to be held

The inexpressible may be contained (inexpressibly!) in the expressed, but the older I get, the more fearful I become of this nothingness, this waxing lyrical about those I love the most.

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

The body doesn’t lie. But when we bring language to the body, isn’t it always already an act of fiction?

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter— they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.

Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

In this time of utter emptiness, you’ve been thinking about language. In this lonely, desolate space, you’ve been thinking about how we use language to form connection. You’ve been thinking about how we use language as a blanket or a nest and how we are always surprised when it doesn’t protect us from the rain.

Language fails us. Fails you. This, perhaps, is the greatest heartbreak of your life (you are too young now to be sure).

For now, you are less thoughtful about the creation of words—how syllables form between your tongue and soft palette, how they burst into the air at an unspecified velocity, and carve their way into the world. You are more thoughtful about how they are held.

Here’s how it works: someone creates language, and then they expect a response. You’ve noticed that for many people the acceptable response is yet another act of creation. You share something, they share something, you share something back. It is like birdcalls across a meadow—all answers, no questions.

But sometimes a person will create language and will ask you to hold it. Generally it is a sliver of themselves that they are sharing, a slice of language removed right near their gallbladder, their hip, their fatty underarm swing. They will remove a piece of language from themselves and give it to you as a gift and watch how the weight settles in your hands, if your fingers tremble, if you can hold it at all.

It is not easy to hold words. Not all of them anyway. They bite. They sting. They rip out chunks of your hair and use them to clog the bathtub drain. It is understandable that people do not want to hold them.

(Have you ever dropped words before? Watch them scatter on the floor, getting lost beneath the oven? Have you ever heard the sound they make when they hit glass? The way they smell like an electrical fire in a candy shop, all heat and melted sugar? Have you?)

People have dropped your words many times. This is something you are excruciatingly aware of. Here is one. A slip of memory:

It was a breakup, a breakup that was less of a break and more of a slow hacking away at withered limbs. Sinewmuscleflesh. Shreds of tendon that would contract gangrene over time. You were outside because all important conversations should happen outside. Trees are outside. That is comforting. If this is the last time we see each other, is there anything you want to say? He was annoyed with you because you’d been quiet. People want language because it gives them something to hold onto, even if it’s just an illusion. So you did it. You gave him what he asked for. And you remember with perfect clarity the last line you said. Five simple words. And you remember how you choked them out and how the words trembled with flight. And you remember how they sat in his hands looking like they were soaked in rain, and how his hands shook and the words oozed between his fingers leaving slug trails in their wake, and you remember how they writhed and squirmed and wailed on the forest floor for someone to pick them up, to cradle them, to smooth back their hair. You’ve never been back to that patch of woods again, but you wonder if you did, what you would find. A bald spot, maybe. Something gray and dusty and sordid. A small rodent-gnawed stick stuck in the ground telling everyone that this is where the words fell. This is where they died.

You are always wondering how much to say.

This is particularly interesting to you now in pandemic times. It is interesting because you are more honest than you have ever been. You give people words—small, feather-boned things—and you watch how they dissolve into the air. You have come to the conclusion that some people do not know how to hold words well and that others simply do not care.

It is like this: they will ask you how you are, you will say some shade of miserable, and then they will say something like, at least you have grad school, which doesn’t comfort you at all. You are telling them the scent of a specific pine and they are telling you to look at the colors of the sky. People do not know how to hold things that cause them discomfort.

You are bad at this, too. Don’t be fooled. Don’t think you are any better. Language slips from your fingertips, too.

One time you were stargazing. You were stargazing with a friend and the air was crisp and cold and sweet. You were stargazing with a friend and the conversation was about life and how life was heavy and shrunken, and they told you that sometimes they thought about climbing the highest building and jumping off, and you laid there and you listened and those words spread like soot across your hands, your face, and you just couldn’t catch them, and you answered but your answer wasn’t right, it wasn’t enough, and when you woke up your hands were still black and smelling of fire and you wondered how you could have caught them, how you could’ve held them better.

You know one person who died from jumping. She jumped twice.

The days remain cold and gray and dismal, and you remain unenthused about pretty much everything. But you are trying, god you are trying. You are being honest and vulnerable and you are telling people, see me, this is me, this is how i am who i am what i am and people nod but then look away because they do not want that puddle at their feet, and that is understandable, that is finefinefine, but how does anyone ever feel known if no one will hold their unsightliness, the words they scratch on midnight walls?

One day you want to be able to split yourself open and not worry about the mess.

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