(Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #192, February 2016, edited by Scott H. Andrews.)
This story came out of three experiences coming together at the right time: the Kincardine Theatre Guild, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.
From February 2009 to September 2011, I lived in Kincardine, Ontario. A town of about 2,000 by the shores of Lake Huron and in its snow squall zone, it is very scenic in the summer, grey and prone to storm closures in the winter, and absolutely dependent on cars — while I couldn’t drive at the time, so although there were surrounding towns and villages adding up to ten thousand people or so, Toronto was closer at three hours away because at least a bus went there. I joked that there were only four options as to what to do with your spare time: (a) drink; (b) garden; (c) golf; (d) do theatre (and the winter took away the g-options).
I chose to do theatre. Which was the right choice; it got me two years of wonderful experiences and friends I still love dearly.
I desperately wanted to perform, but after my first show in which I had a small singing part, circumstances got me being assistant stage manager on the next show. And I turned out to be good at it, so much so that I ended up ASM for three more productions, but frustrated with it because it used the same skills as I used at work. And I was hoping for the theatre to get away from practical financial work and towards artistic dreams.
In my final production before I left Kincardine to go to graduate school, I was finally cast as an actor — the supporting role of Sylvie in The Odd Couple (Female Version). But I learned that acting was not what I had dreamed of; I liked, and like, performing, but becoming someone else did not come naturally to me at all. Every line and step, I had to think about, and at the end of every show, the thinking had worn me out. I was better as a manager behind the scenes.
I gave this experience to Bethenica.
I visited Paris for the first significant time in 2012, and it so happened that my full day there was a Tuesday, when both the Louvre and the Centre Georges Pompidou (the modern art museum) are closed. So what was left was the Musee d’Orsay, and I spent a lovely afternoon there.
Two things struck me: how bored all the women in Manet’s paintings looked (Luncheon on the Grass, Olympia, Bar at the Folies-Bergere, I started looking for women Manet painted that didn’t look like they wanted to be anywhere but here). And in contrast, how happy were the women in Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s sculpture The Dance. I couldn’t get my frustration with Manet out of my head — how must his female sitters have felt about him?
Two years later, coming back from Clarion, I visited Hearst Castle, designed for William Randolph Hearst by the woman architect Julia Morgan (who seemed to have a sense of humour: she called a pergola on the grounds “the longest pergola in captivity”). The contrast between finance and art, in Hearst Castle and my own experiences, and Hearst owning a sculpture of The Three Graces and Carpeaux also having made a sculpture of that, all swirled together in my head.
But the definitive work of narrative art inspired by Hearst has already been done — it’s Citizen Kane. If I made my Hearst-analogue a man, it would be transparently obvious, but would anyone notice it was Hearst if all I switched was making him a woman?
Thus came Nahemiah, and many of the details of her life were directly lifted from Hearst. My narrator was at first called Bethenia, but I was writing the first draft of this story on the train from California to Chicago, and my companion got to talking about Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, noted jazz patron and fascinating woman. Before I knew, Bethenia turned into Bethenica and Bethenica she stayed.
She came alive when I hit on her habit of pricing every thing she sees.
Because perhaps the deepest influence on this story was long before I had moved to Kincardine or had visited Paris and California. It was the fact that I grew up poor. Unlike many, many poor people in Canada and the US, I was lucky in having educated parents who insisted I get as good a cultural education as they could manage and had thousands of books in the home even if the books were secondhand, and I had teachers that got me into a gifted program where (as I didn’t notice at the time) almost every one of my classmates had richer parents. I got out of poverty. But having to make choices about how much things cost never leaves you.