How old am I? If anybody asks, I have a proud answer: “I’m 5.” The neighbor lady who brought me home to my mother asked me that.
But that’s not the question now. Now, it’s “Why did the lady have to bring you home?” and “Did you cross the street by yourself?” and it’s my mother asking.
The living room seems to be waving around. I hang onto the doorframe. My stomach feels wavy, too. I can’t answer. Maybe I can’t remember. If I say “yes,” I really will have crossed that street by myself and the lady will have brought me back. I’m not supposed to cross the street by myself. I really want not to have done that.
“No, didn’t, by myself,” I mumble.
My head, however, is nodding up and down. My head remembers. I guess my head cannot lie to my mother. I can smell old puke paint on the doorframe, but I can’t see the paint very well. Maybe I’m going to throw up. Lying is really bad. You can’t be proud of yourself if you lie.
That’s all I remember about my first lie, the smell, the dizziness, and the guilt. I can’t remember being punished, though I assume my mother meted out some disciplinary action. I think I might have been glad of that. Maybe I thought being grounded or going straight to bed would make it as though the lie never happened. Maybe I thought it would keep me telling the truth as I grew up.
Grown up, I now skirt the truth regularly. I tell my friend her new hair color makes her look younger and her new dress makes her look thinner. But outright lies are rare for me.
I told one of these lies when I was in my late 30s. I was in the Los Angeles area and about to drive across the country to go back to college in Indiana. I was packing and getting ready to load the car. What was it I said? I can’t bring it to mind. I can’t recall either the lie I told or the truth I should have told. Oh well, here I am putting a sweater into a suitcase and watching myself opening my mouth and saying … what it really is … no, not that … what I want it to be.
Though it seems unlikely, one lie—whatever it was—was all it took to develop a habit I had to work hard at breaking. For weeks in school in Indiana, every time I had to say something important, I would watch myself opening my mouth, thinking the truth, thinking of a nice lie to tell instead, somehow getting another whiff of that depressing doorframe, mentally backing up, and then, carefully, telling the truth.
I was so relieved when I could finally just say something truthful again without that damn doorframe meddling with my mind.