Ber­nadette Van- Huy

Ex­cerpt from White Time

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( The af­ter­math)

The very first days fol­low­ing my mother’s death, my fa­ther and I were alone. Then my brother and his girl­friend joined us. And then my un­cle, aunt, and cousin. It was nice to have com­pany there. It helped make things lighter. It gave the days the form of a so­cial gath­er­ing, and so we could or­ga­nize get­ting food, make con­ver­sa­tion over the din­ner ta­ble, talk over what had hap­pened and would hap­pen now ... and my fa­ther, my brother, and I couldn’t re­treat in­side our­selves. We had com­pany. It made ev­ery­thing float, in sus­pended re­al­ity.

About a week af­ter her sui­cide, we had her fu­neral.

All of these days my fa­ther of­ten lay on his daybed— in the open area of the mez­za­nine, where he had his li­brary and his desk— his eyes closed, his hands folded on his chest, in his pa­ja­mas. He mourned and he med­i­tated on my mother’s bru­tal end­ing. He wor­ried very much about her go­ing to heaven— sui­cides weren’t al­lowed in heaven. He tried to com­mune with my mother, again and again, beg­ging her to come see him one last time. He strug­gled greatly to rec­on­cile the sense­less tragedy with his spir­i­tual be­liefs.

There was the very heart­break­ing ques­tion of what would be­come of my fa­ther. He couldn’t re­main there by him­self. He was too old, too deaf, and too alone in Florida, where my par­ents had been each other’s pri­mary com­pany and not es­pe­cially close to any­one else. My brother wanted my fa­ther to come live with him in New Jersey, and for a mo­ment that was the plan. But then my fa­ther re­solved to stay there, in the house that was his and my mother’s, where they had in­tended to spend their fi­nal years. He looked upon this now as a prom­ise. And so my brother tried to be brave and said he would, in that case, move to Florida. He and his girl­friend drove back to New Jersey, and my brother packed up a few suit­cases and drove back down. But the next day he lost his courage— he just couldn’t do it, he couldn’t leave his life in New Jersey. And then our com­pany left. And next it was my turn.

For many of my rel­a­tives, tra­di­tional Viet­namese, it was my duty to look af­ter my fa­ther now. I felt so much enor­mous pity for my fa­ther, for all he had lost, and for his present heart­break­ing sit­u­a­tion, but I just couldn’t live with him— not with our hor­ri­ble re­la­tion­ship, and not there, in that house, on Mer­ritt Is­land. I just couldn’t. I was de­ter­mined to leave when my flight came due. I needed so much to feel again. To be back home, in the lov­ing com­fort of my boyfriend, in the midst of my friends, my in­ter­ests.

When the day ar­rived, the day of my re­turn flight to my boyfriend, to my life, there was ea­ger­ness and joy in my heart. When the air­port shut­tle van ar­rived, I said my good­byes to my fa­ther and my brother. They walked me to the van, we em­braced again. I put my suit­case in the back, climbed on­board, and took a seat amongst the other pas­sen­gers. I turned around to wave out the win­dow, but the glass was tinted— they couldn’t see in, but I could see out. My fa­ther stood there cry­ing openly and con­vul­sively. I turned back around in my seat with the blackest pain in my heart. I ar­rived back to Ber­lin a bro­ken shell, like a soldier re­turn­ing from war— blown apart by the hor­ror, the dev­as­ta­tion, and the un­real stress of be­ing un­der fire and in a con­stant state of emer­gency. I didn’t want to talk about what had hap­pened. What I needed most was sim­ply to feel again. So that evening my boyfriend and I went out for din­ner. The next day I went to the large depart­ment store on Alexan­der­platz and just browsed— look­ing at things, pick­ing them up, touch­ing them.

A few weeks went by, and a pack­age came in the mail for me, from my mother’s life in­sur­ance com­pany, in­form­ing me of the re­mit­tance that was due me. I had never thought about this. It was an amount that was, for me— I lived a life of con­stant fi­nan­cial wor­ries— a large sum of money. I was so grate­ful for it— it would re­lieve me from the wor­ries of how to pay rent or eat for a few months. When it came, my boyfriend and I took the blue­and-white check to the Sparkasse Bank on

It was on the sixth floor of a cor­ner tower of one of the “work­ers’ palaces”: aus­tere, mas­sive post-war ed­i­fices sit­ting up and down the Karl-Marx-Allee from Straus­berger Platz to Frank­furter Tor. To look out the win­dow was a ver­tig­i­nous ex­pe­ri­ence, it was a wildly sheer drop down the side of the tower to the con­crete side­walk way down be­low.

Rosen­thaler Platz, with some anx­i­ety that they would not, for some rea­son, ac­cept it, but he ex­plained what it was in Ger­man, and they did, and we de­posited it. I told my­self that my mother had granted me these pre­cious care­free months, and that in grat­i­tude and honor of her, I shouldn’t waste them. And I threw my­self into my work.

I had been work­ing through a cri­sis of per­sonal par­a­digm, of my root set of be­liefs, which I’d been en­gaged in for the last years, writ­ing through it, and now I bur­rowed in with a kind of ma­ni­a­cal fer­vor. I made co­pi­ous notes, de­vel­op­ing di­verg­ing strands of thought at once, which then be­came in­creas­ingly com­plex, like dif­fer­ent roads, each one ac­cu­mu­lat­ing more and more of its own par­tic­u­lar­i­ties and be­com­ing more and more ab­stract, un­til I started to feel my mind strain­ing un­der the weight of hold­ing up all the threads at once.

I also, as a pre­cau­tion, though I didn’t feel un­der any spe­cific threat at the time, sought out a ther­a­pist. I didn’t want my mother, and her sad end­ing, to be re­spon­si­ble for my fall­ing down a pitiable path. I had to move out of my at­tic apart­ment in the con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum at this time. Some­one I knew a lit­tle bit gen­er­ously of­fered me to stay in his apart­ment for a pit­tance of rent, since he was liv­ing mostly abroad. Ex­cept for some of his be­long­ings, I had the en­tire apart­ment to my­self. It was on the sixth floor of a cor­ner tower of one of the “work­ers’ palaces”: aus­tere, mas­sive post-war ed­i­fices sit­ting up and down the Karl-Marx-Allee from Straus­berger Platz to Frank­furter Tor. To look out the win­dow was a ver­tig­i­nous ex­pe­ri­ence, it was a wildly sheer drop down the side of the tower to the con­crete side­walk way down be­low. I bur­rowed into my work, putting off, dur­ing each ses­sion at my desk, com­ing up for air.

At some point, on go­ing to bed, in that zone of fad­ing con­scious­ness, I started feel­ing a mes­mer­iz­ing force pulling me to the win­dow, beck­on­ing me to throw my­self out. The spell was so pow­er­ful, and I be­came so fright­ened. Each time, my boyfriend would throw his arm across, like a safety bar, and hold me tightly down to re­as­sure me, but the force was so dark and men­ac­ing that many nights I lay awake, too afraid to fall asleep.

Some months passed and the ex- girl­friend of my friend whose apart­ment it was came by to look for some­thing she’d left be­hind when she used to live there. Meet­ing each other for the first time, and our most ap­par­ent topic in com­mon be­ing the apart­ment, she asked me how I liked it. “Very much,” I told her. And then she said, “A tragic thing hap­pened though. .. ” And I knew in a flash what it was. Be­fore she had said it. She con­tin­ued. “An old woman lived here be­fore us and threw her­self from the win­dow.”

At this time I came down with a strange f lu that aff licted a num­ber of peo­ple I knew as well. It didn’t just break out and reach a peak and then im­prove. In­stead it main­tained a mo­not­o­nous con­sis­tency from day to day, and seemed to just per­sist and per­sist, tak­ing up to, for some, about three weeks to fi­nally re­cover from. But mine con­tin­ued and con­tin­ued. It wouldn’t go away. It lasted one month, and then another, and another. I be­came mis­er­ably op­pressed by never feel­ing well, each day cut down by the monotony of ill­ness, never be­ing able to do much of any­thing, just al­ways cop­ing with the fever­ish­ness, the flu-ish aches and pains, the fa­tigue.

It was my boyfriend Josef’s idea to take a small hol­i­day, and fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of a friend who had just re­turned from there, we went to Sar­dinia, and stayed at the same cheap and func­tional bed- and- break­fast— bunk beds, plas­tic din­ing fur­ni­ture— on the ground f loor of a pri­vate house. But it was per­fect, in a way. We were fif­teen walk­ing min­utes away from the beach, and be­cause there was no other oc­cu­pant of the neigh­bor­ing bed­room, the one with the bunk beds, we had the floor to our­selves. The sand and the ocean and the sky were im­mensely beau­ti­ful col­ors, pas­tel blue and green with laven­der, ex­tend­ing for miles and miles around, like I’d never seen be­fore. One day, on the beach, I broke down and cried and fret­ted to Josef, let­ting out all my fears and wor­ries of be­ing se­verely ill and how mis­er­able I was to be sick al­ways, and he tried to re­as­sure me. We took lit­tle bits of heroin.

Some time af­ter our hol­i­day, my “flu” started to break up a bit, and then it stopped be­ing a per­ma­nent con­di­tion, although I would, from then on, be­come sick ex­tremely easily and for long spells dur­ing the win­ter months. Still, this was an im­prove­ment to the mis­er­able con­stancy of be­fore.

(About Johnny)

With his girl­friend gone, gone was the last strong­hold of nor­malcy in my brother’s im­me­di­ate life, and he was free now to carry out his de­struc­tion in the all- out man­ner that he re­quired. There would be no more brakes on his de­scent. He was go­ing to burn in hell, and the flames and the fumes and the stench would be as odi­ous as he could make them, to sat­isfy his self-loathing.

It took my brother no time at all to de­scend the depths like a pro, and to cre­ate the pic­ture of florid deprav­ity all around him. How did he know of such depths so in­stantly, my brother, whose adult per­son had, till then, been so ad­e­quately ex­pressed within the scope of mid­dle-class life—work dur­ing the week, malls on the week­ends, Pot­tery Barn for the house— never any­thing go­ing be­yond, never hav­ing any con­tact with any­thing be­yond?

He was stewed around the clock. In no time, another al­co­holic moved in, seal­ing my brother’s cof­fin. The house be­came party cen­tral, a den of al­co­holics, ad­dicts, tran­sients, and all the deprav­ity that comes from such dam­aged and im­paired liv­ing. My brother was the ring­leader of all this, be­cause he went at obliv­ion the hard­est, seething with a vengeance that had the mark of dan­ger­ous flam­boy­ance. Those around him spoke of him, his de­praved es­capades, with an awed rev­er­ence. As my brother’s body and mind be­came more and more de­stroyed, as he be­gan to re­sem­ble a corpse more and more, as he ended up in the ER more and more, as the po­lice were called to the house by out­raged neigh­bors more and more, amongst that group of peo­ple, he was looked upon as leg­endary.

Dur­ing these months fol­low­ing his girl­friend’s mov­ing out, Johnny avoided me, as ad­dicts do, avoid­ing their fam­ily and loved ones, who are des­per­ately try­ing to bring them back to the fold. I saw my brother only twice then. The first time he was red­faced and swollen. The sec­ond time, he was grue­somely ema­ci­ated, and had dark yel­low eyes and skin from liver dam­age. On both my vis­its, he lay in a blitzed state on the couch, with the stains of cleaned-up vomit, ev­ery now and then jolt­ing awake, to blather in­co­her­ently, flap his hands spas­ti­cally, be­fore pass­ing out again.

I had started out, in his down­ward tra­jec­tory, by giv­ing him lots of room, just

try­ing to be there for him and en­cour­age him to get bet­ter. I ended up plead­ing with him, out of des­per­a­tion, to stop killing him­self, to not leave me alone in this world, to not do this to our par­ents, who had loved him more than any­thing. My brother’s way of de­stroy­ing him­self was more trau­ma­tiz­ing to me than my mother’s or my fa­ther’s death. Both my par­ents had lived long and in­cred­i­bly full lives. But my brother re­viled him­self, and life. He was dis­fig­ur­ing both into the most grotesque, sor­did, worth­less thing, out of his con­tempt; and then death would come. This is how he went about de­stroy­ing him­self. And that is what hap­pened. It was in Novem­ber that my brother’s room­mate called to tell me he was in in­ten­sive care and the doc­tors were say­ing he might not make it. Seven days went by, and he did make it, that time, and they re­leased him into the reg­u­lar care unit, where I was al­lowed to visit him. I walked into his room while he was asleep. He was a shrunken corpse in the bed— he was al­most av­er­age height for a man, but he weighed eighty- six pounds. He had crusted blood all over his face— they had un­suc­cess­fully tried to in­sert a tube through his nos­trils into his stom­ach, to by­pass his dam­aged pan­creas and feed him, and they hadn’t both­ered to wipe the blood from his face. He could hardly talk, the dev­as­ta­tion and dam­age, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally, had been so trau­matic. He could only whis­per a lit­tle bit with great ef­fort, and I would bend my ear close to his mouth to hear him. I stayed with him for a few hours. And then I took the train back to New York. As soon as I crossed the thresh­old into my apart­ment, I started cry­ing un­con­trol­lably, the con­vul­sions just rose up and they wouldn’t stop. I got drunk and fell asleep. The next morn­ing when I woke up I al­ready had tears stream­ing down my face. Then I sank into a deep de­pres­sion.

( The stranger)

And then, af­ter meet­ing him again, on the heels of our ran­dom, ab­surd, drunken col­li­sion, I was back. Back to my usual day- to- day, of lay­ing in bed and feel­ing un­well, of nearly a year— ever since see­ing my brother in the hos­pi­tal. And per­haps like Cin­derella, or per­haps not, I don’t re­mem­ber the story, I didn’t even think about what had just hap­pened to me. I had be­come so numb from pain that the strange new events didn’t elicit any re­sponse in me. I sim­ply went back to my sad re­al­ity, my con­stant, my sta­tion, and re­sumed my place. Con­sciously.

But another part of me was al­to­gether not the same. As if un­der a spell, I was watch­ing the videos I’d found of him online, look­ing at photos of him, play­ing back the hand­ful of mem­o­ries of him, over and over. The do­ing of these things was not ex­actly con­scious. It was as if, at the en­trance of these ac­tiv­i­ties, my con­scious­ness sud­denly be­came un­plugged, or it would re­main some­what on, but dumbly dis­abled, as if the con­scious “me” would be drugged, chlo­ro­formed sense­less, tied up, but still there, vaguely, in some sense, at the scene of the crime.

He con­tacts me each day to meet up, but each day I de­cline. On the fourth day, I wasn’t even think­ing on it, but a voice said, snap­ping me out of my reverie for a sec­ond, I can’t be like this, day­dream­ing all day, in a fog. My life was prob­lem­atic as it was. So, with­out even know­ing what I was do­ing, that I was do­ing it, I found my­self get­ting out of bed, and call­ing him, say­ing I needed to talk to him. It was clear what these words meant. We agreed to get to­gether in two days. But in that time some­thing else in me for­mu­lated a re­buke, and a voice again ap­peared in my head, but this time said, But maybe he’s the best thing for you. This happy guy. I was pas­sive to this de­bate, but just like the first voice could com­mand my be­hav­ior re­motely, and I would blindly fol­low, the sec­ond (dif­fer­ent or same?) voice had equal pow­ers, and sim­ply com­manded me the other way.

Sun­day rolls around. We had said we would meet later that night, af­ter he got off work. When he gets in touch with me about it, he’s ob­vi­ously con­fused by me, no longer sure about what’s hap­pen­ing. We meet in a mist of rain un­der the awning of Kel­logg’s Diner.

I re­mem­ber feel­ing in­se­cure, self- con­scious, and as I ap­proached Kel­logg’s I tried to take the path with the least chance that he would see me com­ing, so I wouldn’t have to suf­fer his watch­ing my ap­proach. He was watch­ing though ( he hap­pened to men­tion later). But as I neared, and then looked up from the ground to­ward him, he had al­ready turned his head, pre­tend­ing to look the other way. He didn’t trust the sit­u­a­tion now and avoided look­ing di­rectly at me.

We have no des­ti­na­tion and just start walk­ing. I try to make some small talk with him, to ease the ten­sion. Af­ter a few min­utes of walk­ing, stand­ing at a cor­ner, he points to a bar he no­tices off the main road.

The bar is small, new, and empty. We sit on high stools at the counter and talk for a while about this or that, and then, a few min­utes in, his face clouds with tur­moil, like he’s strug­gling with some idea. He’s look­ing down­ward with steely de­ter­mi­na­tion, do­ing bat­tle with some­thing.

He con­tin­ues like this for another minute or two, and then sud­denly reaches out and takes, or rather grabs, my hand. When my hand ac­cepts his, in­stead of re­ject­ing it, hap­pi­ness is re­turned to him. It took me a minute to do that, he says beam­ing. I had to build up to it.

He’d rid­den his bike right un­der my win­dow the night be­fore. He’d thought about call­ing me. His ribs are bruised from drunk­enly fight­ing on the bus later. I tell him he doesn’t dis­sim­u­late. More green con­ver­sa­tion. Ly­ing to­gether in his bed— his bed, a full- sized fu­ton bal­anc­ing on a flat- file cab­i­net, dressed in a sheet with a big hole in the cen­ter of it and wool blan­kets in­ad­e­quate for the frigid fall night, en­closed within the store­front by mostly makeshift means, a hung sheet, card­board— he shows me things from some of his old note­books: jot­tings, sou­venir ephemera that’s been pressed into the pages. When I get out of bed, out from un­der the mea­ger warmth of the blan­kets to ven­ture down into the pitch- black base­ment to use the bath­room, com­ing up the steep stair­case I say, “It’s soo cooold!” He says, “Isn’t it like be­ing on a boat?” “It’s like camp­ing!” “Oh, what you have to en­dure.”

I leave him the next morn­ing. That night he writes me, “Go­ing to bed. Wish we were camp­ing.” Ber­nadette Van- Huy is a found­ing mem­ber of the artist- group Ber­nadette Cor­po­ra­tion, whose work in­cludes the col­lec­tive novel Reena Spaul­ings, pub­lished by Semio­text(e), the film Get Rid of Your­self, and ex­hi­bi­tions at gal­leries and mu­se­ums such as a ret­ro­spec­tive at the ICA, Lon­don. She is work­ing on her first solo book, ex­cerpted here. It is a memoir, of a pe­riod in her life of ex­cep­tional hap­pen­ings, of the bad and good kinds.

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