by Lara Lillibridge
There is an art to deception. The way my mouth moves when I mislead someone feels like acting, not lying. I hear my voice as if it is someone else’s—aware of my cadence, my inflection, the way my listeners willingly follow. My cheeks move like an animated mask— I’m separate, detached, watching this actor-version of myself from somewhere else. I have split who I am from what I say and I am more aware of what my body does as I say it. I am good at this — I have spent decades honing my skill, and I watch myself craft the deceit with pride.
I speak a version of truth, only cloaked, hooded in ambiguity, as I sculpt the conversation to the shape I want. Have you ever thrown a pot on a kick wheel? Out of sight your feet keep the surface turning while your hands push into clay, muddy water flowing out between your fingers. You have to keep the pressure consistent, or your vase or bowl can come loose and take flight. Once you’ve done it often enough your hands instinctively find the center, roll back to the edge of your palms, dig your thumbs in deeper, widen the hole. The form emerges seemingly naturally, as if it is just waiting for guidance to take its proper shape. This is how I mold conversation.
Even as adults our parents come up in conversation — it’s the root of how we were raised, where we lived, who we have become. Casual party fodder, the beginning of the getting to know you dance.
- Are your parents still married?
- My parents divorced when I was a baby, and when I was three my mom married Pat and they’ve been together ever since.
Three ambiguous letters, one androgynous name. Pat lends itself well to intentional deception. From there is it easy. I can call her my Step Monster if I’m being cute, my mother’s One True Love if I’m feeling ironically bitter.
Of course I’m using marry loosely because in my parents’ generation it implies heterosexuality. Isn’t it my job to challenge the average person’s assumptions? I don’t want to degrade Mom and Pat’s relationship to just living together. They exchanged rings and gave solemn vows. So what if the law didn’t recognize it at the time? Thirty-odd years later they made it legal the second they could—my parents can now file joint taxes, just like everyone else. Why should I say they have been married for nine years when the truth is they have been together for as long as I can remember? The listener’s faulty assumption is not my fault.
I will feign surprise when you eventually learn the truth and tell me you feel betrayed. I never lied to you, I just didn’t correct you, I will say. I will pretend an innocence I know I don’t deserve. It was just a mistake of presumptions.
You were the clay pot under my hands. I knew what you thought—I carefully monitored your response and knew just what to say to keep everything upright, above board, regular. I artfully manipulated you, guided you into a false belief because it served my purposes, and I have my reasons. I have big truths and little truths, pretty ones and disfiguring scars from decades of other people’s words.
The innocent way to phrase my motivation is that the world isn’t a safe place for queer people. It is simple, and it makes me the vulnerable one, the one in need of hiding.
The ugly truth is that often it is scorn that motivates me. I no longer reside in my mothers’ house. I often just simply say that my mother is a lesbian, and she and her partner have been together for as long as I remember. If I am deceiving you, it is because I have judged you and anticipate your negative reaction. I do not feel everyone deserves to know our truth. We all talk about gaydar but I’m pretty good at receiving hetero signals and judging which direction they point to.
And sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes that carefully shaped pot comes loose and flies off the wheel. In other words, I may find that I like you. Then I have to rewind everything and confess my deception. Now I am the clay waiting to be shaped, and I cower, waiting to see if your hand will flatten me out or lift me up.
About the photographer – Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher, and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, The Dream Patch; a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky; and a book of stage monologues for actors, Heart Speak. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Columbia, and Glimmer Train, among others. His photographs can be seen on his website gallery.