Why I'll Never Know Her
By Skyler Smith
The Pensieve Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in the 2018 issue of Green Blotter Literary Magazine. Stay tuned for a response essay written by the author's wife.
Listening to my wife read from her journal convinces me, like nothing else, that I am unrecoverably egotistical. When she started reading from it a few months into our marriage (we haven’t been married two years yet), I expected that the stories and thoughts she had recorded as a teen would, by improving my familiarity with her character then, teach me something about who she is now. But, as I have listened to her read I have hardly recognized the protagonist of the record, despite her commentary. Usually, it seems to me the writer is only mildly, and perhaps coincidentally, similar to my wife. Her bumbling teenage apprehensions, delicately inked into the pages, preserved under Disney-princess-pink faux-leather covers, were incited by high school dances, piano competitions, and estranged friends. Nothing like the career outlooks for aspiring editors, the foggy unknowns of having children, and the trying-to-be-a-good-inlaw-to-my-Canadian-family-she-only-sees-once-a-year-and-heaven-help-her-she-will-love-them-or-freeze-trying worries that stress her to tears now. There are, however, a few things I recognize. One is her tendency to give routine updates on the events in her siblings’ lives, something she continues to do to the present day. In this perpetual mindfulness of her siblings, there is evidence that the girl who wrote the journal and the woman who reads it are similar individuals.
But in pursuing a deeper understanding of my wife’s character, I find her journal’s greatest value to be in the experiences it gives me with her at the present—to hear her reflect on her memories while she reads it, and to help me feel closer to her at least because I am trying, however fruitlessly, to understand her past life better—since it seems entirely unable to acquaint me with the juvenile writer of the text. To reduce some blame on the journal, though, I should mention that its inability to acquaint me with my wife is not unique. Our daily conversations and joint experiences scarcely acquaint me with her either; I can only barely begin to understand why she is she, or how she came to be so. For example, I’m confused at how she loathes philosophy, which antipathy, given the philosophical nature of many of her family’s conversations, hardly seems to be a product of her upbringing (at least not through lack of exposure to it). She loves Star Trek, which explores some of the marvelous possibilities of scientific advancement, but our own society’s continuously evolving technology makes her anxious. I suppose I hardly know my wife at all.
And so (I haven’t forgotten how I began) to my egotism. It seems that my wife’s only fathomable qualities are those we share. I appreciate good reading. Naturally, I can understand my wife’s own liking for it, and can predict at least half the time when she would like to read, simply by asking myself the same question. More elusively, she likes to “do nothing,” as she puts it, from time to time. I, on the other hand, prefer to have a list of tasks, productive or diversionary, that I can pursue throughout the day. Doing nothing makes me restless. For this reason, I find it impossible to predict when she wants to do nothing nor even what that phrase means, since sometimes it entails a detailed recounting of the day’s experiences, and other times requires nothing more than holding hands on the couch in contemplative silence: no TV, movies, games, or books. Just sitting, holding hands, and looking around the room or occasionally at each other. As I said, I hardly know my wife at all.
But I do know myself. Or at least, I know myself better than I know anyone else—I am aware of my self’s fickleness, which evolves from day to day and mood to mood. Although I know I am not a moody person. Interesting that I know that. As I consider now what I know about myself, there comes to mind a collage of feelings, images, and experiences that are meaningful to me in a way that I do not have the literary talent to describe. Some I can best characterize as a love I feel for friends and family, a love that I am sure is common to almost all humanity. Others are entirely unique to me, like partial memories about sleeping on the bunk under my brother when I was five, or listening to my mother explain how to get grass roots out of the vegetable garden, or walking home from seminary in the wintery Canadian cold before sunrise: simple nostalgic moments with a deep, wistful feeling. They might not even be real, but I want to think there is meaning in them. My wife has them too—I’ve occasionally caught glimpses of them, although she usually combines them into stories with a narrative rise-and-fall. I recognize them when she pauses briefly while telling a story, like when she’s relating her teenage efforts to get in shape, and she mentions going on walks with her older brother. She stops, as if to transport her mind back to one of those moments. I do not know why they are important to her, but I cannot help but wish I were there, in her mind, to see and feel what she feels. Those memories, I think, are the ones that make her her.
To imagine a scene, however vividly, does not give us the sense of being or even of having been, present at it. Indeed, the greater the glow of the scene reflected, the sharper is the pang of our realization that we were not there, and of our annoyance that we weren’t.
— Max Beerbohm, “Laughter”There is a filter between our thoughts and our words, and it is so effective as to remove all but the shadows of our meaning, which makes our attempts to fully describe our memories only partial successes, at best. We are only capable of transmitting to our audience groomed and edited versions: they can know only what we say, and they can infer little more. That is, perhaps, the main reason that getting to know someone is so difficult; we cannot be certain of any more than what they choose to communicate, and so we cannot know them any more than they choose to let us. Further, because of the difficulty of communicating effectively (even while using a complex combination of words, facial expressions, and actions), it is mostly hopeless to even know them as well as they might be willing, or want, to let us.
But there have been transitory moments when I have gained a bit more understanding of people than I think they meant to give me, so I can’t say that I totally agree with my last assertion. One such moment comes to mind. It was when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. My older brother had written a short story that he described as his own Frankenstein. What he meant was that, just like Mary Shelley experimented with the amazing and horrific possibilities of electricity in Frankenstein, he was exploring the possibilities of virtual reality. It began with the words, “I suddenly remembered,” and told the first-person account of a boy going on an innocent romantic outing with a young girl. It ended with the boy waking from his thoughts, then removing a helmet that had been implanting the memory. As I listened to my brother read his composition, I remember being impressed by how much the words sounded like they were my own. Later, I even remarked to my brother that I felt like I had written the story myself, since it paralleled my own imagination so closely. In that conversation, my brother added that while writing it he had just described what he had often imagined would be the “perfect date.” It seems significant to me that despite us being different in age and experience (my brother was about eighteen), his imagination was so like mine. I think I knew exactly what he meant with every word. That closeness of thought is a remarkable thing, and so rare between humans: to understand, and to know to have understood, without being able to say it.
Brothers have many languages, some of which are physical, like broken noses and fingers … and some of them are laughter, and some of them are roaring and spitting, and some of them are weeping in the bathroom, and some of them we don’t have words for yet.
But there was one part of my brother’s story, when the boy and girl sit on a bench and the girl leans close to the boy and crosses her legs behind his, that I knew I would not have written. I had never imagined that small gesture of affection nor thought that it would be part of a perfect date. So, despite the closeness of our imaginations, my brother was not, and is not, me, and there are parts of his character that are alien to me and that I doubt I will ever touch. This is a frightening thought, because I recognize that the reverse must also be true: that I can never be understood.
But is that really so? Am I defined by anything more than what I do? It may be true that there can exist a closer, more intimate connaissance, but I can’t wholly discount the deepness of my closest friendships, even if they don’t border on being telepathic. Maybe despairing at the impossibility of being “truly understood” is childish and naïve. If I am defined by what I do, then it’s not important for my friends, or even my spouse, to be familiar with every fleeting thought or feeling I have, because those memories and longings are closer to being quirks or glitches than profound, essential parts of my character.
When I was nineteen I had a new and undeveloped friendship with a roommate, whose name is Eric. We were companions in missionary service for our church in France, but I had just recently arrived and we hadn’t come to know each other very well yet. I was struggling to learn French, to adapt to a new lifestyle, and to find any enjoyment in life without my usual friends around me. I asked Eric to play Monopoly because, although I didn’t tell him this, Monopoly was a reminder of home: in some shabby way it represented long afternoons with my friends, often spent in each other’s houses, but sometimes at remote mountainside cabins or riversides—we used to bring it with us everywhere. Eric obliged without complaint, and we played for hours, even though he doesn’t like the game. I think he did it just because he could see I was struggling and wanted to help. It is unlikely that he totally understood where I was coming from, but he knew enough, or guessed enough, to believe that playing Monopoly would help me. I’d call it compassion, but compassion is so easily disregarded. It is remarkable, I think, that people can feel each other’s personal needs acutely enough to know how to help them.
I’m not of the mind that compassion requires a total acquaintance with a person’s life history. At times, a caring connection can be made on nothing more than a humanly gesture of altruism. At other times, such a connection can be built on much more. Shared experiences, although not entirely identical for each participant, can provide a common frame of reference for communication. Is it not very common for a bonding conversation between friends to begin with, “Do you remember when…?” Such conversations often reveal that two people have thought in complementary ways about a shared experience. Discovering that similarity provides a sense of connection, even if the two people don’t know exactly why the other felt that way. I’m reminded of a favorite summer pastime during my teenage years, which was to play video games with a friend, I called him D.T., until dark. Playing those video games was such a wonderful waste of time that, in some ways, it epitomizes all the dreams of my boyhood. A few years later, after we had both moved out of our parents’ houses, D.T. and I fell to reminiscing about those long hours playing video games. He said to me that those carefree hours have become, in his mind, the image of his childhood and that he expects he will never again be able to squander time so recklessly. It is incredible to think that in the years between those childish days and that conversation, we each, through our own meandering reflections and considerations, had come to see those wasted hours as the summary of youthful frivolity. It is especially remarkable considering how many pastimes we each had at that period of our youth, some of which were just as carefree and wasteful, and many of which were totally different from each others’ (he was an avid gymnast, a hobby I never pursued). I cannot say that I know how D.T. came to that conclusion, nor why, but it is interesting that he did, and I feel I know him better for it.
But if some basic predictive skills and a few days spent together constitute knowing someone, then what of walking home from seminary in the early morning cold before the sun rose? For four years I would walk back home in the cold (if it was ever warm I don’t remember it, and a whole essay could be written on that psychological phenomenon), sometimes with one of my sisters, but often alone. It was dark and sometimes icy. It was usually cloudy, with that high kind of cloud that covers the sky like a carpet. And I would sing, if I was alone, some lingering hymns from church. The sidewalks were lonely and silent, and I didn’t think anyone would hear my voice. So I sang, even though my vocal capacities have never been praiseworthy.
I wonder if it makes any difference that I sang or that I remember being five years old on the bottom bunk or that I remember my mother showing me to remove grass from the garden.
When I’m alone now, walking home in the cold, I don’t sing. So, then, what difference would it make if my wife knew I used to sing or not, or even that I vividly remember those solitary mornings and hope never to forget them? It probably wouldn’t make any difference.
If all my little memories change nothing and mean nothing, then my wife knows me very well. She’s familiar with my love of board games (not just Monopoly), and how cycling makes me feel free, and how hiking in the mountains makes me feel close to God. She knows that I am entertained by discussions of philosophy and the newest technology. And what she doesn’t know about all the moments of my past, she makes up for by knowing all the intimate details of my present: my daily pursuits, my most recent aspirations, my small joys and pains.
And in the same way, I know my wife, Liz. She often says that I know her better than anyone else, despite my having met her only three years ago. I know what playing the piano means to her—that it represents years of diligent practice, including the sacrifice of most of her spare time as an adolescent. I know that she’s good at it, too. I know that answerless questions transform her eyes into an angry fire, and that Portuguese tile makes them glow. She has the funniest habit of writing in the margins of every book she ever reads: novels, textbooks, literary compendiums. She stars and circles and underlines and annotates. And I love her for it. And besides these, I know numberless little nuances about her character that make our relationship the closest and deepest I have ever had.
And I know Liz well enough to say with certainty that I don’t know her, because there is something untouchable in the pause she takes when she’s remembering her teenage years, and comes to how she would go on walks with her older brother. There is a solemn deepness in that pause, so prone to stirring me into quiet reverence, that echoes my own familiar nostalgia. It is possible, of course, that all of our past, remembered or forgotten, changes very little about our present personality. Even still, this collection of half-memories is sublimely beautiful, and if by some trick death is the end of the soul, I should be sorry to lose so much incommunicable richness.