I live in a world where solitude is frowned upon, silence looked on with suspicion. I am a repeat offender in both.
There are moments when people talk to me, then pause, staring expectantly. I know they want me to answer them. But in those moments, all my words, the ones I have accumulated through years of reading and listening and speaking, vanish. And I mumble, stutter, and my tongue trips over what should come easily.
I can trace most of my problems in life to losing my words. I don’t know where they go. I imagine they would fill a large rain barrel. As a child, I kept my first fish in a barrel during the summers, and he got bigger every year. As I imagine my words in such a barrel, I wonder if they have enlarged in meaning, scales glinting in the sun as they swim together without me, welcoming more to their ranks every day.
The rain barrel of my childhood sat outside my neighbor’s garage, the peeling paint and chipping wood covered in a rich green moss. But this other barrel has proved much more elusive, collecting my lost words in an unknown location. I have always wished I could find it. Perhaps part of me believes that if I ever stumble upon it, I will finally discover what I have tried to say my whole life.
These absent words have been a great source of shame for me. No one around seemed to understand that when I hid in the world of books, reveled in the mazes others created with their words, explored the caverns hidden inside myself, and whispered secrets to a feral cat rather than my best friend, it wasn’t because I was trying to be rude.
It was because I was terrified.
I was a baby-faced little girl with mismatched socks, bangs that fell into my eyes, hair that was always tangled because I hated having it brushed. I wanted nothing more out of life than to play with my plastic animals and make mud pies in the backyard. Friends or siblings sometimes accompanied me, but mostly I played alone. Silence often proved the best playmate; I never saw a problem with that.
Animals, too, made for easy company. They didn’t judge, didn’t ask questions, and the only thing they expected from me was gentleness. I was good at that. I could be quiet for hours.
My mom was allergic to most things with fur. All I wanted was a dog. I used to cry myself to sleep at night and sit on the sidelines through hours of dog training classes.
My dad finally bought me a puppy on what would be one of the happiest days of my life. I may have shed a few tears into her soft coat on the way home, out of my disbelief and joy.
As years passed, my ways of interacting with the world became less acceptable to the general population. I found that in most circles, hours of solitude coupled with understanding animals better than people does not raise one’s profile. So, I did my best to leave these things behind as I grew into adolescence—then spent the years that followed trying to find them again.
Growing older was not easy. As a child, I hid behind my mom’s legs, attempted valiantly to smuggle books into parties (it didn’t take long for my father to catch onto what I was doing, and the books were confiscated before we left the house). As a teen, my words kept their horrible habit of disappearing when someone would talk to me.
I could feel my aunt’s disappointment. It was like another presence in the car, as if there were three people instead of just two, the third leaning into my personal space, gripping onto my shoulder so I couldn’t move, breath sticky on my neck. I shuddered.
“My friends were so polite to you. They wanted to be kind, to get to know you. The least you could have done was ask them how they were. Why couldn’t you have done that? It’s rude, Malinda. Would it be that hard to talk?”
Yes. The answer was yes.
But I just shrank into the seat of her pickup truck, looked sideways at her with my scared eyes, and, utterly defeated, shrugged my shoulders. I could see the words swimming away, splashing their tails, taunting me en route to the rain barrel. I didn’t know how to call them back, so I watched them go.
The atmosphere remained as tense as her grip on the steering wheel.
“I don’t know!” Tears were trying to push out of my eyes now, and I looked out the window to hide them, imagined escaping into the North Carolina mountains, never having to face talking to strangers or disappointing my favorite aunt again.
I couldn’t explain it. Not to my aunt, not to anyone. The visit ended a few days later, and we didn’t talk about that day in the car, or how I didn’t talk to her friends ever again.
I learned how to speak. I had to. Even though I was never what you would call “well-spoken,” or “outgoing,” I got by. But I also learned how to keep things to myself, important things, things that maybe I shouldn’t have.
The fish swimming away from me now were the important ones, the ones that I needed to own, needed to say. They were no use to me so far away, swimming in the rain barrel.
These were the ugly ones. The ones with the dull gray scales mixed among the orange, that didn’t gleam in the sun, the ones with milky white film covering their eyes when they peered out.
How was I supposed to know how necessary they were? And how much I could lose by letting them go?
“I’m so in love with you.”
It came in the form of a text message. Maybe we were scared to announce our affections through the spoken word. We reduced them to pixels on screens, removed from the sounds of real voice and expression.
I stared at it for a moment.
Perhaps not everyone was as frightened of commitments and strong emotions as I was; perhaps others reacted to love much differently. But for me, his confession was terrifying. I was 16 and had been taught that love is powerful, and wonderful, and something that shouldn’t be toyed with until I was much older. To see those words pop up on my phone made me wonder if they held the weight I understood them to—if they meant the same thing they would have if he had spoken them, looked me in the eyes when he said it.
I was happy in the relationship. We were best friends. He made me laugh, treated me well, gave me a sense of value, showed me that someone wanted me. But: “so in love?” What did that mean? Did I even believe in love?
No, not right then I didn’t. And I knew I couldn’t be in love. Or if I was, it was a letdown.
I didn’t want to rock the boat, though. Like I said, I was happy. To dissent or disagree would be to create waves that I didn’t want to have to deal with.
“I love you too.”
Not actually a lie. I did love him. Much like one would love a friend, I can see that now.
The difference hadn’t entirely escaped me then either. But what was I supposed to do? I had once mentioned how I wasn’t sure I was ready for a serious relationship. He freaked out, felt betrayed, lied to. As if simply being his girlfriend suggested I owed him my unending allegiance.
He was convinced I was the girl he wanted to marry.
I liked him a lot.
But there were so many things I didn’t say.
think not “please
I’m ready let
in for me
love” this” be”
They were ugly anyway.
“I’m so in love with you.”
“I love you too.”
I sat backward on our secondhand blue couch, legs curled underneath me, looking out the giant window. In the years we had lived in the house, I spent countless hours in that position, watching squirrels looking for the nuts they’d buried and couldn’t find, the birds squabbling over seed, the occasional deer who appeared and relieved us of the flowers in our lily garden, and the neighbor’s boat which had remained stationary on our dead end for as long as I could remember. But mostly, I spent time thinking.
That day, my dad sat down near me, stared at me for a second. I noticed him out of the corner of my eye, but didn’t acknowledge that I saw him. Life is sometimes easier if I pretend I’m oblivious.
I turned to face him.
“You know, I kind of envy you. I mean, look at you!”
I tried to look at myself. The only concrete information the effort provided was that I was wearing sweat pants and an oversized sweatshirt. Somehow I figured this wasn’t what he’d meant. I wondered what on earth he could possibly envy, and where this conversation was going.
“You look like you have such a great life! You have time to read, you sit around and contemplate things while looking out the window, you hang out with friends. You seem so content. What more could anyone ask for?”
I was quiet for a moment. There they were; I could see them. I grabbed at them, my fingers slipping over their wet scales as I struggled to take hold, to own them.
Then I caught a few. But they were the wrong ones.
“Yeah, Dad. My life’s great!”
I rolled my eyes as I said it. This is often how my dad and I interact: he makes a comment about how great things are, I respond with my sarcasm. A motivational speaker doing his best to parent an introverted cynic. As my sarcasm wasn’t anything new, he just sighed a little and laughed as I twisted my mouth into a wry smile and raised my eyebrows.
I waited until he left before I let the tears come. Turning back to face the window, I brushed them away in frustration. It wasn’t worth letting myself cry; I knew my face would turn red and my eyes would turn bloodshot. Someone might notice, and then I’d have to explain why I was sad.
The summer had been a dark one. There were days where I felt as if I were wearing a wet blanket over my body, my face, cold when the wind blew, chills down my back, couldn’t breathe. Suffocating. No light. I was trapped in a life I couldn’t find my way out of, and I kept tripping over the wet blanket and running into walls. Apparently, no one noticed. Apparently, I was content. Apparently, my life was wonderful.
As careful as I was to hide my misery, discovering my dad’s total ignorance of my current state did hurt. Part of me was proud I hid it so well, but there was another part of me. I would never have said it, but I wanted someone to find out that I was trying hard to cut into apples instead of skin, and I needed help. I could only say I didn’t want to hide scars for so long before I could convince myself it wouldn’t be that hard.
I could have told him. Would it have been that difficult? To open my mouth and let something true come out? To tell him how the day before I’d held a knife to my skin, wondering if seeing blood would make me feel better? To explain that the only reason I wasn’t considering suicide was because I was terrified I would go to Hell if I died?
But I didn’t know how to put words to the pain. To the idea that I found myself in a world where awful things happened all the time, often to people who didn’t deserve them, and I was unsure of how to live in such a place without wanting to die.
I could have told him. But I didn’t.
There are some things that, once lost, can never be found. And even if I were to find that rain barrel and all my unspoken words, what would I do with them? Their time has passed. But I have words still, ones that haven’t escaped me. And every time that I don’t bend them to my will, every time I watch them swim away, I understand again how important they are. How much damage the silence can cause, has caused. How it is time to begin speaking.
It started when I ended the relationship. Finally explained to him how I felt, watched myself break his heart. I knew the truth was the right thing, though its scales lacked luster. As terrifying as it was, I needed to say what I thought and had never had the courage to admit. It was beautiful in its way.
It continued when I showed my dad this essay. He has only ever wanted me to be happy, and I never had the heart to explain that I wasn’t. I knew he deserved an explanation. Now I have put the misery of that summer into words.
There are still many days when my words are not my own. When I convince myself that my opinion is irrelevant, that no one will care, that what I want to say will hurt more than help. I believe it far too often, even now. It is easier to let the words go. Easier not to throw myself after them as they try to escape me.
But I have also heard myself speak. I’ve experienced what it is to make words my own. I have tasted truth on my tongue, and I know that it is good.
The things I tried to say and failed—they were important once. But they’re gone now, and not coming back. I can’t change that. I have lost so many words that my rain barrel must be overflowing, water and fish spilling out onto the ground around it. There is no room for any more words to find refuge in that place.
And so I find myself here. My face toward the sky, hands unclenched. Finally ready to trust the world with my words, the ones with golden scales and the ugly ones with milky eyes. Praying that they will matter.