A Cure for Secrets
My young mother wore an old-fashioned long gown that crept across the wooden floor behind her as she walked. Six-year-old-I was crammed into her bustle, step for step. We sashayed across the floor at the television studio. The audience and attendant personalities needed to guess what my mother’s secret was. I could barely breathe. I was a girl sewn back, close to her mother. We undraped, pulling, uncovering one another after fooling the onlookers. When was a girl like a dress? I liked the clapping, the surprised looks. We won seventy five dollars and roller skates. The CBS show was called “I’ve Got a Secret.” I still do.
Inside each secret are instructions about pain and pleasure, the things that don’t want to be reconciled or said out loud. Secrets love their beginnings and their discovery can change how you view something, someone, or an action, while an obsession generally doesn’t change or transform what surrounds you. Both can be internalized. A secret can manipulate or hiding it can be a manipulation. It is usually tucked away while an obsession is overtly repeatable.
Some of my secrets include:
pretending to be asleep at night to my cat or husband
disassociating when I’m bored although I appear alert
my childhood companion, a pillow named Suckalee that I licked
talking to myself (once my ballet teacher said, “I can hear you,” which meant it wasn’t a secret anymore)
liking too little rather than too much
My mother spent at least sixty years lying about her age. My sister didn’t speak about some of the things our father did until he had died. My husband’s and my quirks are complementary. My husband forgets to tell me things. When I’m quiet, he speaks and vice versa. He cooks aimlessly, without recipes, and I eat his spicy eggs and vegetables. If he drops onto one knee I sit on it. We are sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic but at different times. Sometimes I pretend to be an animal, usually a cat.
Animals have secrets, maps of personal danger, puzzles involving food, storage, or forgiveness. Sometimes they run into the street after something illusionary. They swerve from other animals, reading hints in their gestures, poses, facial expressions. Submissive animals are directed what to do. Hidden sexual preferences can make or break a human being, a density shattered like planets, bodies poised in various positions at once.
We assume that if someone isn’t forthcoming about what they did that they’re harboring what they are ashamed of, which may or may not be true. I give my secrets away sparingly to friends, as I want to share slowly and get to know them better. Every so often I choose the wrong secret, and my friend is disgusted, like the time I told a girlfriend about picking my nose as a child and studiously placing snot in the hair of a troll, which I handed to a visitor to admire. We compare indiscretions, my past drinking to a girlfriend’s cigarettes. I decide to whom I want to impart what particular piece of information, my sexual history or foibles with my husband, my impatience and propensity to do things immediately with my nervous friends, my boredom and predilection toward trying new forms and subjects to other writers. I’m a house with rooms filled with oddities that don’t know about one another because the doors are closed. I invite select strangers inside.
Shame is a rare commodity these days. Some things are integral parts of my personality: something fermenting that wasn’t meant to; what was inside out or held in my mouth too long; a scared, stubborn cat; pinching my newly born sister whose young flesh didn’t deserve it; a body primitively slipping into another; a locked room filled with festering confessions.
butterflies feel colors
a snake sculpts a long stone with its skin
parrots like hideous furniture and are afraid they are irrelevant
fish consider their sex and its antonyms, depending on the environment or hormones (livescience.com, “10 Amazing Things You Didn’t Know about Animals,” Ben Mauk and R.R. Britt, 3/30/16)
salamanders remake lost organs or limbs (livescience.com, “Missing Parts?” Tanya Lewis, 5/20/13)
certain jellyfish (turritopsis dohrnii) renew themselves again and again, becoming immortal by reverting to a polyp stage at will (Wikipedia, “Turritopsis dohrnii”)
cats are not jealous because birds migrate
owls prefer a dreamless sleep
dogs dedicate their personalities to their owners and savor stink
peacocks enjoy domestic celebrations
I Have Been Seen in My Underpants
Growing up in New York City I have learned everything I need to know by peering out my family’s apartment windows. I have seen: sex, from its dainty or wounded beginning to its postscript; fights, using gestures, silent words, or objects, blood splattered on glass; young children bouncing on ruined furniture; people reading in bed, at a desk, on a toilet; people dancing to unheard music alone; skeletal people ballooning and large people shrinking; a dog stealing food from a party plate; a man working at an office naked very late at night. In that reluctant city every act before a lit, open window at night could be seen and during the day people forgot or didn’t care as they put their gatherable selves together. It was a perverse treasure hunt.
As a child I liked to look out my window on nights I couldn’t sleep to see what other illuminated windows would keep me company at strange hours. Now I’m alert to the ghost of my dead cat, hearing him in the house, as if there isn’t much else going on in the world. His ghost is an echo, a concealment being whispered or a reflection on a windowpane. There is always an inside and outside to everything.
In Montana there wasn’t visual comradery with strangers because of all the open spaces. But once, when my car slid off an icy road, all four cars that passed me stopped to help. In Missoula, in a house outside the town, with its circling snow-clamoring mountains, I would sometimes wear underpants and an undershirt while watering my garden, on a road where no one could see me.
In Seattle, just past downtown, in an area called Pioneer Square, there are three blocks where, after the Great Fire of 1889 the city was built on top of itself. The two levels coexisted with different businesses, the more furtive below, until 1907 when the bubonic plague arrived, and, because of the numerous rats below, the underground was sealed off like a terrible wound. If Seattle was a person, he would never come to a decision about himself. A polite, unrevelatory man who grew larger, sharper, more modern, becoming younger as time passed just as the odd surplus and small one-owner shops transformed into glass and steel behemoths. Seattle would be the kind of person who revised the worn, the historical, with something ferociously and optimistically new. He didn’t need to speak to anyone for days, grew tired of cars, was pleased with the constant murmur of electronics, wanted to be taken seriously, gazed at carpets of water, was accountable for the remaining flimsy forests, often shook the vast ambitious machinery of rain loose, didn’t know what to do with those hands, and could occasionally stray from long-held opinions.
Apartments and townhouses are beginning to fit inside each other neatly, yet a personal privacy still prevails. After many years, I know things about my neighbors. An unprecedented number of serial killers originated in this area. I live on a street of houses and my neighbors have gathered and tended their private lives while doing yardwork, falling over themselves or their work, or hauling away a likeable desk or dottery chair. They are much like me, staring at a tree, sitting alone in the grass, waiting for a plucky breeze or a narration (preferably from rain).
Secrets are their own destinations, carried within. Tourists aren’t invited. I have seen my overweight neighbor’s underpants when she bends over her beloved car, and I never want to see that again.
Secrets are foreign bones, radio forecasts (spirits swarming from the woods), and over time, resemble snow (white asterisks that advise air).
Secrets unbound: breathe out (a whirring noise) and leave with sad abandon, join in a parade with boys hoisting tubas, leaving their little shoes at the door, never reaching the vagrant sky, hold fists of coins in an exploding house, and apologize for what is self-inflicted and getting around to making us better than we were.
The World Can Be a Destination
Embarrassment used to be a form of social control telling us how to eat overlarge meat, the biography of a bad lawn, what to say to a nameless child, what to do in case of an indecent accident. Those times are done.
My horoscope suggests that I should be kinder or complete my sentences.
The Secret Life of Secrets
Secrets are busy clenching someone’s heart, consulting a nacreous moon, sprawling inside nightmares, replacing what you want with what you’ll get. They turn away from what is there and keep you awake at night. Their dreams are a theoretical childhood or what you are missing or something so deep and dark you can’t recognize it. I speak to the mouse in my kitchen drawer that’s no longer there because it seems visceral, stealthy, and suddenly dangerous. I say, “Go away.” But there is no response and I know that the mouse can’t leave because it’s already gone.
A Short Guide to Confession
My mother, who prefers not to be Jewish, has been to a church and confessed a handful of her sins to a priest and said she felt better afterwards. She was relieved. I am a rucksack of odds and ends, inadvertent bones, who doesn’t get much from confessing to others, but I do murmur and contemplate to myself and wonder why I didn’t say or do something else. I am wrong often. But to speak anonymously is what I have done much of my life, in my family, and it isn’t helpful. I take a deep breath and consult myself. I try to change for the better although I do see the attraction of speaking your episodes out loud and then handing them off elsewhere like naughty children banished to tents outdoors where you no longer need to claim them. They are separate, diminished.
I dissolve slowly with friends. I confess everything to my husband, even before he was my husband, but occasionally there are surprises. I want to be a person who eases into her surprises.