A few months ago, I found myself in Washington state (isn’t it nice when you just appear in places?) and I needed to get to Seattle for one reason: Bernadette Fox. Well, that and the Pike Place market to see some flying fish. I’d read Maria Semple’s novel in the beginning of the summer and learned that Bernadette does not like Seattle—she loathes it.
Why would a fictional character’s negative opinion about a beloved city matter to me?
Because Bernadette Fox says things like “I would laugh at the whole thing, but I’m too bored” and “Already I wished a Chechen rebel would shoot me in the back.”
Also, Bernadette Fox hires an online assistant named Manjula to take care of her bills, online shopping, and prescriptions for astronaut-grade motion sickness medicine.
Bernadette Fox is awesome, but she is also kind of losing it, and I get it.
While I might not be a famed architect in hiding, get into fights with overbearing suburban moms, or have a genius but unfaithful husband, I do know how it feels to be so wrapped up so tightly with anxiety that one wrong move and it will all come flying out. And I mean flying.
Maria Semple describes these feelings so perfectly:
Getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Not getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Even sleeping makes my heart race! I’m lying in bed when the thumping arrives, like a foreign invader. It’s a horrible dark mass, like the monolith in 2001, self-organized but completely unknowable, and it enters my body and releases adrenaline. Like a black hole, it sucks any benign thoughts that might be scrolling across my brain and attaches visceral panic to them.
I like to know what’s going on; I like to prepare for the worst; I like to imagine that I am ready for absolutely anything. My brain has a penchant for anxiety-driven dramatics—if there’s ever a spontaneous fire in the basement of an academic building or if all of the ceiling fans in Home Depot come crashing down, I will know what to do because I have thought about this. Actually, I won’t know exactly what to do (the imaginings don’t ever get that far), but you can be damn sure I’ll be ready for it. Thoughts like these keep me up at night and it doesn’t make any sense.
So the fact that I’d taken time off work and traveled from Connecticut to Oregon to visit a person who seemed to be my boyfriend, was kind of a big deal for me. It meant that I liked this person a lot, and I’d never let that happen before; or at least never acted upon it. It meant that I was willing to “go with the flow,” “just see what happens.” It meant that if I was going to spend a week with this fairly new person, I was going to have to accept the fact that bad things, and good things, were going to happen.
The book came with me. It had to. I re-read my favorite passages at the gate and on the plane; Bernadette’s increasing zaniness calmed my nerves. I commiserated with her about “Huge Hideous Things” happening and paralyzing your senses; I recognized the difficulties of being falsely characterized as “insane” or “paranoid,” and I knew what it felt like to put other people’s happiness before yours, to the point of internal erosion. I needed Bernadette’s sarcasm, needed her questionable antics, and needed her Seattle-centered judgments with me.
Oregon is a lovely place, as is Washington, and Seattle is unlike any other city I’ve ever visited. When we first arrived, I could hear Bernadette’s snarky comments about the slow drivers, the roaming homeless, and all the tourist traps she avoids. She’s right about some aspects and a little dramatic about others. Parking is in fact, a nightmare—should you ever find a spot—and although my boyfriend and I had both encountered meters before, we needed a kind Samaritan’s assistance. Pike Place Market was crowded with all different sorts of people and produce (yes! flying fish!), but one fruit stand owner gave us free slices of peaches and let us try lychee (unfortunately, I can only liken its interior to shrimp and admit I only managed a bite). He said we seemed like “good people” and named a slew of bars that only locals inhabited. We drank lemonade on the Ferris wheel, spat our gum in Post Alley, and walked around the site of the World Fair. We didn’t make it up to the top of the Space Needle, but circled its outrageous gift shop. Bernadette would have scoffed at the love I was feeling for this city, but I didn’t care. I felt calm. I wanted to stay. I wished the night would go on forever.
These feelings surprised me. Throughout my entire life, I have worried. I have worried about the impossible and the improbable; worried at such a frenzied state that I missed out on vital life experiences, like getting to know people on an intimate level. It wasn’t until I read this book that I found someone (who I know is fictional) who is as wracked by anxieties as I am. I had Bernadette as evidence of what would happen if I stayed too wound-up, if I let the worrying torment my brain about every possible disaster.
I could have said no to the boy, the trip, and all of the unknowns that came with them, but Bernadette showed me that there is a point in every person’s life where you stop relishing comfort and go after something that will probably just panic you for a little while. Not that I’m about to hijack a cruise to Antarctica.