Viola wants Robert to call her names when they have sex. She says it gets her off more than anything. She wants him to yell at her. Robert is not comfortable with this idea. Would she be yelling back at him? Perhaps, she says, depending on her mood.
She writes up a list of suggestions for Robert, to help get him started. She keeps asking him, has he read it? Until it gets to the point that he can’t read it, not with her around. Too much emphasis is being placed on this list, which, after all, is only a list of words that he, as a grown man, has surely heard at some point in his life.
Robert goes to the grocery store. He’s planning to make eggplant parmesan with a side salad tonight. In the grocery store parking lot, a group of teenagers riding in a shopping cart nearly run him over while he’s glancing over the list of names. “Sincerest apologies,” the teenagers call out. “Surely you remember the heedless nature of youth?” The eggplant at the store is soft and too purple, a bin of bruises in the shape of fists. He tries to think, what other things can he make parmesan? Portabella parmesan? Beet parmesan? Neither he nor Viola eat meat anymore, because they’re opposed to the widespread use of antibiotics, but right now he finds himself missing, of all things, veal. Is there some sort of veal substitute out yet?
In the organic/health foods section, near the back of the store, Robert takes out the list of names Viola wants him to call her and studies it. He points to things on the list and nods his head at products in his cart, to make sure that anyone who sees him reading the list will not think that he is reading a list of dirty names his fiancée wants him to call her. “Can I help you find something, sir?” asks a young man with a pierced lip and acne scattered across his shaven head. “I’m not asking because I especially care. But my boss? Who’s behind that two-way mirror there? Says you keep darting your eyes around, perhaps in anticipation of shoplifting something. See, we have these little earpieces that he can talk to us with? Like spies?” Robert coughs, shoves the list into his pocket. No, no, he’s fine. “Is there something on that list you’re hiding, sir? I mean, I guess if you were the overly-sensitive sort you might be embarrassed about picking up condoms, which are aisle six, but that’s about as kinky as things get around here—”
Robert ends up buying a meat substitute that comes in the form of a paste, wrapped in a tube of plastic. The serving suggestions on the back all involve spooning some of the paste out from the tube and frying it. He asks himself while driving home, why did I buy this? Nevertheless, when he gets back to his apartment, he’s determined to make it work. He sets out his materials on the kitchen counter, the cheese, the makings for the sauce, and duly spoons a glob of the paste onto a frying pan. Thick black smoke rises from it almost immediately. “What in the world is that?” says Viola. The fire alarm screeches. The kitchen window sticks. “Get it off the burner, for God’s sake,” says Viola.
“It’s not like I think it’s you, calling me these names,” Viola tells Robert, later that night. She’s naked and sitting on her hands at the edge of the bed. Robert, also naked, is pacing. “So who the hell do you think it is?” he says.
II. National Interests
A dashing young FBI agent has begun appearing at the library where Viola works, trying to catch Viola and other librarians on their breaks and explain to them why the Patriot Act is something to be embraced, for the good of all. It’s about preserving freedom, he explains. If the FBI keeps track of who’s reading, say, the Anarchist’s Cookbook, just to name an obvious example, then the government doesn’t have to actually ban the book altogether. “He’s a slick fucking fascist,” Viola explains to her boyfriend Robert, after work. “He’s a fascist for the new millennium.” “Fight the power,” Robert says, not looking up from his laptop. Robert claims to be a Libertarian, but Viola suspects that he votes Republican.
Viola prints up a set of business cards that read, “Do you know what your kids are reading? The FBI might.” She begins distributing these to patrons. Because she’s a children’s librarian, and nearly anything near her desk somehow becomes covered in crayon drawings, before long every one of the business cards she had printed up is decorated with a smiley face, flower, or shaky but recognizable dogs, all of which, Viola feels, somewhat dampens her message.
The dashing FBI agent finds her while she’s smoking behind the dumpsters during her lunch break. “You know, I really admire what you’re doing,” he says. He’s dark-complected skinned and black-haired, with lips that pout like an Italian model’s. He looks a couple of years younger than her, at least. “The fascist told me he admired me,” she tells Robert that night. “Can you fucking believe that? Like maybe I’d swoon over some FBI tool telling me he admires my principles.” “Well, you have to stick to what you believe, I guess,” Robert says, in a tone that leads Viola to believe he hasn’t heard a word she was saying.
“This is serious stuff we’re talking here. The relationship between a librarian and her patron is one of sacred trust. Fundamental privacy we’re talking, whether her patron has an interest in anarchism or cookbooks or porn or politics or whatever.”
“Have you considered,” Robert asks, “that this might actually be a good thing?”
She’s so angry that she can’t stay the night.
Back at her apartment, Viola fantasizes about the FBI agent. It’s not the first time she’s fantasized about someone other than Robert since they began dating, but the violence of the fantasy shocks her. She’s so stirred up she has problems getting to sleep. The next day, at the library, she finds a National Security Letter in her mailbox, demanding a list of patrons who have checked out various books that she can’t imagine have much to do with national security: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, the erotica of Anaïs Nin, the children’s novel Johnny Tremain. The FBI agent comes in that afternoon smiling, slinking towards her, as though the National Security Letter were a gambit in a seduction that both were aware of. “You know this isn’t going to hold up,” she tells him. He makes a shushing motion, indicating the patrons around them. “You’ve got to be insane,” she says. He motions her outside. “Hold up to what?” he says, offering her a cigarette. Which she starts to take, out of reflex, then thinks better of. “Judicial oversight.” “Isn’t any.” “You can’t imagine that I’m going to hand over the names of people who’ve checked out Johnny Tremain.” “I can imagine lots of things.”
The next day at work there’s another National Security Letter for her, along with a long-stemmed rose. “Are you kidding me?” Viola says, when the FBI agent makes his appearance later that day. “No oversight, no review,” he says. “All of that stuff is outdated. Would you be interested in dinner?” No, she wouldn’t be interested in dinner, she’d go to hell or federal prison first. “You don’t know what the idea of you in handcuffs does for me, lovely. Just keep in mind that I’m persistent,” taking out another rose from inside his sport coat and laying it next to the crayons on Viola’s desk. Does he just carry them around with him? Are they government-issued?
When Viola and Robert have sex that night, she can’t help it, she’s thinking of the FBI agent, his sharp cheekbones and boyish wrists. She imagines fucking him viciously, taking out all of her sensible outrage on his delicate shiny-smooth body. Robert notices something is up, the way Viola is tearing into him, pinning him down, scratching his arms, but for all his egotism, he can’t begin to imagine how closely his fate, at this moment, is wrapped up with that of the nation.
III. The Secret Police
When the Stasi files were opened, among other things they discovered hundreds of vials containing the smells of individuals suspected of acting against the interests of the state. There was a long discussion about what should be done with the vials—keep them closed, for historical reasons? As a sort of record of how far a government might go to know everything, absolutely everything, about its subjects? Years later, on another continent, Robert, lying awake at night, smells his sleeping fiancée’s hair and tries to decide—is it different? Has she changed? To what degree might differences in her personality be reflected in her distinctive smell, which even after several years dating her, Robert hasn’t figured out quite how to describe? The West German worker who was finally given the task of unstoppering the vials didn’t know what they contained, didn’t know that he was breathing in anything but old air. When the worker was interviewed for the documentary that Robert watched earlier today, he said maybe he would’ve opened each one slower, if he’d known. But then again, he was young at the time, and history seemed to have been reset just a few years earlier. Later that night he had a date with an East German girl, as he recalled, who wanted to ask him everything about the new century she’d suddenly found her way into.
IV. The Beach House
Viola’s aunt and uncle invite her and Robert down for a week at the beach house in South Carolina. Viola’s excited. Robert less so. They’ve been married, now, six months. The house is too small for the four of them, though Robert alone seems to notice this. The bedrooms share a thin wall, not to mention a single bathroom. Mornings, Robert often meets Viola’s stick-thin aunt as she emerges from the shower, in a towel that doesn’t cover her quite as well as it should, an unlit cigarette already in her mouth. Which she lights as soon as she gets out to the deck, without detouring to dress.
“You seem well-adjusted, though,” Robert says to Viola, after the first full day there. From the other side of the bedroom wall comes the sound of the floorboards groaning under the weight of Viola’s uncle, who’s as overweight as his wife is under-.
“What’s that mean?”
“Just what I said.”
Early on into the week, however, Viola seems to be sliding into some other personality, some pod-Viola. She spends mornings out on the screened-in deck with her aunt, drinking Diet Cokes and smoking. Robert’s seen Viola smoke one cigarette before, and that was when she was very drunk.
“I’m not addicted to cigarettes, Robert. I’m not a smoker. It’s a vacation. Chill out.”
On the third afternoon there, Viola’s uncle takes Robert out fishing on the dock by the house. “Not a lot of fishing y’all got in those Indiana mudholes, I’d imagine.”
“There’s fishing,” Robert says.
“You seem to be having some trouble getting that nightcrawler to stay where you want him—here, let me see that—got to just—here ya go—”
The only thing they catch that afternoon are stingrays. Viola’s uncle holds one up by the tail with a pair of pliers, to show Robert its barb. “That sumbitch hits you, you feel it. Grab that board over there and help me hold this little monster down so I can get the hook.” But it turns out the stingray has swallowed the entire hook, so the only thing to be done is to cut the line. Blood bubbles up from its gills, the stinger flashes back and forth. Viola’s uncle uses a two-by-four to nudge it off the dock and into the water.
On the screened-in deck that night Viola and her aunt drink rum and tell old family stories, most of them about things Viola’s mother would do while drunk. Robert sits off to the side, not drinking his beer. “This time in Kentucky,” her aunt says, “we’re staying in this motel, me and Harry finally got her to bed, she’d been up two days straight—soon as we got her into the bed, conk, she was out. ‘Lord almighty,’ we said, thinking finally we’d get some sleep ourselves—she was always fun, but lord, who could keep up with her? Next morning, damned if she hadn’t disappeared, we found her in the dry motel pool, at the bottom, sleeping like innocence itself…” She laughs, coughs, laughs some more.
“I’m going for a walk,” Robert says, standing.
“Robert, stay,” Viola says, in a little-girl-voice, something he hasn’t heard her do before. “Don’t be a party-pooper.” She makes a little-girl-pouting face, then giggles, smoke swirling about her head.
It’s dark down by the water, and the ground is uneven. Robert finds himself tripping more than walking. He follows the water for a while, but then, getting frustrated, he sets off in the direction he thinks the road is. If he finds the road, a dirt road, unlit, he over-shoots it. Finally, he knows he’s lost. He sits down where he is, in the tall grass, breathing hard. He can feel himself beginning to panic. He can’t even see the light from the house from here. It’s possible that’s the only house for miles. Fine, he says. I’m panicking. I’m allowed to panic, he says to himself. But damned if I’m going to yell for help.