Secret Enemy: 11 short scenes with Bernadette
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"In fact, I sometimes think that only autobiography is literature."
On the morning of December 12, 1968, while riding in her father's car oblivious to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the future rise of radical feminism and the imminent defection of Ion Pacepa, the Head of Romanian Intelligence whose book, released a few years later, proved that even men in black have strong MLA connections, seven year old Bernadette Plunkett asked a question.
"Dad, why do we always take a different way home?"
"To throw off the assassins, sweetie," her father said.
It was on that day that Bernadette was introduced to conspiracy theories and affairs of the heart, as, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, her mother announced that she was not going to tolerate her husband's infidelities any longer. "What does inflidelity mean, mom?" "Daddy is cheating on mommy with A FAT BLOND BIMBO, SWEETIE!" her mother roared. "She's not fat," her father said, looking mildly pained as he always did when reality took an unpleasant turn. "Not technically. She's... voluptuous." "She has a fat chest and an ass the size of Asia Minor. Yes, pumpkin, that's what daddy means by voluptuous. A fat ass and big knockers!! You'd better get used to it, pumpkin. That's what men want, even the most intelligent ones, in bed they're all the same. Give'em a slut with big tits and they're walking on fucking sunshine!!! So give those picture books a rest, sweetie, and get a butt implant and you'll never shed a tear in your life!"
Being a precocious child Bernadette suggested divorce but her opinion passed unnoticed. Thirty years later, standing in the middle of the familiar living room (beige sofa, beige walls, dead orchids), among slammed doors and high-pitched protests, she reminded them of that reasonable request. "How dare you?" Her mother said, swallowing her tears. "We stayed together because of you." Bernadette sighed and waited for the fade. She took comfort in darkness.
"Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air."
When she can't sleep she makes lists:
-Things she shouldn't have said;
-Things she should buy for the kitchen;
-Ten ways to build impossible labyrinths (draw strings of small white lights through every corridor of the house to guide your thoughts through the whispers of the day) and so on;
-Great quotes about children and morons "All the children seem to be coming out quite intelligent, thank goodness. It would have been such a bore to be the mother of morons." (Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night);
-Things her life depend on (writing, green card, Nicolette) without which she would end it all;
-In keeping with the subject, a list of bizarre celebrity suicides:
Clara Blandick - actress who played auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz, took sleeping pills and tied a plastic bag tied over her head at 81;
Lillian Millicent Entwistle – small-time actress, jumped from the 'H' of the HOLLYWOOD sign;
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer, Charlotte of the Yellow Room, chose chloroform over cancer ("When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one." Suicide note);
Chris Chubbuck – newscaster, shot herself in the head during a prime time news broadcast on Florida's TV station WXLT-TV.
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay – poet, drank a bottle of Lysol (what secret desperation can drive a man to suicide by household cleaner? His biographer explains it all: "…he was an artist, and this type of behavior was expected").
Yukio Mishima - Japanese writer, killed himself in front of his students (by disembowelment and decapitation also known as hara-kiri).
Sylvia Plath – poet, inhaled gas from her oven.
Adeline Virginia Stephens Woolf – writer, committed suicide by drowning. ("I feel certain that I'm going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices…" Suicide note).
This obsession with lists, labyrinths and suicides can't be healthy. Blind men and unstable women make for very poor audiences. Spalding Gray, the actor, thought so. His theatre of the first person overwhelmed those restless audiences handcuffed to ridiculous notions of time. Tourists of the day before chasing the mirage of a New York minute, they failed to understand his purpose. His plays lacked the sleekness of the century and the century lost patience like an angry witness at the site of a bloodless car crash. But what those impatient visitors didn't know, what they couldn't have imagined is that in every play he masked a suicide (his mother's, his own) until the final act, played about a year ago when his body was found in the East River, weeks after the phone had woken up his youngest son one last time. I love you sweetheart. Me too, daddy. The only way out of the labyrinth is through water. That's what Bernadette knew. That's what she wrote about.
In case of this.
Subjects and places.
In place of this.
Subjects and traces.
In face of this.
"The way out of the labyrinth is through water," a voice says behind her.
"I know," Bernadette turns around, without a start. The man has dark eyes and pale hands: the hands of a geisha.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Maria," the man says.
"Like the poet?"
"What do you mean?"
"Reiner Maria Rilke."
"No," Maria says. "Not like that...Don't be frightened."
"Do I look frightened?"
"Well then," Bernadette says. "Let's get on with it."
"Whatever it is you're here for. Let's see...You're an angel. You have that forlorn look–"
"No," says the man named Maria. " I am not."
"You're a ghost."
"Don't be stupid."
"Perhaps that's my problem," Bernadette says, louder than she intended. "Perhaps that's it. I am not stupid, I have never been stupid. Perhaps this is my time!"
Maria watches her in silence.
"Look," Bernadette says, "I have a ridiculous name, I'm part of a ridiculous trade and I am prone to violence. What is it that you want?"
"Not now," Maria says. "Some other time when you're in a better mood," he smiles. "All right?"
"Who are you talking to?" Nicolette, from the other room.
Maria comes and goes with maddening irregularity. She finds him in the garden pruning things, in the attic sorting through dusty pink boxes on lazy summer afternoons, or by the side of her bed in the middle of the night.
"You can't sleep?"
"You ridiculous man! I was asleep. You woke me up."
"I want to show you something."
The truth hurts, though. The truth is that the Ministry of Internal Affairs (the Romanian Securitate) would not have succeeded in its totalitarian enterprise without the help of many ordinary Romanians. The secret police with its 20,000 or so officers could never have kept watch on several million people. The Securitate's secret, so to speak, was its ability to recruit some 600,000 informers from among the men and women in the street. According to a study done by the Romanian Political Prisoners Association, 39 percent of the informers were university-educated, while 37 percent had finished high school. An even more troubling statistic: Just 1.5 percent of the collaborators were paid and 1.5 percent were blackmailed, while the rest, a full 97% percent were motivated purely by "patriotic feeling." (Worldpress.org, Feb. 21, 2005)
Perhaps she wouldn't have reacted so violently at the premiere of a well known political text which masqueraded as theatre if she hadn't felt blackmailed, cornered, harassed.
"How did you like the play?"
"A valid political statement."
"Yes, yes, but what did you think about the play?" the question multiplied as faces gathered around her in quiet expectation.
"What play?" she said after a while.
"What do you mean?" her friend asked.
"What I mean, " Bernadette said, "is that if I want to celebrate women I'm not going to interview their genitals on their latest fashion statement. I'm probably going to address their brains. Not the case here, clearly."
She lost a friend that night and she regretted her outburst, but it was the panic inside her that had spoken. Something in that gathering reminded her of the forced consent of other political meetings she had been made to attend a long time ago. If you're not with us, you're against us. If you're not cheering our cause, you're our enemy.
Dear God, Bernadette thought, was there no life outside politics? If we can agree that a literary text doesn't have to be moral, can't we agree that a political text has, at times, no literary value? She had fled her country to be able to breathe. Once on the other side of the ocean she had promised herself never to lie again unless her life depended on it. And her life did not depend on a desperate show. Were other people thinking the same thoughts and, if so, were they afraid to speak?
"Masterpieces teach you how to read them."
(from a review of Underworld)
"One day we're going choke on our own wit," Bernadette says.
"What's eating you now?" Maria asks. They're in the bathroom and he's teaching her how to breathe under water.
"Nothing is eating me!! I'm just unhappy, that's all. No, not unhappy, concerned."
"Why?" He pushes her head down. She takes a deep breath and loses consciousness.
"Because," she says when she comes to, "because I think that one day, lost in the contemplation of masterpieces, completely humorless but extremely well read, we're going to turn into a colony of invalids. Like the Pedagogy of Castalia. The Glass Bead Game."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Maria says. "Breathe."
"Castalia is a society of the mind in the 25th century. They invent a new way of testing students. They do away with exams and dissertations, they don't have required courses. People take years to read books, or stroll down the beach and think."
"At the end of each year there's an Olympics of the mind. The students play a game called The Glass Bead Game. This is how it works: with their knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, literature, geography--"
"I get it," Maria says.
"No, you don't. The students use everything they know to formulate a coherent theory of the universe. Then they sublimate this theory into a two minute musical phrase. Then they compete."
"The Game is a concert?" Maria asks. "Breathe."
"Nobody knows what the Game is, that's the maddening part. 700 pages and no clear description. At the end a winner is selected, a new Master of the Game. Magister Ludi."
"A Master of Ceremonies?"
"If you like. One year, a man named Joseph Knecht wins. He's the best they've ever had. The Pedagogy is overjoyed. Then Knecht turns around and says he doesn't want the job. Shocker! Unprecedented case. Nobody has ever refused the highest honor of the Pedagogy. They tell him he can't quit."
"He drowns himself. Long after his disappearance they find his essays, three fake autobiographies which place him in different centuries and various landscapes. Guess what?"
"What?" Maria seems indifferent.
"They discover that in every one of his lives he commits suicide."
"You love happy endings," Maria smiles.
"I don't know what to do with them," Bernadette says.
"Who was the love of your life?"
They're in the lake, floating on their backs.
"Would you be serious for a moment?"
"Sorry...I don't think I've met the love of my life. I don't think he exists. There were a few men, but I forgot them. You don't forget the love of your life so I guess none of them was...Is that very sad?"
"Very. Now breathe."
"Mom?" Nicolette, from the kitchen.
"Mom, our names rhyme. Was that on purpose or by accident?"
"Awesome," Nicolette says.
She has air for dinner and water for breakfast. Her health regime is going to kill her one day, the same way political correctness works hard at assassinating language. The disarticulated he/she sentences spineless in their effort to include everyone and communicate nothing. Fractured, syntax suffers. "What should we do then?" Angry students at her door. " If we can't say he/she? What do you want us to do?!" They look at her with dead eyes. Fish eyes, noncommittal. It's a trap. She wants them to want something wrong so she can get them, fail them, and ruin their lives. "It would be such a bore to be the teachers of morons..." Funny how things connect, Bernadette thinks.
Spotlight on Nicolette watching TV, sipping from a large, frosty glass.
"Are you having water for breakfast again?"
"Yep," the belligerent tone, ready for battle.
Too tired to fight, Bernadette thinks. Let it go. The problem with children is endless responsibility not unconditional love. Who was the moron who said that parenthood was a job? One gets vacations from jobs. (Aside: this obsession with morons can't be healthy either. Take the formalist approach: classify, divide and conquer. Write a treatise on the subject, another dissertation. The Book of Stupids: the Morons, the Imbeciles, The Dim. Would that sell as well as Pacepa's books translated in 19 languages and sold in 27 countries? Ceausescu's right hand man, a ruthless assassin trained by other assassins to keep the thoughts of the nation in check. Bernadette remembers the sudden disappearances, the unexplained "accidents," the hurried departures—a long list of absences that maimed her youth. The poets, the journalists, the professors, the artists – a devastating procession of ghostly witnesses silenced behind the doors of the asylum, the prison, the funeral home. Pacepa was in charge of every carefully planned scenario. And now they offer him political asylum, alter his appearance, make him an American citizen and put him on a pedestal from which he continues to charge against a government whose main executioner he was. Is the world mad? Irresponsible? Indifferent? Bernadette closes her eyes over images that still haunt her sleep: the ten hour interrogation sessions; the signed confessions admitting to acts that have never taken place, the lies, the fear, the permanent hysteria…No wonder she doesn't have a green card: she hasn't killed anyone, she has no one to betray, she has nothing to offer the CIA but her own intelligence and who gives a damn about that? Bernadette laughs out loud, in the middle of her kitchen, dish rag in hand. No, she thinks, she's not going to feel again, she's not going to hate. She's spent a good portion of her life extirpating every feeling, carving out, with excruciating patience, everything even remotely resembling a sentiment. Love, friendship, family relations are all traps. The only way to stay alive is to feel nothing. There are small gaps in her plan, of course: Nicolette and the plays Bernadette directs, instances when, against better judgment, she reveals a heartbeat. But Nicolette is wrapped in her own, imaginary world and not many people see the plays so she's safe. She opens her eyes and follows the small rain drops which gather in a pool at the base of the window.
"The way out of the labyrinth is through water," a voice behind her says.
There is an element of comedy in everything she writes. It's not a defense mechanism – the external membrane of a protected, fragile secret. It is how she sees the world. Her history - her personal history, the only one she believes in- is marked by episodes of laughter. She calls them episodes with the same ease with which Italo Calvino called the chapters of his novel "arias." "I will now read a...(short hesitation) an aria from my novel." She is preoccupied with Calvino. He poses a problem as Borges did, twenty years ago. "I don't understand Borges," she had said out loud, in the middle of a vacuous discussion of "Death and the Compass." The amphitheatre laughed. "I have two concerns, though," she had raised her voice, "one is the fact that I don't understand. The other is your desperate effort to hide the fact that you don't either. Which is sadder: my admission or your pretense?"
Later Borges reveals himself to her, but she continues to be consumed by the fear that both she and the people around her are faking it, taking turns at perfecting the art of saying nothing, while agreeing with a small dictatorship of ambitious pricks who count on the anguish of people such as herself to maintain their glossy status. (Aside: "Such as herself...Why not "like her?" Is simplicity simply unprofessional?) She remembers her first departmental party and an exchange that still troubles her.
"I saw you talking to Professor X."
"Yes, I like him a lot. He seems...kind."
"Yes, but what can he do for your career...'Kind...' How sweet." She can still hear that laughter...
Freed from chronology, the episodes (arias?) unfold with considerable speed.
-she's twenty years old and she laughs during a screening of Ingrid Bergman's film, "Do you like Brahms?" when the character's line "I've always liked music. I wanted to be a conductor" is translated as "I've always liked music. I wanted to drive a lot." The other translator, she finds out the same day as she is being told her services are no longer required, is a busy man with important connections.
-she's twenty five and she laughs out loud as the principal of the high school where she's worked for two weeks accuses her of "occidental tendencies." "What exactly does that mean? 'Occidental tendencies,' " she asks. "We have been informed," the man in black clears his throat shattered by his own importance, "that you read English books. You also speak English. We find this unacceptable. Our students are at that impressionable age--" "But I am the English teacher," she interrupts. "You hired me to teach English." The principal lowers his voice, "Yes, that we did. We hired you to teach English...in moderation."
Years pass. She goes to conferences, locks herself in hotel bathrooms, takes ballroom dancing. She feels normal, old, unimportant.
"I'm dying," she tells Nicolette one day. "Do you know what to do if you come home and find me dead?"
"You're always dying," Nicolette says lifting a ten pound weight with her left arm. "It runs in the family. Grandpa's been dying for 20 years."
"Grandpa's sick. I'm dying on the inside. What are you doing?"
"Exercising," Nicolette gasps for air. "It's good for me. Look at my biceps."
"It's only visible on your right arm."
"I know," Nicolette says, "Bummer."
"Nice, shapely thighs," the taught, leathery woman on the exercise tape yells at the top of her lungs, "Look great from behind! If you rest, you rust!"
"You really want thighs that look great from behind?" Bernadette asks.
"You never know," Nicolette says and runs into the kitchen.
"What are you always doing in the kitchen if you never eat?" Bernadette follows her.
"What are you doing in the bathroom every day for hours?"
"Nothing spectacular and nothing obscene," Bernadette sighs. "I learn how to breathe under water," she adds quickly but Nicolette is already speaking.
"I just thought of something," Nicolette says between gulps of water. "Have you noticed that I die in every one of your plays? My character never makes it. I mean, it's not like I don't try. I try, but my life span gets shorter and shorter. In your last play I die in the first five minutes."
"But you walk about as a ghost. That's nice, isn't it?"
"What I want to know," Nicolette says very quietly, "is: is there a reason for it or is it pure Freudian shit?"
Bernadette pauses for a long time.
"Freudian then," Nicolette laughs and starts running in place.
10. All good things...
"I want to show you something," Maria says.
"You don't see it?"
Maria looks at her with sadness. "It's a disease, you know."
"Your lack of imagination. It's like the insomnia plague only worse. Look into the water."
He pushes her forward until her feet feel the coldness of the lake. She concentrates, kneels down, parts the waters with her hands.
"Do you see it now?"
"Yes! How extraordinary!"
"What do you see?"
"The town piazza."
"And to the left?"
"The library...The coffee shop...Are those real people on the terrace?"
"Are they happy, Maria?"
"Very happy. Do you see the old couple on the bench? No, a little to your right...yes, there! He's been waiting for 54 years to tell her how she feels...Look! He's going to tell her now...And she smiles and turns her head away from him...And blushes...Who knew women can still be coquettes at 70?...And the middle aged men behind the town hall...They've been friends for 25 years. Now they're finally together."
"There's something strange about this picture, “ Bernadette says. “I can hear the wind, but nothing moves...The women's scarves, the leaves on the trees...Look! Nothing is moving. What's happening, Maria?"
"Time is patient."
"Why are you showing me this?"
"It's an alternative."
"To jumping off the Holywood sign...to drinking Lysol..."
"Things are hardly as simple as that..."
"They're hardly as complicated."
She stares beyond the lake into the secret region of the parks.
"I don't know..."
You have always been the love of my life. No one else mattered..."
She starts again.
There are things I've never talked about since you have seen too much, heard too much and worried too much already. No four year old should ever live through a revolution..."
Pacepa. The accidents. Poets and lunatics under house arrest. “Yes, but what can he do for your career?” Did the Pedagogy have Joseph Knecht killed? In German Knecht means servant. Spalding Gray, Virginia, Joseph. One last ridiculous procession of monstrous, bloated bodies.
For a while now I've been struggling with the feeling that everything around me has been touched by pettiness. I've tried to get involved but I have failed miserably. I am a bad actress, you know that. I do much better on the other side, in the director's chair, and this play is going nowhere. I've tried my hand at love and friendship but I found that I cared for no one and that, even the most intimate acquaintances, betray you for a momentary conviction. If beliefs are more important than people I don't see the point of relationships. What's worse, I can't stop laughing at everything people do, little people with little ambitions I refuse to understand. Writing doesn't help either. I don't write for me anymore, I write to keep my job, I write when I have nothing to say and that is unforgivable. Don't be angry with me, now that I have decided..."
Bernadette sighs. Too many goddamn words. She writes on a shiny piece of paper.
"I love you, sweetheart."
She leaves the note on the kitchen table and closes the door behind her. Maria is waiting for her outside. She takes his hand and, together, they leave behind familiar streets and dimly lit alleys until they reach the edge of the town. The lake is on the right, outside that continuity of parks she's read about. She doesn't look back. She knows that, if she did, she might catch a glimpse of Nicolette on the porch, fresh out of her sleep. She squeezes Maria's hand and he says nothing. They advance. Right before the waters close above her head she kisses him.