I once asked Fin if he knew what an actress does. He told me he understood what they did, but not why they did what they did.
Why do people lie about who they are?
I told him it wasn't lying, because everyone knows that an actress isn't the person she's pretending to be.
But then why do they pretend at all?
I told him because people like to be told stories, and actresses help tell stories.
But how can anyone believe the stories if they know it's a lie?
I told him people can trick themselves into believing something is real for a little while even if it isn't, at least until the story is over.
How can someone trick themselves into believing the sky is green or that two plus two is five?
I told him people can feel like something is real even if they know that it isn’t, that feeling something isn’t the same as knowing something.
He scratched at the bridge of his nose and paused.
Is that something you can learn?
I told him I didn’t know.
Years ago, I had betrayed the only woman I'd ever loved. On that night, I remember waking to a familiar face framed in a familiar scene, but neither thing familiar with each other. My accomplice was another actress I'd met while an extra in some paycheck production we’d both landed. My stirring caused her eyes to open. The room was cast in dim aquatic luminance. We stared at each other in muffled silence until I opened my mouth and said, You are not a bad person. She didn’t respond. I waited, but still no reply. My mind fretted. I wanted to hear some reciprocal edification against my own sobering guilt. But it didn’t come. She wouldn’t even accept her own absolution. A steadily massing mob of revolutionaries had gathered inside me, growing louder with their bullhorns and their crescendo of effervescent chanting that buzzed like white noise.
When we fall in love with someone, I wondered, do they become part of us? And does that union demand that they share in our own private unhappiness? If you hate your own life, do you inevitably hate the people who’ve unwittingly stumbled into it? Are they just collateral damage, or are they now essential to your own demise? If love binds two lives as one, then surely a rotting foundation in one necessarily leads to the collapse of both. Had it been selfishness or some cathartic wildfire, clearing away everything that should have never been?
Did she decline to respond because she knew neither of us truly deserved to survive this? Did she already know the necessity of letting revolutions cleanse the world of stubborn machinations, that apologizing for ourselves accounted for nothing from people who were so irredeemably broken, that some things are better torn down than fixed, that sometimes the most penitent act isn’t to change but to let yourself be destroyed? I turned to look again and found only a quieted face, her eyelids drawn shut, her sharp jaw pressing folds into the pillow. If this was the immutable path of history, perhaps the only thing left to do was to let it happen. I rested my eyes on her until the peripheral void soaked through her details and there was nothing left to see.
How do you know if you love somebody?
Fin had asked me this after overhearing his parents talking one night. I tried to explain to him the complexity of his question, how the concept of love was particularly resistant to definition. I told him it was a bit different for everybody. He asked me what it meant for me. I struggled with whether to honestly engage him. Could he ever really understand what I would have to say?
You know when you find something you like a lot, how it feels even better when someone else can enjoy it with you? Like how you enjoy eating ice cream. If you eat ice cream alone, it’s still good, but if you’re eating ice cream, and I’m eating ice cream, and we both like it a lot, then we can talk about how good ice cream is, and it feels even better to share how much we both like ice cream with each other. Love is like wanting that feeling with someone all the time.
But what if I don’t like the same things as someone? Does that mean I can't love them?
Well, it’s not just about liking things together. Sometimes, it’s also when you don’t like things together. Actually, it's not even just that. It's not just about agreeing. It's about feeling something together. I know that’s confusing, but I guess it’s just when you can share a feeling with somebody, no matter what that feeling is, and they understand it, and because you both share it, it feels better, whether it's a good feeling or a bad feeling.
But how do you know if someone feels the same thing as you? You can't just read their minds.
Well, I guess that's why it's important that when you love somebody, or you think you love somebody, that you listen to them. If you just talk all the time, but you don't listen, you can't really know if the person you're talking to really understands you, because you never listen to hear if what they say makes sense to you. Even though it feels good to say what you feel inside and let it out, it never feels completely right, because you don't know if anyone else really understands you. But if you listen and hear something someone else says that feels like something you already feel inside, then you don't have to say anything, because you already know that they understand.
But what if they're just acting? How do you know they're not lying? How do you know they feel what you feel? What if they're just saying it, but they don't feel it at all? Or what if they think they feel what you feel, but it's different, only they don't know it's different? They think it's the same, so they talk about it like it's the same, but it's not. How can you be sure?
I didn't know how to answer him. Of course none of us can be sure. None of us can know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling. The only thing we can do is listen to what they have to say and find the things that sound familiar to us. And I guess the rest is just hope. The rest is just tricking ourselves into believing it's real, at least until the show is over. Is that all love is? I couldn't say that to him—especially not him. What kind of answer would that have been? How could he possibly process that? All I could reply with was that I didn't know. I didn't know what it took to be sure of something like that. I told him I was sorry.
He was quiet for a bit. He stared blankly. His weight shifted gently back and forth on the bed as his small frame puffed and shrank with the ebb and flow of his breath. After a while, he turned to me with a look of determination and said flatly that he hoped I would stick around long enough for us to figure it out, figure out how we could be sure. We could keep talking and listening and sharing, and we would keep testing to see what it took to be certain. He asked if I would stick around to help him figure it out.
Okay, I said, Let's figure it out.