TRUTH OR DARE: WHO ARE YOU WHEN YOU AREN’T TALKING? WHO ARE YOU WHEN THE TRAIN COMES TO A HALT?
by Joanna C. Valente
The 7 train comes to a halt in the tunnel. It’s dark. No one knows where exactly in the tunnel. No one can hear anything except it’s so hot it almost feels like the humidity is cracking our bodies open, apart—is cracking the car walls open like a steak knife carving humanity into black holes, stardust, bodies without souls.
In my ear, Lou Reed sings, “Candy says I hate the quiet places.” I look around and see everyone staring into their phones even though their phones aren’t connected to the outside world right now, tapping on useless screens.
I’m gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder
I’m gonna watch them pass me by
Maybe when I’m older
What do you think I’d see
If I could walk away from me
None of us say anything to each other. Eventually the train pulls into the station and we all get out, pushing gently, into light.
There is a tiny rip in the lace on the side of my waist and I try not to think of it as a metaphor as I walk down the aisle. I try not to think of it as I read the poem that function as my vows to you, acutely aware of being a doll, of being a symbol of what everyone around me wants, of feeling a jagged dread in the back of my throat. I play along because I don’t know what else to do. Aren’t I supposed to want this? That question had been lingering inside my head for months like smoke. I’d shut the door on it, until now, as if it’s a chilly breeze I don’t want inside my house, until the house collapses.
When the night is over, all the white flowers and wine and food and laughter and the sounds of Louis Armstrong are all gone, we drive to our hotel room on the Hudson River in a historic hotel you chose, a hotel you and your family often stayed at during your childhood.
You fell into the king-sized bed. Our wedding cake, mostly uneaten, was sitting on a table nearby.
In my dress, my hair wilting like an old rose, I sat on the windowsill, looking out to the dark river, where so many men did exactly what they wanted, made a certain kind of history the only history that mattered. Erasing everyone else.
It was never about me, was it?
In a hotel room in Florida, I ripped the hotel’s bible, tore pages out, wrote a spell and flushed it down the toilet. Later that day, you and I met in the lobby, your tangle of curls blending into your beard, making you grizzly and warm like a blanket I’ve always wanted.
A few days after, it was Shabbat and I waited for you in a dark park after reading a poem because we couldn’t text. I offered to press the elevator buttons for you, I told you earlier that day knowing nighttime was coming soon, but you insisted on taking the stairs instead.
I was nervous you wouldn’t show up. The park was quiet except for a dad and his son, a kind of desolate where even they don’t know what love is. They just play the part. It’s almost convincing.
When I was fifteen, I kissed two girls at the same time in a mall near the bathrooms.
No one saw us.
We laughed a little, stretching out the silence and the sounds in the mall that became silence.
We knew the trouble we’d be in if our parents found out, our parents who sent us to Catholic school. Girls weren’t supposed to kiss girls, but what did it matter, because I knew Jesus doesn’t exist and I didn’t feel either gender.
You wouldn’t leave. It was already noon and you kept sleeping. I could almost feel your heaviness, a kind of soil falling over my head like a sea of guilt and frustration and silence washing over me—a gelatinous ocean. I want to be the ocean, the wind, a pale pink moon hovering. I want you to see me, like blood oozing out of me, our bodies turning to music and black ink until nothing hurts again.
But you don’t see me. The cars outside my window become loud as the day wears on. I say I’m going to make coffee and you roll over, mumble something. Every now and then, I come back to the bed, caress you, and we kiss for several minutes, until we don’t. You’re still in your jeans that you never took off, having just plopped in my bed from the night before.
“It’s hard for me to get out of bed sometimes…you know, depression and all. I don’t want to work today,” you said. My eyes drop. We are wafting in a fog. I tell you I have plans later that day (I do) and you ask where you should get coffee, then leave.
I wanted to hold out a cup for you, but I don’t.
You tell me a funny joke after you have sex with me without a condom and I told you I wanted to use one. I don’t know what to say when you do, so I don’t say anything. This is my fault too, I tell myself. I breathe, I barely breathe—like having a mechanical bird so you don’t have to feed it.
Do I have daddy issues, or mommy issues, or just issues? I pray to Roy Orbison to tell me.
“Why don’t you just say anything?” my Italian grandmother said from across the room on her rocking chair. In her house that smelled like mothballs. My parents sat on the couch with me, their faces stony. My mother’s hands pressed firmly together in her lap. It’s Woodlawn in the ’90s. I’m still a child.
I start to cry.
I wonder about other couples and what they do at night. How many of them make love, how many of them fight, how many of them do neither? How many of them are no longer there, with each other? They all have names but I don’t know any of them. Sometimes, I don’t know my own name. I want a new name.
Was I always a building falling apart that is too expensive to fix, too pretty to take down until it’s completely destroyed? Do I have too many staircases to traverse?
My mother was crying in the foyer.
I looked down, unable to cry.
About an hour before, my dad and I went ice skating. I was never any good at it, I always had to hold my dad’s hand, a little duckling unwilling to become a bird. I didn’t grow up naturally graceful, and instead wanted to help my dad fix his car, always tripping when I’d try to skip the cracks in the sidewalk, but always missing.
As he parked the car in the parking lot, turned off the radio that was playing Bob Dylan, I knew P had died. I just knew it. A little voice, genderless, told me inside my head. The thought just occurred to me, but I brushed it away. That’s crazy. That’s wrong.
For the next twenty minutes, everything was still, silent. It was as if no one else was around, no other kids with their parents. I tried on skates and we went out onto the rink, circling it a few times while I felt something watching me, a snake-like swan following us.
Then, over the loud speaker, the front desk called my dad’s name, said he had a call. And I knew, even at age nine, that couldn’t be good.
I never told anyone in my family. I stayed silent. I couldn’t cry. I just already knew. I didn’t want to know. I never wanted to know.
The ghost is gone. The room is silent.
Silence used to make me uncomfortable. It probably still does, just like dark closets left open at night, even if for a brief moment. The ghost I conjured left, like how I left my own body a few times, watching myself from below—a dark expanse of earth destructing beautifully, an eerie globe full of different times and spaces, with so many yous in them.
I live in a loud place full of a lot of people, a city that people say never sleeps. It never sleeps because it’s full of ghosts. I grew up in a house full of yelling, unsure who was louder: my mother or father and if they just couldn’t help but light everything on fire, as if lighting a fire will stop a house burning down. If it wasn’t physical, could it actually hurt? Did it really happen?
In the subway, I listen to Electric Wizard to drown out the screeching metal. At work, I listen to Rachmaninoff and write. At home, I listen to Miles Davis and cook. I’m always listening. We’re taught listening is a virtue—but what if you’re never really taught to speak?
Sometimes I’ve written myself into and out of existence. Sometimes, I don’t know if the spells or rituals I do work, and sometimes, I think my words are spells that have summoned a car crash full of roses inside my body. Sometimes, I find my body in a car crash full of sunrises no one sees. Sometimes I find my body in a desert alone, lights in the distance—voices echoing. I don’t recognize them.
So many of my memories are of waking up. Waking up to another world, to a reality I don’t want to see, to myself silencing myself, wanting to be small. It’s hard to admit when I’ve allowed myself to be complicit, when I’ve allowed myself to be complicit to men—submissive to their desires when I don’t want to be submissive.
I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want to wake up in these worlds. Sometimes, I just want to stop waking up.
Look around and tell me something true. Look at me. Really look at me. What I didn’t ask you: When was the last time you actually looked at someone while making love?
When was the last time that was the only time?
But who else? What we carry with us? Where is it, where are they?
I always carry many things in my many bags and none of them are you. None of them are me. On the subway, I shuffle through to find the thing that I feel I’ve forgotten, but I don’t know what it is or what it is I’ve forgotten.
But who else?
About the Author:
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. Web: joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente.
Image: ‘Portal‘ by Jess Ayotte via Flickr (cc).