I started reading very early, at the age of four, and my first and most enduring love was fiction. I remember, vividly, my experiences reading certain books for the first time. I remember reading Little Women when I was seven, and the intense pleasure/pain of realizing, through Jo, that people wrote fiction; that I could write it, if I wanted to; and that fiction could create real emotion. Oh, how I cried when Beth died. Words did that. Words made me cry over the death of someone I didn’t know. But I did know her. Louisa May Alcott introduced her to me, and because I identified so strongly with Jo, Beth was my little sister, too. I have two younger sisters. Fiction taught me about empathy. Fiction taught me about life.
When I was twelve I read Gone with the Wind. I was in the seventh grade, and my teacher recommended it to me for a book report. I remember thinking, this book is so BIG; can I really finish it in time? And then I remember staying up, latelate into the night, devouring the story of Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and milquetoast Ashley. Even at twelve I couldn’t understand what Scarlett saw in him.
I have met and fallen in love with Alice and the Mad Hatter, Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, Prospero and Beatrice and Benedick and Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and Jack Reacher and Mosey Slocumb and so many more. Too many to count.
Then there are the characters I have created on my own, and co-created with Tony. Manny, the perfectionist cannibal chef. Delilah Macintosh, the jilted beauty queen who takes up boxing in Fighting Belle. Leon, a disgruntled elf in Santa’s workshop. Dana and Teddy, a talk show host and her husband working their way through infidelity. Eugene Bloom, a guilt-ridden shut-in who can’t forgive himself for his wife’s death. So many of them, and all so real to me that I would instantly recognize them if I ran into them on the street.
So why, since Tony died, have I barely been able to touch fiction? I read a couple of Janet Evanovich books – light, easy. I read a kids’ book my sister Stephanie loaned me. But for the most part, fiction and I have a strange relationship right now. I am reading right now, simultaneously, a book called Mindsight about how we can actually train our brains to react differently; Dr. Brene Brown’s astonishing I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t); and The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
It’s not just books, either. I think I have watched only two films since Tony died, all the way through. I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service with my niece and nephew; and I watched Les Miserables. And now that I think of it, I didn’t watch Les Miserables all the way through; I left the room and did not watch Javert’s suicide. There were a few times I put on a movie in the background because I needed some noise to be able to get to sleep; but I didn’t really watch those.
It bothers me, this aversion to fiction. I’ve been wondering why it is, and I’ve said a few times that maybe it was because I didn’t need any invented drama, having had such a surplus of it in my own life lately. But tonight, in therapy, I said the six words that are the title of this post. Maybe I need a non-fiction life.
As soon as I said them, I knew it was true. I need a non-fiction life right now. I do. As much as I loved Tony, so much of what we presented to the world was a fiction. We were both participants, authors of that fiction. We pretended everything was okay. He pretended not to be afraid; I pretended not to know he was afraid, and not to be afraid, myself. When people asked me how he was, he was great, perfect, the best husband anyone ever had, ever. He loved me! He got up and did the laundry every week on Saturday. He worked harder than anybody I knew. I’m not saying those were lies; no, not that. Those things are all true, as far as they go. Tony did love me. I know he did. He was the best husband he knew how to be. He did get up and do the laundry ever Saturday; but the reason he did was because he didn’t – not really – trust me not to ruin his clothes. He was very anxious about his clothes. I don’t know what he thought I was going to do to them, his jeans and tee shirts and socks and things, but it was part of the fear that enveloped him. He did work hard; but the reason he did is because he was unable to sit still, unable to relax, unable to rest because if he sat still, might not the fears catch up with him? I didn’t know that then, couldn’t put it into words, but I know it now. We pasted a fiction over the truth of our lives – the scary, painful, naked truth of it – and we sold it to the world like it was one of our screenplays. And then when we were alone together, most of what we talked about was related to our scripts. To people that we created, out of whole cloth, the same way we created ourselves. We created ourselves.
I can’t do that now. I can’t pretend. If I am scared, I say I’m scared. If I am sad, I say I’m sad. I went through a brief period where I was tap-dancing on the phone with friends, acting almost manically cheerful. I’m not doing that now. I was with friends in San Diego, and I cried with them. I told them I cry every day. That’s true, I do. I told them how guilty I feel; how horrified I still am that Tony killed himself. I am. Horrified. Every single day. I talked about therapy. I talked about the medication I’m taking. I talked about my gratitude and my fear. I am still afraid. I don’t know where the path I am on leads. That scares me so much it makes my stomach hurt. I feel strongly that I am where I am, on this path at this place in my scary life, for a reason. That doesn’t make it less scary. I feel vulnerable, stripped naked and hurting, and instead of trying to pretend that’s not my reality, I am putting it into words and laying it out for anybody who wants to know about it to read. I am taking the words, the very same ones, that I used to write fiction and create characters and put words into their mouths, and I am flaying myself with them. I am dissecting myself. I am showing you, all of you, each piece. I am naming each one: this, here, is my fear. This is my heart, broken. This is my grief that my husband is dead. This is my guilt that he’s dead because of me. This is my relief that I am no longer living on the edge of a cliff. This is my new guilt, because how can I feel relieved? This is my judgment of myself. This is my rage at Tony. This is my gratitude for the people who helped me when he died, and who are helping me now, every day. This is my determination, to find the true purpose of my life and to put all of these raw stripped pieces back together into a new whole, a new non-fictional Aimee who is somehow, in spite of everything, exactly who she is supposed to be.