I was born on March 4, 1980 at Gibson General Hospital with a fully functioning bullshit detector. I didn’t know how to use it, or even that I had one, until my mid-twenties though. Here’s how I discovered it:
One Tuesday circa 2006 or 2007 (I could probably pin down an exact date if I had the energy to dig, but I don’t) I was driving home from my part-time job at The Saturday Evening Post. Light from a Long John Silver’s sign reflected off the windshield of my Malibu and the AC vents pulled in hints of fried fish and seasoned salt. I was having some super serious dinner thoughts while waiting for the light to turn green when my cell phone started ringing. It was Rodney’s ringtone. I couldn’t dig it out of my bag. I was driving.
The first thought that entered my head wasn’t “Darn it, I’m going to miss his call.” or “I wonder what’s up?” It was, “He picked this time to call. He doesn’t want to talk; he wants to leave a voicemail.” It was my bullshit detector, and baby it was dialed all the way in.
At home parked in the garage, I dug my phone out of my bag before climbing out of the car. I played his voicemail. “Some of us are having a study session after class tonight. I’ll be late getting home. Don’t wait up.” My bullshit detector decoded the message instantaneously. “Some of us” translated to “two of us” and “study session” was definitely code for, well, something else.
I called Rodney back, but he didn’t pick up. It’s a shame too, because I had plans to ask him what kind of “study session” started at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night. After all, he was in a night class with a dozen day-job working, graduate-level communications majors. Their grades were based on semester-long capstone projects and term papers, not wrote learning. Study sessions are for memorizing verb conjugations and the periodic table with your high school crush, not for drafting independent theses on public relations theory.
That dirty fucking liar. I buzzed with anger, and rage coagulated in my gut. I threw my phone back in my bag and went inside. Then I did what any suspicious wife would do: I curled up on the sofa with a microwaved burrito, a glass of wine, and Rodney’s laptop. I guessed his email password on the first try.
“He’s an idiot,” I whispered to a sleeping Taubensee.
That night, the night of Rodney’s first official “study session” with Lucy, he came home to find a dozen of the emails he’d written to her printed out and taped to the garage door. I had planned to print all fifty-six email threads, but my HP ran out of ink well before the project was finished.
I called my best friend Liz the next day and told her what Rodney had done. Then I told her what I’d done. “Four out of ten,” she said.
“Four out of ten what?” I asked.
“Four out of ten stars on your revenge project. It’s slightly humiliating—especially forcing him to stare down their ridiculous nicknames for each other—but it’s not at all destructive. And no one else saw it, since, you know, it was inside your garage.” She puffed her cigarette, then added, “There’s this Carrie Underwood song I think you should listen too, Em.”
I laughed. That’s why I called Liz. I needed to be distracted from the hurt and humiliation. “I didn’t go all 95 Theses with their emails for revenge, Liz. It was strategy. See, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Rodney will deny anything that isn’t staring him in the face.”
One Saturday afternoon about six months into our marriage, Rodney confessed to me that he was a compulsive liar. “Can you sit down for a second? There’s something I need to tell you.” He patted the couch cushion. He looked, I don’t know, scared or something.
“What is it?” I took a seat beside him.
“There’s something you should know about me.” He hesitated, and I waited impatiently for the big reveal. While I waited, I picked at the lint on the couch and floated a few possibilities: he was gay, he’d gambled away our savings, he was addicted to painkillers, he had a secret family he kept locked in a basement on the other side of town, he’d failed to pay the mortgage and the bank was foreclosing, he’d been fired from his job.
“Just tell me,” I pleaded. “Whatever it is, it’ll be OK.” My naïve, sheltered little heart believed it really would be.
Rodney sucked in a big breath and then blurted, “I’m a compulsive liar.”
“OK,” I said hesitantly, trying to figure out how I felt about the news. “What does that mean? What have you lied about?”
“Everything,” he said. “Everything, but mostly nothing. Like, OK, you know how I told you that story about the Halloween party at Sigma Pi my senior year of college?”
“I was never in a fraternity.” He lowered his head in his hands and exhaled, “And my grandpa wasn’t a fighter pilot. And I never won the spelling bee in fifth grade. And we never had a family cat when I was little. And I never smashed my brother’s fingers in the car door when we were at Disney World. I’ve never even been to Disney World.”
I knew lying was bad for relationships, but I was struggling to process how devastating his revelation was to our marriage. “I don’t get it,” I stood up and walked to the kitchen for a glass of water. “Why lie about any of that? It doesn’t even make you look good or protect you from anything. You know what I mean?” I shut off the tap and took a sip from my glass. “Like, ‘No, officer, I didn’t see that stop sign.’ That’s a lie I understand.” I scrunched my face in confusion. “Wait. Did you think being a frat guy made you more attractive? Because I—”
“I can’t explain why I do it,” he said turning his palms up and shrugging. Now that was something I believed. As our relatively short marriage had already proven, Rodney came from a long line of incredibly fucked up people who’d developed coping mechanisms more destructive than their actual problems. His grandparents, his mom, his dad. They were all completely self-absorbed, but not one of them possessed a single drop of self-awareness. Narcissists, I called them, not entirely sure if I was using the word right. Jennifer, his younger sister, seemed well-adjusted and down to earth, capable of empathy, but there’s always one black sheep, right?
“Oh my god!” My revelation was punctuated by the clink of glass on the tabletop. “Our first date! The story about you getting shot at Circle K!” I pointed at him.
Rodney nodded. “You were quiet for a long time that night. I figured you knew I was lying. So I turned it into a joke.”
For three and a half hours, I quizzed Rodney about all the stories he’d told me since we first met. The ones I could remember anyway. Almost all of them were lies, that is, if what he was saying right then was the truth. If a guy tells you he’s a compulsive liar, can you believe him when he tells you which lies are lies? I started to ask him why he was telling me any of this but stopped mid-sentence. What was the point? Unless I was missing something, his confession wasn’t likely the result of some crisis of conscience; it was a carefully weighed decision. One he felt would protect him from something worse. His confession was equivalent to the Friday afternoon news dump at the White House.
The next day Rodney’s confession was still fresh. I had been stewing over it while drinking my coffee when I looked up at a poem on the living room wall. Typed on parchment using his grandfather’s Underwood, I had framed the cute little rhyme he gave me on our third—or maybe fourth?—date. I wasn’t really into poetry, but I made an exception for this little delight. It was nothing like that literary crap I’d been forced to read in high school. It was quirky and lyrical, and it was written just for me.
Or was it?
Something compelled me to search the first line on Google, and in .55 seconds, I was clicking on a link to the full poem. I rationalized for a bit. He never said he wrote the poem that day. I assumed. But the author wasn’t credited at the end of the typed piece. Isn’t that kind of standard? This poem is kind of popular. I should have known it wasn’t a Rodney original. He probably assumed I was well-read.
I decided to ask him. “Hey, did you write this?” I did my best not to make it sound like a big deal, whatever his answer.
He looked away from the book he was reading. “Yep.”
“Really?” I said. “Because It seems kind of familiar to me.”
“I wrote it for you. I gave it to you before we went to the Eitlejorg. Remember?”
It was the fifth date then. “That’s weird, because Google says it was published by an award-winning poet in 1996.” God knows why, but I felt bad for him. I cringed sympathetically, the way I did for tone deaf American Idol singers whose moms didn’t love them enough to tell them they couldn’t sing. But Rodney wasn’t embarrassed, he was irritated. Like the villain at the end of the Scooby Doo cartoon grouching about “those meddling kids.”
“Oh, yeah, whatever.” Rodney waved me off.
I wasn’t at all comfortable with how that had gone, but the exchange did teach me how to get the truth out of Rodney: dig it up on my own first, then confront him with evidence. I could, for example, stick a poet’s web site under his nose. Or—just spitballing here—maybe tape his own words to a door moments before he was about to walk through it.
The study session ended around 11:30 that night. Rodney came in with his messenger bag slung over his shoulder and an 8.5 x 11” piece of inkjet paper in his left hand. A normal husband would have probably begged forgiveness or whipped out the old “I can explain” song and dance. But not my Rodney. “How dare you read my email!” he screamed at me, red-faced and shaky.