I’m reading Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women by flashlight next to my toddler while he falls asleep. He needs to play with my hair to drift off, and his tangled fingers tug and clutch. After a chapter I surrender to the alternating pain and pleasure. It will be this way for years and I’ll miss it every night for the rest of my life once the routine dissolves with time. Earlier in the day I’ve accommodated my four-year-old’s request for Frankenstein face paint and all afternoon, his hazel eyes ablaze, he growls and chases his little brother while smearing the green and black oils into a filthy gray. The boys are tornadoes. Stinky-sweet energy and anguish, shock and awe.
I am not yet thinking about the violence of secrets, how their alchemy changes everything once they exist. I don’t recognize that holding them is power and I can’t imagine the cascading effects of their eventual revelation.
My life is a blur of part-time work, Lilo & Stitch viewings, Children’s Museum visits, co-sleeping we can’t quit, fevers in the night, and a husband pulling away to tend secrets that will destroy us in slow motion. The devoted foolishness of early motherhood obscures my instincts, blurs my ability to know what I want while I learn to keep small people alive. Every day I walk over hot coals I’m getting used to the heat.
But what do I look like? How do I feel in my body? Lying in bed with my son curled at my back, I drop the book of Women to the floor and stretch my tight calves. I’m training for a sprint triathlon I’ll complete in a few weeks, and later in the fall, I’ll run my second half marathon of the year. I’m exhausted but strong. I haven’t ever believed I’m an athlete. I’m always faking something.
If I focus on controlling my body and the perpetual search for a serotonin bump, I can ignore what I can’t change, or what seems impossible to change. Running five miles in the morning or researching vegetarian diets distracts me from thinking about wanting my marriage to feel different. Lifting weights keeps me from the desperate sadness of not living in a state where I have friends, from yearning for a stimulating job, from figuring out how to write in earnest again. I’m keeping secrets from myself: I pretend what matters is if my jeans fit the way I like, and if I can run the next race faster than I did last year.
I’m still stuck with myself as the boys grow and my marriage bumbles along. I make new friends and go back to work full time. For a year, I vow to do one new thing per month that scares and excites me—I need to love myself even if I’m not satisfied with the love I’m being given by others. If I can’t acknowledge what I want, how will I ever live authentically? I push through anxiety about my worth and write and publish a book. And, after my husband and I lay bare all the secrets, I end the marriage. Because honesty is traumatic, I sometimes want to fold back time and revisit the less sinister darkness of innocent toddler bedtimes, before the secrets took shape. Running allows me to explore and soothe my grief, and I fully lean into my athleticism and run a marathon. I’m done pretending things are fine when they’re not, and I’m not a fake.
I haven’t been able to run most of this year due to an injury, and a few weeks into the pandemic, I began to cope with the threat of disease and economic collapse by dancing and taking long bike rides. Naturally, it’s a shitshow and I regularly break down and throw graceless tantrums until I admit I must adapt—I know we must keep moving forward. My boys stay up later than I do, socializing online with friends. I read books alone in bed, and when I turn off the light, I fall asleep imagining hands gently playing with my hair.
Kate Gehan’s debut short story collection, The Girl and The Fox Pirate, was published by Mojave River Press in 2018. Her writing has appeared in McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, WhiskeyPaper, After the Pause, Cheap Pop, Pidgeonholes, Atlas and Alice, and others. She is nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel.