I’ve always had an unstable relationship to time. Maybe that’s because in Chinese, my first language, verbs aren’t conjugated. Grammatically, everything occurs in the present tense, unless otherwise indicated: yesterday, this morning, next Tuesday, three months from now. I was 8 when my family emigrated from Taiwan to the United States, where I learned English as if by osmosis. Soon English replaced Chinese as the language I spoke, wrote and dreamed in. It wasn’t until Spanish class in high school that I had to consider how language ascribes concrete realities of past, present and future; that the grammar we use can reflect what has already happened and express hope for what’s yet to come. This second modality, as my Spanish teacher explained it, was called “the subjunctive.”
The literary scholar Saidiya Hartman describes the subjunctive as a “grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes and possibilities.” In español class, I’d learned to invoke the subjunctive when speaking about uncertainties in life, events that may occur in the future. Hartman, however, applies the subjunctive to critical examinations of the archival past. Reading her work, I began to understand the power of the subjunctive to unsettle historical narratives. While this opened up new intellectual avenues for my writing and scholarship, I didn’t expect it to also radically change how I saw a recurring story in my personal life.
Every September for over a decade, I’ve received some version of this text message on my phone: “Thinking of you, my dear. I love you.” These annual missives come from an ex-boyfriend who otherwise never contacts me. I was young during our relationship, and about six months into it, I became pregnant. We talked earnestly about “options,” but I knew what I had to do. I terminated the pregnancy, and soon after, we split up. The texts that followed, I assumed, were meant to commemorate the birth of a child who never existed, to mourn the death of our possible lives as co-parents. His devotion to these recurring reminders simultaneously enshrined what happened, what didn’t happen and all that I knew he had desired to happen. These messages turned the grammatical subjunctive into a way of being in the world: September was the month when our baby would have been born, if I had carried to term.
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.
Jean Chen Ho is a fiction writer whose work includes the debut story collection “Fiona and Jane” (Viking, 2022).