DON’T tell me your secrets!
For years Bob’s been loaded down with unwanted confidences— and getting blamed for keeping them. So now he’s going to blab and relax
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
I WISH people would stop telling me things in strict confidence. I’ve found myself lying to my own guests in order to keep someone else’s secret, only to discover that everyone else in the room knew about it—but didn’t know I was such an accomplished liar.
I’ve had people hand me their conscience as if I were a check-room girl, and I’ve had people tell me things I was to guard with my life, then suddenly move to Ottawa, leaving me with a bunch of old left-over secrets that I couldn’t figure out what to do with. From now on,'I’d just as soon everybody just told me things like what color they’re going to paint the cottage.
My ears bend forward at a bit of gossip, the same as anyone else’s. It’s just that I’ve found that confidences cause a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on the nerves. When something is passed on in strict confidence, the chances are that somebody is telling too much, all at once. It’s like some travel-book authors who, to judge by their books, spend all their time grappling with snakes, leopards and natives. Everything they say is probably true. The only thing is, they’ve put all these adventures on one page. And that makes a difference—like the difference between two fingers of Scotch straight, and the same amount in a glass of water.
A little while ago I sat at a bar with a man I used to work with. He said he’d appreciate it if I never mentioned it to a living soul, but he was the victim of a tragic marriage. His wife, he said, was a cold, brittle, dazzlingly beautiful woman who treated him as a spineless cuckold. He painted a picture of her coming out of her bedroom after supper, dressed for the evening, smelling of My Escapade, making little effort to hide her scorn as she watched him fuss over baby bottles, and telling him she was off to a night spot and wouldn’t be home till dawn.
The next time I met him was at a picnic. I kept wondering who the nice little fat woman was who handed me wonderful sardine sandwiches, until I finally realized that it was his wife. They sat surrounded by milk bottles, blankets, a basket with a baby in it, little wads of cotton batting, toothpicks, their own firewood, an alarm clock and an extra pair of
dry socks. It all looked about as tragic as an ad for thermos bottles.
Every time I expected his wife to come out in her true character, she said something like, “Watch the sandwiches on brown bread, dear.” She’d turn to me and say, “George has had trouble with his teeth ever since he bit into a walnut on our honeymoon.”
What this man told me was the truth as he saw it. He obviously thought his wife beautiful and dazzling, and she’d got cold and brittle just the night before he told me the story of his life. I found out that what had happened was that she had told him she hadn’t been out of the house since the day she went to the Anticipation Shop, and it wouldn’t hurt him a darned bit to look after the baby for one night. She went to a movie with an old girl friend, and saw East of Eden. She probably did smell of My Escapade, too, but what George left out was that it was the first thing besides Pablum that she had had sprayed on her for six months.
What keeps the lid on?
The point is, it all had nothing to do with their over-all relationship, which was as comfy as an old armchair. The trouble is that confidences rest on startling dramatic incidents, whereas the truth also rests on the long dull stretches in between. This is the reason why those stories that are told with interjections like, “Well, the lid’s off,” or, “We’re sitting on a keg of dynamite,” never seem to end with someone drawing you aside a second time and telling you confidentially how it all turned out. The lid just doesn’t move, or the dynamite gets wet.
It’s the uneasy realization that most confidences are over-dramatized that makes some people, as soon as they’ve revealed some tragic aspect of their secret lives, begin to snub the person they confided in. One time I sat in Child’s with a fried scallop half way to my mouth while a salesman with an industrial insulation and plumbing company told me a tragic story that had begun a year ago when he had returned from a two-month business
trip to Asbestos, Que. He had arrived home on Christmas Eve, loaded down with toys for his two children, a mink stole for his wife, two tickets for a vacation in Bermuda and the big news that he was being considered for vicepresident of the industrial firebrick division.
“It was the happiest moment of my life,” he said. “I’d reached the second-from-thetop rung.” He stopped and poked his bread roll whimsically, then looked up with a pathetic little smile. “Do you know what she said?”
I shook my head, still holding the scallop in mid-air.
“She said, ‘Well you’re just eight years too late. Eight lonely years while I waited for you to look at me, and you talked of nothing but number-three reducing elbows and lefthanded threads. I’ve decided to leave you. Don’t try to stop me. ’ ”
He got up, creased his check carefully, looked up quickly and said, “I don’t know why I told you all this. I’ve never told another soul.” .
Evidently he soon wished he hadn’t even told me, because the next time I met him in Child’s he tried to hide behind a ketchup bottle. He’s been trying to hide from me ever since, behind pillars, potted palms, newspapers, notions counters and distant looks.
I don’t blame him. And I don’t mean because of what he told me his wife said to him. Everybody’s wife has at one time or another said she was leaving because of something like reducing elbows. I mean, because he believed her. All marriages have to pass through these long dark tunnels. We just have to sit still till we come out the other end. This man had just got claustrophobia so bad he’d cracked. He hadn’t let me in on a secret, he’d let me in on a state of nerves, and he hasn’t forgiven me yet for listening. The trouble with a confidence like this is that it’s a compromise between a desire to be stoic and close-lipped, and to have someone appreciate how stoic and close-lipped we’re being.
One time, a man my wife and I have known for years told me a gaudy story about an affair he was having with some girl at the office.
“I wouldn’t have
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looked at her,” he explained, “if Lois hadn’t stopped speaking to me for a week. A man needs some respect and companionship, and, well, I just sort of turned to this girl in Accounts Payable. I wish you could meet her. Not really beautiful, but'smart. You should see her do algebra.”
I tried to ease the grip of his moral dilemma with a few philosophical remarks, then left him to work it out himself, his secret safe with me. During the next couple of months, my wife accused me twice of not taking hold of practical matters the way Harry did. I wanted to tell her what old Harry had really taken hold of, but sat there keeping his secret and startling my wife with my expression, which was the same as if I’d just swallowed a mouthful of boiling tea.
After all this, I met Harry at a party. He got my wife and me in a corner, took a pull at a Martini, gave me a rakish grin and said, “Guess you’ve wondered about how I made out with that little girl friend?”
He glanced at my wife to see how she was taking the news that all husbands weren’t the domestic old bean pods her husband was. Then he said, “To tell you the truth, I haven’t seen her for months. Got too busy on the new house in Orangeville.” He looked at me and chuckled. “Always remember that advice you gave me, though, about marriages being as out-of-date as mustache cups, and that everybody should have a divorce who can afford one.”
When he walked away, I tried pursing my lips and peering around the room briskly for people I knew, but feeling my wife’s gaze just beneath my ear. Finally I said, “Glad Harry got things straightened out, even if he did get everything I said wrong. Three months ago I thought he was going to get a divorce.”
“You mean you’ve known about this for three months?”
“I had some inkling of it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it was a secret. He told me not to tell anyone.”
My wife looked at me as if thinking if I’d keep one secret from her, I’d keep dozens, and probably about girls who were good at algebra. I was the villain of the piece.
One time when I was employed by a text-book publisher, I worked with a quiet stolid man with a large jaw who kept me in a state of suspense with office secrets for a year and a half until I realized they were the very worst kind of secrets. I mean the intuitive or deductive kind.
This man would come into my office, close the door carefully behind him, sit down, look out the window with a flushed face and say, “Well, I hear the lid’s off. J. P. is being kicked upstairs. R. G. is out, and T. D. is slicing the department right down the middle. I understand there’s something about a Russian mail-order firm taking us over. I’m just going to pretend I don’t know anything about it. Don’t breathe a word of this, will you?”
For the next week every time I got an interoffice memo my hackles would stand on end, until I realized they were just about things like using blue requisition slips in the future instead of the old pink ones that they’d run out of.
This man at least thought he had something to communicate. It’s worse when confidential information is passed on by someone who isn’t quite sure of what it is and who plays safe by telling
you not to mention it to a soul. I’ve shared one of these vague, hinted-at but not-quite-defined confidences with one man for years. I don’t know yet what it is, and I don’t think he knows either. All he knows is that it has something to do with a new career. E\ery time I meet him he gives me a bit more information on it. He moves closer to me, takes his pipe out of his mouth, looks up and down the street, and says:
“I’d rather this didn’t go any further, but I’ve been working on a little shop in my garage. I got the idea three years ago from a book on infinite proportions. I’ve got my eye on a secondhand lathe now.”
Ef I throw him a leading question to trjto find out what he’s talking about, he just lowers his voice, moves up until his toes are touching mine, and says, “That’s just it. The beauty of it is, I’ll still have half the garage for anything else I want to do. And don’t think my wife isn’t behind me on this. You mightn’t think it when you don’t know her very well, but she’s smart. She was a stenographer for a pretty big name in Ottawa for years.”
If she’s relying on this man’s secret program for a livelihood, she should get her old job back. I don’t think his secret strategy will produce anything more real than a mild psychological disturbance. A lot of confidences, if not most of them, are the same. We don’t move in close to one another and lower our voices about things that are going along nicely. When we touch toes before we tell something, it’s because of secret fears and doubts which shouldn’t be communicated at all.
Bleeding with curiosity
It’s surprising how far some people go with this desire to keep things confidential. I’ll always remember one man 1 worked with who always had a hectic manner, as if he’d just finished a tussle with someone. He was a selfconscious man with a heart-shaped face and the expression of an owl. He’d come into my office quietly and say, “I’ve something to tell you that I wouldn’t want to go any further. I— ” He’d stop and think, then say, “Oh, look—let’s just forget about it.”
By now I wouldn’t be able to forget about it, and I’d be sitting there, looking reliable, ready to keep my lip buttoned up and nearly bleeding at the ears with curiosity.
“Well, all right, I’ll tell you,” he’d say, with a sudden change of mind. He’d get up and close the door, first looking nervously up and down the aisle.
“Do you mind if I close that other door?” he’d say.
“No. Go ahead. Close the window too. Are you sure you want to tell me about this? I don’t want to know if you don’t want to tell me.”
“No. I want to tell you,” he’d say. “After all, what’s friendship for? Well, to come right out with it, I’m going to start taking electric-guitar lessons.”
I’d sit looking at him, waiting for the secret. This would be it.
“I’d just as soon nobody knew about it till I know how to play. I mean, I don’t want to be pestered with people asking me to play at parties and things.”
I’d feel the way I did the night they postponed the first Louis-Walcott fight, when I stood in the middle of the living room, keyed up for fifteen bloody rounds and with nothing to do but make a scrambled-egg sandwich and some Ovaltine and go to bed.
But the thing is, this man’s secret didn’t have anything to do with guitars, really; his secret had to do with some weird idea of himself being pestered by
fans, maybe bobby-soxers, and probably forgetting how to play when faced by an audience.
Like a lot. of things that are handled with the greatest discretion, it was a very romantic treatment of the facts. A confidence is essentially a romantic idea anyway. We sit around with our eyes unfocused, thinking of the stark drama of our affairs. We smile, sneer, move our lips and laugh softly at our triumphs over our enemies, until we just have to relieve our state of suspense by telling someone all about the things that, are happening to us.
We create secrets around life’s little problems the way an oyster creates a pearl around a piece of sand. Or we simply make a secret out of a Freudian wish, and project it. on anyone who will swear never to divulge it.
But life is rarely clear-cut, well plotted or full of the raw undigested slices of drama that make good secrets. It’s more likely to be a mixture, with its villains and heroes blending into one another, like Irish stew, and the whole thing leaking a bit around the edges. Not that this would matter particularly, but secrets are a lot. like lies: they
usually get more and more complicated. All morals apart., it’s usually simpler to tell the truth; and it’s a lot simpler to tell it out loud.
In fact, I think the ideal way of discouraging people from entangling us in their private affairs, is to do what one man 1 know does: be completely indiscreet from the beginning. He just tells anything he feels like telling, to anybody. When he is accused of not keeping secrets, he just smiles, nods and says, “Say, that reminds me—have you heard about Frank and that sisterin-law of his? Well, it seems— ” ^