A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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I have been in many women’s groups: walking groups, writing groups, ritual groups, clothing-exchange groups, exercise groups, even a long-ago Tupperware group. So it wasn’t odd to hear Sarah talk, at a meeting of my oldest women’s group, about an entirely different group of women with whom she met. These women rode horses into the deepest part of the woods, and upon arrival, each told a secret.
As I listened to Sarah, I imagined the woods — a lattice of branches overhead, a shaded space where secrets could safely be told. I imagined one of Sarah’s friends, a dark, long-haired woman, patting her horse’s rump and revealing something like “When I was ten, I masturbated in the back seat of my parents’ car while we were eating McDonald’s. The grease on my fingers from the French fries felt really great.” (I imagined that particular secret because, back in the seventies, I’d heard someone tell the same story in one of those blow-your-mind therapy groups where secrets were strewn like dandelion seeds on the wind.)
I wondered what Sarah’s secrets were as I noticed how thin she’d grown, how the varicose veins in her legs bulged, how her aristocratic beauty had become muted. Stress, I thought. Too much stress. She was going through a horribly contentious divorce. I’d always disliked — no, hated — her husband, a chiropractor. The idea of him healing anyone was like the thought of my father tutoring French, and Dad always turned “merci beaucoup” into “merry buttercups.”
Sarah went on to say that she’d once taken her daughter, Liza, to the aforementioned deep, dark place in the woods and told her about the different kinds of orgasms.
“You did?” our friend Betsy asked.
“Yes,” Sarah said. “I wanted her to know that there are all kinds of orgasms. You know how some are turquoise, and others are red, or purple?”
“How old is Liza now?” Betsy pressed.
“Sixteen,” Sarah said.
“Did Liza tell you any secrets?” someone else asked.
“She told me she has no secrets from me,” Sarah said proudly. “Isn’t that great?”
No, I thought, it isn’t great. I thought of all the secrets I’d kept from my mother when I was a teenager, and how those secrets had allowed me to escape my mother’s hemmed-in fate. Each secret had been a stone on the path out of the neatly groomed garden that was family life in the fifties. Together, they’d formed a trail of forbidden acts: Smoking in the school bathroom. Stealing a pair of sunglasses from Macy’s. Sneaking into Carnegie Hall to hear Pete Seeger. Sleeping with my fiancé in my bedroom. Getting an abortion.
I wondered, if Liza ever did tell her mother a secret, whether Sarah would keep it. Since the divorce proceedings had begun, Sarah had looked unhinged, and had taken to saying strange things. That night in our group, for example, she went on at length about the solstice. Now, I like the solstice, too. But her appreciation of it involved vaguely mystical references to “winter’s blue light” and “paradigms.” I didn’t know what she was saying or, more important, why she was saying it. I kept thinking: This woman needs cradling.
Years before, I had tried to get close to her, and all I’d gotten was a WASPy cold shoulder. We’d gone on a road trip together while I was unhinged from my own recent divorce. I’d sat in the passenger seat, weeping intermittently and half listening to her exclaim about the beauty of the landscape: “Look at that old Victorian house!” “Did you see that tall hedge over there?” I wanted so much for her to touch me, to ask about the hidden roots of my despair. In the motel room, I undressed silently and lay down on one of the twin beds; she lay on the other. I wished she were next to me, wished I could feel her breath on my neck. She was the only woman I’d ever really wanted to lie down beside. But Sarah’s a passing breeze — there’s no way to hold her. She just blew right past me with her straight blond hair, high cheekbones, and full lower lip. She probably never even guessed how her face tormented me, how I loved her.
For some reason, Sarah’s talk about secrets kind of got to me. I kept thinking about it after I’d gone home.
“What are you thinking about?” my second husband, Charles, asked.
“Nothing special,” I said.
Fortunately, he’s not one of those intrusive types who pry an encyclopedia’s worth of information out of you only to use it against you at some later date.
We were lying in bed, and the light from a street lamp was coming through our bedroom window. It seemed somehow insolent, illuminating on my left thigh that ugly, bleached spot of skin shaped like Manhattan.
“Life can be so relentless,” I said.
Charles said nothing.
“I mean, it just keeps coming at you like . . .” I hid Manhattan with my middle finger. “Like headlights on the highway.”
Charles looked up from Harper’s, which he reads religiously, and said, “Uh-huh.”
“What’s your secret?” I asked my daughter the next day on the phone. We have a great phone relationship, and a so-so face-to-face one.
“What do you mean?” Beth asked.
I explained about Sarah and the horses and the forest and all that.
Beth paused, considering. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Don’t you have any? You must,” I countered.
Another pause. Then she said, “What are you doing today?”
She’s a tough one, that girl. She has secrets, and they’ll stay that way.
At eighteen I wrote in my journal, “It is useless to think that you can get what you really, truly need from others; it can only come from within.” I guess that goes for secrets, too. Other people’s secrets might seem interesting in some prurient way, but your own secrets are more essential; they’re the ones you must unearth. Whenever I hate myself for being critical and aloof, I take out that old spiral notebook filled with my neat, immature script, and I read that journal entry. In some strange way, this feeds my self-loathing — there I am at eighteen sounding like Queen Victoria. But it’s probably one of the truest things I’ve ever written, and I discovered it so young. That’s pretty good, I think. (Of course, I must confess, that very same year I wrote a poem titled “Poem” for my college literary journal; it began: “The sun has set on the celestial eyes of the placid night. . . .”)
I began meditating on secrets as I walked in the woods, noticing almost nothing around me, eyes to the ground so that I wouldn’t trip and break my nose. Secrets, I realized, are often related to sex, because we find it shameful. For example, a friend once confided to me that she hadn’t had an orgasm until age twenty-six, when she used a vibrator for the first time — a plastic, penis-shaped one she’d bought in Greenwich Village. And a woman in my encounter group in the late sixties told us she let her dog do it to her until she came. We were supposed to respond supportively to whatever anyone “shared” in that group — especially if it was a hard thing to talk about, like dog sex — but this time there was a prolonged silence. Finally, some kindly woman said, “Gosh, you are very brave to tell us that. Thank you for sharing.”
Some secrets inadvertently disclose themselves, making a ride into the woods on horseback unnecessary. For example, I never told my kids I’d had an abortion, but Beth discovered it anyway.
In the seventies, I took the kids to a family-planning clinic rather than to a doctor’s office. The clinic was poorly funded and laid-back, not uptight and orderly like most doctors’ offices, where they whisk you in and make you sit alone in a sterile, fluorescent-lit room where you can’t help but imagine the worst. The exams at the clinic were private, of course, but everything else was loose. So it wasn’t all that surprising when I came out into the waiting room and found Beth waving my file at me, her eyes blazing.
“That could have been me!” she said furiously.
I had to explain for days about “the accident,” telling her that she’d been planned and, yes, I’d wanted her and loved her to pieces and so on. In spite of all this, she was icy toward me for a week.
Months passed, and my friend Sarah kept the details of her divorce proceedings secret. I didn’t press her, even though I’d encouraged her to leave the bastard for years. I heard from other sources that it was hellish, that he was making it almost impossible. But the truth was I’d had it with Sarah’s la-di-da, Annie Hall approach to divorce, life’s finest misery: “Here, make it impossible for me to see my kids even half the time: la-di-da. Here, kick me again: la-di-da.”
My walks in the woods became even blinder as my mind, like some wobbly bird of prey, hunted for the secret of secrets. I almost killed myself striding along the swamp near my house when I got my toe stuck in the muck and crashed down on top of a gorgeous Canada lily. I rose to my feet, wiped myself off, and looked around to be sure that no one had seen me fall: embarrassment, sister to shame; shame, mother of secrets.
Taking a breath, I resumed walking, my head now filled with negative thoughts. These meditative walks were supposed to help me achieve “empty mind.” Ha! Thinking of meditation, I remembered Steve, a friend from the past. Once, I’d been to a party at his house and had to pee. The bathroom door was ajar, so I entered. In the tub was Steve, lying naked underwater, his straggly beard like a wet nest on his chest. I screamed, thinking he was dead, and he bolted upright, eyes wide, beard dripping, and began to cough. After apologizing, he explained that this was an esoteric meditation practice his teacher had given him.
So I discovered two secrets about Steve: he meditated underwater, and his penis was quite skinny.
Steve was a friend of my ex-husband, Dan. Dan had lots of friends, some of whom were women and, I later learned, were more than friends. A year after our separation, a woman he was seeing called me late one night and asked me to meet her; she was having a hard time with Dan and thought maybe I could help. It was a Monday night and I was bored, so I agreed. Once we were together, she took it upon herself to disclose a secret: I had not been paranoid when, while Dan and I were married, I’d suspected he was having many affairs. No, my intuition had been correct, this woman assured me. Then she did me the favor of telling me with whom he’d slept, and when, and where, and how. Without missing a beat, I returned the favor by telling her a secret — one that, I assured her, would help her leave Dan, which was what she knew in her heart she should do. Just the other week, I said, Dan had told me that he’d never loved her. “That ought to be helpful,” I said as I walked out the door.
I uncovered Dan’s biggest secret, the one that undid us after ten years of marriage, before he did. He was going on a trip to Europe because he felt he needed a change. Before he left, I dreamed of a French woman with long, straight black hair. Who or what sent that dream to me, I don’t know. But Dan had an affair in Paris with a black-haired French woman. He didn’t tell me this, of course; his penis, lying useless and pathetic, gave him away.
“Dan,” I said, “you had an affair in Paris. Just tell me.”
“That’s not true,” he insisted over and over. Months later, however, he finally confessed: “I met a woman in France and slept with her. I don’t love her, but I’m going back to see her.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I asked, quivering; I’d been badgering him to tell me what was wrong.
“I was afraid you’d kill yourself,” he said.
Well, that revelation led to our divorce, which was one of the most difficult, most wretched, most perfect things that has ever happened to me.
At the last meeting of our women’s group, a year after the one where Sarah had told us about her secrets group, she announced she was finally divorced. When we asked for details, she refused. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, then suggested that we talk about miracles instead — which we did: finding the right house, getting closer to a sister, being present at a father’s death, watching kids grow into responsible adults.
“You look so much better,” I told Sarah as I hugged her goodbye after the meeting.
“Really?” she said. Then she straightened her tall body, stretched her left arm up over her head, and wriggled her long fingers toward the ceiling of the dark hallway. Her gesture reminded me of the naked dance she’d performed in her garden for our group fifteen years before, how she’d gyrated and the sky had seemed to rotate with her. Now she leaned toward me and whispered that she’d just gotten a tattoo on her ankle.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
“I can’t show it to you now; I have to leave the bandage on for twenty-four hours.”
“Aw, c’mon. Please?” I said. I felt as if I were twelve.
She shrugged, bent down, and lifted the cuff of her jeans. I saw the perfect square of white gauze taped there.
“What’s under it?” I asked. “What does it look like?”
She gave a wry little smile. “Someday you’ll see,” she said.
No, I won’t, I thought, and I felt my heart sink, just a little. Sarah will always do that to me, and she will never, ever know.