Response: Secret

Editor Kirsten Larson, Editor's Choice, August 25th, 2014

The shaky ache of holding a lie back because which is worse?

igor moukhin photo nailed magazine

In our monthly Response Column, NAILED asks readers to respond to a particular word or phrase. We are seeking raw, honest personal responses that aim less to answer questions but more to raise them. September’s topic is VIOLENCE, please email your responses to by September 22nd, for publication at the end of the month. (Word count limit: 1,000 words.)

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Response: Secret


The Story of Your Absence, by Jennifer Berney


You sit on the floor of your dorm room with your knees at your chest, the phone against your sweaty ear. You run your hand up and down the stubble on your leg. You are arguing with your girlfriend again.  The wall behind you is a giant collage of images: black and white post cards, giant art prints, photos of your favorite bands and films. Jodie Foster, in a black and white still from Silence of the Lambs, gazes straight ahead in deep concentration. You hope these things define you. Outside it’s New York City, sirens and relentless honking.

Your girlfriend is five years older than you. She has bleach-blond hair and wears back leather. She doesn’t go to college. She plans to be with you forever, because you are kind, she says, and pretty. No one else has ever called you pretty, and so you go along. Since you’ve moved to New York, going along has meant that you spend eighty bucks each weekend to ride a Greyhound bus to visit her. She lives five miles from your parents, but you haven’t called them or dropped in for dinner and hugs, not once. Your savings account, the one that is meant to pay for food and textbooks, the one that is meant to last two years at least, is dwindling. On the phone just now, you’ve explained that you can’t visit this weekend. You held your breath before you said it.

It’s not just the money. This weekend you have obligations. You’re in a technical theatre class and required to strike a set on Saturday morning. Your grade will drop twenty points if you don’t. Your girlfriend doesn’t care.

“I work,” she tells you. “It’s your job to come here.”

“We should be able to skip a weekend,” you say, but your voice is timid.

“We could if we were strong,” she says. “But our relationship needs work. I thought you were serious.”

“Fine,” you say. “I’ll be there.” You hang up the phone. You pull your knees in closer.

Your roommate’s been sitting on her bed this whole time, a poster of a shirtless man on her side of the room. She’s chewing gum. “I don’t know why you two are together,” she says. “All you ever do is fight.”

All your life, you’ve been the kind of person who follows instructions, a trait that seems to be unraveling you right now. Whose instructions do you follow? How do you choose between the promise of your college life in New York City and the demands of the only person who’s ever chosen you?

If anyone looked closely they’d make note of this unraveling. But who can look closely when you’re never really there?  You’ve made friends with some of your classmates, but you keep them at a distance. You’ll eat lunch with them between classes but won’t stay up late with them in diners or discovering which bars don’t card. You attend every class, complete every assignment; you learn. But it’s like you are hovering—a ghost haunting your own life.

There’s another reason that you dread missing the set strike. There’s a girl you like, a student lighting technician. She looks like a boy except for a sweet pair of silver earrings. You haven’t talked to each other, except for the one time she teased you for eating a bagel with nothing on it. You think about her all the time. She would be a kind girlfriend, you can tell.  Once, while drinking coffee at a café counter, you think about her walking by. Moments later, she walks by. She doesn’t see you.

On Friday afternoon you ride the Greyhound. The bus fumes and the bumps always nauseate you.  You carry your backpack over one shoulder and take the subway three stops. Your girlfriend is waiting. She holds a bouquet of expensive flowers and looks at you like she’s sorry. Your stomach drops as you hug her. You pretend to accept her apology. You pretend to love her with an open heart.

On Saturday morning, you wake up before her. Sleeping there, she looks neutral, innocent. This strikes you as a lie. The clock says seven-thirty, and you lie there imagining your peers arriving for the set strike with their paper cups of coffee, some of them hung over, wiping the hair from her faces. You so badly want to be one of them. You want to show up with your own cup of coffee, take instructions from the lighting technician, look up at her as she stands on top of the ladder unscrewing bolts.

Your girlfriend won’t fight with you this weekend. Instead you’ll keep your mouth tight as you hold hands and walk through many neighborhoods. You will sit on grass and eat together, watch the sun change, and the river, and the gulls. Sunday afternoon, as you prepare to go, she will hold you by the shoulders and kiss you hard enough to hurt your lip. Something stirs in you when she takes you that way; it always does. When she’s done kissing you, she clasps her hands behind your neck and looks you in the eye. “You don’t like it there,” she tells you. “You won’t stay past this semester.”

You never cross paths with the lighting technician again, not in the hallways of your school or on the streets of New York City. You are relieved that to never lock eyes with her and feel ashamed for being the kind of asswipe who misses a set strike. At the end of the quarter, as promised, your transcript tells the story of your absence: a B- in technical theater. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. Your dorm room wall is already blank, your boxes packed. You’re leaving.


Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives with her partner and two sons in Olympia, Washington, and blogs here.

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Secrets Are for Telling, by Doug Chase


The secret I told my mom. Nine years old.

“I figured out something. It’s another way to pee. If I rub myself a lot then pee comes out.”

“Okay. That’s not pee. Don’t do that, anymore.”

The weirdest secret.

My first wedding was officiated by the “good artist” that did the Jack T. Chick tracts.

Related secrets include my years as a Pentecostal Christian, my degree from Bible College, having dinner with Jack Chick and his wife, answering phones for a Pat Robertson 700 Club telethon, and teaching in a Christian elementary school.

Where I met the woman who became my first wife.

The most illegal secret.

Figured out how to steal about two thousand dollars, most of which I used to buy comic books. Including a nearly complete run of Silver Age Green Lantern because I loved the cartoonist Gil Kane.

The worst secret.

Told my girlfriend I couldn’t see her anymore because I had to go back to my wife and kids.

Related secrets I told was a couple of weeks later when I told God I didn’t want to die, which to me meant the same thing as not going back to my wife, and then telling my kids I wouldn’t be moving back, and all the fuck storm that has happened with them in the twelve years since.

The best secret.

My girlfriend getting me to a therapist to help me deal with my wife. My girlfriend’s secret was she wanted the therapist to help us get back together. Same secret for me. I loved that girl.

The current secret.

I haven’t told anyone yet, so I won’t tell you.


Doug Chase lives in Portland, Oregon with his beautifully hilarious wife Tracey and his serenely zen poodle Mathilda. He is in Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing Workshop and is deep in the weeds of the first draft of his first novel.

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Secret, by Alexis Plank


Now, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m going to. Secret. A word of levels, of weight or malice, of excitement or growing older. Growing up and moving down steps and their descent of importance. Relativity being the most significant scientific law we can place on the adjective or the noun.

Becky wet her underpants.

…….Shaina doesn’t like you anymore.

………….I got my first kiss.

……………………I gave my first blow job.

……………………………I skipped the dentist to lose my virginity.

 ……………………………………Erik is stealing from work,

……………………………………………..Erik is fucking his Shaina,………………I don’t love you anymore.

For me, it is broken down by our ability to keep a secret, because after all, telling and having are not the same thing. It is the difference between asking for closeness and quarantining yourself from the herd, waiting to die of leprosy. Of course this is dramatic. It is a dramatic subject.

  1. Telling: it seems nearly contradictory to the nature of privacy itself, yet somehow the only thing that lets us know a secret could ever exist. The idea that something intended to be unseen or unspoken by others, can be specifically shared between lips and ears, seems to move beyond its basic definition and into a more dangerous spectrum. This action, of telling a secret, comes from a need to unburden ourselves. You can do this with your own secret. You can do this with someone else’s secret. When I got pregnant? I couldn’t tell you. There was no telling between us, between you and I. I told my sister. I had to, knew I had to, and knew I was going to anyways. But she is sensitive and this information would bury her. Not wanting help, but needing her to know, meant that she could not let me be alone, let me be okay. We shared something heavy between the two of us and now she needed a hand with the weight. So I gave her permission to share the information with someone. A mutual friend of my choosing and then the secret circuit could come to a close. A close, but it was still told…yes?
  1. Having: to have and to hold and to keep your mouth closed. The most painful? Words we cannot say out loud to ourselves. Can you bury it, can you push it down, can you find the base place in your belly where holding the unspeakable will be wrapped in acid and left to die? Because that is where secret love lies down to rot. That is where our shame calcifies and burns when we pee. That place, below and behind the belly button? It is the place where secrets drop heavy and tell us we are not safe.

I? I want to be blameless. I want to be left, not to leave. I want the city to lift itself from the earth and float out to sea. I will swim there if I want to find you, but for now leave me in the dirt and the trees. Leave me sitting half in the waves and entirely in the sunset. If I decided to let go, decided to go, what would that look like? That time I skipped my dentist appointment, does it look like that? Is it a new job, or no job, or an airstream in the desert? I don’t think I’m ready. Give me my veil back. Not to hide behind, but to carry around my neck, to float out the window alongside the cacti of southern California. But please this is mine, don’t say.

The other night I had a dream about a crow, a crow I could hear while I was camping.

The whole time in my dream I was understanding the difference between a crow and a raven. There was a difference of sound, color, and a personal understanding of desire that can’t be separated by wing shape. Now there is no memory of this hidden truth. Somewhere in the subconscious my memories are cruel. Remembering fingers and lips and sweat. Fingers and confusion of belonging, because those fingers didn’t belong to me but I didn’t want them to leave. Wanted them to stay on my body, in my body. Wanted those lips to stay around my body.

I’ve had an easier time leaving mountains.

Truly having a secret is a pain I wish on no one. It means there is no point of relation in sight. No one in which to confide your heart of hearts, your fears, wishes, dreams, misgivings, the crises of left and right. What a lonely existence, when the skin begins to crunch from attempts to contain. This is where dull eyes come from and children who stare too hard in the mirror. A secret. What a lovely word and such a fun game in innocence and frivolity. I have a secret, but you must promise, absolutely promise, that you won’t tell anyone alright?

The shaky ache of holding a lie back because which is worse? But you are the one who did it anyways. You, the one without a word on Christmas and the face no one ever seems to forget. How was it you the entire time when all the while I worried I held back too much, too often? Secrets are attached to regret, to dismissal, to mortification and isolation. They are connective tissue between junior high girls and the hot stainless through butter in the same lunchroom. I have a secret. I won’t forget you. When I have wanted solitude, when I have needed isolation, I did not turn to a secret, but you did. When you left us, I put the miscellany of our lives into ashtrays around our house. When I found out that I was alone under this roof the entire time? The idea of a secret sank into me, wrapped my spine in regret and I am telling you now: sorry. Why did you keep that from me for so long?


Born in 1987, Alexis Plank spent the first half of her childhood growing up in the Bay Area with such wonders as public transportation and the best field trips public education can provide. The second half took place on her families ranch in Etna, California under the watchful eye of a loving, supportive community. She recently graduated from Portland State University where she found a balance between those two dynamics: a vibrant city, welcoming of culture and creativity, and the ever-present feeling of a family creating the space to nurture and

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Decent Enough, by Sarah Key


A shutter hangs slightly askew, and white flakes of paint scatter around the plastic milk crate below my feet. Lead-based. My father calls to tell me that he’s on his way home from the game. It’s been canceled. He says there is a tornado moving in across the mountains and too much lightning near the ballfield. He listens to the weather report on the radio in his car and curses about nothing in particular. Maybe they were up in the final inning. Maybe the other team was about to forfeit. Maybe my father is afraid. The wind and static muffle his voice.

If I pressed a screwdriver into the window sill, I would find rot.

On the other side of the mountain, I see a black tunnel dividing the sky. I press the handle of the screwdriver into my palm and look down the road for any cars. I remember the night before, my boyfriend dropping me off at the end of the street and the way he gunned his Firebird out of there as soon as my backpack hit the pavement. Decent, I said. That was my answer when he asked me how it felt. Decent is a word you hear a lot in the south. Decent person, decent meal, decent sex a decent amount of time. As he drove away, I waved and his car picked up speed.

If I said goodbye sooner, I would smile more.

The tornado cut across the mountains swallowing trees and light and the smell of summer. I think of how easily the earth can kill a person. I think of the floral mattress stained and without sheets and how warm anger can feel in the midst of a wild tornado evening. When my father parks his car in the driveway, he runs inside racing the storm, dappled with rain, and knocks at my bedroom door. He asks if I am there. He wants to know if I’m decent.


Sarah Key is an intern at Zone 3 Press. She teaches playwriting and fiction as a general staff member for Humanities Tennessee during the summer and volunteers for the Southern Festival of Books. In her spare time, Sarah maintains a blog called Dog-faced Atheist and hosts local writing workshops, readings, and ten-minute playhouses in Clarksville, Tennessee.

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[Header Photo Credit: Igor Moukhin. View a gallery of his photography on NAILED, here.] Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Kirsten Larson

Kirsten Larson is a Contributing Editor at NAILED. She lives near Portland, Oregon. She loves words and is very curious. She received her MFA in writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She writes for The Huffington Post, and is an Adjunct Instructor at Portland State University. Her work can be found in NAILED, Huffington Post, Pathos, M Review, and several other places. She is currently working on two books.