On Writing: in two vignettes
by Nasrin Himada
Desert Hearts (1985) is a lesbian love story set in Reno, Nevada in the ’50s; it’s the first feature film from director Donna Deitch and is based on the novel Desert of the Heart (1964) by Jane Rule. I happened upon it one day while browsing through the Criterion Collection’s digitized film archive, procrastinating in anticipation of a looming deadline, needing to start a piece of writing. But the beginning—it always hurts. To ease the pain of self-sabotage, I scrolled through the romance section, as I often do, for distraction and comfort. As the story goes, a straight-laced English professor named Vivian Bell from New York City arrives in Reno to establish residence for a “quickie” divorce. She stays in a guest house on a ranch run by a matriarch named Frances. There, she meets Cay, Frances’ stepdaughter, a free-spirited artist 10 years her junior who revels in bold and flirty encounters, always searching for that one true love. A slow and tender romance unfolds between the unlikely couple against the backdrop of a stunning desert landscape.
Around this time, as I was attempting to start my writing assignment, but before I watched Desert Hearts, I had been ruminating on the idea of revenge writing. In one scene in the film, shortly after their first kiss at Lake Tahoe, Vivian and Cay return to the ranch only to find that Frances has packed Vivian’s bags and ordered a car to take her to a hotel in the city. Frances is livid, and speaks directly to Vivian when she confronts the couple for embarrassing her at a party the night before; them leaving together had caused quite the stir. Vivian is outraged, storms off and gets into the car. Cay tries to go with her, but Vivian won’t have it—for now. The car drives off, leaving Cay behind. A few days later, Cay shows up at Vivian’s hotel door and insists they speak about what happened. At first, Vivian is reluctant, but then opens the door to let her in. Vivian is dishevelled and a mess, her hair all loose and uncombed, her eyes filled with tears, her cheeks red from crying. “You’re beautiful,” Cay says, upon first sight. Vivian walks to the kitchen and takes a big gulp of whiskey, lights a cigarette and starts at it with Cay, demanding justice in response to Frances’ behaviour. “Why don’t you justtell her off?” Cay exclaims, to which Vivian responds, “I am not in the habit of raising my voice over false issues. When I retire, I will simply write a short story for my revenge, about this town, these people, these gamblers.”
I couldn’t help but laugh—and relate! I wondered how often writers ruminate over revenge fantasies only to then use them as material for better stories. I laughed because I was in the midst of thinking of doing the same thing. I had recently received an email from an ex-partner. We hadn’t been in touch, partly because I had refused to engage with them. The relationship was very hard and caused much distress; so much so, that when someone even utters their name, my body goes into shock. When I received this email, I was enraged because I had blocked them from my inbox. But I hadn’t realized I could still receive messages from them in my trash folder. So, when I saw their message, I froze. Opened it, and read it. My thought shortly afterwards was to go and egg their car. I desired immediate action. I wanted to give precedence to this impulse. For days afterwards, I fantasized about this in detail: who would I recruit to help me, what would I wear, where would I buy the eggs, what time of night would this take place?
In the end, I chose to simply write about it, as a way to seek revenge without taking action IRL. To make it into fiction, in this way, supports my ongoing attempts to overhaul the stigma directed at those who express anger over a fraught relationship. That relationship was nothing short of abusive, but the shame and repression that comes with trying to communicate that, without using that word, can be so isolating. At times, it has felt difficult to express such dynamics openly and critically in my queer community, where it can often seem like harmful behavior is let slide in ways that it might not if the partner was a male cisgendered person. Many have written about this, but we still have so much to learn in regards to accountability, both individually and as a community.
By writing a story that gives precedence to my impulse for revenge, I get to process this anger differently than I would in public, even among my peers. Writing cuts through what would, in a public context, be experienced as stigma and shame. There is no shame in feeling this anger, and I want to talk about it with all of you. And the need to explore the indignant residue of a lingering resentment is respected. Yes, often writing gets me back to a tender place, one that allows for a path open to forgiveness, to return to the place where light is. Sure. Maybe. But writing also allows for an intimacy with the monstrous; in this case, to break the veneer of respectable post-breakup behaviour.
Right now, all I want is revenge: to lay claim, to avenge, to retaliate, to gain satisfaction. Writing is action, too, and that’s the beauty of Vivian’s remark. She wanted to repair the moment of inaction by ultimately writing about her humiliating experience; she wanted the chance to express in writing what she was unable to in person at the time of the confrontation and take power back. Revenge writing is time travel, time in effect, then corrected, re-made through a fantastical vision. It’s the ultimate remake.
The Place Behind the Couch
The images I see, they’re all mixed up, or maybe they’re a memory. I was sitting with my brother behind a couch. We were in an apartment, not ours. Our parents were in another other room, not far from us, but still at a distance. They were talking, laughing with the hosts and other guests. We were with all the children. We were children, too. Behind the couch, we hid. I remember we were scared, not of the other children, but of where we were, in that room, in that apartment. Something felt off. We were not safe. The hosts, we didn’t like. We just wanted to go home. But we weren’t able to move, not from that particular spot. We felt stuck, as if we were put there by some other force, bound to it. We stayed. We couldn’t leave, and we couldn’t say anything. We didn’t shout for them, our parents. We wanted to, but we had to stay quiet. But where were they? Why were they taking so long? We just wanted to go home. Eventually, our mom appeared, towering over us, and in a stern voice, low as a whisper, told us to get out of there, it’s time to go.