La Maison de Disillusionment

September 18, 2015

An abridged version of the original text, US: Paris in the 2000s

By Suzanne E. Schuckel

[Suzanne was a member of Zoo Crew, a large group of friends at IU’s Collins Living-Learning Center in the mid-’80s. She was obsessed with the Roaring ’20s art scene, particularly American expats in Paris, so she decided to write a story about us, set in the future, invoking some of the themes of Fitzgerald and the likes. She said it was written in the style of Hemingway. (Having only gotten through the first nine pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls, I can’t opine on that.) I won’t give anything away here, but the best part was that we each got to pick our own fates. Book Two is when it all starts to unravel.]

“I’d rather stay here
with all the mad men
than perish with the
sad men roaming free”
– David Bowie

* * *

BOOK I

Nothing was wrong with the house, really. Too many of us were living there, that’s all. For regular people it would be all right, but there were just too many of us literary types for comfort or serenity. Literary types? Not really. Not really all of us were literary types. Most. Not all. It wasn’t hard to get published, but in a city of noticeables it was hard to get noticed.

That’s where the parties came in. It seems like we had them every weekend, and many claim we did—but it’s impossible. I remember too many damn long, boring weekends, where everyone drank too much without the excuse of a party and forgot to write or ended up losing manuscripts.

This weekend there was no party. None of us had money. I was curled up on the sofa. It was 9 a.m. or so. I had eaten breakfast and was going to read, but I had forgotten to bring my book from upstairs and didn’t feel like going to get it. Fields was up in his room, still asleep. He was coughing. He had been coughing. I didn’t want to go upstairs and hear him still coughing. He had a cold.

“Damned instrument,” Bill suddenly said. He had been playing the piano. “Out of tune. That bastard.”

“What bastard?” I wondered.

“That bastard piano tuner. Damn French.”

“You like the French.”

“I hate the French.”

“I never had the tuner in, anyway,” I said. “We can’t afford it.”

“Bullshit, we can afford booze.”

“The tuning money was probably spent on booze. The booze is almost gone.”

“It isn’t.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Bitch.”

“I don’t buy the booze.”

“You could have said it was almost gone.”

“Well, I didn’t. I forgot. The others know.”

He didn’t say anything for a minute. I kept looking straight ahead. It was too bright. I was glad the curtains were drawn. He spoke, “I’m sorry I called you a bitch.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I wanted to play the piano.”

“Do some writing.”

“I don’t feel like writing.”

“The paper will be late.”

“The paper is always late.”

“So write it.”

He left the room abruptly. I got up and drew the curtains open blinking against the sun. Bill had it tough. He had been here the longest. Since the beginning—15 years. He had bought the house and one by one we came to live here in Paris at the house. It wasn’t a bad house. Too much happened, though. Bill proposed to a girl when he was very young—20. When she refused he quit the university permanently and moved to the house.

Just as I drew the curtains shut again Hollicky stumbled through the front door.

“Hi Thom,” I said.

“Hi Suzanne.” Damn, it’s bright out there.” He crashed on the sofa. “I want a drink.”

“It’s nine in the morning.”

“So?”

“Have you been awake all night?”

“Yes.”

“Go to sleep.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep,” he whined.

“You have to. Go upstairs.”

“Is Amy here?”

“She’s asleep.”

He ran a hand across his face. “How’s Fields”

“Coughing.” As if in illustration we heard a fresh outburst from him. Shannon’s typing in the next room didn’t drown out the sound. Holicky looked concerned.

“Maybe Jim is really sick,” Thom said, concerned, staring at the ceiling. He meant Fields. Jim Fields.

“No, he’s not,” I said quickly. “It’s just a cough.”

“He’s had it for months. He should see a doctor.”

“Shut up,” I said. “Go to sleep.” I walked out of the room, leaving him on the sofa, falling asleep.

Holicky was out nearly every night, all night. He slept all day. None of us knew what he did. We rarely saw him. Fields might know, but Fields was sick. He had a cough.

Shannon was in the next room. He was typing. “Holicky is back,” I said.

“I heard him come in,” Shannon answered. He kept typing. “Damn. Where’s the correcto-type?”

“What are you writing?”

“The article on discrimination in France against American teachers.”

“You’re writing that? Bill said he wouldn’t publish it.”

“To hell with Bill. His paper isn’t the only paper.”

“It’s our paper,” I corrected.

“When is the last time you wrote for it?” he countered.

“Write something else. Bill will publish something else.”

“Bill is too drunk to publish the paper. Bill is too drunk to publish a flyer on dental hygiene.”

“He’s been drinking less.”

“Bullshit.”

“Let’s see you quit drinking,” I challenged.

“I can still write.” He kept typing. “Where’s Betty?” Betty was his wife.

“In Hell, I hope.” I didn’t like Betty. I had further reason later on to hate her, but even now I didn’t like her. “Have you had breakfast?”

“I’ll eat breakfast when Betty wakes up.”

He knew I hated hearing Betty mentioned. I was tired of being baited. I left the room.

In the living room Holicky was asleep on the sofa. I left him alone. When Amy woke up she’d help him upstairs. I walked into the kitchen.

Bryan had the mail. “Bonjour, Suzanne,” he said. “Look at this. Une lettre.”

“From Jeske?” I took it. Bryan nodded.

Jeske was one of teh few of us from the university who was still in the U.S. Most of us were here, in the house. The letter was short and typical. He promised to be in Paris soon for one of our weekend parties. We never planned the weekend parties, but he had never yet shown up on one of the weekends when we didn’t have one. Like this weekend, we weren’t having one. It would be a dull weekend.

Bryan was reading something he got in the mail. “I got a cheque for a poem,” he said.

“Really? That’s great! How much?” Maybe we could have a party.

“Forty-three francs.”

“Oh.” I was disappointed. “I’ll get groceries, I suppose.”

“Uh-uh. We all need booze.”

“Like hell you do,” I said.

“Listen,” he said, “you publish something, you can buy groceries. Fields or Bill or Shannon or Andrew or I publish something, we buy booze. Deal with it.”

“Save it, then, at least,” I advised.

“This isn’t enough to visit Berlin.” Bryan always was wanting to go to Berlin. His ex-wife lived there. We hated his ex-wife.

“You could win a fencing tourney.”

“They hate Americans.”

“That doesn’t matter. You’re one of the best.”

“That doesn’t matter. They wouldn’t pay me. I’m an American.”

“You’re not living there.”

He shrugged. “I’m still an American.”

I offered another suggestion. “Bill could pay you something for a poem. For Now.”

The name of the paper Bill published was Now: A Journal of Our Times. It had a circulation of 1,520. It was left-wing. When some of us were very bored we used to read the hate mail from right-wing groups. It was funny, really. We couldn’t always read them because Bill was the only one who was fluent in French. Bill wouldn’t read them.

“Bill’s paper sucks.”

“It’s our paper. It does not suck.”

“It sucks. Bill drinks too much.”

“So do you.”

“I don’t publish a paper.”

“You should write for it, Bryan. Bill likes you. He’d publish it and pay you.”

“If he publishes it. It’s not a very good paper. It’s disorganized.” Bryan sat down.

“It’s all Bill has.”

“He’d have you if you weren’t a neurotic bitch.”

“It’s none of your business. None of it is,” I said heatedly. “Go to hell.”

“I’m here already. I’m going out.” He got up.

“To buy booze.”

“Yes.”

“Well, good for you. Let’s all drink ourselves into our graves.”

“Not you,” he said sarcastically, going out the door. “God forbid your purity should be stained by alcohol.”

I stormed out of the kitchen. “Get the fuck off the sofa, Thom,” I ordered. He didn’t hear me. I drew the curtains open. He blinked and rolled over, but that was all. I stared out the window. The postman was down the street now. It was sunny and bright. That was unusual. I sighed.

“You okay, Suzanne?” That was from Thom. He wasn’t asleep.

“Yeah, Thom. I thought you were asleep.”

“I am.”

I sat in a chair for a while. They were all okay. Bryan couldn’t help it. He was still in love with his ex-wife. That made him feel pretty down most of the time. His drinking hurt his fencing talent. That was bad. It depressed him.

Shannon came in, typed pages in his hand. “Have you seen Bill?”

“I don’t know where he is. He won’t publish that.”

“Shannon?” Betty called from the top of the stairs. I groaned.

“I’m down here, Betty,” Shannon called up. “Good morning, darling.”

She yawned prettily, coming down the stairs. “Jim has been coughing all night. It kept me awake.”

“Jim is sick,” Shannon said.

“He’s just a drunk,” Betty said.

“Shut up,” I said.

She saw me. “Oh, good morning, Suzanne. Don’t you think Fields overdoes his coughing a bit much?”

“No,” I said. “Fields is sick.”

Bill entered the living room now. “He’s hardly been out of bed in three days. Good morning, Betty. Shannon.”

Shannon wordlessly handed him his article.

Bill glanced at it. “I’m not publishing this shit in my paper.”

Shannon was angry. “Bill, you haven’t even read it.”

“I know it’ll be shit. You can’t write worth a damn.” Bill tore the article in two and dropped it to the floor. Betty started crying loudly.

“You could have read it!” Shannon shouted.

“No. I didn’t want to,” Bill said calmly. He glanced at me. I just stood there. He wanted me to say something so I didn’t.

“Damn it, I need to make money somehow!” Shannon was more agitated now. I thought maybe they might start hitting each other. Betty dried louder.

“Then go back to America and teach school like a good little obedient husband,” Bill answered, still calm.

“You’re all horrible! I hate it here! I wish we’d never come!” Betty burst out. She turned to me. “Don’t just stand there! You’re all driving me crazy! I hope—”

She was interrupted by a beer bottle shattering at the foot of the stairs where we all stood. She gave a little gasp and we all looked to the head of the stairs. Jim had thrown the bottle.

“ALL OF YOU SHUT UP AND LET ME GET SOME GODDAMNED SLEEP!” he bellowed, and broke into a coughing fit.

Holicky stirred on the sofa. “Good morning, Jim!”

“Good morning, Thom,” Jim said in a normal voice. He turned and went back into his room. After a moment Thom got up and, avoiding the shattered bottle, dragged himself upstairs wordlessly.

There was a silence. Bill finally spoke. “Write something else, Shannon.”

“Yeah,” Shannon said. “Let’s eat breakfast, Betty.”

Bill and I stood by ourselves.

“Bryan got a cheque,” I said. “He’s buying booze.”

“Good,” Bill said.

“I had wanted to buy Jim some vitamin C or something.”

“Jim will be fine.”

“I know.”

“What time is it?”

“I don’t know.” There was a pause. “I’m going to read.”

“Will you eat lunch?”

“Yes, I’ll be down for lunch.”

“I’ll see you.”

“Yes.” I went upstairs. Jim had re-locked himself in his room. I hesitated outside his door.

“How are you feeling, Jim?” I called in.

“Go away,” he said.

I walked on down the hallway.

Andrew was still in his room, too. Andrew annoyed all of us to a certain extent. He was a freeloader because he refused to write—he just drank. He didn’t bother us as much as Betty, who was a freeloader. Andrew we didn’t mind as much because he had been at the university with us. Betty was just Shannon’s wife.

Andrew had been a doctor in the States. A malpractice suit had ruined him so he was here. He had been here only three years. We annoyed him more than he bothered us. He stayed in his room a lot. He never read Bill’s paper.

“Andrew,” I called through his door.

“Go away,” he said. I walked into his room.

“Damn it, Suzanne…” He was in bed, but awake, staring at the ceiling. “I said…”

“Sorry.” I didn’t say it like I meant it. “You should go eat breakfast. We’re running out of food. Bryan is buying booze.”

“Good for Bryan. I don’t want to go downstairs.”

“You should eat.”

He sighed and looked at me with bloodshot eyes. “Are Shannon and Betty down there?”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“I’d rather starve, then.”

“I’ll get you up for lunch.” I left the room.

“Don’t bother yourself,” he called as I shut the door.

Brad walked out of his room as I was heading toward mine. “Hi, sweetie,” he said. Brad was cheerful even though he’d been through horrors back in the States.

“Good morning, Brad. Bryan got a cheque.”

“Good for him. Is he buying booze?”

“Yes.”

“Good. What else was in the mail?”

“Letter from Jeske.”

“He okay?”

“Fine. He’ll be here for one of the parties.”

“If we threw a party tonight, then, he’d be here.”

“Yes.”

“That would be fun.”

“We don’t have any money.”

“Holicky does.”

“He does?”

“Yes,” Brad said, “but it’s Saturday already, I guess.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“A bit late.”

“Yes.” There was a pause.

“Well, I’ll see you at lunch.” I headed again for my room.

“Any news, Suz?” Brad stopped me with a question.

I knew what he meant, but I faked it. “From who?”

He laughed a little. “Don’t think we don’t know you think about it. The theaters. In London.”

I acted. I had used to go to London quite a bit, for weeks or months at a time for plays. Then about two years ago when I was gone for two months I had come back to the house to find that Bill had destroyed his printing equipment and attempted suicide and Shannon and Andrew had almost killed each other in a fight. I was worried about leaving after that. I didn’t go back to London, in spite of the offers I would get in the mail. The offers didn’t come anymore. London theaters had probably forgotten now. I tried not to care. It was funny, really. I wasn’t a failure, but I might as well have been. The people at the house mattered, though. I couldn’t leave them even though they treated me badly sometimes. I seemed to belong there. Really, it was funny.

Now I answered Brad with a shrug. “No offers. If I got one I wouldn’t go. You know.”

“You should be acting. We can take care of ourselves.”

“Like hell you can.” I smiled. Brad could put up with us really well. “I’ll stay here and write.”

“Writers are a dime a dozen in this house,” he said. “Take it from one of them.”

“I like to write,” I said truthfully.

He changed the subject. “When does Now go out?”

I shrugged. “See Bill.”

“Is he in a horrid mood?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll just eat breakfast.” He headed down the stairs. “Talk to Holicky. Let’s have a party.”

I looked after him a moment and went into my room. I sat down on the bed. The shade was drawn, but I could see my theater posters. They were curling at the edges. I sighed and picked up my book.

Brad had been pretty successful in the States. He was one of the few of us who had stayed loving his spouse. They had owned a comic store in Chicago, but since Brad had refused to pay protection money to the mob she had been murdered as the store burned down. She had been 23. It nearly killed Brad. He gave up and moved here. It was a bad business—when he wasn’t being sweet and pleasant he locked himself in his room and screamed and pounded things. It upset everyone. We didn’t know how to react, really. He had been here five years. We didn’t know if he was getting better or not.

There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” I said wearily.

It was Amy. I liked Amy. She didn’t like Betty, either.

“Hi Amy,” I said.

“Hi Suzanne. We were thinking about having a party.” I nodded. “Do you want to have a party tonight?”

“Where’s the money?”

“Thom has some.”

I didn’t know where he had got it, but she probably didn’t either—so I didn’t ask. “I thought we were saving to go to Spain for a week,” I said. I wanted to get away.

“Don’t you want to have a party?”

I gave in. We would still probably get to Spain somehow. “Yeah.”

“Good,” she said. “It’ll be fun.”

“Yeah,” I said. I got up. “I’ll buy groceries.”

“People will get here around 10,” she predicted.

“Yes.” I left the room as she did and she went bounding down the stairs to spread the news. I knocked on Jim’s door.

“Who is it?”

“Fields, it’s Suzanne.”

“Come in.”

I went in. The room was dark. He was sitting in his chair smoking.

“There’s going to be a party, isn’t there?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Hell.”

“Jeske might show up.”

“That would be good.”

“He probably will. Did you read the letter?”

“No.”

“It’s in the kitchen.”

“Did you get any theater shit in the mail?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he paused. “Christ, I want to get out of here. Fields had been here nine years—one less than me.

“Me, too,” I said.

“We’re trapped.”

“Not really,” I sighed. “I’m going to buy groceries. Do you want anything?”

“No,” he said. “Thanks. Just get shit for the party.”

“Right,” I said. “Are you coming down?”

“No.”

I left the room. I got ready to leave the house after I went downstairs. I would shop before the shops closed for lunch. It had started to rain suddenly—I had known the sunshine wouldn’t last. I took an umbrella.

I stepped over puddles on my way home, my arms filled with my bundles. I shifted them around so I could get flowers from the vendor on the corner.

He greeted me. He saw me often on this street so I suppose he was curious about me. “Ou habitezvous, madame?” he asked.

I smiled. “J’habite La Maison de Disillusionment.”

“Ah.” Everybody had heard of our house. He made a funny, kind comment about the parties we had and I laughed and bought some flowers. That pleased him.

Inside the house nearly everyone was awake now and setting up for the party. Fields was setting up the bar, coughing now and then but looking better. He had a purpose now. The bar would be very well equipped. Bryan had done his job well. Bill was setting at the piano, trying it out and cursing. I went into the kitchen and put the groceries away.

“Here.” Amy gave me a vase for the flowers. She was making cookies. That was a joke—people would eat the cookies but they weren’t interested in them. They wanted booze. She knew the cookies were a joke. “You’re all wet.”

“Puddles. It’s raining,” I said.

“Ah.” She turned the water on so I could put the water in the vase and then turned to get a cookie sheet. “Thom’s sleeping now. Doesn’t he seem awfully tired to you?”

“Rather.” I shook the water off the petals and deposited the flowers in the vase. Amy took it and put it on the table.

“It’s pretty,” she said. “I wonder who will be at the party.”

“It’s hard to say,” I said. “Usually we start on a Thursday night. Maybe people won’t know.”

“They’ll drop by.”

“I hope so.”

“Thom should be awake by the time it starts,” she said.

“He usually is,” I said. “It’s his money.”

“Yes.”

***

The music was very loud. There was dancing going on but I wasn’t dancing—there was hardly any room. There were a lot of people dancing. More were just standing and drinking. Mostly they were happy but some were upset. There was a row now and then. I would try to soothe things over.

I emptied the ashtrays in the kitchen and came back into the living room. Bill was in the corner of the room, arguing passionately over some literary issue with an earnest-looking girl. I had never seen her before. She kept disagreeing with him as he went on. “No, you’re wrong,” I heard her say once. That was stupid. She just let him go on. She seemed content to keep her defense to short denials.

Fields was talking to Jeske. Jeske had shown up; we were all glad to see him. He had some news of the States but it was all the same, as usual. Jeske wrote in the States. He was good at it and successful, but he was very polite and read Bill’s paper when he was visiting the house. He didn’t visit very often though.

Also talking to them was Mike Dibble. He was from the University, too. His being there was a surprise; we hadn’t known he was in Paris. We found out he was on vacation from the States because the computer industry was getting him down—his eyes were getting worse and worse. That was bad. The computers were important to him. We were pleased to see him. He had to go back, but we wished he could stay at the house. He didn’t want to stay at the house.

I talked to the three of them. It was like old times. I was enjoying myself. The music was good. The guests screamed and were noisy, but none of us were really concerned with them—not the ones we didn’t know. We didn’t know a lot of the guests. They came and went. The parties were famous. I thought I saw the flower man once, but it wasn’t he. That would have been funny. Holicky came to the four of us talking and we all talked. It was good to talk about the times at the University.

Soon I had to go stop Andrew and Shannon. They had been arguing loudly. I worried they would start a fight. It had happened before. The argument had been about Betty’s never doing anything. She wasn’t there. I guessed she was in the kitchen or the powder room. I stopped the arguing and then shoves through the crowd to see if Brad was all right. He was sitting all alone.

He was fine. “Traj is here,” he said. “He has news from Cairril.”

Traj stood for Tragic Tom. There had been Thom Holickym so we had nicknamed the other Tom so we would know who he was. Tragic Tom was tragic, but we didn’t know why. After he had been at the University one extra year than Bill he had come to Paris. He travelled, though. He hardly ever lived at the house.

“Hullo, Suzanne,” Traj came up with his drink he had been getting. Bryan was with him. They sat down next to Brad.

“Hullo, Traj,” I said. “What is the news from Cairril?” She was another from the Unversity. She had never visited, though. She lived in Scotland with her 15-year-old son. The son was illegitimate. His father, from what I’d heard, was dreadful. He still showed at Cairril’s now and then and said terrible things. Cairril couldn’t take it.

“Bad,” Traj said. He looked grim. “It’s that bastard father of her son. He’s driving her nuts.”

“He has been. She should go to the police.”

“He hasn’t done anything illegal,” Bryan spoke. “He should be drawn and quartered but he hasn’t. And Traj means literally nuts. She’s undergoing care. They think she’ll have to go into a home.”

“What about her son?”

“The father gets him.”

“Like hell he will.” I liked Cairril. I hadn’t visited her, but Bryan and Bill and Traj and Brad all had. I was always planning to.

“I don’t know what’ll happen.” Bryan shook his head. “Poor Cairril.”

“Bill will be really upset,” I said.

“Rather. You’re right on that one,” Traj said. “I just told him. He nearly hit the ceiling. Wants to kill the father chap.”

“Bill and Cairril were always close,” I said. “It’s rough on him.”

“We’re none of us able to do anything,” Brad said. “Not this bloody far away.”

“No,” I agreed. It was depressing. Poor Cairril.

As we were speaking, a row started in the corner among some of the guests. They were throwing punches and shouting high-flown insults. Bill’s earnest-looking girl was among them. I couldn’t see Bill around. One man was hurt, it seemed. It wasn’t Bill. Bill wasn’t around.

I managed to break up the fight. It had been over some political or sexual issue. The hurt man had a concussion. Someone had hit him with my flower vase. The vase was broken and the flowers were strewn around. It was ridiculous. One of the men kept apologizing about the vase and flowers. I ignored him. It was too ridiculous.

Someone was called and the concussion man and the earnest girl left so he could have some help. Everyone else stayed. I heard one the guests say it was disgraceful, a fight at a party. I suppose it was if you thought about it.

The party was wild. Everyone was drinking quite a lot. There weren’t any more major fights, but a lot of people became angry and left. That was usually how our parties ended—we offended people and they ended up leaving.

This party was no different. The only people not living at the house who left reasonable content were Dibble and Jeske. That was Monday morning. Fields was in a horrible humor when they left. He locked himself in his room. Brad had a relapse and cried for his dead wife. Bill was late with the paper.

It was a dismal time. They days went by and I never got any offers in the mail from theaters. I had given up, of course.

We all just stayed at the house—together. Sometimes some of us escaped for vacations. Not often.

***

BOOK TWO

Two years had gone by. It was 2004—we were well into the twenty-first century and still none of us had managed to move permanently. We seemed to all belong together—quarreling and petty, but all married to disillusionment and the idea of each other. The house was as full as ever at the start of the year, but soon it would be changed. I was there for the changes. And God, they went too fast.

Right now, though, we were all here. I was flipping dejectedly through one of Bill’s French literary magazines—I could only understand half the articles and my head was beginning to ache. It was nearly noon. I had been sitting in the living room nearly an hour. Bill was typing in the typing room.

Bill hadn’t been well. For a few months those two years ago, after he had heard about Cairril—the paper hadn’t come out at all. He had devoted his time to writing and calling her—trying to talk her into sanity. She seemed all right now. At least her letters and phone calls seemed so. She didn’t want to visit. Bill was saving the receipts from the paper to bring her here. He drank less now.

I looked through the magazine and listened to him curse the typewriter. I sighed. The magazine was really hopeless.

Bryan came into the room. “Holicky isn’t home yet—from last night.”

Holicky had left as usual around eleven the night before. “He hasn’t come back yet at all?”

“No. Amy’s worried.” Bryan looked out the window. “Bill typing?”

“Yes.” I put the magazine down. “Can you see him coming?”

Bryan shook his head. “No. Does he walk?”

“I think he takes taxis,” I said. “What time is it?”

“Noon. He’s usually back at least by eight or nine.”

“We’ll have sandwiches for lunch,” Amy said, coming out of the kitchen. She looked at me. “Thom’s not back yet. I don’t even know where the hell he is.”

“I know,” I said calmly.

Andrew was walking down the staircase. He heard. “Well, well, well,” he said sarcastically. He was drunk. “The happy happy couple. The wonderful couple. The practically Betty and fucking Shannon couple. The couple has lost its male member, eh?”

“Shut up, Andrew,” I said shortly. Amy gave me a grateful look.

“Oh where, oh where has Thommy run off to without his doting mummy? Is he perhaps with another mummy?” Andrew laughed and tossed a couch pillow at her. “Camp out here, baby. Il faut attendre longtemps. He got smart and left this hellhole.”

“Why don’t you, Andrew?” Amy said angrily. “Why don’t you take your self-righteous malpracticing self and get out?”

“I love to,” he said to her back. She had left the room. “Christ, I’d love to. But those cheating, lying lawyers would get my ass and I’d be a goner.”

I left after Amy. She was upset. She was in the typing room with Bill. Bill had stopped typing.

“What’s up?” he asked me as I came in. I told him Thom wasn’t back yet and Andrew was being a beast.

“Shall I hit him?” Bill queried.

“No,” Amy said. Bill patted her on the head and resumed typing.

Amy and I went back into the living room. Everyone was there, ready for lunch. It was unusual for us all to be in one room.

“I know something terrible has happened to Thom,” Amy told me. “Something terrible has happened. I know it.”

“Nothing terrible has happened,” I said.

There was a ring at the doorbell. Fields answered it. It was the police and a nice middle-aged man who introduced himself as a doctor. Something terrible had happened.

Holicky hadn’t let any of us know what he was doing nights. We all had respected that and not asked many questions. We should have asked questions. Holicky, we found out, had been working nights as a gigolo. He had worked not very far from here. He had been working that way for two and a half years. None of us had suspected. Last night Holicky went to his usual spot to “solicit business”—that was how the middle-aged doctor put it. Eyewitnesses described a Frenchwoman with chestnut brown hair hanging around the area. That’s who the police thought shot Thom five times. They thought she was somehow involved in a drug ring that Thom had made angry. We never figured out if Thom had been in the drug ring or a rival drug ring or no drug ring at all. We didn’t know how he had gotten messed up in all that. All we knew was that he had been a gigolo and he was dead.

The police and doctor were very polite. They asked if someone would please come and identify his body that was being held somewhere. They spoke very good English. They were very surprised when we all went to identify Thom’s body.

That was a very bad day. We were all in horrible arguments with each other about whose fault it was and that sort of thing. I took care of Amy. She was taking it very hard. She wasn’t well. She barely managed to go to the funeral.

The funeral was very sad. It was four days later. We all wore black. All of us went. The funeral service was short and during it we could hear some street musicians playing very badly outside. They must not have known here was a funeral inside because they were playing rollicking French folk tunes. Thom would have thought that was very funny—the bad street musicians. He probably would have given them money, though.

The man giving the service offered politely to tell them to stop playing. We said it didn’t matter. He was avery anxious to please. People are always well-mannered when they are dealing with death.

After it was all over we returned to La Maison de Disillusionment. All of us were there except Thom. Fields came up to me while I was trying to type.

“Suz.”

“Yes.” I stopped. I couldn’t type and talk at the same time.

“Suz, I’m leaving.”

“Do we need booze again?”

“We have plenty, though the way people feel it’ll be gone in an hour. No. I mean I’m leaving.”

“The house?”

“Yes. Here. For good.”

“Why?”

“Why would I stay?”

I tried not to sound upset. “Well, we need you…”

“Like hell you do. I’m just another writer. I should be in the States, where Jeske is.”

“We’re all here, though,” I said.

“Suzanne, this sticking together obsession of yours is what’s ruining your acting career. None of us belong to each other. Some of you might feel you need each other, but I’m not one of you. I can be on my own. I can leave.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Suzanne, I hate this place. I know we all do to a certain extent, but it gets to me the worst.”

“I know.”

“Then you understand?”

“Are you going to explain this to Bill?”

“Bill will be hurt.”

“I’m hurt,” I said. “Holicky was your reason for being here. He’s gone. So now you’re running out on us.”

“Shut up,” he said. There was a pause. “So Holicky has been one of my best friends for nearly twenty years. Don’t put me on a guilt trip about the rest of you. You’re all more or less my friends, but I need to get out.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Holicky got out. I’m getting out, my way.”

“When do you leave?” I asked.

“Next time Jeske is here. I’m leaving with him.” There was an awkward pause. “I have to get away from this house. This country. All of you. I need to. I’m…not leaving a number or address. It’s too painful. I have to leave it all behind me.”

“Yes, Jim,” I said. I waited until he left the room and resumed typing. Then I stopped typing. We really did all belong together. I knew it. But Jim didn’t. He didn’t know. I made sure no one was within hearing distance and broke down.

***

Amy moved out the next day. She was going to receive help somewhere. The next time Jeske showed up at a weekend party Fields just disappeared with him—leaving no trace and no explanation save what he told me the month before, when Holicky was killed.

A lot of the others were upset that Fields was gone without telling us. I think they suspected I knew, but no one bothered me. I was really down.

I wrote a short story for Now, called “Comrades,” that was really bad. Bill published it because he had been feeling sorry for me. I could tell he resented publishing it and feeling sorry for me, though. That was just the way Bill was in those days.

As the months after Thom’s death went on, Betty and Shannon began to have increasing arguments. At first we didn’t notice, but then we began to have increasing glee about how often the two would go at each other’s throats. It sounds terrible, but we knew that Shannon would be happier without her.

Shannon was doing badly, though. He stopped writing articles and began writing letters. We thought they were to divorce lawyers or something. That turned out not to be true.

Brad was better about missing his wife. It was as though death here had helped obliterate her death. He relied a lot on Bryan, though. That wasn’t a good idea. Bryan drank more than any of us, now, and he wasn’t a kind drunk. Brad took on his habits, but he was still kind most of the time. Brad knew I was missing Amy and Holicky and Fields a lot.

Andrew stayed in his room less, but he was drunk a lot. He and Bryan both were frightening to see when they were drunk. We avoided them. It was unpleasant when everyone fought.

Five months after Thom was killed I was standing in the kitchen, making stew. It was nearly dinnertime. I wasn’t making dinner because I was female. I was making dinner because I was sober.

As I stood there Bryan stumbled in. He was very drunk. I braced myself.

He wasn’t being cruel, though. “Suz,” he said.

“Yes.”

“It’s Shannon, goddammit.”

“What?” I turned off the stove and turned to face him. He was leaning against the table, drunk. He looked tired.

“It’s the bitch, Betty.”

“What’s Betty done now? Are they breaking up?”

“No. Too bad, eh? No. Betty has gone and persuaded our little Shannon to become a missionary.”

“A WHAT?” I was sure my voice could be heard through the house.

“You heard me.”

“The arguing…”

“Shannon held out as long as he could. And now the noble youth is off to preach because his wifey said we were no good—the house was no good—shame on all of us…” Bryan knocked over a chair trying to sit down. I helped him. He continued, “All that arguing. Yeah. Well he’s soon to be off. And Betty’s not going. No. Tropical climate’d be bad for her complexion. No. He’s off.”

I couldn’t believe it. I would be glad if Betty were going, but Shannon was one of us—I couldn’t believe it.

“I can’t believe it,” I said.

“Believe it. Go talk to him. I’ll dish out la cuisine.”

“You should go to bed.”

He laughed. “Brad’s crashed on my bed. And I don’t care to sleep on the sofa. It has the memory of Mr. Holicky seeped into it. He crashed there oh so many times. Remember?”

He was getting cruel so I left. Shannon was in the living room.

“I’m going,” he said when he saw my face. “Everyone’s blowing this out of proportion. I’m going and that’s final.”

Betty was sitting on the sofa looking smug. “Give up, Suzanne. Finally he’s going to do something constructive.”

I was angry. “Well, you aren’t staying on your pretty little ass while he’s off risking his life. Not in my house. You can get the hell out.”

I heard Bryan laugh in the kitchen. He shouted something unintelligible. Betty ignored him. “It’s my house just as much as it is yours.”

“Au contraire,” I said. “You do nothing toward paying rent. You haven’t even been here as long as half of us. I’ll tell you—when everyone finds out what you persuaded Shannon to do, I wouldn’t want to be you living here when he’s gone. No ma’am. Because we’ll make your life so miserable—”

Shannon cut me off. He looked unhappy. “Betty,” he said. “They don’t like you.” A brilliant deduction, I thought.

“I know,” she said.

“We aren’t good people to people we don’t like. Right now I’m here so it’s tolerable for you. But Suzanne is right. You don’t want to be here when I’m gone.”

She looked at him. “I’ll move out, then,” she said finally, “but I’m staying in Paris.”

“It’s a large city, thank God,” I said. “Shannon, go tell Bill you’re moving out. And the rest. Tell the rest.”

“I will.” Shannon looked very tired. “Andrew will be upset.”

“Yes,” I said. He left the room. Betty stared at me defiantly from the sofa, but I didn’t rise to her bait. She would be gone soon—I didn’t need to insult her any more. I was worried about Andrew’s reaction to Shannon’s leaving. They had been the best of friends, once.

We were quiet at the dinner table. I was tired. Everyone knew about Shannon by then. Bill was being very casual and trying to act like he didn’t care. Bryan passed out and Brad helped him to the sofa. Betty’s eyes were red from crying. Andrew officially broke up the dinner by smashing his plate of stew on the opposite wall.

“Adieu, Shannon!” he shouted. His drink followed the plate of stew. Broken glass was everywhere. “You’re getting out, aren’t you? I’d be a nice little missionary with you, but I’m a wanted man, you know. Malpractice! Malpractice. Le garcon mauvaise, c’est moi! Ha!”

“That’s quite enough of that, Andrew,” I said. Shannon was staring down at the tablecloth. I couldn’t tell if he was ashamed or angry. I got up to pick up the glass. Everybody left the room except me and Bill.

There was a brief silence. Bill watched me as I cleaned up the mess. He spoke, finally. “Good stew, Suzanne.”

I looked at him and started laughing. I was glad to be able to laugh. “Are we all crazy, Bill? I can’t handle this by myself.”

“You always have. Handled it okay, I mean.”

“Our numbers are diminishing.” I laughed again, but I was rather scared. “Now there’ll be you and me and Brad, Bryan, and Andrew. Half of what there used to be.”

He shrugged. “Twice the room now. We’ll get to move about more. Your room’s small, Suzanne. Take over Shannon and Betty’s.”

The mess was gone. I sat down at the table with him. “I don’t know,” I said. “Somehow I think everyone will come back.”

“Not Thom,” Bill said. I didn’t say anything. He sighed. “Do you want to go to England with me?”

“Why? Do we have enough money?”

“We have some put by. Cairril’s there.”

“In England? Why?”

“Her son’s on a holiday from his school in London. She’s staying with him the summer months in a hotel by the sea.”

“Why not at her regular home in Scotland?”

“I don’t know. But she wired me to come.”

“You or all of us?”

“All of us.”

I thought for a moment. “I’d love to go to England. How about the rest of us?”

“Shannon and Betty’ll be gone by next week, which is when I’d like to leave. Brad and Bryan will want to go—great. Andrew will insist on staying here.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Maybe I should stay. He shouldn’t be alone.”

“Bullshit. You need to get out for a while.”

I did need a vacation from La Maison de Disillusionment. “Yeah. I’ll go. God, I haven’t seen Cairril in years. How old is the kid? What’s his name?”

“God, Suzanne. You have a bad memory. His name is William and he’s 17. You know that.”

I did, now that I thought about it. William. I wondered if they called him Bill.

“They don’t call him Bill,” Bill said, reading my mind. I smiled.

“Did you get enough to eat?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “So we’re going to England.”

“Yes,” I said.

***

BOOK III

The four of us, sans Andrew, left the following Monday. We were all very glad to leave. We could hardly wait to see Cairril and we vowed to spend a lot of time in the sea. We would have fun.

After we landed in England we took a train to the meeting place.

“God knows what the kid is like now,” said Brad. “You know English school systems.”

“Just hope he’s like Cairril and not like Philip what’s-his-name,” Bryan commented.

“Philip Lindley,” Bill said slowly, “was the father. That bastard.”

“Whyever was she attracted to him,” I wondered.

“He’s deceitful. That bastard,” Bill said. “I’d like to see him dead.”

“We all would,” said Brad.

“I’ve seen him twice,” Bryan said. “Once at Cairril’s at Christmastime and once at a fencing match.”

“He fences?” Bill queried.

“Yes. Well,” Bryan said. “Not as well as I do, though.”

“Naturally not,” I said. Bryan took a flask out of his pocket and drank. He passed it to Brad. I thought about making a disapproving comment, but decided against it. We were on a vacation. So far everyone was behaving quite well. Bill didn’t take a drink. I knew he wanted to be sober, seeing Cairril.

By the time we had ridden an hour Brad and Bryan were very drunk. They were standing on the seats, yelling out the windows.

“We’re in bleeding, sodding, bloody England!” Bryan shouted.

“Cor! Blimey! It’s the land of Wordsworth and Monty Python!” Brad exclaimed.

“Wordsworth sucks!” Bryan announced at the top of his lungs. “King Chuck needs a nose job!”

The conductor asked us to make them be quiet or please get off the train. All the passengers looked shocked.

“It’s all right,” Bryan explained to the plump matron who was sitting behind us as he sat down. We’re drunk because we’re disillusioned. You see, my ex-wife hates me, but I love her, and my fencing has suffered. So I’m drunk. And Brad here, his wife is dead.”

“My wife is dead. She died,” said Brad, “so I’m drunk.”

“We’re drunk as hell,” Bryan asserted.

“Be quiet,” I told them. “We’ll be kicked off the train.”

“No,” Brad said.

“Brad, Bryan—please,” Bill said.

“Fuck you, Bill and Suzanne,” Bryan said.

“Fuck you, Suzanne and Bill,” Brad said. “Fuck England. Fuck La Maison de Disillusionment and all of France.”

“I can’t stand this,” I said to Bill.

“We’re almost at the station where she’ll meet us,” Bill said.

Probably if we hadn’t gotten off at that station we would have been kicked off. Bill was being very good, though. I was glad he was sober.

At the station it was very perplexing. Cairril wasn’t there. We waited around, enduring insults from Brad and Bryan, and getting more nervous every second. Finally a man came up and asked us, were we the four people looking for a dark-haired woman with large, sad eyes? We said yes. He had a message for us.

Cairril said we were to take a cab to her address, which was on a slip of paper the man gave us. She said there was a change of plans. That was all.

“I knew it. Something’s gone wrong. This wasn’t supposed to be a friendly visit. Something’s gone wrong.” Bill was very upset.

“It’s all right. Let’s just get a cab,” I said.

“Shut up,” Bill said. I felt myself tense. Here it was again—the strife. He flagged down a cab and we all got in.

I gave the cabbie Cairril’s address, but Bill demanded to go to a liquor store first. Bryan and Brad cheered. I groaned.

“No, Bill. You’re being ridiculous. Cairril’s fine.”

“Cairril has seen me drunk. She won’t mind. And I’m going to be drunk, Suzanne. God help me—I can’t face this.”

“You were fine on the train!”

“That was a half hour ago. I want a drink now.”

Bill wasn’t quite drunk by the time we got to the seashore home Cairril had rented. He held tightly to my arm as he knocked on the door. Brad and Bryan were silent for a moment as we waited for an answer.

The boy answered the door. “Oh—you’re here, then,” he said. He was a tall, pale, but handsome youth, with dark eyes and unkempt brown hair. “I’m William.”

“Hey! I didn’t know Cairril’s son was the crown prince!” exclaimed Brad lamely.

He flushed. “I’ve heard that joke countless times. It isn’t funny anymore.”

“No,” Bill said. He look tired and drank from the flask before he asked, “Where is your mother?”

“Er…come in,” William said, looking awkward and unsure of himself. “I’ll explain it.”

“Is she dead?” Bill asked. “Is she dead, you little bastard?”

“No!” The boy looked hurt. “Who the hell are you to…”

“Let’s go in,” I said. We all sat down and listened, like characters in a bad play, as William explained the situation. Cairril had run away. She had found out that Philip wanted to have her put in an institution and she knew he could do so. William said her behavior was very erratic, but she had her wits about her when she decided to flee and leave her son with us. Philip, William said, didn’t know where we lived, so if he stayed with us he would be safe from his father. That was what Cairril had wished.

“So we’re supposed to be sweet little babysitters?” Bryan sneered. “How convenient for Cairril. She escapes and we’re left with the bundle of joy. I wanted to see her, not you.”

“Now see here…” started William heatedly.

“All right, all right,” I said. “William, what period of time are we talking about?”

He shrugged helplessly. “Until mother is all right. Whenever that will be.”

“How bad is she?” Brad asked.

“Bad.” William averted his eyes. “She’s been under therapy, but it doesn’t seem to help. Look, I’m not a child. I can get a flat here in England and work—if you help me get a job you won’t need to take me back to…to wherever you all live. Mother spoke about you, but I never listened.”

“You little ass,” Bill said. “Of course you’re coming back with us. Stay here and your dear old dad will snatch you up in a minute. I don’t suppose you’re nearly 18?”

He shook his head. “I just turned 17 last month.”

“Hence the worry over who gets you. All right,” Bill said, “you’re ours.”

“Oh, goody. Oh, I say. We’ve got ourselves an English lad,” Bryan said. “Have a drink, English lad.” William gamely took the flask, but it was empty. Bryan laughed.

“Don’t mind them, William,” I said.

“We’ll soon turn him into a Thom replacement,” Bryan promised. “You want to be like your dead uncle Thom Holicky, don’t you, William?”

William turned pale. “Thom is dead? My God. Mother will be horrified.”

“Christ. Didn’t you tell her, Bill?” I asked.

Bill shook his head. “I didn’t think it would be good for her.”

William just stood there. I felt sorry for him. “Do you need to pack your things, William?” I asked.

“Yes. They’re upstairs.” He left the room, seeming glad to get away.

“Now we are six,” Bill mused. “I wonder how Andrew will feel about our new addition.”

“He’ll be outraged,” I said. Bryan threw the empty flask through the picture window. Glass flew.

“Oh, hell,” Bill said.

Bryan laughed. “I thought it was rather a dramatic gesture. Shows what I think about empty flasks and Cairril’s little arrangement. Takes it for granted we’ll keep her brat, eh?” Brad picked up a chair and would have sent it through the window but Bill tackled him. Bryan laughed as they wrestled a moment. Brad gave up the chair finally and flung himself on the sofa, face down.

“Poor Brad. Depressed again,” Bill said, out of breath. “It happens.”

“You bastard,” Bryan said.

Bill took a drink out of his own flask. He was drunk now. I thought for a minute he would take a swing at Bryan, but he didn’t. He glared at him, though.

“Are you chaps quite finished?” I said. I felt very tired.

“Yes. Thank you ever so much.” Bill walked over to the table and sat down at it, drinking steadily. It made me nearly sick to see him like that.

Bryan was calmer. “Well, it’s nice for you, Suzanne. You’ve a handsome little boy to take care of—surely you were getting sick of us?”

I was silent for a moment. Then I said slowly, “I never took care of any of you, really. I would have done better to keep on acting.”

“You’re at the house for some damn reason,” he said wisely. “Maybe you’re taking care of yourself.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’m going to find a bed,” Bryan said. He ascended the stairs.

After a moment Bill spoke. “I can’t handle this, Suzanne. I…I expected Cairril to be here.”

“We can handle it,” I said, sitting down with him at the table. “So there’s no vacation for us. It’s happened before.”

“Yes,” Bill said. He added after a pause, “We’ll teach him to write. For the paper.”

He meant the boy. “Yes,” I said, and smiled. It seemed as though the house population was being built up again. People had moved out, but someone new was coming to live there. It was refreshing, in a way.

***

We moved abruptly back to La Maison, taking Cairril’s son with us. We heard nothing from Cairril or her ex-lover.

As the months went by we stayed in Paris, cranking out the paper once a month and now and then publishing something in a real paper or magazine. Everyone drank but me and the boy. Once when Bill was drunk he took a 350-page manuscript of a book he had been working on and dropped it deliberately into the Seine. He was getting very hard to handle. He was good to William, though.

We didn’t get a vacation that year. We worked a lot. Not much was accomplished.

William was bewildered by the atmosphere in the house—it wasn’t good for him. I knew he would start drinking soon. He was overly sensitive and missed his mother. He kept to himself most of the time although he did write. He wrote as well as any of us.

It was at the start of 2005 that we received the bad news and something horrible happened. In the middle of one of the parties we heard a knock at the door. That was unusual—during our parties people usually just walked in. Either that or stayed out on the lawn and drank.

Andrew thought it was a joke, and laughing, went to answer it. It was Betty. We hadn’t seen her for months—not since Shannon left. She was crying. Shannon, she said, had been killed by terrorists in the tropics. We were stunned.

“I feel so miserable,” she cried. She looked horrid—her face was red and puffed and sticky looking. I resisted the impulse to hit her.

“You little scum,” I said. Bill stood like a statue, staring at her. William looked confused. Brad and Bryan looked furious, but not as furious as Andrew.

“You bitch!” he shouted. She cried louder. “You did this to him! You wanted him to be a missionary! You kept him from us when we were all at the university, you kept him from us when we all lived here, and no he’s gone forever because of you!”

“He went! It was his choice!” she lamented. Without warning Andrew knocked her down. She screamed and Andrew started to pull her up so he could hit her again, but Bill dragged him away. I helped Betty up. Her nose was bleeding. She kept weeping. I took her into the kitchen to get ice and a towel.

“You deserve this,” I said. I felt devastated. Shannon had been important. He had been one of the few sane among us, once.

“Let me stay here now, again. I’m sorry,” she said.

I handed her the towel and ice. “No. Get out. I never want to see you again. You killed him.”

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. I was unmoved. She went back into the living room and left.

I sat down at the table and buried my face in my hands. No one was in the kitchen. After a few minutes one of the guests came in.

I wouldn’t have talked if it hadn’t been someone from the university. It was, though. It was Bartlett Meeks.

“I’m sorry, Suzanne,” he said. “I heard.”

Bartlett was kind. He had never lived here because most of the time he was traveling around Europe juggling. He was a juggler. He had been juggling just now in the living room.

“Hullo, Bart,” I said. “How are you?”

“Okay.” He gave me a hug. “It’s really nasty about Shannon.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Suzanne, I’m afraid I have some really bad news.”

“Oh Christ, Bart,” I sighed, “can’t it wait?”

“Do you want to know later?”

I paused a moment and said, “Okay, tell me.”

“It’s Tragic Tom,” he said. “…he’s dead, too.”

“Traj is dead? How?” I couldn’t believe all that was happening.

Bryan, Brad, and Bill walked in. They all looked grim. They greeted Bart, but it was obvious they had heard too.

“Traj is dead,” I told them for some reason.

“Yes,” Bill said. “We know. So is Shannon. God. Andrew’s in a bad way. He’s in his room.”

Bryan sat down. “How did Traj die, Bart?”

Bartlett looked uncomfortable. He wasn’t juggling at the moment and I could tell he felt awkward. Bart couldn’t not juggle. “Oh hell,” he said. “He did himself in.”

We didn’t say anything and Bart continued. “Oh hell. Well, from what I gather he just made up his mind to do it, and then swallowed some poison on a hillside in England. I don’t know. I’m sure…I’m sure he thought it was very poetic.”

“Was he all alone?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Very poetic,” I said, and sighed. We were all rather numb, I think.

The guests might have been curious about our behavior and come into the kitchen, if they had been real people. None of them seemed so, however.

After a pause in which Bart nervously started balancing the meterstick we kept by the stove, Bill said, “Well, I’m going to get more drunk….”

“Here, hear,” Brad said.

“Shut up, Brad. I’m going to get more drunk, and Suzanne, what with everyone dying and all, why don’t I get you a drink?” Bill made a sarcastic bow.

I did drink sometimes, but not as much as the rest. Right now I didn’t think I would ever stop drinking if I did, so I said no.

“Very well, empress,” Bill said. “I’m getting smashed.”

“You’re welcome to,” I said. We all heard a fresh outburst of laughter from the guests in the front room. “Jesus.”

“I’d better get out there.” Bart rose from his chair. “Sounds like someone’s entertaining them who isn’t me.”

“I need more booze,” Bryan commented, looking into his glass. At that moment we heard a shot. It came from upstairs. We knew it came from Andrew’s room. A few guests screamed. The five of us stayed frozen a split second and then we all comically darted through the door, trying to get in front of each other in our agitation. We met young William on the stair. He was pale.

“Andrew’s all bloody. He shot himself. He had a gun. I didn’t know he had a gun. Did anybody?” William stared at us all and then burst into tears. I started crying too. It was just too much. The boy turned to me helplessly and I held him. He shook. It was bad for him here.

Bill and Bart went into the room. Bryan started yelling at Andrew for killing himself. Brad sat down and held the banister for support.

One of the guests who was very drunk thought the shot had meant something funny and was laughing loudly. He looked up at us and was calling, “Send the juggler! Where’s the juggler chap?” Then he saw that we were crying and exclaimed, “Oh, frightfully sorry,” and passed out.

Eventually the ambulance came and took Andrew away. He was dead. Just like Shannon and Traj and Thom.

None of the guests left. It seemed to excite them, having a death at a party. It was terribly in vogue.

I drank all night long. I don’t remember the funeral. I was drunk. For an entire week we kept the party going. None of us wanted to be alone with just the five of us.

Finally the guests were gone. Probably they remembered that they had other lives besides booze and dancing and witty conversation—one by one they deserted the house like guilty children caught in a forbidden barn, and we were all alone.

Stupefied, we sat amongst the ruins of the front room, where broken wine glasses and spilt drinks completed the atmosphere of solitude and depression.

“Bart left,” Bryan said.

“Yes,” I said. “He had to go to work.”

“Juggling?”

“No; factory work, in the States.” I stirred a bit in my position on the couch. “He says if he does that maybe he’ll make enough money to come here and live, and do shows on the lawn.”

“That would be nice,” William ventured after a pause. Bill emitted a short “Ha!”

“I miss everybody,” Brad said.

“Oh Christ,” Bryan said. “Yes, when a passel of people die at once it does tend to bereave one.”

“Shut up. I don’t want to start crying again,” I said.

“We should clean up,” Bill said. He was very drunk. “Somebody’s sure to pierce his bare feet on this glass.”

“So we don’t go barefoot,” Brad said. “Say. Are we still going to have the paper, Bill?”

“Yes,” Bill said. “I’ll write a story, saying how it was actually the capitalist Christian work ethic that murdered Shannon. I’ll change Betty’s name in the story. God, I wish I were dead.”

“Don’t say that,” Brad said ironically. “The way things have been going it’ll come true.”

“Not a bad idea,” Bill said. “We’ve already got two merry suicides from our group.”

“Traj,” I said. “Traj never even stopped to say goodbye. Not a hint.”

“We knew Andrew was bonkers. We should have known. We should have watched him.” Brad shook his head. “Now it’s too late.”

“Will everyone not talk about it? We’ve talked about it all week, during the party,” said William. “Suzanne, you were going up to strangers and telling them everything in detail. Brightly, like you were discussing the weather.”

“I know. I remember,” I said. “Well, the hostess should amuse the guests.”

“None of you noticed I was never able to get to my room to sleep. Every time I went in I kept hearing Andrew’s shot, over and over again. Like I did that night.” He looked haggard. “Seven months I’ve put up with you all—I’m going just as mad as Mother!” He burst into tears. He had been doing that a lot lately.

“Be careful, old boy,” Bryan said. “I don’t like hearing your mother insulted. She’s my friend, you know.”

“I wish we’d hear from her,” said Bill.

I went over to the boy and tried to comfort him, but I was feeling pretty devastated myself.

“It’s horrid,” he sobbed. “I can’t stand living here—no school, no friends…”

“Just a lot of alcoholic adults who love your mother and not you,” I finished. “Rubbish! We care about you or we wouldn’t keep you.”

“Anything is better than my father,” the boy said.

“That is right. You could be worse off.”

“I hate it so, here,” he sniffled.

“I know,” I said. “You need some real sleep. Why don’t you try sleeping in your room?”

“I hear the shot.”

“Try again, going up. It’s been a week now.”

“Come sit with me. Sit there for a moment so I’m not frightened.”

“All right.” I rose with him and started following him up the stairs.

“Be nice to the boy, Suzanne,” Bill called after me nastily. “Chase all his fears away. Do be gentle with him.”

“Suzanne has a boy,” Bryan said.

“Suzanne has a boy,” Bill said to Bryan. “She had an acting career, but that’s all gone. But she has a little boy.”

Their insults hurt, but I kept quiet. They were drunk. They knew better, really. They knew William was like my son.

We found a couple from the party in William’s bed, asleep. I woke them up and sent them away. The woman made a remark about Goldilocks that she thought was very funny. I told her that all the wits had either left or were dead. That perturbed her.

William was embarrassed after what the others had said. I only had to stay in his room a second before he assured me he was no longer scared. I left for downstairs.

Brad was asleep on the sofa the way Holicky used to be. Bryan and Bill were in the kitchen talking about old times. I joined them and we talked until dawn.

Two more months crawled by. Bill published the paper—the circulation was going down. People were more interested in gossiping about our lifestyle than reading our work. That happens sometimes to literates in the public light. It’s a pity, but it’s true. Better writers than we got less attention because they led quiet lives. It happens. None of the public was interested enough to give us money, unfortunately. But they read the gossip stories about us.

All of us eagerly searched the mail for news from Cairril, and each time the phone rang we jumped in anticipation. There was no news, though. It came later.

Our parties were wilder, but there were fewer and fewer people we knew at them. Sometimes I just stayed in my room, the way Andrew or Fields used to. I let William act as host. He hated it.

Bryan grew less mean and more depressed. He never went to fencing contests and wrote poetry constantly. Brad stuck near him grimly, as though it were a duty. Brad wrote once in a while, but not often. Both Brad and Bryan were drinking a lot. They were worried about Cairril.

Bill was the most productive, but all his work wasn’t meaning much. He painted the front room. He wrote a play that he said I could star in, but it was never produced in its original form. I never was in the play. I hear they even renamed it from what Bill had it as.

One dreary afternoon I was bored and could no longer stay still and listen to the rain and sounds of typing. I called the States. I phoned Mike Dibble in the States. I had his number, so I called.

“Hullo?” came his familiar voice. There was static, but not a lot.

“Hullo, Mike,” I said. “It’s Suzanne.”

“Suzanne!” He was pleased. “It’s been a long time.”

“Two years,” I said. “How are you?”

There was a pause. “Oh, fine,” he said. “How is everyone? I heard about the deaths. They’re raving about it here in the States. Everyone’s interested in La Maison and its inhabitants.”

“Yes.”

“It’s sad.”

“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “How’s Jeske?”

“Haven’t seen him since the party at your place. Two years.”

“Christ. No idea where he is?”

“Not really. Fields neither. Got a card from Jeske, though. Fields isn’t with him. That much I know.”

“Oh.” There was a pause. “Seen anyone else?”

“Well,” he said. “Bart is here.”

“There? With you?” I was delighted. “Put him on.”

“Suzanne,” Mike said. “I suppose I should tell you this.”

“What?” I dreaded the answer. He sounded grim.

“I’ve got cancer. Serious. I got it from sitting in front of all those computers. Bad for me. It’s a terminal disease, get it?”

I couldn’t even smile at his joke, I was so horrified. “Christ, Mike.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.”

“Christ,” I said.

“Here’s Bart,” he said. Bart came on the phone.

“Hullo,” he said. “I’m just here, visiting Mike. Isn’t it awful?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s horrid. How are you, Bart? Are you making enough money to come stay here? To juggle on the lawn and have shows?”

There was an ironic pause. Bart answered.

“Not going to juggle anymore.”

“Bart, that’s not funny.”

“It’s true. I shan’t be juggling any longer.”

“That’s ridiculous. Why not?”

There was another pause. “One arm gone,” he said.

I knew he wouldn’t joke about that. “Oh, Bart,” I said.

“Yeah. Only one arm. Can’t juggle. Sucks, doesn’t it?” He didn’t sound too crushed, but I knew it was an act on his part.

“Yes,” I said. “Bart, couldn’t you live here anyway?”

“I’m staying with Mike. He’s…he’s on the last lap. Can’t you visit him?”

“I haven’t any money,” I said shortly. I couldn’t explain about the boy and Cairril contacting us.

We talked a while longer and then hung up. I could barely believe all that I had heard. It fit, though. Funny how all of us were dying. I didn’t really think it was funny. It might have seemed so to others. I didn’t know.

***

That night there wasn’t a party, though it was Saturday. We were tired. It had been a long week. The others knew about Bart and Mike. We all agreed how dreadful it was.

We were all sitting in the front room. William was drawing and Brad and Bryan were listlessly playing cards. The radio was playing—Bill was turning the dial to find a good station. I watched William draw. His picture was of a house, much like La Maison de Disillusionment, in fact. Blood and fire were pouring out of the windows. Young artists of 17-and-a-half are rarely subtle. I didn’t criticize. Therapy was therapy.

“There,” Bill said. A station was playing old American tunes. This is the Time to Remember by Billy Joel was playing. “Let’s dance,” he said. I consented, smiling. The others ignored us.

“This is a good song,” said Bill. “This was popular in ’86.”

“The year I arrived at the University,” I reminded him. He didn’t say anything. We danced for a while and laughed when I tripped over the radio cord.

“It isn’t that bad, this place,” Bill said.

“It isn’t—you’re right,” I said. The others didn’t say anything.

Then the commotion came. The doorbell rang and a messenger was at the door. He had a message from someone unnamed for us, he said. We had better sit down, he said. We sat down and found out that Cairril had been dead for six months. They just now had traced us down to inform us and the next of kin.

Bryan screamed in anguish and wanted to tear the messenger apart. Brad, numb, held him back. Bill threw an ashtray through the window. William burst into wailing tears.

I walked to the couch, picked up my purse, and, shoving the dumbfounded messenger aside, walked into the Paris night, alone.

***

It was clear and cool, the perfect April evening. I suppose it was about 8 p.m. I listened to my footsteps as I walked down the street, headed for a hangout I knew of that was frequented by American tourists. I didn’t know why I wanted to go there. I disliked the place, but I was going.

I walked. As I walked I thought about Cairril and how she had been my friend. I wondered how she died. For a second I thought about the chaos back at the house but I pushed it from my mind—I didn’t want to remember how miserable I was. The night was so clear. I really loved the night, at that moment.

I walked into La France. That was the name of the hangout. It was a very bad restaurant. I sat down in a booth. I sat for a long time and amused myself watching the people around me. One loud American man was complaining loudly because he didn’t get ice in his cola. The waiter was polite but he didn’t bring any ice. I was glad.

The man was upset and on his way out, but he saw me and stopped. “Hey,” he said. “You an American?”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“How come I didn’t get my ice?” he demanded.

“They don’t do that here,” I said.

He sat down. “You know a lot. How long are you staying in Paris?”

“I live here,” I said.

“But you’re an American.”

“I’m an expatriate,” I said. He looked at me blankly. “I’m an American, but I live here,” I explained.

“Yeah, well, we determined that tidbit of information already,” he said. “How come you aren’t living in America?”

I shrugged. “Maybe I like to smoke in public.”

“They don’t enforce that law,” he pointed out.

“I know,” I said. “If they can’t enforce it, why have it? It’s stupid.”

“You’re not smoking now,” he said.

“I don’t smoke,” I said.

“But you said…”

“I have friends who smoke,” I said shortly. He was taken aback. I really didn’t care about the smoking. I just felt like seeing what he would say if I talked to him. Now I knew.

“Say, wait a minute,” he said. “I’m a proud American and I say—”

“How long have you been here?” I interrupted.

He was surprised again. “You were here when I came in. Three hours, I guess. Want a drink?”

“I’ve had all I need.” I was bored. Just as the American was about to start preaching again, Brad came in. I was glad to see him.

“Hullo, Suz.” He sat down next to me and gestured across at the American. “What’s that thing?”

“Now see here…” the American began heatedly.

“Please go away now,” I said.

“But…” he said.

“Scram,” Brad said in his Chicago voice. The American retreated. He gave me a wounded look and left the restaurant.

I smiled at Brad. He smiled back. “Are you drunk?” he asked.

“Not especially,” I answered.

“Things have been going on for a couple hours, back there. I left to find you.”

“Here I am,” I said.

“Will you come back with me?” he asked.

“Why should I?”

“Well, believe it or not, it’s turning into a wacky kind of evening,” he said ironically. “The father chap showed up.”

I responded. “Phillip Lindley? The infamous son-of-a-bitch? In our house?”

“Yes.”

“Has he snatched William?”

“Not yet. Bill challenged him to a duel.”

“That’s ridiculous.” I relaxed a little. “People don’t duel. Never anymore do people duel. They just don’t do it.”

Brad nodded grimly. “They’re all very drunk. Bryan is teaching Bill how to duel. Phillip thinks it’s all very funny. Phillip is a good swordsman.”

“Why doesn’t Bryan duel?”

“Bill challenged first. Bryan would have. Christ, so would I. I’m drunk enough. With Cairril dead and all. Christ.” Tears sprang to his eyes.

I got to my feet and paid for the drinks I’d had. “I’ll go back,” I said. “I have to stop Bill from doing it. Cairril wouldn’t have wanted him to.”

We walked back briskly. Brad told me how Cairril had died. She had, he said, drowned herself. She had drowned in the English Channel. She had left no message. It was agreed she had been mad at the time of her death. That was Phillip’s fault. We all despised Phillip with a passion.

***

Phillip was sitting in the front room when I came back. “Ah,” he said sardonically. “This is the house mother. The one I’ve never met. I’m taking my boy. He needs a dad more than he needs a mummy.”

“I hope you die horribly,” I said. He smiled.

“The Bill chap will, not I. I’m an excellent swordsman.” His black eyes snapped with a drunken fire. “I’ve always wanted to obliterate her youthful memories, which she spoke of so fondly. ‘The University.’ Ha! I obliterate Bill and, ta-da! One memory gone. Just like she is gone.”

“If she weren’t already dead it would kill her,” I said.

“Precisely why I am planning to extinguish the journalistic fool.”

“Go to hell forever,” I demanded with as much spirit as I could muster. Then as he laughed at me, I exited the room. Bryan and Bill were sitting in the typing room. Both were as drunk as Phillip.

“Where’s William?” I asked.

“Oh, so she’s gracing us with her presence,” said Bill to Bryan. To me he said, “Hullo, Suz. I’m going to avenge Cairril’s death. William’s in his room, crying, of course.”

“Forget the duel, Bill. It’s silly,” I implored. “We’ll have him arrested. Anything. But you can’t duel.”

“Bryan taught me. I can so. I’m going to avenge Cairril’s death.”

“No.”

“Yes. Phillip will soon be in hell, where he belongs. I’ll write a story about it, if I live. I’ll probably die. Then you can write a story about me, eh?” He got up unsteadily and grabbed Bryan’s sword. “I’m ready.”

“No, Bill,” I said. “Don’t do this to me.”

“Yes, Suzanne,” he said. His voice was kinder to me than it usually was when it was drunk. “Yes. This is my chance to do something. I’ve never done anything. You’ll let me do this.” He exited the room, sword at the reading, but poked his head back in the room to quote, with a drunken laugh, the song we had danced to earlier. “This is the time you’ll turn back to and so will I—and those will be days you can never recall!” He gave a shout of glee. “That lyrical enough for you, Suzanne! Onward, to avenge.” He was gone.

I stared at Bryan for a moment. He spoke. “Suzanne, I’m drunk. I’m really drunk. Christ, I don’t know the last thing I taught him. I don’t know how to teach. I’m drunk.”

“I know,” I said. I felt a terrible resignation.

***

The next morning William was safe from his father. Phillip had killed Bill and was worried about the police so he ran away. He wouldn’t bother us again.

Bill was dead. He had been stabbed, the police said. We knew that. The police thought a maniac had done it. We didn’t tell them about the duel. Bill had died almost instantly. He was dead.

A few days later there were only three of us in the house because Bryan, feeling guilty about how he had incorrectly taught Bill, had fled to Berlin to see his ex-wife. She didn’t even love him.

William was quiet. He drew and wrote. Brad drank. I wrote a polite note to all subscribers of the paper saying it would no longer be published.

The city was abuzz with all that had happened to us. I got letters of sympathy from famous writers. I thought that was funny—the famous writers had known about us for years and had never written before. Most thought we would leave the Maison de Disillusionment. I wasn’t sure. I wondered how Bill would have felt.

For a month I clung to the house. I felt horrid about all that had happened and it seemed my only comfort. But, with the last blows to my emotional state, I finally decided to leave.

Brad and Bryan had once been roommates at the University, in the good times. That was why it was ironic that they died only a few days apart.

It was in the middle of May, 2006. I received the news in the morning that Bryan had been killed in the street outside his ex-wife’s house by a bus. He had rushed out while drunk and shouted a challenge to the vehicle. The driver had been taken by surprise. He felt horrible about it, I heard.

When I went to take the news to Brad in his room, I found him at the top of the stairs.

“Bryan—” I started to say. Before I could finish made an attempt to rush down the stairs, but he tripped. He fell the entire distance and broke his neck. He died.

***

William and I sat, still in our stiff black garments, in the front room of the house. We had just returned from the funeral. I took off my kid gloves and spoke. “Are you ready to go, then?”

“Yes,” William said. “Are you?”

We had been going to leave Paris straight from the funeral, but I had wanted to come back and look one last time at the house before I left it forever. The taxi was waiting with our luggage already loaded into it.

“I’m ready to do,” I said.

William, guessing that this must be a solemn moment for me, went outside first and waited quietly. I followed him. It was raining steadily—pools were forming on the walk.

I felt incredibly weary, not solemn. I felt that I had not slept in the last dozen years. I closed the door firmly and locked it for the last time.

We started down the walk, avoiding the puddles. I stopped once and stared back at the house that had at one time been able to contain, with its strong bricks, so many weak people. Then I turned and didn’t look back again.

When we were almost to the taxi William said, “It should be fun, in the States. I think I’ll like it.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Soon I can start college,” he reminded me. “We’ll have to think about that. Where shall I go?”

I paused with my fingers on the handle of the taxi door. “Oh,” I answered, as I mused to myself about the faraway past. “…Oh, that’s rather easy. I knew a University once….”

 

The End.


Hamlet’s Gertrude

February 16, 2014

I can’t recall when the fever first struck me, but I have long wanted to play Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a mystery why the role should have attracted me, since she’s usually portrayed as a ninny, but I feel like there’s a version of the character that I haven’t seen done yet and I want to bring her to life. The Monroe County Civic Theater is doing Hamlet for its 25th anniversary “Shakespeare in the Park” production this summer, so this is my one and possibly only chance to get the role.

I have been prepping for the last several months. I’ve watched every film and television version of Hamlet I could get my hands on, listened to the commentaries and extras, studied critical analyses of the play, read the incredible Hamlet: A User’s Guide by Michael Pennington (written for actors and directors), and, of course, read Shakespeare’s text.

What follows is an examination of Gertrude as I’ve seen her relayed through all these media, ending with my personal view of the character and how I hope to play her. Interspersed are some general comments on the play, but for the most part I’m focused on Gertrude.

Overview

For the three people who have never experienced Hamlet, here’s basically what happens: A ghost of Old King Hamlet appears to guards at Castle Elsinore in Denmark at midnight. Frightened, they reach out to Horatio, a friend of Prince [Young] Hamlet’s, to keep watch with them. After also seeing the ghost, Horatio goes to Hamlet with the news.

In the meantime, Hamlet is in deep depression, mourning his dead father but, to a larger extent, obsessing over the fact that his mother has married his father’s brother not two month’s after Old Hamlet’s death. Upon hearing Horatio’s tale, he keeps watch and is at last able to interrogate the ghost. The ghost claims to be that of his father. In his brief encounter with his son, he tells Young Hamlet that, contrary to the public story of his death, he was in fact murdered by his brother, who then usurped the throne and married his wife. The ghost calls for vengeance and Hamlet takes up the cry.

Were Hamlet as resolute as Lady Macbeth, that would be the end of the play. He’d just go kill Claudius (his uncle) and be done with it. But he is constantly questioning whether what he’s been told is true. So he goes to great lengths to determine what reality is, all the while questioning the nature of human existence as he puts on an “antic disposition” (madness) and gets freakishly neurotic over his mother and his ex-lover’s sexuality.

After many twists and turns, Claudius plays on the anger of young Laertes (the son of the prime minister who was accidentally murdered by Hamlet) to engineer the death of Hamlet. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel but tips his sharp blade with poison. For insurance, Claudius poisons a cup of wine to give to Hamlet between bouts. By the end of the swordplay, Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself are dead. The rest, as Hamlet says, is silence.

Gertrude’s Motivations

Shakespeare doesn’t give Gertrude many lines, so the part is left up for interpretation. The ghost tells Hamlet from the get-go to go after Claudius but to spare the queen: “…leave her to heaven, / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, / To prick and sting her.” Does Gertrude have an affair with Claudius before the murder? Is she party to the murder? Why oh why does she marry him so soon after Old Hamlet’s death? And we’re only on Act I, Scene 5.

Mel Gibson’s Hamlet

Talk about bad casting. Gibson makes for a Braveheart Hamlet—not entirely believable. And he and Glenn Close, who plays Gertrude, look about the same age, which makes the Oedipal themes of the play that much more unnerving.

This was one of my least favorite renditions. Close plays Gertrude as a ninny. I couldn’t figure out what her motivations were. It seemed like a very light read of the text—not very thoughtful. She seems to career from man to man (Claudius to Hamlet to Polonius, the prime minister). She takes their words at their literal meaning. When she tells Claudius that Hamlet is mad after The Closet Scene (more on that later), the words seem to tumble out of her mouth without thought, even though she just promised Hamlet she wouldn’t breathe a word of what went on between them. During the duel, when she takes the chalice, she doesn’t realize it’s poisoned until after she’s taken a drink. In other words, she does exactly what’s on the page, no more. Snooze.

Hamlet at Elsinore

This 1964 version stars Christopher Plummer and is generally wretched. Like Close, June Tobin gives a light reading of the text. Like all Gertrudes, she descends into histrionics in the Closet Scene. Immediately after, she has a heavy make-out session with Claudius, which puts her firmly in his camp. In my view, this contradicts the many references to her close relationship with Hamlet in the text, but I was not consulted. Like Close, she drinks the chalice in total innocence.

Olivier’s Hamlet

Well, if it’s Olivier, it must be stellar, right? As much as I love Olivier as an actor, he was very much a product of his time. In his voiceover at the start of the film, he very famously calls the play the story of “a man who could not make up his mind.” Branagh (we’ll get to him in a minute) disagreed with that interpretation, and I have to agree. It’s the very thinnest read of the text. But anyway, Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude is played more lovingly and tenderly than the ninny version, though she does relish the screaming of the Closet Scene. The most compelling read of her character is during the duel, where her eyes are dragged unwillingly to the poisoned chalice. She knows something is wrong, even if she’s not exactly sure why. In this version, she drinks the poison to spare her beloved son. The feeling of dread is palpable and it’s a very nice interpretation.

The RSC Hamlet

In the ’70s and ’80s, the Royal Shakespeare Company filmed the entire Shakespeare canon. I’ve seen most of them and agree with a critic who said the minor plays are carried off most successfully. The RSC Hamlet is dead dull, treated so preciously that it carries you off to boboland. Derek Jacobi is ridiculous as Hamlet, over-acting all over the place. It’s very much a product of its time. Very dated.

Claire Bloom has a few nice turns as Gertrude, though. In the first scene with Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude, Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is all over Hamlet for being depressed. Gertrude gently places a hand on Claudius’ arm to restrain him. A subtle but effective tip that she loves her son. I happen to like the read of Gertrude’s loving her son more than she loves Claudius, so I like anything that brings that out.

I’ll spare you the reference to the Closet Scene (I will get there, I promise) and move on to the action after it, where she discloses Hamlet’s murder of Polonius to Claudius. Unlike Ninny Gertrudes, she does not go with Claudius at the end of the scene—another tip that she’s throwing in her lot with her son.

When it’s time for her to drink from the poisoned cup, however, she does what all the other Gertrudes have done and drinks in innocence, shocked as everyone else to discover it’s poisoned. Ho hum.

Branagh’s Hamlet

Allow me a brief digression to say that Derek Jacobi’s performance as Claudius is some of the best acting EVER, not just of Claudius, but of any role. It’s a tour-de-force. Branagh, who is perfectly cast as Hamlet, just barely keeps up. The roiling energy between the two of them is completely compelling—for FOUR HOURS. The RSC version is also four hours, but it was so deadly that I had to fast-forward through most of it. I’ve seen Branagh’s version several times and each time am caught up in the story. The commentary by Branagh and a Shakespeare scholar is fascinating. Can’t recommend this version enough.

However! Once again, Gertrude is played (by Julie Christie) as a pretty bland character. She floats along, smiling and acquiescent at the start of the play. After the Closet Scene she holds up Claudius while he goes to pieces. But there’s a slight shift after that where she refuses to go with Claudius after she tells Laertes that Ophelia (his sister and Hamlet’s ex-lover) is dead. It’s a strange place for her to assert some independence, but maybe she feels at that point that so many dreadful things have happened since she married him that it’s time to get some distance. She drinks the poisoned cup in ignorance, but the read is that she’s not going to follow Claudius’ orders anymore (he tells her not to drink). So it’s not so much a self-sacrifice for Hamlet as it is a defiance of Claudius. A legitimate read, but I’m not as interested in it. I think it could be incorporated into a more textured interpretation.

Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet

While Hawke’s Hamlet is not compelling, Diane Venora’s Gertrude is singular. She is ALL OVER Claudius until the Closet Scene. Can’t keep her hands off him. Then, after the Closet Scene (in a minute, people!), she looks at him suspiciously and keeps her distance. It’s such a dramatic difference that you can see clearly she’s sided with Hamlet. In the final scene, she actually shoves in to grab the chalice, guessing it’s poisoned, and drinks it down staring Claudius in the eye. Very strong choices for this character. She is probably my favorite Gertrude. Very well thought-out and a contributor to the story rather than just decoration.

David Tennant’s Hamlet

Like Hawke’s, Tennant’s Hamlet is set in modern times but it has this awkward conceit of using security cameras part of the time. It gets in the way of the storytelling. The whole thing takes a while to get off the ground. Patrick Stewart, in another RSC role as Claudius, is much more compelling twenty years on. But his very last character choice, which I won’t reveal, made no sense to me and marred this otherwise good rendition.

One of the key character choices that Tennant and Penny Downie (as Gertrude) made was to portray their relationship as that between a loving mother and son. I love this approach because it’s all there in the text but is usually glossed over. It makes for a much more interesting film.

In the opening scene between Claudius, Hamlet, and Gertrude, Downie keeps tracking her eyes between Stewart and Tennant as Claudius berates Hamlet. Right from the start she is solicitous of her son. She loves Claudius but she loves Hamlet more.

One of the nice touches in this version is that, during the long sequences where Claudius and Hamlet are going at it and Gertrude doesn’t have any lines, they move her to the background where she signs papers brought by courtiers. This echoes what Pennington lays out in the User’s Guide: Gertrude is a very capable queen. This feeds into my own interpretation of the character, which I will eventually get to.

Early on Gertrude has a line of “I will obey you” delivered to Claudius. In all other versions, it’s read straight. But in this version, she’s slightly peeved, as if she’s saying, “Give me a minute!” Again, she’s demonstrating her independence from Claudius—a nice touch.

After the Closet Scene she seems a little conflicted, shrinking from Claudius’ touch but then throwing herself on him to plead Hamlet’s case. Perhaps she feels it’s the only power she has over him—her sexual attractions.

Her delivery of Ophelia’s death to Laertes is standard “numb,” though when she gets to “dead men’s fingers called” she pauses as if she’s just realized how distressing that might sound to Laertes.

As for the final scene, she doesn’t suspect the chalice until Claudius begs her not to drink. Her eyes go wide, she clutches the cup, and declares she will drink. Nice choice.

The Closet Scene

Finally! This scene is the big throwdown between Hamlet and Gertrude, where everything that should have been said when Hamlet first heard his mother was going to marry Claudius comes boiling out. The fact that it doesn’t take place until Act III, Scene 4 means it’s had plenty of time to build up steam. This scene is probably the number one reason why women choose to play Gertrude. There’s the potential for a lot of range in it but the fun is that you get to scream and get thrown around a lot. It’s very intense.

What’s happened is that Hamlet has put on a play for the king and queen that shows a king being poisoned by his brother and then that brother marrying the king’s wife. Hamlet has set it up in the hopes that he will get definitive evidence that Claudius really did kill his father. In the script, the play is done as a dumb show first, and then as spoken word. In the midst of the spoken word version, Claudius is overcome and leaves abruptly, calling for lights. The court follows, with a giddy Hamlet left behind. Polonius summons Hamlet to the queen’s chambers, saying she wants a word with him. After some more “antic dispositioning,” Hamlet goes off.

What he doesn’t know is that Polonius has contrived to hide behind an arras in the queen’s room so he can observe what goes down. This will have fatal consequences for him.

John Gielgud was the first to make the Freudian connection obvious by placing this scene in the queen’s bedroom. Subsequent performances of the play have almost uniformly done so. But Shakespeare’s script calls the room a “closet,” which is a room adjoining a bedroom. It is a place where the queen can receive visitors. While I don’t deny there are heavy Oedipal themes in Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, I don’t think it’s the One True Way to read it. I’m more attracted to readings with texture.

The Closet Scene starts with Gertrude’s assertively taking Hamlet to task for offending Claudius. That’s as far as she gets—Hamlet runs roughshod from there. Once again Shakespeare shows Hamlet’s incredible ability to outthink everyone around him and make them dance to his tune.

Early on he threatens the queen and she cries for help. When Hamlet hears Polonius behind the arras, presumably coming to help, he thrusts his sword through the tapestry. He is on a high, thinking he’s finally killed Claudius, only to realize that he’s killed Polonius by mistake. He’s not too contrite but Gertrude is horrified—whether because this proves how dangerous he is or how mad he is, how vulnerable she is alone with him, or (what I like) the political impact of the heir to the throne murdering the prime minister, it’s not spelled out. There isn’t a definitive interpretation. I don’t see why they can’t all be going at once.

Hamlet shortly spits out that the deadlier deed is to kill a king, a comment which seems to leave Gertrude bewildered. After this point, Hamlet makes no more mention of the murder in relation to Gertrude. This makes an argument for Gertrude’s being innocent in the matter of the murder. Hamlet instead focuses on her “o’erhasty marriage” to Claudius and dwells uncomfortably on her sexual relationship with the king.

He forces her to look at portraits of the two brothers, comparing them to each other. He rails and rails at her until she breaks down, begging him to stop, when suddenly—the ghost appears. Cue scary music! Now comes another character choice—does Gertrude see the ghost? According to the text, she does not. But is she only saying that to distance herself from the nightmarish situation? After all, everyone at the beginning of the play saw the ghost. I don’t know, it seems a bit of a stretch to me, but you could definitely play it that way. My preference is that she does not see the ghost but instead watches in horror as her son’s eyes fix on vacant air and he babbles to an unseen spirit. Gertrude adores her son. To see him go to pieces immediately after he’s been throwing her around the room is High Drama at its finest. Whiplash circumstances that require the shift of mood on a dime.

The ghost says he’s come to stiffen Hamlet’s spine, so to speak, but in a touching gesture, he bids Hamlet look to his mother, who is quietly freaking out. Hamlet comes out of his trance to check in with Gertrude, who tries to understand what in the hell is going on. Hamlet tries to get her to see the ghost but she does not. The ghost exits while Hamlet cries out, leaving Gertrude to bemoan the loss of her son’s wits.

Another sudden turn—Hamlet (again, on a dime) says his pulse is as steady as hers and his madness is only feigned. He then turns the conversation back to her and begs her not to go to Claudius’ bed. Refuse his advances. Rise above “incest” (Hamlet loves that word). When Gertrude asks what she should do, Hamlet says she should hide the fact that his madness is all show. And she should stop sleeping with his uncle. Really. Gertrude promises not to tell his secret, but makes no promises about her relationship with Claudius. The scene ends with Hamlet dragging Polonius away after telling his mother good night four separate times.

This scene is the pivot point for Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship. Every version includes screaming and being thrown around, but different actors add little touches here and there that bring dimension to the otherwise non-stop histrionics.

Close’s closet scene is pretty standard, though she has this groping make-out session with Hamlet that is profoundly disturbing. I believe Olivier was the first to introduce a mouth-to-mouth kiss in the scene, which has informed every subsequent interpretation. There is no kiss written in the stage directions, so it’s a conscious choice to bring out the Oedipal theme.

In Hamlet at Elsinore, Gertrude engages in the typical histrionics during the scene with Hamlet and then immediately makes out with Claudius afterwords. So after all that drama, she hasn’t changed how she views her husband.

In Olivier’s legendary version, Gertrude begins lovingly rather than reproachfully but is soon all down with the screaming. Pretty standard stuff.

The RSC version is a little more amped up. Gertrude smacks Hamlet after he calls her “your husband’s brother’s wife.” Nice! Show a little backbone. Then she’s on to the usual crying and screaming as Hamlet tosses her about. She collapses in sobs when Hamlet says, “My father” when he sees the ghost—clearly she realizes he’s mad and she’s devastated. She pulls away from him when he tells her to stay away from Claudius. This version of Hamlet has her torn between Hamlet and Claudius, so her actions aren’t all on one side or the other.

In Branagh’s version, Gertrude starts out berating Hamlet, so the temperature is up right from the start. In this version, when Hamlet forces her to compare the two portraits of her husbands, she stares wide-eyed at Old Hamlet but stares off into space rather than look at Claudius.

Right after this she says “O Hamlet, speak no more: / Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul; / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct.” There are a lot of ways to interpret this passage, but in this version, it appears that Gertrude is agonizing over the fact that married Claudius. Why she’s agonizing is left up to us—there’s nothing in the text to explain it.

She clearly believes Hamlet is mad. Rather than kiss, they hug and hold hands at the end of the scene. There’s some of the mother/son love there but, as we will see, that theme can be taken further.

In Hawke’s version, they follow the RSC lead and Gertrude smacks Hamlet. But everything changes when Hamlet utters the fatal words, “as kill a king.” “As kill a king!” Gertrude responds. In this version, the scales fall away from Gertrude’s eyes to her horror as she sees all the pieces fall together. From there on out she’s suspicious of Claudius.

Tennant’s Gertrude starts the scene low but is screaming soon enough. Unlike the other versions, when she begs not to have to look into her soul she delivers the line low. It’s a nice shift from the full-on screamfest. When she looks at Old Hamlet’s portrait you can see her mourning her dead husband but when she looks at Claudius it’s only because she has to. She does not love him.

There’s some nice physical stuff she does, like covering her ears at one point or trying to cover Hamlet’s mouth while he’s railing at her or reaching out to him as he cowers from the ghost. Most Gertrudes just curl up on the bed and cry. She stays engaged in the scene as an active participant. When Hamlet tells her to throw away the “worser” part of her heart, she laughs bitterly—”like that’ll happen.”

Unlike the other versions of Hamlet, the actors take a pause before Hamlet tells her he’s off to England. And in that pause they have a beat of such tenderness I can still see it “in my mind’s eye” (to quote Hamlet). Gertrude is setting down and Hamlet is on the floor at her feet. He throws his arms around her waist and lays his weight on her lap. She bends over him and gently strokes his back. It’s a moment where you see not queen and prince but mother and son, and their love for each other, and their shared past, is evident. I love this bit. It’s not in the stage directions but it demonstrates how you can read Shakespeare in many different ways.

We shall now move on to some miscellaneous notes about the play.

Hamlet and “Incest”

I haven’t done a formal count of the number of times the word “incest” is used in the play, but I would estimate about forty thousand. It’s so curious that Shakespeare would repeat himself this way—he’s more inclined to make up a word than repeat one.

Hamlet was written around 1600, which was during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Shakespeare wrote many plays to flatter his royal and noble patrons. His use of “incest” in this light is interesting.

Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, married his brother’s wife after that brother, Arthur, died suddenly. Arthur and Catherine of Aragon were young. Arthur made a joke after his wedding night to some courtiers that suggested the marriage was consummated, but Catherine later resolutely insisted it never was. This is a critical point. Henry got a papal dispensation to marry Catherine just in case.

Fast-forward twenty years and Henry is a despotic jerk. Catherine has only borne one female heir, which isn’t good enough for Henry. He falls in love with Anne Boleyn and begins looking for ways to divorce Catherine. His reason? Incest. He is sleeping with his brother’s wife, that’s against God’s law, and he has therefore been cursed with no male heirs.

So you could say that Shakespeare keeps calling the Claudius/Gertrude marriage incestuous because he’s flattering Elizabeth. He’s saying her birth is legitimate (a sore spot with her) because she came from a legitimate union.

The thing that’s interesting though is that Elizabeth’s mother was beheaded on trumped-up charges of adultery and—you guessed it—incest, this time with her brother. So why does Shakespeare use the term so much? My guess is, since he is scrupulous about attaching it to the marriage itself, he’s trying to ingratiate himself. There may have been church teachings to back him up, but I honestly can’t remember if they went by the Old Testament idea that it was the duty of a man to marry his brother’s wife after his brother died. Wiser minds than I will have to comment on that.

The Kingship

When Claudius killed Old Hamlet, the obvious heir was Young Hamlet. But Danish kings were elected. Since this election happens before the play begins, it’s unclear why the people chose Claudius. It’s made clear in the play that the people are much enamored of Hamlet. Claudius may have married Gertrude to try to strengthen his bid. But just to muddy the waters, in his first scene, Claudius calls Hamlet his heir. Can he do that? I am not entirely clear. Since the royal family is killed by the end of the play, the young Prince Fortinbras of Norway is tipped to become king of Denmark, but this is through force of arms rather than election. So there are three ways to become king in Denmark: election, primogeniture, and war. Shakespeare needs to get his story straight.

My Interpretation

I know, I know, you’re on tenterhooks—how would Cairril play Gertrude? Well, I would start by making her a strong character. And I would start before the play begins.

First off, I don’t think she was in on the murder of Old Hamlet, nor do I believe she engaged in adultery. I think she was a loving and loyal wife to Old Hamlet. But after his death, Young Hamlet went to pieces. The throne would in all likelihood go to him. But Denmark was threatened by warlike Norway and she could see it all going south without a strong hand at the tiller.

So there’s Claudius, a capable enough leader and certainly more functional than her son. I believe she marries Claudius to hold the throne for Hamlet. She is most likely old enough that she won’t bear any children to Claudius, and Hamlet is generally beloved by the populace, so she will just wait for him to work through his grief and come back to himself. As Branagh’s commentary points out, Hamlet has many facets and is a capable prince. Gertrude believes her promising son will find his way back to sanity in time. She is determined that the throne will be ready for him, and that he will find his country in good hands. She doesn’t love Claudius, but they do have a physical relationship.

Once the play begins, she goes back and forth as to whether Hamlet is actually mad rather than just depressed. She doesn’t want to believe it. But she is perceptive enough from the get-go to tell Claudius that Hamlet is depressed because of their “o’erhasty” marriage. Later she is open to the possibility that Hamlet’s depression is caused by Ophelia’s rejection of him. But during the Closet Scene she sees that Hamlet is both mad and sane—he is mad when he sees the ghost but he is sane when he explains that his madness is an act. (I should say that I believe Hamlet starts out by thinking his madness is just put on, a show, but over time it chips away at his reason and he does have psychotic episodes. He certainly has severe depression, if not bipolar disorder.)

After the Closet Scene she has some serious choices to make. What does she tell Claudius? How should see behave towards him? I believe she pulls away from him, her allegiance solely to Hamlet, but she still plays a waiting game to keep the throne. So she can’t do anything too overt but she is unable to play the untroubled wife of before.

I believe she drinks the poisoned chalice to save Hamlet. In my rendition, she would drink from the cup, then when she offers it to Hamlet, she would give a tiny shake of her head. Warn him not to drink. Then when she’s in her death throes, she tells him flat-out the cup is poisoned. Her last words are to Hamlet, not Claudius.

In short, she is a strong, far-sighted, capable woman who deeply loves her son and is willing to do what she can to make his life better after disaster strikes. She plays a deadly game with Claudius but willingly undertakes it for the sake of her son. She never doubts her own ability to walk this difficult tightrope. She feels guilty that she “betrayed” Old Hamlet by marrying his brother, but she’s willing to bear that guilt for the sake of the country and the sake of her son. I think this interpretation is fully supported by the text. More to the point, I think it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than Mistress Ninny.

Auditions for Hamlet are this spring. Cross your fingers for me.


Letter to Cam

November 17, 2013

I found you on Facebook. Your face rougher and scrunched up, almost unrecognizable, your eyes little slits, your long brown hair mashed to your head by a blue knit winter cap. You have hidden your information, as you’ve wiped away most of your Web tracks over the years, holding your privacy to you as a cloak.

I found Andy, his face surprising but vaguely recognizable. You’ve moved to Chicago from New Haven. For his job? You are a freelance writer, working for the Latin University and Fortune 500 brands. So far from a small schoolhouse poetry teacher.

And through Andy I found Cleo. Infant when I last saw her, now a teenager, her hair a kaleidoscope of colors as she searches for her identity. She lacks my nieces’ exuberance in these photos. I wonder if she wonders about her birth parents, if you have found them, if she feels comfortable in this world. There is a photo on Andy’s wall of her at camp and she is on the fringes, holding back? Holding in? A friend of hers posted endlessly on her wall, but she reveals next to nothing about herself. Did she learn that from you?

Didn’t you have another daughter? Biological or adopted, I wasn’t sure. But at some point over the years I thought Google had yielded more.

I found you on LinkedIn. We are three degrees apart. Only two if you consider Charlotte Zietlow. We are so close, separated by an invisible wall. I stared and stared at the “Connect” button for so long, tears streaming down my face, cursor hovering seductively, knowing I cannot reach out to you when I promised that you would be left alone. You and Andy and Cleo and your possible other daughter. Alone. I. Alone.

I found you on YouTube. Your body (taller than mine) draped in shapeless garments. Your voice exactly as I remember it. I wear triangle shapes when I perform. Edges. You are poised, curvy, soft. I explode off the screen. You inhabit it. I cut my hair short. You grew your hair long. Outward signs that we are no longer the women we once were. I have started writing; are you learning WordPress?

You are reading a newer poem, more jagged in construction than the ones I read all those years ago; I didn’t quite get it. I remember fried eggs like eyes painted on the windows, light flashing from my rings, fishing a piece of glass from your arm on Easter. It’s been nearly fifteen years since I’ve read your poetry but still I remember. I have forgotten almost everything in the intervening years, but I remember you.

I found the poem you wrote about me. The poem of our time in England. Study (With Ocean). And I cried. I haven’t cried since you left. My spirit walked out on me as surely as you did and I haven’t cried since. Sometimes I get a few tears when I think of you, sometimes I cry for two minutes at a sad movie, but even at my worst I never cry for longer than ten minutes. You left, my spirit left, my humanity left. I am too dried up to cry.

I remember. I remember Whitby (didn’t I just tell that story of the dock in my very first Story Theatre class this semester?). I remember the Napoleanic prisoners of war carving bones into ships. I remember the ruined cathedral and the cemetery. I remember London and the Tube. And oh, how I remember Avebury. The room with the loud pink flowers all over the walls. The dramatic readings of the Book of Revelation to peals of giggles. The hysteria of “dlied aplicots.” The sacred silence I held in the Long Barrow as you spoke to Roonie, the silence I broke when I couldn’t bear your coldness to her. “Where will she go?” I crooned. You stopped. You changed. You warmed. And you welcomed her back with loving arms.

Candlelight. Have to pee. Hungry. Holy. Our ears ringing with the sound of my booming Earth chant. Staring into your “I will take this risk” love-filled eyes. My second handfasting. Wrapping the post office string around our hands, fingers clasped into one being. “No one knows what to do with the string,” I laugh. That string puts tens of thousands of miles on it as we send it back and forth on our missives between Bloomington and China. All in the future; for now, I am spellbound by your brown, brave eyes. My sister. Bound in holy vow, in the holiest place I know.

All is grey since that moment when my soul left, when I lost you. I live in a fog. There are bright moments here and there when I seem to come alive: The Summit—so many memories—where I became the Goddess and blessed each sister and brother individually in sacred Circle. September 11th. The audible “crack” that broke me, when I discovered I was three weeks past the deadline for ever selling my eggs. So much revolves around that. The slow, steady spiral downward until I lost my mind completely, total insanity, babbling utter gibberish on my bedroom floor for who knows how long. The absolute terror of going into the asylum. Finding asylum there, and the miracle of Klonopin, which finally silenced the voices without my having to gouge open my wrists.

And then—small sparks here and there during ritual. Hints of love for the strong girls in my life, for my sister. But not feeling. Not feeling. The years go by and without my feelings I am unstuck in time. It passes because I have a birthday each year (although sometimes I have to use a calculator to determine my age because I can no longer remember), but I don’t actually live it. I have gained my house and my land and my music but I have lost my family and my community and my self and you, you, you.

How I loved you. How you loved me. I read your poem and I am sobbing, my heart crying out, “Yes! Yes! This is how it was! This was true—this was real! I was loved once. And I loved in return. How I reveled in her luminous being.”

Who could look at me and believe I was ever loved? That I ever had anything to give in return? That was long ago, another me, when I still had a soul and was capable of anything. And then “anything” truly became “anything.”

I think I broke first. I said I would not move East with you. I felt it would put too much pressure on, that if I couldn’t find a job I would resent you for taking me from a good life and giving me only risk in return. I knew, no matter how many times you called me sister, that I was outside your family and could be discarded at any time. Which ended up being true.

Abegunde, a Yoruban priest, tells me that we have come together across many lifetimes to try to resolve something. And in this lifetime, like so many others, we failed. I don’t believe in past lives but I have never heard anything that so perfectly describes the profound sense of recognition we had for each other and the superglued sense of our bond. The reckless abandon with which we loved each other. The deep-seated need to be bound as one. And then how the two of us, enlightened, educated, psychologically savvy, and highly articulate, couldn’t stop hurting each other. Star-crossed lovers. Fated to come together, fated to break apart. And how I broke.

Did you submit this poem after you left me? Do you look at it as just a piece of good work or have you come to peace with my presence in your life? Have you blocked it out or chalked it up to Saturn returns? Do you diminish it in your mind? Do you miss it? Do you miss me? Can you ever—please, Goddess, please please—can you ever, ever forgive me?

I tried to forgive myself at Oidche Samhna. I tried to say, “Okay, I’ll never know if she has mercy for me, perhaps I can have mercy for myself,” but I couldn’t do it. I have little experience with forgiveness. And there are some things that cannot be forgiven. There are some things we have to remain accountable for. “Doesn’t she want to be forgiven?” She turned and walked away from the chalice of forgiveness. Will I always do the same? Can I, can I ever be released from this in-between state of Not Knowing?

I roam the Earth in darkness, occasionally lighting matches, wishing for torches, but underneath it all yearning for the dawn. Something broke in me, Cam. Something broke when you said, “Never again.” And everything that came after came from a broken human being, not from the strong, capable woman you knew. I observed myself from a distance and couldn’t recognize this strange, hurtful creature. I knew I was Edward Scissorhanding you but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t. And I would give everything I have, every piece of me, to throw myself at your feet and beg for your mercy. To somehow make things whole with you. I would risk everything. I would move mountains. I would take madness again if it meant you would forgive me. Because then there would be hope. Even if I never heard your voice again, never saw your beloved face, never read another of your words, there would be hope for me. Hope that someday my soul will come back and I will be made whole. Because honestly, there’s not a whole helluva lot to be living for without it.

I never imagined you would excise me so completely. I thought we would take a break, get some perspective, leave it lie with the Goddess for a year or two, and then see who and where we were. Just check in periodically over the long course of our lives. Now? How about now? Maybe now? And maybe, at some point, the hurt would be overshadowed by the love, mellowed by time into something powerful enough to transform us into greater beings.

I have never stopped loving you, Cam. I never will. We were not good for each other there at the end, and it was right to have some separation, but I want there to be peace between us. I want us to come to some rest. I want to release old hurts and find a way to let each other live in love. Maybe you’ve already done that. Will I ever know? I am Demeter, searching for Persephone. Will she ever be restored to my sight? Will I ever know mercy? Will I ever be able to lay down this burden? Will I ever live again?

I am waiting.


Shakespeare and depression

June 16, 2013

I am a freak for Shakespeare. He is wildly comic and incredibly deep. His skill with language is beyond compare. And I’m fairly certain he had depression.

When people without mental illness (people who have not been “furrowed by the plough of suffering” as I say) talk about depression, they talk about symptoms. They talk about things you need to do like “cheer up” (always helpful) or “go for a walk.” They don’t understand the black pit of despair which blots out all light.

When Shakespeare takes on that pit, he speaks like a man who has been trapped in the depths for a lifetime. He knows it inside and out. And with his consummate wordsmithing, he has left us stunning snapshots of what it’s like to be on the inside.

The most famous snapshot is of course Hamlet’s soliloquy:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

This is relatively easy to grasp: Hamlet longs for death but then pauses to consider what happens after death. Since he can’t be sure “what dreams may come,” he chooses not to kill himself (“lose the name of action”).

But more telling is the famous speech from Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”  It is in Act V, Scene 5, after Macbeth’s just found out his wife is dead. I’ve heard many, many interpretations but never one so perfectly rendered as Alan Cumming’s.

Note-perfect. I just don’t see how it gets better than that.

Onward! First let’s look at the whole thing:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Now let’s break it down.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

Whenever I hear “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” I think of the many mornings where I wake up and just groan, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck” over and over. This opening sentence is exactly what it feels like to be depressed. First there’s the sensation of the expansion of time: Not just “tomorrow,” but the day after and the day after and (implied) yet another day after that after that after that. When depression strikes, every day is much like the next. It’s a constant struggle just to get up. If we didn’t have to go to the bathroom, I doubt many of us would bother. Some even use bedpans or just wet the bed rather than go upright and face the horror and, let’s face it, the tedium of yet another day.

When you’re depressed, there is no reason to do anything. People without depression don’t understand this. It’s not about “focusing on the positive”; people with depression literally can’t see the positive. There is no positive. It’s simply not there. It takes an enormous amount of energy to fight fight fight to get upright. Then there’s the swinging of the legs over the side of the bed. The setting there, feeling crushed by the weight of all those tomorrows. Struggling struggling struggling to get up on your feet. It’s Herculean. And then you’ve got to brush your teeth and maybe take a shower (if you can manage it) and take your meds and check your email and go to work and put one foot in front of the other over and over and over again and every second you’re aware of how fucking pointless it is. The feeling doesn’t go away. The awareness doesn’t go away. You have to keep fighting it every single second of every single day.

So there’s the struggle itself, the “petty pace” that creeps, not runs. Slowly. So bloody slowly. “Creeps” is actually the best word because it implies that sense of struggle one step at a time. But beyond that is what I call the “mountaintop” vision that comes with depression, when you’re aware not just of today’s struggle, but of every second’s struggle, and how that struggle will connect to the next second’s struggle, which is connected to the next second’s struggle, which just goes on and on “to the last syllable of recorded time.” Why bother?

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

The “mountaintop” vision doesn’t encompass just today and tomorrow; with depression you see a continuum of your whole life and sometimes even more than that. You may lie in bed in the morning and see all of recorded history spreading out before your paralyzed eyes. The choices people make, the traumas and triumphs that happen to them by blind chance—all leading to only one destination: Death. And anyone is a fool who thinks their life has meaning. All our yesterdays just lead to the grave. Beggar or king, we are all dust in the end.

Out, out, brief candle.

Unlike Hamlet’s wishy-washy dithering about death, Macbeth utters the warrior’s cry: “Life, end!” Shakespeare reiterates that sense of “mountaintop” time by calling life a “brief candle.” No matter how grand or small our lives seem to be, every individual life is simply a little light shining briefly in the dark. He says in The Tempest, “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” combining the idea expressed in Macbeth (the brevity of life) with the musings of Hamlet (life is ended by The Big Sleep (to throw in yet another literary reference (Raymond Chandler))).

Life’s but a walking shadow,

I mean, what else can you say? Shakespeare says it all right here. That’s exactly what it feels like. Ashes in your mouth. The sense of being not-all-there, and yet simultaneously unable to extricate yourself from the exquisite torment of every torturous second. You just keep walking but you walk in shadow, dimly aware of the light but unable to reach it. I don’t know why I keep typing; Shakespeare has summed it up perfectly and what do I really need to explain?

a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

Here Shakespeare makes one of his frequent references to the theatre, drawing parallels between the stage and life. Here, life is “a poor player.” That can be read a variety of ways. It can be a “pathetic” actor, an “impoverished” actor, or a “pitiful” actor. Knowing Shakespeare, it’s all three. But life isn’t noble or grand—it’s a sham. It’s not authentic. It’s make-believe.

He again makes the “brief candle” point by saying “you get an hour to kick up a fuss and then you’re outta here,” but he adds a new idea by saying “struts and frets.” As we’ll see in the next sentence, Shakespeare says that we make a big deal out of our lives, when actually they are meaningless. We struggle and we brag and we love and we laugh and we fight and we fuck and we cry but all that is just strutting and fretting. Just an actor in histrionics. A shadow play. No actual substance.

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Once again I feel it’s pointless for me to try to break this down since it’s expressed so perfectly by Himself. Life is “a tale”—it’s not real, it’s not actual, it’s the telling of a story. It’s a play, which requires suspension of disbelief. It’s what I call “consensual reality”—that reality that we all unconsciously agree on, where bills are paid and laundry done and dinner served and children begotten and on and on. Other realities are optional and you run the risk of ridicule or worse if you admit them. But consensual reality relies upon consent—it has no intrinsic fabric. It relies upon the willing cooperation of everyone in a society to say, “Yes, this is real.” It’s theatre.

But now it’s not only a play, a story, a tale—it’s one told by an idiot. Life is not only a meaningless succession of struggling incidents of torture, it has the audacity to be completely nonsensical. It not only has no meaning, it has a baffling storyline.

Can things get worse? Yes, because life’s full of “sound and fury.” Once again Shakespeare draws a parallel to the stage when he sums up high drama. Considering life from the viewpoint of your bed in the morning or your couch at night, life seems exactly this. Lots of sound. Too much sound. Whispers that drag you down, shouts that leave you numb. And the fury—oh, how we shake our fists at the sky and curse our fate! How all of us, poor players that we are, get caught up in our own dramas! It’s loud, loud, loud, loud, LOUD, and what does it mean?

Nothing.

{Let’s just take a moment}

Nothing.

When life is a play written by an idiot that creeps in a petty pace from every second of recorded time and leads only to a dusty death—when all the struggle and all the suffering and all the overcome indignities and all the small triumphs and all the come-true dreams signify nothing—remind me, why do I want to get out of bed in the morning?

Thank you, Shakespeare, for shining a light on depression for over 400 years.


This is my body

April 27, 2013

I am nervous about this post because I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to name names. But let’s edge up to it, shall we?

Last weekend I was “My Angry Vagina” in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. It was a local production benefitting Middle Way House. I first heard about Vagina Monologues many years ago when Ensler was here to perform it. I remember the furor around town that the word “vagina” was emblazoned big and bold on the billboards promoting the event. But that’s kind of her point.

The Monologues are just that: A series of monologues based on interviews with hundreds of women about their bodies, particularly their relationship with their vagina. The writing quality varies, but there’s enough to make you laugh, to make you cry, and a lot to make you think.

I auditioned with “Because He Liked to Look at It,” which chronicles how a woman goes from hating her vagina and being ashamed of it to being in love with her body, all due to her sexual encounter with the innocuous vagina connoisseur “Bob.” I liked it because it had a lot of range. They also had me read “Cunt,” which is about reclaiming the word. I didn’t like that one as much, not because of the content, but because it was more like riffing on poetry rather than doing something dramatic.

So I was cast in everybody’s favorite bit, the ranting vagina. Jenny Gibson gave a legendary performance of it last year and she left huge shoes to fill. I worked with the divine Diane Kondrat to get inside the piece.

The first time I read it, I was a little uncomfortable. After all, I would have to say “vagina” multiple times. And “pussy.” These are Things We Do Not Speak Of. I read through it again and warmed up to it. By the third read I was like, “Piece o’ cake, now how do I break this down into beats?” Maybe it’s because I swear like a sailer, but the mysterious words no longer had power over me. From then on it became a dramatic exercise.

At the evening performance, Lara and I set up some chairs behind the curtain onstage so we could listen to the show. This is the only time I’ve heard the whole thing. It was a great experience as a feminist celebration of womanhood. All these words that we’re not allowed to say being reclaimed. Being said so many times they lose their unsavory connotations. Released into the light to become just another aspect of ourselves to celebrate, like our creativity and our intelligence and our compassion. Brought out of the darkness.

The play opens with a rundown of euphemisms for “vagina.” They are hysterical. “You need to air out your pussycat” is one of my favorite lines from the show. But when I was growing up, I didn’t have euphemisms. I didn’t have anything. I had no words. Not even “down there.” There was just nothing in my head, so it was like this whole part of my body didn’t exist.

Until he came. The first Bad Man. The worst Bad Man. There would be many others over the next twenty years but he was the worst because he was the first, the most trusted, the most ruthless. I stopped trusting men after him.

His name is Ron Hampsten.

{breathe}

{breathe}

{breathe}

I have never said his name publicly. I have rarely said it all, even to therapists. But to name a thing is to have power over it. Or so say the traditions of my religion. He was the father of my best friend.

I was somewhere between eight and ten when it started. We only know this because it was about this time that I began beating up boys. I stopped beating up boys when I was about 15, when I had been told by every authority figure that it wasn’t “feminine” and I “couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a boy or a girl” and it was time to “grow up.” So I started cutting my wrists. That was acceptable. That was feminine.

In 1990 when I was 22 I stood in the library of Nottingham Polytechnic in England, my hand poised in the air for what felt like hours. The book I was reaching for was on recovery from sexual abuse. But to pick up that book—to touch it—would mean it had actually happened to me. That it had been real. But I was determined to heal. I sobbed quietly and picked it up.

A few weeks later I went through a mindfully constructed series of rituals to name what had happened to me, acknowledge its influence on my life, and begin to heal from it. I had my friends in the States sending me energy and I had a wide variety of guardians and guides as I went on my way through realities and memories. And I was amazed at the smart, resourceful little girl who was then known as Carol.

I have bits of memories, nothing linear. I was in the pool with his four children and he was beckoning me to him, telling me he was going to teach me how to float. He had done this before so this time, knowing what was in store, I said, “No!” big and loud. But he insisted, smile on his face. When he did what he did to me, I gasped, “Ow!” but he did not stop. He took turns with all of us in the pool. His wife, “Mrs Hampsten” (my sister probably remembers her first name; I don’t) was 15 feet away, cooking hot dogs on the grill. Did she know?

There were a variety of episodes but there’s one that’s bifurcated. I have two equally clear memories. I was lying next to my friend, asleep, when he came into the room. The light was pouring in from the hallway. I became aware of him over me, pulling up my nightgown. I had practiced a million times what I would do if robbers or monsters broke into my home, so I did what I had always done: I pretended like I was sort of waking up and rolled onto my side. He dropped my nightgown and backed out of the room.

Or did he? The other clear memory is that Mrs Hampsten came down the hallway behind him and whispered, “Ron!” He then dropped my dress and hurried out.

Which is true? I will never know.

Somehow I told my best friend what was going on. I don’t have any memory of telling her, but I do remember a walk we took one night some time after he’d stopped abusing me. In the darkness, she confessed that he had been sexually abusing her every Thursday night while her mother was out bowling. Now he was starting in on her younger sisters. It wasn’t enough that he was hurting her—she was only spurred to action in order to try to protect her sisters. I told her she had to tell her mom. I have no memory of what happened next.

Because I had no name for the body parts he was raping, I had no way of conceptualizing what was happening. It never occurred to me to tell my parents. We didn’t talk about such things. I knew my body was dirty and sinful as a daughter of Eve but I was very hazy on the specifics. Like so many victims, I blocked all memory of the episodes from my brain.

When I was 15 or 16 I was setting in church and the priest was giving a sermon on sexual abuse. Like a light slowly dawning, I realized, “That happened to me.” And I was grateful that I’d forgotten. Why? Because in the intervening years I was a manipulative liar and I knew that if I’d had this in my bag of tricks I would have used it against some unsuspecting bystander. I was glad that I remembered at a time when my soul was purer and more noble. I was glad there had been no repercussions.

No repercussions. None at all. Like the fact that when similar things happened with other men later, I always froze or at best tried to misdirect their attention. I could not defend myself, even after I’d gone through the deep healing process of serious ritual at the center of my spiritual universe. There, in the core of my being, I gave myself permission to kill anyone who tried to touch me against my will again. Two years later, in a peaceful English graveyard, a man in his sixties kept calling me “me duck” and tried getting his hands all over me. And I froze. Again. Perhaps I always will.

It’s a miracle to me that I had a wonderful sex life as an adult. All that ritual paid off in one sense, at least. I never had any flashbacks or anything like that. But I always trusted my partners absolutely, too. They were all good men.

In 1997 I went through a revolutionary healing process that completely changed my life. I still celebrate Rebirthday. I truly came into my own. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I trusted myself. I loved myself. I knew I could cope with anything that came my way. My mental illnesses would be with me, but they’d be manageable. I’d never fall so far as I had in years past. This healing wasn’t about sexual abuse—it was about every aspect of my life, particularly mental illness, and it totally transformed everything it touched.

But then on 2 January 2000, something catastrophic happened to me. I know it and I name it in my head but I will not name it here. It happened. And everything given to me and earned by me in Rebirthday was swept away.

Eve Ensler was here the other night to give a lecture at the IU Auditorium and she talked about being dissociated from your body. I kept crying. I know exactly what she means. She talked about not knowing when we’re hungry, not knowing when we’re sleepy—treating our bodies as machines. This is exactly what my relationship with my body is like since the catastrophe happened.

I never get hungry. I eat on a schedule. I get dizzy if I go too long without eating, so it’s convenient to eat at 2 and 8. I drink milk and water to keep me full in the meantime.

I never get sleepy. I have shiny medications that put me under in 20 minutes, and on the very rare night when I don’t immediately fall asleep, I pop an Ambien and away I go.

During the recession my alter ego’s business almost collapsed. I somehow lost weight. Then I lost more. Then I lost more. I ate half a turkey sandwich for lunch. I ate a quarter cup of granola for dinner. Sometimes I would vary it by having a bowl of plain, air-popped popcorn instead of granola. I was taking in fewer than 1,000 calories a day. I got down to 110 pounds. My clothes were falling off me. Friends and family expressed concern. But at business events, all I heard was, “You look great! Business must be doing really well!” Note how the two things go together. If I could just get thinner, I would look more successful, and then maybe someone would give me some work.

At the urging of my therapist and psychiatrist, I went to see my GP. She was very calm and said she didn’t want to see me lose any more weight but she wasn’t going to freak out and make it worse. She changed all my vitamins and supplements so I could start getting better nutrients. I decided I would stay at 110—109 meant I had anorexia, 111 meant I was fat. 110 EXACTLY was where I would stay.

I stayed there for two years. Then somewhere in the haze that is my life I began gaining weight. And I couldn’t stop. Now I’m at 135/140. And I’m totally out of control of my eating. Or more accurately, I’m constantly trying to control my eating. I alternate between starving and bingeing. I lost three pounds this last week. So I made brownies today and will not be able to stop eating them. I will gain the weight back. I will hate the treadmill and the elliptical and most importantly myself that I am so weak and I will go back to turkey and popcorn for a few weeks. Then more bingeing. Back and forth it goes. My GP says I need to slow down and really taste my food and my eating will come into balance. But I don’t want to taste it. I don’t want to eat at all. I just want my body to do what it’s supposed to do and shut the hell up. I am living Fatso.

The woman who cuts my hair has several daughters. From a very early age she has taught them to refer to their genitals using the proper terms. When her eldest reached menarche, Alicia took her to a fancy Indianapolis hotel, got them mani-pedis, and then explained sex in very matter-of-fact terms. Her daughters know their bodies. They understand their bodies. They are friends with their bodies. They are reliable and strong and pliant. They are fully integrated with all the other aspects of self.

I hate my body. I hate the chronic pain. I broke my back when I was fifteen and was never taken to the hospital so it didn’t heal right. I have been in multiple car accidents that left me with soft tissue damage. My hips and knees ache. I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I hate my fat, uncontrollable body. The way it won’t stay satisfied with plain popcorn. The way it betrays me when I need it to be strong and resilient.

And yet I’m grateful that it thwarted some of my abusers. I love my body when I dig my feet into grass or sand or rest my aching back against a tree. I love the feel of the earth between my fingers as I work in my garden. The medications I take for my mental illnesses have robbed me of much of my ability to dance, but when Lotus comes around, I can count on my body to celebrate. The days of pain afterwards are worth it! And now I’m grateful for the words that I never had as a child—vagina, vulva, labia, uterus—that remind my dried-up self that I still have the potential for passionate creativity. No man was ever able to take that from me.

My relationship with my body has careened wildly throughout my life. As a child it was strong and resilient with a dark continent of no-thing-ness in the middle. As I grew older and damaged it in accidents and sports, it became something to fight against. In Rebirthday it became something to celebrate and rejoice in. And now it’s a millstone around my neck, a ravaged record of every broken promise made in sickness and in health.

I am grateful to Eve Ensler for giving me the means to reclaim some tiny island of peace amidst the raging seas of self-loathing. I have a long way to go.


Feminism by any other name

March 17, 2013

I recently watched the excellent PBS documentary Makers on second-wave feminism and the rise of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. It was a refresher of a women’s studies class I took at IU in the early ’90s, but with some somewhat controversial updates from the 1980s and beyond.

I was raised as a conservative Catholic, but with a rebel streak. After a five-year-old cousin died when I was 14 or 15, I took comfort in my relationship with the Virgin Mary. (She was also who I turned to when I had cramps—what would Jesus know about cramps?) I strove to be what was considered to be the model woman in the Church: meek, mild, submissive to God’s will, and every other thing I was never going to be.

I was virulently anti-abortion, having no clue what challenges a pregnant woman faces. I saw abortion as murder, plain and simple, and rejected it even in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. If you got pregnant and didn’t want the child, you carried it to term and gave it up for adoption. Case closed. I gave no thought to the idea of women’s being forced by the state to carry fetuses to term, nor did I consider the agony women would go through carrying a rapist’s or worse, a relative’s child. Everything was simple.

On the other hand, when the U.S. Catholic bishops published an encyclical against nuclear war, I became passionately anti-nuke. Through my relationships with leftist friends, I became familiar with Women and Children First in Chicago, read liberal manifestos, and wrote letters to Congressmen (yes, they were all men) to protest the nuclear arms race. I came to political consciousness during the Carter/Reagan race and was convinced Reagan was going to press the button. I had many nightmares about nuclear war and once I saw the Church was against it, I wholeheartedly supported that view.

When I was 17 or 18 I read a pamphlet at church published by a society dedicated to one of the Mary cults—probably Fatima. It talked about how Mary told the children that women should dress modestly, with sleeves no shorter than 3/4 length. It would be years before it would occur to me how strange it was that Mary was so specific about fashion advice, but at the time I just felt a terrible sinking feeling. I was athletic in high school as well as a theatre geek and regularly wore short-sleeved shirts. It was the ’80s and mini-skirts were in. I was so sad to realize I would never be good enough. I would never be able to be fully a women in the eyes of the Church. It was devastating.

I burbled along my merry way, combining leftist and anarchist beliefs (anti-apartheid, anti-CIA) with this harsh conservative/libertarian view that all things could be reduced to black and white and there was one right way and one wrong way and I knew what was what, amen. If black people were discriminated against, they should sue. If women were denied promotion in the workplace, they should sue or leave. Simple. Black and white.

In the late ’80s I worked at McDonald’s and met one of the most pivotal people in my life: Tammy Taysom. She was a feminist Mormon, two things I’d not come into deep contact with before. And two things I had a hard time reconciling in one being. She was in favor of polygamy, not for anything to do with men, but to get rid of men. She wanted a man to have babies with, but then she thought the man should go away or even die (of natural causes) so she could hang out with his other wives and they could all raise the children together. She saw this as a liberating, positive, supportive environment for women, free from the oppressive influence of men. She blew my mind.

Tammy and I would have raging philosophical arguments over the grills in the back of the restaurant, slinging words as fast as burgers. At one point one of the managers turned to look at me and asked, “What are you doing here?” I was a little taken aback but told him the truth: “All I have is a high school education.” He shook his head. “No. What are you doing here?” I knew he meant that, with my intellect and erudition, I should be out in the world someplace. But I just repeated with more emphasis, “All I have is a high school education.” I had tried to find other jobs, but no one wanted me.

Tammy held her own in our arguments, which was impressive. I learned from my father at an early age how to talk circles around someone even when I didn’t know what I was talking about. I knew how to use language to confuse logic. But she cut right to the chase and challenged my deeply held beliefs. And finally it came down to it: she dared me to take a women’s studies class. And she would take it with me. Since I was finally going back to school that fall, I took her dare, smug in my belief that I would prove her arguments wrong.

For the first few weeks, I hard-headedly held my own. For every example they presented, I had a pat answer: women should put up or shut up. What I hadn’t realized was how much contempt I had for women. I hated being a woman.

When I was about four or five I came to that crossroads that all children come to, when they decide who they’re going to be. In my case, I had a mother and a father to choose from. My dad was the oppressor. My mom was the victim. For me, it was a no-brainer. I chose to be my dad, so I could be free to do whatever I wanted. Even then, I was intrigued by power.

What I didn’t realized at the time (of course, my brain had barely developed by then) was that being powerful as a man meant being contemptuous of women. I spent many, many years of my life trying to prove that I was good enough to be an honorary man, but the bottom line was that I was a prisoner of my biology. I would always be betrayed by my femaleness. Like on that day reading about Fatima, I realized I would never make the cut. And I hated myself for it.

Back to the women’s studies class! What cut through all my philosophical schizophrenia was the section on rape. I remember lying on the couch in my apartment, highlighting passages in a variety of texts. The evidence just piled on and piled on. Three out of four women sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Rape as violence, not as sex. The most dangerous place for a woman to be was in the home of someone she loved.

I put down the books and thought about my own life. I realized that almost every woman I knew, including myself, had been sexually abused at some point in her life. I began to cry, a deep, wounded cry, whispering, “What did we do? What did we do?” What could women have possibly done to deserve this epidemic of sexual violence? How could I possibly explain it away case by case when it was so widespread? The answer was right there: it wasn’t a case by case issue—it was a society-wide threat. It was rooted in a hatred and fear of women that was so pervasive that virtually no woman was safe.

The walls came tumbling down. My eyes were open to systemic problems of race, class, and gender. I could see patterns that I was blind to before. And since I was now a Pagan instead of a Catholic, it all fit into a deep, seamless stream of morality. I knew where I stood and why I stood there. And I knew that by rising up and taking that stand, I was making a difference. Goddess bless Tammy Taysom.

Once I was on the train, there was no getting off. I read everything I could find on oppressive systems, whether against people or the environment. I worked at a feminist magazine. I attended workshops and festivals. I joined mass protests in DC and NYC. And I read My Mother, Myself, the first time I’d ever bothered to examine my relationship with my mother rather than my father. I saw my contempt for her and for all women, and especially for myself, and I got rid of it. I embraced myself as a woman and even began to be thankful for it. I grew into the belief I still hold today: it’s easier to be a whole human being in this society if you are a woman. Sexism = bondage not just for women, but for men. Since women are marginalized, they can get away with drumming circles and consciousness raising and generally doing whatever under-the-radar things they want to do because they are, after all, just women. But men are held to a more rigid standard. Women can wear men’s clothes, for instance, but men can’t wear women’s. If they embrace their feelings, they are pounced on (remember Robert Bly?).

The situation is much more complex than that, and has changed since the Clinton presidency when he would cry at the drop of a hat, but there are still some threads of truth there. In some traditional societies, when women would menstruate, they’d be sent to moon lodges or other dark spaces in order not to “contaminate” the men with their mysterious and powerful (“dirty”) menstrual blood. But Tammy and I laughed at the idea and said, “Yeah, yeah, we’re unclean, we’re unclean, now who’s bringing the chocolate?” If women were really held in such low esteem, it’s possible they looked forward to getting away from stupid men and associating with equals in moon lodges.

Recently I attended a screening of Things We Don’t Talk About: Women’s Stories from the Red Tent. It’s a movement inspired by the book The Red Tent, a novel which posited how women came together during their menstrual cycles. In the film, women join in circles small and large to tell their stories. Some are funny, most are sad, but all lead the women to feeling more empowered. They rise up and say, “I am beautiful, I am loved, and I deserve to be here.”

That’s all well and good, but why in the world are we still saying this 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began? (We’ve circled round to Makers, folks.) In the ’70s, women came together in consciousness raising groups and found to their surprise that others had similar experiences. And then they changed their lives. They didn’t just keep it for other women. They took it home and renegotiated their marriages. Or they left their marriages. They joined the movement and marched in the streets, carried signs, volunteered for causes, worked at feminist magazines, and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment. The personal was political. They changed everything, from the bedroom to the boardroom.

According to Makers, everything shifted when the women’s movement openly embraced lesbians and when Phyllis Schlafly came on the scene. Schlafly mobilized conservative women against liberals and militants. And the country swung with her, electing our chief adult child of an alcoholic, Ronald Reagan.

In Makers, they cite a major change in the women’s movement at this time with the rise of Madonna. In the view of the producers, Madonna embodied the new post-feminist woman, who was “sexually confident.” There were no close-ups of her famous “Boy Toy” belt buckle, though, which seems to put the lie to that point of view.

Madonna is an interesting figure because she used sexism to make a point. I remember watching a video of her in an art criticism class. She was walking down a runway, wearing a short coat or vest. When she got to the end of the runway, she opened her coat to reveal her naked breasts. A man in the audience actually leapt like a crazy man and was practically frothing at the mouth in glee. Who had the power in that situation?

If you’ve ever seen Madonna, you’d be hard-pressed to say that she’s been exploited, but I think it’s easier to see the trajectory with women entertainers who’ve come after her. Sexism is still so ingrained in our culture that women embrace their objectification. Are they really “sexually confident”? Or are they just doing what male producers say is necessary to get ahead? Considering the lack of analysis that goes into women’s roles these days, I say it’s the latter.

As I write this, there’s a furor over the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She is the daughter of privilege and not coincidentally a mover and shaker in Silicon Valley. Her book takes on the tedious question of whether women can have it all. Part of her message is that women don’t “lean in”—they choose not to lead. Aside from the fact that her message doesn’t relate to the experiences of poor and working class women, it seems to ignore the fact that women are socialized not to lead. STILL. It starts in grade school and continues throughout our lives.

I am so sick of the question, “Can women have it all?” Why doesn’t anyone ever ask, “Can men have it all?” The assumption is that men do have everything they need. If that means they have the best jobs and make the most money, I think that’s a pretty piss-poor definition of “all.” For women, of course, it means, “Can women have family and a career?” The answer is yes, obviously, yes, but only if we dramatically alter society.

In my view, it takes at least five adults to raise a child. In tribal societies, this is no problem. But in a capitalist society that encourages “nuclear” as the definition of “family” so that “human capital” can be easily moved to wherever the jobs are, we’re screwed. Add to that that men still aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to family and household chores, and you’ve got women as second-class citizens. STILL. So rather than blame women for still not doing enough, let’s take a big-picture view and ask what institutional blocks are in place that hold women back and which give men privileges.

Remember the Red Tent film? Earlier in this rant? What struck me was how we still have this dynamic of women coming together and finding some sort of power—and yet how it completely lacks a political component. Nowhere was sexism mentioned. Everything was seen in personal terms. Case by case. They missed the whole component of how societal pressures keep women from demanding complete power (here I mean power-from-within and power-with, not power-over (see Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance)). And they never examined what they could do once they stood up and declared themselves beautiful. Beautiful? Really? That’s it? Now, having gone through the process myself, I know that’s a key milestone to an experience as a woman, but is that really all we’re going for? Accepting ourselves for how we look? What about what we want?

It blows my MIND that, 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began, women are still coming to this process as newbies. And they will continue to do so as long as they remain ignorant of sexism as a systemic problem.

This week the Newshour reported on sexual assaults in the military. Of nearly 4,000 reported cases of assault last year, only 191 resulted in convictions. 191! And since under-reporting is so common, they estimate that the incidents of assault are actually closer to 19,000. This is not a case of women wearing dresses that are too short or being drunk or saying no when they mean yes or any of the zillions of other victim-blaming reasons given to make sure we treat each case as separate and unique. This is a violent culture. The problem is systemic. It cannot be fixed by one woman suing the military. It will take a top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top sea change in attitudes that see women as “less than.”

I remember in the 1990s when I was working with the leaders of all the main national Pagan groups in the U.S. to come up with a definition of “Paganism” that we could submit to dictionaries. Now, Paganism is the most inclusively diverse movement I know of. Most Pagans revere the Goddess over the God, and sometimes even to the exclusion of the God. It is all about women’s empowerment and about men being comfortable as whole human beings. It is feminist.

But when it came time to write that dictionary definition, I wasn’t allowed to use the word “feminist.” It was considered too controversial, too militant. Even though it was true. The final definition was “Collection of diverse contemporary religions rooted in indigenous traditions or deriving inspiration therefrom, characterized by a belief in the interconnection of all life, personal autonomy, and immanent divinities. Often nature-centered and supportive of gender equity.” Did you catch that? “Supportive of gender equity.” How lame. How tame. It’s like all those people who use the word “Wicca” instead of “Witchcraft.” “Wicca” isn’t a real word. It has no history, no meaning. That makes it safe to use in non-Pagan settings, but really, don’t we have the courage to move beyond that?

Where was I? Oh, right, in the middle of being frustrated.

If they do start a Red Tent in Brown County, I will go. I will check it out and be supportive of the women there and then I will open my mouth and probably be kicked out. Something really powerful happened to and for women in the 1970s and we have lost ground since then in many ways. Gloria Steinem said that they realized in the ’70s it would take over 100 years to change all the individual laws of discrimination against women, so it made more sense to push for the ERA and be done with it. And we came so close. But now we’re back to fighting institutionalized sexism one law at a time (just last week a state passed a law banning abortions after 6 weeks—many women don’t even know they’re pregnant at 6 weeks!).

Maybe we’ll just have to keep slogging through, one women’s circle at a time, one provocative book at a time. But until we start raising girls and boys differently, we’re not going to get very far. I do want to acknowledge the changes that have been made—I mean, look at me, I’m a textbook case of the privilege of being a liberated woman. I just want a holistic push for a societal transformation where all humans, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, orientation, you name it, are on an equal playing feel. I want us to be fully human, exploring all the colors of our selves and being safe to do so. I want us all to be strong and tender and bloody-minded and empathetic. I want change. I want liberation. I want the world.


The Shakespeare Party

February 10, 2013

I’ve just watched episode 2 of Shakespeare Uncovered, a great PBS miniseries exploring several of Shakespeare’s plays. I then took a quiz on the site to determine which Shakespeare character I am and I am Ophelia! Nooooo! For those who don’t know, she is Hamlet’s lover who eventually goes mad and kills herself. This will no doubt require 10 or 12 therapy sessions to unravel.

I am on another Shakespeare kick, reading A Theater-Goers Guide to Shakespeare, which investigates the context and meaning of each of The Bard’s 37 plays. I also have Shakespeare: The Basics on hold at the library. I read In Search of Shakespeare but found I was more interested in the analyses of the plays than in the biographical bits. So I am now on a binge of investigation into the plays’ inner workings.

The episode I watched today was allegedly about the comedies but really just focused on Twelfth Night and As You Like It. It reminded me of the Shakespeare party I organized with my then-friend Stacy Weeks back in the early 2000s. It was a blast.

Since I was familiar with all the plays, I got to choose which one to do. I chose As You Like It, since it’s the most sparkling and engaging comedy. I thought it would be more accessible than the heavier pieces like Hamlet or Richard III. I also must admit that I wanted a play with a juicy female role, and there is no better one in Shakespeare than Rosalind.

We wrote the names of all the characters on slips of paper and put them into a hat. We put all the characters in twice except for Rosalind, which went in once. And I am not ashamed to say that I bent the paper in such a way that I was able to snag it and get the part I wanted! In order to make sure that everyone had a chance to play a good-sized part (instead of assigning some poor sod a part with three lines), Person A would have say Jacques’ lines in one scene, while Person B would take his lines in the following scene. This let everyone have short and long speeches and take part in all the action.

We gathered in Stacy’s living room and dived in. At the end of Act I, Scene I, the collected company turned to me and asked almost in unison, “What the hell just happened?” Everyone was thrown by the language. I translated for them and we forged ahead. At the end of the next scene we did the same. But then everyone got into the flow and it was only occasionally at the end of an act that I would be called upon to summarize. It was beautiful to see how easily people got swept up into the text once they just surrendered. Only a few of them were actors—most of them were people who had only encountered plays as audience members.

My copies of the works of Shakespeare are not annotated. I find annotations extremely annoying. I count on the context to give me the meaning I need, and that works fairly well. If I were to play a character in an actual production, I would do more research, but I find there are plenty of clues in the text for casual reading.

At the end of two hours we had reached the end of one of the acts, I can’t remember which. It was the perfect time to take a break and take the pulse of the group. Did we want to leave it there or press on? To my delight, the majority enthusiastically voted to do the whole play. Only two or three people left due to other commitments.

The second half of the party is something of a haze in my mind due to the large quantities of sugar consumed. It seemed like everyone had brought some sort of baked good as a snack. Stacy’s table groaned under the weight of brownies, cakes, cookies, pies, and candy. And I ate Every Single Thing. Woot! We were all a little tipsy from the delight of the experience and the warped body chemistry.

One of the greatest things that bound our little company together was when we came across little sayings that we didn’t know originated with Shakespeare. This is one of my favorite things about reading his plays. “All that glisters is not gold” is not quite how we say it, but we still say it, 400 years later. It’s amazing how incredibly relevant he remains.

But the whole train came to a halt when “Bob” (I can’t remember his name) started speeding through “All the world’s a stage” and then pulled up short. There was a collective shiver among the group. Bob stood up, cleared his throat, and declaimed Shakespeare’s famous “The Seven Ages of Man” speech:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Sheer brilliance. We all sighed at the end and then applauded Bob. It was gorgeous.

After four and a half hours we reached the end of the play and collapsed in giddy exhaustion. We had an excited conversation about various aspects of the play and especially the character of Rosalind. She is possibly the most clever character in Shakespeare. She is multi-dimensional and fully realized. She’s not like the female characters you find in spy novels, reduced to sexual toys of men. She is a woman and a human in her own right. And she’s funny! As You Like It is brilliant from beginning to end, with a few detours courtesy of the cynic Jacques. I can think of no better adjective than “sparkling.” It is one of the best plays ever written.

I would love to host another Shakespeare party someday but I’d need a partner-in-crime with a comfy living room and I’d need willing participants. People are so afraid of Shakespeare, mostly due to bad high school experiences and pompous stage productions featuring men in tights, but it’s still very accessible. You don’t have to be a genius or an academic to appreciate it. Just look at Baz Luhrman’s brilliant Romeo + Juliet, which was a hit with teenagers. All you need is a willingness to surrender to the text, and Shakespeare will take care of you (though you might want to steer clear of  Titus Andronicus for starters :-)).