Keeping Secrets

I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to post, but also I’ve been wanting to write a specific post, and it’s a difficult post to write because it’s about human behavior and relationships. It’s part of the thinking process for a book I want to write, eventually. And of course writers are thinking about these sorts of things all the time: what people are like, how they relate to each other. It’s about the secrets we keep for other people, and that other people keep from us — and specifically about women and men. It seems to me that there are women men keep secrets from, and women men tell secrets to. Most women, at different points in their lives, occupy both of these positions: secrets are kept from them, and they are told secrets.

I have a title for the book: The Malcontents. It’s about women and relationships and art.

This is what it looks like when you’re the woman from whom secrets are kept: You’re in college, and you’ve been living with him for two years. You have your own place, because otherwise your mother would freak out, but really you’re at his place all the time. You spend every night there, your clothes are there. Your books are there. Both of you are going to graduate next year, and you’ve talked about possibly getting married. It’s almost the end of the academic semester: you’re studying for exams. One night, he tells you that he’s been seeing your best friend, and wants to be with her. So, he’s breaking up with you. All right, you say, and immediately let him go, because the strongest thing about you is your pride, and who wants to be with a man who doesn’t want to be with you? And then, in private, you cry for several days, because you need to, and it’s cathartic, and how else do you deal with something like that? At the end of it, you feel free. And stronger than you did before he broke up with you, more yourself. After all, you’re young, and all of life is ahead of you. Yes, you’re angry, but for a reason he probably wouldn’t understand: that he turned you into a cliché, the girl whose boyfriend slept with her best friend. I mean, it’s so 80s movie.

A week after you broke up, he tells you that he made a mistake and wants to get back together. You agree, warily. You listen as he breaks up with your former best friend, over the phone. It gives you no satisfaction — instead, you feel sorry for her, because she will now be the girl who was broken up for, but only for a week, which is yet another movie characters. What a mess. You’re together for several months, until you complete your law school applications, and one of them is for the University of Virginia, and another is for Harvard, and you both know that you’re going to get into Harvard, but he asks you to stay at the University of Virginia, so the two of you can be together. That night, you break up with him. Because seriously, sleeping with your best friend is one thing, but asking you to give up Harvard is another thing entirely. He is asking you to be something other than yourself — your ambitious, academic self. And that’s simply not going to happen. Years later, he sends you an email apologizing for the incident and saying he should have married you, and you tell him to say hello to his mother, whom you always liked. Because what else is there to say? You got over it, and him, a long time ago. You’ve been living your life, being yourself — the self you could not have been with him. The thing about being hurt is that you get over it, you know?

This is what it looks like when you’re the woman to whom men tell secrets: They’ve been doing it often, lately. You’re not sure why, except that you’re grown up now, and you have long red hair, and eyes that have seen things. You think it’s the hair and eyes. Often, they flirt with you online, although you seldom respond. The Englishman flirts with you for several weeks before telling you he has a girlfriend. But things aren’t going well, they’re probably going to break up, so can you keep talking? He needs someone to talk to. Only don’t tell anyone, please. He doesn’t want your mutual friends to know. (If you didn’t have mutual friends, you wouldn’t be flirting with him. You’ve seen those 80s movies.) You agree, warily. So you keep talking, and try to be supportive as they do indeed break up, because after all you’re friends, right? And from what he tells you, the relationship was awful, awful. You don’t understand how he could have stayed in it. You’re an ocean apart, but that summer you’re going to be visiting his village in England. He talks about the places he wants to show you. He asks about the possibility of a relationship, but you say it’s too soon — it’s only been a month, the situation seems unstable. Sure enough, while you’re traveling, he tells you that he’s been talking to her, that he wants to try again. After all, they’ve been together for a long time.

You assume that when you arrive at his village, you won’t see him, because the situation is too complicated. But no, he wants to spend time with you, and he wants you to meet her — because otherwise she’ll be suspicious about the two of you together. (You don’t understand why — he’s not allowed to have female friends?) You agree, because you’re supposed to be friends, right? Also for what is probably the worst of reasons: curiosity. Is she the woman he described? So you sit in the kitchen, eating her cake, which is rather good cake, actually. Pretending you haven’t been talking to him for months and months, although you know things about him that she doesn’t. And know things about her, too. You can’t quite wrap your mind around the situation. Why is he doing this? Is it a sort of revenge, one she’ll never know about? What sort of relationship is this? She seems ordinary, not the angry, violent woman he described. But you never know. It’s a small village, like something out of a BBC special, and you have mutual friends, so you learn things even though you’re not there for long. Like, that you weren’t the only one — there was another woman, whom she also doesn’t know about. When the two of you talk, because you’re still ostensibly friends, you’re distant, and he says he wants to meet with you alone. So you go walking together, and you want to ask, what in the world are you thinking? What is all this? But he talks about how she’s not really trying, his financial problems. It’s a very short talk. Later that night, he sends you a message. He wants to be “just friends” because you’re too distracting. You reply, what? We’ve been just friends ever since you got back together with her. We’ve been just friends all this time. That is when he stops talking to you. After you leave the village, you send a message saying goodbye, I hope we can someday be friends again, all best wishes. Of course, he does not respond.

And this is where you think, I’m going to have to write a book, about people and relationships, because clearly there are things I don’t understand. Was he essentially innocent, being impulsive, not thinking through the consequences of his actions? Or was he the sort of person who thinks that if you’re not caught, it doesn’t matter? Or, most likely, both?

You’d think it would be worse to be the woman from whom secrets are kept, because you’re the one being betrayed. But actually, I think it’s worse being the woman who is told secrets, because you’re made complicit in a betrayal. The first you can let go, the second continues to bother you because you’re still keeping secrets. I know from experience how keeping your own secrets makes you feel: heavy, sluggish. As though you’re swimming through mud. Keeping other people’s secrets has the same effect. And while you can tell your own secrets, you can’t tell someone else’s. You have to keep faith with the faithless.

And I will probably get into these situations again, make bad decisions again, because there is something in me that gets into trouble: it’s the writer, who does things simply to experience them. Who sat at that kitchen table thinking, I’m going to put this in a book. Who lay in a CAT scan machine, tubes running of my body, broken out in hives because it turns out that I’m allergic to the fluid they pump you full of, to do a CAT scan. Doctors all around me, trying to make sure I didn’t die within the next hour. Taking mental notes, telling myself to remember, because I wanted to remember what it was like to almost die. That’s the sort of personality trait that will get you into trouble.

(Obviously, the above is based on personal experience, but details have been omitted or changed to protect the guilty. Yes, I’m still keeping secrets.)

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10 Responses to Keeping Secrets

  1. Love love love the title THE MALCONTENTS….

  2. So needed to read this.

    I’m going through something similar right now, except I was the one who secrets were kept from, and possibly, I was also one of the secrets…if that makes any sense (I sort of knew but didn’t care, since we were “just friends” anyway).
    And I was wondering a few days back why I keep making these mistakes, in slightly different fashions but nevertheless bear similarities to each other. Which was saddening then (not so much anymore), but of course, one day, I’m sure somehow this experience, as some of the rest, would make its way into my stories (actually, the WIP I’ve been working on since last year was inspired by a relationship).

    How is it said again? When life gives you lemons, you make a story out of them. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. You never know when your thoughts are just what someone needs to read!

  3. Rhys says:

    Ooh, I think I was in that village myself last month! And it certainly is like something out of a BBC ‘special’… The rest of it is none of my business to speculate on though!

  4. jillderiu says:

    great post!!! could relate to everything you wrote…so well written… wonderful.

  5. haddayr says:

    “it’s worse being the woman who is told secrets, because you’re made complicit in a betrayal.” YES.

  6. Dana says:

    So. If Blue Beard’s wives were the kind who don’t get told secrets (and frankly, I think it’s more about him than them), what princesses, queens, maids ARE told secrets? And what happens to them? There must be archetypal folk/fairy tales…. 🙂

  7. Katie Paul says:

    This, this is one of those pieces where I nod my head and say “me too”. The best kind of writing makes me remember I’m not alone. Thank you.

  8. Craig says:

    Nice to get a different perspective on relationships. Thank you for sharing, Dora. This has also been something which I have given much thought, but have yet to figure out. My question though is, why do women do it?

    A man cheats, society doesn’t bat an eyelid. It’s become commonplace, even expected. After all, there have been many high profile cases over the years, often centered around men in power. In almost every occasion, it’s men that take the blame (and I’m not saying they shouldn’t), yet the “other woman” is often seen as the victim (again, I am not saying she isn’t)?

    I find that, oftentimes, when dealing with cases of infidelity, the “other woman” is usually aware that the man is either married or attached to someone, yet still she sees him. That doesn’t make the man innocent, not in the very least, but I do wonder why women still do it.

    When a man cheats, society blames his lack of control, his sexual urges, etc. It’s funny, one can sometimes be mistaken in thinking that men are merely mindless beasts solely concerned with sex. But why do women continue seeing the man when she knows that he is married, or has a girlfriend? Sometimes I think it’s a combination of male audacity and female insecurity. Perhaps it’s just some twisted law of nature where men are wired to be confident and proactive, while women insecure and diffident.

    This is what I have. I wish there was a more sophisticated reasoning.

  9. Laura says:

    Pretty more there’s more to relationships than that, Craig. Everyone just wants to be loved at the end of the day. Be happy and stay foolish, Dora. That’s what Steve Jobs said. He seemed like a smart guy 🙂

  10. Jay says:

    musta been some helluva guy to snag a woman with a phd. and on facebook.

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