‘Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.’ Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex
Jack never actually said it. But I was trained to follow unsaid orders. Still they haunt me. Decades later.
I step inside her quarters. She’s been locked up in here forever, it seems. She rises to greet me; 50 feet tall. She takes the darkest shades these days. Ink black hair tied back, bangs, a strict retro coiffure. ‘Strict’ is key. Strict, distinctive lines define the dress she’s wearing; black; over-padded shoulders make her frame look even more powerful than usual. Shimmering, like a velvet piece of night, it encases her curves in a sensual exoskeleton. Only her face and hands are bare. Pale skin. Red lips. Red claws. Her deep, liquid eyes size me up as she pours us a glass of wine. White. It’s still too warm for red. I sit back, glass in hand and bask in her presence. My flesh reacts like metal shavings in the path of a magnet.
‘Donnie…’ her husky whisper. My senses drown in hers. She is sense and essence. ‘Let me out my love.’
I am helpless. I am the turnkey who has lost the gate key. I am as much a prisoner as she.
She is as tragic as Rapunzel, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. A gem of a girl locked up safely away from people’s harmful gaze by a higher authority. Higher meaning adult. Adult meaning socially conscious. Authority meaning force. I wish I could say that she was too kind or too beautiful. That she caused the passion of a witch, the jealousy of an evil stepmother, the rage of a perverse fairy. But this story stems out of another life, the life that gives birth to fairy tales, and here the villain, if we want to call him that, comes in the guise of her own father. Jack Bean. The ‘Kill her!’ guy.
He had me lock her away before it was ever possible to determine if she was indeed too kind or too beautiful, or if she was, on the other hand, a downright bitch. In fact, the only thing that could be said about her at the time was that she was present. And father Jack would have none of it.
He was young, then, handsome and afraid of his own shadow. The anger of being the despised first-born, his father’s legacy to him – his father: the runt of a litter of fifteen and shunned by his mother – festering in his chest, expanding out of his flesh like disease, infecting everyone and everything he came to touch and love. A slow, agonizing flame of sickness. It took a while for it to burn him down to a prematurely old stub of a man. But he was still beautiful during the first years of her life. He was her first love.
The son of a poor adventurer risen to the status of soldier and then conquering entrepreneurial king, Jack had a prince’s start in life. A dreamy, gentle, little prince, with a womanizing, drunken, absent father to look up to. And there came a time when war broke out in the country where the king had set his royal business up. It was the second war Jack’s father was to go through. It would be the first of two for Jack. The royal family fled one murderous night and went back to their birthplace. They lost every possession they ever had on their way back. All but their pride, remained, stiff upper lip and ghosts of glories past.
War came and went in their country of origin too, and after a few soldierly adventures of his own, the pauper prince became king of a rented little hut and of a pretty, young, pauper bride. And she was pregnant. He came back from work one day with a post card in his hand – the photo of a blond and blue-eyed baby boy. ‘This is the son I want!’ he told his wife. And she delivered. It looked quite a bit like the baby in the post card too! Though there was something quite the matter with it in the end. Something nobody could quite pin down at first. Something quite small, yet big. Elephant-sized.
Dressing her in boy clothes did not affect her in the least. Her mother had plenty of girly things to play with. Calling her by a boy’s name did also nothing. She knew who she was. Did they give her toy soldiers? She turned them into dolls. A warm, autumnal afternoon, when she was about three, her father asked her what ‘he’ wanted to be when ‘he’ grew up. She knew she couldn’t say it. But she did sum up enough courage to draw him a picture of it. Her stomach twisted itself up in a knot as she showed him the picture of the princess she had drawn. There was a pause… Registering… And his roaring voice, screaming and violence of some sort. And the word ‘No’ and the word ‘Wrong.’ She was a No. She was a Wrong.
It took several more years of violent indoctrination to wall her up inside the confines of my body. My body was just ‘the son’ our father ordered. My penis would define my existence. He was quite adamant about that.
Jack did not say as much. But he tried to smother her any way he could. Even though she was strength. Even though she was vastness. Killing giants was a family tradition, you see. And so, I was trained to self-destruct.
I remember her looking out through my eyes as I was becoming ever less her, ever more Donald. I hate my cartoonish name. The name of a ridiculous duck. I’m Donnie. Donnie Bean. She was a much older, wiser being. Alice I’ll call her, after the one who was too big, too tall for the hall that would lead her to certain lands of fear and wonder. Alice Fatalice. The adventurous girl and the tragic tigress, the femme fatale, Cleopatra, Salome, Mary Boleyn and Mata Hari. Lost as she was in solitary confinement, she would conjure all these archetypes as we were growing up, her wounded pride refusing to shrink down to a more manageable size. A prisoner’s pride. Freedom in a nutshell. We played at being charismatic and ruthless, free, sexual and debauched. Everything the tyranny of our father, our king and commander, the gatekeeper to society, did not leave room for. She was a loving, restless genie, living inside the tiny lamp of my child’s body. I remember feeling her stooping down to observe the world through the goggles of my eyes. Her vision allowed me to see far beyond the visible. Yet my rearing allowed only for a paranoid, aggressive, masculine perspective.
So much violence. So much abuse Alice and I have had to suffer. All because we didn’t fit our father’s preconception of what a son should be. ‘And why should a son, or any other child, be anything other than loved and cherished?’ I now ask. But I was at the receiving end of a trauma, then. A trauma passed down from generation to generation. And I was expected to follow in the same self-destructive, masculine, soldierly steps. Killing her. Killing myself. I tried and failed a number of times. Luckily! There’s too much life in me. Mine and Alice’s life. She is half of the whole of me. And she has as much right to exist in this humanity as my body has.
Jack could not see beyond that. The son of a soldier, the son of a womanizer, the son of a king, he could only see my Otherness. And Otherness is weakness. Otherness is the enemy. Otherness is foreignness. So I became a foreigner in my father’s house. Foreign both to him and to myself. Foreign, also and by extension, to the thoroughly paternalistic country of our origin. And there’s less protection for foreigners in any home and country, as our family history shows. So we have been retraining our self to disobey said and unsaid orders. We are learning to carve spaces in the social strata for Our freedom to exist in. Alice and I are learning to be a loving body, a winning team, Our own country.
She takes the darkest shades these days. It is the triumph of the vamp. The deadly female who has braved death. She is inevitably marked by it. Jack failed. Society failed. Survival has a price. She has mastered pubescent hormones, chronic rage; so many times through the years, she nearly drowned in the floods of my tears. She has waited till my bones grew out as far as they would, till the laugh lines and the crow’s-feet cracked the gate of imposed innocence off its hinges, to raise her head and show her face again, through my, now, ageing features. We face each other. Standing tall at 50 feet, she can see my mortality closing in. Courage shimmers in her ink black hair, heavy as a crown.
‘Let me out, my love,’ she whispers, fingers caressing the stubble of my beard.
‘But how, my love?’ I voice my fear. ‘I don’t care to be a princess anymore, it’s not my path. It hasn’t been in a long time. So what is the way for us both to be?’
‘Get to your laptop and write me free. Tales of peace will come of this.’