The lies started small, benign, even comical. In retrospect, Kate knew she should have intervened. She was a documentary filmmaker, so if it was anybody’s job to ferret out the truth, it was hers. But at first she listened with relish as her daughter Maya practiced the teenage art of exaggeration. What harm could come from a little extra flourish, the verbal equivalent of a padded, push-up bra?
They had just moved from New York City to the college town of Sparta, Michigan, for Kate’s new job teaching film. The World Trade Center attacks were recent enough for the phrase “we’re all New Yorkers now” to still feel true. The neighbor girls in the back rows of Kate’s Honda Odyssey had never been to the big city except in their television dreams, so Maya could milk their gullibility. Maybe her stories would help her fit in. For once.
Faye, Lucy, Lila, and Nicole were an interchangeable chorus line of skin-tight t-shirts that showcased their pierced belly buttons. Faye, the bustiest and bossiest, took center stage, and Maya (as nerdy-looking as Kate was herself at fifteen) wore more clothes than the rest put together. The first time Kate drove the carpool to Sparta High, she took in the visuals—school buses through the windshield, bare trees and garbage trucks through the rearview, parking lots and strip malls through the right and left windows—and listened.
“See all these one-story buildings?” Maya said, as they passed a nail salon, a Mexican restaurant chain, and a bagel store that didn’t make real bagels. “That would never happen in New York.” The other girls crinkled wrappers and sucked breakfast shakes. “In New York, the city is vertical. Even parking lots are as tall as skyscrapers, and they’re full of stretch limos.”
“Did you see any famous people in your neighborhood?” Nicole asked.
“Every day,” Maya lied.
“Ever get their autographs?”
“That would be so tacky,” Maya said. “Anyway, they’re everywhere, you get kind of blasé about it.”
“Do they have bodyguards?” asked Nicole.
“With guns?” asked Faye, and Kate swore she heard her lick her lips, making the last word sound pornographic.
“Oh yeah,” Maya said. “And they’re even hotter than the bodies they’re guarding.” Maya’s tone was so casual and assured, Kate found herself almost believing, too.
The next time Kate drove the minivan, the carpool chatter was all about which girls had sweet hair, which boys had cute butts, and clothes—they talked endlessly about clothes. Maya crumpled into the middle seat of the middle row while the other girls lengthened their legs. It was amazing how much space a ninety-pound girl could spread herself over, when she was trying to crowd others out. Kate started the engine and eavesdropped.
“Where’d you get that skirt?” Lucy asked Faye, leaning over Maya and audibly rubbing the fabric between her fingers.
“I lifted it from Forever 21,” Faye said, matter of factly, while Kate wondered if she should tell the girl’s parents.
Maya lied, “Guys were always asking for my phone number on the subway.”
“I thought strangers didn’t talk to each other in New York,” said Lila, flipping her hair so much it stirred a breeze at the back of Kate’s head.
“Usually I talked to them first, like I asked for directions or pretended I didn’t know which way the train was going.”
“Don’t you have to be careful?” asked Lila.
“I only talked to the ones who were male models or TV actors, but they’re everywhere.”
Kate opened the vent to disperse the fumes of lip gloss, breath mints, and hair gel.
“Weren’t the trains dangerous?” asked Nicole.
Kate took the shortcut through campus, past her favorite rundown frat house, which reminded her of the motel in Psycho.
“Only for tourists. And the guys who play guitar on the platform, they’ll follow you anywhere.”
“Are they famous?” Faye asked.
“They will be,” Maya said.
“Did you have a penthouse apartment like the one in ‘Gossip Girls’?” asked Nicole.
“I saw them making an episode once,” Maya said. “There’s always a film crew, looking for extras, wherever you walk.”
“Don’t you get tired of just walking around all the time?” asked Lucy.
“I’d just get a cab,” said Maya. “Wave one down and when they like you, you don’t even have to pay.”
“Taxi!” said Faye, holding up a hand so high it blocked Kate’s view out the back window.
If the girls remembered Kate was there, they’d clam up, so she kept quiet. At least that’s how she consoled herself later, after Maya’s tall tales got out of hand.
A few years before, back in New York, Maya had told another set of girls that she believed in fairies.
“Yeah, I did too when I was five,” one girl had said.
Maya also told these girls she’d seen basketball players ten feet tall and could talk to the dead. By the time Maya moved, no one believed a word she said anymore.
Kate didn’t chastise her daughter for having “quite the imagination,” the way her parents had done to her. Instead, she took her to a child psychiatrist. Isn’t that what good moms do? After all, she’d made a documentary, Good Moms Don’t Agree, about twelve different viable parenting styles. The psychiatrist had told Kate, while Maya waited in the other room: “For children, the lines between fantasy and reality are fluid. Then, at a certain age, the lines harden, like a baby’s skull. It’s just taking Maya longer.”
“How much?” Kate had asked.
“There’s the divorce,” he’d said. “And September 11. The line may have hardened, then softened again.”
During the next few weeks, Kate became so accustomed to her new soundtrack of Maya’s petty fabrications, she barely noticed their intensity increase every day. Until the emergency.
Maya saw the car first, stalled on the shoulder of the road, blinkers flashing, the driver trying to wave down cars with red-mittened hands. Kate called 911 but didn’t stop.
“That would never happen in New York,” Maya said.
“What?” asked Nicole, chewing gum as loudly as she could because it annoyed Lila. “Cars don’t break down?”
“Because the only cars are stretch limos?” said Lucy. Kate thought she could hear the forced air of the girls simultaneously holding back a guffaw. The audio stream of her own childhood.
“No,” said Maya. “I mean nobody stopping to help.”
“I thought New Yorkers never helped anybody,” said Faye. “If you get mugged, people just leave you there and step over you.”
“That’s not true,” said Maya. “You heard about the guy who jumped off the subway platform to rescue a woman who fell on the track, right?”
“When was that?”
“Happens, like, every day,” said Maya. “And the pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson River?”
“I guess,” said Nicole.
“What about 9/11?” Maya asked.
Kate turned the dull hum of the radio off to make sure she heard right. Then she swallowed, remembering. Usually, by ten o’clock, she’d have already been at her desk at Liberty Street, within sight of the attack, but she’d decided to vote in the mayoral primary before boarding the train in Brooklyn. She never reached the polling place but stopped on the Promenade, watching, waiting, sure she wasn’t seeing right. Kate had known Maya was safely in school, close enough to see the ashes but not the fire. She’d kept trying to reach her husband Ted, but all the phones were dead.
“The World Trade Center attack?” Maya continued, “You know, 3,000 people died? A lot of them were helping other people escape. They were heroes.”
The van was so silent Kate could hear the girls fiddling with their belt loops and flipping hair out of their eyes. “Did you know anybody who was there?” Faye finally asked.
“My dad,” said Maya. It was the first time she’d mentioned him since the move. Maya continued, in a stranger’s voice. It was like she opened her mouth but somebody else dubbed in the words. “That’s how he died.”
The only sound was the scrape of shoe against the gas pedal, the swish of the girls’ clothes as they squirmed. Minutes passed.
“Was he trying to rescue people?” Lila asked.
“Of course,” Maya said.
The girls discovered an urgent need to sample new ringtones. Kate tried to focus on the road. She had to concentrate on what was ahead, not behind, or somebody really would get killed. She wanted to say something, anything, to rewind and verify. But most of all she wanted to hear where Maya was going with this storyline, and if she interrupted, the conversation would screech to a stop.
They were halfway home, driving around the periphery of campus, when two college kids walked in front of the van without looking, so slowly and obliviously that Kate honked. Even after they crossed, she couldn’t lift her hand off the horn. “Is something wrong?” Lila asked. All Maya said was “Don’t make us go deaf.”
When Kate pulled into Faye’s driveway, all the girls except Maya squeezed out. Kate started to say she could invite herself over, but Maya placed a finger over her lips. Finally, Faye returned and gave Maya a hug. “I’m sorry about your dad,” she said. This was the friendliest anyone had been to her since the carpool started.
Kate resumed driving. When they pulled into their own driveway, she said, “Why did you say that about Dad?”
“What?” Maya splayed her long limbs out across the seat, mimicking the other girls, as if trying to make herself bigger.
“That he died in the Towers.” Kate didn’t know what was worse, being reminded of what really happened or confronting Maya’s alternate reality. Was it better to be a jilted ex-wife or the widow of a fallen hero?
“I didn’t say that.” Maya’s voice was accusing.
“What did you say?”
Maya looked out the window, buying time, then finally said, “I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Maya, I’m in the car. I can’t help hearing.”
Maya glared back, opened the car door and said, “You should get a life.”
Kate walked into the house, collapsed into her desk chair, and told herself that Maya couldn’t know the whole story: how she’d tried and tried to call and e-mail to let Ted know she was alive, her whole collection of modern technology a dead heap of metal and plastic. How Kate had discovered that he wasn’t really in Pittsburgh interviewing laid-off factory workers but at the Days Inn near LaGuardia Airport, with that woman. Maya couldn’t know, unless she had overheard them fighting about it, through the thin walls of their tiny Brooklyn walk-up apartment.
That night, Kate couldn’t get the lie out of her head. When she confronted Maya the next day, she repeated her denial. “You’re the one who wishes he was dead,” Maya said, slamming her bedroom door.
Kate longed for a videotape to play back the girls’ conversation in the car. She had stacks of footage from Maya’s younger days, and she had even collaged them into her art films. But nobody shoots their kids once they’re old enough to fake a smile.
She didn’t want Ted dead. Did she?
When Kate dropped off the girls at Lucy’s house the next Friday, all of them got out—even Maya. “OK if I spend the night?” she asked.
“Sure,” Kate said, trying to sound as if Maya’s being invited to a friend’s house were not a freakish event. “What about clothes for tomorrow?”
“She can borrow mine,” Lucy said.
Maya was unrecognizable in the morning, in the Carpool Girls’ uniform of sprayed-on pants, dark bra and almost-transparent shirt. Her shoulders didn’t slump, and her jeans were slung so low it was clear she was panty-less.
“Go change.” Kate looked down at her own clunky boots so she didn’t have to stare at her daughter’s pubic bones. Maya didn’t budge, unless you counted the way her pants slid towards her ankles. Had Kate really moved from mean streets to small town so her daughter could dress like the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver? Is this what she meant when she told Maya she wanted her to try to fit in?
When Kate talked to the other carpool moms on the phone to arrange schedules, or when she ran into parents at school, they acted as if there was something they wanted to tell her, and then someone said it: “I’m sorry. I heard. Your husband. How awful.” Kate couldn’t do anything but nod.
By the day after Maya’s outburst, before Kate could even form a response, news had spread about the fallen hero. It didn’t help that Kate hadn’t updated her web page to remove mention of the World Trade Center film, the one she started before the attacks and hadn’t had the heart or funding to finish. A reporter from the local paper left her a phone message, requesting an interview. Kate was about to call back and explain that the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. But then she realized that an interview might be good publicity. Good publicity might mean better job security. Don’t mothers owe that to their daughters?
“We have to talk,” Kate said, as soon as Maya walked in from another parent’s car. “How would you explain Dad’s sudden resurrection if he appeared out of the blue?”
Maya tossed her jacket on the bench in the entryway. “Easter?”
Maya poured chips into a bowl. “It’s not like he’s ever coming.”
“Don’t say that.” Kate sipped the dregs of breakfast coffee, still warm from the carafe.
“If you stopped obsessing about him, maybe you could meet someone else. He’s still your Facebook friend,” Maya said.
“So? How are you so sure he’s not coming? We’ve only lived here a few months.”
“How often did he visit when we were in New York?” Maya asked. “After he remarried? How often, now that he’s got a kid, and is having another?”
“But you can’t kill him off.”
“You know what he said when I asked him to visit?” Maya said. “When he was my Facebook friend? I’ve got my own family now.”
“He didn’t,” Kate said.
Kate placed her hands on Maya’s thin shoulders, and Maya let her, for once, give a full embrace. It didn’t seem fair to keep interrogating a child whose father had been so cruel. Unless this was just another one of Maya’s strategic lies.
Maya started to walk away, but Kate called her back. “You’re lying about my life, too. What am I supposed to say?”
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you lied about my life.”
“In your documentary. All those moms talked about how happy their babies were, but I bet you just edited out all the bad stuff. You didn’t even get my first word right.”
“What was your first word?”
“You don’t even know!”
Was that the one thing Kate failed to document?
“Whoever said those people were good moms, anyway? Did they have to take a test?”
“You’re only a small part of that film,” Kate said. “It’s got eleven other families. And everything in it is true.”
“In interviews you said it was 82 percent true.”
“You’re taking that too literally,” Kate said.
“Maybe you’re taking Dad’s death too literally.”
“He’s not dead!”
“He is to me,” Maya said. “It’s all about editing.” She snapped two fingers like scissors. “The least you can do is un-Friend him.” Maya walked over to the computer in the dining room, hovered the mouse above her father’s picture and said, “May I?”
Kate nodded, and Ted—along with his face, his profile, his Friends, and posts--disappeared.
The phone messages and e-mails piled up. “It’s a great human interest story,” the university PR director said. “Can I interview you for our alumni newsletter?” The dean said she could rustle up some funding to finish the film on the World Trade Center, if Kate was willing to go on tour and connect it with her own personal tragedy. “Now I see why you left New York,” the principal at Maya’s school said one morning, greeting her at the drop-off for the first time, braving a storm just to talk to her.
The only call Kate was ready to return was the one from Tracy, her best friend and former colleague at Stonehenge Films. “I had no idea you did performance art,” Tracy said, her words tumbling out New-York-style-fast, making Kate miss her even more.
“I got the press release from the university. They’re funding your film, about losing your husband.”
“You know how PR people hype stuff.”
“It’s on your blog, too. I might have to fly out and help. What’ve you got, six months before festival season?”
“Would you? The dean says I can buy a Red One.” If anybody could fix the situation, Tracy, one of the best editors in the business, was the one. If only she could edit Kate’s life.
“I’d die to get my hands on one of those cameras. Speaking of dying, how brilliant to kill him. When do you get to off someone in real life? I’m thinking of making a short feature just so I can do it in a movie.”
“You won’t tell anybody?” Kate said.
“That he’s still alive? It doesn’t matter, it’s art.”
“What do you mean?” Kate said. “I could lose my job if this leaks. It could ruin my career.”
“Lighten up,” Tracy said. “How’s Maya taking it?”
“She’s the one who killed him.” Had she really said that? “I mean, she’s the one who said he died.” She’d better take a deep breath and think before she opened her mouth again, or they might all end up in jail.
“I didn’t mean Ted was physically dead,” Kate told the university PR person, sitting behind the desk in front of her, an MBA with pastel pumps. “He’s an absent father. A deadbeat.”
“That’s not how we read it. All I had to do was Google to see he was alive. Imagine when my boss found out I hadn’t even done that. That I believed you.”
“Didn’t we all die on September 11?” Kate asked. “Every New Yorker. Every American, even.”
Pastel-pump woman dangled her shoe precariously. “We’re trying to figure out if we can spin this or if we have to count it as a casualty.” Then she let her pink shoe drop.
When it was Kate’s turn to play chauffeur again, she was happy to be distracted from wondering whether she’d be allowed to finish her film or asked to pack up her office. It was comforting to listen while Maya told another story about limo drivers in New York City, as if she’d ever met one. In a world where gargantuan vehicles are called minivans, where clicking the Start icon makes a computer shut down, where fathers abandon daughters and the person behind you in airport security might have a bomb in his shoe, were Maya’s fantasies so strange?
Faye spun a yarn about a movie ticket clerk who insisted that pretty girls like her didn’t have to pay. Lila talked about mixing Kahlua in her parents’ morning coffee without their noticing. Nicole said she switched her mother’s eyelash-growth pills with her father’s prescription for erectile dysfunction. Lucy claimed to have a thermos full of Mike’s Hard Lemonade in her lunchbox. Was this how trouble started, or was it harmless girl talk? The part of their brains that separated this bravado from their real lives outside the window—lives with divorced parents and “war on terror”—hadn’t hardened yet. Perhaps if Kate just kept driving, it never would. She steered the minivan past the high school, beyond the university, all the way out of Sparta, on an improvised odyssey. Who knows where it might take them? Maybe all the way to Maya’s imaginary city.
Sharon Harrigan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative, Slice, Pearl, Pleiades, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Mid American Review, Rain Taxi, Silk Road, Hip Mama, and Apercus Quarterly. She has a B.A. in English from Columbia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. She is a contributing editor for Silk Road and a contributor and book reviewer for The Nervous Breakdown. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and received the Joyce Horton Johnson Award from Key West Literary Seminar. She writes a blog about Paris at www.sharonharrigan.net/blog.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I like to take risks, and the risk for me in this story was to take a sacred subject (the World Trade Center bombing) and give it a profane treatment. I also wondered what would happen if the teen posturing I often overheard went too far.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: My MFA professors: Pam Houston, Benjamin Percy, Jack Driscoll, John Rember, and Bonnie Jo Campbell. A few others inspiring my work right now: Brady Udall, Justin Torres, Nick Flynn, Cheryl Strayed, Jess Walters, and Ben Fountain.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: I love to close the door, draw the shades, and block out the world when I write. My favorite place of all is the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Q: When did you know you would be a writer?
A: I’ve written, studied, and published poetry seriously since I was fourteen but only started writing fiction recently.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My coming-of-age novel about Detroit is almost finished. I’ve started a second novel about twins, written in the first-person plural, and a memoir about Paris.