See-saw/ Slide: An Analysis of Symbiotic Encounter by Carmen Naranjo


the story:
Symbiotic Encounter
Carmen Naranjo (Costa Rica)

We were lovers. My name is Ana. His is Manuel. We did not meet casually. Someone had told Manuel about me. About my unusual way of living. About my liking street cats, about my dreams, of a different world, about how night opens my eyes and makes me beautiful, about how I say very little at times, and how, at other times, no one can get to keep me quiet, about how I get carried away by expressive faces and write novels with interminable monologues. The same someone had told me about Manuel, about his disastrous love affairs, his loneliness, his neurotic habit of thinking seriously about the commonplace, that unremitting affliction that wore him down through is pathological sensitivity. Later, that someone arranged an accidental meeting.

I arrived first. That damned habit of punctuality that makes me feel out of step. I knew he had arrived. I recognized his voice and his manner of greeting with a cheerful hello. He was not one of those who embrace with enthusiasm, who give cold and inexpressive slaps on the back or who approach your cheeks with a loud or distant kiss.

When I thought the gathering would be over, I left without speaking to him. I said goodbye to the group of people close by, the group with which, among other things, I spoke about recipes and how to enhance one’s profile with dark earrings. Someone shouted at me close to the door: “How can you leave when things are just getting started!” I replied without seeing him that I had something else to do and that they should have a good time, and I said goodbye. I was glad to maintain my reputation as a party-pooper and to make sure from the conversation that I hadn’t made his acquaintance, in spite of advance preparations. “I will introduce him to you and I am sure you will hit it off, that’s easy to see.”

Once in the street, I breathed easy—what a pleasure. I felt monologue was preferable to dialogue, sentiment to sensation, choosing to being chosen. When I was almost at the street corner, he stopped me. “You were trying to get away from me, but I came because of you, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity. Can we have a cup of coffee together?”

His voice was imposing and convincing. It left no alternative. In the café, sitting face to face, our feet touched and I felt that overwhelming energy. I was ready, definitely ready. I saw his mouth, and words and kisses ran together. He kissed me, smelling of coffee and cigarettes. I kissed him until the edge of the table made my waist hurt.

We walked hand in hand, kissing at each step until we reached my apartment. We spent an entire week there, unable to differentiate between night and day, until we got tired with the crumbs in the bed, the smell of tuna cans, the need to answer the telephone which, at the beginning we did not hear but which finally became a jarring obsession.

I love you and I still love you, Manuel! You must understand that. Of course, things changed because of the natural effect of mutually approved variations, which are also part of human relations. All agreements come to an end and linger in memory.

We started cutting down to just weekends. At first, glorious ones, as if we hungered ever so long. ; then they were more routine and less prolonged, and finally, almost unremarkable because they had become predictable. Well what are we going to do this weekend?

We exhausted all the possibilities: surprise, forcible abduction, seduction, comedy, play-acting, jealousy, suspecting infidelity, even bringing the rival lover.

You remember what we talked about. We always talked about ourselves, about how honest we were, how happy and fortunate, about our marvelous affinity, how different we were from the rest, about needing a special world of our own, and about how nobody understood our politics because we still believed that Utopia was within reach if we just made the right changes. In literature, our attention was riveted to the odd and unexpected.

One day, a friend asked me about the color of Manuel’s eyes. I replied quickly that they were blue, a beautiful naive blue, sensitive and steady. Then I was unsure. Sometimes they were almost green, the blue looks greenish when you look at mountains a lot. I was struck with the realization that I did not know the color of his eyes. I have never really seen him eye to eye, our caresses leaving us in a world of mist.

At that time we would argue about who was giving more in the relationship. I said that providing the furnished apartment, rent, electricity and phone was enough to ensure my independence and freedom. He asserted that between the meals, the vodka, the cigarettes, gasoline, and the extras for eating out, he was left with just pennies which would soon disappear in tips. This can’t go on. I’ve never had it so bad. With free woman and free conversation. What kind of mortgaged man did I get? Praise be to God for his ingenious benefactions. In raffles, I only win the junk.

You told me I know nothing of austerity and thrift, that I was, by and large, a spendthrift. I really don’t understand the anal-retentive obsession with savings, that vestige of chewing over again and again what has already been digested. It’s the result of teaching that you cn double your money with neither sowing nor harvesting.

What arguments we had. I saw you clearly. Your eyes on mine. Yes, your eyes on mine. I don’t know how long we were looking at each other intensely and curiously. I discovered the color: a dirty yellow, which reflects and changes everything, with fits of passionate looks and profound coldness that freezes everything in sight. Too many details, one caught up completely in details, down to savings and inveighing against waste. We kept on looking at each other as sweetness, surprise, reproach and resentment filled our eyes. That was the last time we made love. We finally averted or intense and penetrating eyes, we were trembling, sweaty, and orgasm past.

I recovered my voice long enough to say that we were mired in trivia. He begged forgiveness. It will never happen again, today went sour for me. We decided to separate for a week, afterwards things will be different because absence and missing each other give real substance to human relationships. When the week was up, he arrived with his suitcase and dirty clothes, hungover with bad breath. He felt sick, and I missed him. I could neither lie nor tell the truth, so I kept quiet.

We each retired to our separate corners, each one in his space, just like animals measuring each other. All night, I heard him vomiting. He could not keep anything down. He took to eating prunes, and so, bits of half-digested prunes decorated the toilet seat cover and the bathroom. He had the same reaction to guavas, cubaces, fried tortillas with cheese, macaronia la Bolognese and combination pizzas.

I came to detest his trifles, their abundance: some niggling, some affected, many effeminate.

He was thin, which was why he was surprised to see his breasts growing and abdomen swelling. Six months later, poor Manuel of my perplexity, the most horrible body one could imagine for a man: a belly almost protruding to a point, enormous, drooping breasts, a slow, tired gait, hunching over to hide himself. The nausea persisted, interrupting breakfasts, lunches, dinners and conversations.

I suggested a visit to the doctor. The poor man did not want to go out, or work, he did nothing but knit incessantly. He knitted scarves and sweaters, since his low blood pressure made him tremble terribly and nothing could keep him warm.

Repugnant, he was, I put up with his mannerisms, trifles and conversations that boiled down to the same things: I am dying,. I am no longer good for anything, this is a case of precocious senility. He tried to indulge in sex, but I could not stand it. As he started to touch me, I pushed his hands away. I told him it filled me with revulsion, and I started to vomit too.

We went to the doctor. After examining him nude, abdominal auscultation and seeing water run out when the breasts were squeezed, he asked if we were transvestites. I told him we were not, that it hadn’t yet come to that. Then he replied: The baby is fine. It will be delivered in December by caesarian section, and if you give me exclusive research rights, I won’t charge you anything.

Me? The mother of Manuel’s baby? Or father to a child of his? That just couldn’t be. We both decided against it, for in addition to being unheard of, it was ridiculous, we would be the laughing stock of acquaintances and strangers alike. By common agreement, we proposed an abortion. The doctors said that it would be suicide on Manuel’s part, and murder with respect to the child a, and that I, the surviving member would be responsible for both consequences. Ultimately a child does not come about just like that, and I had a great deal invested in it.

We asked for time to think it over.

Carmen Naranjo Cato (born January 30, 1928), is a Costa Rican author.

We scrutinized our actions, our genitals, the different positions we had tried, attitudes, the games we played. And there was nothing that could explain our bizarre situation. Witchcraft? Perhaps. There is always that possibility, although we may not believe in it. The realization became clear and clearer: that ophthalmic orgasm in which we exposed each other laid bare the truth and some horrible demon maliciously deranged the scheme normally regulated by the division of sexes.

After fretting over it interminably and consulting a library of strange phenomena and unbelievable occurrences (which made us experts in these subject without helping us at all), we decided to cross the border so as to amuse only strangers.

Did he complain during the trip! He was such a nuisance1 He didn’t fit anywhere, what with his nine months being almost up. If I detested him before, now I simply wished he would go away. I was tempted to open the care door and throw him out on some deserted stretch of the highway.

Finally, we arrived. I left him at the door of the hospital to manage as best he could. The next day, I got in line with the other visitors. I reluctantly approached the maternity ward. I asked for Manuel, yeah, Manuel the freak. No one could tell me anything about him; they had never treated a pregnant man at the hospital. I looked for him everywhere, in the morgue, at the cemetery, in hotels, boarding houses, private clinics, bars. I was desperate: after all, it was my child. That my child came out in a husky voice. I started to feel the presence of a moustache as I talked. I went to see crones, quacks, and charlatans. Nothing. I was convinced that my child had been stolen. I said this in the bass voice of an opera singer while I felt burdened with a beard that swayed in the wind.

I returned to my apartment, manifesting all the signs of a defrauded father. The loneliness was overwhelming because I felt mutilated; someone was walking around somewhere with a part of me. I was hardened by the loneliness; just lke my face—scourged as it was by the razor—which now needed shaving twice a day.

*****

ANALYSIS
Symbiotic Encounter was constructed by utilizing the gender constructs and attempting to to invert them.
The first half (as we would divide the story into two parts) of the text shows a stereotypical heterosexual relationship (hence the ‘symbiotic’). This part of the story portrayed a typical relationship sequence: the romantic first date, the honeymoon period, the progressive decline. From this point, we can see that the story is nothing different from the typical love story—no complications, in fact even predictably cliche.

Moreover, Ana and Manuel are, at this part of the story, constructed stereotypical characters, performing their sexualities in relative stability . Ana and Manuel were imbibed with the ‘normal’ gender attributes (paragraph 1). The subsequent contexts also supports the expected gender roles in a relationship—the male assumes the ‘active’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘imposing’ role (paragraphs 7-8). The female is on the passive end, the recipient. It also uses the ‘gendered’ elements such as color, e.g. blue for men, etc (Butler 1994).

However, as one approaches the border between the two divisions of the story, cues of a pending drastic change are being given in progressively increasing intensity. The most overt would be the narrator’s statement regarding Manuel’s eyes which she/he hesitantly described as blue (male). Take note that the context of this statement, when Manuel is still manifesting a dominantly ‘male’ identity. The narrator then symbolically represented the change. Manuel’s blue eyes turned from blue (male) to green (queer) to yellow (undefinable). In this absurd, scientifically unexplainable physiological phenomenon, we symbolically tread a line that strikes through the rigid (but nonetheless fundamentally flawed) gender categories. . Notice that in the progressive change from blue to yellow, Manuel is also slowly manifesting a  sexual shift—a change from masculine to feminine. The transformation is a chilling reverberation of de Beauvoire’s statement “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman (de Beavoire 1949).”

In paragraph 15 we are faced at a border from the seemingly cliché and stable heterosexual relationship to a chaotic and confusing symbiosis, creating a complete dichotomy in the text.

Manuel’s frequent trifles and his generally effeminate attitude (from the narrator’s point of view) are ample enough for the reader to see the shift from a male Manuel to an effeminate Manuel. The full exposition of this shift was shown in paragraph 19-20 wherein we are told that Manuel is pregnant. At this part, the narrator exhibits a confused state (Me? The mother of Manuel’s baby? Or father to a child of his?) and most likely the reader may also have a general confusion on the way things now unfold. This may be attributed to the disruption of the narrator (and the reader’s) gender concepts, mainly of their concepts of mother and father; the story literally subverted the socially-constructed gender categories which, as it seems in our case (and most likely it is Naranjo’s clever intention) are projected as stifling and repression gendering system which obliterates those who lie ‘between’ or ‘beyond’ the boxed gender categories (Butler 1994). The disruption of these concepts left the narrator dazed. Ultimately, the couple attributed the strange phenomenon to a horrible demon (hence, a very negative entity) which ‘regulates the division of sexes. This demon, of course, is not supernatural. It is precisely the discourses and the institutions which regulates the genders and make sure that every individual performs their ‘marked’ sexualities (Foucault 1980).

Those who are between the binaries are considered abnormal, cursed, bewitched. The system excluded this group of people. Unfortunately, the characters in the story subscribed to the system and looked upon themselves as ‘victims’.

Nonetheless, this state of confusion was stabilized in the last three paragraphs. It appears that the shift has been completed, wherein Ana and Manuel finally assumed each others former boxes, exchanging their gender roles. The ‘masculine’ attribute of being active was exhibited by Ana and the ‘feminine’ attribute of being the recipient was now attributed to the pregnant Manuel. After crossing the border, which may signify leaving the past (affiliates, jobs, and most importantly, identities) they had assumed new gender roles. The equilibrium had now come into a full crescent, with Ana totally with a male identity at the end, with a hardened heart and a beard.

No Box Was Destroyed
We had already said that the text attempted to subvert the restrictive gender roles and to show the consequences of imposing this social system to general humanity. First, gender roles will exclude those who do not subscribe to it in the social way (cross dressers). Second, gender roles will exclude those who are not biologically ‘normal’ (hermaphrodites, neuters). The latter is a more tragic case as this may mean social condemnation from the onset of one’s life, for it means being an ‘Other’ in one’s Self, a body alienated from its own essence, leaving the subject more than a queer, but freak (Butler 1994).

The text, however, resolves itself by placing the problematic characters to a ‘normal’ gender role. Hence, the text also committed the crime of subscribing to the gender system.

Notice that the character of Ana, which at the onset is a female, passed through to the gender/sex continuum and at the end exhibited signs of being male. However, she subscribed to the male role, (being ‘hard’ at heart contrary to the feminine ‘soft’ ,‘active’ contrary to ‘passive’ ,etc) which led to his/her survival in the story. Note that the concept of male as the victor is also a construct. Manuel, on the other, was also portrayed as feminine, weak and passive, which led to his/her eventual demise at the end of the story. This, again, is another construct for the ‘weak’ female. Ultimately, we will see that both the characters have changed their sex and genders and therefore can still be accepted by the system, primarily because they are still in a heterosexual relationship. The text, therefore, still rests on a very unstable ground. It still subscribed to the flawed gender system. The characters, hence, had not destroyed the boxes there are in. They merely ended up changing places.

References

Butler, Judith. 1994. ‘Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith
Butler’, Radical Philosophy: A journal of socialist and feminist philosophy
67 (Summer): 32–9.

de Beauvoir, Simone. 1949. The Second Sex (La Deuxième Sexe), trans.
H.M. Parshley, London: Everyman, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings
1972–1977, (ed. C. Gordon), Brighton: Harvester.

 

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