I’m good at lying. Not perfect, but I’ve had a lot of practice so I’m awfully good. I’m most sincere when I lie and if anyone suspects, I always ask, “Would I lie to you?”
I learned to lie, without really meaning to, when I was young. It just happened. “Let’s cut school and go to the movies,” my teenage friend Myra suggested to me, pulling her boxy jacket around her bosom self-consciously. I was jealous. She was bloomed and blonde; I was budding, brown, and skinny. “We can’t do that; we’ll get caught,” I said, for I was still an obedient, unimaginative girl. I knew that Mama expected me to go to school. She always stressed that “education is the only thing they can’t take away from you.”
But as Myra was my only friend and had recently saved my life when I started to menstruate-by taking me to her mother, who calmly explained the unexpected and mysterious event-I felt I owed her. (My own mother, by the way, had burst into tears when I finally ran out of panties in my drawer and confessed, “Mama, I think I hurt myself down there; I’m bleeding.” She started sobbing, “Pobrecita, mijita,” and had told me to go to bed. I was sure I was dying.)
So when Myra suggested cutting school that day, we took the bus to downtown Oakland and window shopped until the movies opened at 10 a.m. As this was a pivotal event in my life, I should remember the movie, but I don’t. I was too nervous. Afterward, we ate our lunches in the park on 14th Street and then we went to another movie. And nothing happened! No heavy hand on our shoulders or gruff voice asking why we weren’t in school. Nor did the ticket takers look at us suspiciously.
When Mama got home from work, where she made jeans on a power sewing machine, she didn’t ask “C³mo te fue en la escuela?” or anything. It would have been unusual if she had. She never asked about school anyway.
So, I guess my first lies were lies of omission; I just didn’t tell the whole story. I adored movies, any movies, and I hated school. And I really enjoyed the excitement of doing something forbidden. Thou shalt not lie? It didn’t even occur to me.
I made it a regular habit to cut school. Schoolwork was a cinch to make up. Soon, what had started as a lark became easier, and then it became habitual. I grew ashamed of how often I cut, so I didn’t always tell Myra or invite her. She wasn’t a good student and couldn’t make up the work as easily as I did. At school, they asked about my frequent absences; “My mother is sick and I have to take care of her,” I lied, crossing my fingers and sick with Catholic guilt that my lie might come true.
We moved cities a lot in those days and I was often in a new school, so no one really knew me. That made it easier to create my own world and, by the third high school, I was a regular truant. Most of the time I went to the public library instead of the movies. I would find a carrel or table and set up myself there and read all day. Because I was lucky enough to intercept the notices left on the door by the truant officers, my sense of control increased. But so did the danger, and I walked a nervous edge.
Mama didn’t write in English and I could forge her signature perfectly, so I always wrote my own absence notes. I pretended to have asthma, creating a believable history of acute illness and successfully explaining my many absences.
I had learned how to avoid unpleasant duties by lying, so I addressed myself to the state-mandated physical education. I had always hated PE, in part because I had terribly hairy legs (when I wore gym shorts, I looked like my brother) and Mama wouldn’t let me shave them. So I wrote to the high school counselor and described the awful asthma I had developed and requested to be excused from PE. I signed my mother’s name, as usual. Success! I was assigned “Rest Gym” where, as an added benefit, I had the chance to make up assignments from cutting school.
I sometimes wonder now if the lies that hurt me the most were the ones I told myself. For it was about this time that I became painfully aware that being Mexican was a bad thing. It was the Mexican kids who were shunned. They were the “pachucos,” the ones everybody said carried switchblades in their pompadours or inside their boots. It wasn’t enough just to be smart and assigned to the college-bound track-I had to do more to avoid being lumped with them. The lie (technically it wasn’t a lie) that did me the most damage was to say that I was part Spanish, Indian, and French, instead of being able to say Mexican, which was a dirty word. Lying may have been bad, but the stigma was worse.
My career as a liar isn’t as illustrious as some people’s and my tall tales have yet to hit the headlines. As I get older, truth still seems stranger than fiction, but these days, I mostly tell the truth. Honest.