I went as Duende to the goddess party. My longtime friend, The Universe, drove me there.
As soon as we walked in, a woman who went as Yin-and-Yang, said to me, “You know, I never did like you.” I stood silent, with my red Satan tail flopped behind me. The fluorescent lights of the kitchen flickered. Yin & Yang continued, “But tonight, when I saw you walk into the party, I decided that I do like you.” She emphasized the word do, as if we were getting married.
“Just like that?” I asked. The Universe went to the kitchen to get herself a drink. But I felt trapped by Yin & Yang.
“Yes, just like that,” Yin & Yang answered and lifted her black and white mask from her face. Her entire costume was a little bit like a clown suit, half white and half black, from her feet to her mask. She smiled as if she had just solved a difficult equation, and said, “It’s just that all these years, I haven’t liked you. Not at all.” She wagged her white-gloved finger, and she said, “But now I do.”
I must have made a face, as in when your mother says Don’t make a face! because she then asked, “Is that wrong of me to have said that?” And she put her mask back on.
While it’s true that there are plenty of people I don’t like, including—if I am honest—Yin & Yang, I have never gone around telling them, especially not at a goddess-themed party.
She went on, “I mean, I’ve always liked your work. I just didn’t like you.” Yin & Yang and I had been in a poetry critique group years before. And she said the word work in a way that made it seem like she did not, in fact, like it.
“Thanks,” I said, because after all, she was making it seem like a compliment.
“Well, I feel better,” she said. “Time for more Champagne.” She gave her empty Champagne flute a little shake with her black-gloved hand and walked outside to the patio. She carried a fake floral arrangement, and at the center of it, a beating heart, flashing on and off, pulsing with each red heartbeat.
We had this one thing in common, Yin &Yang and me: I, too, headed for the Korbel.
Our hostess, who was also having a birthday, had asked us to come to her goddess-themed party dressed as a goddess or muse or some sort of inspiration.
I’d attempted to dress as Federico García Lorca’s Duende, the artist’s struggle, but it hadn’t exactly come off as planned. Because Duende combines earthiness and art, a confrontation of death and the diabolical, I tried to embody the idea with animal prints, leaves in my hair, a devil’s tail, and dark skeleton circles drawn around my eyes. Because kewpie dolls hang from the ceiling in a bar called Duende where I spent many Prague nights drinking and pretending to write the summer before, I did my hair kewpie-doll style, too. I tried to embody creation on the edge, looking over the abyss—at the lip of death.
I looked like a mixed metaphor on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The hostess showed us her house, pointing to a wall hanging adorned with the goddess Tara, and said, “She only comes out for these goddess parties. She usually isn’t out in the open.” I wondered why the green goddess had to wait in the closet for a party, but I didn’t ask about it. I suspected it might have something to do with the husband, who had been kicked out of the house for the occasion of the goddess party. Our hostess directed us to the living room, where we were to tell everyone else which goddess or muse we were trying to depict: some were more obvious than others: Frida Kahlo, Diana Ross, and a cowgirl. But French Surrealism, the Universe, and Duende, of course, needed a bit of explanation.
Lorca relied on metaphor to explain Duende, saying, “Duende loves the edge, the wound, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression.”
When it was my turn, I recited the Cliffs Notes version for the other goddesses, summarizing the complicated, and maybe unexplainable, idea of Duende in about five seconds, to which French Surrealism said, “I had a professor who spent a whole semester on that, but now I finally get it!”
That was the single most pleasant moment of the party.
Another woman sat in lotus position and wore yoga clothes—the expensive kind that come from a specialty yoga-clothing shop. The kind that always make me feel inferior—and she explained how her body was her muse. The Universe, who was dressed like a cloud, complete with shiny blue hair, said, “I find my inspiration in nature. But not just the sky, the whole universe.”
Someone asked The Universe if her hair was always blue, and she said that it wasn’t.
Diana Ross said that musical performances make her cry. Even little kid shows. “And disco,” she said, “is underrated.”
“It sure is!” the cowgirl called with a woot.
Then came a monologue from a woman dressed in purple about how she had finally retired and was living for herself. The only thing she regretted, she said, was that she hadn’t been more promiscuous. French Surrealism, plastic eyeballs bobbing on her black beret, shouted, “Not me. I was a whore!”
The Universe just sat there, taking it all in.
A woman lounged in the corner on a La-Z-Boy and glared at me, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I had been the guest editor at a small literary journal, and we had rejected her poems. When it was her turn to explain her costume—pajamas—she said, “I’m tired. I’m just so tired.” Nobody was sure what to say until French Surrealism suggested, “Go get a thyroid test.”
French Surrealism was full of wisdom.
The time had come for our hostess to share. She said, “As you know. I love cooking for all my friends on my birthday.” She smiled and made a sweeping motion toward us with her hands. And we all agreed how nice that was. Then she said, “My muse is Mudita, which stands for loving kindness. For being happy when something good happens to someone else. Then she looked at me and said, “You know, Duende, when you got a poem published a few years back in a good journal, I was so jealous, it drove me to write a poem about it. But I’m trying to channel Mudita, so I can be happy when something good happens to someone else.”
“That’s a good use of jealousy,” Cowgirl said.
“Jealousy doesn’t serve you,” I said. “There’s no good use for jealousy.”
“But at least she was productive with it,” Cowgirl countered.
Jealousy is the anticipation of loss, real or imagined, to a rival. Envy is prompted by covetousness and a wicked desire to supplant someone else. But it seems to me that jealousy is a euphemism for envy—one of the seven deadly sins, the hatred that prompts Nemeses to lead Narcissus to the pool. We call envy jealousy to hide its danger—Echo and her laughter.
Mudita said, finally changing the subject, “I know you all want to see me open my presents!” Everyone smiled and nodded.
The invitation had asked us, specifically, not to buy her anything. Our presence, it said, was gift enough. I brought her pink roses, a bottle of wine, a balloon, and a card. No real presents but enough to make up for it. But I followed directions: no real gift. By now I should know better; when someone says no presents, it doesn’t really mean that. Mudita opened her beautifully-wrapped, thoughtful gifts—artisan teas, handmade leather Chinese character tree ornaments, a personalized rubber stamp, stationary made of organic hemp, a hand-carved Buddha statue with boobs, a children’s book about someone being happy she was born that was read to her aloud by the gift-giver (the woman wearing purple who’d regretted her lack of anonymous sex). Each gift, it seemed, outdid the one before it, and I became more uncomfortable, thinking about the shabby Safeway roses, the chintzy Mylar balloons, the mediocre sauvignon blanc.
We were all asked to share a poem. I read a poem by Lorca, and the yoga teacher read one by Sylvia Plath, which made me like her more. French Surrealism read Baudelaire, of course. Finally, Mudita stood up to read. The first poem was written by her father, who had also been in our little poetry critique group. The subject dealt with the ways in which women should be revered as goddesses. Everyone clapped at the old man’s work—and for good reason: it was a good poem. Then came a lovely poem about Mudita’s own battle with breast cancer, and we all cheered again.
For the moment, the room seemed to be filled with courage and beauty and grace.
Then Mudita read a third poem, called “The Green Beastie,” featuring an ugly little creature she had felt sitting on her collar bone in reaction to another poet’s small success. The Green Beastie was envy. The small poet with her small success was me.
Mudita finished reading her poem, and everyone gasped. I excused myself and headed for the restroom.
And there it was: deep despair thinly veiled by new age mysticism. Certainly that wasn’t entirely true: it’s wasn’t true of The Universe nor was it true of French Surrealism. To be fair, every one of the women at the goddess party was trying. And maybe there is something to being around people who are trying. But sometimes, as Pajamas would say, that is just so tiring.
In the bathroom, I cried, blew my nose, and wiped my eyes.
There had been other all-girl parties that brought me to tears when I was a child. But I was no longer a child, and this was supposed to be different, empowering, even—that it wasn’t made me profoundly sad. I looked into the bathroom mirror and tried to fix my make-up.
Federico García Lorca asks, “Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”
Rather than worrying about who has created what and who is recognized for it, shouldn’t we be celebrating the baptism of all freshly created things, the way the universe uses us as the medium to tell her most important narratives—stories of wonder and struggle, of beauty and suffering, of our strange and boundless capacity for love?
I came out of the bathroom, and there was Yin & Yang in the hallway saying, “Did I hurt your feelings? Because I didn’t mean to.” The black make-up around my eyes—my attempt at looking as though I was confronting my mortality—must have been smudged, making me seem even more out of sorts. But still I said, “Really, it’s fine.”
“Oh, I think I might have offended you,” Yin & Yang said. “Did I offend you?”
Then Mudita approached me, and I turned away from Yin & Yang and complimented Mudita on her bread pudding. I was surrounded by goddesses without an escape. “Gluten-free, especially for you” she said and then, “I hope it’s okay that I read that poem.”
I see now that maybe that this was an attempt at connection. But in the moment, I really was out of sorts, and I said, perhaps, missing the point, “Envy won’t serve you as a writer.” I taught at the community college, and I was used to saying such things to my students.
“I know. It’s something I struggle with, which is why I’m channeling Mudita.”
“Is it working?” I asked.
She admitted that it mostly wasn’t. “But it’s not just with you. When she was pregnant,” she whispered and pointed to Frida Kahlo, “I couldn’t even speak to her because I was so jealous. And she’s my friend.”
“That isn’t going to help you get pregnant,” I said, “Just because she got pregnant doesn’t mean you can’t. Her pregnancy has nothing to do with whether or not you can get pregnant.”
She said, “I know that. It’s just that I was so, so jealous. It’s not rational, I know.”
“Well if it makes you feel any better, I can’t get pregnant either,” I said and went back for more gluten-free bread pudding, more wine. A large fibroid tumor blocks my fallopian tubes, so I really can’t get pregnant and was telling the truth, or at least some version of it. But I had not yet figured out whether or not this was terrible for me or that I should be glad that I grew my very own birth control.
The Germans have a word for ugly joy: shadenfruede: delighting in the misfortune of others. The opposite of love isn’t hatred; it’s shadenfruede. The opposite of joy isn’t sadness; it’s envy. We diminish ourselves, say we are less than we are, chip away at who we are.
What we call the beginning is often the end. TS Eliot said that. Or someone he was quoting. Like many adolescent girls, I was a victim of the junior high school mean girls. In one of my journals from that time, I had written, “I want to grow up to be a rich and successful hairdresser. That will show all of the girls who make fun of me.” I’m not sure if I was picturing becoming a female version of Vidal Sassoon, but I’m pretty sure I hoped that I would become someone people admired, but wasn’t it also true that I wanted to become someone worthy of envy? Isn’t that what “showing them” means? Did I bring on other people’s jealousy on purpose? I hoped not, but I couldn’t be sure. Was there a word in German for that?
After the goddess party, I would dream that I bought one of those beta fish, a bluish-purple fish with long wings who always sits by herself, looking forlorn, in a little jar at the pet store. I put my little purple fish into a big, beautiful fish tank with lots of other dreamy fish, figuring she was so small, she could not hurt anyone else. At first, she ate the tiniest fish and then moved on to the medium-sized fish and then onto the frogs and eels and shelled creatures. She grew larger with each fish she consumed, finally swallowing the largest fish in the tank while I watched in horror. Then she jumped out of the water, which was now too small to contain her, and she came after me. She was halfway up my arm and I was trying, unsuccessfully, to beat her off with a stick when I woke up.
Maybe you’ll wake up. Maybe you won’t. I’ve searched my heart for that beta fish. I refuse to feed her. And sometimes, it’s just time to leave the party.
I had hitched a ride with The Universe, and shortly after my exchange with Mudita in the kitchen, The Universe came over to tell me it was time to go. On the way home, I told the Universe what had happened. She didn’t offer commentary of advice. She just nodded and listened, watching the mountain road unfold and climb the star-scattered sky.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail. Her work has recently appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, River Teeth, CNN, The Rumpus, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She lives in South Lake Tahoe and teaches for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information may be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net.