I consider myself an exceptionally honest person. Occasionally, honest to a fault.
Honest about what I think, feel, believe, etc. At least at any given moment.
I shy away from using the term “truth” as a player in any description of character, since that invites a whole host of objections that I’m not energetic enough to expose myself to today.
It is possible to be honest and still be mistaken, for example. It is only one example, though. The line between honesty and falsehood isn’t always totally clear.
I am honest at least insofar as I will answer any sincere, serious, unloaded, and un-ridiculous question with a sincere, serious, unloaded, and un-ridiculous answer–to the best of my ability.
But I am honest now because I was not always that way. Or I was. Or I wasn’t.
Technically, as a child, I was a pathological liar.
Well, check that.
I don’t know if I was pathological, really, because I never lied out of compulsion alone. My lies always had some purpose, but it didn’t take much for something to count as a purpose, and in many cases, the purpose of the lie didn’t become apparent until many years later.
There are a small few of these lies whose stories stick with me because of their consequences, their geneses, or, in one case, because the lie actually turned out to be a premonition. Here are three of them:
1. The Beach Towel Fabrication: In which Grandpa reaches across double-wide generation gap to remind me who I’m fucking with.
When I was a young, school-aged child, both of my parents worked–my mother in politics and my father as a land surveyor. Unlike school, work doesn’t let out for the summer, so for many years, I went to summer day camp at the YMCA. Even day camp, though, let out before my parents’ jobs did, so my grandfather would often pick me up, and I would hang out with him and Grandma at their house until my mom got off of work and could come retrieve me. My grandpa was a North Dakota farm boy who was in his late teens, just getting ready to enter the world, when the stock market crashed in 1929. He had been led home by a horse in a white-out blizzard once, which was my favorite story of his, and he lived a young life that most of us would consider third-world from our contemporary, relatively affluent perspectives. His own grandparents (or was it his parents?) were Swedish immigrants. He walked with a cane even when I was still very young. In true Scandinavian fashion, he was reserved, slow to (exhibit) anger, and, really, the epitome of the patient grandfather stereotype. He had glasses with thick black rims, a dry, clever sense of humor, and liked kids with “spunk.” His eldest daughter, my mother, was one of them.
One day at day camp, I lost my towel. There was a pool at the YMCA, and it had been swimming day (as opposed to nature day or field trip day or arts and crafts day). When Grandpa picked me up, he rifled through my bag, as was customary, to make sure I hadn’t lost or forgotten anything and discovered no towel.
“Where is your towel?”
For reasons not entirely clear to me but that may have been related to my current fear of ever making or admitting mistakes, especially to people who I want to think that I’m awesome, I lied. I didn’t say I lost it.
“I’m not telling you.”
“Did you lose it? Should we go in and look for it?”
This is where I should have said, “Yes. Let’s.”
Instead I said, “I didn’t lose it. But I’m not telling you where it is.”
Now I was in for the haul. Committed to the lie. No turning back.
“Don’t you sass me.”
“I don’t have to tell you.”
I may have laughed the snotty laugh. I may have stuck out my tongue.
This went on longer than most men of his generation would have allowed. Finally, out of space, out of thin air, a bolt of paper-skinned lightning struck me on the cheek, immediately setting the whole left side of my head on fire.
When I finally realized that I had been slapped in the face for–perhaps amazingly–the first time in my young, snotty life, he was already behind me, holding the truck door open. In a stern but controlled voice, he ordered me to get in. I could explain the towel to my mother, he said. He had “had it.” I sulked the whole way back to his house.
At this point, you’d think I’d have learned something about who was the boss of my situation, but no. When we got home, I refused to get out of the truck.
He offered me the “easy way ” or “hard way” option. Ever the warrior, I told him he couldn’t carry me anywhere because he was “just an old man with a cane.”
He came around to my door, leaned his cane against the truck, pried me out, and threw me, flailing and screaming, over his shoulder. He picked up his cane in the other hand, parallel to the ground, and hauled me into the house without ever letting the cane touch down.
2. The Incredible Tale of Crusher, the Wolf-Dog: In which my susceptibility to fantasy is revealed in a lie I almost started to believe was true.
I was always obsessive, even as a child. I would watch the same movies, over and over, until my parents had to disallow them as options on video rental night because they simply could not stand to watch them again. Among these movies were The Neverending Story, Emerald Forest, Better Off Dead, and The Journey of Natty Gann. (My John Cusack obsession started early, too.)
For those who are unfamiliar, Natty Gann is about a Great Depression-era girl with a dead mother who goes in search of her father after he leaves her in the care of an unsavory guardian so he can do logging work some 2,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest (or was it Alaska?). Anyway. She wants her dad. She takes off across the North American wilds trying to get to where he is, having many adventures and, at some point, befriending a wolf (known only as “Wolf”), who becomes her constant companion and guardian throughout her travels.
After seeing this movie for the tenth or fifteenth time, I began telling kids at school that I had a half-wolf, half-dog named Crusher (Bad. Ass. Name.), who was my best friend. Crusher was pretty incredible. He lived in the woods by my house, could sense when I was in trouble, came when called from up to 5 miles away, attacked bad guys, AND did all the normal tricks dogs do, like sit, roll over, shake, speak, and play fetch.
In reality, I had a grumpy Pekingese with an underbite who all my friends were afraid of because he was dreadfully ugly. And he bit. His name was “Oscar,” after the Sesame Street grouch.
I told the other kids I met Crusher when he saved me from drowning in the river.
Crusher was an imaginary friend of sorts, but I don’t think I ever told my parents about him, and I knew he wasn’t actually real, most of the time.
I have one particularly vivid memory of telling this lie on the school bus as it made its way towards my day care, going down 3rd St. on the north hill of my hometown.
If what I was saying were true, I was dared, I should call him and he should show up.
I said fine, I would, but he might be busy doing some other bidding of mine. I remember looking down towards the river and seeing, in my mind’s eye, a gray streak barreling up the hill to come get me. I stopped telling that lie, I think, when he never showed up and when I realized that, sooner or later, friends who came to my house would begin to ask why they never saw Crusher. I told them I sent him back into the wild to be with the wolves. This, unsurprisingly, is exactly what Natty Gann did with Wolf.
3. The Completely True Fairy Tale of Neverland Summer Camp: In which I describe in great detail a place I didn’t yet know existed and events that had yet to take place.
Thriller-era Michael Jackson was cool. Way cool. I was a huge fan and even had a red leather belt (a la his jacket in the Thriller video) with MJ’s Billy Jean facade as the belt buckle. Michael Jackson bought Neverland Ranch in 1988, when I was ten. When I was nine, a new kid came to day care. He was from a wealthy family with Hollywood connections, and he told incredible stories about meeting famous people. They were like my stories, in a way, but his were true. We knew they were true because he brought pictures to show-and-tell. One of the people he’d met was Michael Jackson. He was wildly popular almost immediately. No tale of an invisible wolf-dog could trump an actual Polaroid of Cool Kid standing next to a squatting, beaming, still-black Michael Jackson.
So I did the only thing I could think to do: I fabricated a story so awesome that nothing anyone else could say could possibly be cooler. It was easily the most elaborate and vivid lie I have ever told in my life. It was about how–not only had I met Michael Jackson–I hung out with Michael Jackson on an annual basis, in the summer, every summer. It was basically summer camp; a bunch of other kids and I would go to Michael Jackson’s house, where he had rides and video games and threw parades every day. Michael Jackson loved kids, which is why he let us come to his awesome house. We played with Bubbles, had slumber parties every night, and he slept in the same room with us (in bunk beds, though, because even my premonitions, I guess, were naive). We’d stay up late telling ghost stories and get up early to go swimming and ride elephants.
He’d give me rides on his shoulders because he liked me best, and no, sorry. No other kids could come with me because it was invitation-only. But if they were really nice to me, I might be willing to give Michael a call and ask.
When the more elaborate details of Michael’s time at Neverland Ranch began to surface in the late 90s and after, I enthusiastically and with terrible desperation told people how, when I was 9, I had described this very scenario in shocking detail to a group of playground kids in semi-rural suburban Minnesota.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one believed me.