Life of a Liar by Martha King

BOMB 52 Summer 1995
Issue 52 052  Summer 1995

This began when I wrote a story about a boy sitting in a tree, smoking a cigarette. The tree was a beech, near his home, with a beech’s smooth bark and many convenient crotches. The cigarette was a Chesterfield, stolen from his grandmother’s black pocketbook.

I started with the bark, the smooth air, the elegant dizzying sensations of familiar tree and unfamiliar smoke, the color of the smoke. I tried to enter his imagination as he made slow holes in green leaves with the red cigarette coal and savored an intense conviction that he was invisible. And realized the story begins with a descent.

I thought of type on the page actually sloping downward, or a taped voice that sinks steadily toward each terminal period. But stories proceed as water-walkers across the shimmering appearance, pillowed by surface tension. The darker it becomes the more ready we all are for a story.

 

A section in which a story is told

Tom was very proud of his mother. He showed me photographs of her and told me her story. She’d left home on her own when she was 20—having somehow made a connection with Mexican filmmakers. A photograph showed a fair, freckled Irish girl, holding down the crown of a dark straw hat in one hand.

Her Spanish must have been terrific, because soon she was working as a script girl for one of Mexico’s top film directors. She returned to New Orleans pregnant. The father was the director, who was married; it was 1937.

She moved back in with her widowed mother, and as soon as her boy was used to the bottle, she left him in her mother’s care and went out to work. She managed to find a job as a typist. Soon she taught herself shorthand and was promoted to secretary. Tom bragged about how quick she was at everything she did.

On a whim, she entered a speed-typing contest, sponsored by a large business machine company. She won. Within a year she was a national speed-typing champion, clocked at 132 words a minute on a 1939 office standard. I wouldn’t have believed anyone could type that fast on one of those old iron manuals but Tom showed me an ancient newspaper clipping, and there she was again—the same sideways smile though somewhat plumper in the face, sitting at a boxy-looking typewriter, with a headline proclaiming her feat. That year she accepted an offer from the business machine company and began to perform at conventions and speak at sales meetings.

By 1941, when Tom was four, she moved out of her mother’s house, but she left him behind. She was traveling three or four times a month, and a child should be raised by family, she told him, not by maids or nannies. Tom said he learned to read the calendar waiting for his near-magical trips to her apartment. He hated his grandmother. His mother did too. A sense of the war between his mother and grandmother was the earliest given Tom accepted about the world. Their acrimony flowed back and forth over his head, as uncontrollable as a tide. He had to accept it as he had to accept the choice that left him stranded and unwanted, the choice that transformed him from a boy into a burden.

With his grandma, he was called Tommy O’Rourke. He was aware early on that something was wrong with this name. He was expected to pray before each meal, to cross himself at bedtime, and to be considered a troublesome nuisance whom God had given his grandmother the patience to bear and the kindness to tolerate. She did what was necessary for him as if he were a boarder or a household animal. But he was never good, she let him know. He stayed out of her sight as much as he could, in the alleys and streets around her skinny clapboard house.

With his mother, he was Tom Ruiz, and sometimes, teasingly, Tomas. She read stories to him, tickled him when she helped him dress. She took him to restaurants and movies where he was the only child present—a delicious sensation. He was almost a grown-up with her, even before he was old enough for school. Their favorite game was for her to tell him what life would be when he grew up; it was a movie, with himself as the hero.

She showed him the father’s name on his birth certificate. She taught him words in Spanish. But this Spanish father never visited, or sent him anything, although she insisted firmly papi knew all about him through photographs and letters. As if a wall watched him, he told me. “I always felt—I knew—there was another way to know everything that happens, a way most other people don’t see. I learned a lot from that feeling,” he said.

But that was later. When he was six and seven, he tried not to think about it.

The summer he was 13, his mother told him papi had sent for him, and he was to go to Mexico.

 

What I assume from what he said

I imagine his mother being very matter-of-fact. I imagine that she has been expecting this, planning for something like it, for a very long time. Tom, on the other hand, feels as lightheaded as if he’d been struck. When he answers her questions he hears the words echoing inside his head before they exit.

His mother is now an executive, a vice president of sales. She’s put on a great deal of weight and acquired the manner of a distinguished and unusual woman. She still travels a great deal. This invitation, his mother informs him, might change their plan to end Tom’s life with his grandmother by sending him to “a good boarding school” when he finishes eighth grade.

“Your father is used to having people recognize him and give him his way. Remember that. The house is very big. It’s a mansion, really. Don’t gawk. It’s your own father’s house. Treat the servants politely, but don’t be friendly. You will be given presents. Accept them with thanks, but no matter how expensive they are, don’t be over-impressed. Be dignified. Be firm. Be pleasant. You may be introduced to important people—film stars and politicians. You won’t know them, because they’re all different in Mexico, but be respectful. Just as if you met Rita Hayworth or President Eisenhower. Keep in mind you are there to give your father a chance to know you. He has no other sons. The other children are all daughters.”

She is matter-of-fact, but she doesn’t quell her undertone of triumph, of vindication. She doesn’t say your life will not be the same after this visit but she buys him new underwear, an expensive leather suitcase, a navy-blue linen jacket, tennis shorts, a grown-up’s wallet, and he watches his old life sliding away.

 

This is Mexico City. A screaming babble at the airport. A chauffeur retrieves him from the customs line and propels him into a waiting limousine. Inside sits a thick-set stranger with dark skin and startling blue eyes. A gravelly voice. Very hard hands.

Tom’s mouth is dry. He had imagined being greeted with a handshake quickly turning into a hug. Instead they sit side by side in leather cushions, in a dark wood-lined compartment, turning awkwardly to look at each other.

Your age? You do well in school? What is your best subject?

Thirteen. I don’t know. Recess, maybe. Ha ha ha.

Recess? A set-back? I don’t understand.

This is the first of Tom’s language difficulties. He tries to explain and words rush out of his mouth like sand from a dump truck. Be dignified. Be pleasant. Be firm. The limousine hisses through brilliantly lit streets and then along quieter darker roads. It is night. Tom’s effort to speak is interrupted by an incoming call on the car’s two-way radio, an exotic instrument, into which his father (his father!) shouts in Spanish.

Then they are “home.” Behind a high tile-topped wall. On a driveway past great thickets of exotic leaves and lawns, a cluster of tennis courts under black-green sailcloth, the glint of a blue swimming pool illuminated in the dark. It is cold when they climb out of the car. Tom had imagined a place hotter than New Orleans—but there is chill, rattling wind. He has gooseflesh inside his light linen jacket.

This is Elise, (your father’s wife), very elegantly and artfully blonde. Your sisters: three grown women, three, they tell him, of the five. Their names are given to him in a tumbling rush. They bear him away. They talk. They hug him, pet his clothing, examine his hair, laugh, hug him again. An occasional English phrase surfaces like a bubble on the flood of Spanish. He is offered food, while they crowd about watching him, and he burns his lips on hot cocoa, and his ears burn, and he cannot hear very well, perhaps because of the plane flight, and yawns reflexively. He is taken away to bed by chattering maids, “propelled” is more accurate. Propelled away from Ruiz, away from the light and noise, to a high-ceilinged bedroom two flights above the main floor.

After that first evening, the family is never again all in the same room at the same time. Ruiz has just begun a new film, Elise explains. Sometimes Tom sees him hurrying in, met by Elise and servants, ushered into a room that is immediately closed on the flurry of his commands. He leaves for the studio when the sky is barely cold blue. The wheels of his heavy car crunch the gravel far below Tom’s room. Lights shine glassily and are then extinguished, and the spaces melt back into the gray balances of silence.

Now, Tom is to know that he is extra, foreign, and unequivocally unwanted. In Ruiz’s presence Elise is charming, even mildly flirtatious. In his absence, neither she nor any other member of the household speaks to Tom in English. He spends the daytime wandering about the property. The household goes on around him as if he were a rock in a river. Occasionally he encounters one of his half-sisters, who giggles or passes him without acknowledgement. He quickly comes to dread mealtime. The servants stare at him. His questions are answered in Spanish, and all conversation passes over him. More acutely he dreads night when his body betrays him and he dreams about girls whose bathing suits melt from their breasts, movie stars who call for his help, the creamy buttocks and bellies of his half-sisters. The maids who clean his room snigger as they strip the bed and scold him in rapid Spanish.

They talk about him all the time. He thinks. He’s sure. Each passing maid scurries in her haste to be the first to tell where he is this time. He locks himself into his bathroom and masturbates, hoping desperately to use it up before he sleeps, but night comes, and he dreams his cock is as big as a telephone pole, that everyone sees it and laughs as he tries to keep his hands away—and he wakes up in a frenzy, having come on the sheets again. There is laughing outside his bedroom door. Is someone watching him while he sleeps? In the mornings he is exhausted. His bed stinks like seaweed.

Late one evening he runs downstairs and barges through the door of his father’s study. “Please let me come with you tomorrow. I’ll stand wherever you say. I won’t move. Just let me come with you.”

Tom had been braced for an angry rebuff but Ruiz appears touched— pleased by the boy’s passion. He’s sorry, he says, that his new film has taken so much from him, so many problems. He touches Tom’s hair. He can come along in just a few days. Soon. A promise. I’ll have time for you.

Does Ruiz tell his wife about this plan, about his concern for the boy?

That morning before light, a naked woman slides into Tom’s bed and wakes him by taking his cock in her mouth. She hisses endearments at him, holding his face. Her tongue is a rose-red lizard. Her breasts balloon above him. His complicity is total.

“You go home now,” Elise says. “This morning. Before I tell your father what you do.” And his initiation is complete.

 

A section in which I appear

Tom had many stories. Each backed up by a photo, a clipping, some document as fragmentary as a piece of the true cross. Was Ruiz real? Was he really Tom’s father? I’m not sure why I think he stole this romantic history, for solace or for entertainment, but I did and do. On the other hand, I knew he was some kind of orphan, some kind of invention.

It’s hot in New Orleans that summer. Home air-conditioners haven’t been invented; movie theaters are “air cooled.” So are barber shops and pool halls and the bus station downtown. Was he 13 the summer he learned to con for cigarettes and Coca-Cola, and to play pool, and to pick his pool partners, and take their money? I know him well enough to know that only the prospect of a sure thing thrilled him. He loved pool because he knew just what he was doing, clear as a ball sighted down a cue. He hated any gambling that involved uncertainty.

He told me he had learned early how to slip both his mother and grandmother by making each think he was staying with the other. They were so angry with each other they rarely spoke. He told me some of the ways he got money on the street, too—sexual favors for example, and I believed these stories. But he didn’t tell me if he and his mother ever spoke about what happened in Mexico, or if he lied to her about it. As for the “good boarding school”—it ceased to figure.

Still I wonder why he really did those favors. What did he think about or look for in the bars and waiting rooms where he soon began to live. There are some things one never tells to be believed when one lives the life of a liar. Tom called it ‘in the life’ and it was in the life that he was able to go on. In most of his stories, he did it very well. He was all golden hair, rough trade aura, pulp romance adventure. As keen as any sports hero about the pain he could give and the pain he could endure. I believed most of this. In fact I learned quite a bit about the allure of male homosexuality—the combativeness, the thrills, the risk-taking—even the romanticized self-pity, though Tom wouldn’t have liked me thinking that.

Unexpectedly, in one of his stories he was ill and hungry and scared. He was picked up by an old queen who took him home, fed him, nursed him through pneumonia, and then taught him muscle building.

“Homely old fag, but one hell of a coach,” Tom said.

Old teacher, lost boy—it could have been a love story. But Tom seemed to believe the contempt he had for his rescuer was a required part of the relationship. Maybe it was. Tom enjoyed his contempt, his knowledge of the old man’s need and paralyzed will. In those days, nothing seemed more pathetic than an aging homosexual, except, perhaps, an aging film queen.

There’s another photograph accompanying this section: Tom, deeply tanned and hugely muscled, on the beach at Lake Ponchatrain, pulling the silky material of his trunks taut across his crotch with his forefinger and smiling up at the camera. And another newspaper clipping: “Junior Mister New Orleans Named”—with an account of a body-building contest. He was not quite 16. He was living in the French Quarter at the time, he said, in rooms that were, in terms of actual distance, quite near his mother’s apartment.

She hired a private detective to find him.

He was confronted in a coffee house, eating brioche.

“Complacency!” he laughed. “I never figured on her seeing all that Junior Mister New Orleans stuff.”

She marched him home. That was Tom’s story: that he traded body building for gymnastics, finished high school requirements with a tutor, and won admission to this Southern university, famous for its liberal traditions, because of his athletic prowess. By the time I knew him he was 20, and already a graduate student.

The athletic part was quite true: his specialty was the horse. I used to go to the gymnastics meets and he was wonderful to see—his biceps bulging and his powerful legs scissoring rhythmically first by his left ear, then by his right. His academic subject was French, mind you. I never heard him speak a word of Spanish. He was very proud of his Parisian pronunciation, and he liked to read the French symbolist poets out loud to me, savoring the syllables.

“My advisor thinks I’m a genius because I know he’s gay,” Tom told me. His graduate thesis was an original translation of “Bateau Ivre,” along with an essay about Rimbaud and the demimonde. “Piece of cake,” said Tom, laughing at how hard other students had to labor for their degrees.

He often asked me to promise that I wouldn’t tell anyone the things he told me, not even his friends. The oldest con in the world, he’d have laughed. Our special secret. I can tell only you. Did he want me to break my word? I never did.

It was 1953.

My liberal college-professor father said “fairy,” “pansy,” or “fruit.” In high school it was queer or homo, and the thing was to lick your little finger and smooth your eyebrow with it. Literary students avoided the slang and said “homosexual,” carefully and a bit uncomfortably, unless they were speaking of homosexual women. Then the young men cheerfully said “lezzies” or “dykes,” or, with hostility, “bull-daggers” or “butches.” Only Tom used the word “gay.” He explained it to me as meaning rule-breaker, wayward in the sense of merrily deviant—an attitude that was, he pointed out, unheard of here among the hayseeds and liberal suburbanites.

 

In the life where I was able to go on

That summer, I lost my virginity to Tom and did line drawings to illustrate his Rimbaud manuscript. My models were Cocteau and Modigliani. Later, Tom had my drawings bound into the copy for the university library. They might be there still.

Who was this I, in the Southern university town famous for its liberalism, that I should have sought out such a young man and taken to the sensibility he shared with me?

This began when I wrote a story about a girl sitting in a tree, smoking a cigarette. The tree was a beech, near her home, with a beech’s smooth bark and many convenient crotches. The cigarette was a Camel, stolen from her father’s cache of cartons.

I started with the bark, the smooth air, the elegant dizzying sensations of familiar tree and unfamiliar smoke, the color of the smoke, and the girl’s intense sensation of invisibility. She made slow holes in green leaves with the red cigarette coal. I thought of type that slopes down, or a taped voice that sinks steadily toward the terminal period. But stories are pillowed by surface tension and dart forward like pond-striders across the shimmering appearance.

Appearance is everything, my parents said. Where my mother was timid and fearful, she could appear dominant and confident. Where my father was jealous and resentful, he could appear thoughtful and even-handed. And when the outside world did not look the way they expected it to, they calmly refused to admit it.

I met Tom because my older sister was the student editor-in-chief of the university’s literary magazine. Tom was poetry editor. I was 17, still in high school. I used to hang out in the Review office after school. My sister let me rummage through the pile of unsolicited manuscripts and read the truly awful stuff out loud for the entertainment of the staff. Then, I paperclipped them with rejection slips and tucked the pages back into their return envelopes. When the pile grew really large, spilling into the narrow floor space between the editors’ desks, and the staff were frantic with proofing and trying to meet deadlines, I was recruited to make rejection decisions on my own.

Tom was not my sister’s choice for poetry editor. The magazine was really run by a board of professor advisors who doled out staff appointments to their favorite students. Thus the atmosphere in the Review office was frequently rank with competition and back-biting that reflected university department politics and sometimes the more personal ambitions and values of the students. My sister openly disliked Tom and was extremely annoyed at my interest in him. “He’s a con man,” she pronounced, accurately enough. She disliked him because she feared him, I saw. He radiated an interest in sex that was totally opposed to her ideal—that ‘that sort of thing’ could and should be neatly sequestered in a corner of one’s private life.

Tom took me into the town’s underground.

 

The underground was a movable feast, a party somewhere different every weekend, where genders blended, where divisions by academic discipline lost their importance, where correct public behavior was suspended. Everyone in the underground used code names, often feminized alliteratives of their real ones. The codes were for fun. The truth was everyone knew each other. But they frequently teased each other about “recking” or being “recked,” which meant the use or threat to use an in-name in public.

Recking was meant to embarrass, but not expose. If it edged into exposure the matter was very grave. Exposure could mean loss of career and livelihood for the mature; for students, expulsion; for everyone, an indelible social stigma. Exposure could even mean loss of liberty. Sodomy was a jailable offense in that state, and the university was under chronic suspicion as a haven for homos and commies by conservative state legislators. There had been occasions when State Bureau of Investigation undercover agents had been deployed to get evidence on suspects who were university (and thus state) employees.

Not a single bar or restaurant in the town had a gay atmosphere or clientele. That was only possible at the parties, and attending them carried a risk. Nevertheless, there were many parties. They were wild affairs: sometimes ebullient, sometimes hysterical, sometimes sad, occasionally dead serious or embittered, following changes in the underground’s collective emotional climate. Ah, but the group! Business majors, football players, old gentlemen from administration—all sorts of people I had identified as irredeemably square—would show up along with actors and poets and graduate student aesthetes. The underground turned the world upside down for me, and I had yet another way to see that I was systematically lied to by my parents.

 

Another period piece and another seduction

There was a tree outside the window of the classroom that she took solace from. She looked at it so often and so long, she had a catalog of images: how the shine of bark changed from 2:15 to 2:50; the exact alterations in color if the rain were a mist-drizzle or a steady sluicing cold fall. Class time was memorable only as bark-time until the new French teacher arrived, the substitute mid-semester replacement for Mrs. Marchant who had to leave when her husband had a stroke.

The new teacher was a stocky fireplug of a young man, his face scarred by acne, his eyes watchful and quick. This was his first teaching post, his first chance to work with kids without the intrusion of mentors and observers. Mr. Dixon broke decorum on his very first day; he took the opportunity to tell the class about himself. He was a Korean War vet. His war wound and his vet benefits had given him something he had never imagined earlier in his life—time to read, occasion to reflect, funds to go to college. It meant he could leave the back-labor ethos of his beleagured ne’er-do-well family. He was not Southern. He was Boston Irish, slum born and bred for three hard generations since the 1848 potato famine. He knew a lot about the potato famine. He was short and harsh and unbelievably eager for his high-school students to like him. They didn’t.

The bigger, poorer, more “male,” students defected first. “Why’s he always whining?” Don asked in the hallway, kicking his dark green metal locker door shut. “Shee-uuh! Him ‘n his damn poday-tahs.”

“Go ahead, don’t be scared,” Mr. Dixon said the next day, demonstrating the French “u” by pursing his meaty lips. “U, U, U! Think of ‘puke’,” he grinned wickedly. “You wouldn’t say ‘pook’ would you?” Big Tee was sullen and embarrassed. No power on earth could make him make such a suggestive spectacle of himself as to purse his lips and say that fruity French “u” and everyone in class was on his side. He and Don exchanged conspiratorial looks. She began to watch Mr. Dixon, the turn of his hips, the thick black hair on his hands.

She knew she was cooked the day he told the class about his marriage. On his wedding night, he said, he told his wife ‘Je t’adore,’ and she answered, ‘Shut it yourself. What do you think I am?’ He didn’t seem to have the slightest idea what he was saying—that that was probably the truth about what was going on between them.

The guy had gone and married a girl from the very neighborhood he said he wanted to leave, she reflected. It was as if the new self he invented in the veteran’s hospital was so clear and inevitable to himself, it never occurred to him that anyone who knew him wouldn’t see and believe it as well.

It was exactly the same in school. Racine. Molière. He acted as if no one had ever encountered them before him—and that every high school kid who took a moment to listen would now be as excited as he was. “Listen, class, listen!” he croaked, and he would walk as he read out loud, with a deliberate exaggerated foreign pronunciation. “What do you think, guys? I know you don’t know this vocabulary yet, but listen to the rhythms.”

She locked eyes with him, felt heat rise, and quickly shifted to the books on her lap. She was surprised how much his thick body and his stupidity excited her. He wanted her to stay after class; he wanted to know what those books were, those non-school books she snuck onto her lap. Black nihilistic energy snaked out of these books to comfort her: Camus, Jacques Prevert, plays by Berthold Brecht. She had just started Portrait of the Artist. Books clutched to her chest, she asked why he wanted to know. She was not going to offer him anything!

His flirtation was as blunt as he was; there was no teasing play-pretend like Mr. Ender’s banter when the girls in science lab balked at cutting their frogs. There was no dramatic exaggeration, the way Mrs. MacAllister leered at the boys in her social studies class. Mr. Dixon didn’t say a word but his aura was unmistakeable: he wanted to fuck her right now, right here!—how about under the desk?—and he would have latched the door of the classroom on the smallest signal from her. Would he? Did he really know what he was doing? She was pudding; she was custard; she was tingling so violently she could barely walk away; she almost groaned out loud. It had not been like this with Tom.

She decided. She cut French the next day, but on Thursday she went, demure as a Dresden shepherdess throughout the period. If he also avoided eye contact with her, she had no way to tell for she never looked up. She knew it didn’t matter. She waited for him in the dusk by the gate to the faculty parking lot. She had to tell him where to drive.

He was wild, desperate, and far too fast. He had not slept with his wife in six months, he said. Had she read The Stranger? Why was she interested in Jacques Prevert? In less than 20 minutes he was rooting for her again, pinching her nipples, shaking the little Chevrolet, and making her squeal with excitement.

Then he wept. He mopped his eyes on his necktie. He promised to make it up to her. Was she all right? What had he done?

“Can you do it again?” she asked. “I’m supposed to be home for dinner at 7:30 but I don’t want to stop yet.”

“Jaysus,” Mr. Dixon said. “Jaysus. What are you, 17?”

“Eighteen,” she said.

“How many guys you been with?” he asked in a garbled tone. And then, gaining some composure: “Jaysus. At least I didn’t take your cherry.”

“You’d hardly have known if you did,” she said.

“I better drive you home.”

“You better let me out at the bus. You want my parents coming out on the driveway to say hi?”

 

What you know

I was deep in the lying in which I was able to go on. To Tom’s friends about Tom. To Tom about Dixon. To Dixon about myself—and the sure-certain collision course he was on at school. Even to the underground where the assumption grew that my taste was for women. This suited me fine: I wore my father’s shirts to the parties and taught myself to hold my cigarette like Humphrey Bogart. Lies for everyone. The more I lied, the better the picture: my parents saw a wholesome adolescent, a bit bookish, a bit repressed. That meant, simply, not easy about flirting or willing to wear lipstick. Still such a child! But lively. And so well brought up, they imagined the neighbors thinking. Given to bursts of enthusiasm for things the whole community was pleased to brag of: kite flying, for example, folk songs, and, oh yes, French poetry… .

The Cloud of Unknowing by Mimi Lipson
Related
Boys by Ben Ehrenreich

Two little boys become friends.

Under The House by Lynn Freed
Undertow by Adam Klein

The smell of cut grass and a tint of blue from the moon across its razed surface made me think of blood.

Originally published in

BOMB 52, Summer 1995

Featuring interviews with Helen Mirren, Chuck Close, Russell Banks, Todd Haynes, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Charles Ray, Patricia Spears Jones, Kim Dingle, Luis Barragan, and Sacred Naked Nature Girls.

Read the issue
Issue 52 052  Summer 1995