The Book of Lies

When Shlomi was little we wrote the Book of Lies for him. It was a joke when it started—it was late, he was sleeping, and we were both too drunk for a Tuesday night. I was giving a lecture about lying to kids, how bad it felt jamming all those untruths into his head. That odd little, balloon-shaped, question-filled head. “I don’t understand why we have to lie to him at all, frankly. Couldn’t we just decide to tell him the truth?”

Tami and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Still, it’s not a joke,” I said. “He’ll grow up with all these lies in his head, and we’ll never remember to fish them out again.”

Tami bit the edge of her lip—her thing when she’s making a joke or trying to be tactful. “We should make a book for him, a Little Book of Lies. And when he’s eighteen we’ll let him read them, one by one. And we write the truth underneath.”

It was the least we could do for him, I said, and Tami couldn’t back down now, so we found an old notebook and she began to decorate it.

14th June, 2019, I wrote. “The vacuum cleaner is a monster”: it’s not a monster, really. We just wanted you out of the way while we cleaned.

While I cleaned, wrote Tami, and laughed.

We handed the pen back and forth, the way you pass a joint I guess, though I wouldn’t know—my parents told me that if I ever did drugs I’d die in the gutter. Another lie. Another lie that, in its own small way, shaped my life.

“It’s illegal to get out of bed before 5am on a weekend”: although that didn’t stop you crawling into my bed at 4 o’clock every Saturday morning for months.

“The reason Santa can’t visit our house is that we don’t have a chimney”: you’ve probably figured this one out by now.

“Your teeth all fall out if you eat chocolate.”

“I mean, they will in the long run,” said Tami.

“Just because we were lying doesn’t mean it isn’t true, I suppose. One more for tonight?”

“Your granddad lived on a spaceship”: the year you were four, you’d ask for the same story every night—the one about granddad the great explorer, travelling through the galaxy, the first to set foot on each of the planets. That was the best way we had of explaining why you never saw him.

I imagined Shlomi, too many years from now, reading this book with us.

Tami was still beautiful; I was only slightly balder. Shlomi looked like I did once, but kinder, less afraid. He was laughing away with his dad and mum: teasing us over the Sock Fairy, denying he’d ever, ever thought turkey was a fish. We were old friends growing old together. He still loved us. He was never mad over any of the lies.

Wednesday morning, the alarm woke me at 6.30. The hangover was mild, but I had to swallow a couple of painkillers before I could face waking Shlomi and the whole routine of getting him ready for school again. Breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, hair combed (more or less), bag packed, laces tied…Each item ticked off the list until the next morning, when we’d rinse, quite literally, and repeat.

Tami was still in bed when I got back; I mopped up the three miniature lakes of milk on the kitchen table, navigating around the island formed by Shlomi’s breakfast bowl. I slotted the bowl and his plastic cup into the top shelf of the dishwasher.

By the time I’d showered the hangover had pretty much evaporated, and I remembered a shower-lie that I’d meant to add to Shlomi’s book—how we told him that if he took too long there’d be no water left for the fish and the sharks. Still wrapped in a towel, I dripped my way through the house, took The Book out of its drawer, and flipped it open. Where I’d expected a blank space, there was a paragraph of Tami’s elaborately precise handwriting. A new lie:

“Mummy slept great last night”: at least two days each week, Mummy feels as though she didn’t sleep at all. This is the way it always starts: Mummy lies in bed terrified by the idea that tonight she won’t be able to sleep. Then her thoughts run down some of the paths that thoughts aren’t supposed to run down, but she still tries to tell herself that tonight will be different. Tonight she won’t have to get out of bed and walk to the window and stare at the cars slipping past into darkness. But then she realises that she’s been awake so long that nothing makes sense except getting out of bed and walking to the window…

I guess I knew, but I didn’t know I knew, or I didn’t want to know I knew.

The lie about the fish and the sharks felt inadequate, now. One lie from Tami had turned The Book into something I’d never intended it to be. I sucked the pen for a moment then wrote:

“Daddy came into the room to make sure your curtains were closed”: at least once a night I’m gripped by a panicked feeling that suddenly you’re not breathing anymore, that the reason I hear nothing when I stop by your door and listen is that there’s nothing left to hear. Sometimes I manage to convince myself that you’re fine, but other times I have to run to your bed and check, lean over and see the soft rise and fall of your chest, stand there and listen to you breathing—the breaths that on your first night were just a series of soft squeaks, barely perceptible, more animal than human. And if you wake and see me, I can’t bear to tell the truth, can’t bear to let you know how much I worry.

I was nervous the next time I opened the book, wondering exactly what kind of lie I’d discover, or what kind of truth. Another paragraph in Tami’s immaculate script:

“Mummy’s not thinking about anything”: Mummy is thinking about something. She’s remembering the day the letter came, and the rush of elation when she opened it. Is Mummy imagining that she even knocked over her chair in the excitement? She can hear the clatter of it on the floor, anyway…Everything paid as long as the grades stayed high enough, and of course the grades would stay high enough. A new country and a new life. And Mummy did start a new life that year, but it wasn’t in a new country. Here’s a truth that we probably never told you: things don’t work out the way you dream they will.

I gulped. I didn’t want Shlomi to grow up thinking that we’d ever had to sacrifice anything for him: he was everything I ever wanted, we were everything I ever wanted. I picked up the pen.

“You can be anything you want so long as you’re happy”: we want you to do well in life, but doing well means realising that family matters more than work ever will. Sometimes you’ll be happy together, sometimes you’ll be sad together. But the important thing is that you’re always together. You can quit your job, but you can’t quit your family.

I don’t know whether I was expecting a reply, but I got one:

“You can be anything you want so long as you’re happy”: I want you to be a success, whatever that takes. I want you to have the life I couldn’t.

For some reason, I started laughing. There was so much unexpected bitterness behind Tami’s nighttime entries, and I needed her to know that she could talk to me about anything. Actually talk, rather than writing in Shlomi’s book:

“If you have a problem, just talk about it. Talking will make it better”: Talking doesn’t always make things better, but it’s always a start—a first step towards finding a solution. The longer you stay silent about something that’s bothering you, the heavier it feels; it takes two people to lift a weight.

Another night, another day, and another paragraph of Tami’s elaborate little letters:

“If you have a problem, just talk about it. Talking will make it better”: Nobody will ever understand you, really. You think you’re speaking the same language, that you finally found someone who thinks like you do, but it’s just a coincidence that your words align sometimes. And yet you’re both nodding excitedly at each other, because you think you’ve finally found someone who actually understands.

That day, Shlomi was quiet on the walk home from school. I couldn’t help imagining he’d already been reading The Little Book of Lies and absorbing Tami’s worldview, somehow. I let the walk pass in silence, not commenting on Shlomi swinging his library bag into my knee with every couple of steps, and only spoke to him once we were home.

I couldn’t help smiling when he told me. Of course I knew about Yael, she’d been his “girlfriend” for almost four days already, a lifetime at his age. But today she’d tried to “kiss him in real”, and he had run away in disgust and hidden behind the teacher. It took all my self-control to nod sagely while he talked about it, to say it was okay, that kissing was fine but not-kissing was also fine, and that it didn’t matter what anyone else said. As soon as he was in bed, I went straight to The Book:

“Kissing is fine but not-kissing is fine too”: Shlomi, where do we begin with this one? Sex: it’s a funny thing, really. One day it’ll take over your life, somehow it’ll sneak into every part of it. But now you run away when a girl tries to kiss you.

I knew it would lighten the mood—even Tami couldn’t help finding it cute and funny. The next day I opened the book, and:

“Sex: it’s a funny thing, really”: Sex is…complicated. Sometimes you’ll like it and sometimes you won’t. You’ll think that won’t affect you, but it will. You’ll burn days of your life, your beautiful life, eating yourself up that you did something wrong. Berating yourself that you can’t shake the afterimage. You’ll never know what she’s thinking, or what she really wants from you; you’ll lie there, silent, trying to bridge an unbridgeable gap. And you’ll still be you, and you’ll still be alone.

If she felt this way, why did she never say anything? Why did she wait to just passive-aggressively write it in Shlomi’s book? I replied:

“The gap between people is unbridgeable”: the gap between people is NEVER unbridgeable, you just have to put in the effort to talk to each other. Like Mummy and Daddy: they made a promise never to give up on each other, and they’ll always be there for each other, and always be there for you!

But Tami wouldn’t let it rest there.

“Mummy and Daddy will always be here for you.” Mummy and Daddy won’t always be here; maybe we’ll be gone much sooner than you think. And you know what? Some days that’s the only thought that gets you through the days, the months. That it’ll all be over eventually. Death is the quiet release from suffering.

God, Tami—what did she really know about death? She served in an office park in the suburbs, the biggest risk she ever faced was over-caffeinating. I raised the pen, like a general signing an order.

“Death is the quiet release from suffering”. People don’t die quietly; they die slowly, helplessly, gasping up at you, like fish at the market, drowning in air. Unless they live to see the hospital, and they’re shot full of morphine, and they spend their last hours on a sugar-lined dream. One white tree in the middle of a snowfall.

I was breathing heavily by now, short sharp breaths, as if I was running out.

And the older you get, the nearer we are.

I woke up the next day and looked in the book, there was nothing new added in there. I went about my day: Shlomi to school, coffee, coffee, shower, tidy, Shlomi again. I asked him how things were with Yael, but he’d already forgotten about kissing-in-real; today he was happy because he’d scored two goals. None of it really mattered, actually, none of the lies or truths, because he didn’t even remember one day to the next. In the evening again there was nothing new from Tami; there was nothing the day after, and nothing the day after that. Eventually I had to admit it wasn’t coming.

I caved, capitulated…I needed to have the final word. Write one last thing that won every argument decisively. A grand statement. A page that would teach Shlomi every lesson he needed to get through life. But I stared and stared, and rolled the pen from finger to finger, over, under, over, under, and nothing came to me. If not a page at the end of the book, then maybe an inscription on the inside cover…What was one more lie among so many?

For Shlomi, on your 18th Birthday.
We’ll give you this book no matter how much it hurts.

Jacob Silkstone has worked as an editor for Asymptote and The Missing Slate, and is currently based in Norway.

Uri Bram is the publisher of The Browser and the author of Thinking Statistically (described as “one of the 99 best business books of all time”) and The Business of Big Data.

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