Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Good Liar

It was December 31, 1996. Some friends were hosting a New Year's Eve party, and I offered to stay home with our eighteen month old daughter so that her mother, the Prevaricator, could have a rare night out with good pals. We were at the tail end of a fairly miserable year, but better than the year before, which made it seem like we were moving incrementally forward, and anything I could do to help the cause seemed worth the effort. My best friend from college lived in the apartment upstairs from us, and of late he'd been feeling pretty down: he was sort of perpetually alone and in no danger of rectifying the situation, but in the last couple months he and the Prevaricator had formed a bit of a connection, and so I felt pretty good being the guy who stayed home on New Year's Eve and sent his two best friends off into the night to a fun, mellow party. At the very least, since the Prevaricator didn't drink, I thought she could drive dear old Mattie home after he'd drowned his recurring sorrows.

Somehow I got the Little One to sleep at a halfway decent hour -- no small feat in those days -- and camped out on the couch with some lame TV for a few hours until, just before midnight, I picked up the phone and dialed the party, intending to wish my beloved a very happy new year as the clock struck 1997. Eventually, after a handful of truncated exchanges with drunken revelers, the phone made its way into the hands of my friend Mike, the party's host, who drunkenly suggested that Mattie and the Prevaricator had already left, or perhaps never been there at all. Like a dummy, I remember thinking, "Aw, she's on her way home to her feller." I stretched back out on the couch and waited.

It was well after two when I saw his headlights splash the wall as he turned in to the driveway. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. The Prevaricator slipped in like a flat-footed, legally blind ninja, bumping into at least five things on her way to the bedroom, where she inexplicably changed her clothes, and then just as stealthily slipped back out the door and climbed the stairs to Mattie's apartment.

I spent the next three and a half months being alternately vigilant and accusatory. My accusations were met with such ferocious indignation from the Prevaricator, most of the rest of my non-vigilant, non-accusatory waking moments were dominated by self-flagellation: how dare I accuse her of such a thing! What a dick I was!

Mattie's dad bought him a house that spring, and in late April we had a dude day at the new house to install the basketball hoop his daddy had bought him. Mattie lacked the ability to screw in so much as a lightbulb, so he was beyond helpless when it came to attaching a basketball hoop to the house his father had bought for him. The friends gathered and we got to it. At one point Mattie had to make a run to the store, and I chose that moment to reconnoiter. It wasn't tricky: until very recently he'd lived right upstairs from me and we'd hung out all the time, so I'd had occasion to take note of the box of condoms he kept in his medicine cabinet. That particular box was long gone by that day in April, replaced by a different brand of twelve-pack that was down to just two, nestled optimistically beside a brand-new twelve-pack. I remember even then taking a moment to consider the possibility that I was wrong. Because that's what you do when the worst case scenario has crawled into your lap and nestled in like it has a right. But he was my best friend: there was only one reason in the world he wouldn't have told me he'd been fucking someone.

When Mattie came back, we shot free throws to determine the teams, and then we played two-on-two all afternoon. I was like a man on fire: I never lost. Christ, these were some of my closest friends, and I don't even remember who was my teammate. I just know I wouldn't lose. Until the afternoon began to fade and a couple of the guys had to go home to their lives, and I ended up with Mattie on my team. Suddenly, my still crisp passes were hitting him in the face instead of in the hands. We had every chance to win that game. I made sure we didn't. Poor Mattie: a brand new basketball hoop, and he'd lost every game. Then there was me: I'd won them all, save one. Hadn't I?

At home, the Prevaricator and the Little One met me at the door with smiles and kisses. I took a chair and peeled off my sneakers and socks, then looked her in the eye and said, "I'm going to ask you this one last time, and I swear I'll never ask you again." I asked, she bristled indignantly as ever, and I put up my hand and said, "Okay." Without another word I stood and limped into the bathroom, turned on the shower, undressed and, with a sigh months in the making, stepped under the spray. A minute later there she was on the other side of the curtain, uttering quite possibly the only honest words she has ever spoken to me: "It's true."

All of this happened long ago. In an ordinary life you'd write it off and move on. But ours has been an extraordinary life, because we're fortunate to have a daughter we both adore. This daughter we share is more than worthy of our adoration: if I lived another hundred years, the world would be hard pressed to offer anyone I'd favor above my daughter. The downside is that I continue to have to interact with the Prevaricator, who, to put it kindly, is a remarkable case of arrested development. To be fair, the combination of a broken home made whole by the odd dichotomy of the ever forgiving mother and the by-the-book step-father, plus a wholly inappropriate sexual relationship with her thirty-year-old history teacher when she was fifteen, almost certainly rendered someone like her incapable of dealing with the world. You always think you're the one who's going to fix them, right? Hence the concept of hubris.

This morning the Prevaricator called to say she was going to be an hour late picking up the Little One at my place. That's not a big deal: in sixteen years, she's probably had to make that call at least twenty times. Every parent of a broken home has had to make that call. Except that this time she led with a specific excuse, and also the husky, ethereal voice of someone still lying in a bed she doesn't yet want to leave. She had car trouble, she claimed. I could have just left it there, as though I imagined that her shitty car were capable of the rarest of car troubles, the sort that you know for sure will be resolved in an hour on a Sunday morning. But I let her dig -- because she's going to see me as the dick oppressor either way, so I might as well fuel the fantasy. She drove down a dirt road last night, she said, and might have put a hole in her muffler. (She makes it painfully easy to be crass, by the way, but I won't bite.) Long story short: perpetual liars will always believe that the reason they give you, if it's even remotely plausible, is the true reason for their actions. They believe it, and therefore you should too.

And that's fine, I get it: the Prevaricator is a broken little girl, and I failed to fix her, and so every broken-little-girl moment that presents itself is, at least in part, mine to bear. But goddamn does that shit take a toll, man.

Recently a friend made a comment in response to some offhand joke I'd made about drunken sex. He used that tragic modern catch-phrase, "fear of intimacy," and he wasn't entirely off-base, but he missed his mark by a significant matter of degrees: saying I have fear of intimacy is like saying someone whose legs have been crushed under the wheels of a runaway dump truck has fear of Michelin tires. I was never a physics major, but I believe in a version of Hooke's law, which states that an applied force will yield a linear-elastic response. A dump truck will crush your legs, and a Prevaricator will crush your heart. Sometimes you know too well that the force exerted is guaranteed to exceed the stiffness of the spring. Generally the reason you know that is that the spring has just been obliterated by said force.

Let this be the lesson, then: A life of perpetual lies is born of a single lie, the one the liar tells herself over and over again: that it's not about her, it's about the person she's lying to, who can't handle the truth. And while it's often true that honesty comes with its own peculiar consequences, the consequence of perpetual lying is that you become a shittier person with every lie you tell. Also, the more you lie, the harder it is to remember what actually happened, and that is one of the ways in which people go crazy. And not for nothing, but you can't fight crazy. You're stupid to even try.

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