Every parent has a pet peeve. My mother’s is dishonesty. In her house, even the little white lies never went unnoticed. Sometimes she would pounce and catch me in the midst of telling a grandiose fabrication. But other times, she would catch a lie on her tongue, roll it around in her mouth, and chew on it for a few days before spitting it back in a heated argument years later. The woman was a lioness. She preyed on the truth and tore apart lies with just a single whiff of suspicion.
I remember that one night when I was eight years old, and I snuck into our kitchen in search of something that might silence my grumbling stomach. We lived in a large condo at the time, cold brick and castle-like, my parents on the third floor, and my brother and I on the first. The kitchen rested on the second floor, nestled conveniently between us so I could sneak out for snacks if I so happened to stay up past my bedtime, most likely engrossed in a fairy tale collection. My mother always said Chinese girls shouldn’t read fairy tales. She said they could poison the mind with whimsical happily-ever-afters.
Still, I know she used to read them too.
My mother never kept much food in the cupboards. The one thing kept in surplus was fruit because it’s the only sweet food she likes and because it was the easiest thing to find in Los Angeles. She’d often substitute our dessert for a platter of peeled and cored fruit, not that I really minded. That night, I found an apple. Fuji, of course, from the local Chinese supermarket. I devoured the fruit quickly, juice dribbling down my chin, then I tossed the core on the jade-green countertop and wiped my hands on my father’s bamboo placemats, which he often used to mold rice.
In the morning, I woke up to the sound of angry shouting in Mandarin. My brother and I crawled out of bed to find my mother, red-faced in the kitchen, hovering over a browned, rotting apple core. She demanded to know who had left the fruit undisposed, and I quickly pointed at my little brother.
Perhaps she detected a hint of the lie in my eyes, or my voice, or whatever sorcery it is that mothers possess. Regardless of the clue, she proceeded to investigate, pulling my lips apart and fitting the oxidized apple core to my teeth. I remember feeling the cold flesh of the fruit against my young teeth and tasting the bitterness of the rotting flesh. But my protests were quickly muffled because the core fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper — a perfect match — only this time, I was no princess.
I was a liar.
In that moment, my mother spoke to me plainly, her voice so devastatingly calm that it would’ve frightened any eight-year-old girl, "In China, good daughters never lie to their family."
Being young and naive, I thought that would be the last time I ever lied to my mother. But as I got older, it happened again and again, with a seemingly exponential increase in frequency.
I lied often when I told her I was going to sleep, and sometimes she would catch a quick glimpse of me online and reprimand me. I lied about my grades and my feedback from instructors. I lied about my habits, what I ate for lunch, or if I ate at all. There were the big lies, and the little. The imaginary friends, and the very real boyfriends. All of this, she was able to eventually unveil. And with every lie, I felt a piece of lead enter its way into my heart, settle on the squelching valves, and weigh me down in cold, heavy guilt.
Why the petty lies? I never really knew. It was an automated, sequential response really, always beginning with my breath getting shallow and my eyelids starting to flutter. Then the lie would spill out of my mouth like poison. Maybe I lied because I was afraid. I was afraid of not being the perfect daughter. I was afraid of shattering the glass slipper. And so I lied because every lie rouged my cheeks with painted perfection, and I thought, just maybe, that she wouldn’t see through it. I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense. Lying about who left an apple core on a countertop makes no sense either.
But there is one lie that does.
I’m alright, Mom.