UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
You think I will always be a dark little corner in which to keep your secrets safe. You think this because you look at me and you see an unremarkable creature – small,
Most people, and in this subset I am including you, think math is hard. But, for me, the inverse has always been true. Math is easy. Life is hard. However, in the case of you and I, the proof is trivial. I will tell you a secret of my own – the only one I have left.
You do not see me. I am not a constant – I am not 5 or 315.7 or 1,872,904. I am a variable. I am X. Solve for X. I dare you to try.
My back bends under the weight of your secrets. This is hyperbole – an extravagant exaggeration – but not far from the truth. What follows is a parable – a story with a moral lesson – and nothing but the truth.
Like all the secrets I keep – yours and so many others’ – they are the sum total of souls and the collective conscience of decades. I am a repository to the universe, a night drop for insomniacs, an oubliette packed with dirt.
I see by your self-effacing smiles that you do not believe me – that you are, at best, humoring me. And yet, behind your heavy eyes and your thick, heavy hands, I see tinges of worry. Perhaps, you think, you don’t know me as well as you should. What if I told what I knew? What, exactly, did you tell me?
You, and you, and even you – you told me a lot of things.
You told me you thank God your mother started having seizures because now you have to drive her everywhere and the time together has brought you closer than you ever were growing up.
You told me your wife cheated on you and that your younger daughter is not yours – though you love her more than the one who is.
You told me you steal knickknacks from open houses and leave them at the next place you visit. You can spend entire afternoons moving people’s mementos four blocks down the road.
You told me you watch the weather forecast, and an hour before a big storm, you give your neighbor’s howling hound a sheet of chocolate Ex-lax and wait for the dog to be let inside.
You told me that on Mondays the stainless steel travel mug that sits on your desk has two parts coffee and one part Grey Goose, but by Friday, the ratio has reversed.
You told me you squeeze super glue into the locks of cars parked across two spaces in crowded lots.
You told me, after we had made love seventeen times, that you were married.
Admittedly, that last one is not any of your secrets – it’s one of his. I keep his secrets, too, as hopeful bargaining chips that someday I might trade them back for my own.
I never wanted to be a secret keeper. I don’t approach strangers, I dislike small talk, and I hate being touched. These are my identity theorems. I am prime. And like the number 1, I thought I was the only one of my kind. But I was wrong. One should never extrapolate a line from a single point. To do so is madness. I know that now.
* * * *
I met him at Fisherman’s Wharf at the intersection of land and sea. An hour earlier, I’d hopped Caltrain in Palo Alto and ridden until it debouched on 4th. The City slept late on Sundays, and for a time, I had the streets to myself. Except on this morning, when I became aware of a figure stepping silently from the fog.
He walked to the edge of the pier and stood beside me. I pretended to watch the sea lions bask on the break wall, but instead I kept an eye on this strange man and wondered if I should leave. Even at close range it was hard to take his measure — all right angles and hard surfaces. A faded Berkeley T-shirt hung on him, draping pointy shoulders and a lean rib cage. He was too slim and too tall, making him appear skeletal. I had a sudden and strange desire to feed him.
The lines on his face made him too old to be a student, but his hunger, literal or figurative, I wasn’t sure, made him too poor to be anything else. In that moment, my thoughts wandered, and my hands, hanging idly at my sides, perceived a phantom touch, as if my fingers caressed his face, feeling his skull under the thin, tight skin of his cheeks, his forehead, his jaw.
As if I would ever touch someone I didn’t know.
“Nice time for a walk,” he said. “The masses will be out soon.”
I said something so quiet, so noncommittal, my words were lost in the fog. No matter. People didn’t care what I said, just what they were going to say next. So I waited.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“About what it’s all about.”
Ah. The Question. The one that, for all its formulae and logic, math could never solve. I said nothing.
“I’ve seen you here before. Most folk come to people watch. Not you, though. In fact, you’re not interested in people at all.”
Complete strangers did this – they talked to me. I’ve never understood it. Even when I didn’t encourage them, they still talked to me.
“You look like you want to hide,” he said. “You’re so small, I’m guessing you think you can slip between rays of light.”
I turned to go.
“Why do I come here, you ask?” he said, calling my attention back. “Like you, not to people watch. I don’t have to observe humanity to know what it’s about. Did you know there’s only two hundred kinds of people in this world? Master those, and everything else is...predictable. Except maybe you. You interest me.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came.
He shrugged. “See you later,” he said and took his long legs down the pier.
Just as he disappeared around a bend, the sun came out, brilliant and forceful, as if to make up for lost time. I looked down to check for my shadow.
* * * *
I ran into him again two weeks later, this time at Golden Gate Park, and I did what I never, ever do. I asked him a question.
He smiled and held out his bony hand. “Gareth. Nice to meet you–?”
“You shouldn’t trust people, Ariadne.”
“Who says I do?”
“I see it when I look at you. You trust me. You shouldn’t.”
* * * *
I began to take Caltrain into the City with the hope of seeing him. The spring was harsh and cold, a bitter reminder of the time I was wasting, away from my thesis. The sky sloughed sheets of rain, cleansing the atmosphere of irritants and interlopers. But I persisted, huddling under awnings, dashing through puddles, looking for him. Any sudden movement would catch my eye, but when he showed, and he never failed to, it was as if he’d stepped out of the fog from nowhere, his atoms assembling from the air. I didn’t have to look to know he was there. He complemented the space, filled the void, made the sum total always greater than zero.
Gareth told me he was a poet and I believed him. “I can see inside you. Into those compartments you keep alphabetized and dated. There are fires burning there,” he’d said.
With him I was not myself – or perhaps, I was myself for the first time. He had given me the permission to be bold. With him, I was greater than my starting value. I was a power of X.
I told him I was a secret keeper, a piece of truth I had thought was a secret in and of itself, but he said he’d known the first time he’d seen me. And he told me he was “a secret keeper,” too. “But I like to think of myself more as a collector. I am more than willing to acquire for next to nothing what others have not bothered to appraise.”
I laughed. “A modern day robber baron?”
“Absolutely. Haven’t I stolen yours?”
“Those I gave freely.” I trusted him to value them and to keep them safe. They felt good to be given in such a way, with such a purpose. I was part of another soul. I would be remembered. “The trick,” Gareth said, “is to make you think so.”
And I did.
I told him my secrets simply because he asked. Not directly – I would have been suspicious of such obvious clock work. But in me I think he sensed a challenge, an integral depth to plumb. And so we talked.
We’d stumble to Ghirardelli Square for steaming cups of cinnamon truffle mochas, warming our hands on the paper cups as we walked narrow side streets into North Beach, up Nob Hill, and through Union Square, always talking, talking, talking, and occasionally, bumping elbows, feeling an electric thrill of human contact.
We talked about everything, and I opened myself to him – all my fears, my hopes, my sins.
You seem surprised.
You never considered that I might have things to say. That I might have a life beyond what is convenient to you. Gareth understood, and for this kindness, I gave him my past, my present, my future. All my secrets were his to page through at his leisure.
Oh, don’t worry, I didn’t tell him any of yours, though he wanted those as well. The secrets I keep for others are my greatest burden, but also, my greatest pride, and my only recompense. Math might be the most elegant expression of time and space civilization can offer forth, but it has never revealed the basic truths we seek – I’ve seen infinitely farther into the unknown by observing the consequences of your desires, your guilt, your shame. That first day, Gareth had asked about the answer to “The Question.” But in reality, there was no answer, merely more questions.
Perhaps, Gareth knew this, too, and that’s why he collected secrets. “Tell me,” he would say, “a story about when you were growing up, Ariadne.”
He said my name as if no one else knew it and he was delivering it to me as a gift – as if it were his to possess. The attention was flattering and uncomfortable. The way he looked at me so directly and with such concentration – for me to allow that was a new thing. I was inexperienced in more ways than one. He thought I’d given him my secrets, but I knew I’d given him my heart. I trusted him. I believed in him.
I took him back to my graduate student housing on campus – a one-bedroom, one-bath concrete bunker with a kitchenette and a large sliding glass door to a balcony overlooking the cloud-covered hills. After we had made love on my tiny double bed we opened the windows to let in the cool, wet air and lay naked, entwined, and feeling amphibious. We stacked Oreos on our bellies and fed each other until we were sick of sweet. Then, we brushed off the crumbs and made love again, the saltiness of our skin ever more piquant from the sugar still stuck in our teeth. He ate me and I him. He tasted like tears. At the time, I thought that odd.
* * * *
The way he could materialize from nowhere was how he left. We’d shared a season, but by the time the fogs rolled out and the rains dried up, summer was here and he was gone. There was a note slid under my door. Twenty-two words to sum up his betrayal.
I can’t see you again. I have a wife. I should have told you sooner.
Thanks for everything.
And he never did see me again, if he’d ever really seen me at all. Perhaps, he only saw what he was looking for. I was convenient to him. He used me, took what he wanted, and left.
You understand that.
I am ashamed to say I looked for him. But it was as if he never existed. The universe had no record of him – as if no one had ever really seen him, either.
Perhaps that is the fate of a secret keeper. If so, I don’t blame you for never seeing the real me. Looking now, I hardly recognize myself – there are no markers, no unique identifiers left.
But I have changed. I have learned. Let my experience be a lesson to you. Keep your secrets safe within your heart, no matter how much they fester. The feeling is greater comfort than an uncertain void. But if you do still insist on sharing them, take the time to know whom you trust.
So, look at me now. If you do, if you really do, you will see a subtle refraction of light, a mirage-like shimmer, where my heart used to be. Where now I have a hole, a null set the size of my secrets, my trust, my love. If you can see this empty, brittle space, then you will, for the first time, see me – a function of discernable value. Once strong, once whole. Now, a derivative of X.
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