On The Outside Looking In


This dramatic story began with wine and deep talks about a faraway love. 

Or perhaps the wine was never there. In my head, I feel like there should be. That TV-approved moment when adult friends in sweatpants, tousled hair, and smudged makeup sip on wine while complaining about their problems. Perhaps that wasn't this particular moment. 

In reality, this was a moment after she had arrived at my place late at night. Sitting in the living room, illuminated only by the light in the kitchen, nursing cups of water as our talk tiptoed through the minutes like a thief. Her face was silhouetted against the light, but it's not like I couldn't envision what it looked like. I'm a filmmaker, after all. 

She's telling me a grand story of love. It was just as cliche as I'd imagined, but that didn't stop me from lapping up every moment of it. Love holds a familiar bittersweet feeling to me; I want it just as much as I don't. Stories fill the part of me that does, while keeping me far enough away to not stir up the side that doesn't. So I took it all in. A long-distance love. A tale of misunderstandings and longings. Emotions running wild. Should I like him? Should I give up? It was all too predictable. All too real.

And then, not so suddenly, there was that ache. Not a painful ache, but a twinge right in that spot just under my rib cage. It wasn't that feeling of fear or anxiety trapped in my gut, nor that feeling of euphoria floating up in my head or that feeling of anger and sadness stuck in my throat. It was something else. Something slightly anxious, and slightly angry, and also slightly euphoric. Something totally different, yet entirely the same. I'd felt it before but shrugged it off.

It's a feeling of being on the edge. Of having something on the tip of your tongue slip back down your throat and into your stomach, but then try once more to push itself back up. It's also "stuck." What's stopping it? No — what's stopping me

All I can do is smile and nod and offer bland words of encouragement like a plate of unsalted noodles; comforting enough, at first, but never satisfactory. This wasn't enough. It never feels like enough. It always feels like I'm letting someone down. 

But if I try to say the things I want to say, if I say one thing wrong, everything could end here. 

Still. The person in front of me is a good friend. Surely, of all people, she will understand. 

So I start small. I let the gremlin creep up my throat, one step at a time, and test the air outside of my mouth. I say that she might be looking at this wrong. I say that, despite all of the logical thought, and all the questions she has about what she should do, she's already made up her mind. She already KNOW what she wants to do and what she will do. I don't guess it, I know it.

This was my test. Would she get it? Would she look at me like I was crazy? Would she deny it and then get frustrated and stop talking? I don't want it to end here. I crave the story. The taste of the thing I won't let myself have.

And she started to laugh, a tense, awkward jitter, but it was caught in her throat. She bent over, face completely hidden, and cried a little. 

Perhaps that sounds anticlimactic. If you expected a big argument with yelling and cursing and someone storming out of the room, then you're in the wrong place.

But in reality, the scariest things to say aren't always the loud, dramatic ones. They're the whispers. The breaths. The things the other person already knows, the things you know the other person already knows. The yes's and the no's. The quiet, common dreams and the simple realities. The things that aren't in movies. 

But they're still scary, because they're the truth. And the truth, more than anything else, is the scariest thing to face. 

Over time, with this friend, I continued to speak and let the gremlin in my stomach have a voice and taste the air. I still do. It's just a little bit at a time. Then, he has to go back down and wait his turn again. It's only with her though. He barely sees the light of day with anyone else. 

I have to wonder why. I still don't have an explanation as to why I resist, why it's so scary, when every single time he come out, he turns out to be a guardian angel instead of a gremlin. But a gremlin he is, and a gremlin he'll stay.

I promised myself that, one day, I would let it happen. One day, I would finally feel free, not of fear, but of my own self-imposed tyranny. But when is "one day"? Perhaps it's never. Perhaps I'm lying to myself.

Wait, there it is — he's back. I feel him, pushing, in that place he lives under my rib cage. He has something to say again. 

I think I've figured it out. He only shows up when I'm lying. 

Over a year after that wine-less night in a dark living room, she's back again. I had barely heard about her love life since then. To be frank, I assumed the story I'd last heard was Just Another Cinderella Story, except without the happy ending, as it usually seemed to turn out in her case. I'm not sure if I felt sympathy or something more. I think the gremlin had something else to say. Something even more hard-hitting than what I had said before. He'd wanted to say it, but I didn't let him. 

Something like, "You fall too easily. Too hard. You let yourself be swept up and then you look too deeply at the signs. It's a lot simpler than you're making it out to be. Why can't you see that? Why do you do this to yourself? Why do you subject yourself to this sort of pain?" 

Of course, I wouldn't let him say that. I knew how hypocritical it was. I was just the same. Replace that entire monologue with "I" instead of "you," and it'd be just as accurate. She was me, in another time and place with different people. I had no right. No right to say a single word about it. No right to strip her of the values that she lived by. After all, I couldn't even admit it to myself.

If this were a movie, there'd be no problem. Fictional characters are flawed, after all, designed to be judged and analyzed in the context of their idealized world. "What are you doing?" we yell at the screen. Yet somehow even then, I hesitate. You see, I never believed Ross did something wrong to Rachel while they "were on a break." I also never believed that Rachel was wrong to be angry. Could both be right? Could there be two truths at once, conflicting, yet just as true? 

In my effort to find The Truth, I sometimes lose myself. I get caught in between possibilities. He cares, he doesn't care. She wants to hear it, she doesn't want to hear it. I'm brave, I'm weak. I said what I wanted to say, I didn't actually say everything I wanted to say. 

Which is it? What's the truth? Could it possibly be both?

One attempt can reveal 1000 truths, even ones you didn't care to know. One step forward can make visible the clues you never knew were there. I know this, and yet I don't. Do I really know this? Or am I lying to myself?

I think about my friend, stuck, just as much as I am, but in a different world. A world I'm now a stranger too. I want to peek in, even to step in briefly, to see a glimpse of what she sees in this sparkling, deceptive world of love and lust and fear and doubt and adventure, but I don't want to get any closer. I've been there before. I know how it'll end for me. I don't want to be here.

I do, but I don't. Both are true. Both are lies. 

The gremlin is back. He has something to say again. Somehow I'm lying, but I don't know which one is a lie. 

As it turns out, this love story is more complex than I thought. There are far more twists and turns in this version than in previous versions... and far more persistence. Something's changing in her. Maybe she doesn't see it, but it could be a good or bad thing, depending on how she manages it. Depending on how this story ends. I don't know. I tell her I know, but I don't. At the same time, I do. Both are true. Both are lies.

And she tells me the story up to that point, just like before. A conglomerations of meetings and musings and worries and assurances. A feeling that something is happening. Maybe she's feeling the change after all. 

I have many thoughts about this. Again, the same thing as before, the monologue that I refuse to let the gremlin utter under any circumstances. And I do sort of say it, actually, in a roundabout way. He's dumb. Leave him. Don't do this. You deserve better. 

But then I pause. I see her looking at me on the screen as if waiting. The plate of bland sympathy noodles was not enough. She'd heard it so many times. Throwing that plate on the ground in a "fuck him and GTFO of there" way was predictable too. But what else could I say. 

My hesitation was too long. I had to say something. I had an itch to say something. There was something I knew, deep in my soul, that had to be let out. I didn't even know what that something was until it was out of my mouth. 

Trust yourself. I think you should trust yourself. 

I think I should trust myself.

And in one moment, I felt a sense of relief that I had never felt. 

This is what he wanted to say.

Because despite the long talks, despite trying to logically explain away our feelings, despite trying to place puzzle pieces where they didn't belong and getting frustrated over the uncertainty of it all, in my soul, I knew the truth. I didn't want to believe it, because I didn't know how to face it. I didn't know how to tell other people "this is how I feel," and trust that it was the truth. I didn't think anyone would accept it. Who would accept me, as I was, with no explanation as to why I was that way?

She cried. As it turns out, it was somehow the exact thing she needed to hear. 

And I wondered if she had a gremlin in her stomach too. 

If so, I bet he was pretty happy. I know mine was. After all, he and I were finally breathing in something other than that morning's breakfast. I'd tasted eggs before, but never this. What was this? Perhaps this was the taste of freedom.

The gremlin still lives in me. And I'm still not entirely free.

I keep telling myself I'll stop being an onlooker in my own life. That I'll finally live my life as I should, saying what I mean (and, most importantly, meaning what I say). 

I think her gremlin is still in her too. And her story is still ongoing. There's more story to tell. I can feel it. I trust myself enough now to know this story isn't over, and I plan to see it through until the end.

But something is changing. I thought it was in her, but maybe it's in me. Maybe both of us. 

Maybe, next time I see that shining place that she speaks of, I won't run away or just observe it. I'll take a step forward and, without peeking in the window, waltz in the door. I'll smell the air, feel the ambiance, see the characters and, this time, meet the characters. I'll let it fall over me like a blanket, all at once, a little overwhelming but also exactly what I need. They always say to jump into the cold water rather than ease in, so you don't have time to regret it and turn back. 

Maybe this time, my own story will start too. Maybe I'll remember what it was like to feel it all, to be afraid and drunk in love, to run away and to come back, to feel that urgent neediness and to feel that unrelenting calm. To be alive and living. 

Maybe this time, I'll change the course of the story. Maybe I'll let the gremlin say his piece. 

After all, one attempt can reveal 1000 truths. And while the truth is scary, it's also something else. 

It's a gremlin. And it has something to say too. 

So maybe this time, I'll listen to it.