The Art of Keeping Secrets

The Art of Keeping Secrets

Credit: Sofie Praestgaard

Our bedroom is small, but we like that. It’s the only room in the apartment that is, in every sense, ours. The living room, in contrast, might be owned by us but belongs in so many ways to whoever might or might not come over. But our bedroom is ours and ours alone. We never let anyone else see it.

Four hours ago I found out she is cheating on me. Now the sun is at the perfect angle so that the amber light of the nearing sunset has found its way through New York and into our room. Our desk faces the window so she is illuminated. It is beautiful, but tonight the light feels like the unwanted gaze of someone in an apartment across the street. I want to close the blinds to feel alone with her while she works, but I can’t bring myself to get up or ask her to close them for me.

When she thinks she taps her left pinky on the side of our keyboard, as though she were keeping a rhythm going in her mind that was in constant danger of disappearing. Her shoulders are relaxed yet her neck is tense and her head is forward. She will develop neck pains in ten years or so. The bones in the back of her hand dance when she types, in tune with the muscles at the base of her forearm. The same muscles I like to put my hand on when she runs her fingers down my body or through my hair.

I found out when I looked through one of the journals she keeps under our bed. The red one. I don’t know why I did it, really. Vague curiosity maybe. I do it every so often. They are the one thing in our room I’m not allowed to see. And yet she keeps them here, in our space. Was it whim? Childish spite? I had no suspicion of anything, never. I’m not sure what I wanted to find.

I remember the day my first relationship ended. My girlfriend broke up with me in our high school parking lot with a car full of her friends not quite out of sight. I thought we were going to the park. The worst part was how the same face that had cheerfully kissed me good morning a few hours earlier had become cold. “I’ve been thinking about this for a couple weeks,” she’d said.

The worst and best part of being married is that everything is a compromise. It’s impossible to be completely comfortable around another person. But what I give up in comfort I gain in assurance. All discomforts must be voiced. So when there is no fighting I know that we have succeeded in creating a novel way of life suited, not for one person, but for two.

But this is only true if there are only two people. If there is a third not all discomforts will be voiced. She won’t tell me the next time I bring home food she doesn’t want. Instead she will wait for her second person to take her out to eat. Gradually more discomforts accumulate until compromising on any of them feels like an impossible task, and the marriage ends on the basis of issues that were never raised.

Now I feel like an inexplicably familiar stranger has wandered into my room and opened my laptop. A beautiful stranger, and in a way I’m admiring her more intensely because I’m worried I might not get the chance to admire her again. Does she not like it when I watch her work? Was this the first unvoiced discomfort? She watches me in the same way. I don’t remember whose idea it was to have our desk next to our bed. It sounds like something I would have suggested, but it feels like something we agreed on. I admit I feel a certain ownership when I watch her. The body and the work are hers, but the view is mine. And yet the ritual is, without a doubt, ours.

Why did she love me? We met in grad school two weeks after her father killed himself. She didn’t tell me until our second date, and even then she only mentioned it to explain why she had been so reserved. I hadn’t noticed. She was the smartest person in our program and I had asked her to dinner just to hear her speak.

When she finally opened up to me about her father we were in bed together for the first time. She was not remorseful. She had grown up in a small town and yet they had only managed to share three genuine moments in her entire life. When he died the news spread to her childhood friends before it got to her. There were no lingering regrets or missed opportunities, in fact the relationship had wrapped itself up neatly with a few years to spare. If anything, she was uneasy about her callousness and worried that it was unusual. Before me, she had no one to confide this worry in.

Later that night she asked me, “How would you feel if you knew how your life ended?” We were naked. She was on her back and I was on her side, playing with the hair on her arm.

“Like how I died?”

“Not just that. How successful you were. How successful other people thought you were. How much money you made. How many lives you touched. The location, time, cause of death. How you felt about your family. How you felt about your spouse. How they felt about you. Everything.”

The odd question required several kisses to be thoroughly considered. “I would like that,” I ended up saying. “I actually think that would relieve a lot of my existential stress.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Me too. I mean, I would prefer to know. I don’t really care how my life goes. I’m good at being confident when I make decisions, but I’m a wreck when I’m not sure about the consequences. If I knew how everything was going to go, I think I could glide through life so much easier, even the worst parts. There would be no stakes.”

“Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.”

Now I’m thinking through how the confrontation would go.

“How long have you been seeing him?”

“Who?” she would ask, even though the tone of my voice let her know exactly who I meant.

“The guy you’re sleeping with.” It would be hard to say.

“Right.” And then she’d say something intelligent that would settle the whole thing. I wouldn’t be able to come up with an adequate response. If I acquiesced, I would eventually come up with some response that wouldn’t leave me alone until I brought it up, and the cycle would repeat. But if I chose to argue with her she would win, and then she’d be more irritated for having to argue with me, and the cycle would repeat.

“And how do you know about that anyway?” she’d ask.

“I –”

“Read it.”

“Yes.”

“That’s crossing a line, you know.”

“Yes.”

“How could you?”

“How could you?”

And then the fighting would begin.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. She looks at me while her hand moves to touch my shoulder.

I let her. “Just the usual.”

“Have your soles come in the mail yet?”

“No, but I haven’t walked a lot today so my feet aren’t bothering me too much.”

“Why not?”

I should have just said I was in pain, that wouldn’t need an explanation. What gave me away? Was I mumbling what I was thinking? Is it all out in the air now? I shrug.

“Alright,” she says, frowns, and goes back to work.

Perhaps I’m wrong about the whole thing. I mean, I’m not wrong. But being wrong is a happy thought.

In high school a close friend of mine’s mother had early onset dementia. As far as she knew he never left the house, not even to go to school. One year, for Christmas, she put toast on the tree instead of ornaments. “The mold is the decoration,” he explained.

One day we were sitting on the cliff of a canyon that only high school students and drug addicts frequented. “How do you lie to her?” I asked.

“Well I know the truth would be worse on her. Yeah, I sneak around to live my life, but we always have dinner together. And this way she gets to live in a real home. I’m not sure it’s even lying. I mean, do you really think she believes it? It’s like a secret that we both keep so she can be happy.”

“Sure. But I meant, like, how do you do it? I’m a terrible liar.”

“Oh,” he smiled. Then he paused as if he’d never considered the question before. “How do you feel when you lie?”

“Horrible. Like I’m withholding part of the world from someone who deserves to have it.”

“So the trick is, well, you have to train yourself to feel the same horrible feeling when you tell the truth. That way they’ll never know the difference, and you’ll have as much time as you need to think up the world they deserve to live in.”

“I really do think something’s wrong,” she says, moving onto the bed.

“No. Don’t you have more work to do?”

“I finished, now tell me. Please.”

I glance at the desk and the laptop is still open. She isn’t done. “I guess I feel lonely. I don’t know why, so it doesn’t feel productive to talk about.”

She frowns again. Is it feigned? “For how long?” She settles into her place across from me in the bed. Our bed, which has a second headboard that we made from scratch so we could look across at each other while we’re reading.

“Just today.”

“Can I help?”

“I don’t know.” Now she moves to my headboard. She is waiting for me to say something. “I think I’m stressed about your mother.”

“My mom? We haven’t talked to my mom in years.”

“Yeah, but she hasn’t talked to us in years either,” I add. “Maybe she’s mad at me.”

“And why would it matter if she was mad at you?”

“I don’t know. She never wanted you to end up with me. It feels weird to think I took away what she thought would be best for you.”

“Anything we took away from her we did because I knew what was best for me. And why is this bothering you anyway?” She begins to parse my hairline.

“It’s hard to say why something’s on your mind, it could just be–”

“You’re not married to my mother.”

“Thank God.” A moment goes by where we simply smile at each other. “How are you?” I ask, realizing I hadn’t.

“I’m alright. A bit lonely too.”

“I suppose it’s the season for it. Seasonal depression and all that.”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“Can I help?”

“I don’t know if you can. If I had an idea I would have said something already. But I haven’t thought of anything.”

If I don’t tell her now I never will. I’ll come home tomorrow and think I already survived one day. She’ll smile at me, something I would have taken for granted yesterday. Perhaps the knowledge will make me more grateful for her. Eventually it’ll become just another fact of life, and only in the short moments of greatest intimacy will I remember that it’s all a lie.

But could I really do it all again? Come home to an empty apartment? When I find someone else, if I find someone else, the relationship would devalue the marriage I already had. Every kiss, every date, every day would take place in the shadow of the life I’m currently living. Doesn’t she feel that way about her second person?

But maybe if I tell her I know, she won’t see him again. What’s one stain on a life spent together?

I hear my younger self disgusted by my hesitation. I hear my parents yelling. I don’t even care about their judgement and yet they’re still in my head. I can even hear what her voice would sound like if I cheated on her, sadness trying to hide under rational disappointment, but given away by her surprise. Somehow I know how everyone else would react in this situation but I have no idea what to do. My right foot is tapping against the bed-frame and I didn’t realize it was making a sound until now.

“My journal was out of place today.”

My foot stops. “The red one?”

“The red one.”

She feels the tension in my arms and moves a single finger up and down each one, claiming both.

“Alright.”

“Alright.”


Soljan Fjelstad

is a student at NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.

All contributions from Soljan Fjelstad

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