Every once in a very rare while someone can really surprise you by proving that you are known by another perhaps better than you even know yourself. You have been figured out, solved like a mystery when you thought you were – at best – a hilarious comedy and – at worst, but at least interestingly – an antihero tale veering off of a steady course.
It’s not that you have been actively trying to fool yourself and you never once intentionally presented a false version of yourself to someone you might care about, but you are human after all and so you lug out the stories about your past and your present that might make you appear special, solid, sane. You reveal in your daily discussions things that are entirely accurate: that you are ambitious and analytical almost beyond what is healthy. You describe the things you are passionate about and your words come out of you like they are lyrics because you know that you will fight like hell until the entire world is singing your song. You talk about the people you trust and adore and the cadence of your vocal expression indicates that the loyalty you feel towards these people could never be compromised, that you won’t allow it to be.
You know a lot because it’s always been terribly important to you to be intelligent. That kind of desire was ingrained in you early by parents who were lifelong academics, people who were apparently born with a tremendous amount of patience. Legend has it that you asked approximately six million questions each and every day the moment you learned to speak and those questions were answered – every single one of them – by two exhausted adults who knew doing such a thing might make their kid smarter even though they probably desperately hoped for some fucking peace and solace and quiet every now and then. From the time you can remember your life in little silver slivers of fleeting memories, you know that you wanted to read. You carried around books with you everywhere. You were someone who could read on a train or on a bus or in the backseat of a car and you never complained once about it giving you a headache. Both of your parents supported your appetite for books, but your father took it a step further and purchased you a small flashlight to keep underneath your pillow so you could read your stories late into the night. That flashlight became your very first bit of contraband and you guarded it the way you’d later guard the more salacious contraband that you allowed to enter your home. You could never fully get the hang of reading while lying in bed on your belly so that the light would shine downwards instead of right at the crack of the bottom of the bedroom door. Sometimes your mother would see the yellow light shining from a place that should have only been illuminating darkness and she’d pop her head into your room and tell you to go to sleep – but she never took away your flashlight and you loved her for that. The flashlight disagreement was probably not the reason your parents ended up getting divorced, but you wondered if it could have been a contributing factor for a short while.
You went to your father’s college campus with him at least once a year and you couldn’t sleep the night before due to the kind of rumbling internal excitement you normally only felt the night before an Islander playoff game or a new episode of Little House on the Prairie aired. You sat at your very own desk in a classroom that had a lot of chalk dust but no pictures hanging on the walls like your own classroom did and you watched your father talk about Sammy’s decision in Updike’s A&P and yes, you felt proud, but you also felt inspired. You became voracious in your explorations of literature and of genre study and when someone you respect recommended a book once to you, you told him that it had a New Journalism kind of feel. He asked you what New Journalism was and you explained the rise of the movement and the conventions most associated with it and you didn’t have to hop on Google to make sure that what you were saying was accurate. You’re so smart, he told you – and the comment made your head and your heart swell with something you could swear was pride because you were too stupid then to know that some men are just not all that attracted to intelligence.
You learned how to come to terms quickly with loss that could never ever be reversed and you had to internalize finality long before you could even spell the word. You relied on pure and unadulterated logic to move you down the winding path of disbelief to acceptance and logic became your new best friend and your most vicious enemy all at the same time. Employing logic to a head problem solved things quickly. Using logic to burrow your way out of something resembling heartbreak led you right back to that square center of pain every single time because you searched for answers that didn’t exist – and you were always someone who craved a reason.
But you kept all of this muted somehow and you would only allow certain people to really see the actual you because what was real was also flawed and you became a master of proper presentation. You let your dimples lead the way and your lilting laugh and your too-sweet-for-your-own-liking voice became your soundtrack. You were asked by dozens of people throughout the years why you were always so happy and you finally developed a list of answers to slide you out of that conversation quickly:
I just know that things could always be worse.
I slept really well last night.
My day just moves more quickly when I smile.
I finally got rid of that pesky gonorrhea.
Actually, that last response is one I’ve used periodically to explain long stretches in my life where I’ve been single, but it would probably work for the Happy Question too. It’s simply designed to shut the other person up as quickly as possible, and false declarations of an STD do that job beautifully.
You have known some people for decades and you see many of them almost every day and the majority of them still know next to nothing about you because you want it to be that way. You do not discuss your deep dark secrets with them and you have absolutely no desire to know even one of theirs. You like interactions that do not feel messy and so you intentionally keep things surface with all but a few and you always know where the door is when you are inside of any room.
But the people you trust implicitly know almost everything. They know that you go through quiet times where you need to reflect and they realize that you search for meaning when sometimes it doesn’t exist. They know that you have opinions – really solidified ones – and that you can’t completely stop yourself from sharing them. They know that telling you a story will probably take a while because you will stop them several times to clarify some of what they are saying so you understand the situation completely because you really care about what it is they’re going through and you might know what New Journalism is or the title of the very first moving image ever captured onscreen, but you don’t know shit about things like business or the politics that takes place at a school bus stop or why religion really matters. Still, you invest in a scenario – even if it belongs to somebody else – because you like to think that you can help, even if it’s just by listening.
You never developed the capacity to tolerate fools and you know now that you probably should have because the world is full of fools. You never learned how to respond immediately over the phone when you have been shocked or insulted and, though you recover really quickly, you berate yourself for that brief moment of stunned silence that gives you away every single time. You get tricked sometimes, but it’s far less than anyone would think. In fact, you usually know full well what’s going on, even when you stay quiet and pretend something was your idea when you know that it wasn’t. You know that you can and will blame yourself for a lot, but wanting to be a kind person will never be one of them.
You were told the other day that you don’t like being told “no,” and that nobody enjoys such a thing, but you are someone who really can’t abide by such an action so you just choose not to listen to the decree. You were told that you become internally ferocious if someone dares to tell you that you can’t do something you know you most certainly can do – and that you use that fuel to let yourself turn cold so you can run through the flames that you had nothing to do with setting ablaze. You knew these things about yourself but you also didn’t know them – and you certainly never believed that anybody else could spot these marks inside of you.
You have been found out. You have been discovered by someone you didn’t know was an explorer.
You wonder now where the treasure is buried.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.