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Raised in a small Southern town, Eben Adams escaped to New York City (Cooper Union) and Berkeley (grad school), convinced that the only real human value is making things or appreciating the made.
Home Is a Bridge
By Eben Adams
Michael: a 70ish-year-old retired doctor
Claire: a 45ish woman from a wealthy Manhattan family
John: Claire's husband, a university professor
The walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge; the audience sees only a longwise slice. It is night, a full moon shines. In front of the bridge stage right and left various scenes will be played.
When the curtain rises, Michael is standing, with his back to the audience, staring into the distance. Claire enters stage right.
Claire: (approaching Michael) Don't do it.
Michael: (turning toward Claire) Don't do what?
Claire: Jump, of course.
Michael: I wasn't planning to. Just mentally drifting. Besides, I would only create a mess in that traffic below us. I am a tidy person. I always think of the consequences. The effect on the unfortunate driver who hit me. Worse, the physical damage to the car. And the cleanup. No, not a chance. Maybe if I could get to the water below us. But not a chance of that either.
Claire: I really didn't think you would. I always wanted to say that line and here was my opportunity. I am Claire, by the way. (she extends a hand)
Michael: (taking her hand) I am Michael. Do you usually meet people this way. Moving about the world waiting for an opportunity to dredge up a cliché?
Claire: No. This is my first time in public. Maybe it won’t be my last. I see a life's work ahead of me. Collecting trite expressions and blurting them out at appropriate or inappropriate moments. Now that I think about it, it has been done-----to death. Every dinner party I have ever survived. Oh, well, I must come up with something new.
Michael: It is pretty late, what are you doing here? Perhaps I could have used that line on you.
Claire: Not tonight. Some other time. I simply escaped a dinner party I could no longer endure. And I am the hostess. One of those academic affairs. My husband is a professor. A social necessity, that kind of entertaining. I have been doing it for some time now. But how much boredom can one person put up with? Tonight? Well, tonight I just had to get out or I would have committed suicide right there at the dinner table. Alas, you cannot do too much damage with a dinner knife. Superficial wounds only. Or death by dinner fork. Too funny. I am a serious person. Boredom should be lethal. It would reduce so much stress not to mention the world's population. So here I am. What are you doing here?
Michael: I come here to clear my head. I retired 10 years ago. Over a body of water separating two land masses has become the only place I can think clearly. Not think clearly exactly, more like vacuum my mind. The past haunts, the mind does not rest. For me, here, thought can stop. I can float with the water. Won’t you be missed?
Claire: No, not at this hour. They are polishing off my good brandy and discussing faculty politics. More Machiavellian than Machiavelli, only duller and cheaper. I could spend tonight and tomorrow here before anybody would know that I had jumped the good ship Academia or off the good bridge Brooklyn.
Michael: If you dislike that world so much, why don't you leave it?
Claire: Well, here I am talking to you and not there suffering them. So I do exit. I know, you mean permanently. But go where? The problem with being born into a rich family, c'est moi, is that you soon realize that all worlds are fake. With money, you can trade them in, like cars. I only stopped the process with John, my husband, to become a faculty wife. Besides, I am not as together as I look. I have, how to put it, a problem with this evasive reality. Take a look.
(she steps down to sit at a table at which John is already seated playing with a few utensils as dinner is over)
John: We have to entertain Myers. He has been in the department the longest and I need his support.
Claire: Another one of those dreary dinner parties. It is a good thing I like to cook. Those afternoons at Le Cordon Blue in Paris or with Marcella in Venice have not gone to waste. The only therapy I have ever had that came in useful although I cannot remember the name of the analyst who pushed me in that direction. The list is now officially a directory. I will throw a dinner party for him. Cooking the pasta has proven more beneficial than gluing it in decorative patterns to pieces of cardboard. So, yes, once again I will play the role of faculty wife. I wish I could get used to it.
John: You know they all like you, you're really good at this sort of thing.
Claire: No, they do not like me. They put up with me. Well, it would be more supportive if anyone of those ivory tower inhabitants knew what they were eating here. Food is not a primary concern of theirs. Only that the meal is free. (she looks up at Michael) Pretty ordinary, huh. Here comes the other side of the coin. The dropping of that so-called other shoe.
John: Uh. You know Mark, one of my students. You made dinner for him a few times. You liked his company. And you and he have so much in common. You both really like film, you read some of the same authors. You and he could go to all those French films I find so talky and unbearable.
Claire: John, where is this going? Of course I know Mark. Very blond and very good-looking. Your Waspy student in the trench coat with a pint bottle of gin sticking out of the pocket. I wonder how he manages that. Burberrys have deep pockets. You think the bottle's on stilts or something? Maybe he trains it.
John: Well, I would like him to move in with us.
Claire: And do what? Water the plants? Vacuum? Clean your pipes? Have a pretty boy hang around like a knickknack. Maybe I would be dusting him from time to time. But I don’t dust. Elsie would have to feather him off.
John: Be serious. I am really taken with him.
Claire: Then take him somewhere else. God, John, I do not care about your infatuations as you do not care about mine. Sex is just sex. But to have someone move in. No. This is my home, my refuge. I cannot handle another person moving through my sanctuary. And how would the relationship go on? A ménage à trois, my listening to groans from the next room? No. I need to keep some hold on some world when my life gets too complicated.
John: Okay, okay.
Claire: (returning to the bridge while the lights dim around John) Another cliché, that shoe. Perhaps I quote clichés because I am living one. Nothing really out of the way about this. And yet somehow disturbing. I do love my husband. I really do not know exactly what that word means. We all talk about love, but are we all talking about the same thing? Little matter. There is simply some connection. And this, or what you have witnessed, is not me. I am not this person you see. I am more withdrawn, reserved. One of those skeletal Park Avenue brats who speak in arch tones, slightly distant but really a little shy with a judgmental brow. Private schools, summers in the Hamptons in a very old house, multiple trips to Europe, debutante balls in expensive hotels. The severe father, the socially adept mother, the very pretty sister. It was never quite real or sane. Like love, what is any of it: images? words? I kept wandering through the stage sets, some of which I designed, assembled, put together. Then the money. The life it provides, too unoriginal. A husband interested in young men, god, so run of the mill. Of course, I took the rich girl's escape route: art. We poor young things scribbling in leather-bound notebooks through the night wanting to be Millay or Pratt or even Moore. The secret journals exposing a life we know nothing about because we are exposed to so very little, forced to find refuge in strait-jacketed imaginations. Oh, enough of my dreary complaining. That water is beginning to look very attractive. What about you?
Michael: A retired dermatologist. The product of aspiring parents. A children of immigrants who wanted professional careers for me and my sister. She chose law. I chose dermatology because it is the least invasive in the medical world. I deal with surfaces. I would have liked to have been a musician. Endless music lessons. Too risky for my parents. So I spent my life there. (leaves the stage to enter a typical doctor's office: all white with an examining table, a sink, a mirror, two chairs, a coatrack with a starched white jacket hanging on it, and points to the jacket) My days passed in rooms like this. Cold, fluorescent-lit, white. From hour to hour shedding my humanity like dandruff or dead skin cells. Who in his right mind would think that a room like this would ever offer solace. It just institutionalizes the situation. Makes it neutral. I did not feel the shedding at first. But after five years I sensed the loss. The professional role you take on, eventually takes you on, molds you, shapes you, makes you not you but the doctor, the lawyer, the salesman. It is very subtle, very slow, painless. Then one day you walk into this room and you see a patient and you realize that for years you have never really looked at the person in the chair or on that table. The skin yes, the person wearing the skin no. He or she might as well have been a machine, a collection of parts that have names. The names for skin conditions are more insidious than the Latin names for flora and fauna. You deal with words and not with people. I would like to return to all these rooms I have been in and collect what I left behind, the microscopic bits-------me.
Claire: (stepping into the room) I have spent a lot of time in rooms like this, only better designed. Most often Bauhaus, frequently artificially homey. But there was always a sink somewhere with a mirror. Growing up as I did, a therapist was as commonplace as a nanny. Money buys services to smooth over any disruption in day-to-day life. Well, as you may have guessed, I was depressed. I do not like that term. I was not depressed. I was not sad. I just did not want to deal with what I saw for what I saw was unreal. So I quietly withdrew. I tried to find where I was located in this body. What spot contained me. Maybe there was this tiny dot at the back of my head or submerged in an organ. This meant that I did not want to enter the social life that surrounded my parents. So off to some private and expensive clinic to induce any contribution to my class. No different than being a doctor or a lawyer. I did not like the role. I put up resistance. My parents paid for therapists. (she goes overt to the mirror) One day when I was 16 and in an office cum study, my confessor was called away. I walked over to the mirror. Not one like this, but a marvel of 16th-century baroque carving. I wanted to see myself to make sure I was present. You know what I saw? The head of a large black bird where I expected to see a face with which I was at least vaguely familiar. I liked that bird. I thought, examining the iridescent sheen of those feathers, that to be a bird would be something living, a living entity that knew what to do from minute to minute, going about each day doing. The eyes particularly were mirrors to nothing, just camera lens working. I liked those empty eyes. A momentary intrusion for the unconscious. A large black bird, a convenient symbol. But this experience seems to be common among my clan of misfits. A long line of young women staring into mirrors and out stares the head of a bird. Madness, too, lacks originality. In the meantime, I have to think, make plans, act out. Consciousness is highly overrated. It is what gets me into trouble. That quagmire of thought. But who can depend on the unconscious? By its nature, it is not dependable, another riddle to bore you.
Muchael: Let's leave this place. (they go back to the bridge and sit on the steps, facing the audience) You see that white jacket. At one time, before synthetics, they were actually starched. When I was about 8 years old I was visiting my grandmother who lived in New York City on the Upper East Side in what was once a Czechoslovakian neighborhood. She and my grandfather, who died before I was born, immigrated from a small village 50 miles outside Prague. She had an apartment on the second floor overlooking 73rd Street, an asylum she rarely left because she had a heart condition. One day she motioned to me and gave me some money to buy from the grocer in the next building something she had written on a slip of paper. I could not speak or read Czech, but I had limitless empathy. So I took the note and the money and went shopping. The elderly couple who owned the grocery did not understand what was beautifully inked on that slip of paper. So I took it to may aunt who lived on the ground floor. My grandmother wanted a box of starch. Every time, in the morning, before office hours, when I put on that white jacket I would think of that story. It helped me through a 40-year practice. It gave dimension to those sterile cells in which I gained my ability to fake care.
Claire: I have a photograph of me and my grandmother that I keep on my nightstand. She was a large woman. In the photo she is wrapped in sable. She is holding my hand and we are walking through her stables on Long Island; stables that no longer exist. But I was very happy. I keep the photo as a reminder that once I was very happy.
Michael: Only once. What about your professor husband? Weren't there times of bliss?
Claire: Not bliss. Caring. Caring, certainly. Or perhaps a small love, like a perpetual spark incapable of setting anything on fire. But something important, something like consistency, nothing as strong as stability. I met him in grad school. We were taking the same seminar. He is from the South, but not really Southern. He walked me home after class one evening. He has this one quality that I call the love-the-one-you’re-with syndrome. He focuses his attention on you, appears vulnerable but not pathetic, supportive but not controlling, conveniently flexible. I could not resist. It is like living with a character in a novel you have read. You know the beginning, the middle, the end. No real surprises. He is very compassionate, very present, and also a little boring. Somewhat intelligent. Only a little strange at times. Sometimes the other love-the-one-you’re-with enters, but not unannounced and predictably attractive, an equally boring young man as you have heard. So I am not disturbed and I set boundaries and he acquiesces and we go on. A few hours pass, a day goes by. We are in a perpetual game somewhere on a beach, tossing a large light ball back and forth over a shadowy net. I sometimes call time out. I tire of the game. That is what we crazy people do. For I am crazy, only moderately so. Even our simple game can become disturbingly artificial and then I am swept up by a large wave and I am a swimmer receding like the tide, struggling to return to the shore. The craziness, I don't remember. I am told that during those periods I am not very happy. I don't remember. I think of each episode as a black splotch on an abstract canvas. A brushful of very dark paint thrown on a white surface, spreading where it will. But even that splotch is confined. It ends somewhere. I come back. I crawl onshore. It is not an empty life. I do a lot of volunteer work. Give away money. Sit on boards. I study dance, from time to time write a publishable article, attend cooking classes here and abroad, even have hand sewn a quilt. Then there is that long line of therapists. Most often men, an occasional woman for the sake of variety. My efforts to fill the day, unlike those irregular but distinct black splotches, are pretty regular. I suspect that I am a bore. That is where money is handy. With piles of it, you do not care what the world thinks. Money insulates, protects. Too bad it cannot cure the troubled soul or brain or heart or whatever plagues me.
John: (lights go up around John, still seated; he looks at Claire) I know. I know how you see me and how I probably am and it is pleasant. Not having to be novel, only a character in one. But I would be inventive if it were not my habit to be somewhat constant to alleviate that receding tide. You go away, I am left with what remains. Then it is real. Not for you, but for me. Anyway, I like being charming. I like oozing interest, concern, temporary support. It goes on and on. Not a tide but a soft always advancing wave of warmth. Oh the numbers caught in it. Some stay, some swim away. At the time I am genuine, but only at the time. I am not dishonest. Just living in the moment. I remain, fumbling like a little boy. In this world no one grows up. We fake it, appearances are everything. But I do care. I take care of you when you skip out into whatever world it is you inhabit from time to time. I am you chief witness and caretaker.
Claire: (steps down to John) Just look at the useless lives we lead. You, you can go on forever. Talk about limits. Rather supply and demand. At the university the supply of young men who think you have something to give is self-generating. Hundreds of years of them, plenty always on the horizon, coming forward even when you cease to exist. I have a personal eternity of therapists. Not so appealing that. The intellect exhausts before the libido. The possible variations in young bodies, endless. The types of therapy, not that many. A theory cannot compete with flesh. And what do I have to give? My madness and its secrets. That can be dull. I will run out of listeners long before you run out of young men. I suppose it will all do; it has to. I have tried alternatives and always return. Perhaps my madness is what is real. Sometimes I think I cling to it. What would I be without it? To end it I would have to end me. I do appreciate your being there, your caring. The problem with madness is that you need a witness. How else would you know that you were mad, that the one thing that is real in your life happens.
John: You have your madness, I have my young men. The young men do not mean much. Diversions that I do not have to think about. I give in. No thinking required. No real consequences. Momentary absorptions. Little escapes. Some linger on for a while. Small but necessary obsessions that take me somewhere else for periods of time, like psychic naps. I do not defend myself. How do you defend an entertainment? And it does no damage. No harm. The young are so resilient, like rubber bands. I give them experience, even a degree of education. In a way they are like your spells of madness. Respites from the ordinary. Remember, for you, I am there. We balance each other. And what about your women? (he blows her a kiss and exits)
Claire: Indeed. (she returns to Michael) You see, I married Peter Pan complete with his band of boys and he married a Persephone with access to another, darker world. And, yes, there are woman in my life. Notice how thin I am. No boobs to speak of, hips like a young boy. Androgynous me. I work at it. Part of the sexual attraction between John and myself. It is a sexual relationship. We even write poems about it and self-publish to prove that we belong together. There it is in black and white complete with sketches. The poems are not very good. But what else can you do with this relationship? Don’t all couples perform acts of confirmation to assure themselves that they are couples? We only have more money than most. We can confirm on very expensive paper with rare fonts and hand-sewn bindings. Here, we are an interesting couple, an attraction to others. The numbers drawn to our money, to our presumed social status, to our lifestyle. New York City offers everything, us included. So, Michael, bliss? Have you someone beside your grandmother? I am certain you are no Peter Pan.
Michael: I was married. It did not last long. We were undergraduates together. She was a drama major. A drama major who, when in the role of a doctor's wife, bolted. I do not blame her. She is on the other coast. Remarried. They own a pilate's studio. We had no children, but she now has two. I understand because the women who fill that role, the doctor's wife, do not attract me. That is why a drama major was so appealing. She was free of all the confinements I felt. Whether she was pretty or smart or sexy or whatever did not matter. That she was in the arts did. She was only curious about me. She thought there was more than there was. Perhaps she saw the hidden, musical alter ego. Alas, she did not want to complement me, that me I grew into. She wanted to be herself, which is not really possible in the doctor's wife role. She would have to become the role. How could I ask that of anyone. She was very unhappy. No longer, though, in the California sun. (he steps into the examining room) Look at these things. Innocent enough. Quite ordinary. Mass produced. By themselves, harmless. Together, something else. Do you think that objects have souls? Sometimes I do. This room, or one like it, in which I have sent a lot of time works not on you but with you. Together you are other than yourself. And when you leave, you take it with you, that composite. The room came with the job. I did like the job and so have had to accept the room. Now that I am retired I wonder about it. People forget that when we make choices we take whole worlds with us. The furniture, the lighting, the moods. We do not see this because the worlds we live in are so familiar that we take them for granted. But they cause havoc. Sometimes when I come here, on this bridge at night, I think about it. How did I get here? How did human beings evolve whole worlds that they become part of like a piece in a stage setting? Baggage includes much more than baggage. It is accompanied by things that do not fit in bags. All of this (he waves to include the room). That I will never know the how and why keeps calling me back at night to stare out over water to forget. It is not a bad thing, rather, just interesting. I have loved people. I have even loved things.
Claire: Things to me mean only taste, class. They are the secret code you read to evaluate others, to place them. Cities offer endless supplies of things to keep people in their places. I guess we can thank the English for that. I know that a title does not add points to an IQ or that a designer outfit does not mean that the owner is stimulating. I am intelligent but avoid the depths as you now know. My madness is my depth. I like what money buys. Those expensive meals, subtle wines, hotels that change the linen sheets almost hourly. Luxury is comfortable. I would change a treatise on Schopenhauer for comfort any day. I might not trade it for a Cezanne. That has never come up. For madness you need comfort. Otherwise you're one of those bedraggled ill-kept woman with wild hairdos that talk to themselves on the street. Maybe they are happy. Who knows. What I know is that I need the money although I do not want it. I seem to lack courage. But that is not true. It takes courage, entire oceans of it, to live with madness. Ah yes, the money allows me to carry whole rooms with me. Those tasteful rooms that repulsed me as a child but make madness tolerable. And here I am on a bridge in the middle of the night, escaping. Does anything make sense?
Michael: There is sufficient sense to get through the day. Now that I am older when I go down the elevator and walk out the front door it is like leaving a time capsule. Each generation of youth makes minor adjustments to the world, not many, but just enough that the world takes on a new look because they have taken on a new look. You are too young yet to have noticed this. But look at the passing years of your husband’s students. Look closely and you will note subtle differences from year to year until some wit in the New Yorker labels a generation. Aging emphasizes seeing if one chooses to see. Now that might be it, observing change until one simply stops by necessity .... death. Death that stops the projector.
Claire: What does that make death? A villain or the rescuing angel? I do not think that far in advance.
Michael: I think death is just death. We have become morose this evening on the Brooklyn Bridge. I came here to not think and here I am dwelling on my life. And look, day is coming and I should return to Brooklyn and try to sleep. Anyway, jumping or no jumping, I have enjoyed our conversation.
Claire: Yes, I have enjoyed it too. Perhaps there will be another chance meeting on this bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan. And me, I should return to Fifth Avenue to assess the damage.
Michael: Will you be all right? May I see you home?
Claire: I will be perfectly safe alone. The only harm that comes to the rich is self-inflicted. But thanks for the offer, it is very kind of you. (she hugs Michael)
Michael: Then goodnight, my Claire. (he walks off toward Brooklyn, turns to wave and then proceeds)
(Claire stands still for a moment, then turns to look out over the water in the dawning sunlight. She shakes her head, shrugs her shoulders, and then walks off toward Manhattan)