By the time I went to college, I was done inventing tall tales. I wasn’t telling people that I had eaten a cat because I wanted someone—anyone—to be interested in me, but I still didn’t believe that telling the truth about myself would make anyone want to know more, so I continued lying, only my lies became slightly more nuanced, and slightly more complicated. I had a boyfriend who wrote fiction and who told me that maybe, one day, I might be as good as him. Instead of saying what I actually thought, which was, Hey asshole, more like one day you might be as good as me, I said, “I really want that to happen.” I pretended exuberance when what I really felt was irrepressible depression. When I couldn’t contain my depression any longer and allowed a tiny, tiny part of myself to emerge, my friends would tell me that seeing me sad was unsettling for them. That I was supposed to be the rock, the stable one.
“You’re never sad,” one friend told me when I didn’t laugh at her jokes one night.
“I know,” I said, continuing to lie.
I laughed at jokes that were sexist and racist.
When I started having sex, I faked all of my orgasms, which, by the way, is not something that teenage boys whose previous exposure to sex has consisted mainly of internet porn are likely to pick up on. As I got older and my partners grew more experienced, I realized that I couldn’t keep faking orgasms, so instead I faked apathy. I told every new boyfriend that I happened to be one of those women who prefer giving to receiving, which is pretty much the general narrative affirmed by most mainstream depictions of sex, so most dudes were like, “OK, cool.” The one or two real orgasms I had took so long and required so much patience and trial and error on both my part and my partner’s that I feared it would drive them away. I was certain that if I was too demanding, if I kept asking for things, someday someone would tell me, “No, you’re not worth it.”
When other people told me that I was a doll, that I was precious, that I was cute, that I was just so nice, I nodded and affirmed these little lies because I felt that the truth of my being was too monstrous to reveal. I had to lie. I had to pass as a nice girl, a nonthreatening girl. I had to pass as the kind of girl who could hang with dudes and listen to their sexist tirades about how girls were such nags, that girls whined all the time, that girls always wanted dudes to spend money on them, that girls spent too much time putting on makeup that didn’t even look good. I had to pass as the kind of girl who didn’t take anything seriously, especially not the bigoted humor that I had been subjected to my entire life. I had to pass as all of those things because if my friends saw the real me—the me that was scarily angry, and who took things very seriously, and that was so, so far from nice—they would surely abandon me.
Right at this moment, as I write this, I am fighting the urge to lie. I want very much to lie to you, my dear dear Rookie hearts, to give this article the happy resolution that my real life doesn’t yet have. I want to say I’ve stopped lying, that I no longer feel the need to protect the people in my life from the parts of myself that are difficult to admit. I want to say I no longer fear that my loved ones will abandon me if they learn that I’m not a happy person, I’m not an easygoing person, I’m not a confident person, that I don’t always feel attractive or particularly sexual, that I do things that I’m not proud of, that most of the time I feel wildly lost and confused and scared and angry and sad.
But I won’t lie to you. I will be honest, even if honesty is not always charming, even if being honest means risking rejection, risking disgust. Let’s start with this confession: When I attended the first Rookie party ever (!!!!) a year ago when Rookie was just a fledgling baby of a thing, I felt out of place and awkward and unable to think of anything, like literally anything, to say in conversations. Instead of enjoying myself, I panicked about every little thing: Is there a circle forming and am I now outside of it? Wait, do I have anything funny related to gym teachers that I can say right now? Oh my god, people are talking about tampons! Tell your tampon sex story now before someone else jumps in. Oh god, you dummy, someone already jumped in! I went to the bathroom so many times just because I didn’t know what else to do with my body.
When it was all over, I felt like a failure of a social creature. And instead of owning up to that, I decided to publicly post on Facebook how I had met one of my idols, Miranda July, and that I could die happy now.
“Miranda July?????” my friends wrote me. “I’m jealous!”
I still laugh at jokes that I don’t think are funny. I still don’t speak up because I’m afraid to take up space. I still fear that my friends will abandon me if I am not completely entertaining and captivating and cheerful all the time. Recently, I was really let down by a friend, and instead of telling her that, I kept it inside, afraid that just by acknowledging my feelings, I might seem too demanding.
When I graduated from college and started working and paying my own bills, my mother asked me, “Do you miss being a teenager? Do you wish you could go back to high school?”
“Are you kidding me?” I cried. “I hated high school. Those were the worst years of my life.” I felt smug, condescending, knowing my mother would not understand. How could she? My mother had always been happy. She had always been popular—she was president of her class through middle school and high school—and was still popular now, as an adult. Everyone who met her adored her; strangers routinely stopped her on the street to tell her how stunning she was. My mother once told me that she was a generally trusting, happy person and even though she knew deep down that it was impossible, she truly believed that she had never been lied to by anyone, ever, in her entire life. My mother basically gleamed with health and well-adjustment with every waking breath, and could never figure out how her own flesh-and-blood daughter ended up so sulky and unlikeable as an adolescent. My mother could never, ever understand me—or so I thought.
“Me too,” she said. “I hated high school. Those were the worst years of my life too.”
That’s when I realized that I wasn’t the only one who made up stories to protect my loved ones from the ugly truth. If my mom does it, everyone does. We hide behind these characters we’ve invented for ourselves—the happy partygoer, the “low-maintenance” girlfriend—because it seems easier than asking everyone all the time to confront the truth, which can be as boring as “I have nothing to say,” or as simple as “I feel insecure.” That even in this article, I have taken on the role of Adult Who Has Some Hard-Won Advice That You Should Listen To, though I don’t know why you should listen to me, and I don’t know if what I have is advice so much as a story.
I wish I could say that I’m done lying, but I’m not. I’m not even done telling tall tales. I still make up shit all the time in my fiction and my poetry. But I can’t keep making up stories about who I am, and playing this imaginary character who is never vulnerable, never disappointing, never difficult, never too much.
All I can say now is that I’m trying to stop lying. And that’s not a lie. ♦