Des passes me the dish of julienned beets, “They are fresh, not from a can,” she assures me. “Have you had them before?”
“I’m sure I have sometime, I’d love to try them.” I take a tiny spoonful.
My boyfriend says, “You’ve had beets before, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I think so. I’ll see.” I nudge him sharply under the table as he starts to go on about whether or not I’ve had beets.
I tell him later in the car, what I meant was, I dislike beets. Unless they’re pickled. I’ll see if these are pickled. What I meant was to be polite at a dinner given by his first girlfriend, now a music teacher with a terrific husband, a darling child who loves my American accent, a lovely woman who welcomes me and is sweetly and energetically committed to being unthreatening.
Social lies. Or perhaps, social truths. Self-censorship.
I have party stories. The time I faced down a traffic mob in Calcutta. The time I jumped on a car hood to stop the driver honking in Montenegro. The time in Croatia when I kicked a kid and acted like I hadn’t. I did these things. I tell them with the benefit of hindsight, of knowing now that traffic mobs often kill the driver they deem at fault, that the police never came, the kid blamed his friend and his mother didn’t catch me.
My friends were there, they know the facts. What I tell is feeling. (Frustration, in all three cases.) My friends who weren’t there get the facts, organized, with the details phrased nicely and me cast as the anti-hero, a role I’m comfortable in, told with flow and creating feeling.
It’s still the truth.
I journal, privately. I journal online. Once, years ago, I find out in public that my then-boyfriend is dating my employee, and I write:
I am hot, I am cold, I am shaking, but Writer Brain takes over and like my ideal mother takes my hand, turn away, don’t look, come over here and we’ll sing a song together, play a game, and that’s the part of me sane enough to catalog reaction, note the increased pulse, the urge to vomit, the mindless chatter.
…Writer Brain slaps me, soothes me, bites my tongue, trots out the metaphor parade, analyzes the sentence structure and corrals this horrorshow into words. Writer Brain rummages the files and chooses poems to quote, past incidents to mention, parallels to draw. But underneath the poems and the past and the parallels my blood is one long icy scream and even when the others head for their own rooms and only C. is left to hide my feelings from, I am cold enough even under blankets to turn on the heat.
And transfer it to the Internet, unedited. In my notebook, it blew off steam, processed feelings, armed me against the devastation of betrayal. Online, it garnered sympathy, and a fair number of “serves you right” comments from people who’d been reading my honest, anonymous blog, and seen the shit I’d been up to myself. Self-censorship would have protected me. Rawness let me write. Craft was the tool that made it worth reading, more than an angry, bitter woman bitten by karma raving the venom that only her friends should hear. Craft let me analyze without self-judgment, receive the serves-you-rights with rueful acknowledgement, get over myself and, eventually, over him. Craft is the therapist who’s always there.
My father died. That’s a fact. My feelings are that I was glad I was the favorite, and I can tell that in a proud way that’s a little mean or a humble way that’s a little ashamed. These are alternately and sometimes simultaneously true. Must I always present them both? Is it self-censorship if Tuesday I admit to one, and Friday I write an essay about the other? Is it hiding my real self if I think about those feelings for a long time and do a rough draft first? How much concealment comes with good structure, with choosing a way to tell the story, polishing the voice? Is craft also distance? Or does it open up our veins, cut cleanly to the quick, let us tell the truth as truthfully as we can?
Words are my makeup, my manicure, my designer frock. Sometimes the model is elegant and icy, coming down a marble staircase. Other shoots are in an alley, Gaultier tulle flowing into the garbage can as the model steadies herself, pulling the heel of her Prada stiletto out of her hem, liquid liner halfway down her cheeks. Underneath is a nice Slovenian girl from a good home, with seven years to make all the money her family needs for life. Underneath she is an ice queen, she is a trash girl, she just wants to go home and eat dumplings again. The practice of these faces as effects does not remove them from her heart.
There is a me that is raw. I write her. There is a me that is studied and careful, and I write her. There is a me that wears rubber gloves to do the washing up and remembers how my boyfriend likes his coffee. And when I can make her interesting—though perhaps, by virtue of mere contrast, she already is—I’ll write her, too. All of these girls are worthy, are my self, are my soul. All of these girls deserve my best words, my most careful structure, my cleanest voice, not to hide behind, but so that you can know them, know them as well as I know them, know them as well as you know the me that you already know.
Are we real friends or polyester?