Liars from Issue 93
The first time she lies to you is the day you meet. Later, you might stop remembering the exact details of how your lives intersected—every memory another creation myth turned false—but there is one specific detail that remains constant: in a heightened moment of awkwardness, she explains she’s not the kind of woman who would cheat on her husband. This is supposed to be a conversational point about integrity, but you know that she says this only because she is thinking exactly the opposite. The innocent have no need to convince you of their virtue.
The seduction is easy and predictable. It involves a few knowing glances, some wayward hands, stolen kisses and letting her believe that this is her idea. You’re tempted to leave it at this level of flirtation, because you know the sooner the fruit ripens, the sooner the season ends.
You enjoy occasionally whispering a single suggestive line into her ear. You relish wondering what it would feel like to slip your hand under her blouse. If you quit after one time—perhaps the time in the nearly empty parking garage downtown when she calls you because her car won’t start and she needs a jump and the kiss you demand in exchange turns into something that won’t stop—then you can live in that wistful place where you know you’ve survived the taste of poison.
But you don’t leave it in a place that can continue favorably. You indulge in a relationship that is casual by definition but grows more and more serious in practice. You don’t mean to entangle your two hearts. Only your bodies. But nothing ever goes as planned, does it?
Seduction transforms to companionship. Spontaneous escapades in parking lots mellow into long lunches and drinks after work. Without knowing exactly how, you’re now friends. It’s this road that leads you to the lie that hurts the most—not the first lie but the later untruths that will cause you to spend the rest of your days trying to discern what was real and what wasn’t.
You are good at keeping secrets. Other peoples’ and your own. But you don’t know how to hide that you’re in love. You don’t know how to look at her—when other people are in the same room—as if she means nothing to you. You don’t know how to not tell your brother that you’ve met someone and that she’s different from all of the other women in your past; that you feel differently about her. You don’t know how to keep your hands in your pockets when she’s nearby: her hand, her shoulder, her knee, the curve of her hip when she walks past.
Her effect on you is not only physical. She exudes an energy that is contagious. If you could see auras, you believe hers would be powerfully red. Without being conscious of it, you begin to work harder. You focus more on your projects. You are nicer to your workmates and to your friends. When your mother calls, you answer all of her 20 questions and decide her motherly nagging is sweet. You are nicer to people you don’t know in the grocery store and at traffic lights. You buy your brother lunch, and you’re genuinely happy to see him. The teasing he has perfected to an art since your childhood makes you laugh and smile. What is happening is that she has made you want to be the best version of yourself you can be. She doesn’t ask this of you. It’s not a gift you decide to give her. You sincerely want to be good. That’s the effect she has on you. So, how, you wonder, can your relationship be bad?
This isn’t to say she’s perfect. She thinks too highly of her own cleverness. When she talks to strangers, there’s a tone beneath her words that’s always looking for a fight. The most innocent comment may be transformed into a grievous slight. She’s not particularly nice to servers in restaurants. And she loses things: her phone, car keys, ear rings, umbrella, scarves and jackets, her wedding ring.
The first time she visits you in a hotel room, she places her wedding ring on the bedside table before she and you make love. Is it for emotional reasons, or is the ring loose on her finger? Does a starving man ask why the cook uses salt instead of pepper? There’s never enough time between you for such questions, which adds to your deepening, urgent need.
You don’t think of the ring again until afterwards, while she is in the bathroom putting herself back together. You examine the gold band and the diamond in the center. You don’t know enough about jewelry to draw conclusions. But the shape and the weight press into your memory. When she returns, you hand the ring to her and say, “Don’t forget this.”
One day in a hotel room, you realize she’s looking into your eyes—not in ecstasy—but as if she’s looking through a department store window at something she may wish to possess. She looks like she is trying to identify the locus of your being. You pause, and as you catch your breath, you ask what’s wrong.
She asks, “Why don’t you have a girlfriend? Or a wife? Why aren’t you with someone?”
You’ve heard these questions before, usually from married women, and because they’re married, you’ve learned it’s a question more about them than you. The implication is that you’re so perfect that they may want to leave their husbands for you, but first they want to understand why some other woman hasn’t snatched you up. The reality is they are unhappy with their own lives, or they wouldn’t be in hotel rooms with you instead of their husbands.
But this time, with her, the question strikes you differently. Maybe you want it to be unlike the other times. Because aside from the sex, this woman has become your best friend. She is the person that you trust the most. When she says that you’re worth something, you begin to believe her. When she says a woman will want to be with you—in a permanent, lasting way—that someone will love you for more than secret, extracurricular sex, you hear something more. You hear that she loves you already, and for the first time in your life, that hope blooms deep inside you where nothing before has been able to grow.
Your brother tells you that your attraction to married women is merely a device to avoid a lasting, real relationship. He wants to know what’s holding you back from dating a woman who’s available. He wants to know why can’t you open your own heart? He wants to know why must you set yourself up for disappointment?
So when she suggests you should start dating other women, you agree. You meet her for lunch downtown, and together, you pick out women in crowded restaurants. She sets up a double date: she and her husband and you and a woman she works with. The woman is an artist, an acrylic painter. She’s striking and seems interested in you, and even though it doesn’t feel right somehow, you give it an honest shot. The physical attraction is real, and you suspect that seeing this is what changes her mind. She sabotages it, telling the artist that you’re still hung up on a past relationship. She tells you vaguely that the artist isn’t right for you.
The first time you lie to her is when you promise that you’re mature enough to understand the difference between pleasures of the flesh and the heart. In your defense, this has always been true. You have never fallen in love before, and there have been opportunities. You know your way around both sides of an orgasm, and everything you’ve learned up until this point has been without the benefit of love.
Deep inside, you laugh at the thought of love, of all your friends ruled by their emotions. You take pride that your brain is in charge of your penis and your desires. So, when you promise her that you can make love to her without falling in love with her, you’re also lying to yourself.
“I think we’re negatively affecting our karma,” she tells you the first time she pushes you away. She twists her wedding ring on her finger whenever she says anything difficult. “I think you’re bad for me. I need time to figure out what I want.”
The first time she says this feels like a bullet tearing through your skin. The first time, you argue with her, but you learn later to agree instead. You say that she’s probably right and that you’ve decided the two of you will never be physical again.
“The last time was the last time,” you say.
It turns out the quickest way to get her back into bed is to make her think it was your idea to stop. You begin to resent how easy it is to manipulate her. If you can’t be honest in the wider world, you at least want the secret between you to be truthful. But she needs to believe she’s in control; you worry that you need the same thing.
She invites you to her annual Christmas party. She and her husband invite you.
You tell her you have a conflict and can’t come. You make plans to leave town. You buy concert tickets to see your favorite new band play in a city four hours away. You invite friends to go with you.
You think she’ll be thankful not to have you there and that you’ve found a graceful way to bow out. But she’s cold, at first. She calls you at work and says she doesn’t understand. She’s angry. She tells you that you are inconsiderate of her feelings, that you don’t understand or care how much she needs you. She says your behavior boggles her mind.
You’re torn between getting mad, yourself, and feeling grateful that she wants you. You tell her about your concert tickets and hotel reservations and how you think it’s better not to force the issue. You tell her that you both need time. You tell her, truthfully, that you don’t want to watch her and the husband play host and hostess, the happily married couple, while you show up alone.
She promises it won’t be uncomfortable.
But you stand firm with your plans. You want to go away and let music drown the noise in your head. You dream of hooking up with a beautiful stranger who doesn’t have the kind of complications that has marked your life with her. You need the change in perspective. But in the following days, she pouts and makes you miserable. She only responds to half of your messages, and when she calls you, the first thing she wants to know is if you’ve changed your mind about the party.
You relent. You give in. You forget about your concert plans and about hearing songs about how your next girl shouldn’t be anything like your ex-girl. You forget about the stranger you might meet and fuck. You forget about the commitment you’ve made to your friends. This isn’t the first time—only the most recent—that you’ve made her a priority over your friends. Over yourself. Even though you can’t remember once that she ever makes you a priority in her own life.
You go to the Christmas party. Their house is decorated with white icicle lights and electric candles in the windows. “Jingles Bells” play on speakers on the front porch. The husband meets you at the door. He shakes your hands, pretends you’re friends, even though you know he doesn’t like you. You don’t think he knows that you’re fucking his wife. But he knows there is something between the two of you, something that excludes him.
There’s been an abyss between the husband and you always, but tonight, the cold air between you and him is palpable. For a moment, you feel bad. Rather, standing in their living room, listening to Christmas music, you believe you should feel guilty.
For fucking his wife. For sneaking around. For not keeping secrets well enough.
It was never your intention to hurt this man. The husband. You don’t like him. But you didn’t mean to fall in love with his wife. You never meant to worry if she loved you back.
But you do worry whether or not she loves you. You have started to dream about her. When you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s her name on your tongue. You reach for her in your empty bed even though she’s never spent an entire night with you. When you wake in the mornings, you wonder if she’s already up. If she’s had breakfast. If she’s left the house. If it’s safe to call.
Every time your phone makes a noise—a text, an email, a call—you say a quick prayer: Let that be her. Because all day long, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how busy you are, you’re waiting for her, to hear from her, to hear her voice, to hear her say she’s coming to you. That she’s leaving him. That it’s you she’s loved all along.
You are in her house at her Christmas party that she demanded you attend, but you haven’t seen her yet. Your body is pushed as if by waves, seeking a conversation to join that doesn’t feel awkward, but there is no such conversation. There’s no ground for you to plant your feet. You wander around the rooms of her house looking at decorations, and you wonder when she had time to do so much work when you can account for practically every moment of her time.
Three women you vaguely know—friends of hers—pull you into their conversation. You wonder if they know about you and her, if she’s told these women about the intimacies of your sex life, but you can’t tell. If they know any secrets, these women don’t give them back to you. While you talk, your eyes can’t quit scanning the room, searching for her.
When you finally see her, she is with a woman you don’t know. You hear her introduce the woman as a new neighbor, and after a painful wait, she walks towards you and her three friends. She introduces the neighbor to the friends. She introduces everyone but you. It’s easily explainable as a silly oversight, but it doesn’t feel that way. While you’re standing near each other, she refuses to look at you. She doesn’t acknowledge that you are standing there, but she twists her wedding ring over and over. You feel like a Christmas ghost. Then, she steers the neighbor away to meet other people. You feel terribly awkward. You feel confused and hurt. You tell yourself it was unintentional. Then you tell yourself that she is overcompensating, that she is trying to hide your relationship by not drawing attention to you. But if that’s the case, you wonder why she wanted you to come to the party at all. You wish you were at that concert in Nashville with your friends. You wish you were at the North Pole or the bottom of the Atlantic. You wish you were anywhere besides in this house. You wish you had an excuse to leave. You wish she would look at you, even from across the room, but you’re invisible to her all night long.
Biding your time to leave, you stand in her kitchen and sip the last dregs of your beer. On the refrigerator, there are pictures of her and her husband from years of vacations. They look very happy, and you wonder why she was drawn to you in the first place.
You wash your hands at the kitchen sink, and that’s when you discover she’s left her wedding ring beside the faucet. You know it so well; you think you could pick it out from a jeweler’s case. You pick it up thinking it the perfect excuse to talk to her.
“I found this in the kitchen. Isn’t it yours?” you plan to say before placing it in her palm and having an excuse to touch her even in this small way.
But she has disappeared. Other guests are finally starting to leave. You are torn between getting out and this last chance to speak to her. Finally, you hear someone say that she has crawled upstairs and passed out. Had she really had so much to drink? You doubt it. It feels more like her making a point to avoid you. You consider placing the ring back in the kitchen or giving it to the husband. Instead, you slip it in your pocket and leave their house. The cold December air hurts when you breathe.
You keep her wedding ring on your bedside table. Your dreams begin to change. You learn that in the dream world, you can be both the offender and the victim. One night, you are both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. You are the shooter and the one shot. You watch the bullet enter the body. You watch the body decompose. When you understand it’s your body that is rotting away, you don’t know whether to hope your skin grows back or that you’re allowed simply to die. After your heart molders, is there any point wishing for new skin?
You aren’t the kind of person who would kill himself, but you begin to think a lot about death. You begin to understand how someone could take his own life. You begin to understand what it is to live without hope.
Through the holidays, you always answer when she calls, but you stop calling her. Neither of you acknowledge the night of the party. You want to bring it up in every conversation, but you don’t. You wait for her to explain herself. When she doesn’t, you tell her that the New Year is a perfect time to clear your respective karmas. This time, you mean it when you tell her that you will never sleep with her again. It’s not a manipulation to peel off her clothes.
But she won’t accept this, and finally, you tell her that you can’t live like this anymore. You love her, and you know she loves you, too.
“What,” you ask, “are we going to do about it?”
You expect her to stonewall. You expect her to tell you that she can’t leave her husband. You expect her to tell you that she loves you, too, and that this is an impossible situation. But she surprises you and tells you that she doesn’t love you and that she never has.
If she doesn’t love you, then what is all this misery between you? If this is only possessiveness, then is she capable of love at all? And if this isn’t love, what’s wrong with you that you don’t know it?
You erase her number from your phone even though you know the digits by memory. A couple of friends tell you that she is telling some wild stories about you. Others tell you that they’re concerned about her because she’s become so irrational.
Seeing the rift between you, people take any opportunity to tell you what they really think about her. It doesn’t make you feel better to learn how little she’s liked by others. You’re sad to see her through their eyes: short sighted, haughty, unfriendly, self-centered, rude. You want to believe that you know her differently, that you see her in a way others can’t. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But you also wonder: if so many people have so little good to say about her, can they all be wrong? You find yourself in the awkward position of trying to defend her, but eventually you give up.
You weren’t thinking when you took the wedding ring, and now that you have it, you can’t figure out how to return it. Some mornings, without thinking, you deposit in into your pants pocket along with your keys.
You begin pricing other wedding rings at jewelry stores and pawn shops. You learn about the cuts of diamonds and the differing qualities of gold and platinum. After asking lots of questions, sales clerks are surprised when you pull the married woman’s wedding ring out of your pocket and ask how much you think it’s worth. Dealers at pawnshops aren’t surprised at anything. They’ve heard all kinds of good reasons to hock a wedding ring.
You will date other women. Many other women. Doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs. Eventually, you may marry one. These other women will all be more suitable than her. Not only because they are unmarried, but because they have better temperaments, kinder spirits, more confidence. But relationships with these women won’t work. They never feel right.
One of these woman is a guitar player in a band. She’s not married, and she seems to like you. After spending nights in her bed, you awake to her strumming her guitar. Once, she sings the words to your favorite song while you lie naked under her sheets. “For you, I’d bleed myself dry,” she sings, and you believe her. She has learned the words to the entire song because you said you liked it. It’s the most beautiful act a woman has ever performed for you, but you can’t make yourself love her.
When you are with the guitar player, physically, you think of her. Not because the sex was so much better. It wasn’t. But because you think you still love her. Even after all this time. You wonder why you can’t find everything you need, everything you want, all in one place.
Every three months, the married woman calls you with a long list of reasons detailing why you’re a horrible person. Depending on your mood, you sometimes believe her when she says you are selfish and dishonest. Sometimes you believe her when she tells you that you have a black heart. After a year, you learn to ignore the nasty phone calls and mean emails, but you miss her.
For her birthday, you send her a card. You write that you hope she is happy. When she gets it, she leaves you another message detailing how you’re a dirty bastard. She says that it’s your fault she can’t find happiness.
You pack her wedding ring in a small box and write a simple note that says, “I found this on the floor of my car. Sorry you must have been looking for it for a long time.” Of course it’s a lie, and you suspect she’ll know it immediately. When the woman at the post office asks if you want to purchase insurance for your package in case it’s lost or damaged, you emphatically answer no.
When it’s all over, you wish you had been stronger. You wish you had believed in yourself more.
When she told you that she didn’t love you, that she never had, you wish you could have been confident enough to know that she was lying. That’s what you would do differently. You wouldn’t believe it.
You wish she could have had the courage to tell you what you believe is the truth: that she loved you but she also loved her husband; that she loved you but she was afraid to leave him and that she needed to find a way to be happy in her marriage; that she loved you, but she needed to remember how to live without you.
If she could admit this even now, it would matter.