Home > The Lies I Told

The Lies I Told
Author: Mary Burton



Truth is the ultimate power.

When the truth comes around,

all the lies have to run and hide.

—Ice Cube






Friday, January 7, 2022

Richmond, Virginia

The dead were always watching. And they did speak to us, though we rarely noticed.

Normally, the dead didn’t bother me, but the night was cold, dark, and raining, and I was anxious as I gripped a coiled art show flyer and got out of my car. A light drizzle fell, and an uneasiness had piggybacked onto my bones with the cold. I was tempted to go home and ignore you. Sane men don’t chase the dead.

But when it comes to you, I’m not reasonable—never have been. So I returned to J.J.’s Pub, a corner, brick building with tall display windows and crimson-red front doors. Inside the vestibule, I unrolled the handbill, coiled tighter than a clock spring, and confirmed that I’d not lost my mind. You were still staring, smiling.

Your red hair swooped around your shoulders like a curtain and framed a face as pale as ivory. Once you had reminded me of an Irish sprite, plucked straight out of Dublin, but now I saw you were Persephone, back from the underworld.

Your gaze held me, reached out, and the longer I studied the ironic humor swimming in those sapphire eyes, the more I remembered our intimate history and shared losses.

A rational mind wouldn’t be lured by the dead or revisit a dangerous past. Turn, leave, and slam the door shut on yesterday.

But this pull between us transcends life and death. And this time I was not going to repeat old mistakes. The past doesn’t have to equal the future. Eyes forward.

I pushed through the bar’s doors, chased in by cold air that lingered at my heels, and shook off raindrops dripping from my jacket. The sounds of piped jazz horns mingled with warmth, laughter, and the smells of beer and french fries. I wasn’t here for the art, food, ambience, or company. Just for you. I needed to see if you were really you. Honestly, I hoped you weren’t, that it was a mistake. I’d spent too many years imagining your face, your smile, the way your eyes closed forever so long ago. I was afraid seeing a knockoff version would only taint my memories. I hoped whoever you were, you’d be ugly, fat, and easy to forget.

The bar was divided into two sections: the main room filled with round café tables and then, off to the side, a sort of annex. There was no one in the main room, but the smaller room held at least a dozen people, and laughter and conversation drifted from it.

J.J.’s Pub’s back room, the gallery tonight, was certainly not Met worthy. A lesser artist might have turned down the space and waited for a better opportunity. But not you. You wanted the world to see the images that rattled in your mind and haunted me.

Outside the room was a sign that read EXHIBIT. Your picture was not on it. Disappointed, I wondered whether the dead were playing tricks with me again. They’d done this so often that I usually recognized their trickery. I should have just left, but I was still too curious. Please be old and gray. The young and youthful version of you was enshrined in my memory, and I wanted to keep it that way.

A sane man . . .

I brushed the last of the raindrops off my coat and moved toward the room. The space was small, with a low ceiling pitted with pot lights spilling pools of light onto a black-and-white tiled floor. There were no small tables in this space, and the chairs rimmed one wall. This setup gave any visitor a clear view of two dozen black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls, ghosted by the faint impressions of artwork that had hung here before.

On a round table by the door was another flyer, featuring several more images from your show. A makeshift catalog of sorts. The photos were moody, and the shades of gray captured the jagged rocks of the James River. A fast current splashed ragged, jutting boulders, and the combined effect suggested trouble and violence.

The last memory I held of you was on that rocky shoreline, and it still warmed me. You were laughing, a bit drunk, wild eyed, and begging me to kiss you. I still dream of pressing your body against the warm hood of my car on that cold day. Your body was so responsive, eager, desperate almost.

A laugh rose above the din of conversation, and it jerked me back to now. I looked over, and I saw you standing with your back to the wall as you talked to two men. Your smile was as bright as I remembered. Your hair remained a tumble of red curls, and a hint of freckles still sprinkled your nose. A black V-neck blouse dipped between full breasts and skimmed a flat belly before vanishing into faded jeans hugging narrow hips.

I stared, wondering whether you were real. The dead are clever and can play with a man’s mind. They don’t care about feelings or the living’s need to get on with their lives. It’s jealousy, I suppose: they can’t live, so neither can you.

But as you moved among the living, it was clear they all saw you. They talked to you, laughed, smiled. You weren’t a figment of my imagination. You were very real. Perfect.

Tightness clutched my chest. I felt suddenly both thrilled and sorry I had come. My grainy memories, replayed too often, were now faded and lackluster. Suddenly they wouldn’t do anymore. Seeing you in the flesh had made them obsolete.

I’d never expected to see you again, beyond dreams and fantasies. And yet here you were, flesh and blood, twenty feet away. My system heated as my thoughts raced and collided. An overload was coming. Never a good thing. I pivoted toward the door.

Outside, I looked at the grainy image of your face. I’d thought I had never forgotten one detail about you. But now I saw time had degraded my memory. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had jumped from black and white to Technicolor.





Friday, March 11, 2022

Richmond, Virginia

7:45 p.m.

“Happy birthday to us, Clare.” The Stockton twins had hit the big three-oh. The last thirty years had been rough for me, and it was a minor miracle I was here. But it was bittersweet: I wasn’t the twin who’d been murdered thirteen years ago.

Perhaps that was why our older sister, Brit, believed celebrating our thirtieth birthday in style was imperative. Another decade bit the dust. We, or at least I, had officially grown up.

Despite several noes from me about a party, Brit had indicated that she’d already invited our high school friends, ordered our favorite cake, and chosen blue balloons—our favorite. No clowns, she swore with a smile. (We never liked clowns.) It would be fun, she said. Good to celebrate this milestone.

When Brit’s talking points didn’t sway me, she reminded me, as any good sister would, “You’re lucky to be alive.”

The comment cut deep and robbed me of a response.

“We were all worried about you after the accident in January,” she said. “Refusing is basically selfish.”

Selfish was a word Brit had aimed my way a lot over the years: I spent too much time squandering a life you never had. The truth pissed me off, and she knew it. I said yes to the party.

The party was being held at J.J.’s Pub, which was within walking distance of my apartment. J.J.’s Pub was a somebody-might-know-your-name kind of place that served killer fries and tall, cold brews. It was also owned by Jack Dutton, my high school drug buddy. We were both clean now, but back in the day . . .

My sister’s choice of venues was strategic. Not only was she tossing her high school boyfriend Jack some business, but she knew I’d always show up for J.J.’s Pub fries, even on birthdays that felt like a loss, not a win.

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