Here the stars are bright and begging, like pennies at the bottom of a well. Here the trees are green, even in the heart of winter, for here the winter does not exist. Here I feel hidden, tucked away into a pocket of the night. We are so far from the city, from the lights, from the highway. It is the first time I have been somewhere so empty.
Outside, the roots rustle. Wild chickens scratch at dead leaves. They have been doing this all night. The first time they did, the sound startled us so much that we reached for each other. But now we are used to it, the same way we are used to sharing a bed, laying side-by-side like two halves of an equals sign. We lie there like little kids, giggling.
Tell me a secret, I say.
The room is too dark to see each other’s faces, but I can see M’s silhouette. You already know everything, he says, but both of us know that’s not true.
I have never had a brother, but this is what I think it must be like on the best of days: the two of us, cocooned. The knowledge that, no matter what he says, I would still do just about anything for him.
M tells me his secret. His breath is warm against my ear. When he speaks, I feel him tilt his chin down, as if in prayer.
Secrets are a certain prayer. Burning silently like votive candles along an altar.
Secrets are sacred. To keep one is a type of worship. To speak one is to speak in tongues.
I collect them like alms, cradled in cupped hands. I hold them up to your face. A suppliant position.
Tell me a secret, I say, and here are the things they offer: Fake boyfriends. Fake orgasms. Fear of the night sky, but only when the sky is clear. Fear of God. Fear of their father. The last toilet they took a shit in. The last person they talked shit about. Crushes on classmates. Crushes on friends. Crushes on professors. The time the cops chased them through a park. The time the cops chased them out of a parking lot. The time they pissed on the bathroom floor. The time they kissed a stranger in a bathroom stall. A plan to die by the age of forty-five. Their virginity, or recent lack thereof. Recent break-ups. Recent hook-ups. Recent deaths in their family, how sudden it was. How that window got broken. How their uncle got away with that affair. How they only do things to please other people. How they never got over their first love. How they don’t know how to be alone.
And what are secrets if not aloneness? A vow you make to yourself. An invisible shield. To identify the parts of yourself you hope no one sees. To make it so. To hide something, you must first hide the fact that something has been hidden. Bury the object and burn the map.
The room, warm as a womb. Even as sleet peppers the sidewalk outside. Here is the wonton soup, homemade. Here are the people to share it with. And a softness, hovering, like a feather in the sun.
Tell me a secret, I say.
T crosses his legs. What kind of secret?
Any kind, I say. As long as you’re comfortable.
Around us, the others continue talking. T pulls out his phone and types up a paragraph. He passes the phone to me under the table. Reading it is like swallowing ice. When I turn to look at T, he is talking to someone else.
I pass his phone back to him. Are you okay? I ask.
He deletes the paragraph one letter at a time, like erosion, which is erasure. When he sees my face, he places a hand on my knee and says, I’m okay.
Hours later—after the rain has stopped and the dishes are piled in the sink and I am walking under the jaundiced street lights, alone—I will remember this moment and I will start to cry. But for now I hold T’s hand. I say, Okay.
But secrets are power, and power is transactional. Tell me a secret, I say, and most people ask for one in return. Sometimes I ask because I have one I want to tell. Sometimes I worry that the real reason I ask is because I want an excuse to share my own.
And yet when the time comes, I cannot. A secret loses its power the more it is spoken. Like a curse. Like a name. If I am able to share mine, I am scared the sharing will make it less important. Confessing the worst things about myself, confessing the worst that has happened to me—it would be an admission that it was never so bad in the first place. The worst things live behind my teeth.
Here moonlight pools at our feet like milk. Here is the floor, sticky from the seltzer someone spilled. Someone has hung a plant from the windowsill, a talisman. And, I think, someone has opened a window. I cannot see the window, only feel the cold against my bare neck.
Tell me a secret, I say, and around us the room is pulsing.
K grins. I’m not telling you anything, she says. Both of us know we are the only sober people here.
In the bathroom, someone has been throwing up for hours. In the hallway, someone is kissing someone else. In the kitchen, someone is calling for more soju. I am wearing someone else’s bra, but I cannot remember whose. I cannot remember when they gave it to me.
I say, If you tell me one of yours, I’ll tell you one of mine.
K raises an eyebrow. Okay, she says. You first.
I lean in. The couch cushions slouch forward with me. I cup my hand around the corner of my mouth. I tell her something no one knows, and immediately the object loses its luster.
Night closes around us like a mouth.
A secret is a pomegranate seed. The flesh of fruit crushed in my fist. Swallowing one is relinquishment. A type of hijacking. A type of greed. The earth opens up and takes you like a seed, still breathing, and in the end you are happy to at least be held.
Secrets are usually secret because they are truths, so here are mine.
There is only one person in the world who I truly hate, and he is |||||||||||. If he died, I would not care. Sometimes I imagine his death, my parents on the phone, calling to tell me. When I think about this phone call, I hope I get it in a room full of people so that they all witness my indifference.
My mom used to ||||||||||||||||. It was |||||||||, but she did not need |||||||||||||||, which made it easier but not easy.
In high school, I had |||||||||||||||||||||||||. I ||||||||| my |||||||||, then ||||||||| them more. Most likely, it was |||||||||||||||, but we will never know for sure because I was too afraid to tell anyone. I am still too afraid to tell anyone, although I am doing better now. Since I am doing better now, I feel as though I am appropriating someone else’s suffering whenever I talk about |||||||||||||||| in therapy.
The worst day of my life was when my |||| had a ||||||||||||.
The last time I prayed was last April. The prayer was for ||||||||||||||||||, who was sick. My ||||||||| told me not to tell anyone, and I never did, unless you count God. I do not talk to |||||||||||| anymore, but I hope ||||||||||||||| is doing better. The prayer started off with, I don’t believe in you, but—
One night, I am sitting on the floor of J’s apartment. J is sitting next to me. I tell her, My mom used to ||||||||||||||||||||.
J looks at me. Really?
Yeah, I say.
My mom did, too, she says. Two years ago.
I’m sorry, I say.
She puts an arm around me. I’m sorry too, she says.
You should have told me, we both say.
I have found that this is how it typically goes. Most of the time, when I exchange secrets with someone, we discover that we have more in common than we thought.
So I decide to give away all my secrets. To have at least one person know one thing about me that others do not. I scatter myself like breadcrumbs.
Because a secret is meant to be shared. Once it is shared it is no longer a secret, but something slightly different, something slightly better. It is the nakedness before skinny dipping. It is connective tissue. It is an invitation. It is telling someone, I want to know you, and I want to be known by you.