Some years, I’m irritated by the presumptuousness behind the sentimentality, or I feel angry about being drawn into a tortured narrative I want no part of. Other times, I reply right away: “Hope you’re taking care of yourself. I love you, too.” Funny enough, I mean it: A surge of tenderness passes over me when I type the words. But it could just as easily be true that I don’t love him, and I am only trying to say something kind because I pity his melancholy theater. Then again, another year, I read his message quickly and it hardly registers, like spam. Every September, my reaction is a surprise to me.
Why don’t I ask him to stop? Honestly, I don’t have an answer. What’s strange is that I’m not usually a person who shies away from confrontation or has a problem stating my desires. Does this mean that a part of me wants our once-a-year text exchanges to go on? Why do I continue to tolerate these texts?
Encountering Hartman’s work, I began thinking of these messages as portals into my subjunctive. Rather than seeking closure, the subjunctive animates an abundance of questions to which we may never know definitive answers. A subjunctive mode of inquiry uses narrative “both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling,” Hartman writes. For me, the subjunctive allows room for our impossible story, one in which we are a family of three — mother, father and child. Our texts have never once named what connects us: that I had an abortion, because I didn’t want to be a mother. He respected my choice; he also wanted desperately to be a father. It was devastatingly clear what was right for me, but it felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done until then. He was heartbroken, and he didn’t blame me at all. It felt important to believe that everything be true, all at once.
It’s perhaps too easy to conclude that my abortion allowed for the life I lead today: Child-free all these years, I went back to graduate school in my 30s and pursued fiction writing. Could I not have done it all as a mother, too? It would have been different, but not impossible. I won’t ever know, of course. And now that I’m in my early 40s, the possibility of motherhood recedes. The body cannot live in the subjunctive, unfortunately. If not regret, then, what is this feeling in the pit of my stomach called? “Nostalgia” — for the woman I was or could have been — is also the wrong word. To approach all of the above, in the subjunctive, is the closest approximation to peace I can imagine.
I think of the 8-year-old girl I used to be, learning a new language, a new country, in the third grade; of the young woman I was in my early 20s, working her first full-time job after college. Today I’m imagining me all over again, discovering surprising new versions and possibilities each time. To live in the subjunctive is a manner of seeing the past not as a fixed story but as one that the present continuously acts upon. The present is what determines the past, not the other way around. I can write it any way I choose, at my own pace. That’s another thing about the subjunctive: There’s always enough time there. All the time you could want, and need.