In one month I saw two operas—Iolanta (1892) and Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), and two movies—The Night Porter (1974), and 50 Shades of Gray (2015), while my friend Maddie and I messaged each other about our secret bad relationships. All six things (operas, movies, and assignations) shared a theme: two defective people, trapped in position in the power structure of their era, fall in love and try to find a way to reach each other. Terrifying helplessness surges. Attempts are made to exert external controls, to make what happens internally predictable. Love causes messed up people to feel vulnerable and small. The more we love, the more destructive our attempts to regain control.
A lot of men who read a review of 50 Shades Of Gray (I don’t think any men actually saw the movie) declared that its message was that it’s okay to be a “douchebag” to women as long as you have a “buttload” of cash. Every time I heard that argument, the men just sound jealous that they don’t have enough money yet to treat women like shit. Gross! Anyway, what the guy in the movie did with his money was use it as a language to express and couch emotions without having to really put his out there or even acknowledge them himself. It’s the same thing many poor people do with music or art or literature. Or at least, I do. The way the guy used money in 50 Shades, the woman used social norms. They BOTH always wanted to know and dictate where the other was and who s/he was with. I don’t know why people feel the movie objectifies women. In fact, he respected her limits, and she did not respect his (he said don’t touch me, don’t probe, and that’s about all she did!). Also, man oh man, never have I seen a movie where a guy was SO INTO going down on a lady and fingering her and doing etcetera to her, and never once did he ask for a blowjob and she never brought it up either. I think the viewer gets confused by the sex and misses everything underneath. BDSM is two people agreeing to the same game; it doesn’t matter who’s dominant and who’s submissive. Neither one is real. They’re both just players, disciples of something greater than them. Sex is a means to communicate, not an end. All that spanking and cuffing in 50 Shades was just a tool meant to shatter our trappedness. In gender identities, in capitalism, in fear of Other. In our era, everything is valued by ability to pay—staying out of prison, physical or mental healthcare, childcare, eldercare, art, time to heal, time to build things and to do nothing and to do things we love—you can only have it if you pay for it. Even the time and space to love, to let love grow, costs money. There is no respect for that which can’t be paid for. This environment isolates and is unnatural and tends to make either an oppressor or oppressed out of everyone. But you love who you love, and you try to make your way to them, and you try to make your way to yourself, and neither is possible. Still you flail. We can’t help hoping.
Maddie: I still talk to The Janitor. I talk to him on the phone.
Me: I knew it!!!!
Maddie: He has a girlfriend now.
Me: Oh noes!
Maddie: I know he’s secretly enjoying the situation but he’d never admit it to himself. To tell the truth, I don’t care. I like walls built up against intimacy, or indirect intimacy. People think everything is this or that. When people say that predators look for victims, I feel similarly because I look for something. Something that rings a bell.
Me: Yes, victims look for predators. It’s hard to tell the difference between them. Us. It may be only a variance of where you’re standing. There may be no difference. It’s just people speaking the same language. I haven’t told anyone this, but I’ve been talking to The Businessman again. Doh!
Maddie: How did that happen?
Me: Well, now, that’s a question. His girlfriend contacted me with evidence of some sexual harassment and illegal things he’s been doing, and she wanted help to use it against him, so I did. He got fired and some other stuff. Then I told him I did it.
Maddie: Oh my god! That’s a game on such a scale.
Me: He said he brought it on himself, and it’s true. Sometimes I think we all bring what happens on ourselves, but maybe that’s either New Age thinking or blame-the-victim mentality. Also, I made him pay for my book that skewered him, haha. I can’t remember who it was who said you can write ANYTHING about anyone and be forgiven as long as you say they’re good-looking. And I did. So, he’s not mad.
Me: I haven’t been alone with him for a year and a half. I want to go watch The Night Porter with him.
The Night Porter is about a concentration camp victim (Charlotte Rampling) and an SS officer who fall in love and later, after the war is over and their positions are reversed—he is in hiding working at a hotel and she is married to a brilliant composer and jet-sets—they see each other by chance. All they have to do is walk away. If they rekindle their torturous affair, someone is going to die. She could report him to the police and they’d kill him, or he could report her to his cabal of undercover former SS, and they’d kill her.
The only way I could contact The Businessman was by eBay message. I’d blocked him everywhere else. I only didn’t block him on eBay because I didn’t know how. My face was covered in cold sores as I typed, a result of unlocalized agitation brought on by the prospect of seeing him again, and by the prospect of not seeing him again. I wondered if we’d swear off each other again before my proposed viewing of The Night Porter at his place. I wondered if he was just toying with me, I wondered what despicable thing he might be doing right this minute out there somewhere. I felt like if he didn’t touch me now, no one would ever touch me again. I knew it was just a feeling, but our feeling about what is real IS what’s real.
His place is all bricks, old, broad wood beams, great taste, and tall windows. He was about to lose it, just as he’d lost his job, lost his looks, and possibly his freedom (go to prison). He wears loss well. Disgrace suited him. Right up until I’d crossed his threshold, I told myself I could still stop, but I couldn’t. When I see him, I feel like a child. I am small and yielding. The chasm opens up and you hover one toe over the edge, and then you start sliding. We had sex the way they did in the movie when they didn’t walk away like they should have: violent, crying, helpless. Then we watched the movie and had an argument about it. I didn’t record it. This is paraphrased from memory:
Me: Who do you think had the power in that relationship?
Him: She did. Even in the concentration camp, she didn’t have to keep on having sex with him. She wanted it. She could have killed herself.
Me: You can’t kill yourself in a concentration camp. They had no freedom or privacy or weapons or cliffs to jump off.
Him: The relationship benefitted her. She got to dance around at the SS party, she got food. She smiled when he presented her with the decapitated head of another captive in a box.
Me: She did not smile! She was horrified. I’m horrified that you think she smiled! Even if she did smile, when you’re trapped and tortured, you have to be nice, you have to pretend to be pleased with your tormentors. You’ve obviously never been a woman.
Him: She smiled.
Me: Replay the scene, let’s find out. Okay, see?
Him: No, I see her smiling. People show pleasure in ways other than an upward smile. I see something around her mouth.
Me: You ARE a psychopath. It’s okay, it’s not your fault. Some people can’t recognize horror or pain in others because they can’t recognize it in themselves. They refuse to believe they were ever victims, they were ever weak or used. That’s how they go on oppressing others. That’s how you stay right wing. You’ve convinced yourself that for you, the abuse was a learning experience, and when you now abuse others, if they don’t in turn use it to their advantage, then it’s their nature to be a slave (or voiceless wife or child or employee), and they’re benefitting from the gifts and crumbs. I don’t even know why we’re having this argument. We think the same thing about the couple in the movie—they loved each other. Let’s go to the opera. There’s one at The Met about a dad who traps his blind daughter double-billed with Bluebeard trapping his seventh wife in his castle of blood.
A week later:
Me: I didn’t like Iolanta as much as other operas I’ve seen. It was too romantic. And, like, the blind lady asked God to make her see, and He did. Literally. I wanted her to die.
Maddie: That sounds really sappy. How was Bluebeard’s Castle?
Me: It should have been great, I don’t know why it wasn’t for me. Bluebeard did commit necrophilia on his bride in a ditch on their wedding night at the end.
Maddie: Wow!!!! I didn’t know it ended like that. Wow wow wow. I just know there’s a part where she sees a room full of mutilated women hung up. And I love the trope about girls and monsters.
Me: The mutilated women are roaming the back yard. They watered the roses with their blood. And made the walls weep.
Maddie: Christ, I love it.
Me: I know. It sounds so good when I describe it! I don’t know why it wasn’t enough for me. The Businessman and I kind of broke up again on the way back from the opera. Because he lied. Plus he stood me up. It’s dumb of me to break up with him over that, because that’s just him. I knew I’d be getting more of that when I took him back. Now I just feel like Why did I bother? Taking him back OR breaking up. Make up my mind!
Maddie: People who are “mostly” bad are magnetic. People who seem to be selfish and cruel but are brilliant in some way—you look for a glimpse of kindness or vulnerability or sincerity.
Me: It makes me feel better to hear you say that. You make it sound glamorous. I’ve been feeling dumb. I just keep playing these games where I know how it’s going to turn out. Why don’t I just go for someone actually kind if that’s what I want?
Maddie: I don’t recognize something in kindness, it doesn’t give off any signals. I’m dating that soft spoken artist guy and I cheated on him with a professor. The professor has this modernist apartment with beautiful furniture and beautiful everything and he bought me dinner, we drank expensive scotch, played jazz records, read Story of the Eye aloud and then he pulled down my tights and licked my butt. Sex with the artist feels like a caterpillar crawling up my back in comparison. Also the prof was cheating on his out of town girlfriend. It’s the first time I “cheated.” It feels really normal. I don’t feel guilty. Also I sort of want to torture the artist because i want to see him react.
Me: I guess we like to punish and be punished, and see what happens. It doesn’t really get old. I did cry some in the middle of dragging out the breakup. But I like to cry.
Maddie: I wish I could cry. I want to cry so bad all the time
Me: Do you ever?
Maddie: Movies make me cry. When I feel really depressed I feel impotent because I want to cry but can’t. I’ve been throwing up for stress management.