Speak The Mag
Fiction

Truthtelling

Back when they were newlyweds, gripped tight by desire, they sometimes played at imagining themselves old. Old but still clear-headed and attractive—at least to each other—seated in adjacent rockers on a porch in some rural setting surrounded by trees, watching the sun slide into a lake. Naturally they had no porch back then, just a three-room apartment in Greenwich Village.

“We’ll walk very slowly,” she said. “Assuming we can walk.”

“Oh, we’ll walk all right.” Immobility was unacceptable to him.  He was big and athletic, soon to become a runner; when it came fashionable he would take it up with zeal, training for marathons that she loyally watched, stopping only in his sixties when a knee injury proved intractable.

“We’ll swim in the lake. Maybe we’ll have kayaks. We can call across the water.”

“We might need hearing aids,” he said.

“We’ll communicate by telepathy. Then we can tell each other the truth,” she said, reaching for the last slice of pizza. “Sure you don’t want this?”  She held it up in both hands like an offering. It was a hot August evening; after work she’d changed into skimpy shorts and a tank top. Offering the pizza was like offering herself.

He studied her legs attentively, folded in a near lotus position: she was an early yoga devotee, before everyone took it up.

“No, go on, take it. As far as truth, I’d rather hear it out loud. But anyway we’ll have told the truth all along, won’t we?” He was a lawyer, familiar with how slippery a package the truth was. At thirty, a newly-made partner in a major firm.  Soon they would be moving to a larger apartment.

“We don’t know what’s waiting for us in the future. There might be some little lies along the way. Nothing serious.” She was a more languid sort, with a body verging on lush.  An art lover, with a slight talent for drawing, she stayed sleek for her job in a Chelsea gallery; she was new enough there to feel her heart leap when well-known painters dropped in.  At home she took up weaving, a sedentary pastime. Her loom stood steadfastly in the various bedrooms in the various apartments they would share, even when she gave it up after a few years. There were the children to see to.

They met at a mutual friend’s party and were drawn to each other instantly: a series of glances, growing less tentative, till at last, an approach. His. The more romantic, he later claimed it was love at first sight but she didn’t believe in such things. Lust at first sight is more like it, she said. She pretended it took her a few weeks to be captivated—captured—but he suspected she was lying. Some kind of misplaced pride, most likely. One of the little lies, from the start.

“But why just then, if we’ve kept secrets all along?” he asked.

“Because then it’ll be too late.”

“For what?”

“Oh, you know, divorce. Bitterness. Distrust. All of that. We’ll keep that out of the picture.”

“That goes without saying,” he said. “But chances are we’ll be talking about the grandchildren while we sip gin and tonics and rock in our chairs. One a rocket scientist, one a rock star.”

“What if there aren’t any?”

“We’ll adopt. Can you adopt grandchildren?”

She tossed the pizza crust into the cardboard box and leaned towards him. “Shall we go into the bedroom and lie down for a while?”

There was no need to adopt. None of the grandchildren were rock stars or rocket scientists but they were perfectly gratifying, indeed perfect. And now, in the anticipated future, they had the porch, with comfortable chairs, though no rockers—too suggestive of resignation. It was a summer house in a woodsy area on the anticipated lake, an hour’s drive from the city.  They found, as they aged, that they couldn’t give up the city. The family was there, the friends, the movies and cafes, the local routines—the chirpy woman in the fruit market, the silent man in the Chinese laundry, the Pakistani who ran the newsstand. The dog walker with African braids who managed six at a time.

Since his retirement from the law firm, he volunteered for good causes. Big Brother to a ghetto kid. Advisor to younger professionals. Basketball coach at the community center.  Plus some gardening at the weekend house—vegetables, pungent herbs, glossy eggplants.  She learned to throw pots and babysat for the grandchildren and enrolled in courses around the city: Economics (she’d always wanted to understand that), the history of Near Eastern art, computer science, at which she proved unexpectedly adept. She fooled around with inventing a video game; maybe one day she’d finish it. They were members of a certain class and generation, and felt faintly guilty about their stereotypical customs, their privileges. But they were unique among their acquaintances in one way: they had never divorced. Envious friends asked how they’d kept going for so long. They’d look at each other, smile diffidently and shrug.

They could still manage the drive to the house most weekends, taking turns back and forth, aware that there soon might come a time when they couldn’t. There would come a time…  A shared knowledge, unspoken. Not today or even tomorrow, but inevitable.  It was happening all around them, a blight: their weeks were punctuated by visits to the sick and, worse, memorial services. There was a sense of valiantly doing their best, while knowing their turn would come.

Again it was a warm late summer evening. They sat on the porch drinking iced tea, watching the changing patches of glimmer on the lake.

The evening gin and tonics they’d looked forward to gave them headaches the next morning.

“Maybe it’s time for the conversation,” she said.

“What conversation?” He was enjoying his daily cigarette and didn’t relish being distracted. Each precious inhalation had to be savored.

“You know. Don’t play dumb.”

“Must we? I thought it was only a game.”

“What about that secretary in the office, the one with the high heels and short skirts?”

“There were so many like that. Which do you mean?”

“You know the one I mean. Shall I pour you some more?” She lifted the pitcher of iced tea.

“Just a little, thanks.” He paused to hold up his glass. “Okay. But I barely remember it. It was only a couple of months.” A little lie. He remembered quite well the elation of beginning, the pain of ending, and everything in between.

She gave a self-satisfied nod. “I knew it! I’m never wrong about those things. Remember when I told you Thea and Hank would split up? I knew even before they did. Did you suffer?”

“Some.”

After a while, she said, “Don’t you want to tell me anything about it?”

“Not especially.”

“Or ask me anything?”

“No. Only if you’re eager to confess…”

“It’s not confession. Simply truth. Then we can die with everything clear between us.”

“Who said anything about dying? And nothing’s ever totally clear, not even in the courtroom. But go ahead. I can see you want to.”

“When Abby was about a year, I… I had an abortion.”

He jerked quickly forward and his glass tipped, spilling some of the tea, but, ever the athlete, he caught it before it reached the floor. “What! I never knew. You did it without telling me?”

“I know.” She hung her head. “That was a neat catch. Anyway, yes, that was bad, I mean not telling you. But I wasn’t sure…you know? I didn’t want to risk it.”

“You weren’t sure…. You mean…? Whose did you think it could be?”

She stared at the lake for a moment before she answered. “Larry Brooks. But to tell the truth, I just didn’t know.”

“That creep? How could you?”

“You’re right. It was a big mistake. Much regret.”

She seemed eerily calm about the whole business. He had to assume Larry Brooks had qualities he couldn’t appreciate. He lit another cigarette.

“That’s your second.”

“Thanks for noticing. I’m aware of that.”

“Oh, come on, we’re too far along for sulking.”

“But I had no idea…. How long did it last?”

“On and off, oh, I don’t remember, a year, year and a half? It was when you were out of town a lot on that orphanage case.”

“I would have thought you had better taste.” He suddenly sat upright. It was no longer a game. “The kids? Are you sure? If you tell me that--”

“Take it easy. Of course I’m sure. What do you take me for?”

“I don’t know anymore what to take you for.”

She smiled. “Take me as you always have. Nothing’s changed. Now your turn.”

He didn’t like the idea of turns. He might not be able to keep up with her. Or the opposite—he might have to keep going long after she’d finished. Which of them had the most to tell? He’d always considered her the more open of the two, but now he wasn’t sure. “I cheated at squash once when I was playing with Bill Ross. But long ago.”

She laughed. “That’s not too awful. Why’d you do it?”

“I was waiting to be made partner. Getting impatient.”

“Wouldn’t it have been better to let him win?”

“No. He respects winners. I was made partner a few weeks later.”

“Did you ever steal any money, I mean big money?”

“No! How could you even think that? I’d never do that. All I ever did was pad the bills now and then, like everyone else. Only with clients who wouldn’t feel the difference.  We had our sense of honor, after all.” He smiled at his own wit.

“Any other of the girls in the office?”

“Certainly not.” The very idea. What did she take him for? “Are we done now?”

“I wrote most of Diana’s essays on her college applications. Rewrote, I mean. She didn’t have the patience and I wanted her to get in, you know.”

“That hardly counts. I’m sure you’re not the only one. And she did get in.”

“Yes. But I felt guilty.”

More guilty, he noted, than she felt about Larry Brooks and the abortion.

“Well,” she said….

More? He took a breath, wondering at this sudden craving for revelation. He didn’t share it at all.

“Well, there was this woman at the gym I got friendly with, you know, locker room chatter, and then I realized she was interested in me, I mean, coming on to me. We had coffee a couple of times. For a little while I considered it, just for… I don’t know… curiosity. But I never did. I didn’t really want to.”

“Oh, am I supposed to be flattered?”

“That’s up to you. I’m just reporting. What about falling in love?”

Years back when they imagined this conversation, she’d said there would be no danger, so late in the game. But he sensed danger in the darkening air. Still, he felt an obligation to play, at least to make a respectable showing. “There was something, once. But I averted it.  A client. I didn’t… I dreaded where it might lead. But it was very tempting. I passed the case on to someone else.”

“Was it that condo case in midtown? You said you gave it up because of some conflict of interest.”

“I’m impressed that you remember.”

“Do you want to tell me about her?”

“It was so long ago…” In truth he’d buried it so deep it would take too much effort to disinter. What he remembered was the feeling, the heat that came over him when she entered his office, the flush and itch of starting something new. She was nothing at all like his wife, his true love, he remembered that well. He was not a man with a “type,” like the men he knew who divorced and promptly found a new woman who looked and sounded just like the discarded wife.

No, best to let that story lie. “And you?” he asked, aiming at a tone of mild curiosity.  “Love?”

“Love? No, I’ve said all there is. Give me one of those, would you?”

He handed her the cigarettes and lighter. How to know if she was telling the truth?  Her revelations, however startling, had been so few. “Are you playing by the rules?”

“Absolutely,” and she inhaled with a pleasure that was close to erotic.

“In that case I’m done too.”

“Really? I expected more of you.” She held up the cigarette and looked at it. “This is making me dizzy after so many years without. But it’s a nice feeling. Why not go back to bad habits, at this point?”

“That time we quit together,” he said, “I used to smoke in the office. That was when you still could. I didn’t want you to think I had no will power.”

She waved her hand dismissively, as if this peccadillo were too minute to consider. “What does it matter now? We’ve said enough, haven’t we?” She looked over at him with an inscrutable expression.

Wry, affectionate, a hint of mystery. The kind of look that suggested imminent sex years ago, and still did.

“Enough for what?” he asked.

“Just enough. For now.”

“For good. I’m not doing it again. Do you think this was a good idea?” he persisted.

“I think so. It sort of… puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?” She reached her hand across the distance between their two chairs. “Everything okay?”

He reached out and took her hand, squeezed it hard. The last tiny segment of sun was disappearing into the lake. “Okay then,” he said. “The bugs are coming out. Shall we go in and maybe lie down for a while?”

That same indulgent, assenting look. “Why not?”

Lynne Sharon Schwartz
meet the author

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s 25 books include the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, and Rough Strife, nominated for a National Book Award.  Her third poetry collection, No Way Out But Through, came out in 2017 from the University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series.