Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Melissa is telling me about the ten years she spent in Rome, working for a famous Italian film director. She chooses her words as precisely as if she were carving a rose from marble. Ah, the images she creates! Long, intriguing lunches on a piazza with an international film crew. Lovers, male and female, married and single, famous and unknown. Films made in locations all over Europe. Passion. Decadence. Romance.
One part of my mind, the accountant, is busy at work. “Is she telling the truth?”
There are too many details; the story is too rich to be unreal.
“Then, why,” demands the accountant, who would reassure herself by rushing Melissa to her story’s end, “why is she on the streets now? Why for the last six years has she lived all alone in parks and on beaches?”
When I listen to the homeless women I work with at the shelter, the accountant is always on the lookout, scouting for any key differences that would ensure that I will never share the fate (frightening beyond words) of these unloved women. Melissa makes the accounting difficult. She’s my age, funny, prettier and better educated than I am.
I’m cooking meatballs while Cathy, who looks about twelve years old and has a necklace and bracelet tattooed amateurishly on her pale skin, tells me that she’s pregnant. My heart sinks for her, for the slight curve of her belly that must be her baby.
“I’ve got two more they took away from me. Both boys. I named ’em both Clifford. One’s in Fresno, and one’s with my Grandma.”
I focus on the way the meatballs shrink as they turn brown.
“The doctor says I got three in there this time. One’s too small and won’t live. Do you like the name Clifford? My boyfriend says I’m the devil. I don’t think I am. Do you? Do you like the name Clifford?” I look up and into her slightly unfocused eyes. My only gift is my attention; her story is her gift to me.
“I lost my sleeping bag. I bet my boyfriend took it. The other day I got in a fight with a girl, and like to beat her to shit. Do you like the name Clifford for a boy? Do you like my hat?” She preens above the skillet.
I smile and nod yes. Reality shifts. I love the hypnotic effect that some of the women have on me. The less “sense” their stories make, the more the accountant struggles, until, confused, she retreats to muddle over her “facts,” trying to connect one to another. Then another part of my mind just drifts on the rhythm of the story, sinking deeply into some other reality, some truth that has nothing to do with what any of us say or do or think.
Now that I am entrusted with these stories, I have a new way of looking at my own. What truth is for me is even less obvious than before. I think about lies I successfully told myself in the past: that I’d emerged unscarred from my parents with their Ancient Age bourbon and Lone Star beer; that I was happily married and would live forever protected in the suburbs; that I could never wind up picking food from trash bins.
I wonder what lies I tell myself now. They slip around the corners of my unconscious before I can see them. I am too old now to pretend I don’t tell lies. I comb my life and my stories like I comb my cats during flea season, peering, searching for the truth — and the lies — that I know must be there. Am I truly happy in my marriage this time? Is my work what I really want to be doing? Would I be happier in a smaller, simpler life somewhere? Should I work harder to find a teacher?
I am still lying to myself because I still don’t know all of my truths, and probably never will. I can only hope that these lies, while they remain, are protecting and insulating me from life. I can only pray that these lies I hypnotize myself with won’t shield me from my truth until it’s too late for me to wake up and live it.
Santa Monica, California
Once, the world was whole. I remember that, even if I can’t ever get back to how it felt. I can remember when everything was a seamless web, when everything was true all over and couldn’t be anything else.
This was a long, long time ago, in the days when there were washing machines, but there were no dryers yet. We lived in an apartment house in Queens. There was a room in the basement full of washing machines, and during the day Mommy and I would go down with a load of laundry. To get there we had to walk through a long, dark, scary room that I started to call the magic room after I learned how to skip there. When the laundry was done, we pulled it all into a big straw basket, and went back in the elevator, all the way up to the roof, where we hung the clothes out on lines strung up next to the very first television antennas. At night, when Daddy came home from work, after he changed his clothes, he and I would go up to the roof and take the clothes down.
One night, when the last of the clothes were off the line, and Daddy had picked the basket up in his arms, he turned to me and said, “Look, in the sky. See that red star? That’s Mars.” He was pointing, and I followed his finger, intrigued by the idea of seeing a red star, red the way a crayon is red. I looked up. There were lots of stars, but no red ones. “Where, Daddy?” I asked. “Over there,” he said, pointing again. But I still didn’t see it. And when I asked again, he dropped the straw basket down on the tar paper, knelt beside me, and grabbed my own hand, pointing the end of my finger toward the sky. I saw nothing red.
Daddy was mad. I could tell that. It was always a little scary when Daddy was mad. But I asked again, and he pointed again, “Over there!” He was boiling inside, just like a pot of oatmeal when the flame is too high. I could feel that through my hand as he held it, still pointing to the sky.
It was then that it happened. I can still remember it. I will always remember it. Until that time, everything that happened on the inside was connected to everything that happened on the outside. Nothing was distorted or imbalanced, and everything echoed back and forth in perfect truth. But it was almost as if a crack appeared inside me, from the top of my head above my left eye, all the way down to the bottom of my right foot. Suddenly, I knew that all I had to say was, “Oh yes, Daddy, I see it!” And he would stop being angry. He would pick up the basket. We would head back toward the elevator and to dinner. I knew that, and it hurt. But it hurt to have him angry at me. So I said it. And it worked. It was frightening, but it worked. It was magic, to have things not be real anymore. It was also so easy, to have Daddy not be angry anymore.
That was my first lie. The second one was easier. That summer, we were visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a bungalow colony in New Jersey. Daddy and I were out in a canoe. Suddenly he pointed and said, “Look, over there! It’s a deer.” Well, I had never seen a real deer. And I was much more interested in seeing a deer than I was in seeing a red spot in the sky. But I couldn’t see it, and I said so. Daddy started to get so angry that the canoe began to rock. So I said, “Oh, I can see it.” He paddled on, talking about something else. I felt the same split inside. But it didn’t hurt as much. I was sadder that I hadn’t seen the deer, and kept looking toward the waterfall where he’d pointed.
That was my second lie. I stopped counting after that. But I never stopped hurting. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up as incapable of lies as I once was; what it would be like to live in a world where no one is able to lie.
Brooklyn, New York
Last night Violet and I went to see “True Confession.” In it Carole Lombard lies all the time and Fred MacMurray always tells the truth. Unfortunately, they’re married.
He’s a lawyer, and won’t take a case unless the defendant’s innocent. That’s why they’re starving. So she goes to be a rich guy’s secretary, and he tries to hug her, and she punches him in the stomach. Later that day, the rich man gets killed, and it looks like she did it. So Fred MacMurray defends her — and she lies and says she did kill him. See, if she told the truth, everyone would believe it was a lie, but she told a lie, which was that he attacked her breasts so she killed him.
She gets off; they both become famous and have a house in Connecticut. But he’s tortured, thinking she’s a killer. She finally confesses the truth (because she’s being blackmailed by the real killer), and then he’s miserable, knowing she’s a liar. Poor Fred MacMurray was about nineteen then — with a big chest — but was already miserable all the time.
So he walks out on her — still in his jockey shorts, trying to pull on his pants over them — and she gets this look she gets every time she’s about to lie and says, “If it’s a boy I’ll name him after you.”
And he comes back, of course, and says something like, “I must be forced eternally to alternate between heaven and despair with you, you are such a liar” — which is meant to be humorous. Then they embrace, and “The End” arrives, and you learn John Barrymore was in the film and get impressed.
Violet liked the movie. This made me nervous, because I’m like Fred MacMurray, and she’s like Carole Lombard.
“It made me think of the lies you’ve told me,” I said.
“Well, there was only one,” she smiled.
“Let’s not go into that!”
And we were back on St. Mark’s Place, watching four guys sing a song in Spanish, as loud as they could.
There is a point when children lie. Before that they are honest. Somewhere around two they enter the world of us liars, never to leave.
It may be that if you are carried around all the time you don’t need to lie. Once they stop carrying you, you have to lie in order to be carried again.
I left my food in a bag at the Astor Place subway stop, two big containers of beans and bulgur wheat. Homeless people live at that stop, and I hope they get to eat it.
I was so busy writing this, I forgot about my food. This is the problem with lies. If you think about them too much, you will starve. My advice to you, reader, is to think about lies, but remember your lunch, too. During the day we must lie in order to succeed in our professions. At night we must eat, or we’ll have spooky dreams.
On my train, here, is an advertisement for a cigarette called True. How many people would smoke a brand called Lies? “Switched a lot ’til I tasted True,” the man in the picture says. Of course, that’s a lie. The man in the picture — who’s wearing suspenders! — is an actor hired to say that. Everyone knows this. There is no shame in this.
New Haven Express
I will remember that night forever. There was no ceremony, but it felt like my wedding night. It was the first night we would spend without one of us eventually having to leave. It was our first night of life together, after a year of the kind of fierce and passionate struggle that a salmon must make in its determination to spawn. There were sharp rocks and deep currents to contend with from the start, but we navigated through them somehow, and now we were sitting on the bed in my tiny apartment, celebrating with champagne. I was giddy with joy; we were dreadfully, drastically in love.
As we talked and exclaimed and drank our champagne, a warm June breeze billowed the curtains of the bedroom window, and I could see the nose of his van parked against the sidewalk below. His belongings in boxes and suitcases sat stacked in my little living room, and his big, sweet old dog lay contentedly at the foot of the bed. He spilled a little champagne on the bedspread, and I noticed that he had finished up the bottle while I was sipping on my glass and staring dreamily out the window. Then I noticed that his expression was slowly shifting from the childlike glee spread across both our faces, to something more somber, troubled. He stared down at the bedspread, picking at the round tufts of chenille. An alarm went off inside me. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
He waited a long moment before answering. Then he said, “I have to tell you something. Absolutely nobody knows this. You must promise you will not tell anyone.” I must have nodded because he went on. “Years ago when I broke my back skiing, I was in the hospital for quite a while, and in the course of running all these tests on me, they discovered something funny. It was really by mistake — they were looking for something else — but they discovered I have the gene for Huntington’s Chorea. They didn’t say I had the disease, but when you have the gene it means that you can get it. I had never heard of it, so I did some research. It’s fatal. It’s a slow, wasting disease of the nervous system: you tremble, you drool. I found a guy in the hospital who had it and I used to spy on him — it was like some awful obsession. Then I remembered a girl in my class in high school. They wheeled her to school in a chair. I watched her deteriorate. I realized it was what she had.” He took a deep breath; I wasn’t breathing at all. “Sometimes I feel something going on in my body — my hand will shake or something and I’ll think, ‘Is this it? Is this it?’ I’ve been hearing a buzzing in my ears a lot lately. . . . Maybe it’s just all the stress — or maybe it’s the start. So . . . now you know.”
I sat absolutely still, frozen by the terror that gripped my heart. The dream, the dazzling vision that accompanies the beginning of all passionate romances, had died a terrible death in the space of a few minutes. I thought I would suffocate or my heart would stop. Feelings and memories that I had spent so many years trying to put into balance came slashing back at me, like a weird emotional sonar bounding off the walls of the room. I knew exactly what his words meant. I had seen my father die a long, slow wasting death from a similar disease. My mother and I watched him disintegrate bit by bit, day by day, year by year, helpless to do anything to stop it, or even to slow the process down. I was away at school for part of that time, but I saw my mother’s daily struggle and knew well its price. As I sat on that bed with the glass still clutched in my hand, inside I was screaming, “They had thirty years of happy life together before they had to deal with this nightmare! We’ve hardly had thirty minutes.”
Looking back at that moment now, I can see that a number of choices were available to me, but at the time I saw none at all. I loved the man with all my heart. I didn’t know how I could make it through that drama for the second time in my life, but if that’s how it went, I had no choice but to try. I didn’t know what to do with the fear, however. It loomed over my head, casting its shadow over our every move from that moment on, even past the point, a number of years later, when the relationship broke apart. As I had promised, I spoke no word of it to anyone.
Then about a year or so after we had parted, I stumbled onto a magazine article that changed my world. The medical community was very excited, it said. Two sisters, working as a research team, had just discovered the gene that indicates a carrier of incipient Huntington’s Chorea. This was hailed as a major breakthrough, as this meant that for the first time in history, a carrier could be identified before the disease actually began to manifest. I had to read the article twice to make sure I could believe my senses. No accidental discovery in the hospital could have turned up what these women had been laboring for more than a decade to find.
A little while later, I casually asked his older brother, Barry, if he remembered when my former sweetie had had the skiing accident that broke his back.
“Broke his back?” said Barry. “He’s never had a broken back. As a matter of fact, I don’t think he’s ever been skiing in his life.”
Renais Jeanne Hill
Joshua Tree, California
Friday afternoon, my father shows me home movies of my childhood. Because I remember so little about growing up, I’m afraid to watch — especially since Mom and Dad are right there with me.
There is a baby waddling, swatting a cat, falling down a lot. Later, there’s a girl of twelve or thirteen, with red hair. She looks very nervous and furtive, but she smiles at the camera each time it catches her. I can almost hear the prompter telling her to smile. Now it’s a party. Lots of young girls are sitting around tables working puzzles. The camera scans each one, but they are oblivious. When the camera finds the redhead, she looks up, and an amazingly knowing, almost seductive smile rolls across her face. She looks back down to work her puzzle, still smiling — knowing she’s the star. Every move or gesture seems calculated — as if she were being immortalized by her adoring public.
Now it’s Sunday. I’m safe in my own world again — forty miles away from their house, forty years away from that stumbling baby. I feel no connection to those images of the different stages of my life. But that party scene keeps burning into my brain. I know that’s me. I’m still trapped in front of that camera — smiling, dancing, being cute and wonderful, frantically cute and wonderful. I’m dying in front of that camera, and the seductive smile never fades.
To my mother, appearance was everything. My life, in her eyes, was only a reflection of herself, and I learned how to hide beneath the surface, in a place where my real feelings were protected from shaming stares and sharp, stinging words. My father lied constantly — saying one thing and doing another. The words, “but you promised,” only ignited his rage.
I learned to live the lie — to be the “good girl.” But secretly, while walking home from school, I threw rocks through windows just to hear the sound of shattering glass. Once, when caught and confronted, I lied so skillfully that even my parents believed me. I remember the vivid, sinking certainty that my parents couldn’t see me at all. Either I was truly invisible or I didn’t even exist.
Soon after, I began to stand on the curb of busy streets, and, squeezing my eyes shut and taking a deep breath, I’d run to the other side. The squeal of brakes and angry shouts gave me a strange satisfaction, and the sensation of my heart pounding inside my chest made me feel, at least momentarily, “Yes, I’m here — I must be here.”
As an adolescent, I so desperately wanted others to like me, I’d make up stories, blurring together truths and untruths until even I couldn’t tell them apart. When I was fifteen, my closest friend’s brother took me for a drive in his Volkswagen bug. He told me, out of genuine concern and to my absolute horror, that all my friends knew I had been lying, that no one believed a word I said, and — was I having trouble at home? Of course I attempted to lie my way out of it, but I felt everything ripping apart.
At home, alone on my bed, I felt myself sink into deep despair; I knew as I followed it down, past tears, past anything recognizable, that surely I would die. Somehow, Love found me that night in that bottomless void. It held me, soothed me, and showed me who and what I truly was. A voice spoke to me clearly, saying, “Now it begins.”
When I emerged from the eternity of those few moments, I felt changed on the deepest level of my being. It was then that I made a promise to myself, a sacred vow: I promised never to lie to myself, even if lying seemed called for in the world.
Breaking the habit of lying has not been easy. Truth is not as simple as it once seemed, but neither are lies.
San Diego, California
There is a phrase, “If memory serves. . . .” Mine doesn’t serve quite the way I once thought it did and should. It’s true, as I get older, that my long-term memory is quite acute — only I can’t really be sure it’s accurate.
For instance, I was on the phone with James, my college roommate, who invited me up to ski. When I mentioned I hadn’t skied in years, he said, “Well, you were the one who taught me.” “I did?” I said. “I don’t remember that.” And he replied, reasonably enough, “Why would I make up a story like that?” All I remember about skiing at college was one time not getting those old wooden skis waxed right and repeatedly falling down, and another time being defeated by slush. As James went on, he described a younger me skiing expertly down the slopes, doing Christies and stem turns. Kind of sad — I sort of believe him, but I can’t recapture it myself; I can only view it from outside without any immediacy or sensual response. It may be my history, but it is his experience — or is it his legend about me?
Where I really have trouble is when I hear myself telling a story — often one I’ve told a number of times — and realize I can’t be sure the original event occurred as I now describe it. I can remember it vividly, but I know how adept the imagination is in reconstructing the past.
I experience this especially when telling about my adventures as a young man. I dropped out of college, hitchhiked around the country, worked in a lumber camp, and so forth — I was a sort of pre-hippie hippie. Many people will smile and say, “Oh, yes, you were part of the Beat generation,” and this turns them on. While I am of that age group, I was not part of that scene — didn’t even know about it. (I wish I had; it sounds like they had a lot more sex than came my way.) When I make the disclaimer, listeners get impatient, sometimes annoyed. They even accuse me of false modesty.
Aside from this question of audience expectation, there is also the problem of license. After all, the point is to tell a good story, not to footnote my personal history with tedious obsessive accuracy.
Most adventure stories, if the full truth be told, have a rather ordinary, sometimes very anti-heroic downside to them: times when adversity triumphed over me rather than the other way around, or when the adventure wasn’t much fun — like the time I got chiggers in my groin sleeping by a road in Arkansas. I prefer, as does my audience, the anecdote about the time a Greyhound bus driver dead-heading to Knoxville had me drive his bus all through the Mississippi night.
Once, I was a speaker at a conference on radical social work. The moderator, an old friend and mentor, described my exemplary courage as “one of the first to refuse to take cover in a civil defense air-raid drill” (back in the Fifties in New York City). In fact, I had fully intended to do civil disobedience that day; I had even gone to Union Square to join those from The Catholic Worker and other assorted subversives. But coming up out of the subway, I got trapped behind two gigantic cops. When I started to make my move, the bigger one smiled at me benignly, tapped his nightstick gently against my sternum, and said, “Now, sonny, it’s an air-raid drill. Stay back here.” Somehow it seemed paradoxical to force my way past him to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience, so I stayed put. Furthermore, that big nightstick was scary. Now hadn’t I told this to Dan at the time? I thought I had. But now it seemed my “courage” was part of a legend he believed in. Could I contradict him, this wonderful, warm guy, so full of nurturing pleasure at the person he had helped me to become? No, I couldn’t, and I didn’t.
As I reread this, I have a feeling there was only one cop, but somehow it seems kind of wimpy to be faced down by only one other man, so maybe two cops is better. The trouble is, when I rewind the tape, one cop and two cops appear with equal clarity.
Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts
This Tuesday my mother will arrive, and I will begin to lie. I will lie mostly by what I do not say, by what I have not said for more than twenty years — since I began to realize the truth about my father. I will lie by pretending to be comfortable in her presence, to be enjoying her expressions of affection, and to have grown up into a strong and untroubled man.
My mother will lie too, but she will be less aware of it. She will lie by pretending not to notice the discomfort in my eyes, my longing to confront her with what really happened during my childhood, my feelings of betrayal.
Once, as an adolescent, I tried to talk to my mother about my father’s obvious insanity, about the lies I was forced to live in order not to enrage him. I couldn’t take it, I told her. How could things go on like this? “Think of it as practice for acting,” she told me. “Just wear the mask until the mask becomes your face.”
The house of my childhood was full of lies. My sister and I pretended to be siblings, but we were really lovers — and each other’s solace. My father pretended to be our father, but he was really my torturer and my sister’s molester. My mother pretended to be our mother, but she was really my father’s assistant and protector.
In high school, I lied to the coach in gym class about the welts on my back and thighs. I lied to my college friends about where I’d gotten my sexual experience. I lied to my parents when I said I loved them, as they had lied to me.
Because of all these lies, I am a lover of truth. I married a woman to whom I can tell the truth, who shares her truth with me. I have good friends — a surrogate family — who listen to me struggle to find my true self beneath the lies. And I found a therapist who helped me see those truths I could not see, because the mask had indeed become my face.
The children awake and jump into bed with us. My husband welcomes them gladly. I get up and make breakfast. Daddy and the children come and eat. I get the children ready for school. I steel myself against the fighting, the lost socks, the miles of toothpaste spread over the sink. I take the children to school.
I come home, wash the dishes, find the socks, clean up the toothpaste, go to work.
After work I pick up the children.
“I’m in the front this time.”
“No, it’s me!”
“Mommy, that’s not fair! She had the front last time!”
I take the children home. “It’s time to clean your room.”
“Oh, Mom. I will — later. Just one hour, and I’ll come and clean it up. I promise! This time I really, really promise!”
“Do it now.”
It takes two hours. I go into another room to keep control over my reaction to the complaining, fighting, and name-calling.
I cook dinner. I have a glass of wine. Daddy comes home from work. The children greet him with wild cries of joy. He gives me a peck on the cheek. He plays with the children.
I serve dinner. Daddy and the children come to eat. Each child gives an exhaustive account of what happened at school. I have another glass of wine. Daddy referees the conversation.
I get the children ready for bed. I read them stories, I sing them songs. I wash the dishes. Daddy gives me an exhaustive account of a computer problem, then goes to the computer to figure out a customer’s problem. I watch television. We go to bed. Daddy wants to make love. I’m not feeling very loving. We turn over and go to sleep.
Last night I talked to my children on the phone.
“Mommy, is it my fault that you left?”
“No, of course not, honey.”
“Mommy, will you come and visit?”
“Yes, of course I will, honey.”
I used to think lies were things we said that we knew weren’t true, usually in self-defense: I didn’t do it (when I did); I was there (when I wasn’t).
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see how many more times I’ve lied by what I haven’t said, or by saying something different from what was in my heart: don’t touch me (when all I want is to be held); leave me alone (when all I want is for you to stay forever); I’m fine (when I’m dying a slow death).
These, too, are lies of self-defense.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
“There’s no point in telling the truth to an irrational person,” my mother told me, just before the divorce. She was speaking of my father, of course. Had he known of our secret life — the smuggled-in rock ’n’ roll records, the department-store charge accounts, the phone calls from her lovers while he was at orchestra practice — he might have killed us both. So we lied fervently, my mother and I.
My father taught me that lying is immoral. That made me feel guilty, but it didn’t do much to change my behavior. I’d discovered that a good lie could postpone a spanking or, even more frightening, the vicious outbursts that turned my lungs into fists and my bowels to soup.
So I learned that lying works, more or less. When I grew up, I lied to my lovers, believing — again — that I was protecting myself. When I lost them I felt bewildered and aggrieved. I tried so hard to make my lovers feel adored, admired, cared for. Why was it never good enough?
Meanwhile, through politics, philosophy, and some spiritual dabblings, the quest for Truth had me enthralled. Not pissy little truths, like how I felt or whether I really said this or pilfered that. The Big Truth was what I was after.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Truth is nothing other than what’s happening, right this minute: no bright lights in the sky; just day-to-day, gritty reality. Truth includes everything from my orgasm last night, to this morning’s deadline, to the dwarf mistletoe silently leeching the Ponderosa pines along Jim Creek.
It finally dawned on me that lying is a waste of time. It may be immoral or unfair or ugly, but that’s beside the point. Mostly, lying turns out to be monumentally inefficient. The key difference between lying and telling it like it is, in my experience, is how long it takes to get back to reality — where I’m bound to end up, anyway.
My mother’s lie was that she couldn’t risk being who she was. My father’s lie was that he could mend his life by controlling ours. My lie, any time I tell one, is that the world isn’t good enough for me exactly the way it is.