Everyone Should Make the Big Mistake

An excerpt from Sheila Heti’s widely acclaimed, brilliant and original new novel, “How Should a Person Be?

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when I was engaged to be married but afraid to go through with it—afraid that I would end up divorced like my parents, and not wanting to make a big mistake—I had gone to a close friend with my concerns. We were drinking at a party and left to take a walk through the night, our feet brushing gently through the lightly fallen snow. As we walked, I told her my fears. Then, after listening for a long while, she finally said, “The only thing I ever understood is that everyone should make the big mistakes.”

I took what she said to heart and got married. Three years later I was divorced.

~

In the years leading up to my marriage, my first thought every morning was about wanting to marry.

One night, in a bar on a boat that was permanently docked at the harbor, I sat beside an old sailor. He had been watching me steadily as I drank. Then we started discussing children; he’d never had any, and I said I thought I would not, as I was certain my kid would be a bad kid. He said, bewildered, “How could anything not good come from you?”

I felt so moved then—shivering at the thought of a divine love that accepts us all, in our entirety. The bar around us became rich and saturated with color, as if all the molecules in the air were bursting their seams—each one insisting on its perfection too.

Then the moment was gone. I saw him as just an old man staring at a girl—seeing her but seeing nothing. He didn’t know my insides. There was something wrong inside me, something ugly, which I didn’t want anyone to see, which would contaminate everything I would ever do. I knew the only way to repair this badness was devotion in love—the promise of my love to a man. Commitment looked so beautiful to me, like everything I wanted to be: consistent, wise, loving, and true. I wanted to be an ideal, and believed marrying would make me into the upright, good-inside person I hoped to show the world. Maybe it would correct my flightiness, confusion, and selfishness, which I despised, and which ever revealed my lack of unity inside.

So I thought about marriage day and night. And I went straight for it, like a cripple goes for a cane.

~

Several months before our wedding, my fiancé and I were strolling together in an elegant park when off in the distance we noticed a bride and a groom standing before a congregation, tall and upright like two figures on a cake. The audience was sitting on folding chairs in the afternoon sun, and we went over giddily to eavesdrop, crouching behind some false rocks, trying to be serious but giggling anyway. I could not see the groom’s face—he was turned away—but the bride was facing me. The vows were being exchanged, and the minister was speaking quietly. Then I saw and heard the lovely bride grow choked up with emotion as she repeated the words for richer or for poorer. A tear ran down her cheek, and she had to stop and collect herself before she finished what she was saying.

As my fiancé and I walked away, I said that I thought it was a pretty vain, stupid, materialistic part to get choked up on—but we admitted that we did not know her financial history.

On the day of our wedding, my fiancé and I stood in a bay window before an audience of a dozen people—family and close friends—repeating our marriage vows as the secular minister spoke them.

Then something happened. As I said the words for richer or for poorer, that bride came up in me. Tears welled in my eyes, just as they had welled up in hers. My voice cracked with the same emotion that had cracked her voice, but I felt none of it. It was a copy, a possession, canned. That bride inhabited me at the exact moment I should have been most present. It was like I was not there at all—it was not me.

In the months and years of our marriage that followed, I recoiled, disgusted, whenever I recalled this scene—which was supposed to be among the most beautiful of my life. Some people look back on their wedding day as a reminder of their love, but I felt ever uncertain, thinking back upon it, about whether my marriage could truly be called mine.

~

Every other Wednesday during my marriage, our apartment was filled with smoke from the cigarettes of all our friends. They drank in our rooms and made out on the fire escape. In the beginning, it felt like something truly important was happening. People came, and there was a bounty: cheese and grapes and bread and wine and all the alcohol you could drink.

But two years into our parties, I surveyed the scene from the corner and wondered, Why are we having these parties? What were we making, coming together like that? We were trying to prove that we had everything because we had parties, but I began to feel like we had nothing but parties. If anyone from the future could look back on what we were building, I was sure they would say, That could only have been built by slaves.

Friends passed through our doors. We laid out food and drinks. I started going to bed at one in the morning, then at midnight, then eleven, then ten. When finally everyone left at two or three or four, I would rise from bed and go downstairs, clean up the food, and cap the drinks. I would straighten the pillows, fix the chairs, sweep away the remnants of bread and cheese, dump out the cigarette butts and plastic cups. This was now my favorite part of the party.

~

I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one: I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain.

One night at one of our parties, I went into the bathroom with my stomach rumbling. I sat on the toilet and waited for the massive shit that I knew was coming, while friends and strangers sat around the living room, or stood outside the door, talking and drinking. Sitting there, I recalled a dream from the night before, in which I was taking pills that made me shit a lot. In my dream, I decided I would only write what I thought about as I shit—since I was now spending all my time shitting. But I could not shit, sitting there at the party. I hated the thought that when I opened the door, I would reveal to everyone the shittiness that was mine. I stood up and buttoned my jeans, looked down into the empty bowl, and went to get a drink.

After pouring myself a gin and tonic, I noticed that my husband was talking close to someone I had never seen before, who was a sitting on the window ledge, talking loudly over him. She had bleached blond hair and dark, obvious roots. Her voice was deep. She had the pitless eyes of a cartoon character and a genuine nonchalance in her being, and she was dressed in a strange outfit: heavy boots, tall white socks over black leggings, and a pink corduroy jacket with white fluffy clouds. She looked at the same time like a little girl, a sexy woman, and a man.

My husband and I never observed much decorum about who we could talk or flirt with—half the whole point of the parties was to talk and flirt around a bit—but something about this scene was threatening. I didn’t like his eagerness, how drunk he was getting, how alive and happy he seemed. It wasn’t like watching him talk to other girls. I felt a jealousy spoil my blood, noticing the loose and confident way she had, her unmistakable freedom. What does she have that I don’t? came into my head, like a thunderclap; a question that left me so ashamed that I turned away and made for the fire escape to smoke alone.

~

Since the beginning, there had been an empathy between me and my husband; there had always been a sweetness. It was like we were afraid of breaking the other. We never fought or nagged, as though the world was hard enough. As for difficult conversations that might hurt the other—we left those matters alone. Perhaps it could have gone on—our life and our love—but a few years into my marriage, I tripped. I tripped and stumbled and I regained my step, but in the wrong place this time, and my days began to mirror exactly, in smell and sensation, a month-long period when I was eighteen: a hot and sticky August. I’d just moved out of the house I had been living in with my high school boyfriend, and was now in my father’s basement. It was a month of limbo, between life in a house with my boyfriend and the freedom of theater school in another town.

That month, I experienced a tense idleness waiting for my new life to begin. It was a month of impatience, of stillness, like being set in amber. A certain smell followed me everywhere, like the smell of rotten candy. My insides were queasy. My skin was always sweating.

A vivid echo of those days, a living memory of it, entered my life again, came into my marriage, and remained with me for a whole six months. I wanted to break out of that loop—it felt terrible; something a person should not experience—just wrong! Every day should feel new, but I was back in the atmosphere of another time; one I had lived in already.

Every morning I woke up beside my husband and looked around to see if the feeling was still there; it always was. And I would get up for the day, exhausted by it already, sticky with the same tense idleness I had felt back then.

Then one day, without warning, the air pressure dropped. The feeling was just gone. I had done nothing to make it go. I looked about me, relieved. But it was only a pause, for then began a building-up, a feeling worse than what had come before, like I was about to hurtle through space and time, like I was a rock that had been placed into a slingshot, drawn back to that August and held there. Then the hand let me go.

I felt the blood inside me gathering fast, the pulse drum up in my ears, my skin grow tense and cold, like I was pushing through the atmosphere too fast. My body was filled to bursting with dread, the anticipation of something I did not know, and an equal resistance overtook me—I wanted nothing more than to stave off this terrifying end to which I was hurtling, which I saw in my head as some kind of pain, and which was accompanied by a phrase that went through my head, over and over again: Punch yourself through a brick wall, punch yourself through a brick wall.

One evening, I saw what the brick wall was: my marriage. A tension came over me, an unbearable feeling of just wanting to get it over with. The wall was there; the pressure could only be released one way. I sat on my hands the entire day, but inside I was hurtling through space and time like a rock, and I told myself not to see anyone—not to speak to anyone—but when my husband lay down beside me that night, I turned over and said, as though I had thought it all through, considered his side, and was making a thoughtful decision: “I cannot be with you anymore.”

He’d had no sense of the storm clouds that had been building within me, and when he slammed out of the room, the storm clouds burst into rain, and all over my face and body was the cool wet of relief.

~

I had lived with only one man before my husband: my high school boyfriend—the first man I truly loved. We thought we would be together forever, or if we separated, that we would return to one another in the end.

Before we moved in together, we lived down the hall from each other on the second floor of a crummy rooming house in tiny, separate rooms. He sat at his desk and wrote plays, while I sat at my desk and wrote plays too. One evening, spying outside my door, he heard me talking on the phone with a friend about how I had a crush on a photographer in New York and thought it would be exciting to be with him. The photographer had invited me to live with him there as his girlfriend and assistant. He had taken some flattering pictures of me before leaving his home in Toronto, and I still thought about him a bit, sometimes.

My boyfriend, feeling hurt and jealous and betrayed, that night stole my computer from my room as I was sleeping and wrote on it till dawn, then returned it to my desk before I woke.

When I got up the next morning, I found, there on the screen, an outline for a play about my life—how it would unfold, decade by decade. Reading it compulsively as the sun came up in the window behind me, I grew incredibly scared. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I absorbed the terrible picture he had painted of my life: vivid and vile and filled with everything his heart and mind knew would hurt me best.

In the story, my desire to be with the photographer in New York started me on a path of chasing one fruitless prospect after the next, always dissatisfied, heading farther and farther away from the good, picking up men and dropping them. While my boyfriend rose in prestige and power, a loving family growing around him, I marched on toward my shriveled, horrible, perversion of an end, my everlasting seeking leaving me ever more loveless and alone. In the final scene I kneeled in a dumpster—a used-up whore, toothless, with a pussy as sour as sour milk—weakly giving a Nazi a blow job, the final bit of love I could squeeze from the world. I asked the Nazi, the last bubble of hope in my heart floating up, Are you mine? to which he replied, Sure, baby, then turned around and, using his hand, cruelly stuck my nose in his hairy ass and shat. The end.

I tried to forget his play, but I could not, and the more I pressed it away, the more it seared itself into my heart. It lodged inside me like a seed that I was already watching take root and grow into my life. The conviction in its every line haunted me. I was sure he could see my insides, as he was the first man who had loved me. I was determined to act in such a way as to erase the fate of the play, to bury far from my heart the rotting seed he had discovered—or planted—there.

What power a girl can have over a boy, to make him write such things! And what power a boy can have over a girl, to make her believe he has seen her fate. We don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them.

* A series of excerpts from How Should a Person Be? (2012; Henry Holt) by Sheila Heti

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