"I hate trying on dresses. Your fat hangs out everywhere, and these lights make your skin look gray." It was my mother speaking from within the fitting room of our favorite department store, where she was trying on dresses for her 40th high school reunion.
I was along to give advice, to eavesdrop on my mother as she talked to herself. While waiting, I gazed at myself in one of the mirrors. It was one of those trick mirrors that makes you look 10 pounds lighter. It was placed there to sell more dresses, but it offended me. I have no desire to be seduced by a lie, not even a kind one. I smile at myself and wonder one more time, who is that woman staring back at me? She doesn't look a thing like me. I would say that she looks like my mother, but my mother doesn't look like herself anymore. So that comparison isn't exactly the truth, and the older I grow the more I crave the truth, not the literal or exact truth -- the essence of truth, which is quite a different thing.
"That one didn't do either," she says. I hear the hanger hitting the hook on the wall.
"You need anything?" I ask, but I do not peep inside to see what my mother is trying on now. She is peculiar about trying on clothes. She doesn't like for anyone to witness the changes taking place in there. It's not modesty. It is, I think, that she has a vision of herself and of how she wants to look, and only she can judge whether the image in the glass comes close enough to masquerade as the truth. When shopping, she takes in an armload of possibilities, and she only comes out when one might do the trick.
"Well?" She says, holding up her hands in an awkward model pose. She is wearing an ice-blue suit with rhinestone buttons. The color is pretty, but the style is too glamorous for a small-town high school reunion. Besides, it doesn't look like my mother. She looks like the Church Lady dressed up as Joan Collins.
"Mmmmm. I don't know about that one," I lie. It is all wrong, but she will decide this for herself soon enough.
The saleswoman comes back. She clatters on old-fashioned spike heels. When she gets near a wall or a door, she leans. Her hair is a black, well-sprayed beehive that juts out in direct proportion to her behind. I wonder what kind of an image she has of herself to dress that way.
She doesn't wait to be asked her opinion of the ice-blue suit. "Oooooh," she moans. "That's perfect. You can wear it to a dance or to church. Dress it up or dress it down." My mother revolves. "I would never wear this to church. I'm going to my high school reunion at a country club." And then, as if Mother thinks that her comment has been too abrupt, she attempts to salve the saleswoman's feelings with a bit of gossip, "There's this girl, I'm not going to say her name out loud in case any of her kinfolk are in one of those rooms. . . . " When my mother begins to speak, the other fitting rooms go quiet. Everyone stops changing costumes to listen. Mother winks at me.
"This old girl says that she's not coming to the high school reunion, because she says that she can't hold her stomach in for two days. She doesn't want everyone to see how fat she has gotten. Can you imagine that?" My mother inhales and tugs at the blue jacket, which is a bit too snug across the back. She is short-waisted and is mature enough to accept that the backs of jackets will wrinkle at her waist. We do not consider this a flaw when judging a potential costume.
"What size is that you've got on?" The beehive misses my mother's point. She impertinently asks, "Do you need a larger size?"
My mother is shocked. There are some questions that no one should ask out loud. This is one of them. Mother went back into her fitting room, hissing, "I do not know what size this is."
I start to laugh but stop myself. My mother asks salespeople for size 12 and then, she helps herself to the next larger size, "Just in case," she says. "I like my clothes roomy."
I almost call her on it now, this lie. I almost say, "Now that's a lie, Mama. You do too know what size that is." But this is the kind of lie that we tell in my family and which we think will not be held against us on Judgment Day. Our periodic discussion of these kinds of lies goes like this: People catch you off-guard and ask you a question that's none of their damn business. You wouldn't lie to them if you had more time to think up something to say. You answer them with something that may not be the truth, well, it's a lie; but it's the same thing as shooting someone who attacks you: justifiable homicide. Telling lies like this one is simply self-defense.