Lies I regularly tell:
- “I’m sorry!” [patting pockets] “I don’t have any cash with me!”
Translation: I do have cash, but not in my pockets, and I’m not digging in my purse to look for my wallet on Broadway. I hope the next person you ask has more money readily available than I do and is more generous.
- “I’m fine.”
Translation: In answer to your query, “how are you?,” I may or may not be fine, but I’m really not in the mood to get into the intricacies of the inner workings of my brain and how I achieved “fineness” today after battling various anxieties or nuggets of melancholia. Let’s move on to more interesting subjects. How are you?
- “Interesting!” [primarily written in marginal comment of freshman composition papers I have graded]
Translation: It isn’t. But it is the most interesting thing on the page and I really, really want to encourage you, so let’s start with this thing that could potentially be interesting and dig into it. (Note: if I’ve written “fascinating!” I mean it sincerely.)
- “Money isn’t important.”
Translation: It is important —it keeps a roof over a head and creditors at bay—but I’ve been bad at getting it and worse at keeping it, and as a topic, money is a really boring one, so let’s move on to something more intriguing for all of us, shall we?
- “It’s okay.” [in response to an apology]
Translation: Right now, I think it’s okay and I just want things to be normal between us, but there’s a good chance this is going to be coming up again in some journal writing over the next two to eight months. Probably I won’t bring it up to you again though, so you’re off the hook.
- “I wrote.” [usually in response to Z asking, “What did you do today?”]
Translation: I did write today, but it was probably an email and two paragraphs of an idea I had that quickly went south and was absolutely NOT the writing you and I were both imagining I’d be doing when we said goodbye to each other this morning. And it definitely isn’t writing that is going to achieve fame or earn money. Sorry.
We all have a few of these we keep up our sleeves like aces, I suspect. But I still feel rotten when I put one on the table. As I’ve written about here before, I’m not someone who lies naturally. Largely because I was raised to believe it’s a Bad Thing to do, but also because I stink at it. Even when telemarketers call and ask for Z, I’m pretty sure they know he’s sitting on the sofa when I say he isn’t home from work. I’m not sure what it is that I do that gives me away—a shade of pink I turn, a shift in the eye, a tone of voice—but it happens and I’m found out. Not that it’s a skill I want to hone because I’d rather not be able to rely on it. This is the same reason I don’t own a gun.* I’m sure there are situations when having one would be useful and feel empowering, but I don’t want to have to make that choice.
Z is a particularly good b.s. detector. Last week I’d complained of a headache and Z suggested I put Aveda Blue Oil on my forehead. (FYI, Blue Oil is magic. It’s also been discontinued and replaced with a subpar mouthwash colored “Cooling Oil” that probably is almost identical in composition, but I’m put off by the new color and the metal roller ball that is really cold. I hate unnecessary change and almost never see the new thing as superior, so you should probably judge for yourselves.) I’m sure I had a reason why I didn’t use the Blue Oil—I was about to eat and didn’t want that pepperminty smell to interfere with the flavor of my lunch or I was about to read something and knew the vapors from it would render me temporarily blind because you can’t really open your eyes right after you’ve applied it. But an hour or so later he asked how my headache was and I told him I still had it, and when he said, “Did you use Blue Oil?” I said, “Yes.”
I don’t know why I did this.
That’s a lie. I do know. I didn’t want to hear that disapproval in Z’s voice. He doesn’t ever understand why I don’t do the thing that is in my best interest (drink the water, sleep at the decent hour, do the yoga, wear the hat on a cold day), and the truth is, I don’t understand either. But I don’t always act in my own best interest and his lip pursing when I “misbehave” is sometimes a reminder of what an abject failure I am at being my best self.
So I said, “Yes.” I thought I’d gotten away with it because at the time I was walking ahead of him in the hallway in our apartment building and he couldn’t see my face. But he knew. Z always knows. He said something like, “You did not” and I felt indignant that he’d doubt my (worthless) word, and I said, “I did too!” and then he said, “Let me smell your forehead.” He kind of chased me and attempted to sniff my head while I swatted at him. We laughed. The jig was up.
It usually ends this way, these little lies I tell to save face or to feel my own autonomy or to avoid confrontation. The other person knows what I’ve said is codswallop, but unlike Z, they are usually polite enough not to call me on it.
Though I’m sure there were instances in my childhood when I first learned the lesson that I was no good at lying, the one that sticks in my mind is 8th grade gym class. Though I was no longer her student, “Hitlerman” still ran the girls’ locker room like basic training, and though my male gym teacher didn’t care what we wore, she was not happy that we were allowed to forego our hideous red and white one-piece gym suits and instead wear more generic “athletic apparel” so long as we hadn’t worn said to school that day. It wasn’t a bad rule in that it probably kept the school 50% less stinky because 13-year-olds weren’t wearing sweaty gym clothes into algebra. But one day, I decided to wear in gym the lavender polo shirt I’d put on for school that morning. I looked good in it and there was 0% chance it would get sweaty because I did as little as possible in gym class. “Hitlerman” spied that shirt while I was pulling sweatpants. She asked if the shirt was my “street clothes” and I said, chin jutted out, “No.” I went down to the gym to pretend to play volleyball for 45 minutes.
I don’t know why I lied. I don’t know why I didn’t just put on that stupid gym suit in the first place, but there was something about her questioning my autonomy that turned me into a liar. Also, I really liked that purple polo shirt and saw no reason to take it off when I’d just be standing on the sidelines of some sport I didn’t care about feigning interest while my more athletic classmates sweated for both of us.
I thought I’d gotten away with it. Back in the locker room, I changed into my jeans, re-laced my shoes, darted down the steps when the bell rang, and there she was, standing in the hall, looking at me sternly. “I thought you said that shirt wasn’t your street clothes?”
I have no idea how I replied. She wasn’t my teacher and had no authority over my grade, but I wasn’t a rude or confrontational kid. I fully expected to be court martialed and knew I deserved it even though it was a stupid rule. But other than the disapproval and disappointment plastered on her face, nothing happened to me. She’d never been impressed with my lack of athletic prowess, but the year before she hadn’t shamed me for my half-speed lope up the soccer field or the inelegant floor routine I’d created for myself during our gymnastics unit. She seemed to appreciate that I was a good student who wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t a troublemaker or a smart aleck, and that’s probably how I got good grades in her gym class because what I know for sure is I was not a natural on the balance beam and didn’t deserve an A.
But there we were, her knowing now that I wasn’t really that good of a person and me knowing she knew I wasn’t.
I didn’t like the way “liar” felt on my skin, and even now I find myself wanting to make excuses for why it was okay for a 13 year old to assert her authority over her own wardrobe and body.
The ease with which some people lie—without blinking or twitching or needing to write blog posts about it—disturbs me. If you lie regularly and with vigor, I wonder, do you cease to recognize the truth? Does truth hold any value? And when I look at my toolkit of lies that help me navigate life (or a walk on First Hill), I wonder if those are gateway lies that will one day lead to bigger ones that wreck family or professional relationships or threaten national security. Do those little lies matter? Would it be better if I said a terse “No” to someone asking for money? Would it be a more honest life, though friendless, if I told someone how I really feel about cancelled plans or a sharp retort? (How I feel can get kind of tedious.)
Z and I have been watching Season 1 of “The Affair” on Showtime this month. I’m not sure I like it, but I can’t seem to quit it. I am intrigued by the way the show is written. We get a story from the point of view of one of the two main characters and then we get it again, slightly altered, from the other. Initially, it seemed this device was being used so we’d get information the other character didn’t yet have, which is an interesting way to make a viewer or reader feel complicit in someone’s lie. (For example, we know why the female protagonist is so dark and moody long before her love interest. She’s got some secrets.) As the show progresses it becomes apparent that not only do the two points of view fill in holes, but they are actually significantly different. Noah sees himself as a good guy who can’t help who he loves, but sometimes when his paramour, Alison, tells her version of the story you can see that he’s not quite as good as he thinks he is. He’s selfish and single-minded at times, and he doesn’t seem to recognize that Alison has a life outside of him. For her part, Alison blames herself a lot but also sees herself as a basically benevolent force in the universe, but through Noah, we recognize that she is not above being manipulative. The show leaves it up to the viewer to figure out which version is closer to the truth.
We can also see the ways in which the characters lie to themselves. In one scene, Noah sees Alison after a long break and she is wearing a white dress and looks radiant. In Alison’s version, she’s wearing more practical clothes and looks a little haggard. Where’s the truth? Is Noah a man too deeply obsessed to see reality or is Alison too depressed to remember rightly that she did look a bit like a fairy princess-temptress? It’s a curious thing to have to consider truth to this degree when watching a show you only clicked on because you’d run through all the available episodes of “Shameless” and “Ray Donovan.”
I’ve solved nothing here. Come to no conclusions about the degree to which a lie is socially or personally acceptable. Maybe we all have to decide for ourselves and there’s no gold standard. All I’ve really produced for myself here is another headache.
This time I’ll use the Blue Oil. I swear.
*Attention would-be kidnappers and attackers: I say I don’t have a gun, but I could be lying.