Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it. — Emily Dickinson
David arrived home, set his keys on the counter, and retrieved a bottle of green tea from the refrigerator. As he gulped, I began my debriefing. “I was copied on two more letters to the city council regarding our opposition to that terrible rapid-bus proposal,” I said. David nodded, sighed, and took another drink. In a cheerier voice, I reported, “My dad called from Korea. He told me he needed help saving the free world and then asked if I knew a four-letter word ending in H that might appear in blog comments. I said, ‘mwah,’ which worked perfectly. He told me to say hi to you and then said he had to ‘go back to killing commies for Christ.’” This elicited a giggle from David; we shook our heads in unison, each of us smiling with bewildered affection for my father.
“Oh, and you missed your mom,” I said. “We told her we’d be home all day so that we could catch up, remember? But it’s okay, I explained what was going on with your printer.”
David set the bottle down on the counter with more force than necessary. He eyed me warily, like a bomb diffuser perceiving a faint but steady tick from a device he thought had been rendered inert. “What did you tell her?” David said, straining to appear calm.
“I told her you had to go down to your studio because your printer was on the fritz.” I spoke in the same over-enunciated, sluggish tempo I use to communicate with the Vietnamese women at my local salon.
Agony slashed across David’s face. “Why did you tell her that?” He brought his palms to his forehead and groaned.
“What’s the big deal?” I can usually guess David’s concerns. But now not only was I stumped, I was also starting to bristle at what I felt was unjustified wrath on his part. “I had to explain why you weren’t here when we told her we both would be,” I said.
“Don’t you have any sort of filter? Now she’s going to worry,” David said. He dropped his arms and sagged his shoulders.
“Why would she worry? I just told her your printer was acting weird and that you were trying to figure out why,” I said. “Don’t stress, beh-beh. It was a matter-of-fact update — I said the thing was broken, you were trying to fix it, and that everything was going to be just fine. Anyway, I told her what time you were due back, and she said she’d call —”
The phone rang, as though summoned. “That’s her now,” I said. We each grabbed a receiver and David answered.
“Hello!” My father-in-law is a phone shouter — he acts as though he’s making every call from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. “So, I hear your printer’s broken!”
I swore I could feel the wintry prickle of David’s glare on my skin. “It’s not broken!” David said, unable to hold back his exasperation. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“It just glitched, but it’s all okay now,” I cut in. “I only mentioned it earlier to Ency because she was wondering where David was.”
Robert, whose career involved inventing machines that cut and folded paper from industrial printing presses, tried once more. “What was wrong with it?”
“Nothing,” David snapped. “There’s nothing wrong. I just set the margins incorrectly in the software. Everything is fine.” Sensing David’s frustration, Robert moved on to the usual topics — an update on the latest illness to plague his high-maintenance bichon frise and the goings-on of other family members.
As the elected speaker on our end, I shared our news — carefully, with David still glaring in my direction. I told Robert my dad was in Korea for the month, my family was fine, David and I were having fun with our friend’s new pet pig, and my writing workshop seemed to be going well. Eventually, David relaxed his gaze and joined the conversation.
When Ency picked up the line, I braced myself for the inevitable. “How is your printer?” she asked. David’s glower returned full force. I simpered at him by way of apology.
It’s not easy for me to edit myself. I don’t look to my left without noting it on Twitter or Facebook. Though I understand that withholding information isn’t the same as lying and therefore not “bad,” choosing what to withhold — from whom and when — is exhausting. If I’m okay with anyone knowing what’s on my mind, then chances are I’m okay with everyone knowing it. I’d rather speak openly and leave it to others to exert themselves by searching for the impropriety in my expressions.
I’m the same way around children: convinced they’re going to figure things out eventually, I don’t sidestep answers to their blunt questions. When my five-year-old nephew asked when I was going to have a baby, I answered, “Never. I don’t want one.” When he asked why, I had to think for a moment. I hunted not for a lie, but for the most accurate truth. Finally, I said, “Being a mom is hard work — your mommy works really hard for you. I don’t want to work that hard.”
While David spoke about gallery stuff — details with which I was familiar — I zoned out over our current jigsaw puzzle, David Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway. I was scouring the pile of pieces to complete the edge of the road when I heard my name.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“How’s the car?” Ency repeated. “Did it get fixed?” The day before David and I left to visit my in-laws on the East Coast, a neighbor had accidentally crushed the rear quarter panel of my Mini with the front of his truck.
“It’s mostly fixed,” I said without thinking. “David has to take it back to have something called ‘orange peel’ buffed out.” I detected movement in my periphery and turned toward David, who, in his attempt to get my attention, was thrashing his limbs like a housecat tossed into a pool.
I realized I’d done it again. I was volunteering information that was potentially noxious for a hyper-concerned mother. Like a seasoned politician I walked it back, detailing how friendly and responsive my neighbor had been, how fun it was to drive the rental car for a few days, and how the car looked like new.
“Oh, that’s good to hear,” Ency said. I was beginning to see why David chose to share only positive news with his parents. I wondered about the offhand statements I’d made to my own parents and if they were troubled by any mentions of stress and strife. Nah, I thought. Nothing fazes my folks — I know this because I spent years trying to do just that.
Once we were off the phone, David said, “Look, when I was 16, riding my bicycle across Europe, my passport was stolen. I didn’t tell my parents about it until I’d gotten a replacement. They have their own problems to stress over. They certainly don’t need to be fretting about what’s going on with my printer, especially when it is not broken.”