Seek and Hide

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.