I Didn’t Know Existential Therapists Were a Thing Until I Got One

I didn’t know existential therapists were a thing until I recently got one. Who knew they had therapists who studied De Beauvoir and Camus, who worked with people like me; people haunted by the concept of eternity since age seven, by the perennial cosmic disaster of Sunday afternoon, and by the capital V void, the edge of which I have spent most of my life peering masochistically over?

I walk the therapist through my personal existential classics. Am I derivative? Am I of use? Am I who I think I am or am I someone else entirely? She explains to me why, for my whole life, I’ve been seeking myself. The reasons are various—ego formation and childhood messages I did and didn’t receive—but I know what she means. I’ve spent years looking for clues that I am who I suspect I might be. You look for these clues, she says, in others. Vigilant as I am against codependence, existentialism allows that self cannot be fully revealed or witnessed without the other. The friend, the lover, the person who can see you like you can’t.

Examples of things I know about myself without further evidence: I am unreasonably excited by lipstick. When I do something like peel an orange I am forcefully reminded of my belief in God, which is at once a belief in something nameless and expansive, and also a belief in God, specifically. The faces of squirrels make me emotional. Rotisserie chicken makes me feel at home. My crushes are numerous and bottomless and largely evergreen. My love of music is downright prayerful. A fancy pajama set makes me feel like a luxurious grownup. I am melodramatic and cavernous of mind, haunted of skin and crystalline of heart, soft in places but bristled in others. An indoor kid with outdoor yearnings who has spent years looking at turns masculine and feminine and both and neither.

I mean, I tell my existential therapist. It’s not like I don’t know myself pretty well. I’ve been around myself for well over forty years. It’s not nothing. Also, though: it’s far from everything. And she’s right. Sleuthing myself has become a kind of second nature. Looking for clues.

Existential clue-hunting is, of course, not news: It’s a time-honored queer tradition.

Clues like the way my partner looked at me when I checked off ‘cis woman’ under the identity options on an application I was filling out a few years ago, like I’d just ordered a burger with no bun. You’re not cis, they said. I blinked. They were right, of course. Ever since age twenty-one, when I dreamed I was a gay man prancing languidly in a circle with other gay men, incidentally including Rupert Everett, all of us clad only in white sheets, I have moved through the world in nonbinary ways. My gender has always felt at once alien to me, and also so skin-familiar it eludes the words I might use to describe it.

So, others have described it. Gentleman? I’ve asked lovers, as if pleading for more dessert, and they’ve granted me yes. Handsome, boychik, starlet, prince. Muppet, pigeon, barmaid, femme, another place, another time, or this one. Gentleman. The kind of thing where blushing isn’t about embarrassment; it’s about inhabiting yourself slightly more than you did yesterday. It’s about something coming back to you so quick it shows in your face.

Clues like when I ask my friends if they think I have a gay face. I think I have a gay face. They say yes, but they are biased. Walking down the street in Warsaw once, I clocked someone as queer and inarguably hot, and I felt myself do the things: the Stride, the Look, the Head Cock. Am I legible to you, my body was asking? But I don’t speak any Polish, and I’m not sure my body was asking the right question either.

Clues like how an ex called my writing “a cross between Cheryl Strayed and Isaac Bashevis Singer.” I agreed with neither comparison, but I was still pleased he’d caught an angle, some little shred of what I recognized as aesthetic evidence. Another ex once drew a representation of my brain as a weedy and overgrown swamp, and unflattering though it seemed at first blush, I was not inclined to disagree.

Or clues like the fight my partner and I had in a hotel room, at the apex of which I disappeared my own face into the recesses of my hoodie and wailed I just want to be seen! In this case, I think, being “seen” meant being heard, and being heard meant being responded to. Soon, we were laughing. Now, in the aftermath, I feel quite seen when my partner recounts that night, how direly I wailed, and how fully I disappeared my own head. They caught that, I think. They get it after all.

Honestly, sometimes the clues are just sex. That apex of benevolence and wickedness I find in me when I can be all prowess, stripped of myself and utterly inhabited, lit by something feral. Any name I still proudly call myself originated in the first wash of that light, starkly revealing me not only to my lover, but to myself, growling and just barely unashamed of my hunger.

In my grad program, I was older. I laughed as loud as I wanted at all the readings, and invariably laughed first. The other students told me it gave them permission to laugh, too. My cackle, a horn of permission. It permitted me too, by escaping me without my notice and preceding me, I should have told them. A clue.

And of course there are the nights I have spent on Google, trying, as they say, to find myself on the internet. Sleuthing myself into being. Searching “OCD without the CD” and “am I a good cat parent” and “intrusive thoughts” and “how do I know if I’m really in love” or “how do I trust myself when I am in fact only an echo of those who came before me” and sometimes I do find myself, but sometimes, honestly, Google is stumped. Not because I’m exceptional; just because I don’t know the words yet.

Sometimes it’s like instead of looking for clues, I’m planting them. Like when the guys from Chabad try to give me Chanukah candles or ask me if I’ve heard the shofar yet and I say good yontif, gmar tov, revealing myself. I know the words, I am telling them. I used to be Orthodox but I no longer look the part, so they raise their eyebrows, though it is Brooklyn, so they don’t raise them much. Seeing them see me, even fleetingly, lights me, like we’ve met and danced in some much older forest much farther away.

You’re such a convener, says a friend, sitting at a table I’ve festooned with roses and honey and challahs I haven’t baked but have lovingly picked out. Three other friends nod, agreeing. Convener feels like someone catching something about me that I almost missed. I hold the descriptor like it is the golden key to everything. Something I didn’t think I was but was always reaching for, and maybe reaching is a kind of being, too. I imagine myself ladling warmth into bowls, imagine myself shimmering in a doorway, imagine myself to music others can hear, too.

In a piece in The Atlantic, Caleb Madison points out that “seen” isn’t so much a feeling as a passive verb. But the efforts we make to be seen, I think, are active. They’re the leaning away from the gutter, standing up to pop through the sunroof. Why do I want a certain song playing when you come into my home? Why do I want to hand you your cocktail just so? I’m an easy host, a rake, a card, I’m bejeweled, I have a gay face. I want to love and be loved. If reaching is a kind of being, it’s a reaching toward.

After all, I’ve been hunting for clues since I was an Orthodox Jewish pre-teen. Scouring the YA shelves for books where best friendships between boys shimmered with projected sexual tension. Obsessing over my people’s ancient stories, the ones where intimate friendship between men and men, between women and women, intimates something else entirely. David loving Jonathan, he says, more than the love of women. Ruth telling Naomi she will follow her wherever she goes. Stories that bore the evidence I existed, that my desire was not fabricated nor derivative, and also that it was intricately fabricated and incredibly derivative, the way desire is always only made from all desire that precedes it.

Maybe it will only ever be refractions. Maybe I will lose sleep. I will gather people sometime soon at a tableful of pleasure and interruption and someone again will nod at me like I’m where I should be. Someone will recognize me from the old world forest. But also maybe agility grows in the reaching toward, the leaning away from the gutter. Maybe it is just that I am looking at you and you are looking at me and in that shimmering constellation, we are exactly who we suspect we might be, if only briefly.

Temim Fruchter’s first novel, City of Laughter, is available now from Grove Press.

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Temim Fruchter

Temim Fruchter is a queer nonbinary anti-Zionist Jewish writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland, and is the recipient of fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Vermont Studio Center, and a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award. She is co-host of Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn. Her debut novel, CITY OF LAUGHTER, is out now on Grove Atlantic.

Temim has written 1 article for us.


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