Episode 16: Who do you think you are?
References and resources
And to think all these years I was thinking that the song Bitch was by Alanis Morissette. Turns out it’s by someone else entirely. Huh. Sorry, Meredith Brooks.
Read about Yoel Hoffmann on Wikipedia. And lots of interesting takes on Curriculum Vitae on Goodreads.
Trying to get my tongue around Yoruba, the language of Nigeria, for The Dynamics of Love, I learned something fascinating: there are people who speak Yoruba in Brazil. This is hundreds of years after enslaved people from the African nations were taken there. Another fascinating factoid: one of my work colleagues, who’s from Brazil, tells me that the LGBT+ community has its own language, Pajubá, which is derived from Yoruba. Performing a similar function to Polari, Pajubá used to be a way for trans black sex workers to get away from the police and keep “secrets” back in the 70s and 80s. Read more about these two languages and other queer argots here: Secret Languages, Discreet Loves: How Does Queer Slang Differ Around The World?
And just because I know you want to, Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
This episode’s stories
Asleep In Oak Park: A Late Love Story by Robert Hirschfield
Who Are We, Really? by J. Elliott
The Dynamics of Love by Ella Offiong
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! by Jan Brady
Submit your story
First things first. I acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which I live, work, and record Pillow Talking, the Bunurong and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I recognise their connection to and care of this land, and thank them for the space I share with my family. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and still to come, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who are listening.
Please keep in mind that Pillow Talking contains adult themes and sometimes strong language, so use your discretion for where and how you listen, and who you listen with.
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 2, Episode 16 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening . In this episode, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Who do you think you are? I remember a long time ago Oprah saying that we should look at ourselves in the mirror and ask that question, and then pay close attention to the first thing that pops into your head or out of your mouth, because it’s bound to be revealing.
This is something that I’ve done a few times through the years and I’ve received a different answer each time. Maybe it’s growth. Maybe it’s just the way I was feeling that day. Or maybe the part of my personality currently dominating. Or maybe it’s having heard Alanis on the radio in the car that morning and having it pop into my head that I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed, I’m your hell, I’m your dream, I’m nothing in between… and hopefully not all of them at the same time. Not just for my sake, but for the sake of the guy I live with.
Because it’s one thing to ponder your identity while looking in the mirror, but another thing altogether to ponder it while looking into your partner’s eyes.
Who are you with that person? Who are you to that person? Who are you after that person?
My last episode, Suddenly Strangers, is kind of a companion piece to this one. In it, I mention that identity and relationships are inextricably entwined. You could even say, like some relationship experts say, that functioning relationships create a third identity: there’s the you, there’s the me, and there’s the us.
In these stories identity appears as a loving assertion after a morning spent apart, as a secret revealed in sleep, as the negotiation at the start of a relationship, and as a crisis, when a third party in a single weekend makes this one storyteller question everything about herself and her marriage. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Sssh. Let’s listen.
I wake up in Julia’s bed in Oak Park to my photo high on the wall. It makes the strange
room even stranger. In my room at home in Manhattan’s East Village, a room I share with a
roommate, I awake to photos on the frig: the Dalai Lama in a blue baseball cap, composer
Philip Glass hugging wheelchair-bound painter, Chuck Close. There are no photos of myself.
There are stacks of books and papers by my bed. Unruly self-portraits.
Julia sleeps beside me, head softly against her arm, the way a little girl might sleep. Julia is
seventy-seven. There is a constriction in my stomach when I look at her. I want to make morning love to her, but I resist waking her. Julia is a “night person” with sleep issues. She
gets to bed not many hours before I awake.
I take sleep for granted. I hit the pillow, and I am out. It makes me oddly envious that Julia’s sleep cycle is chaperoned by her assortment of pills and supplements topped off by
Bill Maher’s politics. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
I sit down to a breakfast of humus and toast and bran and milk. (her 81-year-old guy needs his bran.) While eating, I read Julia’s sinfully clean copy of Yoel Hoffmann’s abstract
novel, Curriculum Vitae. She bought it because I raved about it. She abandoned it after just a few pages. (My copy at home is grayish black from twelve years of finger marks and
embedded food particles.)
Hoffmann’s collage of fragments make me happy: There is no limit to the beauty of things
that are sad. Like old clay vessels or a wagon’s shaft in a junkyard. Every year the plum trees flower anew, and people whose names are Shtiasni or Dahaan open doors and close them.
I sit down with my squares of writing paper and try to get a poem going. Some broken edges of imagination stir in the right places, but bottom out almost immediately.
I take myself to Trader Joe’s located in a cul-de-sac off North Marion. I fill my basket with dark chocolate, milk, strawberries, ground turkey, long fingers of ginger. I love having flotillas of helpful, youthful employees swarm around me like butterflies. They are trained, I imagine, to be on the lookout for the needy looking shopper. My puckered bewilderment spurs these sons and daughters of the Midwest to accompany me wherever I go.
An elderly New Yorker acclimated to invisibility, I am abashed to find myself in this fairyland of kindness. I am overtaken by a kind of giddy paranoia. Have the workers collectively taken note of my ill-fitting upper denture? Or a hand tremor I might be unaware of?
After shopping, I walk. The ritual of walking punctuates my day. It is ritual I share sparingly with Julia who three years ago developed a vestibular disorder that affects her balance and keeps her mostly housebound. I enjoy collecting details to entertain her with when she awakes: the stupendous diversity of Oak Park’s trees for one thing. The Regal Prince Oak, the Shamrock Linden, the Accolade Elm, the Autumn Splendor Buckeye. In front of my tenement on East Third Street, there is only The Starved Sapling. After Oak Park, it kills me to look at it.
Julia signals the resumption of our relationship at about eleven. She rises renewed from her bed, showering, dressing, putting in her contacts. I catch up with her in the kitchen where she is busy boiling her two eternal breakfast eggs. I give her a kiss and tell her of my wanderings.
All my tree talk amuses her. “You are a New Yorker!” she cries, as if my city were a barren wasteland. Julia once lived in New York. Hated it. Found it soulless, heartless. She extends it no charity.
I remember to tell her, “I visited Tim.”
Tim Fisher, her husband of many years, died of brain cancer. Julia had a swamp cypress planted in his memory in Scoville Park, which houses the town’s war memorial. On the plaque commemorating its World War 1 veterans, my eyes always glom on to the same name: E Hemingway.
“Hemingway didn’t like Oak Park,” Julia informs me. “‘Wide lawns, narrow minds’, he said.”
When she is ready, we go for a walk. Her feet are stiff, painfully aimed. They tell a partial truth.
When we come back, she peels off the bed covers. Her bedroom, even in daylight, is shadowy. Her flat, with its many windows, gives you nothing to see. Except her, moving her slender arms slowly like a novice in a monastery. She moves to no one’s rhythms but her own.
I remove my shoes. I have done enough walking for the day. I slip my arm around her waist, for years untouched.
“Your skin is so young.”
That pleases her. “My lover,” she says.
“Your lover,” I say. “But not your morning lover.”
In my teen years, I loved to do sleepovers at my best friend’s house to escape my alcoholic parents. They weren’t abusive, this isn’t a downer story, it’s actually quite funny. Also mind-melting, a bit. For backdrop, I’m just saying that my world and Patty’s world were quite different. Mine was the same, nightly. They drank. They got loud. They had the same arguments over and over. It would begin in the living room and come upstairs and finally quiet after my supposed bedtime. Thin walls. No escape.
Patty’s room was in the basement. Her parents had fixed up a room with happy wallpaper and a fuzzy carpet. It was a colorful oasis far away from her parents. We listened to records, watched TV, talked endlessly, dreamed about David Cassidy and other pop idols.
One night, we’d turned out the lights and were winding down. She was in her top bunk; I was in a sleeping bag on the floor. The conversation lagged. She stopped talking and began snoring faintly. I couldn’t sleep. The room was different in the dark. My eyes played tricks on me. Was that a shadow in the mirror? Was that stuffed animal moving? No. Just eyes playing tricks.
And then all of a sudden, Patty sat bolt upright in bed, back stiff and straight. She looked in my direction and said in a defiant and declaratory tone, “Well, I’m Jana of the Jungle!”
As if I’d been arguing. As if we’d had a conversation. As if we’d been talking about anything even related to role playing or Tarzan—in fact, I don’t think I’d ever even heard of Jana of the Jungle. Tarzan’s woman was Jane. Even now, I’m not sure who Jana is.
And just as abruptly as she’d sat up, she fell straight back down on her pillow like a tree falling.
“O-kay,” I said, feeling an urge to respond or defend myself. Her tone had certainly been challenging.
Soon she resumed the light snoring.
I stayed up a while longer pondering this, dying to know what she was dreaming about. Wanting to ask questions. Of course, when I told her the next morning, she had no recollection of it at all.
It’s been about forty years since I was challenged by Jana of the Jungle. Hadn’t thought of it until the Pilllow Talking prompt brought it back.
Who are we really? We are the stories we tell ourselves. We are other people in our dreams—brave, frightened, powerful, scared, curious.
I lost touch with Patty ages ago, but now I wonder. Is there a little glimmer of Jana of the Jungle still in her?
Pondering this, a simple stroll through the grocery store will be somehow mystical – so many strangers harboring other personalities inside. Me too.
The first night was very long ‘cos we needed to know what each other wanted out of our relationship. We spoke at length, sharing experiences and reaching concrete decisions.
My fiancé was telling me about his first wife.
“She cheated on me severally,” he said. “She said she was a Director at her place of work. I never visited her at her office, not even after our wedding. After our wedding, she never went to her office anymore, saying she was on a break. This took about two months. I had to ask her why she didn’t go to work anymore. Only to discover she was just a cleaner and a janitor,” He continued by saying “Baby, I hope you are not like her.” “Oh dear, you can count on me,” I said.
There is an adage in Yoruba language that says “foriti foriti lomu ki ori agba pa.” (Or: The head of an old man is bald because the so much trouble he has on his head in his lifetime) (Meaning: Prolonged endurance yields elderly maturity). He said he bore her excesses even before they got married. “At a point, I almost called off the wedding, but she sent people to beg for her, so the marriage held. My parents refused attending my wedding because of her,” he said in a very low tone. I gave him my word that all is well as we are now together.
He told me how he asked people about me and the responses he got. One of them was Tabitha’s mother. “Tabitha’s mother said I should be careful of you.”
He said a proverb in Yoruba language: “Ìkòkò ò ni gba omi k’ó tún gba ẹyìn.” (Or: The pot cannot contain both the palm fruit and water at the together). (Meaning: Two masters cannot ride one boat/Two incompatible people cannot live or work together). All she was trying to say to my fiance was that I was bossy and would ride on my fiance when we get married. I told him that this said “Tabitha’s mother” is not my friend, we are not close enough for her to know who I am or what I am capable of doing. He then told me how she had made bodily passes to him some years back, which he declined more because she is married. “Never mind sweetheart, let’s just say she is a stranger, and not to be given a chance to decide for us. I love you dearest,” I said.
“I love you too baby,” he said, adding that after all “bi esin ba dáni gúlè ã tun gun ni!” (Or: If a horse fell on someone, the rider should re-climb it). (Meaning: When a plan falls out, one should not give up, rather, one should keep trying). “We must keep trying till we succeed, which I believe we have succeeded,” he said to me. I nodded a “yes” to that.
He immediately demanded to know my parents. “I will make an email to your parents tomorrow to ask for your hand in marriage ‘cos we are not getting any younger,” he said, backing it up with another adage in Yoruba language saying “besides” “a pę ko to jęun, ki ję ibaję.” (Or: A late eater will not eat spoilt or rotten food). (Meaning: The patient dog eats the fattest bone). We have both waited patiently to find each other as the best couple. We hugged each other. In the next four months, we got married and it’s been great with him by my side.
I had a friend. Her name was Marcia. Marcia was a shit magnet.
Whenever she rang, it was a fresh drama. She’d keep me one, two, three hours on the phone, whatever it took for her to let it all out and for me to listen, comfort her, and very occasionally suggest solutions.
My husband would see me on the phone and roll his eyes. He’d never met Marcia – she lived interstate – but he knew that when I got off the phone I’d be absolutely knackered, emotionally, mentally, and physically.
“Did she ask about you?” or “Did you get a word in about how you are?” he’d ask me. I always said no.
Then he’d imitate Jan in the Brady Bunch Movie: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
It made me laugh, and that would help take some of the stress from the phone call away.
He was right. It really was all about Marcia, but I could handle it. Marcia and I went back a long way, and it wasn’t like she was calling me all the time. It was occasional – just very, very draining when it happened.
Now let’s talk about my husband, Robert. Robert was one of those no-nonsense, steady-as-a-rock guys. He didn’t muck around and didn’t like people who did. He didn’t like flighty women. In fact he liked them strong and independent; his mum had gone into politics when he was little and she was a formidable woman, so it wasn’t a surprise, really.
When we met he was impressed with the fact that I ran my own very successful business; and that I’d started it before I even graduated from uni. I’m as romantic as the next woman but I’m also a realist and a feminist; I wasn’t looking for a prince charming when we met, I didn’t need rescuing from anything. I was looking for my partner, my equal.
And that was the basis of our marriage. It was a marriage of equals. We supported each other, but didn’t pander, didn’t baby each other. And Robert had this thing whenever I had a problem, like with the business, that he would ask me a series of questions. Really insightful, incisive, and intelligent questions that almost always made me come up with a solution to the problem. (By the way he still has this thing, we’re still together, even though this event made me wonder, for months, if we should be.) Hopefully this gives you an idea that I had a complete sense of myself, and who I was in my relationship.
Marcia had something to do in Sydney and in her way asked whether she could stay with me for a few days. And by “in her way” I of course mean that there was a sob story involved about needing to travel and how difficult it was to do with her own husband’s business going through a rough patch and having a cash flow problem. So I offered the spare room. Mi casa su casa!
The three days she spent at mi casa were enough to question my marriage, but more than that, way worse than that, it made it question myself. Can three days cause an identity crisis? They can, and they did.
It was beautiful weather, and of course when you run your own business you know that the beautiful day when you have a houseguest will be the day that there’s some sort of emergency that your staff can’t deal with. Only you will do.
Before I excused myself with Marcia I asked Robert if he could entertain her for a couple of hours. He mouthed out Marcia Marcia Marcia! But winked, gave me a kiss and a smile, and told me not to worry about it.
Luckily, I was able to do this work from home. My office faces our beautiful backyard so that when I work from home it’s not so bad. So while I was putting out work fires on the phone and on the computer I was able to look out at Marcia and Robert in the backyard. He brought out drinks and they sat in the Balinese hut near the pool, deep in conversation. It was nice, and I was proud of Robert, of how he could converse like this with someone he’d only just met.
Fast forward to that night in bed, when instead of lying straight down like he normally does and falling asleep in a nanosecond, he sat against the bedhead and said, “We need to do something about Marcia.”
I said, “Baby, I promised her she could stay.”
He said, “No. I mean about her situation.”
“Do you know how unhappy she is?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. Was he fucking kidding me? Did I know? After all the hours of listening and emotional energy spent on those interminable phone calls? The big fat nothing she ever did about any of the tragedies that fate singled her out for, out of all the people on the planet? Really? Marcia Marcia Marcia?
He continued, “That husband of hers sounds like a real prick. He makes life unbearable for her.” He lowered his voice and whispered, “She told me that sometimes she doesn’t feel like she can go on living.”
I told Robert that Marcia and her husband had been married three times as long as we had and they’d ridden out many storms, so whatever it was it would blow over like it had so many times before. And besides, Marcia’s Instagram feed was about 90% composed of happy couple selfies. I know social media isn’t real life, but when every other day you’re posting about how this man completes you and you’re soul mates, and yada yada yada, there’s a limit to how seriously you should take this.
It was as though I hadn’t said a word. It was as though I didn’t know this person I had in fact known my entire life and it was he who truly knew her, even though they’d only just met. He was coming up with a list of things we could do for her and I was just too stunned to suggest that maybe he should ask her insightful, incisive, and intelligent questions like he did with me.
Eventually I suggested it was too much to think about so late at night and we went to sleep, but in the morning, everything had changed.
Robert was a different Robert. He took over breakfast, set the table and everything and even had a flower from the garden in a vase. He became not just solicitous – he was buzzing around her like a drone for whatever she might want or need. She couldn’t open a door for herself, get herself a glass of water, work out the best route for her to take to her appointment in the city. Do you need more of this, Marcia? How about that, Marcia? Marcia, would you like help? Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
And Marcia? She was – I don’t know. I want to say girlish? Like with me, she was normal, but the coy smiles she gave Robert to thank him, and how her voice dropped a little in volume and raised a little in pitch made me want to slap her.
And I wanted to slap Robert, too, out of whatever trance he was in.
In the bedroom that night I mentioned it to him. He couldn’t see it and said he was just being a good host. I told him that I also like to get waited on hand and foot now and then.
And then he said the thing that crashed my world.
“You can take care of yourself. But Marcia… she’s fragile.”
It mightn’t have crashed my world if it didn’t look to me like Robert was glowing when he was waiting on Marcia. Like it made him the happiest of men to serve a fragile flower of a woman. And I thought… after all this time together, did he want to be a prince charming after all? All the times he told me he loved me for the strong and independent woman I am, did he mean it, or was he saying it because it was what he thought I needed to hear because that’s what and who I am. Had he wanted was a damsel in distress all along?
The rest of that long weekend was interminable. First, because I felt like a third wheel. A prince charming and a damsel in distress are a perfect bubble. Nothing else enters that bubble unless it’s a wicked stepmother, or a witch, or an inoffensive sidekick like a dwarf.
Second, because my husband was responding in a way I’d never seen before, to a woman that’s so different to who I am. And who and what I am was not just neglected that weekend, but dismissed and displaced. What I thought were the foundations of this relationship were rocked to the core. Suddenly, I didn’t know who we were any more, and who I was supposed to be because of that.
I managed to be nice to both of them, if somewhat quiet, until Marcia left. I even managed to hold down my breakfast at her Instagram feed a couple of days later. Shots of my pool taken between her two knees, as she lay one of my sun lounges, a cocktail made by my husband with my booze in her hand. And immediately after that, a selfie of Marcia and her husband. The caption: “Together again! Three days away from you is an eternity, my love.”
Robert was now back in the land of our marriage and noticed that I wasn’t talking much. He was completely different to what he’d been like the past three days – back to his old self. But I couldn’t be bothered with him. Could barely look at him. And I couldn’t raise the issue with him because I couldn’t bear the thought of him denying everything I’d seen. I didn’t just feel hurt – I felt damaged.
There was a conference I wasn’t going to go to that week and I decided to go. To make it up to my 2IC, who was meant to be representing the business, I upgraded her hotel room to a suite next to mine. I left a couple of days earlier than I needed to and booked the return flight for a couple of days after the conference finished. When Robert rang me I kept our conversations short and top-level. One night I had too much to drink and flirted with another CEO who’d also had too much to drink. Somehow through the fog of too many appletinis I realised that anything I did with this CEO would only threaten my marriage and sense of self further, so I went up to my room before I could do any damage. But instead I somehow made my way to my 2IC’s suite and I ended up weeping incoherently on her bed while she rubbed my back and said that men are bastards.
I guess that was my fragile Marcia moment.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. Additional production and mastering jiggery pokery by Marc Teamaker. This episode’s stories were:
Asleep In Oak Park: A Late Love Storyby Robert Hirschfield
Who Are We, Really?by J. Elliott
The Dynamics of Love by Ella Offiong
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! by Jan Brady
Special thanks to Ella for coaching me in the Yoruba language so that I could bring you these sayings in the original language. If you speak Yoruba and found my pronunciation appalling, I’m sorry! I really felt Ella’s story would have lost something if I’d used the sayings’ English equivalent, so I hope you understand why I decided to persevere with the Yoruba.
And a shoutout to my new Flanelette subscribers, Marc and Alicia M. Marc and Alicia are contributing just $5 a month so that I can continue to bring you these stories. Apart from this shoutout, they get a copy of my newsletter, The Pillow Mint. The Pillow Mint is a companion piece to each episode, with suggestions for what to listen to, read, and watch that expands on the theme of the stories. If you’d like to be like Marc and Alicia, just go to buymeacoffee.com/pillowtalking
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And that’s it for tonight!
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, Sanctuary. Stories about the bedroom, and the relationship, being a refuge for the storms that rage outside.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.