but didn’t have the heart to tell him), working up lame comedy skits with Cheetah.

Sexually, I was seldom in the mood anymore. Not once, though, did Tarzan blame me for neglecting my conjugal duties. I did consent to be touched and with his strong yet gentle hands he showed himself to be an expert at deep massage, spreading on coconut oil and kneading my body as long as I desired.

But our marriage was in trouble. We both knew it. Returning one afternoon from a swim, we found the tree house ransacked—furniture smashed, curtains ripped, food stores gone. Either the natives or some poachers had torn up the place looking for anything of value.

“Oh, Tarzan,” I sobbed. “Look at our home.”

“Don’t take it too hard.”

“It’s a shambles. How can you say that?”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

He might as well have slapped me. How I despised that hackneyed phrase, that epitome of sloppy thinking, that desperate lie people tell themselves and each other rather than see life as it is. “You actually believe that?” I said. “You actually believe everything happens for a reason?”

“I do.”

“Since when?”

“Since always.”

“Isn’t that the same as saying everything turns out for the best?”

“I suppose it is.”

“Our home in ruins? That’s for the best?”

“It’s not in ruins. You exaggerate.”

“Women raped. Children starving. Men slaughtering each other on the field of battle? Those things happen for a reason?”

“Maybe not those things.”

“You said everything. Be consistent. The Spanish Inquisition, Pompeii, the Holocaust—name your horror—all happened for the best? How can you believe such a thing?”

“I have faith.”

“What?”

“I have faith.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Faith in what?”

“In life. In Him.” His eyes looked heavenward.

“That is so Pollyanna. That is so jejune. ‘I have faith.’ That’s your insight into the mystery of human suffering? That’s your take on the human condition?”

“I’m sorry,” Tarzan said.

“For what?”

“I’ve disappointed you. Again.”

A week after this devastating exchange, to my mind a near death blow to our union, we were lying about the tree house, by then restored to shipshape condition, waiting for the brutal midsummer sun to set and for a drop in temperature. We had spoken only of mundane matters since the discussion that exposed what appeared to be our irreconcilable worldviews. We had been dozing on and off when Tarzan stretched his arms and said in a groggy voice, “I feel like a piece of gum.”

My eyes opened wide. My heart sped up. I turned to look at Tarzan. I wanted to make sure I’d heard correctly. It showed how desperate I was to save our marriage that I was ready to grab onto anything, no matter how small, that might turn Tarzan into the man I wanted him to be. “Could you say that again?” I asked him.

“I feel like a piece of gum.”

“Darling, that is so poetic, such a leap of imagination. Just as it would to a piece of gum chewed too long, the heat and humidity have made us feel sticky, used up, without savor, even moribund. What a wonderfully apt simile.”

Tarzan was shaking his head at me, a look of ineffable sadness on his face.

“That’s not what you meant, is it?”

“No, Jane.”

“You meant you feel like chewing a piece of gum.” Among the treats we got from the trader were packs of Juicy Fruit.

“Yes,” Tarzan said. “I’m so—”

“Don’t say it. Please. Don’t even say it.”

Tarzan held me throughout the night, just held me. We didn’t speak. We didn’t have to. In the morning I mailed a letter to Father asking him to charter a plane and fetch me at his earliest convenience.

How vividly I remember our last day. Rising with the sun, we swam one final time in the lake, made one last breakfast of cassava fritters and ostrich eggs. I was standing in the kitchen area, dressed for the first time in sixteen months in a blouse and skirt, when my attention was drawn to the dented, stainless-steel saucepan on the brazier. Every morning I used that pan to boil water for my coffee and Tarzan’s yucca tea. It was the humblest of household items, but at that moment it represented all our days spent as each other’s mates, all our shared experience, now slipping inexorably into the past. I became emotional.

Placing his hand on my shoulder, Tarzan joked, “Jane feel better once on silver bird.” Then he said, in all seriousness, “You do understand, Jane, that while I support your decision, I wish I could think of something, anything, to change your mind.”

Then the archenemy of the cliché said, “It’s not you, it’s me.” It wasn’t Tarzan’s fault that he had no use for abstract thinking, no interest in plumbing life’s ambiguities and darknesses, that he preferred Wodehouse to Beckett, Rockwell to Rothko. For a different sort of woman, a woman for whom a perfect intellectual and spiritual symbiosis wasn’t essential in a mate, he would have been ideal.

“Let’s go,” I said, wiping away tears, “before I change my mind.”

I didn’t mean it. I had every confidence I was doing the right thing.

We rode an elephant to the makeshift airstrip at the edge of the jungle. Before long a bright dot emerged from the clouds.

Who should step first from the plane but Roger, soon to become my fiancé. Roger was an anthropologist, an amateur musician, a published poet. In the years ahead I would meet other men like Roger, great talkers all, deep thinkers, head men every one: the architect who spoke six languages and had his own sculpture garden, the professor of Eastern philosophy and translator of Lao-tzu, the Tony Award–winning playwright and editor of the Mensa Bulletin—and those were just the men I married. The relationships all began the same way—my head turned by the witty riposte, the brilliant observation, the coruscating aperçu. I probably could have wangled one more proposal. I was not quite old. But I was tired of talk. I was content to live out the rest of my days with my books and my memories for company.

I often recalled that long-ago morning when I stepped up the ramp and into the silver plane. From my seat I could see Tarzan and Cheetah below. As we started down the narrow runway, Tarzan turned and sprinted to the nearest tree. He climbed up and up. In no time he was fifty feet in the air. Standing on a slender limb, he waved his arm from side to side. He was still waving when I lost sight of him.

He was a beautiful man.

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