The Ex-Files

About two years into my marriage, I walked into the living room of our small apartment and saw my wife sitting on the couch. She looked at me. There was nothing dramatic about the way she looked at me, her features were the same, yet this was another face entirely. A face I'd never seen. I remember it as a face stripped raw--the face of her face, it seemed. I'm not certain anymore that my perception was true, but this is how it appeared to me at the time. She seemed suddenly a stranger. Eerily so, because everything else about this stranger was more than familiar, was a part of me, except for her expression--and, in particular, her eyes.

           As soon as we spoke, the stranger disappeared and the woman I thought I knew came back into focus. I don't remember what we said then, but I remember what I did next: I went into my writing room and closed the door behind me. (It was the biggest room in that four-room apartment, which tells you much of what you need to know about the marriage.) I sat down, disoriented, baffled, wondering how during our years of intimacy, I had never seen that face. And I said aloud to myself: "Who is she?"

           The question frightened me. That's putting it mildly. I didn't think to ask whether the difference was possibly in me that day. (Which tells you something else you need to know about the marriage--my side of it, anyway.) Didn't even ask why I was frightened. Not that "Who is she?" was such a bad question. I should have asked it long before. But my fear overwhelmed that crucial question, and drove me far from the possibility of an answer. In fact, I was so frightened that I instantly forgot the real question and made a lot of "meaning" out of it.

           That's what I do for a living. I'm a writer; I affix meanings to moments--often too quickly, by reflex. One makes a lot of excuses for such things, but the truth is: There are corruptions inherent to every profession, and to leap (or retreat) into "meaning" is one of the corruptions of mine. For it is no small crime to cram a moment with meaning as a substitute for experiencing that moment. I didn't know this then. I didn't know that most writing is just an attempt to control the unpredictable reverberations of an experience--to put a stamp on it, own it in some way, and then (not incidentally) sell it. So I would make a kind of legend of any event, replete with footnotes--psychological, mythological, sociological, and most of them, in retrospect, more or less illogical. Oh, they sounded impressive in conversation, my little meanings, and they looked good in print, but so what? They didn't help much in the long run, and that is the only test, isn't it? Because while I could speak and write some good words, I didn't know how to do the words. Which is to say: I didn't know myself. I was afraid to know myself.

           It is not possible to know another person when you are afraid to know yourself.

           So, to realize I did not know my wife was especially terrifying, because something in me sensed that I could only know her by first facing myself. I wasn't ready for that. My terror kept me from knowing both of us.

           No marriage can survive that much unknowing.

           As I write this I'm not interested in remembering the contortions of meaning by which I momentarily escaped what I had seen (or thought I'd seen) in our living room. I'm also not interested in trying to interpret her part in our break-up. I don't feel competent to do that. I didn't understand her enough when we were in the same room; so what can I know years after we split? I'm only concerned, now, with holding in my memory the unmasked face of the woman I loved and had married, and my fear of that face.

           I realize now that my fear was a form of respect--it measured the depth of my real respect for her, as opposed to my imagined respect. "Any human touch can change you," James Baldwin once wrote. My fear gauged both her capacity to change me, and my terror of that possibility. When you live in a profound and almost willful ignorance about yourself, then change is far more frightening than it would be if you stood on firmer ground. For not to know yourself is not to know where your real boundaries are, so you remain in constant fear of losing or giving away your soul.

           The soul is the only real medium of exchange. Every other currency is counterfeit. How much of your soul you're willing to know, willing to live out, willing to give; how much of another's you're willing to face, to partake of--that is the measure of how much you're alive. I didn't know where my honest self began or ended, didn't know what in me was real and what was faked, so I was always suspicious of what I was giving and terrified of what I might be losing. Not knowing these things about myself, how could I sense them in a lover? I would see little pieces of the other, and from those pieces I'd concoct--invent--a lover who suited me, until that person's reality would intrude upon my concoction, and then I'd be angry and afraid. "Who is she?" The real question was: "Who am I?" But, as I've said, I wasn't ready for that question. I pretended to be, and pretended well, but somewhere within, I knew I was faking. Somewhere within, we always know.

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