When I look at myself in the mirror I still see little glimmers of her. Not as much these days yet, I know she’s always there trying to whisper in my ear.
She’s like a snake in the reeds who slithered out into the open carrying between her fangs, what I wanted to keep hidden from the world.
She is me and I am her. We are the same being and we both have a secret.
I have a secret.
Like all secrets, Its wrapped into layers of lies, deceit, resentment, anger, shame and love. Also, like all secrets…it came out.
I was twenty-five when it started. I was thirty when it ended.
My past may not define me, yet my secret does and it always will.
Do I use my real name? “No. Pen name… Always a pen name. Or just my first name, could we just use my first name?”
“Alicia, you understand if you use a pen name, you lose that creative recognition. Think about it. Please.”
My agent and I have had this ‘name’ debate for over a year and it’s something I can never commit to. What does she know? Look at Cher…Madonna? They only used one name.
She also hates that I take what I like to call, an ‘intermission’ during the year. My writing is motivated by season, (typically fall and winter).
In my defense as an artist, you need time to breathe life in, so when you exhale: art appears. Plus, I hate being rushed and if you tell me to do something, I do it at my own pace because it’s the only passive-aggressive form of rebellion I’m allowed these days.
Unfortunately this argument between us goes beyond our normal petty disagreements. My real name terrifies me and what it’s been attached to…My secret.
In 2009 my then husband and I paid thousands of dollars to remove it from search engines and background checks. Yes, there are companies who do that. This makes things difficult when applying for a job because the information is always wrong, so I have to keep a paper copy of my college transcripts on hand along with solid letters of reccomendations. Also, since all of my years of working in journalism were washed away, if I do freelance work, I have to scan in, or fax over copies of my portfolio to the editor, like some hillbilly.
Luckily, shortly after I was wiped clean from Google, I went into the less infamous world of copy and began to use a pen name that I’ve given only to family and one friend.
To be honest, I don’t like the anonymity because as as a writer, my agent is right – Of course I’d like to be known for what I create. Yet, I’m afraid.
Granted, if you know me…you can find me. My name brings up my social media account and all the things I put out in any public space, pretty much anything after 2009 and by all appearances, my life is boring and boring is good. Boring is under-the-radar and unassuming. Besides the more stable I appear the less my past can touch me.
Or so I thought…and hoped. Really, I just wasn’t expecting it show up now, nearly eight years later. Nor was I expecting it to come from the hands of man who’d been dead for nearly seven of those years.
Act I: The Proposal
There have been five marriage proposals in my life…I said yes to two.
The first, we were very young and I immediately asked him if he was crazy. My answer wasn’t a solid ‘no’, or ‘yes’; maybe. When he left to boot camp, I wrote him a break-up letter, which read:
I don’t love you enough to spend forever with. Plus you fucked my best friend.
Have fun getting brainwashed, Alicia.
It was to the point and we’re now friends on Facebook.
The second was Tim and I was still young; rebound. We only dated for a short time, yet now looking back I often wonder if I should have married him.
Quick facts about him: He was five years older and had already graduated college with than I was and had a degree in philosophy. The summer we met, he was working on his masters. He was taller, average build and had green eyes. He was good looking by all accounts but not in the conventional sense.
Sometimes he could be dramatic and was far better at expressing himself than I was. He never called me ‘pretty’, or ‘beautiful’, instead…’alluring’. For some reason that made me cringe because I thought it was cheesy and over-the-top.
In my youth, I wanted to hear, ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’, which oddly enough, now I hate. Yet, the word was specific to him. We’ll come back to that later.
He liked to have post-coital conversations about existentialism and then roll over and read comic books while eating toast. He was a clean freak and kicked a roommate out for never cleaning the fridge and he hated wearing shoes. He would never take his shirt off in public because of a large scar that ran from his sternum down to his naval and the quick stares made him uneasy.
It was so bad that once we went camping and the group we were with decided to jump into a nearby lake, yet he wouldn’t take off his hoodie so he jumped in with it on and I now have a picture of me in a bikini and him in a soaking wet hoodie and boxer briefs.
He wrote his thoughts down everyday in a little green Moleskine and we’d write little notes and letters to each other, even though we lived in the same city. He liked to write as much as I did but his style was more raw and relaxed which countered against his anxiety.
He liked music and played guitar and violin, he taught me to finger-pick “I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen and he hated most new music and country.
He had a quiet and easy sense of humor that could bring me to tears in laughter – His wit was razor sharp. Every choice he made was planned, calculated and intentional, he never liked being caught off-guard and I appreciated that. He was by-far the smartest man I’ve ever dated.
After four months of being a couple, he proposed, in a record store, over vinyl copies of The Oakridge Boys. That was unintentional.
I said “no”.
If you’ve ever broken someone’s heart, then you know that your words of rejection are visualized in their face. You can see their mind begging with every breath:
Stop. Time. Please…stop.
It was if my words became my hand and as they reached above my head… and as he’s praying for time to stop – it slows; the weight of my body is felt within six-inches of flesh, laid out across my palms and hitting against his cheek, causing my words to slap needles into his heart.
…He didn’t even ask me why after, he just looked at me, eyes welled-up and walked out of the store.
I sat there looking at Joe Bonsall’s stupid fro and fan-blown tie smiling back at me saying: ‘You’re a piece of shit.’
Our breakup was bitter. When we finally talked he said that there was no option besides ending what we had. He told me that I only said ‘no’ because I was “afraid to be happy, that I loved misery and that I didn’t love myself enough to ever accept that I could be with anyone that treated me well…That I overthought all the bad and overlooked the good. That I’d be alone forever because I was my own worst enemy.”
I told him to fuck-off, called him two-faced and pretentious and ignored him anytime he tried to call me. He even wrote me an apology letter that I opened, ripped up and sent back.
That was my last physical memory of him.
Regret number one: Marry the guy that proposes to you in a record store.
Before my son was born I was on bed-rest for the last four months and when I delivered, I nearly died from a fever, then he nearly died from an infection and then I nearly died two weeks after he was home due to another infection. This caused me to manically pump, dump (due to medications) bottle feed and then pump again.
My son took a while to get back into a normal feeding schedule and the first week he latched, I got a message that I didn’t notice for another week. It was Tim’s sister with a simple question: Is this Alicia from…
When I responded with a ‘yes,’ she took another week to respond.
The news was sad. Tim had died in 2010 and he requested to have her give me the things he had saved during our courtship. Little mementos of letters along with photos, stuffed in a box. Relics of our failed and quick relationship.
My immediate reaction was shock yet, I remembered that he had a genetic illness that had the potential to shorten his life, which it did at thirty-nine. Relatively ‘old’ for his disease. It was the same illness that gave him the scar along his torso, the one he was always embarrassed of.
My second reaction was, ‘We only dated for three? Maybe four months? How much could he have saved?’
Because there had been so much time between us I really didn’t know what to think, or feel? Sadness, yes. Empathy for his family, of course. However, I had removed him from my immediate memory so he was sort of a stranger to me; just some guy I used to date.
When it was delivered, it was in a J. Crew shoe box and the illustration on the side was that of a black Derby shoe, size 12. It smelled like the back of a cold deli truck and his sister wrote a note advising of his burial address if I wanted to visit. Illinois, outside of Chicago.
At first I was drawn to the photos, probably because it was quick and I was breastfeeding my son. There were a lot of letters but I couldn’t really sit and read through any of them, especially with a new baby attached to me.
All the pictures were fastened together in a binder clip, and the stack of letters were perfectly bound with cooking twine. The little engagement ring with my birthstone, still in the box along with movie ticket stubs and a book were set to the side. It was at the least, prepared perfectly and aesthetically pleasing, almost intentional. Very much him.
After a few minutes, it felt wrong going through things that belonged to a dead guy that I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years. It was as though I was invading his privacy, peeking into a life I chose to pass up. Plus the pictures made my postpartum worse and I got too sad to keep looking at them. So I boxed it all up in the hopes to come back to it later…Instead I forgot.
Until a week ago, three years later.
Regret number two: Forgetting how short life really is and not making an effort for those that made an effort for me, even after I’ve rejected them.
When I tell new friends that they would have hated me before 2009 they laugh and say, “Oh I doubt it.” Or “I could never change my opinion of you; nothing you could do could make me think less or differently of you.”
Now that may be true, yet when my secret came out, all of my close friends who found out, only two stayed. Two.
Even now, I have friends from before who never found out and I’ll never tell them either. There was a friend I did tell and she sent me back the gifts I had made her with a note saying, ‘You’re disgusting and never contact me again.’ It’s a sweet memory. In my defense she was really, really religious.
When it was happening, I wasn’t thinking. No one ever really thinks about the repercussions when they think they have something to gain.
The morning my husband found out, his face went pale and he sat in the guest room for hours, only to emerge for two-minutes to tell me that if I didn’t tell my family, he’d divorce me.
My first husband was my third proposal and it was in a mall, while we were looking at rings. He just plainly asked and I said yes – I hated it.
Act II: The Aftermath
Like most things, time has been a benefit to me because at this point in my life, I can handle my secret – I lived it. In fact, any pain or heartbreak I’ve felt since, pales in comparison to what I’ve already encountered.
That is the one redeeming benefit of my wicked choice, I understand and manage pain far better than most and I do it without pushing it aside, hoping it will go away.
Instead I try to deal with my problems head-on so I can get through and cope without it showing up five-years later while getting shit-faced in a hotel bar, with other miserable drunks. Or by living in denial and surrounding myself with people that I think I’m superior to, even though I’m exactly like them.
Because that’s what people do when they lie to themselves and a secret at its core, it’s a lie and lies don’t just hurt you, they hurt everyone that cares about you and when you take away trust, you take away your legitimacy. The secret doesn’t just shame you, it can also make you a liar.
Even if you change completely, that one big lie can’t always prevent the old you from showing-up, between the gaps of your shit-eating grin when people from your past run into you at Target.
Even now there are family members that leave the room in disgust over the sight of me.
The residual effects has created a cavern of other problems in my life and because what I did it was so damning, I’m even a little fearful to write this, the vague story of it.
In relationships, it impacts my intimacy greatly. One minute I’ll be ‘hot’ the next I’m ‘cold’ because I know the closer I get to someone, it can’t be avoided and after I feel comfortable and I see that there is a future, I ask my new boyfriend the question I hate asking:
“There is something you may want to know about me. It’s a part of me and I’m giving you the opportunity to ask as much as you’d like about it. My question is if you want to know?”
Luckily I’ve only had to ask this twice. Gavin said yes and he was understanding, which is his best trait and then he pelted me with questions until 3 AM, which I cried through because although I don’t dwell on it, if I go into depth about it, it’s awful to re-live. He’s never mentioned it since and has been sympathetic to the situation when it arises.
My sons father came back with, “Does it effect you now?”.
My response: “No. Not immediately.”
He never asked any follow-up questions and instead said, “We’ve all done bad things. Some worse than others. Your kindness is bigger than anything shitty you could have done in your past.”
He hasn’t asked about it again.
He was my fourth proposal, my sons father. He placed the ring around my dogs neck and got on bended knee in the guest room of my mothers house, I was nine-months pregnant. It was sweet and sincere and involved the dog I loved most. So far, my favorite.
Recently a potential relationship unraveled and ended with a friend, that I can only say was an unofficial long-distance romantic relationship. Prior to that, there was a long friendship, nearly seven years… I considered him one of my best.
We were like binary stars, separated by a mass that could only be measured with the use of google maps and what we may have matched in passion, creativity and love, we lost in consistency.
Most of the time I felt slightly secure in our intimacy, however my intuition told me to not tell him anything until we met. He was always upfront about who he was and his actions have always been predictable. Because of that, I never saw a future, even when I had hoped for one.
When he failed to follow through there was a tiny sense of relief that I’d never have to give into the same question I had asked in my previous relationships, because if asking him, he’d want me to tell him, even if it didn’t effect me immediately and I don’t think he’d be as kind about it. Not that he’d be cruel. He would just be him and his reaction just is.
…Something you should know about him: He is a good man and I love him.
Regret number three: “I don’t have any regrets.”
Act III: The Corpse
Me at twenty: Gregarious, educated, charming, outgoing, fun, sexual and well… beautiful.
It sought me out like the devil and I being curious like eve, took the apple.
Me at thirty: Liar, angry, resentful, hateful, vindictive, bitter, opportunistic, stubborn, unforgiving, shallow, ugly. Pugnacious…Defensive.
I allowed another person to temporarily destroy what I valued the most about my self. My ability to be empathetic.
…Sometimes fate has a hand in my words.
You’re a fucking bitch. You think you know how I feel?! You don’t know shit. I would have done anything for you. Anything.
You’re immature and you think you know shit, you don’t know anything. Never talk to me again. Have fun with your new fucking life.
Recently I bought a house and in my storage I found three boxes, within one box. The main box was labeled ‘decorations’ inside that was a J.Crew shoe box, size 12. Style: Derby. Color: Black.
I put it on my counter and it stared at me for a week. Even the box knew I was avoiding it. Then it took a chance. The same week my unofficial, somewhat long-distance romance was to be visiting from San Francisco never showed up, the box took it as an opportunity and I got into a head-on collision instead, totaling my car and sending me into the hospital.
When my family brought me home my sister asked if she could get me a book to read….I sighed and gave in. The box was now in my hands again.
I don’t know if I’m even going to send this. What’s the point? You’ll send it back. Maybe I just like writing to the idea of you because that’s the best version of you. Something I made up because the reality of you blows.
Shouldn’t be thinking of you at all but it’s your birthday and I can’t fucking help it. I hope it sucks and you get an STD!!!!!
We all at some point in our lives have written an angry letter or two. None of my letters were sent to their intended recipient because of this exact situation. If I die, I don’t want a letter of me bitching someone out to be the last memory they have of me. No, I throw them away.
When I opened these letters from Tim, most of them were short, angry and well, weird, at least the ones right after the break-up. Some made me laugh really hard and others made me feel sad and guilty, however the secondary emotion faded as I read on.
Something else I realized: This was me before the secret. My big sin changed me in such a way that I’ve forgotten who I was before. So far it was revealing that maybe I was a bit of a jerk.
Yet, it was a time capsule of my emotions from the viewpoint of someone that had loved me unconditionally, and unconditional love is the rarest form of love.
Inside were also the letters I had written to him – even the ripped up one I had sent back. Those made me the most uncomfortable to read and I’d squirm with each paragraph. Nothing’s more embarrassing than you’re own naïveté.
Tim and I broke up before I moved and the reason why I said no, isn’t important now because I can’t change it and my answer would be the same.
As I read the letters, the ones we wrote back-and-fourth were kind and sweet. We would both doodle on our notes and it paralleled to the recent letters I had sent to my now ex-friend in San Francisco, although he never wrote back the alignment of the letters’ similarities made me sad.
Then it made me think…
Tim was completely accurate in his earlier description of me in my youth. That I didn’t love myself enough to accept any good treatment given to me. That I overlooked the good and that I liked misery. In my defense, misery was all I knew, prior examples given to me were framed in misery.
Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate kindness and generosity more. Tim was someone who was present and always giving of his time for people he cared about. Looking back, I didn’t feel worthy of any of that, not even the simplicity of time.
When I got to the bottom of the stack there were more letters that had been written to me in the years after we broke up, all the way into 2010.
Even though my name was at the top, I think at times he was writing to himself, in fact I’m confident that he was.
I found these old letters to you I never sent. You were the only girl to write to me and we only lived ten minutes away. That was cool.
You were really cool all together. Really smart and funny, artistic. Outgoing in public and then shy at home. You were sort of weird. In a good way. For a long time I hated you and really I just hated that you rejected me.
Now I think I know why. My health sucks lately and I wouldn’t want to be with someone who has what I have. Then you worry your kids have it [sic]. Maybe I’ll look you up online?
I’m sorry for being angry with you. I still love you in a way. You were my first and last marriage proposal, I hope you’re happy.
Heard a story on NPR about modern philosophers and the value of a good quote.
Here’s one I like lately, “Resiliency without action equals complacency”
I’ve been reading about famous last words, I hope mine is memorable. Told my mom to put my last words on my epitaph, even if it’s just a long moan.
I wonder what you look like now? I feel like I look old. Maybe I just feel old.
When a relationship ends all emotions fall into one word: Disappointment.
In the beginning we create hope and that has the tendency to create minor expectations, which swell into the tactile reality of what’s is ‘to be’ expected. So in the end there lies disappointment and in my opinion, it is the axis of all heartbreak.
I think I found you. Your last name is different so I can guess you got married. There are no pictures of any guy, at least on the account I found of you. Divorced? Separated? Married but ashamed of who you married? Not as good looking as Tim?
You’re so alluring in your pictures, you look mysterious and calm but seductive. Beauty can’t touch you. Your inside is out.
When I found you I was drinking a little and I almost wrote you a message but I’m too afraid, don’t wanna drunk message. [sic]
You’re probably not even the girl I knew. Now you’re not a girl at all. When I searched for you last year I found a lot of articles written by the new you. There were a few favorites that made me laugh.
The comment sections on a few of them, had some pretty weird things about you and I’m curious because I found the same person commenting on every other piece I read. The same thing. Is it true? Did you…? [sic].
Lately I’ve been writing to a few people. My disease is at its end, so I’m sorry I can’t say that you’re special but I can because everyone else I’m writing I never had sex with.
Majestic lover of your dreams,
When I read that last line, “Did you…?” my heart sank. Great, he found out before he died, although without giving him any confirmation I wonder if he ever believed it.
Reading through his stack of letters with my friend Paul I asked for his male perspective. The only thing he could say was, “That’s a really sweet compliment: you’re inside is out. It’s like you have inner beauty that shows in your pictures, that’s super thoughtful and it seems like he really loved you. You’re a jerk!”
Do you still have that notebook? The little one you carried around. You still take notes down? (Yes, I do…using my iPhone, constantly).
Remember how pissed you got when I skimmed through it? Back then I thought it was dumb that you didn’t let me look. Now I get it. My notes before a class are in my own mental order, I’d get irritated when my girlfriend is picking up and moves them around.
I can’t stop thinking about what I read. If it’s true, I’m sorry. Tried to look again and you’re gone, except a new account that looks really private. Glad I wrote your name down, I don’t know how to say it. Is that Italian? It brought up a lot of Italian things when I googled. No way to message you, it didn’t give me the option.
Guess you don’t want to be bothered by some gross ex anyway haha. Can I guess what I read was true too [sic]. Wonder if you ever look me up? You probably do, all the time. You can’t stop dreaming of me, I understand.
Sorry you put yourself in that situation and that you have to live with it. If you’re still dealing with it, it’ll get better. When we dated I liked that you looked at everyone as good and I hope people look at you like that.
We make mistakes and I think yours probably hurt you the most. It sucks when we screw ourselves over. It’s that whole self-sabotage thing.
For a while I was really fucking pissed that you sent me back my letter, ripped up. For a long time just the thought of it made me mad and when I read those comments about you it was a weird satisfaction for me, then I felt guilty because I think you’ve made a lot of pain for yourself and no ripped-up letter of mine deserves that level of vindication. [sic]
The other thing I remember about you is that you’re not apathetic or ever lived an apathetic life. I said in my quote to you. Resiliency without action is complacency and you’ve obviously forced some change and done alright for yourself. I can tell that whatever truth may be out there, it probably made you better. I would really like to message you, just to meet this other version of you. Maybe you’d like the geriatric version of me? A lot of women like older men.
If not, some advice from the same older and gross ex. I remember you said you didn’t have any regrets, at twenty does anyone?
Bet you have a few now… It’s weird that I still sort of view you as twenty. In my mind, you’ll always be sitting in the fountain of youth. It’s the best part of memories, no one gets old.
You know, regret is alright because there are levels to it and people think that if you do, it means you want to change things. Not the case. The trick is to not resent anyone or anything because that just means you live in the past… and that means your regret is based in the past and that means you haven’t gotten over it.
Live a good and happy life and don’t dwell but have compassion for yourself when regret does come, understand you made that choice at the time for a reason, good or bad and it’s okay to want to go back and change a few things. Maybe you’ll read this one day and I’ll be a regret? Wishful thinking never hurt too.
One last philosophy quote from me that you won’t read until I’m dead…
Acceptance does not equal agreement. Please understand this Alicia
I love you still,
P.S. Happy Birthday
Timing in life is everything. There’s a reason I never read these letters until now. He gave me posthumous existential wisdom that I’m grateful for.
Regret is something I do believe we all have, on some level, he’s right. Mine is more wanting to take back the way I hurt those I’ve loved. Luckily I don’t have any ‘hot’ or ‘angry’ regret. He’s part of my regret though because I was an utter bitch to him and he was someone who showed me unconditional acceptance and love. Now I get a little mournful when I hear songs I know he loved, or see books from the authors he introduced me to.
Also I agree, just because I regret a few things, it doesn’t mean I’d go back and change them, even if I could.
After reading the last letter, he wasn’t a stranger anymore. He was a guy I dated and loved, just not the way he wanted me to.
He gave me good advice too. When my friend from San Francisco never came, I wasn’t immediately mad, I mean I hadn’t really heard from him for a almost a month before his visit and about two weeks before his trip and still not hearing from him, it was pretty obvious. So I wrote him a letter, to assure him that I cared for him, regardless of his lack of arrival and that I’d still be his friend and that I loved him.
Then when he did respond, I was embarrassed for him and his actions, which in turn created a trigger for me to look into my own faults, thus allowing some empathy for his choices.
The thing about empathy is that people think it means you’re feeling ‘for them’ but instead you’re feeling, ‘with them’ and I could definitely feel with him. That’s when I realized that I sort of love what my secret did for me.
It changed me for the better.
Tim was right, it’s good to be compassionate especially with ourselves, not on a selfish entitled level, but at a human level where we understand the repercussions of our flaws and accept them for what they are, disagreeing with our choices; yet being self-actualized enough to understand why we made them with the motivation to change. That’s acceptance, for oneself.
My big failure has taught me to be more forgiving and understanding. In an argument I’m selective about the battles I pick and when someone screws me over, I’m quick to forgive, yet not without telling them exactly how they made me feel – I’m not a pushover.
If anything I’m persistent if I feel that they’re trying to avoid me, because as kind and warm as I can be, I’m just as pointed and specific with my word choice when angered.
Yet, I do truly move on from things and I still accept them, as well as making sure to never bring it up again, because I can’t be the delivery method for another persons guilt by re-hashing an already ‘forgiven’ argument…If anything, it just makes me more aware of their potential.
The other person who is part of my secret, well…they haven’t seemed to change however, I know very little about their life and think even less about them.
When I was writing this, I had a cousin search for them online and I found nothing remarkable or worth noting, I hope they’re happy though. They deserve it. Today’s their birthday and it’s a coincidence that I’m polishing this piece as they probably celebrate.
My son was my fifth proposal and it was more of a demand after fixing a broken train track with super glue.
“Thank you momma, you marry me okay.”
…I said ‘no.’
“….Acceptance does not equal agreement. Please understand this Alicia.”
I love you still,