When I first told my dad about the group Liabilities, he didn't believe me. In fact, he thought I was outright lying. But don't get me wrong; he had every right to think such a thought, for I am "truly" a pathological liar. It is a recurring trait of my personality that I've never been able to shake all my twenty-something years on this earth.
Just before I graduated high school and moved off to college, we were still a family of four living in Reseda. Our house was a quaint three-bedroom redbrick home in the suburbs on a quiet street and set nicely back from the road, providing an excellent childhood front play yard. Our family consisted of my parents, Bruce and Brenda, my sister Raquel (I call her Charlene-I don't know why), and myself. My name is Gabriel. We also have two and a half pets-a cat we call Limbo, a turtle my sister named Envy, and a giant moose head hanging over the mantle of the fireplace. I guess you could say it's not quite a half, and not truly a pet, but I still talk to it occasionally and he seldom replies. You can believe me or not. Remember, I lie.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that I have gotten myself into quite a lot of trouble growing up due to my unfortunate love (or addiction) to falsehood. I brought home so many letters from the principal when I was in elementary school that my parents wondered what I was lying about on the days I didn't have one. The apex of my misadventures came one day when my sister and I were being mean to each other. When she wanted to mess with someone, she would sneak up behind them and grab whatever they were holding just to run off and hide it.
I was sitting in the living room recliner reading a tattered paperback novel that I'd recently bought on the quarter table at the used bookstore. Suddenly, the book disappeared out of my hands.
"Snatch!" my sister shouted as she ran off to bury her newest plunder.
"Charlene!" I leapt out of the chair and went after her. She'd run into the bathroom and was in the process of dumping my book in the laundry hamper when I appeared at the doorway. "Give it back!" I shouted a little too loudly.
She twirled around and dropped the book, only not into the hamper. It fell into the open bowl of the toilet with a disheartening splush. I closed my eyes in frustration, wishing that I would have already moved off into my own apartment. Dad came up behind me and peered over my shoulder. He noticed my sister begin to cry and my angered expression.
"Raquel, what did you take?" he asked.
I held up a reassuring hand and told him we were just playing around and she accidentally dropped my book in the toilet, no big deal. These things happen, after all. He nodded the way parents tend to when their kids torment each other. After he was gone, I stepped into the small bathroom and peered into the toilet to observe my paperback. My first impression was that it was a giant moth with wings spread and legs flailing, trying not to drown. I just left it there to flounder while I bent down and looked into my sister's dampened eyes.
"Don't worry about it, sis," I said. "I know you can't help the way you are."
With the veneer of compassion, I proceeded to inform her that she was different than the rest of us because Mom and Dad had adopted her after her real parents left her on our doorstep when she was just a baby. Her real parents were jewel thieves who pirated the West Coast on an emerald sailboat called The Shard, anchoring at various coves and bays to rob the rich while they slept. They came to Reseda to stash their loot in a safe place. Her "real" mom had just given birth to her and they just didn't want the burden of trying to raise a child when they were having so much fun as pirates. "That's why I call you Charlene," I whispered by her ear. She'd stopped crying and now eyed me with quarter-sized orbs of white shock. "It was on the note your real parents left for us to read, but Mom wanted to rename you Raquel."
I stood up then, assured that my revenge had effectively redeemed the loss of my captivating novel. Snatch! I thought, smiling.
But from the floor of the bathroom, Raquel screamed at the top of her lungs. It was the last straw for my parents.
They sat me down at the dining table that night and told me that after all these years I shouldn't be lying all the time. It was time I sought out some kind of therapy that would work as a kind of circuit judge in my brain; something to keep me focused on the truth, not the lie. "It's your responsibility, son," my dad said, tossing me the yellow pages. "We're going to let you do this yourself-for now, at least." I spent the next few days skimming through those pages and wincing at the idea of actually calling a psychologist.
After putting it off long enough, I was eating breakfast one morning and scanning the local section of the newspaper. Under the "upcoming events" listing I read an ad for a new forming of something called Liabilities. The description was vague, but the words "for liars and storytellers" jumped out at me. Apparently it was some kind of group club, but I was sure it was probably something like AA where you had to stand up in front of everyone and say something like "Hello, my name is Gabriel and I am a liar." I wasn't excited about this discovery, but it seemed a lesser evil than talking to a doctor, so I committed myself to attend the first meeting, which was being held at the community college.
That first night, I walked through the door and stepped into the fluorescent-lighted room, noticing at least a dozen other individuals already occupying small desks. A few of them had laptop computers and the rest sported notebooks and pens. Immediately, I was concerned that I had arrived unprepared and would be sent away. The article didn't say anything about supplies needed. What drew me to an empty desk, however, was the fact that the room wasn't set up as a ring of plastic chairs facing each other. After a few minutes of checking my watch and nodding to the others around me, a tall guy with shoulder-length hair and a thin beard stepped up to the front of the room and addressed us.
"Welcome to Liabilities. My name is Mark. This is our first meeting and we will stick with this schedule-Tuesdays at seven pm if that's okay with everyone." General agreement hummed through the room, myself exuding a positive bobble-head nod. What the heck, right?
"For those of you who aren't familiar with the club Liabilities, this is a creative writing group that focuses on writing and sharing short fiction. Each week we will discuss a topic and each one of you has the following six days to write your creative fiction. We will then discuss each other's stories and often read them aloud for critique."
My stomach does a dive into the pool of disappointment and my first instinct is to run out of there. I've never committed to anything productive before, not that I think so at least, and tonight didn't seem like the time to start. I wait until the Facilitator, Mark, turns to the dry-erase board to write something before stepping to the side of my desk and getting up. Confident no one sees me, I turn and make a beeline for the exit.
"Gabriel." I hear my name and freeze, instantly tempted to sprint towards the red eyes of the glowing exit sign. But all I do is stop in that spot, still facing away from what must be twenty pairs of eyes turned towards my back. I say nothing.
"We still have forty-eight minutes left," says Mark.
Eyeing the crash bar of the door like a chocoholic eyes a piece of devil's food cake, I say, "I have to visit my mom. She's in the hospital. I almost forgot visiting hours are almost over."
"I don't believe you, Gabriel."
I turn, infuriated at his impudence. "Excuse me? You don't even know me."
Mark took a few steps away from the front of the room, calm eyes seeing into my own. "Perhaps you are lashing out for any excuse to leave this course," he said. "Maybe you've failed in the past to fulfill commitments, showing others that you can be a responsible young person. Now that you know this is a creative writing class that will demand many finished products, you don't think you have what it takes. You doubt yourself completely."
"I-I do not." Everyone is looking at me, intent. The room seems too warm at this point. "I'm telling the truth."
"But I don't believe you," Mark crosses his arms. "I think your mother is at home, safe and sound, baking a shepherd's pie for dinner as we speak."
I don't know how he could possibly know that, or know anything about me. But I know this man, whom I just laid eyes on no more than ten minutes ago, owns me. My self-will cracks a little and my eyes slide left and right, glancing off of the other members of the class. A few of them are wide-eyed and seem to wonder what's going to happen next. The rest project a blanket expression of confusion.
"I have to be at the hospital in thirty minutes or they won't let me see her."
"She's not at the hospital, Gabriel."
"Yes, she is!" I know my face is red, but I don't care. Who is this man anyway?
"Wrong answer. She is at home, preparing a meal for your family and planning it to be ready by the time you get back. Now-where is your mother?"
I shift feet, grinding my teeth in a gulping swell of emotion. "She-she's at home cook-"
"Wrong answer again," Mark pointed a finger towards me, narrowing his eyes. There was something in them that reminded me of the old sly fox. "You said she's in the hospital. That's the truth as you want me to believe it. Convince me."
"She was in a car accident."
"Bull," said Mark, bridging the gap between us even more. "There's no validity to your claim."
I was caught in a catapult set by this complete stranger and any wrong move would send me flying through the sky of helplessness. Deep within some chasm of self-control, I reached down in my mind and grasped the release lever and held it in place with white knuckles. "A few days ago, my father came home drunk and severely bruised on the right side of his face. He told my mother that a man had approached him in the bar claiming to be her lover, and that they were planning to run away together to New York. He called the man a liar and defended her honor, but the man and two of his friends messed him up, telling him to let it happen."
Where was this coming from? I didn't know, but I was in a kind of unexplainable epiphany, and I let it run its course. "When he confronted her-I was in the hallway listening-she broke down and said it was true, confessing to an extramarital relationship that had been going on for eighteen months. She left my dad standing there in shock and grabbed her car keys. Later, the police showed up, two uniformed officers named Durham and Wilson, telling us that she had been involved in a car accident and was sent to Jefferson Memorial Hospital. When we showed up we saw her lying in a bed covered in a body cast. She told us she had called her "lover" and told him she was ending it, that she wanted to stay with her family. Apparently, he met up with her in the library parking lot to talk it out and she stuck to her guns and tried to leave. He followed her and…in a kind of rage I guess he ran her off the road and through a guardrail. The police are still looking for him as we speak." I stammer, gripping the symbolic catapult lever with a shaking hand. "She looked at us with nothing but regret for what she'd done and that she was so thankful that she didn't follow through with it. Yesterday when I visited her, she told me I was a big inspiration for her decision to stay, and also to get better in the weeks to come."
My chest heaved and I realized I was shaking. A single tear streamed down my face and it revealed to me that I believed the story, or at least I did momentarily. I slowed my breath, staring into nothingness, and let go of the lever. Somehow, I was in control. I looked up and the class came back to me in a frozen tableau of pure energy that was focused solely on me.
"Bravo," Mark clapped a hand together, releasing the hypnotic state of the room. "Excellent work, Gabriel. You did it!" He turned to the others. "Do you understand what just happened here tonight? He made us believe something that never even happened, as if it were the featured headline on the ten o'clock news. Again, Gabriel, bravo."
Instead of fleeing the classroom I found myself once again seated at my desk. Mark was back at the dry-erase board. He scrawled one word in large letters-Liabilities. "You are all here for one reason or another. Some of you are unpublished writers looking to deepen and improve your skill. Others have felt out of place in this world and found that your actions have been controversial, sometimes reckless, to the point of destructive outcomes." He turned and winked towards me. "We are here on this first night as liars, storytellers in other words. I am only here to facilitate you as you grow in the weeks to come, so that you no longer remain a liability in life, but express," he covered the first two letters on the board, "your abilities."
I relaxed in my seat a bit, perplexed but full of wonder. I'd never once thought about writing outside of school projects. Mark told us to move around for a few minutes and introduce ourselves to each other and as I shook each hand I saw something mirrored in each face I saw; camaraderie. I suddenly found myself in a world I didn't realized I belonged to! There was still a prick of doubt in my stomach, but I had a feeling that would go away. Maybe I could do this.
As it turned out, Mark left it to us as a group to decide what the topic would be for Week One. We would take that topic and each write a short story based on it. There were a myriad of ideas put out, but in the end, surprise, they collectively agreed on mine: Two master jewel thieves, a husband and wife, find that they are going to have a baby. What will this mean in regard to their dangerous "career"?
As we were laughing and milling closer to the exit after class, Mark came up behind me and clapped a hand over my shoulder. He whispered, "I apologize for putting you on the spot, but it couldn't have worked out better if I planned it. Everyone here now sees that with a little pressure, they can make the story come forth. And if you can say it, you can write it. Also," he looked around to make sure no one was listening, "I received a call a few minutes before class from your mother Brenda. She loves you very much and just wanted to make sure I gave you a fair shot. She told me the gist of your troubles."
I shook my head and smiled, wordlessly leaving the room and heading towards my car. What a night. When I went home, I sat down to dinner-shepherd's pie, go figure-and I gave my mom a gentle smile from across the table. It was one of those unspoken knowing moments that stay with you forever.
But I couldn't wait to get to my room and abscond to my interior thoughts and play with the building blocks of prose.