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The Mountain

02/09/2015 03:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

An excerpt from 'The Mountain' from the forthcoming essay collection 'You're Not Edith'

"Isn't that the movie about the lady with the monkeys?" my mother asked.

It was 1993. I was 16. I'd faked sick that day to stay home from school, smoke copious amounts of marijuana and channel surf. Mid-afternoon, I stumbled upon the movie Gorillas in the Mist and for the first time in my young life, a narrative resonated with me: woman demands job, woman gets job, woman does not marry, woman does not live in quiet desperation, woman saves a species, woman is decapitated by unknown assailant, cue triumphant music.

"Gorillas," I corrected her. "It's about gorillas."

I asked my mother to rent the movie.

"I need it for school," I lied.

My mother was skeptical. "They watched that in school? Am I thinking of the right movie?"

"Yes," I insisted. "Gorillas in the Mist. They watched it in Biology."

"Isn't biology the class you and that Josephine skipped?"

All my mother knew was that that Josephine was a bad influence. Had she known the full scope of my attachment to that Josephine, I would have been back in Catholic school. Public high school was a privilege, not a right.

My mother rented Gorillas in the Mist for me and before it was returned, I rigged up our households' two VCRs and made a pirate copy. When watching the movie wasn't enough, I took to spending my nights at the library scrolling through reel after reel of microfiche, checking out Dian Fossey biographies and books on primatology that hadn't been touched since the Nixon Administration.

I became a real smoker, first Marlboro Reds, because that's what Sigourney-Weaver-as-Dian-Fossey smoked, then Merit Lights when I learned those were what the actual Dian Fossey smoked. I listened to Billie Holiday, because that's what Sigourney-Weaver-as-Dian-Fossey listened to, but gave up Holiday for Edith Piaf when I read that she was who the actual Dian Fossey preferred.

Lucky for me, it was the early 1990s, and I didn't have to alter my fashion sense to fit Fossey's -- save for the Doc Martens, I already dressed like her: tattered blue jeans and oversized flannel shirts.

Josephine felt threatened. "Do you love me?"

"Yes."

"But do you love me more than Dian Fossey?"

I'd laugh dismissively, placating her with, "Give me a break, I don't even know Dian Fossey," or

"That's not a fair question: Dian Fossey is dead."

My parents were baffled by my obsession: "That movie? Again?"

My grandmother -- who, whenever tipsy, would bitterly remind us that her family once owned all the land between Lincoln, Lawrence and Western -- now spent her third dirty martini openly fretting that I would skip college and hightail it to the Virungas. "You think they want white women there, Allison? Let me tell you, they do not."

For my 17th birthday, gifts included one of Jane Goodall's chimpanzee tomes, a sweatshirt with a gorilla's face emblazoned across the front, and a lemur hand puppet. But they didn't understand my obsession. It wasn't about apes. It was about courage, causes, being unwelcome somewhere but standing your ground.

Josephine and I got away with a lot because our parents were worried about our brothers. My younger brother was a burgeoning stoner-pyromaniac, while Josephine's older brother, Kyle, was forever being suspended from school for calling teachers "cocksuckers" and punching students in the halls.

On the outside of Kyle's bedroom door hung a Confederate flag underscored by a black bumper sticker that read: AIDS Kills Fags Dead.

When Kyle made Josephine's home feel unsafe, we started hanging out in the city with Brian. Josephine had worked with Brian in the video store. He was 25, had long auburn hair and tattoo sleeves depicting dragons and naked women; he was the coolest guy we knew.

Brian took me and Josephine to a bar on Armitage where the bartenders let us drink, where Josephine made me dance, where they played the kind of music we liked: Jane's Addiction, Fugazi, Joy Division.

One night at the bar, I watched Brian's roommate don a clown wig and snort a line of coke off a woman's thigh. Later, I watched Brian grab Josephine and kiss her on the mouth. When I saw her kiss back, I drank myself sick.

Josephine followed me into the stall, holding my hair back as I retched. From the jukebox, Ian MacKaye wailed: I am a patient boy/I wait/I wait/I wait...

"I want to go home," I said.

Josephine stroked my head. "Al," she said. "It's the '90s. He's just some guy. You can't take everything so seriously."

"I will take everything seriously," I slurred. "Dian Fossey took everything seriously, and she's a fucking legend. A legend..."

I was serious, and a little self-righteous, and though I believed this was a kind of courage, Josephine laughed, as she so often did, right in my face.

She drove us home in the Dodge, and I spent the trip thinking about that scene in Gorillas in the Mist when Sigourney-Weaver-as-Dian-Fossey yells, "Get off my mountain!" and imagined myself screaming something similar to Brian, and to Kyle. By the time we pulled up outside Josephine's house, I was so enraged I couldn't look her in the eye. She went inside and waited for me to come tapping at the window.

I never did.

Josephine skipped college and moved into a dodgy part of the West Loop with Adrian, a handsome Puerto Rican who made a little money spinning records in nightclubs and a lot of money dealing ecstasy and heroin.

My freshman year, I took the train in from Wisconsin to visit her and Adrian at the apartment they shared. We smoked cigarettes, reminisced about high school and how good it was to be out of the suburbs. I waxed arrogant about my newest obsession, Anne Sexton, quoted her: "Live or die/but don't poison everything." I had dumped Fossey and her dumb gorillas, found a new chain-smoking alcoholic to admire, and set my sights on becoming a poet.

Josephine was addicted to heroin, but I ignored this fact, justifying my disregard by misappropriating a line from a Roethke poem: "I, with no rights in this matter,/Neither father nor lover..."

"You look tired," I observed, gently, as we readied for bed.

Josephine gathered up beer bottles. Every time she leaned forward, her shoulder blades poked against the back of her T-shirt like clipped wings. She swept stray ash from the coffee table into her hands. "It looks like a zoo in here," she said. "It's like that movie."

"Huh?" I knew what she meant, but wasn't in the mood for nostalgia.

Josephine looked hurt. "That gorilla movie," she said, too stoned to remember the title.

I raised my eyebrows, smirked. "'Gorilla movie?'"

"Yeah," she said, poking me, and I flinched, backed away. She seemed not to notice, and closing her eyes, absent-mindedly quoted a line from the film; a small line delivered toward the end of the movie. In the scene, Fossey sits in her cabin with her faithful tracker, Sembagare, stringing popcorn to hang on the Christmas tree. Sembagare chastises her for shooting at tourists, and Fossey, looking small and spent, drops her popcorn garland, lights a cigarette and declares, "They're not going to turn this mountain into a goddamn zoo. They're not."