The Conjugations

The Conjugations by Dennis James Sweeney

Present: I Hide My Stomach

Present Progressive: I am hiding myself.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Present Perfect: I have hidden Crohn’s, and I have hidden in Crohn’s, but most of all I have hidden from Crohn’s, the name I did not want to give my body.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Past: I hid behind bathroom doors.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Past Progressive: I was hiding to keep the most vulnerable part of me close to myself.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Past Perfect: I had hidden before, and I still didn’t have what I needed from hiding.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Future: I will hide again.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Future Progressive: I will be hiding even here.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Future Perfect: I will have hidden enough to tell you hiding is a revelation, a way of seeing what has yet to be revealed.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!The story comes together with perfect grammaticality, but the conjugations hide the story. I have been hiding, I had been hiding, I will have been hiding, and I don’t know if I can show you where.


We Stood Around the Kitchen Island

in my senior year of high school. Everyone but me reached into a case of Natural Light. Metal snapped off metal and beer glugged out of the can, and I pretended I knew how it tasted and didn’t care. Their hands rose and fell. Their mouths made stories and jokes. I stayed still because staying still was the only way I knew how to be cool aside from drinking beer.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!The less I said the less they noticed me. I was ambient, I was air. Except when they laughed. When they laughed, I laughed too, and I made my hands move like arguments that I belonged there.


We Stood Around the Kitchen Island

in my girlfriend’s house and no one, including my girlfriend, knew what I was going through. I had been so many other places: in the doctor’s office, where the doctor told me I could not drink because my medication affected my liver; in the hospital, where they had stopped my pancreatitis six months before; in the bathrooms where I felt comfortable, and in the bathrooms I feared. But now I was in my girlfriend’s kitchen and part of me wasn’t there.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Silently, I imagined what it would be like to lose control of myself. What if I could just have a beer? I was unable to because of the medication, but I was thankful for the medication because it enabled me to keep myself concealed. The rest of them grew more vulnerable together the more they drank. I stood, awkward and aware.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Soon the kitchen grew stale. The girls went out to the deck, pulling on their coats. The boys drifted to the living room. I was left standing in the kitchen with my girlfriend, her best friend, and the case of beer. I could tell they wanted to leave the kitchen too, and that they would have if they did not feel responsible for me. During times like these I clung hard to mystery, which was my only attraction. They knew I didn’t want the same things as everyone else, but I couldn’t tell them what I wanted, which was to disappear.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!To relieve them, I shifted toward the living room. I began to listen to the boys. Finally I sat on the couch, which enabled my girlfriend and her friend to go outside without feeling that they had abandoned me, and enabled me to remain at the party without feeling that I had laid myself bare.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Sitting with the boys, I interjected often enough not to be discounted entirely. They drank beer. I crossed my arms. I laughed with them.

The Word Hide

means to put or keep out of sight; to conceal from the view or notice of others; to conceal from discovery, to secrete. These are the transitive uses, in which someone hides an object that cannot hide itself. But one can also simply hide. When the word is used without an object, it is clear who does not want to be found.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!As a noun, hide is the skin of an animal, raw or dressed. For six centuries it could also denote human skin, though that use has been confined to the contemptuous or jocular since the 17th century. Either way, hide hides—a thin layer protects what is inside. See another use of hide as a verb: to remove the hide from; to flay. This meaning exposes the word’s inherent threat. Without the hide, what is hidden cannot survive. Even though we want to know so badly: What does the place beneath skin look like?
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!For more than a millennium, hide was also a measure of land: the amount considered adequate for the support of one free family, a stretch of earth whereby survival could be defined. Some days I think hide is all I survive on: my ability to contain myself beneath a layer of words, which, if removed, destroy me.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!I cover myself with language as if it is my skin. I conjugate myself.

For Years I Wondered

what would happen to me if I drank alcohol. Maybe I would lose consciousness and pass out on the kitchen tile. Maybe I would vomit. Maybe, like pancreatitis, my side would stab with pain. Or my face would bloat, as it had when I took prednisone, and instead of hushed and mysterious I would be too much. My girlfriend would lead me upstairs, lie me in her bed, and tend to me while my body failed.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!It was almost too much to think of. What if I couldn’t get up? What if I had to stay in her room forever? What if she asked me what, in the deepest part of me, was wrong?
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Sometimes I was so close to opening, I could almost imagine what it would feel like to live without a hide.

Sometimes I Was So Close to Opening

but I knew where I had to go to open safely. What broke me was never the romantic failure of my liver; it was always my stomach’s unending gasp. When food got to my large intestine it halted, bloated, and I became inward and anxious. Soon, the press of my stomach would drive me to the bathroom.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!At my girlfriend’s house, the bathroom sat just beside the kitchen. It was a mercy that everyone at the party had scattered to other rooms. Only now, when no one was close enough to hear what happened in it, was the bathroom a sanctuary.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Still I did not want to use it. As my stomach swelled, I sat with the boys and convinced myself I could hold myself in. They spoke and laughed and there was no gap in the conversation where I could stand and leave, but my stomach was building, and now I had to stand even if I didn’t want to. My movements were slow, controlled, as if there weren’t a need driving me as hard as I could be driven out of the living room and through the kitchen. With immeasurable relief, I reached the bathroom door and shut myself in.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!I let out what had built up. I released the tension of the night. I lived in the feeling I knew so well—for the briefest moment, as long as I sat on the toilet, I didn’t have to hide.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Soon, however, the walls closed in. I heard voices. I had turned on the fan because it helped me imagine I was far away, but I wasn’t.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!That winter my hands cracked from all the washing. At the sink, the cold water ran over them like a threshold.

The Question Was

did I hide because I had Crohn’s, or did I have Crohn’s because I lived in hiding? Being sick gave me an excuse to believe what I had always suspected: I was different, unknowable, only partially present to the world.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!After a while, I couldn’t imagine living without my flailing stomach. It gave me a part of me to keep to myself.

Years Later

a girl I knew in college invited me to her parents’ house for the Fourth of July. A few months before, she had taken me to an abandoned room during a party, pulled me close to her, and kissed me for a few bewildering seconds. I barely knew her. Out of pity or possibility, she asked me to come out to the country and celebrate.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!By then I had learned that drinking did not hurt me, at least in the way I thought it would. We drank wine and ate a sophisticated dinner with her parents beside plate glass windows looking out on their garden. After dinner we drove to a party hosted by her friends, where I drank whisky and smoked a little pot and tried to blend in until I had to go to the bathroom. I went over and over that night. Each time I felt smaller, like I was shrinking.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Before we left the party, I had to go to the bathroom one last time. While I was sitting on the toilet, I heard her outside the door looking for me. She said to her friend, “He’s probably taking a shit again.” In her voice was barely concealed disdain.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!When we arrived back at her parents’ house, she showed me to the basement where I would be sleeping. Based on what she had done at the party earlier that year, I wondered if she wanted to kiss me. I wanted to kiss her. But I was embarrassed beyond my capacity for trying. She put me to bed like a baby, turned off the lights, and went upstairs. 

Years After That

I gave a reading from the first essay I ever wrote about having Crohn’s. In an art gallery with a Last Supper made of molasses behind the microphone, the first reader began. Suddenly my stomach began to bloat and roil. Was there time for me to go to the bathroom before my reading? No. It was too late. The first reader had finished and they were calling my name.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!I stood at the front of the room and read the essay. The audience listened with an attention I was startled to receive. A calm magic filled the gallery. After the reading, people I knew and people I didn’t told me what the essay meant to them, and I felt as if I had found it, the thing I needed to write about. I saw that this was the way toward actual belonging: through the part of me I have never wanted to reveal.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!But before the reading was over, there was an intermission. I rushed to the bathroom, entered a stall, and hesitated. What if someone came in and I was shitting? What if they had to listen to my essay and then immediately hear its evidence? After sharing such vulnerable writing, I could not stand the thought of being caught not beyond or above it, but subject to the exact circumstances I had just described.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!I understood then that I would never be able to emerge entirely from hiding. Writing about Crohn’s is an act of revealing myself, but even as I read my essay to you I have to go to the bathroom. And I am not ready to tell you that.

Four Hundred Years Ago the Word

was printed, almost the same as it is printed now. But the imperfection of the early days of movable type makes it easier to see how hide betrays itself. The word is always on the verge of breaking open, even when its job is to stay stuck and conceal.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Seeing hide printed is like seeing a body crammed onto paper. The word is a skin over what cannot be contained, marked and aged with the stretch of what is inside emerging.


!10!Once there was a man who published treason, then hid because the state was after him. The council issued a proclamation: Come out, come out, wherever you are. For what is hidden must be exposed; all who harbor him comply in his crime; and while the books he published were incendiary, it is the hiding that horrifies.


Once there was a man, arrested for being a Quaker, who could not conceal his praise. While imprisoned, he wrote a pamphlet to his brethren. His sermon sprang from the page like a fountain. He wrote the word hide in order to negate it: as an unimaginable condition, one that print can say but not imitate.


!10!Once there was a man who killed his wife-to-be; once there was a woman who made away with the fruit of her womb. To hear their executioners tell it, shame is what the man and the woman were hiding. But what were they hiding from?
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!We hide what we hide because the world fears the hidden thing. At the same time, we are obsessed with dragging it into the light. For this reason, hiding holds a tension. It is a temporary state, not a permanent one.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Say the word hide and it already implies a revealing. Given long enough—four hundred years, or maybe only a lifetime—what is hidden must come out.

Valentine’s Day

was a few weeks after my girlfriend’s party. Early that morning I sat on the bumper of my her car with my guitar and waited for her to come down the front steps of her house. Her school started late that day, so I sat for an hour in the cold. Finally she opened her front door. I shivered through the song I had written her. She was delighted. She was running late so she had to go. But thank you for the song. I can’t believe—you were out here for how long?
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!After school I returned to her house. Her parents were gone. I knew what this meant—both of us knew—but instead we sat on the couch and watched TV while we held hands. Afternoon turned to evening. Evening crawled in, and somehow I rose, and somehow I was in the hallway leaving.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Across from her front door, I rested my hands on her waist. Now was the time, since the rest of the moments had been wasted. I could pull her close. I could lead her upstairs. 
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!I couldn’t do it. I smiled nervously. Our hands ran over each other’s bodies and I left.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!On the drive home I wondered what was wrong with me. I had not been able to move, standing with her in the hallway. I did not understand I wanted to hide more than I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to hold myself close more than I wanted to hold her. It was a symptom of Crohn’s. Or Crohn’s was a symptom of my hesitation. Or my stomach was a symptom of my heart, which was afraid of my body. My intestines bloated into the gaps between the parts of me that were supposed to act as one decisive whole.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!That spring my girlfriend broke up with me. She said she wasn’t good enough for me, and even then I knew she meant I couldn’t give her what she wanted.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!We went to prom together anyway. We spun in the low lights. She split off halfway through to hang out with her friends and I drifted, looking for the people who would let me in. I was free, for a brief, terrifying moment, and in the motion of my arms and legs in the dark I could no longer ignore my body.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!But I knew what my girlfriend had intuited. I would never be able to trust my stomach to anyone. I would never let someone come close.

I Did

in the end, but that is a story I will tell later. I have to tell the story of my years of hiding first. And in them will be the promise latent in hiding, the fact that every concealed thing must be unconcealed.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Or I will never tell that story. What if, after you strip away one hide, you find another? What if it is hides all the way down?
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Present: I hide that worry.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Present Progressive: I am hiding my doubt.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Present Perfect: I have hidden my fear that my conjugations replace me.
!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!!10!Then the page crackles and stretches—a word. A sentence. Despite me, something I never meant to tell crawls out.

Notes on “The Conjugations”

All definitions referred to in this essay are from the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The images in this essay are modified versions of the following. First image: England and Wales Council of State, By the Council of State. A Proclamation. the Council of State having Received Information, that since the Escape made Out of the Tower of London, by Colonel John Lambert, a Person of Loose Principles, and Reduced, by His Own Miscarriages, into a Desperate Fortune, He Doth Endeavour without any Colour of Authority, to Rendevouz such of the Souldiers…, London, printed by Abel Roper and Tho. Collins, Printers to the Council of State, 1660,

Second image: John Whitehead, For the Vineyard of the Lord of Hosts to be Read in their Meetings : The Breathings of a Prisoner for the Testimony of Jesus, Who in the Deep Hath seen the Afflictions of His People, and Cannot Hide His Praise Who Support them, nor-with-Hold His Complaint because of the Hardness of Mens Hearts, but Cryes Unto the Lord God of Righteous Judgment, for the Deliverance of His Own People : With a Few Words of Exhortation and Advice, Given Forth as a Testimony of My Dearest Love to the Whole Seed of God, because I Cannot Otherwise Communicate it in this Time of My Restraint, I have been the More Large, that I may be Refreshed with You, and You with Me, in the Overflowing Fountain of our Life, London, s.n., 1662,

Third image: Deeds Against Nature, and Monsters by Kinde Tryed at the Goale Deliuerie of Newgate, at the Sessions in the Old Bayly, the 18. and 19. of Iuly Last, 1614. the One of a London Cripple Named Iohn Arthur, that to Hide His Shame and Lust, Strangled His Betrothed Wife. the Other of a Lasciuious Young Damsell Named Martha Scambler, which made Away the Fru[i]t of Her Own Womb, that the World might Not See the Seed of Her Owne Shame: Which Two Persons with Diuers Others Vvere Executed at Tyburne the 21. o[f] Iuly Folowing. with Two Sorrowfull Ditties of these Two Aforesaid Persons, made by Themselues in Newgate, the Night before their Execution, London, printed by George Eld for Edward Wright, 1614,

Dennis James Sweeney is the author of In the Antarctic Circle (Autumn House Press, 2021). His writing has appeared in Ecotone, Ninth Letter, The New York Times, and The Southern Review, among others. Originally from Cincinnati, he lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.