Essay: “Return to Pleasantville” by Tabitha Blankenbiller

In the 1998 film Pleasantville, one of my favorites according to my college MySpace page, an alternate-universe, black-and-white TV town undergoes a metamorphosis. Led by the arrival of achingly young Tobey McGuire and Reese Witherspoon from our world, the small world residents are introduced to the foreign concepts of sex, art, and literature—revolution by proxy, AKA how Hollywood can create an entire metaphor for the civil rights movement without casting actual minorities. As the world slowly morphs from a black-and-white utopia into a rendered full-colored landscape, the town elders grow restless. They lead riots against “colored” businesses. They close the library. Hate crimes blossom and draconian restrictions follow them.

Within the chaos we see Betty, the matriarch of the central story family, undergo her own awakening. After getting a birds-and-the-bees talk from Reese, she pleasures herself in the bathtub, turning the room, and her face, the revolutionary technicolor. Meanwhile her husband George clings to the safety of the fence, refusing to take a side in the divided town, and quickly falling in line with the authoritarian powers. When Betty leaves home behind to chase her passion, he comes home to the same house and life and routine he’s known for all memory, and for the first time in his life, he is alone. He wanders the vacant hallways in total disbelief, pausing at each precipice to repeat the beckoning call: “Honey, I’m home!” The phrase eventually becomes a question—where is she? What has happened? How can anything be different now? No matter what happened outside in the great wide space of Pleasantville, how could it ever infect his sanctuary?

“Where’s my dinner?” he yells at the empty oven and its lack of casserole. Nothing in his life has prepared him for a pivot, and he is despondent.

The audience knows what George lacks the capacity to fathom Betty is never coming back.

A woman returns to the house briefly, the Betty that George has never known, an autonomous person neither of them fathomed she could become. “It will be okay,” he demands. She’ll cover up with makeup and they’ll forget anything happened.

“I don’t want to cover it up,” she says through clenched teeth.

Watching Pleasantville in 1998 was like taking a test with the answers already bubbled in. It was as challenging an intellectual exercise as reading To Kill a Mockingbird in tenth grade English class. It was easy to see yourself as a book-toting art refugee of Tobey and Reese’s revolution because it seemed, to a fourteen-year-old burgeoning liberal in the whitest of Pacific Northwest small towns, that these fights had long ago been won. Watching felt good because it affirmed the fact that your low-stakes empathy fell in line with the noble side of progress and acceptance.

What was impossible to know in that pre-9/11, Vote Gore time was that we were all living in Pleasantville’s unending cul-de-sac. The world had yet to pivot; our country had almost two decades to crash.

 

I have what the children would describe as “zero chill.” I cry when I see film of a whale that may be in trouble. Always have. In grade school I wrote poems about the rainforest, and sent letters to congressmen about litter problems, and organized spaghetti dinners to raise money for Kosovo refugees. It was painful, being this sincere. Other kids don’t feel comfortable around someone that engaged; it isn’t normal. You’re supposed to care just a blush, not a fever. Crusading for the sake of the world doesn’t fall in line with the assimilation a teenager needs to undergo to survive: mass-approved clothes, a checked opinion, acceptable ambition. Maybe you went to school with a classmate who was strong enough to stay true to themselves in grades six through twelve, no matter how intense the pressure and bullying grew. That was not me. I folded, and I tempered back. Life became much more comfortable that way.

When I came home from work on Tuesday, November 8, that Tracy Flick/Hermione version of myself had been packed into the attic of my heart for a very long time. I pieced together a red, white, and blue pantsuit from the flotsam in my closet. A Hillary Clinton charm glinted from my purse. I was opinionated, but I wasn’t noisy. I clicked Like on the right articles on Facebook. I flipped off the Trump Tower when I visited Vegas. I didn’t knock on anyone’s door with a clipboard or make phone calls to strangers—I wasn’t a psychopath.

I sat on the edge of the couch with a pint-full of vodka-grapefruit and precautionary Xanax in my purse. “I don’t know why you’re freaking out,” my husband Matt said, settling into the cradle of the loveseat the same way he did to watch Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. “You know she’s going to win.”

I was cautiously optimistic that Clinton would win. But as the Eastern seaboard continued its bloody flush, I drew closer to that girl I hadn’t talked to in a while. The one who was terrified of a calamity, and naïve enough to think she could avoid it. When they called Florida we were together, tucked into the fetal position, unable to gaze at the Map of Doom a moment longer.

“There’s still an entire half of the country that hasn’t reported in,” Matt and his chill said, and I could hear the annoyance in his voice like a twang. You-are-so-obnoxious-when-you’re-freaking-out. “It’s going to be fine. How can he win? He can’t win.”

I turned off the TV and went to bed, because I couldn’t stomach seeing what I now knew was inevitable. In the middle of the night I rolled over to my nightstand and loaded Google News. Matt snored placidly, like the world still had an axis.

It wasn’t an awakening. There were no blooming colors, no birds, no bathtubs. It was the feeling of being in a nightmare where the dream world is mirroring your own, but you know that something is fundamentally wrong, and the entire world is tinged with horror. But you’re the only one that sees it; all the blurry faces around you live here, in this otherworld, and they try to convince you that everything is as it’s always been. They tell you everything is going to be okay.

That morning, I made it to the doorknob. My fingers brushed the front door alloy and I crumpled.

“Oh god,” I heard Matt groan from the hallway. Our house is small. There is nowhere my sobs can go. “You can’t do this, Tabitha.”

What was I afraid of, he wanted to know. World War Three? Impossible. No one would let him near the buttons. Loss of civil rights? They’ve been around this many years, no one could just take them apart over a single administration. “We’ve got a Constitution for a reason,” he said with the confidence of a man who doesn’t need to wonder if he’s wrong.

I got to work that day. And the next. And the day after that. The heaviness in the air, that stench of death, began to lift. It was no longer okay to cry in the grocery store or hug friends a few extra beats. “You’ll get over it,” a well-meaning coworker promised me as a comfort.

“I will never get over it,” I said.

“Well there’s nothing you can do about it,” said this talking shrug emoji.

“There’s actually a lot you can do,” I said. “You can call representatives. You can write them letters. You can volunteer. You can donate to places that are actually going to fight against this.”

They looked as though I’d just described a recent bout of diarrhea. “I am just … not political … at all,” they said, and I knew they wouldn’t be by again. My transformation was brighter than any hue in the spectrum—I radiated hysteria.

 

Driving home from work I cycled through each day’s events, pinning the red flags up in my mind, stringing together the web that would suffocate the world I thought I knew. There was the appointment of Steve Bannon. Then there was the vow to deport three million immigrants and reroute our finite tax dollars into a useless, spiteful wall. The excitement over a Muslim registry and the shining example of Japanese internment camps. If this week was in writing workshop, I’d roll my eyes at its hacky heavy-handedness.

It had been almost a week. No one in my life wanted to talk about the new administration. You think too much, my mother told me. The same rebuke she used when I broke down “Baby It’s Cold Outside” as really rapey, or brought up the zombie anthrax that killed all the Russian reindeer. I needed to find a way to be happy, everyone pushed. I had to work on my ability to ignore. The truth was ruining my reputation.

By the time the car pulled up next to Matt’s truck in the driveway, my face was a phantom. I came inside staring into nothing; I couldn’t hear the TV. Ree Drummond tried to tell me how to make pot roast, but it seemed so ashen and irrelevant. I wanted to reach through the screen and clamp her shoulders. Don’t-you-see-what’s-happening?!

“What’s wrong?” Matt asked me over and over. I told him to drop it. I didn’t want to be told how unreasonable and paranoid I was being. I didn’t want to hear another string of rationales over how this couldn’t possibly be as bad as my mind followed the narrative arc. I’d devoted my life to building and dissecting stories. I didn’t need a wild imagination to see where this all went.

“What do you want from me?” I finally snapped.

“I want my wife back,” he said.

I wanted to tell him the truth, just as loudly as Betty in her tomb of a kitchen, that I was not going to be the same person who put on that pantsuit and headed into Tuesday cautiously optimistic. My nation as I’d known it, as I’d credited it, vanished overnight. I didn’t exactly know who I was now, but I knew who I could not be. I could not be in the mass of those who can hope for the best and see what happens and accept the things they cannot change. My mind doesn’t let go; it won’t allow the abnormal to become normal. I am fundamentally wired to panic.

I cannot make the leap he has made. I can’t scale the denial to join him on that comfortable plateau.

And in my heart, I don’t want to.

That sincere girl is out, pulsing and bleeding and resenting every minute she spends not pushing back, not attacking this monstrosity. I know how unpretty I look now. I can feel the heaviness in my cheeks and jaw, an age settling in overnight. You lose that beautiful softness when you stop compromising. But for the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of this thorny sincerity, in all of her messy discomfort and undeniable madness. I don’t want to cover it up.

***

Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program currently living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her essays have been featured in a number of journals including The Rumpus, The Establishment, Electric Lit, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and Brevity. She reviews books for Bustle and Tweets excessively @tabithablanken. Her debut essay collection, Eats of Eden: A Year of Food and Fiction, is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in fall 2017.

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