I don’t know if I should be writing all this. I wonder if it’s even my story to tell.
Some writers joke that to know us means that you might wind up in a story. Some say that being written about is the inherent risk of being loved or known by someone who tells stories. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it, if telling these stories is worth the possibility of losing love, of damaging relationships. It may be cheaper than therapy but we’re not talking about cheap, this is a different kind of value.
I told Sam that I’d been feeling conflicted about writing these stories about my mother’s illness. Sam adopted an unusual tone I didn’t immediately recognize. “Do you feel like it’s good for you to write these stories?” he asked. I imagined his eye brows cocked as he sat sipping tea at the granite counter of his cold grey Los Angeles loft.
Everything about this caught me off guard. I laughed, feeling awkward and deffensive “I’ve never heard you use that tone with me,” I paused to think. “You are speaking to me the way I speak to you.”
He was surprised and laughed uneasily “Oh. I don’t know why. I don’t know what’s different.” He cleared his throat, was quiet for a moment, then tried again in that strange unfamiliar tone, “Do you feel like it is good for your writing?” There was something that sounded like entitlement in his voice and it would have been comical if I had not been so upset. I thought for a moment that this was the way he sounded at readings and knew immediately the origin of the tone he had adopted.
“Sure it’s good material but that is not what I am talking about!” I breathed, my voice strained with exasperation and moral superiority. “This is a conversation about ethics! Is it okay to write publicly about my mother? To share the ugliness and shame and the illness? Is it ablest to make it funny because it hurts so much when it is not even my illness? When it’s not my disease? Can I make jokes about holy- popsicles and seitan-ists because it is my story too or am I being a bad ally to person with a more severe and debilitating disability than I have?”
There was silence on the other end of the phone line save for the comforting rhythm of Sam’s breath and the quiet of his cavernous apartment. I heard him open the lid of a ceramic tea pot and pour boiling water over a bag of night time herbs. I heard the swish of the water, the only sound in his sparsely furnished apartment. I’ve often thought that Sam wished for his apartment to appear vacant; that he wished it could look as though nobody lived there.
I wished that I could lay my head against his skinny chest.
“Oh.” he said, his confidence deflated. Sam’s new tone indicated that he did not consider himself qualified to provide a solution.
“That was your professor voice.” I said, still feeling childish and indignant.
He laughed, shyly. “That is interesting. I didn’t know I had a professor voice.” I could hear him smiling but now he sounded troubled. “I suppose it makes sense but I didn’t know I spoke to my students differently. That I had a different tone.”
“Of course you do. It’s okay. It was sweet. Your little ears perked up and you said to yourself ‘A writing problem!? I know just how to fix that!’“
He laughed again, this time with joy. “Yes, I suppose that is how I felt. ‘A writing problem! Now that would be something I could help her with!'”
I smiled, my chest swelling and I wished for the thousandth time that I could pull his bony face between my breasts and hold him there until his glasses fogged up and he gasped for breath. I wished he’d rest his hands on my hips until he tapped me lightly to let me know that he must breathe. But he was far away and no longer mine to love.
I loved it when he talked about literature because I got to listen and be a good learner and marvel at his brilliance but most of the time it would seem that he listened to me. I realized then that when we spoke he was almost always acting as a learner, head cocked, leaning forward, straining to listen, eager to glean from me new secrets about himself.
“I feel less anxious now, somehow, after talking to you.” I told him.
It was true that I felt less anxious but more yearning.
“I, I’m glad.” he said.
“Thank you, Sam. Have a good week. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Good bye, Ofelia!”
The lilting voice he uses each time he says my name confirms that he still loves me.
I always make sure I say goodbye before he does because he is the one who broke up with me and I dislike the small shame of losing his attention before I am ready to let him go.
It is a micro-rejection, an unpleasant reminder of the imbalance of power that is the result of loving someone who is unwilling to risk being loved, but that’s okay for now, I have a lot of other things to worry about.