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Fiction #139
(published June 19, 2003)
The Lie
by Susan B. Townsend

Jeff and I set the date for December thirteenth, but about six weeks before the wedding, he tried to call it off. In order to stop him, I lied. On a scale of one to ten, the lie was at least a nine. Maybe a ten. In any case, it was the worst lie I'd ever told.

Jeff's best friend, Martin, had come for a weekend visit sometime in late September, and Saturday night we all went to a club. Jeff didn't drink a lot- he never did, but Martin and I drank enough for the three of us and a few people more. When we got home, Jeff went to bed, but Martin and I stayed up to talk.

We did a lot more than talk. How much more I'll never know, because I blacked out. I recall the two of us lying on the living room floor. Martin kissed me and slipped his hand inside my shirt to cup my breast. I didn't say no, but I don't remember saying yes. God help me, I don't remember. I've gone over it a thousand times, trying to force my mind to fill in the blanks. It was like seeing the beginning of a movie, then leaving the theater for an hour and coming back at the end to find out that the main character had died. Somehow I made it to bed and woke up a few hours later to find Martin gone.

My hangover vanished as panic took over. Something must have happened, I thought. That's why he took off. I rushed into the bathroom and checked. How far did things go last night? I couldn't tell.

"Where did he go?" Jeff asked when I told him Martin had left. "Why would he just leave like that?"

What was I supposed to say? That he left because we had sex- at least, we might have had sex, but I didn't remember? It never occurred to me to tell the truth. "I have no idea," I said. "You know how weird Martin can get sometimes. Maybe he just wanted to go home."

"Without saying good-bye? Did anything happen last night after I went to bed?"

"No. Nothing. We had a drink, talked a little, and then I came to bed. Nothing happened." Prompted and then forced out by fear and self-loathing, my lie was born.

A few weeks later, plans for the wedding had consumed our lives. Crouched over the dining room table, Mom and I studied a large white sheet of paper, trying to finalize the seating arrangements. When the phone rang, Dad answered it and handed the receiver to me. "It's Jeff," he said.

"Hi honey," I said. "Sorry this is taking so long. I'll be home in about an hour, okay?" He said something, but I couldn't hear him. Dad had the television on, and Mom was waving at me like a drowning woman going down for the third time. For Christ's sake, Mom, I thought. Give it a rest for five minutes, okay?

She pointed to the white sheet and whispered, "Where do I put your Aunt Phyllis?"

"I don't know," I said. "Not you, Jeff. I was talking to Mom. Now, what did you say?"

Years later, I could still hear Jeff's voice on the phone. I could still see the granny square afghan lying across my dad's legs as he reclined on the couch with the remote in his hand. "Martin was here for a couple of hours. He just left," Jeff said.

At the mention of Martin's name, the events of that evening weeks ago should have come flooding back, but at first, they didn't even cross my mind. Maybe because I didn't remember what happened, or because Martin vanished the next morning, I thought I'd dreamed it all. Maybe I believed because nothing had ever been said to acknowledge the reality, it didn't exist.

"Wow, that was a short visit," I said. "What did he want? Did you ask him to be your best man? We really need to know one way or the other." Then my whole body went cold, as if the window next to me suddenly opened, blasting me with the frigid night air. Martin, I thought. Oh God, Martin talked to Jeff. What did he tell him? Still I pretended.

"Why are you calling me here?" I asked. "Why couldn't this wait 'til I got home?"

"Because I won't be here when you get home. Martin had some rather interesting news. You know, about the night he disappeared without saying a word. The night, or the morning, or whenever the hell it was." Jeff's voice grew louder and more angry until it thundered at me over the blare of the television and my mother's never ending monologue about how Aunt Phyllis couldn't get along with anyone.

I swallowed hard and closed my eyes. It was like that first downhill plunge on a roller coaster. You plummet into nothingness, your stomach drops and for a few seconds you can't draw a breath. "I don't know what you're talking about," I said. "What night?"

My mom looked up, her gaze questioning me, and even though my dad's eyes never left the screen, I knew he was listening too. My voice dropped to a whisper. "My parents are right here. Can we discuss this later?"

"No. There's nothing to discuss, and you can tell your mother her career as a wedding planner is over. The wedding is off."

"You can't mean that. What in God's name is going on?" The television fell silent, and my dad stood up.

"I asked Martin to be my best man, and guess what he said? He said he couldn't do it. He said he didn't feel right about it because you two slept together. Do you have any idea how I felt when he told me that? Do you?"

Jeff had to give me a chance to explain. I would make him give me that chance. "Aren't you going to ask for my side of the story?" I said. "You're just going to believe what Martin said without finding out if it's true?" I began to cry, deep choking sobs that made it impossible for me to speak. My father took the phone.

After a brief conversation, he hung up, put his arm around my shoulder and led me to the table. My mom sat there twisting her wedding band back and forth. I fought the urge to snatch the stupid paper off the table and crumple it up. My dad sat down across from me. "I won't ask you what's wrong," he said. "Jeff wouldn't tell me and I figure you probably don't want to talk about it right now, either."

I wiped my hand across my nose, and my mom automatically reached into the sleeve of her sweater and pulled out the tissue she always kept there, covered in lipstick smudges as usual. "It's clean," she said, watching me inspect it.

"What did Jeff say?" I asked.

"I told you. He wouldn't say much of anything, but I did persuade him to come over. I said you were terribly upset, and that he ought to at least come and talk to you."

I nodded and began to shred the tissue. My dad reached over and patted my arm. "Don't worry, honey. Sounds like a bad case of nerves to me. Everything's going to be all right." He got up and went back to the couch.

When my mom smoothed out the paper and picked up the pencil, I wanted to scream, but I kept my voice calm. "Mom, I'm sick to death of this right now. I don't care if everybody has to sit on the floor, or at this point, if they even come." She gave me her wounded mother look and I shook my head. "I'm sorry, okay? We'll work on it tomorrow. I'm sorry."

Jeff arrived and made polite small talk with my parents, but he wouldn't even look at me, much less say hello. My dad pulled a twenty out of his pocket and handed it to him. "I'm sure you two don't want to hang around here with us. Why don't go out for a pizza and a beer on me?

"Thanks," Jeff said. "Maybe we'll do that." He paused. "Well, we'll see you. Thanks again." Then he walked out the door without waiting to see if I was following. I grabbed my purse and coat and hurried out to the car.

"Where do you want to go?" he asked as he pulled away from the curb.

"How about the Ambassador? It'll be quiet there. We can have a drink and talk." I guess because I said we'd talk in the hotel lounge, Jeff figured he didn't have to say anything until we got there. I spent the trip beating myself up. Why did I get so drunk that night? Why didn't I go to bed with Jeff when we got home? I loved him. We were supposed to get married and spend the rest of our lives together. Dear God, I promised, if I get out of this one, I'll never screw up again.

Jeff shot me a look of disapproval when I ordered a double vodka tonic. He ordered a coke, and we sat in silence once again while we waited for our drinks. When they arrived, I resisted the temptation to snatch mine off the waitress' tray and drink the entire thing in one swallow.

Instead, I took a delicate sip and began to embellish my lie. I decorated it with creative, credible words and important details. I didn't simply deny Martin's claim that we'd slept together. I sat there and produced a litany of reasons why it couldn't possibly be true.

"You know what a terrible flirt Martin is," I said. "I guess I should have told you he came onto me that night. And he was awfully drunk." Forget Martin, I thought. I could have been talking about myself."

I took a deep breath and continued. "Of course I said no, but maybe that pissed him off. Maybe he decided to pay me back somehow." When Jeff closed his eyes and nodded, I felt a surge of triumph. I'd been right. I knew if he gave me the chance to explain, I could turn this around. I could fix it.

"I suppose," he said, "but Martin and I have been friends since we were kids. Why would he lie to me? Why would he want to ruin things for me?"

I used my voice to soothe and comfort him. I explained that maybe he never understood what was going on inside Martin. How perhaps, even though they'd been the best of friends, he never really knew him at all. I'm not sure what came more easily that night — the lies, or the casual yet intentional destruction of a life-long friendship.

"I've got something to tell you," Jeff said. I nodded and smiled, encouraging him to continue. This was the part where he'd declare how much he loved me, and how nothing could ever come between us.

"When Martin told me that you two slept together, I flipped out. But it wasn't until he'd left, and I was on my way over to your parents, that I realized what a hypocrite I am, and that my anger was partly guilt."

"Guilt? What are you talking about?"

"Do you remember the weekend last Christmas when I drove to Richmond to visit my sister?"


His words spilled out, as if by saying them quickly, he could lessen their impact. "Well, I went to this party and I met this girl. We spent the night together. One night. That was it. I don't think I even remember her name."

"You what? Oh, give me a break. You spent an entire night together and you don't remember her fucking name?"

He rubbed his hand over his mouth. "Carol. I think her name was Carol."

"How many times did you fuck her?"

"I told you. It was only one night."

I picked up my drink, drained it and slammed the glass down. "That's not what I asked you. I asked you how many times you fucked her."

"God, I don't see what that has to do with anything. I slept with someone else. That's it. I feel bad enough about it already. I'd rather not discuss details."

"We'll discuss what I want to discuss." My voice was now loud enough to cause several people to turn and stare. Then, for the second time that evening, I began to cry. Part of me cried over Jeff's confession, and part of me cried because his honesty made my deceit that much more repulsive and pathetic.

Six weeks later, I walked down the aisle on my father's arm. Wearing a huge grin, Jeff waited for me at the altar. Martin was nowhere in sight. Jeff and I stayed married for twenty-two months and seventeen days. Our marriage never had a chance. All my lie did was take something unpalatable and made it indigestible.

One day I woke up and realized that if I had stayed married to Jeff, we'd be celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. If he walked into the room right now, would I tell him the truth? I don't know. Maybe that's what's eating me up, what makes it impossible for me to tuck the lie away in a drawer somewhere with other forgotten letters and photographs. Then again, maybe there's nothing to tell.

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