Christmas of 2000 found me living with my husband and two children in an apartment in the center of Paris, our fourth year abroad thanks to my husband’s corporate job. Our Christmas letter that December was filled with accounts of the sights we’d seen and places we’d traveled during the previous twelve months. We enclosed a photo of the children standing on our little balcony, leaning against the beautiful ironwork railing with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
My best friend from high school sent me a similarly upbeat Christmas letter, with photos of her children and accounts of the year’s achievements. After the holidays, she e-mailed me to say that she was jealous and in awe of the life I was living and how happy I must be. I read her e-mail a few times before responding:
“Dear B.,” I wrote. “Don’t believe everything you read. I’ve never felt so lonely and empty in my life. We are talking about divorce, and I think it will happen soon.”
She wrote back to say how sorry she was, then added, “Since you told me your real story, let me tell you mine. I’m having my second affair, and my husband and I are both on antidepressants and in counseling. I work long hours at my job and am never home. I think my son is depressed.”
I’ve since gotten divorced, moved back to the States, and started a new life. I’ve never sent another Christmas letter, and I never believe the ones I get.
In 1979 I underwent training with a spiritual self-improvement program founded on the belief that enlightenment could be beaten into a person over the course of a week. In the training session before mine, a young man had drowned during what was called a “stretch” exercise. He was supposed to be overcoming his fear of water, but was unable to make himself swim the length of the lake.
I took part in the training because I wanted to be comfortable in my own skin, without the constant fears and insecurities I’d suffered since childhood. Somehow I made it through most of the week. Then it came time for the stretch. One couple had to fly round-trip from Portland to Seattle sitting in different parts of the plane and saying, “Cock-a-doodle-do!” every five minutes. Another couple had to hitchhike to a nearby town wearing Pink Panther suits. When it was my turn, the trainer told me to buy some sexy lingerie and pretend to pose for fifty Penthouse centerfolds. He said it would help me overcome my “little-girl act.”
I was the only teenager in training. I was also the only one who wasn’t “getting it.” In their words, I hadn’t “popped” yet. I knew I needed to have a breakthrough during the stretch, but when I sat down on the floor in my skimpy lingerie in front of forty men and women, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even fake it — and no amount of yelling and screaming by the trainers could make me.
Two days later I graduated from the training. Two days after that, I had a nervous breakdown.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
After an alcoholics anonymous meeting, one of the old-timers took me aside and told me the way to overcome my problem was to “fake it until you make it.”
I thought this was the stupidest piece of advice I’d ever heard. Why on earth would someone in AA advocate pretense as a way of life? Wasn’t that precisely what I was trying to stop doing? I was already getting through my days by mimicking the gestures, behaviors, and words of people who seemed normal.
Then my husband and I moved from Canada to Silicon Valley, where he intended to acquire his Ph.D. The first thing that hit us was the cost of living: two thousand dollars a month for a house whose roof acted like a conduit for rainwater. Orange mushrooms grew on our living-room carpet. The local Goodwill was more expensive than my favorite Canadian stores. I needed to find work, and a part-time job wasn’t going to cut it. My husband had the crazy notion that I’d make a good teacher.
My first substitute assignment was at a middle school in the poorest area of San Jose. Within a few months I’d had a rock thrown at my head, been told that I was nothing but “fucking white shit” by a twelve-year-old, and had my wallet stolen. I’d also dropped fifteen pounds from my already slight frame. Every new assignment made my stomach churn with anxiety. But I pretended to care about these kids, because if I admitted how I really felt, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed to come to work.
One day, during a PE class, I learned that you shouldn’t stand on the white numbers painted in circles on the ground, because they belonged to children who had died, usually violently. My students took me on a guided tour of the numbers: this one for the girl who had hanged herself because she’d gained too much weight and her boyfriend didn’t love her anymore; that one for the kid who’d taken a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting.
I graduated to full-time teacher. At night, in front of the bedroom mirror, I practiced my confident demeanor. During the day, I programmed every move: the cold, reproving look; the I’m-a-veteran-and-expect-compliance stare; the get-tough pose; the I’m-so-proud-of-you smile. I pretended to know what to do when a young girl came to me and admitted that her brother had been molesting her for years. The police came, and I sat, gently stroking the girl’s arm, asking the questions the male officers couldn’t.
I can’t say when pretense became a reality, but somehow I reinvented myself, one choreographed move at a time.
I have a reputation for getting things done. I used to deserve it, but not anymore. I gave up getting anything done about ten years ago, and no one’s noticed. I still look the part: I dress reasonably well, apply makeup to the appropriate areas of my face, and walk fast, as if I know where I’m going. But the truth is, I’m wandering around aimlessly. I get a few things done once in a while, but I procrastinate heavily and spend enormous amounts of time looking for things I’ve misplaced because I’m so disorganized. Nevertheless, people continue to think I’m a genius.
I have developed tricks that get me through typical work situations. For example, to stay awake during meetings, I sit up straight, focus directly on the person who’s talking, and try to remember what I’m wearing. (It takes longer than you might think.) I have to keep my shoulders back so I don’t accidentally see a sleeve. The posture makes me look extremely attentive, and the memory game puts a look of intense concentration on my face.
Do I feel like a phony? Yes, but I used to be the real thing. That’s the key to faking it — you have to know what it’s like to be authentic, even if you haven’t been that way in years.
Beverly Shores, Indiana
I grew up in fear of getting on my mother’s bad side. If my older sister misbehaved, my mother would wait until my father came home and instruct him to take my sister upstairs and “give her a good whipping.” With great dread I would watch them climb the stairs. Then I would hear her screams.
Some forty years later, I was speaking to my sister about our parents, and she brought up the whippings. “Do you know what really happened?” she said. “Dad would take me upstairs to the bedroom and say, ‘OK, start yelling,’ and we would laugh quietly together between my fake screams.”
When I married my first husband, at the age of eighteen, I was already faking sexual satisfaction. Within two years, I knew we weren’t compatible, but by then I was pregnant and financially dependent on him. Soon after our son was born, we sank to an all-time low. He was jealous of the attention I gave the baby, insensitive to the changes in my body, and critical of my decision to put child rearing above housecleaning. He told me that our problems in bed were my fault: I had become frigid.
I was trying to figure out how to leave this man when, thanks to a persistent neighbor and my own emotional confusion, I became a born-again Christian. Although my newfound religion offered me some comfort, it also made divorce out of the question. If I was to be a “godly” woman, I needed to submit to my husband. “Faking it” was now not only a survival skill; it was a religious obligation.
My deception went on for ten more years. I didn’t see it as lying, because my intentions were honorable: to be a good Christian and keep my family together. A marriage counselor, whom we were seeing at my husband’s insistence, suggested we “act as if” we felt connected and loving even if we didn’t. He believed that if couples did this, sometimes the act would become real. I clung to that advice the way an alcoholic clings to booze, with the same disastrous results.
Over the years, I became adept at faking it everywhere except in bed. I could accommodate my husband, but I had to disconnect from the experience. His ongoing commentary on my “sexual dysfunction” did little to make the situation better. After he’d urged me to open up more in bed, I decided to give it one last shot, to see if I had any latent sexual desires left. Turns out I did, and when I talked about them in bed one night, my husband accused me of having an affair. He didn’t see where else I could possibly have gotten all those ideas.
In my twelfth year of marriage, I ran into an old high-school boyfriend. The chemistry between us just about knocked me over. That night, I discovered that I was decidedly not frigid, and I realized how much faking it had been costing me emotionally. The following year brought confusion, separation, loss, divorce, grief, freedom, and the end of faking it. Ironically, my faith in God has become stronger than ever. I realized I’d been faking it in that relationship, too.
I fake almost every orgasm. I’ve gotten so good at performing the requisite moans, groans, and higher and higher pitched cries that sometimes even I’m not sure whether I’ve had one or not. I fake it for a number of reasons: because it’s the easiest way to end bad sex; because I know it’s going to take me more time to have an orgasm than the guy has patience; to satisfy the guy’s ego. But mostly I fake it to free myself to focus on the fucking.
In my forties, I’ve discovered that I love the act of fucking so much that I no longer care about having an orgasm. I become utterly absorbed in the pumping movement of our bodies, the energy rushing through me like tiny pinpricks all over my skin, the sensation of being filled up, and feeling the exact moment when he starts to come. In the midst of all that, I can’t be bothered to touch my clit, or to make him touch my clit, or to find some contorted way to stimulate my clit.
I have fucked thirteen men since my divorce, and my performance has failed to convince only two of them. The first was a one-night stand who took the time to make me come after he uncovered my deceit. The other is the one I fell for.
“So, is there really a mustang ranch?” my friend Rob casually asked the cashier as we placed two bottles of soda on the counter. We weren’t thirsty, but, in our seventeen-year-old minds, only an idiot would walk in and ask such a thing upfront.
Not taking his eyes from the register, the clerk recited, “Follow the freeway out of town until you hit the Mustang exit. It’ll be on your right.”
I turned my flushed face away from the surveillance camera in the corner. I had a vision of a Nevada state trooper with a button-straining potbelly, a thin mustache, and a direct hot line to my mother.
It’s not as if we actually planned to partake of the services offered at the brothel. We just wanted to be able to tell our friends back home in eastern Washington that we’d “been to” the Mustang Ranch.
The “ranch” turned out to be two nondescript buildings surrounded by a monstrous parking lot filled with limos and mud-spattered 4x4s. Rob found a parking spot, killed the engine, and proclaimed, “Well, let’s go in and give it a look.”
What? I hadn’t planned on that. But then, if word got out that only Rob had gone in . . . “Yeah, let’s go,” I said, fighting back nausea.
The spacious lobby was a study in whorehouse chic. Thick dark red carpet reached every corner, and an enormous chandelier hung from the ceiling, casting a crystal glow on the gold-framed nudes on the walls. Six women in revealing evening wear glided single file to the center of the room and, to my horror, turned to face us.
Not being conversant in brothel protocol, I walked past the six women to a booth marked cashier. Inside sat a wiry man with a mullet haircut, a Marlboro smoldering at the corner of his mouth.
“Uh, how much is it?” I blurted out, much louder than I’d intended. I glanced sheepishly over my shoulder at the women. They stared with calm and knowing smiles, instantly obliterating any vestige of coolness I had retained up to that point.
“You need to choose a lady and go to the room,” the cashier said. “Prices will be discussed there.”
Sensing our discomfort, one of the women mercifully approached us. She was poised, beautiful, and elegant, with a red sequined gown whose neckline plummeted to her navel. She scared the hell out of me. Gently placing her hand on my shoulder, she said in a matronly tone, as if speaking to two lost toddlers in a Wal-Mart, “Why don’t you boys just sit down and cool off for a while?”
Rob and I stared at each other, searching for some excuse that would bring this nightmare to an end. Suddenly I heard myself say, “You know, we really do need money for lift tickets tomorrow” — as if I had just checked my wallet and discovered that my vacation budget wouldn’t cover a prostitute.
Before the last word had left my lips, the cashier had returned to his magazine, and the women had begun drifting out of the lobby.
My stepson sequoyah is a fine young man — considerate, warm, intelligent. I’ve known him nineteen of his twenty-four years. He has Down syndrome, and to help those who can’t quite grasp his speech, he’s become adept at pantomime.
My ninety-five-year-old mother lived with us for a time. A small, gentle, agreeable Southern lady, she had lost quite a bit of memory but none of her natural charm and grace. At sundown every evening, however, her dementia took over.
Around dinnertime she would start to look distressed, walk to the front door, and look down the road that led to Statesville. That’s where she wanted to go — back to Walnut Street, to her childhood home, where her father and stepmother would be getting worried about her. “Well, this has been a lovely visit,” she would say, “but I mustn’t overstay my welcome. I should head home before dark.”
“Oh, no, Mom,” I would say. “Your parents have passed away. Remember?”
“Well, certainly not. I just spoke with Father this morning.”
She could become agitated quite quickly by this conversation. Then one day Sequoyah found a solution: “G.G. Beth,” he said to my mother, “your parents are in heaven. I’ll call and tell them you’re staying here tonight.” In a decisive and businesslike manner, he punched the numbers into his palm, held thumb and pinkie to his head, and waited for a ring. Then he asked God if he could speak with G.G.’s stepmother.
My mom watched with eager interest as we all listened to his side of the conversation: “So that’s OK? . . . All right, thank you . . . She’ll see you tomorrow.”
It was all settled. Mom was relieved that no one would worry, and we were delighted that she could stay the night.
Laurel Springs, North Carolina
The only horse I ever rode was a plastic steed attached by thick steel springs to an aluminum-pipe framework: the Kennedy-era version of a rocking horse. As you rocked, the springs made a screech that rattled windows and curled toenails.
I was six and my brother Frank was four the day we rode our horse at full gallop, rocking madly, our laughter drowned out by the squeaking of our mount’s springs. Suddenly we swung back a little too far, and horse and riders tumbled backward in a noisy crash. I hit my head on the hardwood floor, my brother landed on my chest, and the horse fell on top of us.
My brother cried and flailed about, but I lay still, arms and legs splayed, eyes closed, mouth slightly open: the way I imagined a little boy with a concussion would. Though my head throbbed, I was essentially fine. I pictured my mother cradling my limp body, wailing over her dead son — until I surprised her with a fit of laughter.
As I heard my mother come into the room, I fought to keep the grin off my face. I felt her lift my screaming brother off me. Then she shook my shoulder. “Oh, my God!” she whispered. “David, are you OK? David!”
I heard footsteps as she carried my brother out of our bedroom, and I basked in satisfaction. I had just pulled off a really good trick. I felt a brief wave of power.
Then I realized that my mother had not returned. I was still lying on the floor, my head throbbing miserably, but I had nobody for whom to perform. Something formed in my stomach: not a physical pain, but a deep dread. I suddenly believed that I was the only one in the house, that I had been left behind.
I opened my eyes and rose from the floor. The silence seemed proof that I had been deserted. I was afraid to call out and discover that nobody would answer. I walked quietly downstairs.
In the living room, my mother was talking on the phone and holding my brother, who had been quieted by a popsicle. When she saw me, she dropped the receiver, rushed over, and took me in her arms. Her tears wet my neck.
I never told her that I had faked my unconsciousness that day. My fear of being abandoned came back a year later, when my parents divorced.
Bowling Green, Florida
When i was growing up, nobody seemed to know that smoking was bad for your health. We were told that it would stunt your growth, but we all knew very tall men who smoked, so we figured that story was just another of the grown-ups’ lies. We girls were also told that smoking would make us look “fast,” but we didn’t care. Once in a while we would sneak a cigarette and take turns puffing away at it. We didn’t know that you were supposed to inhale.
My best friend and I were fourteen when her older sister announced that it was time we learned to smoke properly. She gave each of us our own cigarette and told us to take a puff and breathe the smoke into our lungs.
The smoke was about halfway down when I started coughing violently. I felt nauseated, and my throat burned, then seemed to close up.
When I could finally breathe again, I declared that smoking was not for me. My friend had coughed a little but was ready to try again. I cried because I was such a miserable failure. “That’s OK,” the sister said. “You can fake it.” She taught me to hold the smoke in my mouth and inhale through my nose. Nobody would know the difference.
I fake-smoked for years until I outgrew being ashamed that I couldn’t smoke, but my best friend was determined to do it right. “I’m going to learn to smoke if it kills me,” she said. And she did. And it did.
Dorothy L. Patton
I was a college freshman far from home, sitting nervously on the lawn during a new-student picnic. I noticed a self-assured boy checking me out from across the quad. He was obviously not a freshman. Feeling anxious, insecure, and very alone, I lit a cigarette and gave him a look that said, I’m fun. Sexy. Smart. A little wild. Come here. Talk to me. Hold me. I’m yours. He came right over.
We’d been dating for a couple of months when he asked me to go to his fraternity’s annual formal dance. “Do you have a dress?” he asked.
My mother had spent four hundred dollars on my high-school prom dress the year before — ten times the amount she had ever spent on a dress for herself. She’d told me it was a good investment because I would be attending lots of formals at my fancy Ivy League college.
“Let me see it,” my boyfriend said.
I stepped out of the bathroom, beaming in the strapless taffeta dress my mother had told me was very sophisticated. My boyfriend looked panicked. Suddenly feeling ridiculous in my overpriced dress, I laughed and tried to hide my embarrassment. He told me I could probably borrow something from his roommate’s girlfriend.
“I can’t believe you were going to wear that,” he said. “It’s a good thing I asked to see it.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
On the big night, he rented us a room in the hotel where the dance was being held. It was the first time I’d ever stayed in a hotel with a man. He gave me a dozen long-stemmed red roses. First time for that, too. Somehow, all the effort he had put into the romantic evening — plus all the White Russians I drank at the dance — made me want to come clean with him. So, at 3 A.M., I revealed to him that most of the moaning, screaming, thrashing orgasms I had experienced with him had been fake.
He was understandably upset. Like a jealous lover who’d been cheated on, he wanted to be punished with the details. Had I faked it that time in his car? Yes. The first time? Especially then. Every time? No.
As if it would prove something, he begged me to make myself come, to show him what a “real one” looked like. I wasn’t in the mood, but, feeling guilty about the lies, I resorted to a surefire method: I lay in the bathtub with the spray of water cascading directly onto my clitoris.
While I lay there, I thought of my prom dress and how ashamed he had made me feel of it; how I’d struggled to fit in with his silver-spoon crowd; how I could never really be myself around him. I moaned and screamed and thrashed, then turned off the water.
“So that’s what a real one looks like,” he said.
“Yeah,” I answered blissfully. But I had faked it again.
Los Angeles, California
Although I had always been a good student, I dropped out in twelfth grade following my parents’ divorce and ran away to California. When I discovered I couldn’t feed and clothe myself, I returned home, found an apartment, and got on with my life.
While job hunting, I simply lied about having a high-school diploma. No one ever checked; I was articulate enough to fake it.
At twenty-four, I became office manager for a young family doctor in private practice. Like my previous employers, he never checked my educational background. I found the work stimulating and challenging, and I was good at it. My knowledge and responsibilities grew along with the practice.
Ten years later, the practice employed three doctors and a nurse practitioner, grossed more than a million dollars a year, and employed seventeen support staff — all of whom I had hired and supervised. No one even suspected my lack of formal education. My kind and appreciative boss valued me no less because I had never gone to college. My peers and subordinates simply assumed that I had a degree. I easily denied the importance of this little lie, which seemed so small and far away that it no longer mattered.
Then my boss approached me about the possibility of our practice merging with another in town. I went over the details with the administrator of the other practice, a woman with an MBA and many years of management experience. Intimidated, I found myself trying to discourage the merger.
Underneath my cool demeanor, I was secretly terrified. I knew that if the practices merged I would most likely be demoted within the new organization or forced to reenter the job market after twelve years. Without a diploma, I could never find a comparable position. I was a lowly high-school dropout functioning in a world of MDs and MBAs.
Although the merger never happened, it became increasingly difficult for me to continue my self-deception. My lack of education did matter — even if only to me — and I had to do something about it. I chose a community college in the next county in order to avoid running into anyone I knew, and, almost twenty years after I quit high school, I finally took the GED.
The test itself was ridiculously easy, but taking it was so difficult for me emotionally that I collapsed afterward and stayed home for several days, exhausted to the point of feeling ill.
After that, I started openly taking classes at a small local college. My boss paid every dime of the modest tuition and glowed with almost paternal pride as I scored straight A’s again and again. Several times during my first semester, I drove home crying with joy. Last summer, at the age of thirty-seven, I was inducted into the honors society.
I was attending a huge wedding reception in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and knew almost no one there. A lovely eight-year-old girl from India had latched onto me, and I to her. She had long black hair tied up with an ivory bow and dark, flashing eyes. We found a table together, and she told me how boring the party was. There was no one else her age.
“People I don’t know come up and ask me who I am,” she said. “Then they pat me on the head and walk off. I don’t like it.”
She asked me what I thought of the party. I said I was bored, too. To remedy our situation, I devised a mischievous plot, to which she responded with glee.
I’m tall and bearded and can look rather imposing when I want to, and I walked just behind her as she made her way through the crowded reception hall. An elderly woman with lavender hair approached us. “Such a lovely child,” she said, and she reached to touch the girl on the shoulder.
“Do not touch the princess Kamala Devi,” I said quietly but firmly, arms folded. “You may speak, but remain a step away. Thank you.”
I think the lavender-haired woman actually bowed slightly as she retreated. I nodded in approval. Then the princess curtsied graciously and said, “So happy to meet you.”
So it went for an hour, as curious Bostonians approached to meet the princess Kamala Devi, who would say no more than “Thank you” and curtsy in the finest colonial manner. It all ended when the princess’s mother appeared just as a Boston surgeon was asking, “Now, exactly where in India did you say you were from?”
My mother was seventeen when I was born, and for my first four years we lived with my grandparents, who adored me. I was my grandma’s “sweetie” and my granddad’s “punky.” Then my mother married R.
Just before they left on their honeymoon, I innocently showed my mom’s friends where their luggage was, and, as a prank, the young women filled the bags with rice. I still remember R.’s hot breath on my face and his tight grip on my arm as he told me in a gruff whisper how stupid and bad I was, and that I was never to have anything to do with his things again. Later, I stood in a scratchy pink dress and watched my mom drive away with my new “daddy.” I hated him already.
When they returned from their honeymoon, they promptly moved to Oregon, taking me from the only home I’d ever known. In my mother’s presence, R. was tolerant of me, but when she was not around, he treated me horribly, pulling my hair, saying awful things to me, slapping me where it would not show for reasons I did not understand.
By the age of five I’d learned that pretending things were OK and trying to remain invisible made my mother relatively happy and kept R. from noticing me — although there were plenty of times when it didn’t work.
R. would force me to do things I was not old enough to do, such as ride a two-wheeler, swim in a huge lake, or walk alone to the neighbors’ house in the dark. When I was ten, he made me pick up the pieces of a kitten that his dog had killed and strewn about the front yard. I was not allowed gloves.
My mother stayed with R. for seven years. By the time I was eleven, I had become an expert at being unobtrusive. I had also developed a raging ulcer and weighed all of forty pounds.
My mother-in-law was a bitter woman. In the 1920s, she had fled her Irish Catholic family, where girls were good for nothing but cooking and cleaning, and married a Protestant. They moved to New York, where her husband was a chemist of some renown and she became a highly regarded nurse. They had a little boy — my husband — and were happy. She was a kind and generous mother.
But then her husband died, and, heeding her father’s wishes, my mother-in-law returned home to help with her ailing mother, bringing her boy with her. He had none of the usual playthings: no baseball bat, or bike, or catcher’s mitt. “No, you can’t have a two-wheeler,” his mother would tell him. “You’re going to go to college and make me proud. The only thing you’ll be peddling is papers.”
Years later, my mother-in-law would admonish me: “Your children have too many toys. And they don’t need all those clothes, either. One dress for school and one for church is all I had in my day. You have to save money for their college educations.”
I saw a glimpse of the kind woman she once was, however, as she tenderly watered the African violets on the kitchen windowsill. So I bought her a plant for her tiny bedroom. Later, I bought her a plant stand, which she put under the dining-room window. She kept several violets there, in various shades of purple and pink.
In other respects, she led a meager existence. She allowed herself no pleasures or spending money. She began to steal sugar packets, salt, napkins, and toilet paper from public places. By the time her petty crimes had grown into outright criminal behavior, she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
She entered a nursing home where the patients were not allowed to have live plants. I shopped around for fake African violets and finally found some that were hard to distinguish from real ones. I set them on top of her bureau at the nursing home. She never said a word.
A week later, I got a call from the nurses’ station telling me to come and collect my phony violets. An aide had noticed that all the clothes in my mother-in-law’s bureau were soaking wet. It turned out she had been using her paper pill cup to water the fake plants.
I was eight years old and staying with my grandparents in their run-down farmhouse on the upper Gila River in New Mexico. I slept in the same room as my grandfather, who kept the radio on all night, tuned to a talk station.
He woke me early one morning during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. As the light turned red over the desert hills and filled our chilly, curtainless room with a crimson glow, the two of us decided to tell Grandma that the reactor had melted down and spewed radiation all over the Northeast: thousands were dying, and a cloud of fallout was heading for New York. There was no television in the house. She’d have to take our word for it.
Grandma was puttering around the kitchen in her light blue nightgown, moving from counter to sink to stove and humming some girlish tune. I ran in shouting, “Grandma, guess what?” And I gave her the story with a straight face, my heart beating hard.
“Oh, no,” she said. Her mouth opened, and she backed against the counter and leaned there. I really had her going. It never occurred to her that I might lie about something like this. Suddenly my stomach dropped. It wasn’t funny anymore. She believed us.
I ran back to Grandpa in the bedroom. He was laughing so hard he wasn’t making a sound. His face was red and looked ready to pop.
“Grandpa, I don’t think we ought to —”
“Shhh,” he said. “Just let her stew a bit.”
I felt sick inside, as though I were betraying them both.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I boarded the train in Chicago on a dreary Monday in January 1961. I was thirteen weeks pregnant, and, although my waistband felt snug, I could still wear my regular clothes. For the trip, I wore a suit and three-inch heels. Very businesslike. Appearances were what mattered back then, and I’d bought into this all the way: girdle, hair rollers, giving up my baby — all for appearances’ sake.
At 8:30 A.M. on Tuesday, the train arrived in Denver, Colorado. I deposited my luggage in a locker and went to find a restaurant where I could get breakfast. As I walked down the street, the morning pedestrians breezed by on their way to work. Then I saw two familiar faces bobbing toward me. It was too late to cross the street and pretend I hadn’t seen them.
“Grace, what are you doing here?” Marilyn Biehl shrieked as she and her sister Diane stopped directly in front of me. We’d gone to high school together, but I hadn’t seen them in six years. I’d always thought the Biehl sisters were perfect: exceptionally pretty, smart, fashionable, and friendly. They were the very people I was hiding from — the ones who did everything right, the ones I was certain would stand in judgment of me.
“I just got off the train,” I said. “I’m staying at the ywca while I look for work.” While part of me was terrified of being found out, another part craved the comfort of familiar people in a strange city.
The sisters were both legal secretaries now and on their way to work. “We’ll have to get together,” Diane said. “We can show you around Denver.” Marilyn wrote their phone number on the back of her boss’s business card and handed it to me, saying, “Call us if you feel like coming over or doing something.” I tucked the card into my purse, and they hurried off.
Well, what I’d told them wasn’t a complete lie. I did plan to work. The social worker from the adoption agency had arranged a live-in child-care position for me, but it would not begin until Monday, six days away.
For the rest of the week, I had meetings with the social worker, toured the unwed mothers’ home where I would deliver my baby, and went to the movies. At sunset on Friday, I returned to my room at the ywca. The little desk lamp cast a whimper of dim yellow light. The weekend lay ahead of me like a dark void. I had no more appointments scheduled, nothing to do, no one to talk to. I sat, elbows on the desk, and cradled my head in my hands.
Maybe I could call Marilyn and Diane. I wouldn’t have to tell them I was pregnant. I could pretend that everything was fine. But then they’d ask questions, and I’d have to lie. And in a few weeks, I’d start to show. No, it wouldn’t work. But how else would I make it through the weekend — not to mention the lonely months ahead?
I reached into my purse and took out the business card Marilyn had given me, felt the embossed lettering on the front, tapped the bottom edge against the table. How would I tell them? Would I just blurt out, “I’m pregnant and I’m lonely and I’d like to get together”? I put down the card and closed my eyes to think.
Then I stopped thinking, picked up the card, and went out to the pay phone in the corridor.
Grace J. Harstad
San Mateo, California
I grew up trained to say whatever would make people happy. Not hurting people’s feelings was at the core of my family’s belief system. As a child, my mother once ate a live caterpillar from her salad plate at a friend’s house because she didn’t want to embarrass the hostess.
My mother also believed strongly in telling the truth. She wanted my brother and me to be honest and warned us that for each lie we told we’d receive a black spot on our heart. If our heart became totally black, we’d die.
As a child, I saw the inherent conflict between these two beliefs: Hurting people’s feelings was bad, and telling the truth was good, but telling the truth could hurt people’s feelings. (I wasn’t yet versed in white lies or diplomacy.)
In second grade, a classmate asked how I liked the picture she’d drawn. It was all black scribbles. I panicked before answering. How many spots did I have on my heart? But I also couldn’t hurt her feelings. I said, “Oh, Billy Sue, I really like it.” Then I clenched my hands, squeezed my eyes shut, and waited to die.
As I got older I became a master at accommodating, acquiescing, and adjusting: “I don’t mind.” “Works for me.” “It’s no bother.” But now I am sick of it. I am sick of faking it.
And so, like a child again, I’m learning a new vocabulary: “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” “That won’t work for me.” “No.” “No.” “No.”
My mother passed away less than a month before my fifteenth birthday, leaving my father with eight children to raise. Unable to handle the pressure, he started drinking, and, with no one to tell me not to, I followed his lead.
My best friend, Clare, was one day older than I, and every year we would celebrate our birthdays together. For our sixteenth, we went to a college bar called the Kettle. The bartender ignored our age and served us a pitcher of beer. We beamed proudly at each other.
Before half the pitcher was drained, two college boys had joined us. They made some jokes that were way over my head, but I felt flattered and obligated to laugh. One of the boys flirted with me. There was no need to blush; the beer had already given my face a warm glow. He asked if I would like a ride on his motorcycle. I nodded. Wow, I thought. Wasn’t I lucky?
We’d have to go back to his dorm room to get the other helmet, he said, so I went with him. When we got there, he raped me.
As I write this, I realize sadly that he probably never had a motorcycle.
I’d never considered myself brilliant by any means, but that was the first time I felt truly dumb. I had walked willingly into a trap.
When we got back out to the street, he picked me up and swung me around, squeezing me so tight that I thought my ribs would break. Tears shot to my eyes, but I stayed cool. I would not give him the satisfaction of knowing he had hurt me.
It was a long walk back to the bar. I was so grateful to be returning in one piece that I let him take my hand and lead me back to my friend, back to safety, back to a life that was changed completely. I was no longer an innocent sixteen-year-old. After that, I would just be faking it.
Studio City, California
A survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Madam Prezo lived alone in a cramped second-story apartment. This frail Polish woman had watched her entire family be killed by the Nazis and been left with lifelong nightmares.
At twenty-two, I was a fresh-faced missionary in Montreal. Another girl and I were assigned to visit the lonely Madam Prezo once a week, to bring her groceries and keep her company. We were her only human contact, except for her landlord.
“Don’t bring your bag in,” the other girl warned. “The cockroaches will crawl inside and come home with you.”
On my first visit, I stepped gingerly into the dark, curtained room, brushed the roaches off the table, and set the groceries down. At Madam Prezo’s invitation, I took a seat on the dusty sofa and looked around at the black-and-white pictures she’d brought with her from Poland.
Madam Prezo instructed me to come closer. As I did, her eyes grew wide, and she grasped my face in her hands and began babbling in her native tongue. My long blond hair and blue eyes had apparently convinced her of my Polish ancestry. She ignored my insistence that I was Irish and demanded to know where my family was from, how long since I’d left the homeland, and if I’d found a nice Jewish boy to settle down with.
Every visit after that was the same: she would grow excitable as I entered the room, ignore my protests, and patiently help me “relearn” my Polish: “Dzien dobry!” (Good day!) “Jak sie pan miewa?” (How do you do?)
“Very important!” she scolded. “We must practice so you don’t forget!”
I gave up arguing and played along with her delusion, rehearsing Polish phrases on the metro. I even attracted the attention of a couple of Poles who tried to engage me in conversation.
One day, I arrived at Madam Prezo’s building to find an ambulance out front. I bounded up the stairs. Her door was open, and the paramedics were inside, desperately trying to restrain her. She had gone out for milk and fallen, breaking her leg. A neighbor had helped her back to her apartment and called an ambulance. Now she was crying hysterically in fear of these strangers, who were threatening to take her from her familiar surroundings.
I quickly ran to Madam Prezo and reassured her with the Polish phrases she had taught me. At the sight of her young Polish friend and the sound of a few soft words in her native tongue, she immediately calmed down. The paramedics were able to load her onto the stretcher, but since I was not next of kin, I was not allowed to accompany her in the ambulance. I gave her hand a gentle squeeze as she was lifted into the back. That was the last I saw of her.
Pleasant Grove, Utah