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The Awareness That Someone You’ve Known for Years Still Has a Private and Mysterious Inner Life

It’s a joy to get to know someone over the course of many years. Learning her secrets, the color of her humor, the precise vibration of the mind-gears turning inside her skull. But sometimes you look across the room and catch a glimpse of her just being herself—brushing her teeth, or chatting away at a dinner party, or telling you about her day—and even though you may have seen her do it thousands of times, you begin to look at her in a different light, struck by her sheer uniqueness. Nobody else knows her in the same way you do. There’s only one of her in the universe. And here she is.

You take in the details of her face and try to imagine what you’d think if you didn’t know her name, if she were just some stranger on the street. It makes her seem ennobled in a way—a mortal being with a heartbeat, infused with a pathos and humor and a vulnerability you’ve never noticed before. For a moment you’re able to strip away the baggage of what she is to you and the roles she plays in your life. It’s easy to forget that she doesn’t just exist in the contexts you tend to see her in, not just one half of a couple, or one ingredient in a broader social soup, but steeped in her own unique vibe wherever she goes. Around her are a menagerie of relationships with hundreds of people you’ll never meet. Whatever she is to you, to them she might be a wildly different figure: an intimidating boss, a childhood buddy, the comic relief, or the one who got away.

And when she’s alone, she’s someone else entirely, a person you’ll never get a chance to meet. You can imagine her looking over her reflection in the bathroom mirror, making goofy faces, or reminding herself to live in the moment, to be herself, to get through the day. While falling asleep at night, she might be thinking over the parts of herself that make her feel proud, or self-conscious, or ashamed, trying to be a better person, even questioning the very traits that you love most about her. She might be going back through her memories, sifting through fragments and echoes, curating an entire alternate history that she keeps locked away from you: remnants of another life. Every word she speaks is thrumming with emotional resonances you can’t hear, informed by a context she’ll never be able to explain. She has desires too raw to defend, fears she can’t bear to think about. And all of this is happening all the time, invisibly, right there in front of you.

You’ll never fully know her, not really. As long as she lives, she’ll never find the right words to truly convey what goes on inside her head. But if it’s any consolation, she’ll never know you either. There will always be this fundamental separation between you. People sometimes speak of a relationship as a kind of union, but in truth, you are two separate people, with different lives, different bodies, a different past, and a different future. Each of you is a wholeness unto itself, with a tiny but unmistakable gap.

And yet, by some miracle, you’re able to transcend that separation. Over the course of years spent together, sharing your lives side by side, you feel something begin to take shape in the air between you, some third thing that takes on a life of its own. It’s like putting two images together and flickering them back and forth until they appear to spring into motion, infused with a life that wasn’t there in either one alone. When the interplay between you slows too much, the illusion is broken, and you recall your separateness. The best you can do is try to keep it going, keeping up the rhythm of all the little daily gestures and exchanges, the call-and-response of daily life, and hope it all works out.

There will always be a certain distance between us. Maybe the cynics are right, and love is only ever an illusion. But maybe it’s the sacred kind of illusion, like the shimmering blue gods who appear to shepherd children. It has power, if only because we believe it does. And that’s enough. All that is required is that we keep showing up, and never stop asking each other, “What are you thinking about?”

It’s not about getting an answer to the question. It’s the act of asking, of trying to reach across the gap, working through the mystery—that is what’s worth holding on to. That’s the feeling that must be kept alive, even if we never find the right words to express it.

Borrowed from the title of a piano composition by Erik Satie; its etymology is a mystery but may refer to Greek gnosis, knowledge, or Knossos, the mythical setting of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. Pronounced “nos-yen.”

Hanker Sore











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