Nonfiction / Laura Valeri
:: Seek and Hide ::
Sleep paralysis. Recurring nightmares. I’m three. I dream of a playground behind the school in Milan where I live. I am in the sandbox, making sand castles, the only child still at school after hours. A woman crouches next to me, interested in my moats, my half-formed mounds. The cherry-red of my scoop stands out in the colorless dream. Smiling, the woman asks why I’m alone. Where are the other children? Where is my mother? She can find her for me. What is my name? My crosswired brain confuses dreamself with bodyself and douses both in narcotic paralysis. I try to speak but cannot reach my voice. Soon, more women come. They circle me. They think I’m shy, non fare la timida, bambina, then gradually become impatient, dicci come ti chiami. I’m immured in granite sleep, my chest a tombstone. I try but my voice is sieved through the slow flow of my breath, and I barely manage a hiss. The women cross their arms, call me bad mannered. They’ll tell my mother that I’m disrespectful. Who am I? They want my name, my name, my name. I will it to come. I pull my breath through my numb chest, until my name explodes into a shout that jolts me awake and echoes into the empty bedroom.
My father’s executive job moves us to Paris. I am four. The apartment is maze-like and unfamiliar, dark, tiny rooms, a long narrow hallway with sharp angles. I sit alone in the guest room. The television plays a cartoon in a language I don’t yet know to call French. It bores me. I hear a casual “Where is Laura?” from the kitchen, and I think, come and find me. At first, it’s only my mother, her vowels stretching sing-song through the hallway, then my grandmother joins her, a choir. My name in their voices crosses the hallway, from bedroom to living room, then back to the kitchen. Here, I think, but don’t speak. How can they possibly miss this room? When my father calls my name, his voice deep and serious, I know. What started as a game will earn me a spanking. When the door handle jiggles, I prop my head on the table and close my eyes, slowing my breath, letting my mouth slacken.
The story is shared often with relatives at holiday dinners: “Once, in Paris, we found her asleep before the tv, with her head on a glass coffee table. Can you believe it? This girl can sleep anywhere.”
Hiding is a game, a trick to see how long it will take them to notice that I am not around. It’s about my hiding place, if it’s clever enough — if I’m clever enough. But the voices always grow urgent too suddenly. I only know I’ve gone too far when it’s already too late.
I’m five. Back home in Milan. The large armoire stores my mother’s freshly pressed linens — embroidered table cloths in the bottom drawers; top shelves for color coordinated bed sheets, ivory white, pastel pink and cerulean blue. Under each set, a soap bar, a couple of mothballs. I climb in, and find that I fit on the bottom shelf over the drawers, below the first shelf. I pull the doors closed and hold my breath, waiting for my mother to realize that I am not in the room anymore. The snugness. The warmth of the newly pressed sheets. The sliver of sun that slips through the crack between the doors. I hear my mother’s footsteps, my name called mindlessly, once — then, already, I’m in trouble.
At seven, I am small enough to fit between the curtain and the glass sliding doors that give out to the living room balcony. I sit quietly with my knees tucked to my chest, my chin on my knees, my forehead pressed against the cold glass. I wait to be missed. My eyes roam the view outside, the sunny afternoon after school, the pristine walls of the building across, identical to ours inside the gated condo complex. A half block away, just over the brick wall perimeter and the gated garage ramp, there’s an abandoned warehouse and a sooty low-rise tenement where I am warned never to go play. On a third-floor balcony, girls practice dance steps to the recorded music of a variety show. They take turns speaking into a mop handle, pretend-interviewing one another. Across the block, a world away, they spot me. They speak to one another in agitated whispers but when they turn to me, their voices are clear, their words unmistakable.
“Tu, stronza! Cagona. Puttana.” They say I’m spying. They want me to go away.
They can use words I’m not allowed to think. They shout for minutes at a time across the miles and worlds that separate us, and no mother yanks those balcony doors open to slap their mouths for embarrassing a “good family” before the whole neighborhood. I pretend not to hear or see them. I’m so far away. How could they be talking to me?
“Stronza! Fai finta? Ti vediamo benissimo, sai?”
I’m a fly trapped behind glass. They are free, foul-mouthed anger in the sun. I am a princess in braces and orthopedic shoes. They are striking, unionized Cinderellas clubbing the rich stepsister with cusses.
I’ll cut your face, bitch. Sneaky, sneaky snake. We said, go away. Go away. Go away.
Inside the apartment, the melodious chant of my name in my mother’s throat turns tragic against the rhythm of the girls’ mounting threats.
Then finally: “There you are. Napping? There? I was looking for you, calling you, didn’t you hear me?” She doesn’t seem to hear the ruckus outside, the two girls, or the tenement woman one floor below who yells at them, wanting to know what it’s all about.
This need and talent to disappear, to be undetected, turns into something else over the years, a curse, a virus resistant to the space-time continuum that embeds itself in my DNA.
I’m twenty in Madrid. The boys, uninvited, sit themselves at our table. They say “You girls” to describe how intrigued they are by the Italian accent behind my English, but they look only at busty, red-headed Dina, my American roommate. My jokes, when acknowledged, provoke chuckles they direct only at her.
New York. Twenty-three. I demonstrate how to backdoor into the DOS programming language to the new hire, an Ivy League blond my boss torments with predictable jokes. I answer her questions, guide her steps, repeat the same simple analogy to explain the process. “Wait, wait,” she turns to a colleague who just stepped into our work space. “You know what this is like?” My analogy in the new girl’s mouth becomes her original insight.
On a monthly catch-up phone call with my sister in Rome, I hear repeated to me the same details of the bullying episode from my childhood I shared with her a month ago. My sister recasts herself as the victim, denies it when I offer evidence that it couldn’t be her — yes, we both had short hair, but I had the braces, the orthopedic shoes. I was maschio con la gonna, boy in a skirt.
In a lengthy email exchange, I offer teaching advice to a former student. It appears weeks later on her social media post. “I can’t remember when I started thinking like this,” her post concludes. “It must have been a natural shift in perception that occurred organically, with experience.”
Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s that subversive desire entwined with my father’s deep voice that threatens a spanking; it’s the tenement girls calling me out.
I stumble on a respected author’s editorial about their decision to leave academia. Bitter, disillusioned, the author rants against students — lazy, unprepared, entitled. I think of the saying, those who can’t, teach, and reverse it, those who teach, can. How convenient to expect only talented, dedicated students, I write on my blog. Teaching is difficult because every challenge and every student deserves a teacher equipped to help. For the first time, thousands of hits. The spike in my blog’s analytics chart reminds me of a lie in a polygraph.
There I am, the child at the center of a circle of clamoring adults.
I read a message from a subscriber. “Go to the author’s website. There’s a response. Have you read it? Are you going to reply?”
The jolt of surprise, the embarrassing shout in the empty room.
“No. I said my piece, already.”
I shut down my blog. Not like this, I tell myself.
I don’t actually remember how many hits I got and when I shut down the blog. I remember that it was a lot of hits coming in thickly and I got scared and I shut the blog down.
I’m asleep when someone calls my name, a voice almost familiar, urgent in the way of a schoolteacher calling me out for getting distracted. The voice startles me out of the dream, freeing me from the conjured realm of the sleeping mind. I open my eyes to silence. I tune my ears to an empty darkness.
From the writer
:: Account ::
When I first started writing “Seek and Hide,” I was thinking about family mythos. It’s curious how the lore of who you are according to the stories told about you by family members starts to take over whatever other explanation you may have about a particular episode or event. It was just a starting point for the exploration of certain contradictory impulses that end up in toxic self-sabotage, and of the stories we tell to ourselves and others about who we are. I turn to creative writing when I sense connections that are not entirely logical or transparent, using narrative structures that resemble more closely the way our subconscious processes organize and associate memories.
Many women, especially after they reach a certain age, are “invisible” in society. Like many women, I’ve had my share of instances where I felt like a ghost, speaking up at meetings without being acknowledged, for instance, only to have a male colleague repeat what I said and receive praise for it. But in the writing process I made the deliberate choice to escalate to moments of invisibility in my life that are not necessarily attributable to the unconscious biases women normally experience. My sister recasting herself as the victim in the bullying episode from my childhood, for instance, was very disturbing to me. I felt as though even the ugly parts of my life were for sale on a market stand to be auctioned at a good price. I asked myself just how much of our interior life, our memories, our imagination, and everything we think defines us is truly our own.
I sensed a connection, albeit not an obvious one, between the isolation, invisibility, and inconsequentiality that I’ve often felt in my adult life with my inexplicable impulse to hide, to not be seen, and to put up barriers that would prevent others from understanding my thought-processes when I was a child.
The recurring dream in the first image of the piece is actually one of my earliest memories. I read a lot about cognitive science. The human brain is a story-telling machine. The memories that we choose to rescue out of the billions of events, dreams, conversations, and other bits of impressions in our lives that we will otherwise never recollect connects to the story that the brain wants to tell about who we are, so I pay attention. Though I did not consciously set out to have the sleep-paralysis become the controlling metaphor for the piece, it was inevitable that it would circle back at the end, unconscious as that process was.
The first time that something I wrote went viral, I froze, even if it was only a blog post. I’m a writer. Writers write to be read, but I cannot enumerate how many times I’ve sabotaged my own best efforts. I cannot explain that fear in logical terms. I can only illustrate it by juxtaposing other experiences that, though dissimilar, nonetheless share deep subconscious connections. Thus, the onerous effort of trying to speak my name, and the fading echo in the empty room.
Laura Valeri was born in Piombino, Italy and moved to the United States at age twelve. She is the author of two short story collections and a story cycle, and most recently, a book of linked essays titled After Life as a Human (Rain Chain Press, 2020) a Georgia Author of the Year nomination in memoir. Laura Valeri’s fiction, essays, and translations appear most recently in Griffel, (mac)ro(mic), Hunger Mountain, Litro, and others. Laura Valeri is the managing editor of Wraparound South, a journal of Southern literature. She teaches creative writing in the undergraduate program at Georgia Southern University.