By Kalev Pehme
Dominique de Baumont hesitated before she sat down at the cafe table with her friends. She remembered what she had just told her professor: “I am very superficial, and I know it.”
She had said or thought that more than once, but when her professor responded, “Prove it to me,” all she could think of doing was showing him the celebrity websites that she rushed through each day. For hours each day, Dominique, a dark gamine that seemed quite exotic, amused herself with the complications of the love lives of various movie actors or musicians, the fashions everyone wears, the troubled bodies of anorexic or bulimic teen stars, as well as mentally traveling with them the hot, night spots of Los Angeles or New York or London. She showed her professor, an eccentric dodo from the 1960s with baggage, the paparazzi pictures and the pseudo-excited prose of the captions or the rushed quick paragraphs that required only a third- or second-grade reading level to understand.
Professor Petronius looked and nodded, and then replied, “I don’t think that proves you are superficial at all. It just shows you have interest in gossipy celebrity stuff. You think their lives are interesting because they are just like you. But they are the ones who are superficial, not you. They are just images; you are very, very human, and you’re prettier than these people. You see them for what they are not, what you are.”
It was a dark compliment, Dominique thought. It disturbed her. If I am not superficial, then why do I do nothing but superficial things? Wasn’t she only concerned with the mere appearances of things? She never went below the surface of anything.
“I don’t get it,” she said to her professor. “What do you mean?”
“They are superficial, and because they are superficial you think you are superficial in being interested in them. Perhaps, your interest in them is far deeper than you think. Think about it.”
“I won’t. I’m too superficial,” she replied with a great tease.
He winked back at her. “I’ll do something for you sometime, something just for you and no one else.”
Dominique thought nothing of the remark.
Dominique sat down with her friends, Svetlana and Themis, who were in a great expressive mood of animating their discussion with a combination of wild sounds and operatic extensions of words that in IM-speak would be reduced to a Pop-Art set of abbreviations and repeating letters written in the language that children use before they learn to spell properly. Dominique pretended to be interested, but instead turned on her computer, found herself in the wireless network quickly, and logged on to her myspace.com page where she displayed posed pictures of herself in various states of self-conscious, pretended acts of sexiness that only showed her insecurities about it all, although she didn’t know that. She then turned to the picture of her boyfriend that she had the day before posted for the first time. It was a landmark decision for her. Although myspace is a virtual world of friends, posting Orlando’s picture was a kind of signal to her girlfriends and herself that she had reached a kind of threshold with him that required an acknowledgement of a “relationship.”
She also saw something else on her home page, a blog had been posted by her professor, who had a page on myspace, simply because so many of his students wanted to be his virtual friend. He has posted a short story, “Flowers for Yasmin,” a miniature, as Vladimir Nabokov would call it. It was very short, perhaps about 1,500 words.
Dominique read it, and then noticed that it was a story of a professor who was once a flower child and his student Yasmin, who was been forced into a quandary because she could not find the way to get out of the “relationship” turmoil, which she had no idea existed. The story compared the way that a professor who once had long hair and lived though the Summer of Love, 1967, Hendrix at the Monterrey Pop Festival, Janis in the Bay area, Be-Ins in San Francisco and the Freaks in New York, Sgt. Pepper, Surrealistic Pillow with the very vulgar-mouthed Grace Slick on LSD and everything else, Love is Haight, not to mention the worst year in the War Vietnam to date, and the fact that the entire ghetto of Detroit had been in flames. It was a year to be naked in public.
Petronius quoted Timothy Leary in the story, “What I have to say can be summed up in six words–tune in, turn on, drop out.” Considering that Dominique worked all the time when not in school to earn the money she needed for electronic gizmos and the decorative clothing she wore, Leary’s most famous statement seemed odd to her and very out of place.
She continued to read: “‘All you need is love,’ Yasmin read over the title of the Beatles song. But her professor said to her, Now substitute the word relationship for love and read it again.
‘All you need is relationship,’ and the great chords of the song that she had heard once that followed love disappeared. The Relationship Summer? You are the Relationship Generation.”
Dominique suddenly realized something very odd. The entire story had been written for her, but posted on myspace where anyone could read it, and the ones who would read it would be her Relationship Generation where there was an illusion of friendship in a virtual world. Then, she realized something else as she finished the story, which decried the terrible conservative morality that attempts to control love in the form of the lack of commitment of the relationship. The Hippies had been buried underground, thank Jesus.
Dominique looked at Svetlana and Themis who were now making the silliest faces at each other and the affirmation by Svetlana, “I am going to run away with you, Theeeeeeeemis!”
As in a time-lapse video of a rose opening, she realized that her professor had written the story not just to instruct her, but as an expression of affection for her, unconditional love without any thought of return. No one had ever done that for her, and that it was love, not a relationship. There was a difference between this ungainly middle-aged man and herself, he was open about his affection and was not afraid of it, while she and most of her friends truly were fearful. What was once openly expressed in the streets and parks between young people like herself had been driven underground and denuded of definite meaning. Dominique re-read Yasmin’s statement in the story, “What do you mean, Professor? That I can’t love or have friends or even hate or have a stalker if I use the word ‘relationship’ to describe these things?”
The question was only answered with a professorial nod and a smile. “With that, he limned the story of her life,” Petronius had written.
Dominique was about to run through her usual celebrity websites, when she stopped. They were colorful, but not as colorful as the flowers that once were thrown at National Guard Troops and the constantly reworked poster, “Make Love, Not War!” Dominique had never marched against a war, and there were wars galore as she read the story, Iraq, Israel, Darfur, the Congo, and so on. Flower Power? It seemed childish, as she lived in a world of scientific and technological and economic expectations.
As she lay down in her bed that night, Dominique was in the dark, deliberately in the hot summer night. She was searching for that expressiveness of love that she had found in “Flowers for Yasmin.” She went through her soul, and discovered that it was really in a very dark and warm cave within her. And there, Dominique felt heady mushrooms starting to grow. What was once daylight had within her been driven into a heaven for fungi, delicious or poisonous or even loaded with the ecstasy of primitive Indian altered states.
It was the start of the first moment that Dominique felt the desire to have children, and to have children she knew she had to be married. She wasn’t a flower child, and she didn’t want to hurt her parents by doing something so insensitive as having children out of wedlock. Day after day, especially when she was sleeping with her boyfriend (“bf” in IM-speak), Dominique’s desire for motherhood (does a mother have a relationship with baby?) absorbed her daily daydreams.
After a while, she thought of Petronius, that crazy man who had written a story for her, and she wrote him an e-mail message. “I want to have babies. What do you think? Lol. Thank you for the story. Why did you write it?”
He wrote back, “Good, finally you are reaching down into what is truly natural and real, not conventional and virtual. I told you you are not superficial. I wrote it because you inspired me and that inspiration is as close to the direct experience of the divine eros as we ever get.”
She read the return message, and turned to Orlando, a strikingly handsome young man with great ambitions who had never worn anything that was psychedelic paisley, and Dominique said, “I love you.” This time, she knew, she meant it.