The Joy of Lying - by Paul Michael Peters
The Joy of Lying - by Paul Michael Peters
Dillon Wainwright is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, living alone, gaming with his old college friends in his off-hours, working as a data cruncher during the day.
On the Friday night that the novella begins, he goes out late to get some food and stumbles upon his old girlfriend, Haley Segal, who broke his heart a year before by storming out after a fight and never coming back.
He’s surprised to see her, surprised he hasn’t seen her before, and during the course of a conversation, he discovers that she’s homeless and has been living on the streets of Austin for the past year.
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At the second stomach pang, I set down the video controller and look for my keys. It’s normal for me to game for three hours straight on a Friday night after work, but now it’s getting late. The places within walking distance to grab something to eat will start to close unless I get out the door.
My keys are not in the kitchen; I’ve avoided going in there, for at least the last week. Something is growing in the sink aside from the pile of dishes.
They’re on the landing, in the basket by the door, just where I left them. Keys in hand, jacket slipped on, I realize it’s too late for what I crave, the smoked chicken sub from ThunderClouds. It’s a hike to the Burrito Factory, but they are so good. There’s always the Big Bite, which is closer and likely slow before the post-bar crowd arrives, but there’s always a chance I’ll run into someone from the old gang there. And I’m not interested in seeing anyone from the old gang ever again. Burrito Factory it is.
The little two-by-one I rent in the student ghetto off-campus near The Drag has done me well over the years. This neighborhood hasn’t changed much. The rent stays low. Walking to work takes about as long as it did to get to some of my classes. The one semester when I had to hoof it to Hargis Hall at nine in the morning was about as bad as it ever got.
It’s been cold the last few days, cold for Austin. The steak dinner from the Burrito Factory would warm me right up. The burritos are amazing, too, with extra salsa and avocado on the side; that’s a real meal. Tacos al pastor—oh, just thinking about it makes me want to hurry.
The chime in my pocket goes off, and I pull out the phone.
"Dude u logged off @ the worst time - missed all good action."
It’s Seth. He and Luke were part of my unit moving in on the hostile alien horde. The multi-player action that fills our free time has become a bit of an obsession for Seth. I know what it’s like. He’s where I was last year, recently heartbroken and looking to fill his head and heart with something other than “the one” who ruined everything. For Seth, it was a guy named Brandon who pulled out his heart, stomped on it with cleats, and left it there to bake under the hot Texas sun. Seth went through a long and tortuous three months when they attempted to solve their difficulties through various changes and compromises, but the two eventually thought it best to separate when Seth left for Chicago. My injuries were from a short, quick, deep incision by a woman that felt like an amputation of my heart – it was unexplained, with a prolonged recovery.
"Dude," which is how nearly all text messages between us start. "Starving. Burrito Factory."
"Dude - so miss that place," he replies.
Gaming has allowed Seth, Luke, and me to remain connected. After graduation, Luke went home to Dallas and took a job. Recently, Seth moved to Chicago for something full time. Our weekends have not changed in the last three years. We still game, but from different cities, not the same room. Luke and Seth were lucky to have gotten work. Most people I went to school with moved back home without a job or had to go back for an advanced degree because the choice was a crap job, no job, or continue school. None of the choices could pay back student loans.
As I’m heading south down Guadaloop, to the little mall where Burrito Factory, a true gem of off-campus dining, is hidden in the back corner, something, someone catches my attention. On the bench, next to the Street Youth Ministry, watching the bus stop from the shadows, dressed in dark colors and a dirty orange UT Longhorns ball cap, sits a young woman.
I stop cold in my tracks when I recognize her. "Haley?"
She looks down and to her right, avoiding eye contact, the bill of the cap used as a shield.
"Haley, I know it’s you," I say.
She looks up and smiles. It’s the false smile she gives when pretending things are fine. It’s the same smile I have noted and tracked since first meeting her freshman year. A smile I have measured in an accumulation of microseconds during years of dating I thought would last a lifetime. The smile I had come to love and know intimately after years of living together. It was an artifact of friendship and lost love.
"Hey, Dillon," she says with that pleasing perky sound she had when saying my name.
"What are you doing out tonight?"
She thinks, she looks at me, she looks down at herself, she looks at the bench and says with a bland tone, "Out for a run."
Her black sweatpants and layers of tops could confirm that, but I don’t believe her. "Taking a break?"
Her answers arrive slowly, hidden, guarded. "Yeah, I, well, my knee has been tricky. So I wanted to rest for a few minutes."
Her dark outfit, her choice of a bench, away from the street, in the shadows from the street lights, suggests she is hiding.
"How have you been?" I ask.
There’s no energy in her reply. "Good, I've been good." It’s not convincing.
"It’s been a while," I say.
"Yeah, a while."
Something isn’t right. There’s something she’s not saying. It may be that she isn’t interested in talking to me. There’s a flash of hard feelings, and I feel like a sleepwalking man, dangerous to wake. I try to avoid the riptide of emotions that will sweep me up in a strong current. Just seeing her, hearing her, I suspect she is going through the same.
"All right, well," I say, taking a few steps away from her, away from the darkness, and back into the light.
"It sure gets dark early," I hear her say. The words draw me back.
"Going to be Thanksgiving soon. That was always your favorite."
"Yeah, in two weeks. That’s why it gets dark so early. Daylight Savings is over."
"Oh, yeah," she says. Her voice is small and distant in the darkness. "What day is it?"
"I knew that."
"Haley, you mind if I sit a spell with you?"
"Sure, yeah, go ahead." Her body scoots half an inch, making room on her side of the bench.
As I sit down, the smell hits me. "How far did you run?"
"You said you’d been out for a run. How far did you get?"
"Oh, yeah, that. I did a few miles."
"You been here long?"
"On this bench?"
"A while. Just resting. Thinking."
"Haley, I think you’re lying to me. You don’t seem yourself. You have this fog about you."
"I’m fine, just fine."
"If you were out for a run, where’s your iPod? Your water bottle?"
From the other side of the courtyard of the Youth Ministry building, a dark hulking figure rises from the opposite bench. The shadow morphs from a still-distant statue to a wall of a man that fills my field of vision. In a deep masculine voice, he says, "You all right, Haley? He bothering you?"
"I'm fine, Mox, just fine. He’s an old friend. We’re just chatting."
Mox leans forward. I see a part of his fasce in the sliver of a streetlight, a sun-beaten face, with sharp cheekbones, taut skin, and a snarl to his lips, which part to expose gaps where teeth should be. "You say the word, Haley. I got your six."
"Thanks, Mox," she says. She dismisses her junkyard dog. "I’m fine. Thank you."
Mox turns slowly to meander back to his spot.
My concern for my safety and my bias against his class are clear. "Why are you friends with that guy? How do you know him? Isn't he, like, homeless or something?"
"He is. He keeps an eye on me. We look out for each other," she says.
"You look out for each other?"
I can hear the deep breath, the gulp in her throat that follows. Words force past her lips as an admission. "I’m homeless too, Dillon."
It had been fourteen months since we’d last spoken, Haley and I. The last words she said rang loudly in my head for many months that followed—lazy, no good, only plays video games, liar. Only this summer did the ringing of that knockout blow start to fade. I am not a liar.
I speak evenly, calmly, try to understand. "You said I was immature, a man-child, and you couldn't live with me, couldn't live like that. Is this what you wanted? To be on the street? Is this what you needed? More independence?"
Her head tilts down her chin to her chest. A headlight from a passing car catches the tear rolling down her cheek, just right for me to see it drop for her face. "No," she says. "This isn’t what I planned. Nothing turned out as I planned." Her voice is soft and nearly lost in the night.
"Are you hungry? Because I’m hungry, I could eat. Let me buy you dinner. We can catch up. How does that sound?"
She looks up. Our eyes connect. A flood of memories washes through my mind in a deluge of joy and hurt, and love. The tear has stirred something in me. The sleepwalker has awakened. I had seen those blue eyes look at me a million times, but never like this. Never so deep in their sockets, darkness surrounding them, longing for something.
"Yes, please. That would be nice. Wait here. I’ll ask Mox to watch my stuff."
She rises gently from the bench and makes her way over to Mox with care. I can see her talk to him, stooping down in a subservient way, explaining the details of what she will be doing, setting expectations of the time, and his acknowledgment of the situation.
"Everything okay with Mox?" I ask on her return.
"He’ll watch my stuff," she says.
Her pace is slow. Not the careless leisurely stroll one would take on a Sunday morning around Town Lake. It’s the conservation of energy, the economy of time. Each step burns calories; each action is a measurement until the next, a moment passed and then another.
"I was heading to Burrito Factory. Does that sound good? Or would you like to go somewhere else?" I ask.
"That sounds good," she says.
"Only two blocks, not too bad."
We say little in those two blocks. We pass by shops that we had once been in together. These are streets where we had once held hands. One drunken night after the bar, I kissed her in the alley up away. All those little moments had haunted me over the last fourteen months. Each time I left the apartment, her ghost seemed to linger on every street corner; a memory might pop out like a fun house skeleton, ready to make my poor heart race.
Entering the little Dobie Mall, she tugs down at the bill of her hat, makes certain she can’t make eye contact, and she’s safe behind her shield. Then, her little hand finds its way around my arm, locked in place like a time now gone.
"I’ve had a little trouble here," she says. "If we look like we’re together, they won't see me."
"Oh, sure, yeah."
I feel her grip tighten as we get closer to the food court and approach the counter. I look up at all the delicious fresh options in front of me. The guy behind the counter has been there all the years I’ve known the place. With a friendly nod, I say howdy. His smile flips into a grimace when he sees Haley.
"She with you?" he asks.
"Yeah, she's with me," I say.
"You have money this time?" he asks.
I say, "I have money, it's on me."
"Okay, okay, what can I get you?"
"So many awesome choices," I say. "Let's do the torta supreme number five, with extra pico and red sauce."
She looks at me and asks, "Is it okay if we get something for Mox too?"
"Sure, yeah, great idea," I say.
"Could we please also have two steak burritos, extra meat, extra vegetables?"
Behind the counter, the man writes down the order. In a few minutes, we have our food; we add a few bottles of Coke, a couple of bottles of water, and start to ring up the transaction.
"You are going to eat outside," he states. The smell I had gotten accustomed to has caught his attention. Haley’s odor is a pungent mix of body and street.
"Yes, we’re having this to go," I say.
Haley looks away, then steps away. It’s not very polite conversation. While I understand the reasons the man tells us we will be eating outside, I do not like it. There are enough people in my life telling me how to live it. Two people specifically, my mother and father, have a strong belief that they have the right to tell me what I can and cannot do. That’s sufficient. I don’t let this get to me, don’t want to make a scene, although it would be easy to, and justifiable.
"Haley?" I call.
She is already walking away from the counter, out of the food court, and heading to the main floor. I’m able to catch up to her slow pace with ease, even with my hands full of bags of food.
"Do you want to go back to Mox? Or do you want to eat out front?"
"Let's go back to Mox," she says. "He’s already doing me a solid, and he’s pretty hungry."
She opens one of the Cokes and starts to drink. After a few steps, the sugar begins mixing with her blood, providing new energy. Her mind seems to focus on the two blocks now that she has something in her.
Haley looked thin in the lights of the Dobie Mall when we had entered. I did not say anything at the time but noted just how fragile she seemed. Her hat, downturned head, dark, heavy layers, all hid something that I’d missed in the shadows of the Youth Ministry courtyard. She seemed hollow, like one of the cheap chocolate Easter bunnies I would get as a kid. With a single bite into the shell, it would crumble. So I needed to be gentle. I did not want to break her.
She gives Mox the white container with his supper. He also gets two bottles of Coke. He is very appreciative.
When we return to the bench where I found her earlier, she is very interested in her supper. If she’d been alone, she might have shoveled it all in her mouth as quickly as possible. I could see the polite self-imposed restraint needed to eat one plastic forkful at a time.
"If I eat too fast, I get an upset stomach," she says.
"I can imagine. If I eat on an empty stomach, I get all kinds of trouble."
Her expression is a familiar one. I can hear her ask the question without saying a word: "When was the last time you had an empty stomach?" I feel bad for having said it, ashamed of saying it to her, knowing now what she must be facing. She did not say a word, just gave me a look. Her expression changes and I know she has already forgiven me for being the idiot inconsiderate man-child we both know I am.
"How are you feeling?" I ask.
"Good, I feel good," she says.
"I believe you."
"You didn't before?"
"No, when I first saw you, you had no energy; you were a lump on this bench."
"Thank you for dinner."
"My pleasure. You’re welcome."
"Thank you for Mox's dinner."
"It's no problem. I mean, you’re welcome."
"Yeah, I was wrong to correct you before, I was wrong about so many things. You can say ‘no problem’ as much as you want."
"But you were right: ‘you're welcome’ is the proper thing to say."
"Thank you for saying that," she says.
Halfway through my number five, my appetite is gone. The things she said to me in the past have proved to be correct. Once she was gone, there was time to think about it. I was eating out of habit, not hunger. I am not hungry right now.
"Would you like the rest of my food?" I ask.
She looks up from her empty container. "Are you done?"
"I am. Would you like it?"
"Please," she says.
I watch her dig in, her fork striking a vein of gooey cheese, pulled out in a string and wrapped around the fork to a bite-size piece. I see her counting each bite, chewing at least eight times, before swallowing and finding another forkful.
Gently, I say, "Do you mind if I ask you some questions?"
She looks at me while chewing. I can see her jaw work with each bite. Her once-soft features are now hard. Some women spend months in the gym and on calorie-controlled shakes with juice cleansing to have cheekbones that well-defined.
Watching her eat, I add, "I mean, well, you don't owe me answers. This isn’t an exchange where you should feel you owe me anything; it's just that I haven't talked to you in over a year, and I have questions."
"You can ask. I might not answer some, but you can ask," she says.
"What happened? What happened to you after the fight? I thought I would see you again."