Michelle Herman, Telling the Story

We broke up over six kids—that’s how I always told the story. But of course that was no story. I don’t mean that it wasn’t fiction (although it wasn’t ), just that it wasn’t narrative. It was only the prelude to a punch line. Six kids? the person to whom I had said this would ask. What kids? Kids we didn’t have. Then the laugh. And we’d move on. Don’t we all have at least a couple of these set pieces in our repertoires? They are so handy. We use them as currency, trading them, collecting them—hoarding them or pressing them into the hands of others—and in this way we pretend to get to know one another. Without these conversational morceaux (the set pieces, the one-liners, the amusing anecdotes, the joking accounts of great chunks of our lives boiled down to a couple of cleverly honed sentences), what would we talk about? The good books we’ve read lately? What’s on TV? Who’s sleeping with whom? Well, we do talk about books and TV and who is sleeping with whom—and about movies and current events and the weather and our careers and marriages and children and gardens and dogs and other people’s careers, marriages, et cetera. But always, eventually, if we are talking to our friends—or to those we hope will one day be our friends, or to those we want to pretend for the moment are our friends—the talk comes back to the stories of our lives, or what pass for the stories of our lives, for this is what we tell ourselves means we are friends: that we tell each other where, and who, we’ve been. But so carefully. We tell what we have decided is all that’s necessary to tell, the parts we want to tell, the rehearsed and ready parts—separating meaning from story like yolk from white. We slip the story from its context, its underpinnings, its rich and complicated truths, its internal logic, its background and history—even its cast of characters—and we do this without thinking about it, because it is so easy to do. And what a paradox that is! Something we do both carefully and easily. *** It’s not possible to spend one’s life as a writer of stories without wondering (eventually, occasionally, even constantly) why we bother to tell stories at all. Why do we need to tell them? Why do people want to hear them? What is story for? But when one writes about one’s life, the paradox is flipped on its head: one must not be careful; the storytelling cannot be and it is not ever easy. *** I always said I would never write about J., for whom the line we broke up over six kids has stood instead of a real story (about him, about me, about who we were together and what it meant) for so many years. I’m not sure I promised—I am almost sure I didn’t promise—but I am reasonably sure I agreed when twenty years ago he said, You won’t write about me? Or maybe I didn’t agree; maybe I didn’t say anything at all. It was a rhetorical question, that much I do remember. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that I wouldn’t do as he said. This certainty of his—certainty, authority, conviction —was something I admired about him; it was no small part of why I fell in love with him, while I was in graduate school, and why I moved one state farther west, farther still from New York City, my home (which I still longed for, and to which I had been certain I’d return after graduate school), to be with him and his family (a move that stunned my friends and family); why I stayed with him for four years, despite our being so ill-matched in so many ways. He was Catholic, Cuban, Midwestern, farm-raised, politically conservative, younger than I, and—compared to me, compared to all my friends, in grad school and back in New York—almost absurdly straight-laced. He had had one girlfriend before me; I had nearly lost count of the young men who’d passed through my life by the time I was twenty-nine, when we met. I was Jewish, an old hippie. A city girl. But still…. And thus—with but still…; with to be with him and his family; with it was no small part of why I loved him—I begin to tell the real story, the real story as I know it, of what passed between J. and me. Twenty years. Perhaps, I say to myself hopefully, the statute of limitations has been exceeded. But I know better; I know that it doesn’t matter—that is, that even if there is no statute of limitations—and I suppose there is not—for the rhetorical question, You won’t write about me?, I want to tell this story now, and so I will. Because now it seems to me that this story, which for years I told myself was his, is mine too. Only mine too now because only now have I begun to see that what this story tells is part of how I have come to be who I now am—how I have come to be myself. *** It is so easy to turn one’s life into a series of set pieces that cut to the chase that entertain, that only entertain. So easy to miss the chance to provide a glimpse of understanding and knowledge of something bigger and wider than we—the tellers of our life’s stories—are. So easy to make things smaller; to make things manageable. To fail our listeners—to fail to bring them real news of ourselves. Which in turn means to fail to bring them some real news of themselves. It is so easy, too, to fail ourselves—to miss the chance, again and again, to be known, to be understood. And at the same time to more fully understand ourselves—to begin to understand what the meaning of our lives has been, and how we have come to where we are, to be who we are. To see where we are going. *** I saw J. recently, for the first time since 1989, when we broke up. That is of course what got me thinking again, after a very long time of quite consciously not thinking about him, about the years I’d spent with him. Not that I had ever forgotten. But I put it away, the way one does. I made its story the six kids.

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