Only you will mourn the death of the secrets you keep. And only you will celebrate them. Those are two reasons to keep your secrets.
Here’s something I’ve learned: it’s relieving to protect your sorrow from public spheres. Self-pity must be done alone if it is to be done well. Below and beneath your clavicle, it can mix freely with giddiness, desperation, and hope. If your affairs are made public, people might demand—or worse, and more likely, offer—explanations of and for you.
People may not believe your freedom or despair. They may contextualize your experience in the public, pre-established framework of your life. They may force your life into chapters, offering you logical narratives, drawing parallels between what you did and what you’ve done and offering sense of things. You may watch your life become their object.
Do you want this? Then tell them all to get away from you. Why offer people, even people you love, an inevitably fragmented representation of experience? You deserve freedom from analysis. It is impossible to be understood.
She began to think of herself in third person. She needed sleep, kindness, and not to hurt so much. It was time to be saved. But she could not get out of bed for her “I;” she could not treat her “me” well. Was this incompetency was born of a tendency to waste empathy on others? Or did it stem from deficient inward vision? It was anyone’s guess, but it didn’t matter. The antidote would be, like every other antidote in her life, a way of thinking. A way of telling a story.
The problem was this: she could not resist him who both hurt and needed her. His hair was black and thick, his skin clammy and pale. She thought he could be a starving Irish fisherman. Maybe his ancestors had gone out to sea and seduced small country girls. Inexperienced, unassuming, foolish, benevolent. Maybe they married them in churches and rowed them to empty shacks with nothing to offer but working bodies and frenzied souls. Maybe she was linked to these girls, in some ancient way. Loving these troubled men, all of whom hurt the women they said they loved.
She was thinking about this as she sat in her car. The winter air was hanging black and thin outside the windows. She felt neither brave nor certain. She had chanted this to herself all day: “he is troubled and beautiful. He says he needs her, but he hurts me. I have to leave without thought or hope.”
She didn’t know if she was doing the right thing. Her heart hurt too much to tell what the source of the pain was. But what could she know? Could she know what needed to be done without understanding why it must be done? In her academic days, she would have said no, of course not. If reason cannot lead you there, you mustn’t go. But now she knew better. She knew truth came not from knowing, but feeling. She felt that things had gone too far, and she knew that doors must close. It was like faith in God. At its root, it was instinctual, not rational. Only so many things it made sense to think about.
She remembered walking with her mother. She could not have been older than four or five. It was summer. The street was tall and grand. She was proud. She had memorized the arrangement of branches above each house. The sidewalk ran wide and smooth beneath her bare, purposeful feet. Her mother’s hand hung waiting for whenever she would grab it. She was free to skip and hop as far as she liked, backwards or forwards, with a promised familiar touch never far away.
One day, she remembered, she heard an unfamiliar cry across the street. There, unbelievably lovely, was an older girl, a teenager. She had long brown hair that shone in the light. Her body was curved and thin. The clothes she wore were shining brightly, cropped and beautiful in the summer heat. Having no older siblings and having never spent time with people other than her parents and grandparents, she stopped her marching to stared. Was that what growth meant? Would she ever grow into that kind of girl?
The teenager’s hands were covering her face. Her shoulders were shaking. Gasping for breath, she was letting out little sobs at regular intervals. How alarming it was to see such shaking sadness on a day that was, in all other respects, triumphant—in a life that was, in all respects that existed, triumphant! Not knowing self consciousness, she had gawked.
She felt her mother’s knee lightly bump her shoulder. Woken from shock and not knowing what to do or say, she looked up at her mother, her face full of questioning and fear. What was going on? Her mother smiled kindly and patted her head. In her motherly fashion, she had called across the street and said, “It will be all right!” To her daughter, she said, “Come on, it’s okay.” Obediently, she let herself be led by her mother’s gentle hand.
What had been a happy march became a contemplative walk. What she thought, but had not words for, was this: “Why was that someone upset? What happened to make her cry that way? Does she not think life is glad? Does she not know how I, and anyone with sense, perceive and admire her beauty? How can sorrow and beauty exist at one time, in one person?”
Later in her life, she learned that you can die a thousand times a day. You can die every day for the rest of your life. Life kills you, she thought.
She reached this conclusion and felt numb all over. Then he came into the car, her fisherman, his eyes wide, hair tousled, hands long, thick, and bony. He smelled like cigarettes and his phone was buzzing. He looked at her. “Hey,” he said.
Her heart swooped down to her stomach and up to her neck, but settled as she told him: I’m deleting everything. He blinked. Without thinking—because thinking was a trap, she knew—she erased a years’ worth of conversations on her phone. She erased his name and number. She made all technological paths of communication impossible while he sat in the seat next to her, blinking. He was not sure of her certainty, but she knew it was real this time. We are done. I’m not doing this anymore. She couldn’t cry. He smiled. She wouldn’t let herself look at him.
A year ago, when she had been considering sex with him, she worried what would happen to her mystery. Would he still be able to sense it? Was the only reason he wanted sex at all was because the tantalizing mystery? Did it rise in whiffs from her words, as she hoped it would? She sometimes thought he sensed it, and other times, she felt he was incapable. Not sensitive enough, or something. But if he did sense her mystery, would he forget about it in a new flurry of sexual enthusiasm? It was, after all, subtle. Would he stop caring? That would ruin everything. And if he hadn’t caught on to how mysterious she was at this point, would he even be able to after the sex? Would it allow another avenue to for him appreciate her, or would he forget everything in the excitement? The questions, she realized in hindsight, made her more excited than the sex did.
She ended up having sex without knowing any of the answers. She liked it. Not as much as she had liked the questions, but those were forgotten in the heat. She became an animal. As the act repeated itself, the thinking came to a total stop. Every so often, she’d remember it fondly, even wistfully, but hesitated to dive back in, fearing it would kill the pleasure, and, consequently, the relationship.
But what she never forgot was this: in her lonely moments of contemplation, before the act had really begun, she had come to a decision. Not an answer, but a choice. She decided she would never not be irresistible to people that really knew her. This was not narcissistic. Whether sex helped someone really know a person was probably up to the people having it, wasn’t it? Anyways, this thing about her beauty was definitely true. It was written in her bones. Fearfully and wonderfully made. Ever since she saw the crying teenage girl, she knew beauty was destiny, and anyone who could not see their own was a fool. Like so many other things, she thought, the truth was like faith in God—at its base, all instinct.
Part, maybe even all, of her beauty came from how unfathomable she was to herself. She thought about herself. She gloried in her mystery. But in the car, all these past epiphanies seemed like a dream from another world. Glory, mystery, sex, contemplation—those were for other people. She had breaking to do.
“Are you really doing this?” he asked. “You know I’m still in love with you.” She told him it didn’t matter. He touched her; she wavered, cried, and said no; he went on, and she cried. She probably said she loved him.
“You know you don’t want to leave me,” he said. She held to it: it doesn’t matter. They sat there for awhile. The engine ran with loyalty, fighting off the cold. The lights from the lot shone on. Neither machines could feel the fluctuating, throbbing emotions of the people in the car. They were just being themselves that night. She noticed them, and envied how they did this. One day, she hoped she would feel a kinship with their purpose. She was on her way. Someday soon, she would be able to be, relentlessly, on cold winter nights in parking lots. She told herself this. She would not allow her heart to be so broken that she ceased to be, as light and warmth did.
She waited for him to get out of the car. He did so, a manic hop in his gait, and he turned to face her before he shut the door. In his alarm and horror, his shoulders slouched, as if carrying an aching load. He said goodbye and closed the door.
Finally. Now she drove off, fighting the picture of his trembling body and fawn-like eyes. No time for sentiment. She could now discern between thinking as a friend and thinking as an enemy. Driving down the empty highway, the street lamps hit her window. They would have streaked her view had the hot air not been blasting the windshield. She felt mothered, somehow. It might be safe to think about herself now, to imagine how her eyes must look in the beams. She smiled and cried. She knew that she was beautiful.
A month or so later, sometime in March, she saw him again. This time, they lay down together, in the trunk of her car, in another parking lot. She was horrified and amazed at his arm, around her as it had always been. In the town they had always been in, feeling right as they always had, in the dark, quiet of things. It was still winter. She remembered all over again how she had thought about her mystery. She had long since decided to fight against the feeling rightness with him because, as she told him, it didn’t matter, and it didn’t last.
Why was she laying with him again in a winter parking lot? There were no streetlamps this time, and the engine was off. Her family and friends would kill her if they knew she had met up with him. She didn’t know how to feel, so she just stopped. She let him wrap her close, just like he’d done before. It couldn’t last, but it felt good to be held by him again.
“I think you’re my girlfriend,” he said.
No, she said, not moving from her position. This doesn’t change anything. I just wanted my books back, the books you didn’t read. That had been how she justified seeing him, anyways. He probably could have kept the books, but they were nice books, and, as she sometimes admitted to herself, she missed him. Parts of him. He whispered her name, and she realized he had never said it right. Maybe no one had. If he had said it right, if he had really understood how mysterious she was, none of this would have happened. She couldn’t stand being back with him. It was time to leave for good.
So she did. She didn’t think about the sadness and she left. It was cruel, and the streetlamps and engine knew it. They seemed to shut their eyes to make her less ashamed, but they didn’t help. I know, she thought.
She became severely ill. She knew it was punishment. Maybe from God. She was mostly too tired to be ashamed, but when she thought clearly, she felt it all like a sinking ship. Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life, Christ asked. Not me, she told Him. Being with her fisherman was a sin if there ever was one. She had hurt herself. But there was no use dwelling on it.
She must rip him from her life. All his ideas of her needed to die. She ripped with all the more gusto in her sickness. She had had a lapse in judgment, an emotional weakness. Wounded, but redirected, she reaffirmed all the old truths to herself. He does not understand me. He never tried to understand me. And he hurt me.
After you die the thing to do is live. Again and again and again. The ripping hurts, of course. But just wait. Those glowing, amber vacillations of love will begin to leak slowly down each twig of your rib cage. They’ll pool in your gut. The hollowness beneath your clavicle will feel like pain. You’ll ask yourself if it’s really pain. No, it’s only emptiness. The glow had done the hurting. It was a toxin and it was doing its last deception, making emptiness seem like it weighed something. That’s physically impossible, you’ll tell yourself. Still, you’ll want to cradle yourself. You’ll hunch inward, like a fetus.
There will weird seizes of desperation to fill it up again, that emptiness. Maybe you’ll want to drive somewhere and run away. You might pierce yourself or cut yourself. You’ll make some move to claim your body back. These are all perfectly human defenses against loss. Making someone you love a memory is a physical process. And anyways, the frequency of heartbreak, abuse, infidelity throughout human history does nothing reassure or assuage the pain of individual tragedies. Even the surprise at the fact that commonness of experience does not mean comfort has been well documented. Records of experience are, for the most part, merciless. Best not to indulge.
Her situation called for carefulness. She made playlists to avoid base, emotional radio sap. She said no to dates that would make her feel empty, which turned into no dating at all. She withdrew from her friends and family. She read. She decided she would give herself nice days, which turned into making schedules, waking up early, having a plans and maps. She cleaned her room obsessively. Since she must think—damned creature of reason that she was—she would control what she thought about. No more darkness.
She didn’t know how to pray, so she didn’t. She thought about God and how winter would surely end, spiritually and physically. She was putting in a lot of effort and wondering where God was. As she began to feel better, she wondered if it because He had been working with her. Had He been? She hadn’t felt Him. Well, maybe she ought to thank Him for the energy she found to do the work. Or was the mysterious energy—born, as far as she could tell, from the simple desire to not hate her life—completely from herself? Hadn’t He made her, though? Where was the gratitude supposed to come from? Again, she found that thinking about it helped nothing. She went to Mass and confession because that was the thing to do. Maybe she’d read Thomas Aquinas and understand someday.
No one, she learned, is safe from memory. However much mental agency she gave herself, things haunted her. Sometimes she told people about the time she had only meant to visit. She had been in that habit her whole life: telling people about things. Why did she do that? She couldn’t help herself. It happened in January, she told them. He had just been released from the psych ward and moved into his new apartment. The amber glow that turned out to be poison was trembling and causing her pain, but at that point, she was clinging to it. There she was in his new room – he couldn’t go back to living with his parents after they found his drugs. He had barely unpacked. It had all seemed hollow, like neither of them were really there.
She had thought, she told her friends, that loving a bad man with a good heart would make them both strong. She wanted them both to be good. She didn’t want to let badness eat at what she had with him. She let him lie next to her and held his hand as if to say, “I care for you, even now. You’re not alone.”
He began to touch her, then grabbed her, as if to say, “Let me have you.”
Stop, she said gently. I don’t want to.
He retreated and nuzzled, but began again shortly. No, she said, more firmly. I can’t with you.
He began to cry. He cried a lot, mostly for good reasons, but still, a lot. “How can you say you love me, then? Stop telling me you love me.” He kept saying her name. She hadn’t realized how wrong it was in his mouth yet; all she felt was his mad desperation, tugging at her, wild like an animal. His eyes were crazed. He wasn’t really there, she knew. This was the someone else that came up inside him, some beast from hell that could never be satisfied
But I do love you.
“I don’t care. Show me.”
I don’t want to do that with you. Not now that you’ve done it with everyone else. You’re not yourself.
“Then you don’t love me.”
And the nightmare played itself. She could never tell this part quite right, so she grabbed at clinical, psychological terms. Trauma, abuse, rape. Those didn’t mean much to her. What she really remembered was a desperate need to prove herself, the meaning of his neediness, and a misguided idea of being good that froze her as his hands, once more, grabbed and shook her. Everything was horror and dark.
Emptily, like a slave on a ship, she would always remember how her soul had wandered through her body, grieving as it watched its home ravaged by a madman. It wandered up behind her eyes, directing them toward the walls, mottled and sad. After looking all over the room, they at last wandered down the contours of the bodies, each the vessel of a different kind of brokenness. Soul and body felt deep, deep defeat.
She remembered looking down and mourning all the integrity and joy she had lost during their relationship. She was so tired. The misery of those months had torn at her happiness, her zest, her mental energy. And now, examining how they fit together, she realized it had also torn at her body. There was less of her. Her stomach had shrunk, and her hipbones rose like walls of a canyon. Even her shoulders felt barer—there was less flesh to cover them. If love was incarnation, this was not love at all.
To distract herself from how fucked up it all was, she thought about their conversation in the psych ward. Right before he had been released.
“Do you believe in soul mates?” he had asked.
She stopped. I didn’t use to. Now, I’m not sure.
“I think it’s more something that happens to you when you’re not expecting it. Like, I wasn’t expecting this at the beginning. I thought you were gonna be just another girl.”
Her eyes welled up. She had known he thought that. She had also known she would prove him wrong.
“But you weren’t. You’re not. You’re so not,” he laughed. “You know how you were saying you love my soul? I love your soul. I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it doesn’t get much deeper than that, you know? How can it get deeper than that?”
So fucked up.
She hated talking about him to her family. After it finally ended, she promised she would never tell them about that night in January. They had taught her that telling, no matter how cathartic and natural it seemed, often did no good. She had defended him for so long, only to be proved wrong. But even now, after everything, she still didn’t think her family read him right. No one was capable of understanding. Her father hated him from the start; her mother dismissed their relationship as foolishness carried away; her siblings had no experience to be a comfort. Nothing said aloud would bring anyone closer to the truth. And if no one came closer to the truth, what was the point in saying anything at all? Besides, not all memories were nightmares. It was all so complicated.
She remembered they had gone on a date in November, when things could have been redeemed if they had stopped just then. It was a good date. Uncanny, how he could be wonderful one moment and dead the next. She had looked at him across the table, admiring his thick, wavy hair, his fierce jawline, the scruff of his beard. She was thinking of the casual way he scuffed his shoes and pushed his hands in his pockets when they sat down. She was happy to be with him. They were having fried shrimp and pasta in a crowded restaurant. All around them was the roar of people chatting, laughing, and telling stories. Their own table was quiet. She didn’t eat much, and listened to the clink of his fork on the plate. She watched the fold of his sleeve crinkle as he raised the utensil to his mouth. She watched his sunken cheeks hum up and down, concealing the grinding of teeth.
He had dressed well for the night. It was chilly and starlit, and he wore a green and blue flannel with a soft, grey undershirt. His eyes, so much like the sea, had their usual surge above his protruding cheekbones. His looks always made her look so soft. Whenever she saw them in mirrors together, she thought she looked young and girlish. He was so tall. Two waitresses let their eyes linger on his shoulders as they walked past, and she felt a surge of pride and sadness. If only they knew, she thought. About the drugs, his crying, the hospitalizations. How crazy he got when he didn’t get enough sleep. The way he talked about the devil.
She was reading Virginia Woolf at the time, and thinking about the way the characters thought of themselves and other people. The question that rose again and again was this: what is the meaning of it? All this life we live—these relationships, these skies, these people, these pains—who has any real knowledge of it? Lily Briscoe had suggested the whole meaning of life never came, that there were only little miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark throughout our days. This, she thought, sort of justified her decision to feel more than think. Because what good did thinking do people, anyways? If she thought too hard about the man in front of her, the logical conclusion might be to fall out of love. And yet, she couldn’t do that. So really, what was the point?
She liked the character of Lily Briscoe. She smiled as she watched him chew, and thought about throwing these musings at him. She might be disenchanted with the practice of thinking, but he didn’t think enough. Is there no point in pursuing meaning, she wanted to ask him. Should one just take experience as it comes, and go on instinct? Was that what she had been doing all her life, anyways? Had she only been kidding herself when she considered how thoughtful she was? She thought her thoughts had been a quest for meaning. Meaning and truth. She thought her efforts would lead to something golden. Was that the point of thought?
Now she was staring. He looked up, raised his eyebrows in a funny way, and pushed a shrimp toward her. She smiled and brought it closer with her fork, but didn’t eat. She kept thinking. How did she think of him, now that he had betrayed her and his family? Now that he had threatened to ruin and end his life? Now that he had proved his capacity for death and destruction? Now that he had stolen her innocence? She wanted to find to way to reconcile how much she loved him and how beautiful he was to her with all the hurt. She asked again: how can sorrow and beauty exist at one time? How can pain and beauty exist at one time? And all in one person? In two people, sitting across from each other at a table with bread? God, how she wanted to understand, to know the meaning of it all.
He sipped his water calmly. “Eat!” he said.
Theologians grappled with this kind of thing all day, but there was only so much good a sound argument could do. The waiter asked if she’d like dessert, and she made her decision: there was no point to all this thinking. It shed light on nothing. Forget matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. Even if those did exist, they could just as easily be extinguished moments after their birth. So who should care? Why credit them with any power? Why was she, and everyone else, consumed with this thirst to fathom everything? Why did she think her capacity to love the world—its inhabitants, its phenomena, its fisherman—was contingent upon her stupid capacity to fathom it all? Clearly, fathoming was beyond her. Probably beyond those theologians, too, up in their Roman buildings, with no experience of sex or romance to reckon. At least she was wise enough to know she understood none of this. God only knew what everyone else thought.
That was her conclusion. Loving was not beyond her, but understanding was. What a useless practice thinking had always been. Biting into the last shrimp, she said she would not have dessert.
So it was not all bad. That had been a good date. It had been important that she thought about all that with him at the table, declining a dessert and finishing off her shrimp. He had looked so good in his shirt. He had whispered in her ear all kinds of sweet things that night.
Letting the thinking go made time for love, pain, and work. She liked to filling out paperwork and clean things with her hands. She listened to mindless rap and ran down the spring streets. All of that, she felt, was living. The torture of making things mean things had fled. Who could afford to reflect? Off she went.
The only thoughts she consciously forgave were questions. They proved her point. Each one opened the door to a thousand answers. She could have examined each as it came and determined which was best, but what good what it do? Human existence, she declared, was beyond her. Experiences, when reflected upon, brought more confusion than clarity. That was her mantra All she had were the moments, and she took it as a sacred duty not to make more of them than they deserved. Lily had been right that the the grand meaning never comes, but even illuminations shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The winter ended and spring was born, like the tide from the moon. Rain fell and saturated everything in the city: bricks, black boughs, yellow flowers, grass that looked like the embryo of a sacred pond. One day, she felt she was no longer fighting for her soul. It had risen from the broken ship and come alive.
Your soul will decide it has no time for self-pity. It feels gaseous, then liquid, then, in moments of exultation, it will manifest itself kinetically, as a clap or a gasp or a sprint. It seems to coarse through your veins and surround your flesh. It’s an inner and outer aura that looks like water and mist. It makes your bound through mornings, afternoons and evenings. It gets up to secret business while you slept, preparing for a new life every morning.
It cannot be pinned down. It cannot be understood, only experienced. It lives with an energy ancient and new, both a glory and a mystery.