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Here We Lie

OCTOBER 17, 2016


It was raining, and I was going to be late.

The press conference was scheduled for ten o’clock, and by the time I found a parking space in the cavernous garage, I had twenty minutes. I slipped once on the stairs, catching myself with a shocked hand on the sticky rail. Seventeen minutes.

I followed a cameraman toting a giant boom over his shoulder, navigating a path through the crowds of the capitol. Thank goodness I was wearing tennis shoes. I passed a group of schoolchildren on the steps, prim in their navy blazers and white button-down shirts. Their teacher’s question echoed off the concrete. “Who can tell me what it means that we have a separation and balance of powers?”

Only one hand shot into the air.

Balance of power, I thought. A good lesson for today.

I glanced at the display on my cell phone and quickened my pace, taking the rest of the steps two at a time. Twelve minutes.

I set my shoulder bag on the conveyer belt at the security checkpoint and watched as a bored guard picked through it with a gloved hand—wallet, cell phone, tube of hand lotion I’d forgotten about, an envelope with twenty-five dollars for the giving tree that should have been turned in to Emma’s teacher that morning. Shit. Annoyed, the guard removed a water bottle, waving the offending item in front of my face before tossing it into the trash container at his feet. His eyes flicked over me, already disinterested, already moving on to the next threat, which was apparently not a suburban mom in her stretchy pants.

I followed a directional sign for the press conference and hurried down hallways and around corners before arriving outside the door, where another line had formed. A woman at the front, officious in a burgundy blazer, was checking press credentials. My heart pounded. Each time one of the double doors swung open, I caught a glimpse of the people collected there, accompanied by their cameras and cords and laptops and phones.

Then I was at the front of the line, and the woman in the blazer was blocking my entry, shoulder pads increasing her bulk. “Show your credentials, please.”

I reached in my purse for my wallet. “I don’t have—”

“I can’t let anyone in without appropriate credentials,” the woman said, more loudly than necessary. She was a head shorter than me, but her voice carried enough authority to make up for it.

“I’m not a member of the press, but I have to get in there,” I pleaded. I flipped my wallet open to a picture of my face—my name, address, vital statistics. Behind my Rhode Island license was my old one, a Connecticut ID with my younger face, my maiden name.

She frowned at me, waving two others past, identification badges hanging from their necks. “Ma’am, I have to ask you to step to the side. This conference isn’t open to the general public.”

I gestured again with my open wallet, pointing desperately to my name. “I’m family,” I said finally, catching the attention of those waiting behind me. I could feel their ears perk up, the unsubtle uptick of their interest. Did she say she was family?

Finally, this got me her attention, in the form of slow blink and unabashed pity. “Go,” she hissed, and I darted past before she could change her mind.

I stayed close to the back wall, trying to find a vantage point but at the same time be invisible. At the front of the room was a podium with a microphone, and off to the side was the Connecticut state flag, its baroque shield visible on a blue background. A woman was at the microphone, saying Megan’s name.

And then she was on the stage, instantly recognizable despite the years between us. I gasped, catching the back of a folding chair for balance. She was more polished than I remembered, but then, she used to wear oversize sweatshirts and thrift store jeans, which either fit her waist or her inseam, but never both at once. She had been a teenager then, brash and funny and lovable and so different from me. The person at the microphone, of course, was thirty-five.

Still, I remembered her in our shoebox of a dorm room, drinking from my contraband bottle of schnapps.

I remembered her on our bike rides, the sun so bright on her hair that it looked like her head might, at any moment, burst into flame.

I remembered her that New Year’s Eve, wearing a borrowed dress, her feet wedged into my too-tight shoes.

And I remembered her as she’d looked that last night, sitting on the edge of my bed, hugging her arms to her chest.

Her voice now was shaky at first, as if from underuse. “I’m here today to right an old wrong,” she began. Camera shutters clicked, and she blinked away the flashes that momentarily blinded her. “I’m here today to tell you what happened to me fourteen years ago, and why, for far too long, I’ve kept silent.”

It was too much all of a sudden, and I bent down, hands on my knees, struggling for breath like a kid beaned in the stomach with a playground ball. Fourteen years. That was a long time to live a lie.




For years, my parents kept the painting I made in kindergarten on our refrigerator, secured by a free magnet from a local insurance company. The painting featured three stick figures so out of proportion they dwarfed the house and the tree in the background, and so tall they almost bumped against the giant yellow orb of the sun. Dad, Mom and me. That was my world, and we were happy. Not that Dad never raised his voice, not that Mom never nitpicked, not that I never misbehaved, not that we ever had any money. But still—happy. We had dinner together most nights, went to a movie once a month and ate out of the same giant tub of buttered popcorn, licking our fingers between handfuls. It was the sort of happiness that was so uncomplicated, I figured it would last forever.

Dad’s diagnosis came during my senior year in high school, and it stunned him, immediately, into submission. He seemed determined to live out his days in his recliner in front of TV Land and Nick at Nite, catching up on all the shows he’d missed during years of ten-hour workdays at one job site or another. That was when we still pronounced mesothelioma with hesitation, before we grew used to hearing it on television commercials, the symptoms filling the screen in a neat list of bullet points: chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath, weight loss. Dad had inhaled tiny asbestos fibers day after day and year after year, and those fibers had become trapped in his lungs like dust in a heating vent. The poor man’s cancer, he called it sometimes, because mesothelioma affected people who worked construction, who served as merchant marines.

Maybe because we didn’t know how to talk about what was happening, what would happen within twelve to eighteen months, according to the specialist in Kansas City, it was easier for Mom and me to join Dad in front of the television in our family room, listening to Sergeant Schultz claim he knew nothink! and laughing along as the POWs plotted their elaborate schemes, always a few steps ahead of the enemy. Our world had narrowed to this space with Dad’s coughs hanging in the air between us.

Before his diagnosis, Dad had trapped a garter snake in the backyard, and we kept it inside a terrarium filled with sand and rocks and a fake hollowed-out log from the pet store. We named the snake Zeke, and he was more Dad’s pet than mine, although once Dad became sick, it was my job to provide for Zeke’s general well-being and happiness.

Once a week, I bought a mouse at the pet store on my way home from school and transported it across town in my thirdhand Celica, the paper carton on the passenger seat jerking with sudden, frantic motions. At home, I dropped the mouse into the cage, and Dad and I watched until the poor thing was only a tumor-like hump in Zeke’s gullet. “Look at him go!” Dad would wheeze in his new, strange voice, with all the solemnity of someone announcing a round of golf.

All I could think was that it was too bad it had to be that way, that something had to die so something else could live.

That was the lesson of biology textbooks and visits to the Kansas City Zoo, but it wasn’t so easy to watch it play out in our living room.

In high school, I had been one of the girls who was going somewhere. I’d ignored the boys in my class, sidestepping their advances at parties, letting the nerdy boys take me to prom. I was smart enough, one of the kids who always had the correct answer, even if I wasn’t the first to raise my hand. With my curly blondish hair and D-cup breasts, physical traits I’d inherited from my mom, I was pretty enough, too—and this was a near-lethal combination in Woodstock.

No matter what, I’d always promised myself, I wasn’t going to get trapped here.

Up until Dad’s diagnosis, I’d been planning to start Kansas State in the fall. But that spring and into the summer, I threw away the envelopes unopened—housing information, scholarship notifications. “Maybe next year,” Mom would say, her fingernails raking over the knots in my spine. We didn’t stop to talk about what that meant or what it would look like when the three-pronged family on the refrigerator was reduced to only two. After graduation, I got a job at the Woodstock Diner, a twenty-four-hour joint off I-70 that catered to truckers and the occasional harried families that spilled out of minivans, everyone passing through on their way to somewhere else. Always, they thought they were funny and clever, that they were better than this town and better than me. But in my black stretchy pants and white button-down, I was different from the Megan Mazeros I’d been before—honor student, soccer halfback, Daddy’s girl. Here I was witty and hardened as one of the veterans, old before my time.

“Where’s the concert?” one guy or another would invariably ask, making a peace sign or playing a few bars on an air guitar. “Different Woodstock,” I said over my shoulder, leading the way to a booth in the corner and presenting him with a sticky, laminated menu. “Although for a quarter, you can start up the jukebox.”

Inevitably, the guy grinned. Usually, the grin was accompanied by a tip.

Sometimes Dad was still awake when I came home from work, propped in his recliner. In the near dark of the family room, he wanted to talk in a way he wouldn’t during the daytime. “Just sit,” he urged. “Stay up with me a bit.”

I yawned, my legs tired and my feet aching, but I usually complied.

He always asked about work, and I would tell him about bumping into our old neighbor or receiving a twenty-dollar tip on an eight-dollar order. I didn’t mention that the neighbor hadn’t made eye contact, or that the twenty dollars had come with a phone number and the name of a local motel scrawled on the back. I didn’t tell him that I hated every second of it, the tedium of wiping down the same tables, of watching the minute hand slowly creep around the clock hour after hour. I didn’t tell him, as summer turned to fall, how I spent my time wondering what my friends were doing at KSU, how they liked the dorms, how they were doing in their classes.

“Look,” he said one night, pointing at the terrarium. Zeke was shedding his old skin, as he did every month or so, emerging new and shiny from a long, cylindrical husk that was so fragile, in a day it would crumble away to nothing. Dad made a funny choking sound, and when I turned, his face was shiny with tears.

“What’s wrong?”

“I can’t do this,” he wheezed.

Zeke must have been something for him to root for, the only thing that was thriving while the rest of us were in a horrible holding pattern, like a slow walk on a treadmill through purgatory. Dad couldn’t shed his lungs. He couldn’t grow a new pair, pink and shiny and tumor-free. Even if he’d been healthy enough for a transplant, I didn’t have an extra pair to give. Every morning as I spooned his breakfast into him, he said, “Well, maybe today’s the day, kiddo,” as if he were looking forward to it, as if death might arrive on our doorstep carrying balloons and an oversize check, payable immediately.

“Don’t be so morbid,” I told him, and even though it hurt him to talk, and there was nothing in the world to smile about, he managed his old Dad grin and said, “What morbid? I’m being practical.”

I swatted in his direction, and he said in his strange wheezy voice, “You could do all of us a favor. Put a pillow over my face. Done and done.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

He looked at me for a long time before he shook his head.

Mom and I took care of Dad in shifts, delivering reports to each other like nurses—noting intake and output, commenting on Dad’s general well-being and happiness. Mom had been young before all of this, but now her face sagged, puffy sacs hanging beneath her eyes. We didn’t even try to tell each other that it would all be okay, that it would work out. Our days were punctuated by the arrival of home health aides in cotton scrubs with cheerful, juvenile patterns—hearts and smiley faces, polka dots and rainbows. Their optimism was insulting. Who did they think they were kidding? Acting cheerful wasn’t going to change anything.

One night at the diner that September, I seated Kurt Haschke in a booth by himself, settling him with a menu and a glass of water. We’d gone to school together from kindergarten through our senior year and barely exchanged so much as an excuse me when we bumped into each other in the halls. He’d seemed as inoffensive and inconsequential as wallpaper. I asked, “Can I interest you in our dinner specials?” and he smiled at me, his face open and plain.

I thought, This is what you get, then.

Kurt came every night that week, waiting in the parking lot for the end of my shift. We kissed there, long and deep, my back to his truck, pinned between his erection and a half-ton of steel. That weekend and every other weekend when Dad was dying, I met Kurt at the ridge overlooking the Sands River and we had sex, sometimes in the bed of his lifted Dodge pickup, sometimes in the back seat of my falling-apart Celica, with a piece of the ceiling fabric dangling over our heads, sometimes on a blanket on the ground, never fully undressed.

Kurt wanted me to be his girlfriend, and I guess in a way, I was. There certainly wasn’t anyone else for me—between waiting tables and changing Dad’s soiled sheets, I couldn’t even consider the possibility. Kurt talked about us going places—not exotic ones, but just far enough away to be

interesting—amusement parks and county fairs and festivals dedicated to things I wasn’t particularly interested in, cars and trains and beer.

“Mmm,” I said, neither a yes or no.

“I want you to meet my parents,” Kurt would say each time, practically while he was still zipping up. I had a vague memory of Mr. and Mrs. Haschke from various science fairs and class field trips, and while I always said, sure, eventually, I couldn’t imagine myself in their house, at their dinner table, as a part of their lives. It went without saying that Kurt wasn’t going to meet my parents, not now, when Mom’s face was etched with grief, when Dad was less and less lucid, his breath coming in ragged gasps.



Dad made it to Christmas, and we celebrated by putting on brave faces, as if this were any holiday and not our last one together. Mom picked out a spindly tree by herself, and we decorated it with Dad watching from his recliner, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas drowning out the sounds of his raspy breathing. He made it to New Year’s Eve, which we spent together, Mom drinking too much brandy and passing out on the couch, leaving me to get Dad into his bed.

Dad made it to February, which came with a snowstorm that clogged the roads and kept us homebound for days. He watched through the window as Mom and I took turns shoveling out the driveway, our limbs numb from the cold.

“I can’t take this anymore,” Dad told me that night, when I’d rolled him on his side to change his sheets, as efficient as a candy striper. “Look what it’s doing to you and your mom.”

“Don’t worry about us,” I said. “We want you as long as we can have you.”

“Not like this,” he said, tears leaking onto his pillow. “You don’t want me like this.”

Dad made it to March, and by that time, his speech was so distorted by pain, so breathy and thin, that it was hard to understand him at all. He was under hospice care, his pain managed by kindly nurses who talked about timing and dosages and offered gentle reassurances that left us numb. The doctor had told us that in the advanced stages of mesothelioma, Dad’s body would be racked with tumors, the cancer spreading to his lymph nodes, the lining of his heart, even his brain. Still, sometimes he rallied for brief moments, as if he were reminding us that he was still alive.

One afternoon, he tried to get my attention when Zeke once again shed his skin, a shiny new body separating from the old. I followed his limp gesture, but this time, I couldn’t summon enthusiasm for the process. I couldn’t make myself believe in new life and regeneration and second chances. We’d moved the terrarium closer, so Dad could see it from his hospital bed. Still, the effort of raising and lowering his arm had exhausted him, and his breaths were patchy.

“Maybe you should get some sleep now,” I suggested, tugging a blanket up to his chest.

His eyes were squeezed shut, blocking out the pain. The syllables came slowly, a breath between each one. “Please…help…me.”

“What do you need? More medicine?” That wasn’t the exact word for it, since nothing could make him better. Palliative care, the nurses had explained, another new word for our horrible vocabulary.

“Megan…” There was a sheen of sweat on his forehead, brought on by the effort of speaking.

One of Dad’s pillows had fallen into the crack between the mattress and the plastic headboard, and I lifted his head to adjust the bedding. “Tell me what you need. Are you hot? Or cold? I could bring in another blanket.”

His breath came sour against my ear, reeking of rot and medicine and the trickle of chicken broth he’d allowed through his lips. “Do it with the pillow,” he breathed. “Please, Megan.”

The pillow was in my hands, slippery in its hypoallergenic case that was changed daily in our constant rotation of linens. It would be easy to do—fast, almost painless. “No,” I protested, stopping my thoughts. “Dad, come on.”

“Please,” he whispered. “I can’t— You have to—”

Tears dribbled down my cheeks, and I wiped them away with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. “Don’t ask me that.”

His hand was on mine, the skin papery thin, a hand I didn’t recognize anymore. He was crying, too, his eyes strangely dry, too dehydrated for tears. “Megan…please.”

“I can’t,” I sobbed. But it was all just too much—for him, for Mom, for me. The part of me that could still reason was working through it like a complicated question on an exam. What was the right thing to do, the moral thing? To let him suffer, to let all of us suffer? It was cancer that was immoral; it was this horrible life, this horrible room, this horrible disease that was immoral. The pillow was heavy in my hands, and I considered its weight, its power to change our lives.

“Do it,” Dad said. A tear fell from my cheek and landed on his, sliding in a glistening trail to his neck. We held each other’s eyes until I placed the pillow ever so gently, over his face.

Afterward, I lifted the entire terrarium off its stand and lugged it through the house, down the back porch steps and across our overgrown yard to the invisible line where our property ended and the neighbor’s began. The snow was thawing and patchy brown grass peeked through, a reminder that spring was around the corner. I had to tip the terrarium on its side, and even then, Zeke was slow to grasp what was happening. “Go, go,” I urged, nudging my foot against the glass. “This is your chance.”

Snot dripped into my mouth, and I smeared it away. Finally, Zeke slithered out, hesitating as if he were waiting for me to reconsider. Then he inched forward and in another minute, he was gone.

Mom’s car came around the corner, tires squealing, the gravel in the driveway scattering. For a long moment she stared at me through her dirty windshield. I hadn’t been able to make sense on the phone. When I’d opened my mouth, all that came out was a wail.

Inside, I’d draped one of the clean blankets from our laundry rotation over Dad, and beneath it he seemed smaller than he’d been that morning, as if he were already decomposing, the flesh going, only the essential bones of his skeleton holding him together. Without him, no one in the world knew the truth of what I’d done.

A few of my high school friends came to the funeral, and afterward they stood around our kitchen with plastic cups full of red punch. Kurt was there, solemn in a pair of khaki pants and a new shirt straight from its package, boxy with creases. The hospital bed had been removed, and our house seemed larger now, smelling sharply of the Lysol that had been used to chase away the lingering odor of a slow death. My friend Becky Babcock cried on my shoulder for a full ten minutes, and when she was done, she wiped her nose and asked, “Maybe you’ll come to KSU this fall?”

“Maybe,” I said.

After our family members had cried their tears and hugged their hugs and scattered back to the four corners of the state, I met Kurt one last time out by the river, and he asked me to marry him. He had a ring and everything—a tiny diamond, a thin gold band. For all I knew, he’d had it for months and was just waiting for my dad to die. When I didn’t answer right away, he laid out his argument—he’d be finishing his auto tech program in another year, and that gave us time to figure out where we would live. I didn’t say anything.

“It doesn’t need to be a big wedding,” he continued, a desperate note creeping into his voice. “Or it could be big, whatever you want.”

I stared at him, wondering how he didn’t see that there was no possibility of me marrying him, that now that my dad was gone, I didn’t need to be tied here anymore. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that Kurt wasn’t just biding his time, that I wasn’t a substitute for something or someone else.

When I finally told him no—just that single word, that lone syllable—he’d snapped the velvet case shut, and a moment later he’d slammed the door of his pickup and gunned the engine, spinning an arc of mud into the air.

A week later, Mom told me about Dad’s life insurance policy—two hundred thousand dollars, which he’d wanted us to split down the middle. The paperwork had been neatly arranged in a fat manila folder, pages clipped together, notarized along with Dad’s careful signature: Mitchell E. Mazeros.

I looked at the date beside his name—January 7, 1998—and met Mom’s eyes. He’d taken out the policy, and then a month later, he’d visited the doctor about the lingering pain in his chest, his shortness of breath.

“He must have known a long time ago,” Mom said with a sad shrug. “Or at least he suspected. He never told me about this—” a gesture indicating the money that would change everything “—until a few months ago. He asked me not to tell you until he was gone.”

My throat was tight. All that time when Dad had been in his recliner growing weaker and weaker, he had figured out a way to take care of us. He’d known, when he asked me to end it for him, that this gift was waiting.

Mom rocked back in her chair, looking at me. “That’s a lot of money, Megan. It’s enough for me to pay off the house. It’s enough for you to go away to college—any college, wherever you want to go. Doesn’t have to be in Kansas.”

“But you would be…”

“I’m staying here, in Woodstock.”

“I can’t leave you,” I said. “At least, I could come home on weekends…”

She lit a cigarette, not meeting my eyes. It was a habit she’d put on hold after Dad’s diagnosis, but one she’d picked up again with grim purpose, lighting the next one off the first. I thought about the man she’d been referencing from time to time—Gerry, her boss at the tax office. Gerry who was not dead, was not dying, was very much alive. A puff of smoke trickled out the side of her mouth. “Listen.” She patted the back of my hand. “I’ll take care of myself. But you’re going to have to take care of yourself, too.”

That night, I dug in the back of my desk drawer for the admissions brochures I’d collected before Dad’s diagnosis, their finishes bright and glossy, offering rose-colored glimpses of college life. Of course, I’d been planning to attend KSU—it was close and convenient, it was where all my friends were going, and between in-state tuition and scholarships, it was affordable, too.

But now, I could go anywhere.

I sorted the brochures into piles—Harvard and Yale and Princeton, places that were out of my reach, thanks to the grades I’d pulled after Dad’s diagnosis; Bates and Brown and Bowdoin, schools that seemed too snooty now that I was truly considering them; the Southern California schools that featured tank-top clad students on beaches, where I would be forced to put my pale and flabby body on display; schools that were in big cities, where I might feel like a Midwestern hick; schools that were quirky and artsy, where I would stand out for not being quirky or artsy enough; schools that boasted NCAA rankings, schools that looked too institutional.

At the bottom of my stack was a brochure from Keale College in Scofield, Connecticut, a private, girls-only school. On the front of the brochure, before a backdrop of towering brick, two girls stood with their arms around each other’s shoulders in what seemed to be a spontaneous display of happiness and camaraderie. An inset picture showed a scene of ivy-covered buildings and open expanses of green lawn, complete with girls lounging on the grass, girls sitting cross-legged with books thrown open in front of them, girls chatting, laughing, girls with futures I couldn’t even imagine.

I ran my thumb down the fine print and found the fees. Tuition, housing and other costs totaled $23,000 annually. Dad’s life insurance would buy me four years, free and clear.

“Keale College,” I said into the silence of my bedroom, trying out the words.

It was about as far away from Kansas as I could get, which meant it was about as far as I could get from everything—from the whistles of the truckers at the diner, from Kurt Haschke, from the memory of myself standing over Dad’s bedside, tears running into my mouth, promising myself that it was the right thing to do, that I shouldn’t feel guilty for doing it.

Maybe somewhere else, it would be possible to believe that those lies were true.

Copyright © 2018 by Paula Treick DeBoard

Here We Lie
by by Paula Treick DeBoard

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Park Row
  • ISBN-10: 0778330265
  • ISBN-13: 9780778330264