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The Emperor’s Interview

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

EMPEROR: Male. Smug, crude, full of himself and not very bright.

PEYTON: Male or female, a TV reporter who knows how to be deferential and not ask too many uncomfortable questions.

DALE: Male or female, a smooth, forceful surrogate for the Emperor who knows how to keep reporters fearful and in their place.

LEE: Male or female, a reporter who is not inclined to play the game in the way that the Palace and the network would like.

 

TIME

The Present.

 

SETTING

The Situation Room for Emperor TV.

 

 

AT RISE: PEYTON is sitting with the EMPEROR. The EMPEROR wears only briefs or boxers, with a silly pattern on them. He seems pleased with himself. PEYTON is deferential, almost awed.

PEYTON

Folks, tonight we have an Emperor TV exclusive. It’s an interview the other networks have been after – but we landed it. The Emperor is a busy man, and he’s not exactly crazy for the news media. And yet – he’s taken the time to sit down to talk, one on one, with yours truly.

(to EMPEROR)

Sir, this is a great honor.

EMPEROR

You’re right, Peyton, it is. Access is key. And I am allowing you access to me. And that’s a pretty rare thing. You should feel lucky.

PEYTON

I do, I certainly do. You’ve – uh – you’ve certainly chosen a bold, new look for tonight, sir.

EMPEROR

That’s right, I have. And that’s one reason for this interview. I wanted to show off my new suit of clothes.

PEYTON

(confused)

Your . . . new . . .

EMPEROR

This is not just any suit of clothes, Peyton. This is a magical suit of clothes that separates the smart people from the stupid people.

PEYTON

Oh?

EMPEROR

Yeah, see, what happened was, these tailors came to see me. And they explained, they had magical bolts of cloth, okay? And only smart people can see the cloth. The dumb people can’t see it at all, it’s, like, invisible to them. So, I am very, very smart, and so of course, I could see the cloth. Like, right away. And my advisers, I told them about the situation and then I tested them. And all of them could see the cloth. Which just proves how smart I am – because every single one of them could see it. And I chose them to be my advisers.

PEYTON

Well – yes, sir, that does say a lot about your good sense of judgment.

EMPEROR

How about you, Peyton?

PEYTON

Me?

EMPEROR

Yeah, you. How do you like my suit of clothes?

PEYTON

It’s – lovely, sir. It’s dazzling. It’s dignified. I’ve never seen a finer suit.

EMPEROR

It’s a nice cut, isn’t it? I think it’s a pretty sharp-looking suit. You know? It makes a statement. It was expensive, but worth every penny. ‘Cause like I say, it’s magic.

(rises abruptly)

Okay, end of interview, that went on for long enough.

(The EMPEROR strides OFFSTAGE. PEYTON calls after him)

PEYTON

Well – but thank you so much, sir, for sitting down and talking with me!

(to imaginary camera – to audience)

How’s that for bringing news to you, up close and personal, huh? The Emperor himself! And now, we have even more of an honor. Dale, the Emperor’s surrogate, is stopping by to do a follow-up interview.

(DALE ENTERS, and has a seat.)

PEYTON (CONT’D)

Dale, it’s always good to see you. The Emperor seemed to be in a pretty good mood tonight.

DALE

Yes, Peyton, he is. He’s very excited about his new suit of clothes.

PEYTON

Understandably so.

DALE

But you seemed a little confused at the start of your interview with him. Are you sure you could see it?

PEYTON

(laughs)

Aw, now, Dale, you’re not implying anything about my intelligence, are you?

DALE

Well, it just seems like you in the media have to automatically doubt everything the Emperor says. Whether that’s a sign of a lack of intelligence, or not . . .

PEYTON

I don’t, uh – I don’t doubt everything the Emperor says, but of course, as a journalist I try to examine all sides of an issue –

DALE

And what about your report last week that the Emperor is running a “witch hunt”? When he’s the one that the witch hunt is going after! He’s the one that’s persecuted!

PEYTON

Well – I mean . . . the Palace has announced a formal investigation into whether there are witches who have cast an evil spell and are causing a pestilence throughout the land.

DALE

Sure, but isn’t that the job of the Emperor? Don’t you want the Palace to be concerned if people are dying of a plague?

PEYTON

Of course, we’re all very glad that the Emperor is concerned. It’s just that –

DALE

It’s just that what?

PEYTON

Well, there are doctors and scientists who say the plague may be caused by other factors. By – germs. By bad health and sanitation, due to budget cuts.

DALE

And you always have to take the side of the doctors and scientists, don’t you –

PEYTON

No, not always, but I try to give different viewpoints a hearing when –

DALE

Who knows more about this plague? The Emperor or the scientists?

PEYTON

That’s – that’s not really for me to –

DALE

And why do you call it a “witch hunt”? You really give away your bias against the Emperor when you use that kind of loaded, hyperbolic language. When you know that the real witch hunt is against our Emperor! It’s a total witch hunt, it’s a disgrace, the way he gets misrepresented, and vilified, and libeled by people like you. You’re the enemies of the Empire!

PEYTON

Well – but hold on, now, Dale, the Emperor himself, in his mini-proclamation, called it a witch hunt. He said, and I quote: “We’re going to end this plague very fast through my wonderful witch hunt.”

DALE

He was joking, Peyton. He was making fun of you vicious, terrible people in the media and the way you spin these things, and the way you use words and phrases with negative connotations to mess with people’s minds! This is an investigation into the evil witches who are probably causing the plague, an investigation, not a “hunt,” and if you in the press corps learned to mind your manners and refer to it properly, we could end these problems a lot faster. Or do you like to see our land ravaged by a pestilence?

PEYTON

No, I certainly don’t –

DALE

Okay, you know what?  I’m out of here also. End of interview.

(DALE gets up and leaves. PEYTON stares at the camera, a little shaken.)

PEYTON

Wow. Strong words there from Dale, the Emperor’s surrogate. This certainly has been an exciting night for us here on Emperor TV – lots of live, unscripted moments, and confrontational, in-your-face journalism. But hey, this is the kind of hard-hitting reporting that I love! We’ll be back in a moment.

(PEYTON’s facial expression and tone change as the station cuts to a commercial –

PEYTON’s manner becomes more natural. PEYTON is no longer looking into an imaginary camera.)

PEYTON (CONT’D)

Okay, so, am I doing the rest of this segment? Or is Lee? Is Lee around?

(LEE steps ONSTAGE)

LEE

Yeah, I’m around. But it looks like you’re doing the rest of the segment. I’m just here tonight to clean out my desk.

PEYTON

Well, that’s a real shame, Lee. That’s kind of a self-inflicted wound.

LEE

Naah, I don’t think so. It’s not my loss. I think it actually might be Emperor TV’s loss.

PEYTON

That’s silly. You know the station would keep you on if you just had a more professional attitude.

LEE

We have different ideas about that.

PEYTON

If you could just stay objective. If you could stop editorializing in the middle of a news broadcast!

LEE

Look, Peyton. When the Palace announces that the sky is green, and I look out my window and see the sky is blue – I’m going to say so on the air.

PEYTON

That’s completely unprofessional! That’s just your opinion.

LEE

It’s not my opinion. When the Palace says something that’s objectively wrong –

PEYTON

Look, Lee. You get high ratings but you’re too negative and you’re too controversial. The Palace is pissed off enough at us, as it is. Did you hear how Dale was going after me?

LEE

Yeah, they like to keep you terrified and servile and on the run.

PEYTON

No, they just want us to play ball with them, and that’s reasonable if we want to keep having access –

LEE

Access isn’t worth anything if you grovel and fawn –

PEYTON

(seeing a signal)

Okay, fine, shut up and get out of here then, that’s the signal, I’m almost on.

LEE

Great.

(LEE strides off to the side of the stage. PEYTON goes back to a smooth newscaster’s manner.)

PEYTON

And we’re back. I’ll be joined in a moment by a panel to consider whether I should apologize to the Palace for using the term “witch hunt” even though the Emperor himself has used that term. Palace surrogate Dale made a really strong argument before the break – the Emperor may have used the term ironically, to bait people like me. He may have been joking. It’s important to keep in mind –

(The EMPEROR strides back onto the stage.)

EMPEROR

Hey, Peyton, I’m back. I thought of some other stuff to say to you. That was a really great point that Dale made about me saying “witch hunt.” I can call it a “witch hunt” because I’m joking. Except maybe I’m not joking. Except maybe I am.

PEYTON

That’s – a really interesting point you’re making, sir.

(LEE is incredulous, and wanders back to CENTER STAGE, where they are, in front of the camera)

LEE

Hold on. Why is the Emperor wandering around like that?

PEYTON

Lee, get off the air! You don’t work here anymore.

EMPEROR

Wandering around like what? I’m showing off my new suit of clothes!

LEE

New suit, nothing. You’re almost butt-naked.

EMPEROR

Yeah, you know what? That just goes to show you’re really dumb. Smart people can see my new clothes. You just proved you’re a dummy, so ha ha ha!

LEE

Really. Who handed you that line?

EMPEROR

Tailors with bolts of magical cloth. Okay? So, you can suck it!

LEE

Sounds like you got scammed.

EMPEROR

Oh yeah, dummy? Then, how come everybody else can see my new clothes?

LEE

They’re lying. They’re cowards and they won’t stand up to the lie. But all you’ve got on right now are underpants, with a pattern of ________________.

(LEE describes the pattern that is, in fact, on the EMPEROR’s underpants. The EMPEROR appears suddenly self-conscious)

EMPEROR

Hey!

PEYTON

Okay, cut! Cut to commercial!

(Once off the air, PEYTON, furious, turns on LEE)

PEYTON

Okay, Lee, get off the set and out of the building before I have you thrown out! If you’re going to insult the Emperor and prevent actual journalism from happening –

LEE

I’m gone, I’m gone.

EMPEROR

How come Lee said that? How come Lee could see the pattern on my underpants?

PEYTON

I don’t know, sir. But Lee doesn’t work here anymore.

(LEE EXITS. DALE rushes in, soothing the EMPEROR)

DALE

Sir, it’s because Lee is dumb. And to dumb people, your suit seems invisible. So your underpants are visible. That’s what stupid people see.

PEYTON

Absolutely, sir. Dale must be right.

EMPEROR

So, all the stupid people can see my underpants?

DALE

That’s right.

PEYTON

But they’re very tasteful, elegant underpants, sir.

EMPEROR

Oh yeah? How would you know?

PEYTON

I – I can only imagine . . . a man like you . . . You would choose . . .

EMPEROR

Just watch yourself, Peyton. I’m onto you. I’m onto all of you “news” people. I might start an investigation of you. I might even start a witch hunt. Get it?

PEYTON

(laughs)

Yes, I get it. Good one, sir!

DALE

Do you think the Emperor is joking, Peyton?

PEYTON

Only if you and the Emperor say so. You just let me know the answer – and I’ll

report it.

LIGHTS DOWN

 

You Too

On the stage there is the suggestion of a car. ELLEN, 27,  appears. She is hungover. She throws a backpack into the trunk. She sits in the driver’s seat, checks her phone, throws it into the passenger seat, cries onto the steering wheel. She goes to the trunk and retrieves a bottle of whiskey from her backpack, takes a few large gulps, puts it back. She returns to the front, checks herself in the mirror, wipes her face with the side of her hand. Starts the car and “This Must Be the Place” plays on the radio. She turns the radio off, then the car, retrieves her whiskey again, searches for a closer place to stow it. She rifles through the front seat and finds an old coffee cup, which she fills. She replaces the bottle into the backpack and begins her drive. She spots WILLIAM and inhales sharply as he opens the door. He is overdressed and twice her age.

 

WILLIAM, indicating his bag 

In the trunk?

She doesn’t care. The drive begins, punctured by silence. Take what you think is a long silence and double it.

I’m sorry.

No indication that she has heard him.

It must have been a great show. I read that she played straight through the new album.

She slurps from the coffee cup.

 We should have… still gone. I’m sorry you missed it.

ELLEN

I went.

WILLIAM

You went? The tickets were expensive.

ELLEN

Bought a ticket.

WILLIAM

You should have used the ones I bought. Let me give you the money at least.

ELLEN

’Sfine.

WILLIAM

What did she close with?

ELLEN

I don’t want this to be some Thing, alright?

WILLIAM

Some Thing?

ELLEN

You don’t have to do this. I went to the show, and that’s why I came, and I would have done that either way. Whether you came or not.

WILLIAM

Okay.

Beat. He rubs her shoulder

 What is it?

ELLEN, moving away 

What are we gonna say?

WILLIAM

Say?

ELLEN

At work tomorrow. To Julia.  “Did you guys have fun at the concert?”

WILLIAM

She might not ask.

ELLEN

I can’t lie to her. She’ll know.

WILLIAM

We’ll say I got sick.

ELLEN

YOU’LL say you got sick. She’s YOUR–

WILLIAM

–I felt terrible. It’s not a lie.

Beat.

I’m glad you still had a good time. It was probably more fun without a sad old guy with you.

ELLEN

I didn’t have a good time.

WILLIAM

I didn’t either.

ELLEN

What did you do?

WILLIAM

Do?

ELLEN

Instead.

WILLIAM

Oh. Nothing.

ELLEN

Nothing.

WILLIAM

Really. Nothing. I didn’t feel like anything. When I realized you weren’t… that I was, alone… I just sat there.

ELLEN

Just sat there.

WILLIAM

I couldn’t do anything.

ELLEN

Right.

WILLIAM

I don’t know how you did.

ELLEN

My friends made me.

WILLIAM

Good friends. Did you tell them?

ELLEN

I shouldn’t have come.

WILLIAM

On the trip?

ELLEN

Up. I shouldn’t have come up. Either. Both.

WILLIAM

I never would have… I didn’t… plan… I need you to know that.

ELLEN

Plan.

WILLIAM

I never thought any of that would happen. I didn’t even know I was going to invite you up.

ELLEN

I never planned to go up.

WILLIAM

You said no at first.

ELLEN

I said no.

WILLIAM

But we were having a good time. Right?

ELLEN, nodding

We weren’t tired yet.

WILLIAM

It was pretty early when we got back from the, what was it, the jazz place–

ELLEN

Elephant Room.

WILLIAM

That drummer was

ELLEN

Incredible

WILLIAM

His solo

ELLEN

I hate drum solos, but

WILLIAM

I wanted to share that whiskey.

ELLEN

You’d been telling me about it.

WILLIAM

Japanese. Hibiki.

ELLEN

I wasn’t going to stay

WILLIAM

I wasn’t going to ask you

ELLEN

I had called an uber already

WILLIAM, touching her 

Let me pay you back.

ELLEN

No.

WILLIAM

I’m sorry.

ELLEN

Stop.

WILLIAM

I can’t.

ELLEN

It doesn’t have to change everything. It shouldn’t have happened. It doesn’t have to change everything.

WILLIAM

Do you think that’s possible?

ELLEN

This happens. I have friends who this has happened with

WILLIAM

That this has happened with?

ELLEN

Like friends who I got drunk with and things happened and

WILLIAM

Do you think this is like that?

ELLEN

And we were still friends.

WILLIAM

And you can get past that?

ELLEN

I think it’ll be like, a little weird or whatever, but

WILLIAM

But you didn’t come back.

ELLEN

What?

WILLIAM

You said you would come back. The next morning. Spend the day. But you didn’t.

ELLEN

I… no.

WILLIAM

Your eyes. They were closed.

ELLEN

I was asleep.

WILLIAM

You were awake.

ELLEN

I didn’t know where I was.

WILLIAM

You didn’t… react. Move. Anything. I should have stopped.

ELLEN

I said stop.

WILLIAM

Sooner. I should have noticed

ELLEN

I said “I don’t think I can do this”

WILLIAM

You didn’t even respond. For the longest time. You just lay there. Limp. You didn’t kiss back. Maybe at first.

ELLEN

I was on my normal side of the bed and everything. I thought I was–

WILLIAM

At home.

ELLEN

I have to tell him. You have to tell Julia.

WILLIAM

I shouldn’t have come. It was too

ELLEN

Too?

WILLIAM

Tempting

ELLEN

What are you saying

WILLIAM

There has always been sexual tension between us. Hasn’t there?

ELLEN

I’m not your

WILLIAM

You said you would

ELLEN

Little girlfriend, like

WILLIAM

Come back

ELLEN

What was gonna happen? I was gonna come to your hotel and eat fucking salads with you by the river and go to the show and stay over? It’s too

WILLIAM

Too?

ELLEN

When I was 15, maybe, I started crying during your class. You took me into the stairwell. Some fight with my mom. You closed the door and it was just us on the stairs and you listened to me. The automatic lights went out and we hugged in the dark.

WILLIAM

Please don’t make this harder than it has to be.

ELLEN

It would be easier for you if I had just come back, wouldn’t it? Just been your little date for the weekend and we could have made eyes across the office on Monday.

WILLIAM

That wasn’t the plan either.

ELLEN

I can’t be around Julia.

WILLIAM

I wanted to marry her.

ELLEN

And what about me? When did it start? When I was 12? 16?

WILLIAM

Recently. You began to have this glow. Started dressing nicer. Around Christmas.

ELLEN

So you assigned me to your classes, kept me closer, promoted me. Did I earn any of it? Or were you just trying to fuck me?

He can’t answer.

I’m not coming in tomorrow.

WILLIAM

That’s not pretending it never happened.

ELLEN

I’m not that good of a liar, turns out.

WILLIAM

This has never happened, will never happen with anyone else.

ELLEN

Lucky me, then.

His phone rings.

WILLIAM, his voice higher

Hello? Yes we are just getting into town now. Just another couple of minutes. Not far. Okay. Nothing. Just a little tired. Yeah, it’s a long drive. See you in a minute. You too.

ELLEN

You too.

Life in Carolines

I’ve never met a Caroline I couldn’t fantasize about. When someone mis-pronounces my name more than once, I tell them, “It’s like Caroline, but Emma. Emmeline.” When they ask where that name comes from, I tell them my mother read it in a book. I tell them that Emmeline is often a side character in nineteenth century novels, cousin Emmeline who died young of tuberculosis before she could get married, or something like that. I used to wish my parents had named me something simpler, something that didn’t prompt a question. But as I got older, I liked the attention.

Now, at parties, I like to drag the story out. I tell strangers that my mother wanted to name me Clementine, but my middle name is already a fruit so my father had to draw the line somewhere. I sip my drink and savor the reliable laughter, the eyes on me.

Still, I feel a strange jealousy burning the back of my throat whenever I meet a Caroline. This could be because the ones I tend to meet are tall and blonde, the types of girls who wear silk blouses and delicate gold chain necklaces with little pendants that fall right in the hollow at the base of their throat.

 

Popular In High School Caroline

During the first three years of high school, Caroline and I were not friends. I was one of the new students in ninth grade, while she was the ringleader of a clique that had been in charge since middle school. Her father owned one of the larger real estate companies in our town, so everyone saw her last name stamped on every other construction site, which was certainly part of her mystique. Someone told me that she lived in a house that took up a full block, a former mental hospital her father had purchased and transformed into a mansion for five people. I imagined parties there, people sneaking into wings that were off-limits, where they made out in former isolation rooms. Caroline went to a boarding school in Europe during junior year for opaque reasons that were gossiped about endlessly, plot lines we ripped out of television shows and slapped onto her life: her parents are divorcing, her older brother is in rehab, she’s modeling, and came back with an aristocratic lilt in her voice and the word queue in her vocabulary.

The year she returned, I spoke to her in the early morning dark before first bell on the first day of school. Making her laugh was a better high that I’d had in high school so far, so I set to work trying to get her to fall into friendship with me the way only teenage girls can, feverish and enjoying it. She brought me to parties, and helped orchestrate my first make out. In her mint-green bedroom, on the softest mattress I’d ever sat on, she made sure I knew I was lucky. She once told me, of her friend group: we don’t always like new people, but we like you.

I don’t know how to describe being friends with her. It was like confidence, or a benediction, or free calories. I was addicted to gossip, and her secrets were the only ones I kept. I was also addicted to bread, and pictures of us were the motivation I kept in a folder on my phone.

We lost touch during college. She does not attend our high school reunions, and rarely posts on social media. The last thing I heard about her was a rumor run through two degrees of remove, maybe misinterpreted and probably exaggerated. What I heard was that her eating habits had made having a roommate untenable, that the other girl was moving out because of a fight over a squash. She wouldn’t go pick one up for Caroline before the organic grocery store closed. I imagined the voice I’d been addicted to, bubbly but burst, now tinny through a phone speaker. I wondered what she’d said, I made up the words in my mind, you know this is the only thing I can EAT.

 

My Best Friend’s Girlfriend Caroline

I spent my junior year of college in a three-street town falling off a crag into the Scottish ocean. I met Caroline while walking through the tall grass to a house party. Her hair was shinier than made sense in the moonlight, her legs brittle sticks that might crack. She asked for my name, and said we rhymed.

At the party, I watched the boy I had kissed the night before put his hand on her jutting hipbone. Later, the three of us took a shot, and I told myself the jealous burn in my throat was from the vodka.

I was best friends with them both, and could not for the life of me tell who I was more in love with. He and I spent afternoons on the cold sand beach getting salt in our eyes while he almost cried. He told me about his father, and how football saved his life. Caroline and I prepared for parties in her dorm room, eating Nutella from a jar and sipping poorly made gin cocktails. She told me how he was in bed, the words he liked to hear her say.

Caroline and I were often a terrifying pair at bars, dead-eyed and still buying shots. Black out or back out, we liked to say. We put the pieces of our nights together during mornings spent clutching hot coffees in clammy hands, scrolling through our camera rolls for clues.

She never ate much on these coffee dates, save a block of chicken broth stock she would drop in a cup of hot water. Her fridge was full of carrots. Bent, her arms made unnatural angles. While I sometimes day dreamed about surviving like she did on diet soda and barely dressed salads, I had supposedly recovered from my eating disorder, and I wanted to tell her that we were allowed to walk around without being woozy from hunger, that sometimes it was boring but mostly it was like a warm bath. I brought it up once, my hot fingers on her frigid, tiny wrist. She did not seem interested in changing, and I didn’t feel like I had enough to offer her on the other side. I had a stomach that didn’t gnaw at me all day, but it wasn’t flat, and I didn’t have her boyfriend or her instagram following.

Sometimes her boyfriend, my friend, got aggressive when he drank too much. His insecurity and his rage, kept meticulously separate in daylight, mixed with liquor and sparked. Across the room, I saw him grab Caroline’s arm and shout something in her ear. He pushed her against the wall and the confusion on her face rapidly became fear. I pulled him off of her and dragged him outside, what the fuck are you doing.

His suit was too big for him, and my dress was too small. He balled his hands into fists and rubbed his eyes like a child while he cried in the spitting rain, and I couldn’t go back inside. I walked him home, my breath and my heels catching on the uneven cobblestones until I took off my shoes and started crying too. I tucked him into bed and slept on the couch in his living room.

In the morning, he wrote her an apology letter, and I begged her to forgive me over text. She told him not to contact her again, and met me in one of our coffee shops. We were supposed to go to Budapest the next day with a few other girls. I thought she was going to ream me out for helping him get home, but instead she brushed it off, dropped her cube of chicken stock into a paper cup of hot water and murmured ‘I’m scared to go to Budapest’ so softly I barely heard her. She shivered as she told me the prospect of only eating meat and potatoes terrified her. She kept her coat on throughout the conversation, because she was cold or because she wanted to keep it brief or both, and told me she had cancelled her flight already. She said she hated that she canceled social plans because of food, but it was an anxiety thing, and that she didn’t want to talk about it. I told her we could find things she could eat, that I had been like that too, that she could tell me more. I offered to stay in town, to buy her a pastry, to buy dinner.

She told me to go, so I went to Budapest, and when I came back she swerved my invitations to hang out, feigned sick and busy. We still hugged emphatically at parties. She clutched me momentarily in her skeleton frame as her ribs strained against her crop top. I don’t know whether she really was angry about that night or whether she couldn’t maintain a friendship with someone who might ask about her eating, or someone who simply knew her limbs did not refuse flesh naturally. I wonder whether she told me only once I had betrayed her, so she would have an alternate excuse. I still follow her on instagram, where she shrinks into the Instagram square, grows increasingly bony to a steady stream of comments reading “omg so beautiful” “fire emoji fire emoji fire emoji,” and “teeny tiny skinny legend.”

 

Dead Author Caroline

After college, I worked in a corporate fashion job I hated and recommitted myself to my eating disorder. I lost twenty pounds and collected compliments and coffee shop loyalty cards, both bittersweet and addictive. Eventually, like my high school friend Caroline, my selfish antics drove my roommate not out of the apartment but into slamming her door the minute she got home. I couldn’t drink as much on an empty stomach, and kept needing to be taken home.

My mother’s friend, a recovered alcoholic, recommended a book: Drinking, A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. I devoured it, and ordered her other book, Appetites: Why Women Want, about her anorexia. For her as for many of us, these issues are deeply entwined. But she was the first author to overtly tell me so: saying her “starving gave way to drinking,” one denial “gradually mutating into a more all-encompassing denial of self, alcohol displacing food as the substance of choice.” Both disorders have extremely high relapse rates, a euphemism for the truth, which is that they are lifelong conditions, and both are on the rise among women.

I finished both books, and on a hunch typed ‘alcoholism anorexia hysteria’ into google. I read Melinda Kanner, who contended that alcoholism and anorexia were the twentieth century’s answers to the nineteenth century’s hysteria, “women’s diseases” with no discernible organic basis that are very resistant to treatment. I couldn’t decide how the word hysteria fit around my neck, whether it was a necklace or a noose.

Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English wrote about the nineteenth century ‘cult of female invalidism,’ the trendy exhaustion that male doctors diagnosed wealthy women with basically whenever they evinced a desire to have a thought, prescribing them a rest cure that was simply their existing lifestyles, distilled to a fine cognac and meant to be drunk in bed. Under a medical surveillance system that interpreted dissatisfaction with a life of leisure as indicative of imminent physical breakdown, a new disease began festering in the bedpans under women’s sickbeds.

Some of the lounging ladies began shaking the bars of their gilded cages, seizing and fainting, going mute and refusing to eat. The doctors called this hysteria. Ehrenreich and English wrote about the doctors who, because their treatments had little to no effect on the disease, accused women of pretending, and began outlining a “hysterical type” in their medical treatises: she was a “petty tyrant” with a “taste for power.” Carrol Smith-Rosenberg understands hysterical fits as revolutionary outbursts: women expressing rage, despair, or even just pent-up energy within the language their doctors had given them, fucking up the master’s house with his prescription pad, if you will. Ehrenreich and English wrote about women “both accepting their inherent sickness and finding a way to rebel against their intolerable social role.”

After her multiple recoveries, Knapp refused to give up cigarettes, and died in her early 40s of lung cancer. Honestly, I get it. We all need a barrier between our rushing, bloody insides and the bracing cold of living in society, and replacing the warm fur jacket of alcohol with a layer of flesh between your skin and your bones is exhausting, especially without the warmth of nicotine coursing through your veins. I want to have been in her diagnosis room, and have seen her laugh or cry.

 

Joe Biden’s Niece Caroline

At the peak of hot girl summer, my friend kept seeing the same woman outside a bodega in Tribeca. Eventually, she spoke to her, an interaction she recounted to me days later. The girl was wearing massive, face-obscuring sunglasses and a huge black knee-length coat in eighty-degree weather. I wanted to know where she gets her hair dyed, because it was the perfect blonde, my friend says, so I went up to her and said hey, you look so good, can I ask where you get your hair dyed?

She rips her sunglasses off and grabs my arm like we’re friends and says, in one breath, oh my god no I don’t I literally spent all morning throwing up. I ate a STEAK last night. Anyway, the salon is like three blocks away, tell them Caroline Biden sent you.

On swiveling seats in a dimly lit bar, my friend instructed me to google Caroline Biden. I did, and the results included a New York Post article titled “Joe Biden’s Niece Remorseful After Avoiding Jail in Credit Card Scam” and a New York Daily News article titled “Joe Biden’s Bad-Girl Niece Gets Probation For $110G Credit Card Theft.” I quickly learned that Caroline Biden borrowed someone’s credit card with permission to spend $600 at the luxury cosmetic store C.O. Bigelow, and instead spent $110,000. Caroline Knapp, in Appetites, wrote not just about women’s appetite for food and drink, but also for things. A hysterical consumption: many privileged white girls dabble in kleptomania. She wrote about “the ravenous displaced need” fueling addictive behaviors, from alcoholism to shopping addiction. She wrote about women falling into thousands of dollars of credit card debt, their “deflection of hunger writ large and etched in plastic.”

She wrote that “consumerism thrives on emotional voids,” and anorexic and alcoholic women have those in spades. The language of madness, the hysterical tendency, creeps into her analysis of the allure a new belonging can hold in a society where women feel constricted in so many ways: “there is abundance in shopping instead of taboo, and so it’s no wonder a woman can go mad with acquisitiveness.”

To her hearing for the C.O. Bigelow larceny in Manhattan Criminal Court, Caroline wore a huge brown fur coat over a plaid schoolgirl skirt, a tight black tank top, sunglasses, and a crucifix necklace. In the photos of her in the courthouse, her dye job is objectively impeccable. She is a 26-year-old woman dressed like a schoolgirl. Every ligament in her upper arms is visible when she shrugs off the fur. I want to know which pocket of her coat is hiding a flask.

I would love to hate her (spoiled brat, .01% wealthy and stealing), but honestly, I hate that I kind of love her instead. She is Serena Van Der Woodsen shimmying into her school uniform after leaving the scene of the crime, still drunk, or Caroline Kennedy on Ketamine. She is the petty tyrant those condescending nineteenth century doctors wrote about, throwing a fit in the language she was raised speaking (luxury) and wasting the court’s time. Heiress fucking with her fortune, political scion lighting the revered patriarch’s reputation on fire. Girl, interrupting. I can’t stop scrolling.

Another article, titled ‘Biden’s Niece Booked by NYPD’ is only four brief sentences, which describe Caroline slapping a cop who tried to break up a fight she was in with her roommate. This is accompanied by a photo of her wrapped in a white sheet and strapped to a chair, her small frame concave. The only visible part of her body is a slim wrist poking out of the sheet, pulling it over her face. A policeman is pushing the chair across the street as paparazzi jostle to photograph her.

Someone who purports to be her friend describes her as a “hot mess” addicted to alcohol and Adderall. From a rehab center, this source tells the New York Post her antics are “a desire for attention, a cry for help. She’s a very complicated girl who has a lot of feelings and a lot of issues.”

The female hysteric throwing a fit, communicating the only way she knows how.

 

Famous on Instagram Caroline

But the hot blonde addict who really captured our attention last summer was Caroline Calloway. As a narrative genre, her dramatic friend breakup with the girl who used to ghostwrite her Instagram captions might be Elena Ferrante for coked out girls with disposable income.

We received the story in chapters, like the equally overwrought serials about private school girls we used to buy at suburban Barnes & Noble, but now we waited over our phones with breath caught in our throats, reading the story in Instagram captions. We gasped and retweeted when we read Caroline’s proposed title for her memoir, And We Were Like, “as in the way girls tell stories.” This might be the vocal fry feminist manifesto of the century, we wrote in our group texts, unsure whether we were mocking her or ourselves, but aware that someone needed to be mocked.

I read the essay while biting my lip until it bled. I met a girl who was everything I wasn’t, wrote Natalie Beach, now estranged from that girl after a tumultuous, obsessive friendship.

Soon after meeting Caroline, she became her “conspirator and confidante,” a role I knew well from my own obsessive relationships with girls named Caroline. She listened raptly whenever Caroline opened her mouth, standing in the streetlight glow of her attention, balanced on one foot to stay in its thin band of light. She craned her neck to see into Caroline’s closet and hoarded her compliments like heirlooms, running her finger over their gilt lining until it wore down, showed the nickel underneath. But then she took it one step further, offered to write her Instagram captions, and became her voice.

She did what I never could with either of my own Carolines. She came right out and said what she wanted, can I step into your mind, and Caroline said sure, unlocked the door and let her into a room painted tiffany blue. “What happens to me next?” Caroline asked her, and Natalie forgot all about her own life and began writing in a tense she calls “first person beautiful.”

This is a tense many girls dream and journal in. Watching my Carolines live in it was harrowing, a fact Natalie’s jealousy prevents her from seeing. When Caroline leaves a restaurant abruptly after a group of men in suits sends free shots to their table, Natalie does not consider the possibility that she might have been afraid of their intentions.

Natalie and Caroline spent nights getting high and writing pages of memoir, speaking fast until their voices grew hoarse, and then they opened their laptops and spoke with one voice. Together, they created “the Caroline character,” a “fantastic YA protagonist” who “looked good crying.”

When they cried, I thought my Carolines were so beautiful it made me dizzy. In retrospect, I can see that this was console them. I was Natalie offering to write Instagram captions, desperate to become indispensable. I read them love letters I’d written in my head, in the tense I’ll call second person beautiful, and when they sniffed and asked if I really meant it I nodded so zealously I could have given myself whiplash.

In my relationships, I was Natalie with Caroline’s addictions. While I was starving for affection and anxious to please, the only thing I wanted more than the approval of a girl who was everything I wasn’t was to be her, and since I couldn’t do that being in the void of a substance high could at least get me out of my own mind (a more all-encompassing denial of self).

Natalie mentions Caroline’s struggles with substances only obliquely, too distracted by her ability to attract men, her blonde hair and expensive shoes, to notice that living in the first person beautiful has become unsustainable. At the tail end of their friendship, when everything is going awry, Natalie visits Caroline in Cambridge, where she has ripped the carpeting off her dorm room floor with her bare hands, and where she stays up all night online shopping in a fur coat. At first, Natalie attributes the destroyed floorboards to Caroline’s superficial desire for hardwood floors. And then, she tells us, I saw a trash can full of daffodils beside a trash can full of prosecco corks, and empty Adderall capsules in a drawer.

When Natalie was watching it unfurl on Instagram, a filtered stream of European boyfriends and sundresses in Roman ruins, Caroline’s mirage shimmered. Then Natalie crossed the Atlantic and watched it crack, saw not “someone I wanted to be but a girl living with one fork, no friends, and multiple copies of Prozac nation…a person in need of help that I didn’t know how to give.” This became clear when they traveled to Amsterdam together, and one night Caroline returned to their rented apartment with the only set of keys, and for unexplained reasons that probably include alcohol and sleeping pills, did not answer any of Natalie’s calls until the following morning.

Caroline Calloway ignoring her best friend’s calls, getting high in her room alone. Caroline Biden eating pills and screaming at her roommate until she calls the police. One Caroline alone, instagramming her way to fame and fortune. Another Caroline also alone, on the street, being pushed around by a male security professional. Or in court, surrounded by her lawyers.

Ehrenreich and English’s final judgment of hysteria acknowledges that hysterical fits worked decently well as temporary power plays, giving women “brief psychological advantages over a husband or a doctor” but points out their fatal flaw as a form of revolutionary guerrilla warfare: “hysterics don’t unite and fight.” Instead, they usually end up ensnared in a web of male professionals, policemen or doctors or reporters and paparazzi.

I know my own hysterics isolated me, left me alone even in crowded rooms. My college friend Caroline and I, each mired in our own quicksand’s, could not hold hands tightly enough to pull each other out. I imagine Caroline Biden and Caroline Calloway meeting in the halls of a rehab center someday and wait with bated breath for one of their memoirs.

 

Notes:

Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English, Complaints & Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, 1971

Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story, 1996

Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want, 2003

Natalie Beach, “I Was Caroline Calloway,” The Cut, 2019

@carolinecalloway, Instagram, 2019

BF Grant et. al., “Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013,” JAMA Psychiatry, 2019 Marie Galmiche, Pierre Dechelotte, Gregory Lambert, and Marie Pierre Tavolacci, “Prevalence of Eating Disorders Over the 2000-2018 Period: a Systematic Literature Review,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2019

In My Next Life

I want to come back right
into this one, pick up right here
when all of us are home, and most
of us are okay—maybe not ecstatic but
who can be that all of the time and wouldn’t it be
enough, coming back, to just be
okay? Is there a place I can guarantee
this moment, this particular evening with its slim
sky and beaten grass and dirt-worn
children and my husband with his wide
shoulders and bannister arms, his mouth sad
because the day is sucked under now, tide out
and back again which means all of it is gone—the frisbee,
the worry, our youngest’s fastball pitch, the unfortunate tick
boring into my skin and which my husband extracted with
needle nosed tweezers probably right
as the tick transmitted Lyme into me, maybe doing nothing
or maybe causing future aches or devastation, the tick
now a tiny heap of itself, flushed down with the day and its
wonder of pre-summer in which each stalk, sedum,
bindweed, Boomerang Lilac comes back against improbably
odds—winter, draught, rodentia, neglect— right to the same place,
same branch, same patch of scrub blooming as
though shaking its head, yes, I’m back
and what of it? Are you good, they seem to ask,
are you more than that, are you okay again?

Mark Twain’s Ghost

appears in the attic—suited, unshaven—
and waits until I’ve finished
hand-sanding floors (original 1890 pine, stained, lacquered),
waits until the room is ready to reveal himself.
Bed made, blanket chest heaving our wedding quilt,
reading lamp, extra pillows for the new guest room,
which Mark Twain claims, his face now
in the oval mirror neither my brother nor I want
from the discard pile of what parents offer.
I take pictures of him, send them instantly to my brother,
point out mustache, jaunty tilt of cravat, matted hair.
See if you can get someone else to show up,
he texts back. Maybe if I angle the mirror.
Maybe if the light hits just so.
Maybe if I find a rug. Maybe if I move
the luggage or tend to piles of old papers—
great grandparents I never met, term papers carried
for years, state to state, crisp-edged and graded,
photos of people I can’t name
from trips I cannot even recall taking—
here, an easier, earlier version of me,
banana palms loose and flapping in the background.
Here, all the boyfriends, their letters, a baby
I did not have. Maybe if I get a window shade
or have a stakeout. How long to wait for someone else
before accepting it’s just Mark Twain, here to live
in the small guestroom at the top of the house
with no heat, no bathroom, not even a closet
from which to burst out and scare me.
There is no one else. We do not get to choose
which ghosts come to stay.

Grief

For an hour after learning of his own father’s death,
my father stood by the phone looking out at the empty yard. I
was ten years old and had never seen him act this way.
I’ve realized since that I had always seen him focused on a task—
carrying fresh cucumbers out to my sister, heading out
into the early morning fog to go to work, cutting wood
for our fireplace during the rainy winters. For an unsettling time
he just stared at something in the distance I could not see.
Later that day my mother came into my room and told me
what had happened. She needed to drive to town and wanted me
to stay near him. Make sure he’s not alone while I’m gone,
she said, then, before closing the door, added quietly,
This isn’t a good day.
Nearly three decades later, I found myself
standing in that same terrible silence. Like him, I have been unable
to tell my son what I saw in that first hour of grief.

FLOAT

the mathematics of suspension
occurs in resurfacing, piecing together the
pieces, the wood of the tree, sleeping
through November’s extra hour,
the Scorpio moon, mind lathered in soap
and the unholy trinity: snakebite, basil,
fallen leaves, the end of the equation
a question mark.

the theory of regeneration occurs
beneath the surface
a clockface with no hands, a death-wish
tucked up my sleeve
reconciliation
for the descent, the drifting,
the stillness of a body witnessing
life beyond the water’s screen.

what is rose and what
is the thorn? why bother breathing
if it only takes the wind to bend my knees?

the truth is

I don’t remember―

but I wrote as if I did.

I told you about my bed and my clothes and the silence,
and all about the color blue, and how I don’t have it in my bedroom
or my bathroom or in any of my kitchen towels.

I said it wasn’t my favorite color and that when I describe water it is always a
shade
of green,

because seaweed is green and lily pads are green and some summer storms
express
themselves in greens, and all of this is reflected
in the water.

Even my bath soap is green so that, when I bathe, I swim in a green-hued milky
pool.

Speaking of reflections: sometimes I look into a mirror―a long mirror―and
notice
that my blue jeans cannot be named a variant of green,
so I have convinced myself that there must always be an exception
to every rule and my jeans will be that exception; the only blue
in my universe. . . .

. . . if it weren’t for my eyes which must have been open and innocent―attractive―starring up into his eyes as he did this thing to me. I don’t know, maybe.

His eyes were not blue; this is the only thing I remember.

the re-wilding

In monarchs’ overwintering groves, there were once so many butterflies that
the sound of their wings was described as a rippling stream or a summer rain.

Center for Biological Diversity

 

Small child, dark husband, roving hand, the man who discovered
places in me that no man should discover so early; first whispers of
marriage innocent and pained; my two children requiring more
comfort but pushing me away. A girl inside the woman
still seeking some flicker of love in the eyes of her inaugural abusers.

These companions of soft soul and sweat and the many nights
I felt them traverse up the stalk of my body to milk me
of nourishment until I had nothing left to deem a living body.
What beautiful cocoons we make of our grief.

I bear out each narrative thread by the warmth of my own persistence,
poems that pool into a risk of imaginal cells. If I told you the monarch
was a puddle before it winged, its liquid frame
in no way resembling the hoary worm that ate—and was eaten—
for the sake of its restyling, would you believe me?

Every seven years nearly all our human cells are replaced.
I remember all of my old pains. Seven years have passed poem by poem
by poem, lone tears digested, wombed needs—no community
of wings. And now I hold this creature lightly in my hands, the air
scented with indifference, look up into the sky, open.

Aubade Before Tribunal

Hill 937. Let me offer you from Sa Huỳnh
copper bowls and lingling-o, that double-headed
amulet of milky nephrite green. Our ceremony

calls for this. Now hold my spirit steady.
At its base, regard my grandmother—some one-
thousand, seven-hundred-sixty-eight years later,

south of Đà Nẵng—coded daily with its embers.
Enemy of State or Enemy of Earth, who could
channel differentials, that which hunted people

like a nation in a nation? Let me offer us that
monumental sconce meaning: nobody heard you
burning, but I heard you burning, comrade.

Rise up. For that evidential dawn might shimmer
tempest red, our later modes of slaughter or address.
So let me rise up with you, comrade, shaking off

these golden embers from each wing. And let me
tell you of our people and our beastly creatures
walking with us—double-headed oxen and red

double-headed lions—resurrected with dark brass,
carnelian, and jade. I’ll meet you there, upon a hill
inside a country, that which hunted years

into a ceremony, that which called us skyward
so one day I’d meet you, ma.