Book Keeping: A Reader's Community

You Are Only As Sick As Your Secrets

Susan Coll

The Stager by Susan Coll

Dominique is one very bitter rabbit. His owner, Lars Jorgenson, is a former tennis pro who has blown out both knees, become obese, and is now addicted to a cocktail of prescription drugs containing the letters X and Z, one weird side-effect of which is that he has developed an omniscient point of view. Both Dominique and Lars are going crazy in the affluent Maryland suburbs where their faux Tudor home is up for sale. Idle on the market for months, the home is now being staged: a professional has come in to redecorate and depersonalize the house so that others can imagine themselves living there. Into the messy personal life of Lars and his beautiful wife Bella comes Eve, an unemployed journalist-turned-stager who immediately realizes, as she steps into the foyer, that she is in the home of her former best friend. Eve knows way too much about Bella, including the questionable paternity of the meddling young child who lives in this house. Questions of friendship, loyalty, fidelity, sobriety, and sanity are raised to hilarious effect in The Stager, a dark comedy of how we live now in the age of planned communities, cookie-cutter mansions, and cutthroat careerism.


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There is a skinny lady with bright red lipstick and purple nail polish standing in front of my refrigerator when I get home after field-hockey practice. Dominique is cradled in her arms, and in her hand is a crooked nubby carrot with the bushy leaf still attached. She is trying to get Dominique to eat the carrot, but he won’t open his mouth.

I don’t know who this lady is or why she is standing in my kitchen holding my rabbit, but since the first FOR SALE sign went up in front of our house three months ago, I’ve gotten used to finding strangers in random places, doing random things: Once, I found a lady sitting on my bed with her shirt unbuttoned, nursing her baby; another time, I saw a man going through my mom’s dresser drawers. One lady even went around the house flushing all the toilets while her husband sat in my dad’s favorite chair in the living room, reading a book.

But no one has ever tried to feed my rabbit before. Dominique doesn’t even like carrots. Also, he looks kind of sick. I’m surprised to see him, since he’s been missing for a couple of days, so I reach for him. At the same time, Nabila walks into the kitchen, sees the lady, and screams. In the chaos, Dominique winds up getting dropped. He hits the ground headfirst, and for almost an entire minute he doesn’t move. I worry that he’s dead, but then, just when I’m about to tell someone to call the police, or the fire department, or my mom, he lifts his head, pricks his ears up straight, looks around the room, and hops out the back door, which is propped wide open—I’m guessing because of the bad smell in our house.

We spend an hour walking around the neighborhood, calling Dominique’s name. We see about ten different rabbits, and even though they all look sort of like Dominique, none of them is him.

LARS

Were Bella narrating this story, she’d lean in confidentially, in a manner that would make you feel that you alone are privy to the secret of my unraveling.

“Lars has been sweating and tossing and pounding his pillows for seven nights straight,” she’d say, “and the dreams he recounts, sometimes shaking me awake at three a.m., verge on harrowing noir.”

Bella actually speaks like this, tossing out phrases like “harrowing noir” with the casual ease of a crack dealer counting hundred-dollar bills. Her thoughts line up in smooth, neat sentences replete with proper punctuation, with just enough emotion to be suggestive of fonts. Without your even noticing, a mini-thesis takes shape, with topic sentences and closing arguments that loop back nicely to echo her chief points. No “um”s or “like”s spill from her lips; her speech is the grammatical equivalent of a military cot.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting my wife is robotic: even in her sleep-deprived fugue, she shows interest in my dreams, asking questions that go right to the heart of complicated narratives that have mostly to do with animals: beaches full of toxic fish, weaponized penguins, a plague of crustacean-like parasites that have invaded our house and cannot be eradicated.

On the fourth day of our trip to London, I awake with a nightmare about a rabbit whose cigar ash has set our house on fire. Later that same afternoon, when we’re doubled down, dealing long-distance with the Dominique debacle, I am troubled by the coincidence; concerned there might be some weird rabbit mojo amok in the atmosphere. Bella explains patiently, as if I am a child, that rabbits are prevalent figures in popular culture, appearing in books and advertisements more frequently than most people realize, and that my dream was likely inspired by Dominique’s destructive habits. He has been quietly ruining our house for years, she reminds me, and this coincidence is surely meaningless.

It can be exhausting to live with someone who always has the answer. I shoot her a withering look. Or at least I mean to; I am no longer sure if my facial expressions convey what I intend.

*   *   *

Bella has her own theory about what is going on with me: Buried in the fine print of the three pages of disclaimers that accompany the latest addition to the cocktail of medications she insists I take is the possibility of disturbing thoughts, hallucinations, vivid and unusual dreams, and episodes of psychosis. I’ve always been plugged into the flotsam and jetsam of the universe, and, spouselike (Bella might say witchlike), into my wife’s brain. Some of this manifests as normal, déjà-vu-y stuff, like dreaming about rabbits just before our own disappears, but sometimes I simply know things. And lately I know even more, because things are crystallizing. My eye has become such a finely tuned instrument that I can actually see a ray bounce off the surface material and calculate the degrees of the arc at which it is about to bend back to me. Light carries energy in discrete quantities, and now that I have learned to harness this, it gives me strength.

We argue about this frequently. Bella is a pragmatist. She insists these nocturnal animal visitations, as well as my ability to see, and channel, the light, are merely chemically induced side effects. But she’s wrong: I’ve never felt clearer, and I am finally beginning to understand. I am not as articulate as my wife, and although I am completely fluent and from a highly literate family (my late father was a well-known Swedish mystery writer; you are probably familiar with the whitewashed landscapes and his rugged, brooding, chain-smoking detective, Jesper Johanson), English is not my first language; so when she asks me what it is, exactly, that I am beginning to understand, I cannot explain it to her satisfaction. Only that it has to do with the light. Seeing the light, grasping the importance of diffraction and absorption, embracing the beauty of transparency.

This is something Bella ought to understand better than she does, transparency being the centerpiece of her new professional life. You might think I am just casually tossing about metaphors, but four months ago she was actually named the Vice-President for Transparency for Luxum International, the world’s second-largest investment bank. Their new television commercials run in a seemingly endless loop on the cable news networks: “Luxum International = Transparency + Efficiency + Accountability.” Bella had been Luxum’s Vice-President for North American Equity Derivatives for the previous five years, commuting from our home outside Washington, D.C., to New York most weeks, until the company became the subject of a long cycle of unflattering headlines touched off by losing a class-action lawsuit for defrauding investors in risky mortgage loans. This they might have overcome—everyone was defrauding investors, so that was no big deal—but then, that same week, a trader went public with the fact that his team had been siphoning funds to build an underground pleasure palace in Dubai, the sordid details of which were tabloid fodder for weeks and involved underage girls without visas and a room full of goats. Yes, it sounds over-the-top, but I’m telling you, I don’t know what kind of mind could make this stuff up. Part of the recovery involves a massive rebranding effort, and Bella—my personable, articulate, beautiful, brilliant wife, my Bella, who inspires trust among her colleagues—is going to be Luxum’s salvation. The job comes with a mid-six-figure salary, stock options, and the potential for (but not the promise of) astronomical bonuses. The only downside of being Luxum’s VP for Transparency is that we need to relocate to their London headquarters.

Personally, I find this rebranding campaign a bit elliptical. If you aren’t already doing business with Luxum International, you will likely view these commercials with great puzzlement. You might guess that Luxum is in the business of tailoring the sharp Italian suits the actors wear on the commercials, or that they manufacture those slim computers, illuminated with the Luxum logo, that appear on the background desks. Whatever it is that actually occurs beneath the veneer of transparency + efficiency + accountability (and, to be honest, I’m not entirely certain myself), they want Bella badly. They upped the initial offer after she said no on the grounds of not wanting to disrupt Elsa, although I suspect she is really more concerned about disrupting me.

You are only as sick as your secrets. This phrase has lodged in my brain like a splinter, even though I can’t remember where I picked it up. Twelve years into our marriage, four days into our trip to London, to borrow from the lingo of my wife’s former profession, we are so far removed from the lede that we are buried in the jump. We pretend the secret away; we placate it, medicate it, tiptoe around it, construct overpasses and back-road arteries, and we are now in the part of the story that lands in newspapers beside advertisements for convertible sofas and wooden fences and is used to line birdcages or start fires or wrap fish at the dock.

I shake Bella awake and narrate the arc of another hideous dream. I am trembling so badly I may be convulsing. My wife urges me to take another pill. The management of symptoms further erodes the memory, which may in fact be the point. While the sumptuous blue molecules dissolve in my bloodstream, she calls my doctor back in Washington and leaves another voice mail.

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SUSAN COLL is the Events and Programs Director at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the novels Beach Week, Acceptance, Rockville Pike, and karlmarx.com. Acceptance was made into a television movie starring Joan Cusack in 2009. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2014 by Susan Coll