Whatever Happened to Spider Monkey?
by Jen Sexton-Riley
Wait, what? How am I alive?
Peter Florio lay on his back, blinking up at a summer sky streaming with white clouds. A breeze lifted and rearranged the hair across his brow. He felt the sidewalk flat against his heels, sharp at his shoulder blades, solid beneath the palms of his hands and rough under his fingertips. He lifted his head, looked around, and sat up.
Shielding his eyes from the sun, he raised his chin and looked straight up. Nearly 3,000 feet above him, the top of the second tallest building in the world pierced the flowing stream of clouds. Twenty-one seconds ago, he had stood at the top of the new Shanghai Tower, still under construction. One hand was wrapped around one of the red crosspieces of a crane stretching even higher from the building’s unfinished roof into the blue.
Peter’s preparations for the illicit climb left him well versed in the comings and goings of the building site’s security team and the workmen’s regular hours of arrival and departure, but this red crane extending skyward from the building’s highest point came as a complete surprise. Did he even pause to consider whether or not to extend his record-breaking climb by another three or four dozen feet? Not for a moment. It was there. He was there. He had to climb it.
Propping himself one-handed at the top of the crane, Peter checked the secure attachment of the small camera affixed to his extendable monopod. Footage or it didn’t happen, as the Internet trolls were fond of saying. They wouldn’t have the chance. Their jaws would drop when they saw this newest upload to his video channel, Spider Monkey: Urban Climber. Peter placed one spotless white tennis shoe on the lowest crosspiece of the crane, extended the monopod at his arm’s length for a panoramic sweep, leaned back and smiled broadly for his 902 thousand subscribers when his head swam for a fraction of a second and he found himself tumbling in space.
At over half a mile above the sidewalk, Peter had a long time to fall. His 175 lean pounds would gather speed for just over twenty-one seconds and meet the ground at well over 100 miles per hour. He rolled over and over, crying out, gasping for breath, tears blinding him in the increasing wind as his speed doubled, tripled, carrying him to the impact that seemed to take so long to arrive. One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. All the way to twenty-one, and then stillness. Silence. He opened his eyes and blinked up at the sky, all flailing and gasping lost in the pleasant chirping of a few birds and the wind through the leaves of a neat row of newly planted ornamental trees.
How am I not dead? How am I not even injured?
* * *
Last spring, when Peter met with his climbing assistant Eli back home in Providence to discuss the future Shanghai Tower climb over lunch, he could tell there was more on his friend’s mind than skyscrapers and the daily menu specials.
“No, I’m serious. Think about it for a minute,” Eli said. “You’re obviously a great climber. The best. But could something make you an even better climber? What would make the Spider Monkey into an even more... spidery monkey?” Eli’s long fingers mimicked a spider’s legs as his eyes shone with excitement. His sandwich lay untouched on the café table, chosen for its view of the Spider Monkey’s very first hometown climb. At 428 feet in height, Providence’s “Superman Building” at 111 Westminster Street, nicknamed for its resemblance to the Daily Planet building in the comics, had been intimidating back then.
As Peter reached its summit, with Eli capturing the event first from the ground below and then, an elevator ride and a bribed security guard later, from the roof above for what would become the first Spider Monkey channel upload, they were both giddy with adrenaline. Conquering Superman felt like a superhuman feat of strength, skill and courage. After the next several years of scaling ever-increasing heights all over the world, however, Superman now seemed downright petite.
Peter dunked a curly fry into a puddle of hot sauce and tossed it into his mouth. “I already have the best cameraman and the best climbing shoes. I suppose maybe I could be stronger. More stable. If I spent six hours a day in the gym doing salmon-ladder pull-ups and slack-line balances instead of my usual four— ”
“Come on, man. You’re as strong and steady up there as you can be. You can’t get any fitter physically. I’m not talking about your shredded abs,” Eli said, shaking his head. “I’m asking what works against you as a climber. You know,” — he pointed to his temple — “in here.”
“Oh, you’re talking about fear,” Peter said. “Well. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I picture plummeting to the ground and exploding like a watermelon every single time I tackle a new climb.”
“And don’t you think that affects the way you climb?” Eli asked.
“I don’t know. I think it’s human nature. I can’t help but think about the what-ifs. What if a freak gust of wind catches me off guard? What if a handhold gives way or my leg seizes up in a cramp just when I need it most? What if I get the hiccups, for Chrissake? Anything could happen. It’s dangerous. That risk is exactly why luxury hotels and giant sportswear companies advertise on Spider Monkey and pay my bills. That’s why I have Spider Monkettes sending me scantily-clad selfies and offering to video chat with me every night of the week. That’s why I get to do this for a living.”
Eli raised his eyebrows. “And how does Riya feel about your... job perks? Hey, you never mention her anymore. Whatever happened to Riya?”
Riya. Eli would have to bring her up. “Riya has nothing to do with anything. The point is this: I take risks. It’s what I do. That’s why I’m not the one who has to wipe down daddy’s fMRI suites and make sure the hospital johnnies get sent out to the cleaner’s on time instead of fulfilling my sacred duties as Spider Monkey climbing assistant, like some people I know,” Peter reached over and playfully socked Eli’s narrow shoulder. Eli winced.
“I don’t clean Pop’s lab,” Eli said. “He paid for my degree and gave me the job. Lately I even think he kind of likes me. Which brings me to the point, actually. What if I told you that in the neuro lab we are this close to being able to wipe the fear of falling from your mind and replace it with something else?” Eli held a thumb and forefinger a short distance apart.
* * *
So began a series of late-night meetings at the Bouchet Lab, after Bouchet the elder had toddled off to his bed for the night and the cleaning crew, of which Eli was not a member, had their lemon-scented way with the place.
“Remember Gecko Girl, a couple years back, in Chile?” Peter said. “She was just getting started on the Gran Torre Santiago, only two and a half floors up, and somebody threw a shoe at her. Knocked her right off the wall. Must have been a star pitcher or something, this guy. She had to get an MRI to make sure her head was still on straight.” Peter raised his head to look into the machine’s scanner tube while lying uneasily on the table that would soon slide him inside.
“I remember,” Eli said. “But this is different. The technology is basically the same, but while an MRI uses magnetic resonance imaging for diagnostics, looking for anatomical anomalies such as a traumatic brain injury in Gecko Girl after her fall, the fMRI is used to conduct functional magnetic resonance imagery. Instead of looking for a structural anomaly, we’re watching blood flow and oxygen consumption in the brain in response to stimuli.
“When I ask you about climbing and bring up the idea of falling, or the idea of fearing death or injury but then avoiding it at the last moment somehow, I can observe how your brain reacts. Then I can use the data I collect, plug it into an algorithm and play your own response back to you in your own brain later, whenever I want.
“I can actually override your current natural experience, possibly by using a suggested prompt of some kind, say a certain sound. It’s like a recipe to deliberately create these thoughts and feelings in you, and then replay them in you, like an edited Spider Monkey upload, later.
“The published research on this has been rudimentary so far, but I’m pretty good at this stuff. It’s in my genes. I may even be able to create a fully multisensory experience. We just don’t really know yet. This is all new territory.”
“Is this dangerous at all?” Peter asked.
Eli scoffed. “Is the Spider Monkey, rope-free conqueror of urban Everests, irresistible to Spider Monkettes everywhere, actually asking me if lying in a tube at three feet of elevation is dangerous?” Eli said.
“Right. Right,” Peter laughed and lay his head back on the table. He closed his eyes and concentrated on taking calm, steady breaths as the table jerked into motion, carrying him headfirst into the machine.
“So what is your biggest fear while on a climb?” Eli asked, his voice calm in Peter’s ear buds over a background of birdsong.
“Falling,” Peter said. “Plain and simple. Just something stupid happening. A pigeon crashes into my face. Suddenly my hands just lose strength. I have no grip, and I just see the building swinging away from me and I know I’m gone.”
“And when you stay with that fear for a moment,” Eli said, “can you tell me what, in an imaginary world where anything is possible, would take that fear away?”
“Sure,” Peter said. “Let’s say I fall. Fine, I fall. Nothing I can do about it. But when I land, I’m fine. I’m just fine. I just get up and get on with my day.”
“Right. So why be afraid of falling?” Eli said. Peter could hear the soft tapping of Eli’s fingers typing. “Just a minute, bud. I’m just making a few adjustments. I need to focus here.”
Peter heard a soft pop as Eli muted his mic. The birdsong increased in volume. “Eli?” Peter asked. “You still there? Hey, whatever happened to Gecko Girl?”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Jen Sexton-Riley