WHAT BETSY WAS
by Bruce Bromley
Fin and Flesh
For years beyond counting, she lived far under water among the green things, their shine like that light before the storm comes above ground, as if seen through the veins of a new leaf, held close to the eye in a time so distant that its tale must have been whispered in her ear by a voice she no longer recalled how to speak back to. She’d look, in daylight, at the angles of the rocks that jut up from the sand below, whose bottom she was afraid to find. She’d float over the sunken ferns, the stems many-leaved and waving, watch the fish nestling there whom she called her scaly sisters, their shared kin as much a mystery to her as her own name. She thought that the moon, when it came, rose from and hovered a little above the surface of the water. That surface was the sky she knew. She’d see her hair drift ahead of her, the color of a tongue after it’s licked an apple for too long, though apples were things that she forgot, every day, except one. She forgot that she’d had a father who threw the noose of his love around her, that he condemned her to the sea because she could only refuse the rub of that noose against her skin. To fail at returning love was to be hurled into joining the heave, the burden, of water. She forgot that, once, her body didn’t taper to a fin, greeny, glinting, its fan and flap suspending her in one spot, if she chose, without end. But each year, for a single day, she remembered every part of it.
A great wind below the water hoists her up, level with what she thinks of as the sky that had filled her eyes. Pushed higher, lifted on air, she sees the water lipped by a chalk cliff coast and foaming beneath a tufty place, translucent, always moving. Then, shoved down, down, she meets the beach with its shale and pebbles and mussels, their shells opening in the sudden light. She finds her fin given way to two conch-colored legs, longer than the ferns she loved. And standing, she starts to walk across the ground that she’ll come to know, briefly, and forget again.
She Looks at the Boy in the Courtyard
All this, Betsy von Furstenberg must be thinking, paused on the other side of the John Drew Theatre’s stage exit door, that East Hampton sky an iris, moodily blued by afternoon sun. Betsy imagines that the boy she turns to, whose name she believes is Bruce though it should be Bran, due to the grainy life of his curls, makes such a story of her while he sits, curled up on grass in the middle of the courtyard, waiting. He’s one of the apprentices trained to bang at the rising up of sets, to work the lights, to run over lines with actors, their memory skills gone missing, like the sun that comes and goes, like this boy’s name that wafts in and out, but out of what, she can’t wholly put a word to. He aims his eyes at her piled-up hair, dyed tomato red for the part of Mrs. Prentice in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, the words lost to her a few moments ago on stage, so that Edward Albee sent her to refocus, outside. Betsy and the boy may perform in different ways for the man she calls Edward, whom Bruce has been schooled to refer to as Mr. Albee, but both watch for the edging up of his left eyebrow, which would be partnered by thunder, if it could. It’s 1972, years after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf became a stand-in for his name, and the summer repertory company that Edward directs will fill the theater with Orton’s frenzy for all of July. That ruckus begins tomorrow, opening night. Betsy still worries at the words, at their rhythms. She moves closer to the boy, the curtain of his hair loosed across his eyes. Before running lines and standing under a linden in the courtyard’s center, its buds slowly unfolding, she scrolls in her head through the things she’s heard of him.
He’s on the far side of fourteen and fevered by a man named Stephen, who’s over thirty. They met at one of those late after rehearsal parties, in a house larger than a ship, by a wood-rimmed pool into which naked bodies plunged, like hasty dolphins. Stephen’s promise to drive Bruce home ended at his Amagansett cottage, by the dunes. You could hear wind pulling on the beach plums and piping its long vowels through the apple tree, while Stephen arced the boy’s neck back, kissing unshaven skin, and the stars seemed strung from every leaf. On the bed below Warhol’s portrait of Stephen, paid for with his mother’s money and which captured each black wave, finely gelled, Bruce misplaced what thinking was. He remembered it later, at home, when his father punched him up against the front door, and Bruce walked through the bits that were left of it. He rode his bike to the cottage, though Stephen lay in the dunes with an older boy, their sounds mingling among rolling water. Bruce broke a window, unlocked the door, and waited in bed for the Stephen who never came. And this is what love calls on us to do, Betsy thinks, shatter windows, splinter doors, and we answer it with a hunger that knows no end. Looking down at the boy while he stares up at her, Betsy sees shard-like things, dropped in the middle of his eyes. Their sound would make a shudder of the air, she knows, if he were to merge with the power to pull them out.
Betsy flails her arms, as Mr. Albee insists, but really she’s wondering about the horizontal people. They are those who know themselves by the speed with which they can hurry across a stage, across grass, across anything flat enough to hold them up. Betsy’s described them to Bruce, who should be Bran, in grand contrast to the vertical ones, capable of staying in a single place and looking out. At this dress rehearsal, she doesn’t know what belonging to that tribe would mean.
Was it the right decision, Betsy asks herself, to play at living in other people’s skins or to sport at raising up the Mrs. Prentice whom Orton races in a sprint, page after page, hustling for more love, more love, before Kenneth Halliwell pounded the body that wrote her into pieces, breaking his longtime lover, who couldn’t stop wanting to let him go? What does it take to decide to leave—and survive?
Betsy’s learned one of the leaving-lessons early, Bruce recalls. He sees her review it as she struts her hipbones to stage left, and Mr. Albee jabs a note into the script that he carries on his lap, which will involve a scolding.
But now she’s eight years old and in Heidelberg with her father, with her American-born mother, having left the town of Arnsberg that she can never love enough, its chorusing forest of whine, creak, crack, their stone house so wide that a day goes by before you find it possible to sniff through every inch of it and that Betsy won’t, ever again, choose to stand up in. They’ve come in 1939 to give a goodbye to what her father doesn’t want to forget, before his people, their people, ravage more lands and borders and persons than anyone could own the strength to count. Her father hikes her along what he wants to call a mountain but which looks like a hill, where the broken castle lies, numbering the time that spirals away from it. The castle’s stone, gold though seamed with grey, forecasts what will happen to her hair when she’s between husbands, many years on, her two children grown and gone to an elsewhere, without her. Betsy’s father is pointing at the Neckar that bends its arm around the city, at those pines high on the water’s other side, their needles cricket-green under snow that swoops down in a kind of time-lapse, flake by flake, her way. Booted across an ocean and in a Manhattan whose language she can’t yet master, Betsy doesn’t want the Germany that her father offered her. She wants anything except this self, inside which her parents raised her, even Mrs. Prentice, so busy scrambling for love that she never thinks to ask what might be given back to it.
What Bruce doesn’t want is the fire that yearns only for its own heat. He doesn’t want the smile that Mr. Albee flickers at his rumored bedmate of the month, at the aptly named Randy, who gets his coffee and sharpens his pencils and whose actions appear to bargain on the words, Do for me, and I’ll be done by you.
Bruce wants some mixture of Betsy’s vertical and horizontal people, as if a person could be a chord that you stare at, standing up straight on the parallel lines it clings to, the movement of its voices changing the whole that you thought was there.
The Snowy Linden
They roll a water-damaged piano out into the courtyard. They’ve listened for a while, in passing, to the sound of paired bodies sticking together in the backstage shadows, most married to other partners. It’s hours after the last of Mr. Albee’s upbraidings, leveled at fumbles that will be righted tomorrow night. The moon wavers plump above the linden. Its leaves start to rustle, though no wind stirs to push them. Betsy’s in a chair against its trunk, while Bruce plays on a cluster of chipped keys, testing their tunefulness. When she asks him to give her that song by the reedy woman who wishes she had stayed a painter, he knows Betsy means that its ache can quiet Orton’s words chattering in her head. She heard Bruce hum a few bars in the morning, and the melody’s rising curves fixed her in a doorway from which she couldn’t move, for minutes that she remembers now. Joni Mitchell’s “Willy” hymns about a man gazing through his lover’s window, unsure of his capacity for yielding to the woman next to him, afraid of finding himself like the moon outside the glass, conquered by human footprints and staked, as if he were turf. It’s about those few opening chords, moving up and down in a narrow space, gradually expanding over the piano’s range and that voice leaping widely to show how high answered feeling will take you, if you follow. Betsy concentrates on the slide of Bruce’s voice, up, up, when she sees herself, years after the death of her second husband. She sits in their Upper East Side apartment as a nurse feeds her the soupy lunch that she can manage, in a once unlikely 2015, spring flaring at the windows. The music whose source she can’t discover resembles the lone world that her eyes admit her to, at eighty-three, and it’s like sucking on a cut lime. You wake to the tart that lives in your mouth and submit to the greenness that makes a smudge of everything, later. At this moment, Bruce, who will never again be the boy or Bran, arches up his throat, about to reach the height of Mitchell’s vocal line on the words, And I feel like I’m just being born / Like a shiny light breaking in a storm, while a magpie varies its grumbly song, which springs onto a steep pitch and holds there. The linden’s a shower of snowy petals on the piano lid, on Betsy’s hair, a sugared muskiness pooling in the grass. Bruce and Betsy think of what it can mean to stand on the ground that carries every weight, the weights in the boom that the body fashions before the name of love, the weights that slam beyond hurting, those that nearly break the ones who consent to bear them. For hours, they know, the moon will speed down its stolen light, beaming over all of it.
Bruce Bromley teaches writing at New York University, where he won the Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence. Able Muse Review nominated his fiction for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. His poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in Out Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown; 3:AM Magazine, Fogged Clarity, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Gargoyle Magazine, and in Environmental Philosophy, among other journals. Dalkey Archive Press published his book Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us in 2014.
Of this essay, Bruce writes, “I’m interested in exploring boundary crossings, enriching what we can think of doing in fiction and non-fiction. The events in my piece are real, as are all the people, but everything is filtered through the perspectives of those involved, as experienced (in this case) by a young “Bruce” and the older Bruce, the writer, behind him.
Image credit: Brenda Helen on Unsplash