He often found himself looking up in study carrels, bored by the material, and tending to his ever-evolving image, the mirage of himself growing fainter and fainter before disappearing entirely. Who knew what of him? How many times had he existed out there, in others’ minds? In his?
I Know You Know Who I Am
As a collection, the stories in Peter Kispert’s I Know You Know Who I Am are concerned with the white lies we tell that grow monstrously, the selves we present to others, and the people we are at our core. Unexpectedly for a collection of queer people lying, it is largely unconcerned with being closeted; most characters are out and in long-term relationships, dealing with the deeper lies of who they are after the point at which they are supposedly living their most authentic selves.
Most of the lies at the heart of the collection are small: yes, I have friends in the area; yes, I used to swim competitively; yes, I hunt; yes, I believe in God. Rather than the lies themselves, it’s how they grow to the size of giants and destabilize the relationships they are the foundations of. More so than the act of lying, the collection is focused on how people react to the lies they tell and their fraught relationship to truth. Afraid of getting caught in first-meeting spur-of-the-moment lies, they begin to live them, choosing to move forward in untruth than admit the truth of having lied. The lies gain lives of their own, growing to the turning points these stories center around.
Telling the truth is an act of full vulnerability in these stories, and that’s precisely why so many of the characters in them avoid it. In the titular story, a friendless man hires an actor to portray a friend he lied to his boyfriend about having, propelled by the fear that his loneliness marked him as unlovable. In “Breathing Underwater,” another man lies about having an illustrious background in swimming to bridge the gap he sees between himself and his boyfriend, who he considers out of his league. The lies are born out of a desire to seem more than they are and to protect themselves against points of insecurity, unwilling to recognize until it’s too late that vulnerability is the basis of intimacy. The narrator of “I Know You Know Who I Am” implausibly makes it through the gauntlet of his own making, but the relationship unravels not long after.
In one of the strongest stories in the collection, “Aim for the Heart,” a man shoots and kills a deer in an attempt to prove to his boyfriend he was telling the truth about being a hunter. The narrator, Troy, hadn’t expected to see any deer and then had planned to miss the shot, scaring it off. Instead, he’s left with the corpse and the strange liminal half-truth of having lied about something that’s now true. Like other characters in the collection, his relationship ends not because his partner finds out the truth, but because the lie sits heavily on him and his perception of himself.
In a collection of stories all centered around queer characters, “Aim for the Heart” is also the story that most directly addresses the way so many queer people are forced to lie about who they are, in ways big and small, for the simple act of survival. While other stories briefly mention the danger of being visibly queer—”If he finds us, we’re not a couple”—this story ties Troy’s compulsive lying throughout college and the rest of his life to the root of his childhood friend’s attempted suicide. After his friend narrowly misses shooting himself in the heart, Troy is asked whether his friend had ever done anything to make him uncomfortable, which Troy intuitively understands as Did he ever come onto you? Is he gay? and underlying that, Are you gay? While Troy says no, he recognizes the underlying threat and his own underlying lie. I Know You Know Who I Am ties queer people and lying together, and here questions the scars being closeted leaves.
If the book is concerned with the lies people take as truth, just as important are the truths people take for lies. In “River is to Ocean as ____ is to Heart,” a teenage boy becomes obsessed with finding the skull he swears he saw in shallow water. In “Please Hold,” a stalled actor’s best performance comes immediately in the wake of getting bad news about his boyfriend’s health. In “How to Live Your Best Life,” a secret thief’s daughter is killed when she says the crime he’d most like to commit is robbery. Truth and duplicity still war at center stage but from another angle: these are all boys who cried wolf, and who now have to deal with the unsettling fallout, internal and external, of muddying the truth themselves.
I Know You Know Who I Am takes occasional trips to dystopian Black Mirror-type landscapes, but those are ultimately its weakest stories and they stand out against the rest of the cohesive collection as not far from gimmick. Instead, the collection is at its strongest with the sensitive and insightful realism that characterizes the rest of the stories.
The prevailing theme throughout I Know You Know Who I Am is the relationship between intimacy and truth, and it explores it by looking at the way relationships and lives fall apart with lies and half-knowing. Emotional intimacy can’t be achieved before the truth comes out, the lie always hang in between. To be truly loved requires being truly known, for both the good and the bad: what makes you laugh, the things you get excited about, how you look in the light, and the uncomfortable truths of your present, your worst mistakes, your biggest insecurities. If loving requires the mortifying ordeal of being known, how does a relationship move forward when it’s based on lies? I Know You Know Who I Am says it doesn’t, but the real question it asks is if you strip a liar of their lies, what’s left?