Author photo: Tina Vivian
Numéro Cinq publishes plays; hardly any other magazine does. I suppose people imagine that it’s a kind of travesty to fix in print something that should be alive, incarnate on the stage with actors and actresses, gesture and expression. But when the play closes, the words lie dormant, unseen, unheard, inaccessible. On top of that, I think there is an audience of would-be dramatists and even ordinary readers who want to know what a play looks like written down, to get some idea of the mysterious process that runs through author to page to director to actor to stage to audience. To me plays really are mysterious, strange, stripped-down pieces of writing, for the most part minus the character thought that drives narrative fiction, often highly and obviously constructed; and with a play, one is always aware, haunted even, by the vast difference between the words on the page and the final product on the stage, re-imagined, enacted, through the minds and gestures of the actors, all those theatrical things that are not and can never be written down on the page.
So once again I am really pleased to offer NC readers a piece of theater, this time from Robert Vivian, a Nebraska boy who once played baseball in college and then turned to writing (a lot like baseball) and has produced a huge and growing oeuvre of novels, essays, and, yes, plays (actually, a lot of plays). A Little Mysterious Bleeding is a monologue and shares much with Vivian’s fiction and nonfiction prose in that he has a predilection for meditation, for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, for large questions about existence, human nature and the puzzles of the heart. Vivian has a modernist bent; he seems to be writing about real people, but everything he writes tends to turn around a pattern of imagery. In this case, Chloe’s metonymic bleeding becomes the central image (symbol) of her struggle with the word “love.” It would be reductive to say that A Little Mysterious Bleeding is just the story of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a disappointed Harvard grad; rather, Vivian takes that premise and turns it inside-out like a sock and renders it mythic. But symbol and myth are equally grounded in deft characterization and precise psychological perception; the play flickers between the real and the symbolic. And the writing is mesmerizing: quotable line after quotable line.
Well, life as a playwright: Before I moved to Michigan 11 years ago, I was primarily working on plays, over 20 of which were performed in NYC. I also had several monologues in the 90s published in The Best American Monologue Series for men and women. Since moving to Michigan, though, I’ve focused primarily on creative prose in cnf and fiction. I’ve always loved theater but at a remove: I’ve never had any real interest in directing or acting. But to this day there’s nothing quite as electric as hearing one’s words spoken on stage with trained actors; it’s a kind of alchemy and music that I’ve never experienced in any other genre. I love the monologue as a form, and it has been the focal points in first three novels that are largely driven by a revolving cast of first person narrators, so I guess you could see I’ve taken what I learned from the stage and transferred it to the page. And for this I’m ineffably grateful.
— Robert Vivian
Cast Of Characters
A tiny old woman of indeterminate age. SHE could be anywhere from 70-100. Her small, even diminutive stature gives her a quality of elusiveness, her age hard to pin down. SHE wears rather drab, gender-neutral clothes: brown or green corduroy pants, a sweater of similar design, comfortable walking shoes. Her hair is very short, cropped close. SHE probably wears glasses, wire rimmed. Because SHE doesn’t wear makeup or accentuate her femininity in any way, SHE could almost be mistaken for a man.
Throughout the course of the play, CHLOE holds a clear glass mug of hot water from which SHE sips periodically. When SHE’S done drinking the water, the play is over.
A bare stage.
A bare stage.
CHLOE comes out eventually, smiling to the audience and cupping her hands around the clear mug of hot water. A long pause in which SHE surveys the people SHE’S going to address.
Every morning before the sun comes up I light a candle and sit in a bare empty room on the second floor of my house. I sit down Indian-style on a rug three by four feet, of paisley design. I bought it at K-Mart. Outside I can see a stark, bare Maple tree in my neighbor’s backyard, like a map against the sky. I sit there for awhile in this position, looking at the flame and then looking out the window, and I wonder to myself how I have made it through all the days, the months, the years, pages from the calendar falling like leaves. It’s a very peaceful time, the best part of the day.
Most of the people I’ve known or cared for have gone away or are dead. They all just went away, one by one, without much fanfare. Sometimes remembering them makes me sad, and sometimes it fills me with a tranquil feeling, like I really didn’t lose them at all.
(Holds out her hand, inspecting it.)
When I look at my hands I feel like they should belong to someone else. I can imagine what they’ll look like when I’m dead, and the thought isn’t as morbid as you think, just curious.
Have you ever wondered why people are so agitated all the time, why they’re so restless? I think about it a great deal. But I don’t have an answer.
I have an ordinary life, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. I’ve really never had to work for a living. When my husband Kenneth died, I inherited his pension and life insurance. And now I work three hours a day at a junior high school cafeteria—not because I have to, but because I like the work. We have our menu set up for the week and it’s very satisfying to make hot food for growing children, though I’ve never had any of my own.
I’ve become what people tend to dismiss or overlook, not out of malice, mind you, but because our stature makes us insignificant. Someone to take for granted. Not threatening in any way. An old woman. An ancient old woman with short white hair who lives alone, by herself, with three cats, one of whom is blind.
(Pause. SHE sips.)
You see, I haven’t done anything extraordinary with my life. I didn’t have children and I didn’t write books. I didn’t travel to distant places or ride on the back of an elephant, though I did get stranded in Nebraska once. I never thought of myself as exceptional in any way, different, or really worth remarking on. And this wasn’t because I felt worthless or lacked self-esteem—wasn’t because I suffered some terrible trauma in childhood. Nothing like that at all. In fact, about the only think people have consistently remarked on about me is the small size of my hands and fingers, almost like those of a child.
But you can’t take credit for that, can you, the size of your hands or the color of your hair or the sculpture of your cheekbones. No. None of that seems to matter too much, or really at all. So I live in a small house in central Michigan and my husband’s been dead for almost thirty years now. I have a few friends, not many. I don’t want a lot of friends because then they cease to be friends. My wants are few. I listen to the radio for two hours every morning. I work in the kitchen at the junior high school. I walk. I shop. I peer over the steering wheel like other old ladies, though I’d like to believe I’m a better driver at most, more alert, someone who actually drives the speed limit. So my life is in no way remarkable, or really worth dwelling on because it’s so, well, interior, private, regular.
But I do have a story to tell you. And I do have memories. They are the sum and total of a person’s life, and for that reason they probably should be mentioned. That’s why it’s so shocking for me to mention that I’ve been bleeding in my private parts for almost fifty years. Every time someone uses the word love I start to bleed. And I have a strange confession to make that I’m not too proud of related to this. Or rather that puzzles me. I do not love my fellow man. I do not love him. I have never loved him and I probably never will. I respect him, I can even work up some sympathy for him from time to time, but I do not love him. Love him. How could I, you see? The every day world with its sights and colors is far more interesting and more beautiful than my fellow man, or woman for that matter.
Did I love my husband? Did I love Kenneth all those years we were together? In the beginning, yes, maybe I did love him. It’s difficult to say now. When we were having sex, the way he would hold me very tightly. He liked to pin me down, you see. He liked to grab hold of my hair. And I went along with it. For the most part, I even enjoyed it to a point. But love? I think we should be very careful about using that word. We must approach it with dark goggles on or welding masks because the very use of it could melt us like chocolate on hot cement. Love. The word is like racing toward the sun at the speed of light, and when we get there, there will be nothing left of any of us because all of us will be consumed.
When I hear people using that word, in the supermarket, at the checkout line, I have this strange physical reaction that makes me shudder. I start to hemorrhage in my private place. I start to bleed. I can only use the word love when I’m speaking to someone like you, when I’m standing up in front of a group of people and I’m thinking out loud. But when I hear it in the mouths of others. When I read it in magazines and novels, I have the same reaction every time. First, a shudder like a cold wind passes through me, and then I get a sharp pain just beneath my abdomen. And then I start to bleed. Just a little trickle, a little clotting, usually nothing too severe. A few paw prints of blood. A little smear. And then I simply have to stop what I’m doing and go home, and close the door to the outside world. I have to get under the covers and breathe slowly, like an army of God’s angels is on its way from a distant, far-away place, coming to get me. Coming to snatch me away. Then I can start feeling normal again.
This is just hot water, by the way. I don’t drink coffee or tea. Once in a great while I will have a glass of wine, but it goes right to my head and fogs my thinking. I don’t like to be befogged. From my screened-in porch I like to watch people and cars pass by.
In the morning I can hear the rending of metal of metal coming from the scrap yard eight blocks away. Great iron cranes picking up old refrigerators and cars, dumping them from one pile to the other. I see these in my mind. No one has ever said the town I live in is beautiful. The sound is horrible, of course, the smashing and breaking of worlds, so when it stops, when the scrap yard isn’t in operation for whatever reason—snow or rain—the most wonderful silence descends. It makes the sounds of crashing metal almost worth it somehow.
When people use the word love, they should be very, very careful. They should be half-starved or beaten, whipped by suffering, on their knees trembling, naked and about to fall over. They must have to utter it almost despite themselves, because no other word in the world will do. They should be allotted the use of this word maybe three or four times in their whole lives. For some people, they should never use it. It should be absolutely forbidden them. If they do use it, one of their fingers should be cut off. I truly believe that.
When Kenneth was alive he was only vaguely abusive, and then in a dismissive kind of way. He never actually tried to hurt or harm me physically. More than anything, I think he was just disappointed. He carried his disappointment wherever he went, like an invisible hunchback. He took out his disappointment on me in different way. Now the real problem with Kenneth’s disappointment as far as I could tell is that he could never locate the source of it, could never pin it down. It was just there with him, and he dragged it into every room he ever entered. His disappointment was elusive but all consuming.
One day he came home from work and I was preparing vegetables for dinner, Brussel sprouts of all things, which we almost never had. Kenneth looked very tired, and angry in a sullen kind of way. And I asked him, How was your day, dear? And he was a long time in answering. In fact, I don’t think he heard me so I repeated the question. But he was no more interested in answering my question than he was before. I stood there with a strainer in one hand, trying to smile through lipstick I didn’t really believe in, and after a long time, a great long time while we stood looking at each other with no other sound but boiling water and the pungent smell of Brussel sprouts, he suddenly said, Bloody. Fucking. Cunt.
(Sip. Pause. Sip.)
Naturally, in a situation like that, you wonder what you did wrong. You play back the events of the day and the recent past and the past before that and try to figure it all out, how A led to B led to C and so on. Kenneth knew perfectly well that the C-word was my least favorite word in the whole English language. I didn’t like to hear it as a girl and I never got over my repugnance. I certainly didn’t like to hear coming from my husband’s mouth.
For my part, I neither cried or asked him just why he used that language with me. Later, long after the bleeding started, I thought back to his hateful language in the kitchen and all the little details that comprised that moment. The steam and pungent odor of the sprouts. The cats slinking in and out of the kitchen. The peeling wallpaper, the burnished teakettle. The feeling of desolation, of being in some way or another in touch with the vastness of hell. The clock seemed to be smiling at me with a certain satisfied grin, and I never said, I never even thought, I will not have this. I will not tolerate this. Instead I noticed the patterns of tile on the floor from my aerial view, and I remember thinking back to my mother, whom I once discovered in a fit of hysterical weeping that seemed to come out of nowhere. And I suddenly thought I understood exactly how she felt.
The problem with the word love is that it tends to spin out of control like a gyroscope, it starts to expand and rise up into the air leaving the person behind who said it anchored to the ground. Nailed down almost. And there was never any specific moment that made me feel that way about love. First came the bleeding, and then some kind of rationale lagging behind it.
Kenneth always wore black dress socks no matter what the weather or occasion and I wanted to tell him that this didn’t attract me to him in any way, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He went to Harvard College and I don’t think he ever got over the experience. He told me many times that the four years he spent at Harvard were the best years of his life, and he couldn’t hope to bring back their glory in anything he did after graduating, certainly not at the bank where he worked in the middle of Michigan. I kept hoping and looking for evidence of his intelligence that made him smarter than other people, but I’m afraid to report that after living with him for decades I didn’t really see any. Oh, he was intelligent, don’t get me wrong, he was a smart man, but he was also kind of petty in a way. Harvard made Kenneth feel special, apart from most other people, and I could never tell him, I could never say, I know it’s a fine school and it’s enjoyed a very good reputation for a long time, but there are other good schools too and they don’t, well, they don’t create the same kind of wistful longing and even snobbery that Harvard does. I’m sorry but they don’t.
But in other ways my life with Kenneth was special. Even though he wore black dress socks every day of his life and he was very disappointed, he insisted that we have sex almost every day we lived together. Our routine developed into a very familiar and predictable pattern: Kenneth would come home at 6:00, we would talk for maybe twenty minutes, after a suitable period of silence, of course; and then he would gently push me in the direction of the staircase, his hands on my rear end, and we’d go up to the bedroom where we’d take off all our clothes. I don’t have to tell you what happened after that. None of these daily rendezvous’ ever produced children, but that didn’t bother Kenneth and it didn’t bother me.
Sometimes Kenneth would weep in bed, holding up my hands and saying, Look at them—they’re so small. And then he would nibble on my fingertips. And with my free hand I would stroke his balding head and notice the crystals of dandruff that had accumulated over the course of the day.
But back to the word love. It’s a slippery slope, you see, a street widening out into eternity. I’ve heard stories of love, we all have, and they are properly called love stories, but I can honestly say that not one of them has ever measured up to that one word love. The stories really weren’t about love at all but something else. Maybe affection. Maybe revenge. Maybe a kind of fatalism.
When I hear the word love and start to bleed it’s very much like a small, gentle trickle in a dark, moist cave and the pain is very slight, almost like a shiver. No doctor has ever been able to explain why this happens to me, and I gave up trying to find a rational explanation almost right away. And I’m sorry, I don’t believe in therapists and people who make their living listening to the pain and misery of others. If it were up to me, the people who call themselves therapists would have to work hard labor digging tunnels or working out on highways. I just don’t have any patience or sympathy for therapists at all.
The thing you must do when you hear the word love is to stop what you’re doing and slowly, very slowly stand up as straight as you can. You must believe with your whole, entire heart that your very life is about to end in a few moments. And then you must very, very diligently go over the course of your life and honestly ask yourself when love was really in your heart. When it was more than a feeling and was the only reality there was. If you don’t do that when you hear the word love, then, I’m sorry, you’re fooling yourself and making a mockery of the only thing that matters.
Kenneth liked to throw dinner parties every other week, and so I got very used to having guests in our small, lovely house. Kenneth was even more attracted to me in the midst of a group of people than when we were alone. I was always bustling about, laughing and interacting with them and filling up their glasses.
Some times the way he looked at me reminded me of certain nature shows I had watched, like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, for instance, and the predators, the lions and the cheetahs and the leopards before they moved in for the kill. He was so focused on my every move. I’ve heard from other women that some men take them for granted and even ignore them in groups of people, but I have to say that Kenneth grew very conscious of me, his pupils almost dilating. It was a ritual, a dance, a ceremony. Kenneth had a long, craggy forehead and rapidly receding hair-line that could make him look formidable on occasion. One of our friends even remarked that his head resembled a bust of Gustave Mahler, whom I had never heard of before the comparison was made.
Who is Mahler? I asked, and the way that Kenneth glared at me when I asked this question was something I’ll never forget. He looked shocked, hurt, even outraged. Some times Kenneth didn’t like the guilelessness of my questions—and then other times he really seemed to find them funny, almost cute. It depended what kind of a mood he was in.
(Pause. Sip. Sip.)
Now when I get up in the morning, I sit for a time at the end of my bed. Usually the cats are on the bed covers, perked up and listening. They’re waiting for me to make the first move. I say to myself very quietly, Today I will discover what love is. Today I will discover what love is. Today I will discover what love is. Saying these words never fails to make me aware of my ignorance and failings, my own fumblings. I feel ready for a brand new day. And even though for a long time now each day resembles the next very closely, I have grown so sensitive to the slightest nuance of change that it’s quite enough for me. A patch of sunlight on the wooden floor. The dust motes floating just above it. The cats and the tiny thousands and thousands of filaments of hair that make up their fur. The sounds of the house, a squirrel running across the roof. The way my mug feels when I pick it up in the morning, solid and smooth, like something has fallen into place.
Then no single day is exactly like any other day, and then I’m glad to be alive because I’m here. And that’s all. There’s nothing else I can do or say about it because I’m a very limited creature. Do I talk to God? Sure, I do. In my own special way. But mostly it feels like I’m just waiting, I’m just sitting or standing here for something to come and collect me. Of course, I have no idea when that time will be or what it will look like, but I welcome it all the same.
When Kenneth died, I wore the brightest dress I had. I didn’t cry and I didn’t try to look somber. His death came after a long battle with cancer and I was there with him every step of the way, sleeping at the hospital toward the very end, washing him, changing his clothes, helping him to go to the bathroom. I wore bright colors because I was actually happy for him, as anyone would be after all the pain and anguish.
One night when he was still at home I went out to get some groceries and when I came back there was this terrible stench in the house. I knew just what it was, of course. I put the food away very deliberately, and for some reason I’ll never understand, I started whistling as I walked up the stairs. I knew Kenneth would be waiting for me, that his intense gray eyes would burn into mine. I whistled and I found on those stairs that, under those conditions, that I was actually a very good whistler.
When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw the light on at the end of the hallway and Kenneth was looking at me. Fiery tears burned in his eyes. And then I let him tell me what I knew he was going to say, because he had to say it and it was very, very holy. I beshat myself, he said. And I went over and kneeled by the side of the bed, took his hand in mind, and kissed it on the knuckles. I beshat myself. I know it, dear. I don’t want to live this way anymore. I know that, sweetheart.
Then I started to clean him up, wiping between his legs with a warm wet cloth, going over his anus, his penis, his testicles he liked me to fondle so much when we were having sex.
Even though the real issue before us was his act of soiling himself, and then being unable to do anything about it. To have to wait for me to return, lying there in his own feces, his bowels a part of himself he could no longer control. But I’ll never forget the way he said, I beshat myself, for it was the most remarkable and dignified thing he ever told me, nobler and truer than the few times he said, I love you. I felt closer to him in cleaning up his waste then I had at any other time in all the years we were together, and I’m fairly confident in believing he shared those same feelings. I don’t often use the word awe in every day experience, but I felt a sense of awe in cleaning him up. And I’ve some times thought that all those precious years were just a preparation for that one night in the bedroom, when I cleaned up his shit and we didn’t say a word to each other the whole time.
You’ll want to know more about the house and how I live, why it is I’m standing in front of you and saying these rather bold things. Why it matters. How one thing leads to another and how the connections between them are some times hard to decipher.
Where I grew up, there was a field behind the back of the house. I spent a lot of time in that field, walking among the tall grass and the wild flowers. My parents encouraged me to play outside as much as I could. They wanted me to breathe the open air. As an only child I had to learn how to entertain myself, and this I learned to do quite nicely. I’m not saying that I didn’t have friends my age or that I didn’t like to be around people because I did, I did like to be around people. But just as often I preferred to be by myself, exploring the world on my own.
Something very strange happened to me when I was about twelve years old. I supposed that’s an age when a lot of strange things occur. There was a slightly retarded man who lived in the neighborhood. His name was Pat. Pat drooled a little, and when he walked he a sloping kind of gait. He must have been in his thirties when I knew him. I always thought he was interested in me, that he wanted to talk to me alone. He liked to memorize bus schedules and other numerical facts. And one it happened. I was out in the field in the late afternoon. The house looked like it was a long ways away, but it couldn’t have been. I was never more than an acre from home. When it was dinner time my mother would come out and call my name, or, even better, she would ring the dinner bell. Then I would race home, pretending that the shadows were chasing me like a tide, about to overcome me.
At the far edge of this field was a stand of trees where I some times went to be by myself. Sometimes I brought my rag doll Molly with me. Other times I just went there and sat in the lower branch of a sycamore tree. I was playing jacks in a circle in the dirt. I remember my yellow dress was dusty. I had taken off my sandals. I knew very well that my mother could see from the kitchen window, though I couldn’t see her. It was reassuring for both of us. The prospect of her watching me changed the way I played. I was a good girl and I didn’t want to disappoint her.
Well, one day Pat came out to where I was playing, and I saw him coming from a distance. I thought my mother must have seen him too. The locusts were crying out from dry, dark hiding places. I saw Pat and I wondered if my mother was watching the two of us. In retrospect, I don’t think she did. But for the life of me, I can’t say why. Pat came up to me and quickly said, Want to show you something, want to show you something. What is it, Pat, I said, what do you want to show me? Then he grabbed my hand and we started walking very quickly toward the trees. He was pulling me along. I kept looking back at the house, wondering if my mother was seeing all of this. Pat was trembling and he was very excited and I started to feel a little scared. I didn’t think he would hurt me, but Pat was much stronger than I was so pretended nothing was wrong. So we went into the trees. What do you want to show me, Pat? Then he dropped his pants and started to masturbate in front of me. I was only about five feet away. He was uncircumcised and had the largest penis I have ever seen. Then he ejaculated and his semen landed just a few inches short of my bare feet, like tiny studs of liquid pearl. And the air between us was filled with the smell of his sex.
Then Pat was crying and he was very upset. He kept saying sorry over and over again. I didn’t say anything to him and I slowly backed out of the woods and ran home as fast I could. He was a retarded man and there were some things he had no control over. But whenever I saw him after that, I did my best to stay away from him. If I saw him coming down the road, I was gone. I never let him get within ten feet of me again. Yet I felt sorry for him, and I have to say now that he taught me a valuable lesson, especially about men in particular. And that is they many of them, perhaps even the majority, are constantly looking for an opportunity to drop their pants. I have to say that his desperate act in the woods was one of the most honest and straightforward acts I have ever come across in all my years of living. He showed me a human being truly is, even though at the time I didn’t understand it. And now I’m just a little ashamed that I was so afraid of him.
It does make me wonder what makes a life. And who lives it exactly, never mind why. How do you balance the terrible tension between what you truly are and what you want to be. How do you balance that. Weigh the scales. Not to mention how you want others to look at you, the worst obstacle of all. What do you shut out. How do you remember. What do you remember. What does it all add up to. Why bleed at the mention of the word love. Why do people say things they do not mean—and then fool themselves into believing their own false intensions. Famine. War. The unimaginable misery and despair of millions of people across the globe. Cruelty. Basic, every day cruelty that goes undetected, unreported, but felt all the same. Then the moments of compassion, real empathy, tenderness even. The birth of an act of love. The small, precious seedling of it. An old woman cannot tell you these. Can an old woman tell you about these? I do not know. I have my doubts. Still. Something compels. Impels us. I am not the woman I used to be.
But was she, that other woman, that other woman I used to be, was she somehow not allowed to be who and what she truly was? Or did she not allow herself? And what does it matter either way? I can only tell you that I wanted Kenneth to be strong. I only wanted him to be what he was made to be—the way he was at the very end. Not all of this dilly-dallying. That small-time despair. His Harvard degree. His general fog of disappointment. Because death is not a possibility but a certainty it would be very helpful to act as though whatever time you have been given is not truly yours but a precious loan of some kind, each one very specific to the individual. If you should waste it. That really should be unthinkable, don’t you think?
I have always had this strange feeling of the unreality of so much around me, billboards and salt shakers, advertisements in magazines, television shows, polished fingernails. And I find myself constantly asking, What is the real nature of things? And am I sound enough in heart and mind to see it? A branch against the sky. That is real. The sounds coming from the scrap yard, like the fallout from another world. That is real. Mangled and twisted metal. A child’s cry coming from the alley. A child who has hurt himself. Can I, would I say my dreams are real?
Kenneth used to tell me stories about his childhood, but only under certain conditions. His story-telling followed a strange ritual, you see. First it seemed to come out of a vague sense of anger or uneasiness, like when he came home after work. He’d sit in his chair with a drink in his hand and stare off into space. Or he listened to classical music. He looked so tragic sitting in his overstuffed chair with a glass of scotch in his hand.
I learned very early on in our marriage not to talk to him too much when he first got home. He thought the bank where he worked and the people he worked with were somehow beneath him. He used to say over and over again how he had no idea how he ended up in a small town in the middle of Michigan. He used to say that quite a lot. I don’t know how I ended up here. I don’t know how I ended up here. He must have said this at least five hundred times over the years. The effect of this one sentence on me was something I could never communicate to him. Whenever he said, I don’t know how I ended up here, I would have to stifle this terrible desire to laugh out loud, laugh right in front of him and keep on laughing. Not because I thought it was funny and not to make fun of him. But because to me his saying that was just so preposterous. I don’t know how I ended up here. Maybe I should have said to him, Kenneth, I don’t think anyone know exactly why they end up in the place they do, doing a particular kind of work in a particular environment. There were many, many times in the course of our time together when I felt like laughing, but didn’t because I didn’t want to hurt him to get the wrong impression. And you know what an awful feeling that is, to try to keep from laughing. I don’t know how I ended up here. I don’t know how I ended up here.
(Laughs heartily and warmly.)
Said in the proper spirit or frame of mind, it can sound like the most amazing thing ever, the most mysterious, the most unexpected. You could learn to appreciate that one sentence more than anything else in your life.
Because I always felt that Kenneth was a riding a fence. On one side of the fence was a quiet astonishment and joy and on the other side was the most dismal and appalling sense of failure and inadequacy. And it was nothing I could ever tell him. I wanted to tell him, You’re disappointed so much because only see what you want to see and not what is. In this respect, Harvard really screwed him up because he felt at the age of twenty that he was entitled to certain things, that he was assured a certain way of life. And the odd thing is he really did have the way of life he wanted but not where he wanted to have it.
Often when Kenneth was on top of me I wondered how this lion-headed man who simply had to be inside of me at least once a day could be so witless, could be so far off the mark in terms of his own life. And when he groaned and came inside of me I wanted to hold him against the darkness of his own ignorance, the trembling flicker of my body like some small flame for him to see by. Then he really was like a little boy, a spent, exhausted little boy. And then I could protect him almost until the next time. He even said to me once, Chloe, I have to have sex with you so much because I’m basically in despair, and that was one of the few times when I did laugh out loud because I really couldn’t help it. My own husband didn’t realize how happy he was because he was so busy worrying about what he should have had rather than what he did have. He was very stupid that way. Maybe I didn’t give him enough credit because he wasn’t at all offended when I did laugh that time.
But now I’m of the opinion that you can’t tell people how stupid they are, they must realize it for themselves. They must come to it very slowly and carefully and clearly. There’s no rushing this absolutely crucial process. The light either gets brighter or it gets darker and darker, but the important thing to remember is that it’s still always there.
We’re all living according to some symptoms or other. Mine just happens to be a little mysterious bleeding that happens at the mention of the word love. When I’m long past the age of menopause, when I should be, to put it quite crudely, all dried up. The trickling sensation when this occurs is just a very slight chill and tremor, like a shiver of cold wind passing through me. I never told this to Kenneth because I didn’t want to upset him.
At some point in my life or other I had heard or read about people, the vast majority of them women, who bled at certain crucial times or for religious reasons, who bled out of their palms because they loved Christ, for instance. And although I did grow up in the Presbyterian Church, I never had any mystical visions or union with God’s son. I was religious but there are limits to these things. No, my bleeding started in the second year of my marriage to Kenneth, when I was twenty-three years old. I remember it very clearly the first time it happened. My period had just ended two days before because I remember saying that to myself as a kind of reminder. Unlike some women I have never suffered particularly badly at the outset of menstruation, almost never had cramps. But this was different. This was a very personal kind of bleeding beyond the ticking of my biological clock. It had its own time zone entirely.
It was one of those rare occasions that Kenneth and I went out for dinner. Something bad had happened at the office and he just had to get out of the house, he said. We had traveled about half an hour to find a decent restaurant. Kenneth looked morose as usual, hunched over his cocktail like some kind of very intelligent ape. His eyes took in everything, but they rarely settled on me. I was chatting away amicably. The waitress finally came around to get our orders. I pointed to the menu and I said, I would love this avocado soup, and I’d love this penne pasta dish. And that’s when I felt this chill run through me, the shiver I would come to know so well.
Can a pain be sharp and dull at the same time? This one was. I excused myself from the table and went to the ladies’ room because I had white panties on. And I walked as fast as I could, like I was standing over a dam that was ready to break.
Now, the question was, did I really love avocado soup? Did I really love penne pasta? Or was I just so excited to be out of the house myself that I gave over to a far-fetched exaggeration? There was no question that I liked them very much—even craved them in a way. But did I love them? No, I could honestly say I did not love them.
I remember sitting in the stall, examining myself, and suddenly it came to me how I had used to word love. If tissue paper was ever a sign of deliverance, this time it was. I saw the blood inside my panties, and it was just a paw print, a filigree almost, the stamp of my genetic code. Spotting, as it is commonly called. But it was a warning, some might even say a revelation. A herald of things to come. Suddenly I was very ashamed of myself. I knew what I had done and how I had erred. I knelt down on the cold tile as muzak flooded the room. I whispered to the toilet seat, to the water in the toilet bowl, I do not love avocado soup. I do not love penne pasta. I am sorry for how I said you.
Then I got up and my head felt like it was full of peculiar, light air, Helium almost, tinged with the fragrance of something vaguely metallic. Pennies, most likely. My own blood, my own iron. I thought my head was about to float off of my shoulders. Some people are slow learners and some people learn very quickly. I learned very quickly because my body was the proof. Without a formal education, without a mystical vision, I swore in that bathroom never to use the word love again until I felt it flood throughout my whole body, and I have been faithful to that vow ever since. But the problem was and continues to be how the word is used by others. At first it was bewildering and very upsetting. Kenneth always complained about how I was always running off to the bathroom. If a neighbor stopped by, I love your curtains, I love your blouse, then I was off to the bathroom.
If we were hosting a dinner party and someone said, I love Mexico or I love New York or I love the soprano voice, then I was gone three times, I was bleeding, I wouldn’t stop, the blood came trickling out of me, even on those rare occasions when they actually meant what they were saying. And after a few experiences like this, Kenneth began to notice, but not to the point that he actually took a real interest. He just frowned in a very disapproving way. When our guests had all left, he might ask, What was all that running around about? And I couldn’t tell him. I just couldn’t tell him what was happening to me.
And you, dear children, dear people, what symptoms are you living with? What bodily signs of disaffection? The only way I could make sure that blood wasn’t coming out of me in a more or less steady stream was to be home a lot or with Kenneth. This was compounded over time. Wars came and went. Assassinations. New inventions, vaccines. Riots. I heard all about them in due time, but as a kind of after-echo. But none of these were any more real than the trickle of blood between my legs when someone used the word love.
Did I suffer from loneliness? Did I become more and more of a recluse. I would like to think not, that my life just took a different but inevitable direction and that I went with it. Hysterical bleeding. Outbursts of sorrow for the whole human condition. But no. It wasn’t like that. It was much more personal, close-fitting, like a destiny that had been waiting for me to walk into it and fill it up. Would you believe Kenneth never caught on, never once discovered me in the act of bleeding? Even if he did call that ugly word in the kitchen. Maybe a part of him knew. Maybe he understood in a way he couldn’t explain, even to himself. That didn’t make rational sense. My body became a weather vane, a lightening rod. And I remember trying to look back over my life and isolate some moment when this peculiar sensitivity was born in me, when I realized my body was meant for strange things. But I could never think of any single defining moment when such a space and sorrow were created.
The one thing I have always regretted in my years with Kenneth was pretending to be less intelligent than I was. I didn’t want to shock him too much. Or worse, let him know what I truly thought of most things. Kenneth was a history major in college and he always wanted things to be in neat little categories, stacked like crates, or he just chose to ignore them. He spent most of his life thinking about the past, his own past and what he thought of as the more glorious past before that. How could I confront him with the fact that the past he loved so much didn’t actually exist, that it was only his sentimental imagination replaying what could have been? Kenneth was well-spoken and he read a great many books and knew how to dress, and he had the most elegant handwriting of anyone I have ever seen, but beneath these, my poor dear husband was just a boy playing with sand castles, with motes he dug up with his own manicured hands. He thought he was a tragic figure, but the truth was he was only slightly ridiculous and very self-absorbed.
Did he love me? Did the word that caused me so much grief and consternation make it magically out of his mouth to find a resting place in my heart? Well, the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know if he did love me. Or if I really loved him, for that matter. On the whole I think not. But I never strayed from him, not once in all those years.
(Sip. Pause. SHE hesitates to speak. SHE speaks.)
On the other hand, just because a little old woman with a haircut like a man bleeds at the mention of the word love doesn’t mean love doesn’t exist. Look into your lives. Look into your minds. What actual place does love have in these places? You are alive, aren’t you? Breathing, wondering about the next thing or the last thing, checking your wallet to see how much money you have, looking at your watch. Maybe you grind your teeth at night. The mirrors keep fogging up in the bathroom. And where is the love in all these places? Where is it? Not can you touch it and hold it. But where is it? Is it a property of the earth, or do we graduate to it when we die? Because I have to say I don’t see much evidence of it here. So where does it properly belong? Are you in the midst of it? Are you lashed back and forth by its invisible flames?
At three o’clock every day of the week the school buses drive by my front porch. Children walk by on the sidewalk in front of my house. There’s quite a fleet of them. They’re so carefree, almost reckless. I study them. I memorize their faces, postures, the way some of the boys swing their back packs. They’ll never be this carefree again, this in-tune with the present moment. The touches, the sounds, their own impressions. They are delirious with joy, all because a bell rang in the hallway and they were free to go. And they walk out of red brick building into the sun, and they are free in that moment wherever they are gong or whatever their home life is like. Now, quickly, tell me: is that love? I think the single best thing I have done with my life is to keep the secret of my bleeding. To be in a close marriage all those years and never let on what was happening to me. I really don’t know how I did it. Was I made for this, a little mysterious bleeding I kept to myself? I think I would have to say yes.
In the morning when I sit in front of the candle, certain images come to me. I think about Kenneth and our time together. But beyond those my childhood sometimes returns to me in vivid shards and pieces, teasing me to complete a bigger picture. At the cafeteria I see these rows and rows of children lined up for food, food that I have a small part in preparing. My apron is smeared and stained. Jesus is in the back, feverishly washing dishes. There’s a general clatter and commotion like there’s no way we’ll feed all of them, that the whole endeavor day after day is held together by a single piece of invisible twine. It can be cut at any moment. To feed five hundred growing bodies is no easy task. The tiles in the kitchen are lime green, and we’re all required to wear hair nets. Three hours a day I give them.
There’s a little boy named Sean—I don’t know his last name—who walks with a terrible, rocking limp. I think one leg is shorter than the other. He wears very thick glasses. And when you look at the food we prepare, where quantity is elevated above quality, the rumors of cafeteria food and mystery meat not unfounded—you see that the portions of the food are almost identical. If you have a wedge of green jello with a slice of pear on top, you can be sure each dish is almost exactly the same. Same with the apple crisp and so on down the line. Uniformity is important because it’s one of the few things we can control.
When Sean enters the line—I can see him from my corner in the kitchen—I wait for him to make it up to the serving line. I even get a little nervous, if you can believe that. I so want him to be happy. To like his meal. I don’t know why exactly. It’s important that I see him make his way among the heating plates and bright lamps. Some times I can’t see his eyes for the glare off his glasses. People live like this all the time. More private secrets. If I could make his food anything other than what it actually is, mediocre, full of starch, heavily processed, heavily sugared, I would do it all for him. I would change our menu and prepare him something extraordinary. Mussels over pasta. Risotto. But the reality is, I can only do my part in this vast preparation. I can only oversee the preparation of the vegetables, usually some anemic beans or carrots. If I had a choice though, if I controlled the whole process, things would be different. If only for him.
But is this love? Some times Kenneth liked to take me for long drives out on the highway. Let’s go for a drive, he’d say. And usually we’d travel two, three hours without saying a word to each other. I didn’t mind. There was never an awkward silence between us. He would reach over and put his right hand on my thigh. He had very strong hands and he would squeeze my leg just above the kneecap. We would travel at 60 mph this way, his hand on my leg, watching the patchwork design of the dismal farms pass by.
If Kenneth could have had a job where he drove most days, I think he would have been happier. Not much, but a little. There was something about the open road that appealed to him, that made his heart expand with possibility. He relaxed his normally grave expression, became almost serene in his thoughtfulness. I never asked him, Are you happy with me? I didn’t ask him questions like that at all. With Kenneth I had great confidence that he needed me, needed something only I give him. And I never had to worry too much about bleeding when it was just the two of us. I had ways to manage it.
With his hands on the steering wheel, looking out over the horizon, Kenneth was as happy as he could possibly ever be. And that was enough for me. As I came to discover the problem with my bleeding was that it was rooted in a sense of injustice that ran through me like a river. You grow up believing that there are simple truths, right and wrong. But when they break down, something else more troubling and more real must take their place. I have never wanted to take my own life, but there have been times when I wished I were dead. Slowly bleeding to death if necessary. I love your hair. I love your dress. I love my country. (beat) No. No. I’m afraid not. It doesn’t work that way. People have been saying such things since the birth of language. But you know, it’s almost never true. It can’t be true. Because of the bleeding I was forced to examine these things, to live them out in a sense. I never had the luxury of dismissing them either way. I just bled. I had to ask myself difficult questions, cosmic questions, and I couldn’t just stop there. With accepted truths and facts. My body would not let me. It forced me to keep on going. It put the pressure on. My body did not let me ease into these things.
Some times I would watch Kenneth sleeping. I would go to the bathroom and relieve myself or drink a glass of water. Then I would come back and stand in the doorway, often silvered in the moonlight. Where we live in Michigan the night is often gray so everything takes on a somber tone, like a black and white movie. The first thing you need to know about Kenneth’s sleeping was that it was very deep and peaceful—his sleep seeped into the woodwork, into the covers of the bed. In the moonlight sleeping with his noble forehead he looked very impressive.
I had hoped on a few occasions that this was how he would look on his deathbed. I was rehearsing for his death, counting the days, marking its far-off approach. I remember reading somewhere that only drama without movement was truly beautiful. Here it was. And I would think how strange it was that he had to be inside me once or twice a day, and if that was at all related to the quality of his slumber. On the whole I didn’t think so. His deep sleep was a fluke, a gift from God. And watching someone sleep when you yourself are wide awake can lead to strange thoughts and feelings. I would stand in the dark and I would whisper the same thing over and over again, I’m bleeding, Kenneth. I’m bleeding. I wanted him to hear it, to know it in a subconscious way. The burden of a secret is that some times makes you feel unreal, unsubstantial, like a ghost passing through walls. I’m bleeding, Kenneth. I thought if I could share even a small part of this mystery with him, then I would not be alone to struggle with it myself.
You get up in the middle of the night, your husband is off in a profound sleep, and you say these things. You utter them with perfect clarity just below a whisper. I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding. To make the bleeding real. And if you press a warm washcloth between your legs to staunch the flow when it isn’t your time, you want to tell at least one person in the world about it.
I never regretted not having children. But that lack of regret can come up and bite you. If you are trying to figure out why your body behaves in a certain way that no one can really explain, the last thing in the world you think about is having children. It simply doesn’t occur to you. If you yourself don’t quite work properly, why would you want to pass that on to someone else? Besides, Kenneth wanted me all to himself. He cornered me in every room I ever entered with him, like a knee-jerk reaction.
If you start bleeding and you cannot stop it in any way other than removing yourself from a certain situation, then, why, that’s exactly what you do. You take yourself out of the equation. And if in addition to that your husband hovers over your every move in mixed company, then you are fleeing almost all the time, trying to get away from the thing you can’t, yourself and the strange vessel your own body has become. My own quiet life therefore had a feverish intensity to it, it glowed and burned me whenever I tried to touch it myself. My life. My life. The one that was give to me by so many complex factors it beggars the imagination.
To stand outside of your life and watch it happening, while at the same time being right in the middle of it is a condition that only suggests to me that my life, my precious, personal life, isn’t even mine. It’s somebody else’s. Otherwise, why would I bleed at the mention of the word love? And this singular, burning question has never left me alone. I either bled because love was misused, or it was the only thing there is and I was pouring myself out to meet it. Or love is only blood. Can only be blood. Unmixed and problematic. Or it’s all of these things. Oh, I talked to God on numerous occasions. I asked him questions and I didn’t mince my words. I was direct and I was hurting and I was bewildered. Only later did peace come, flooding me in the morning. Opening up inside of me in front of the candle, watching the world come awake.
Bleeding was the most mysterious, unaccountable thing that ever happened to me. In all other areas of my life, I was normal. Normal house. Normal upbringing. Middle-class all the way. Even Kenneth’s passion for me my body, his insatiable need of it, was normal. How could it not be? But the bleeding. Ah, that was special. And I’d read the papers. I’d watch the news. I’d hear of people getting killed in car accidents, fires, murders. Incurable diseases. I would watch people come and go in the neighborhood, friends who stopped being friends, though nothing really happened to bring about the end of friendship. They just stopped being friends. And I’d hear of catastrophes in far-off lands, places I had never been, earthquakes, genocide, mass starvation. Was my bleeding connected to any of it? Was my bleeding the world and the world was my bleeding? And I came to a remarkable answer in response to that question, which was, yes, it must be. Because when you really think about, if you are really alive, it can’t be any other way, though the circumstances of my exterior life were perfectly normal.
You are going along in your life, and you are dissatisfied or miserable—and you want to be somewhere, anywhere else, and you everything you do or say is just dust, it’s all just dust. Then that gray period suddenly changes and you realize, no, I’ve known real joy, real happiness, and it’s not anywhere else because there is nowhere else. It’s here. It’s right here, like looking for spare change under the sofa cushions only to realize you have a twenty dollar bill in your pocket. I mean, why all the fuss? If you want to change, stay where you are. Observe what’s going on around you. Listen. Pay attention. And you will change. Change will run its course through you.
I only saw one act of violence in my life. I pulled into the parking lot at the supermarket. I think we were out of eggs. I was a very inefficient shopper, always having to go back because I had forgotten something. It used to aggravate Kenneth very much. Anyway, I pulled into the parking lot and I noticed a man in another car. His wife or girlfriend was with him. I could tell they were having an argument just by their body language. People were coming in and out of the store, walking by their car, pushing their shopping carts. I think it was two o’clock in the afternoon, a rare sunny day. And he suddenly just lashes out and hits her with the back of his hand. Her head snapped back, and then she bowed her head and leaned it against the dash board.
I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed what I had just seen, but nobody seemed to notice. It was inconceivable that I had been the only one to witness this violent abuse. By this time the man had seen me watching him. We locked eyes. He knew I had watched him. A small, almost undetectable smile came across his face. What should I do? Should I go into the supermarket and act like nothing had happened? Should I call the police, Kenneth, someone? Instead I found myself walking toward his car on legs that were really not my own. Scraps of bright litter like confetti were blowing by my ankles, and I sincerely wished I could be one of them. The truth was in that instant that I did not really want to be alive. But I walked toward him anyway and he watched me come on, waiting for me.
I went to her side of the car. I leaned in. I touched her on the shoulder, and when she looked up at me I could see that she had a bloody nose. Leave him, I said. Just leave him. And his hand shot out across her body and held my arm. Like a steel cable. It was a very tense moment. Then she breathed out and cried, I got no place to go. The man let go of me. He was laughing. I wanted her to listen to me. To hear my voice. My voice was high and raspy, like a kite stuck in a tree. Then the man peeled out of the parking lot, and I could see that he didn’t even have license plats. So she was gone, and I never saw her again. Though I still wonder about her from time to time. I wonder if she’s still alive.
My bleeding took on different shapes over the years, in slightly different colors and moods and degrees of intensity. Some times it came on like a slow movement in music. Other times the pangs were quite sharp, and I doubled over. I tried different herbs and remedies. I went out of my way to consult obscure, even esoteric sources. For the symptoms. For the bleeding that was mine. The slow undertow of it was pulling me outward, sweeping me away. My body was like a life raft or a piece of floating Styrofoam, riding down an invisible current. Kenneth clamored for my body, he wanted to be inside of me as much as he possibly could. Between my bleeding and our intercourse I was very busy, beset even.
I wanted to be a good wife. I thought I was. But the bleeding proved to me that I had other responses, other things that made their way through me. Some times you just want to be left alone, but I couldn’t tell Kenneth that. At the very worst of it I was bleeding almost continuously, a slow stream that made its way through the dark center of my body. I stayed inside the house more and more. I didn’t want to see any body. There was no one’s face I felt I had to see. Please don’t misunderstand. It wasn’t that I disliked people. I didn’t turn my back on humanity, only if I heard the word love, if they said it in a certain way, the river would break in me. That’s all I have to tell you. All this time Kenneth did not know. It was fine for him that I stayed at home, that I pass the majority of my days in a deep silence. His catastrophic disappointment blinded him to anything else that was going on. And I was thankful for that, deeply and truly thankful because it gave me the space and time to keep asking, What is happening to me?
I didn’t fear death because unlike some people I have never for a second considered that it would not happen to me or that I could delay its arrival. The house grew around me like a warm animal. I developed a routine. After Kenneth left in the morning, I would light a candle and sit in the empty room. Waiting in a way. Beyond violence. Beyond redemption. Just watching. Listening. Some times I said a few words, Some day the bleeding will stop. Some day the bleeding will stop. And some times I rocked back and forth, keening to some grief that ran throughout my body. And if I ever came across the word love in a magazine or a book, I was careful to cut it and burn it over the candle. I didn’t want it to come back and haunt me.
I had most of the day to myself, or some times I went for a walk. I thought of running away once or twice, leaving a note tapped to the refrigerator door. But I knew in my heart that I would never leave him, my dear husband who had become the embodiment of evil.
What did he ever do, you say? What did he ever take? Did he ever beat me? Some people walk through doorways, and they fill up the space with something that’s not very wholesome. When you get to be my age, you no longer feel the need to explain or justify your deepest convictions, because they’re only there. They are only just there. I don’t want to be young again. I don’t want to live forever. Maybe once in a while I wish I could move the way I used to, but even that fades in and out. What I’m really interested in is the next phase of this strange journey, the aftermath of living these many years.
Do you understand that? Do you? There are the vows you make, and then there are the vows you grow into, that become you. If I could have stopped the bleeding, if I could have made it go away, if it had been within my power, then everything could have been different. I would be different. I wouldn’t regard this world and my life in the same way. I might have been more optimistic, more light-hearted in a way. I would have believed the things that people tell themselves, that I control this or that, that this is my choice, that I hold my own destiny in my hands, that I can make anything of my life that I want it to be. But I couldn’t stop the bleeding and I couldn’t understand it so all of those self-empowering notions just flew away—or were out into darkest space.
What did my bleeding teach me, other than the terrible and trembling power of the word love? Well, I learned that how I am made and what I respond to isn’t a question of choice. I didn’t choose it. And I learned endurance, or as a famous poet once said, Endurance only comes from enduring. The world is beautiful, but I could never experience it directly. I could never grab hold of my life and say, Yes, this is what I want, and I will go out and get it.
Some nights I would dream that the stream of my blood was rising all around me like a dark lake and I was not sinking but rising with it while everything else, the house, Kenneth’s noble forehead in sleep, became slowly submerged. Covered up by a pool of this darkness.
(Pause. Sip. Sip.)
Then one day, miraculously, the bleeding just stopped. I felt the pain of that dark river just suddenly leave my body, as mysteriously as it had come. Two years after the day Kenneth died, the bleeding completely stopped. In its place I felt a great cleansing barrenness, like grains of sand sweeping throughout a desert. Was I happy? Elated? Afraid that it would come back? I suppose all of these—or none of them. I really don’t remember. I had lived for so long with this strange affliction that I no longer had any hope of curing it. And though I don’t remember exactly how I felt when the bleeding left me—Happy? Sad? Full of misgivings?—I do remember quite clearly the arrangement of things around me and where I was.
ROBERT VIVIAN’s first book, Cold Snap As Yearning, won the Society of Midland Authors Award in Nonfiction and the Nebraska Center for the Book in 2002. His first novel, The Mover Of Bones, was published in 2006 and is Part I of The Tall Grass Trilogy. The second part of the trilogy was the novel Lamb Bright Saviors; and Part III, Another Burning Kingdom, was published in 2011. His collection of essays, The Least Cricket Of Evening, was also published in 2011. Vivian’s most recent novel, Water And Abandon, appeared in 2012; and he’s just completed another novel, The Long Fall To Dirt Heaven. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in NYC. Many of his monologues have been published in Best Men’s Stage Monologues and Best Women’s Stage Monologues. His most recent foray into playwriting was an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that premiered at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 2006. His stories, poems, and essays have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Ecotone, Numéro Cinq, Creative Non!fiction, Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. He is Associate Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan and a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
You can also read Robert Vivian’s earlier contributions to NC, two essays on essays: “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” and “The Essay as an Open Field.”