M and the Artful Lie
I do not have a sister. Her name is Mariana. In truth, I can't remember her name, but I've given her this one, and it sounds like a name she would want. Mariana is thirty-three years old. She lives on the Upper West Side in Manhattan . She's a successful architect. Her mother was Portuguese. Mariana has long, brown hair like velvety rope, and she wears it up most of the time. She tells bawdy jokes and cooks a mean pumpkin risotto. When she knows she's found the perfect gift for you, Mariana bites her lower lip and grins sagely. She used to be married, and she used to have a little girl, but her husband and child are both gone now.
I do have a brother. The first time Tim told me about Mariana, it was supposed to be a secret. He was nineteen at the time and I was twenty-four. I was living in Los Angeles then and he was still in the little town where we grew up. His voice, which is normally so low it thrums through you when he yells, had a nervous energy over the phone. It reminded me of his enthusiasm for Christmas when we were kids. He said, “We have an older sister. Come over and pick me up, all right?”
It took about an hour to get to his place, a snug studio apartment beneath some stairs off the main intersection of town. The idea of an unknown sister was intriguing and something we'd almost been expecting for years; his father Jack, my first stepfather, had been married twice before he met my mom, and he'd had a number of affairs as well. We used to joke about it, Tim and I, when we got old enough for Jack's infidelities to matter less. On the drive to Tim's place, I found myself getting excited by the idea of a sister. I wondered what she was like; whether she'd have anything in common with us; where she'd been all this time; why she had reappeared now.
“He's a fraud,” declared Sarah. “You can't bloody trust what he says.” The room was quiet for the briefest of moments, and then, chaos. We all erupted at once, straining to be clever first, stunning our elderly professor with the lack of decorum. Sally agreed with Sarah, Charles thought trust shouldn't matter and Rebekah believed the shot was impossible without planning in advance. We were looking at a photograph projected onto the wall – “Behind the Gare St. Lazare” by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The photo was a perfect balance of angles and curves and impossible symmetries. At stake was the claim by Cartier-Bresson of artistic spontaneity; he insists, Sarah was saying, that each photograph is shot without prompting anyone to walk past his lens, without cropping, without a second shot and then is never attempted again. A claim like this requires the trust of his viewer, and being in our early twenties and in grad school, trust was perhaps the only thing we never gave away for free.
It's November, 1999. I'm sitting in a small conference room with seventeen other students, looking at the photograph and shouting down Charles, who grins when my voice cracks. It's an old room on the third floor of the back alley that is home to University College London's English Department. Frank Kermode taught in this room, as did Stephen Spender and AS Byatt. Today we're teaching ourselves, members of an experimental MA program on literature and pop culture. Half of the class is British and a little bored; the other half is a mix of Germans, Australians and Americans, all painfully earnest. This issue of authenticity, combined with our choice to cross-examine the artist and not the art, has become important to us in recent weeks. As a group, we've been self-trained to find flaws in whatever we read or see. We are actively subjugating any enthusiasm or wonder to an unspoken sense of duty: be the first to find a misstep in a text, a critic or, failing all else, in the writer's life. We're doing so with delight. It feels like power.
This is what I see when I look at the photograph. I notice the running man first. He's striding across a vast pool of water that could be an inch or many feet deep. He's got a suit on and a fedora, and I can see his boots but the man's face is almost completely hidden. It's a black and white photograph, so he's a shadowy figure, but I notice his legs form a kind of ‘V,' a drawn bow that's matched by his reflection in the water just below the right boot. He's plunging confidently over to wherever it is that's just past the photo's edge.
I take in the fading daylight above the running man. The tall steel fence rising up along the far shore, with the dark hulks of the train station. I get the sense that the yard was used for station repairs but now, after a heavy rain, it's been largely abandoned. There are two posters on the wall at the center-left of the pond. One duplicates itself and then quadruplicates in the water below. The second poster shows a dancer leaping left, one arm out in front, the other gracefully up in the air, her dark form illuminated by the moon. And finally I see another man: slouching against the fence, in coat and cap, half-hidden by so much motion. He's watching the running man. Or he's watching the photographer, or me. He doesn't have the grace of the dancer, who in turn doesn't have the urgent confidence of the man who can walk on water. The man leaning against the wrought-iron fence is utterly, thoroughly still.
Stillness makes all the difference, it seems to me. With everything else in the photo arcing and leaping, a person has been captured in an inert state, trying perhaps to take in all that motion. Through stillness, we begin to understand why things move, or at the very least, to understand the form of movement. When I look at “Gare St. Lazare,” I'm awed by the synchronicity of events captured on film, but also I am engaged in the process of adding meaning to the work. I'm imagining what the leaping man is thinking about. I identify with the figure on the far shore, and imagine myself there, staring down an impudent photographer. Good art invites us, always, to be the co-conspirator, invites us to capture ourselves in the moment of seeing. The question of why a work is made, why a tale was told and what the author says the piece is meant to be about can be, for the critic, a slippery and ultimately unprovable process. And sometimes we cannot bring ourselves to hold still, or hold fast, long enough to see the proof, the why, that's always been in front of us.
Tim took long pulls off a bottle of Corona as he spoke. “Yeah, she's smart. Fuck of a lot more smart than me. Brown eyes, dark skin, but I think she's got my nose. Mariana came out to LA on a business trip, but you know really she flew out here to meet my father for the first time.” His apartment was murky with an old-smoke smell, and everywhere I stepped were scattered heaps of video rentals and pizza boxes. The TV and the kitchen table were draped in clothes that clung to them like mold. I pulled another beer out of the fridge and, digging in a sticky drawer for a bottle opener, I stopped myself from teasing him about the state of the place.
“So you met her?”
“Yup. She's funny, Ryan, you'd like her a lot. Besides, Mariana really wants to see you.” Of course, I said, I wanted to meet her too, but as I said it I felt awkward and a little shy. I felt like I was intruding.
“What's her story?” I asked.
Mariana, it turned out, was the child of Jack's second wife, who had been pregnant when they divorced. Mariana grew up in Lisbon , and then she moved to New York when she was eighteen.
“She went to college there, Columbia I think, and then she went to architecture school. She met this guy who was studying to be a doctor. They got married, they moved to an apartment up by Central Park . They had a little girl.” Tim paused here, breathed in with a quick suck of breath. “One day Mariana and her daughter are going for a walk. I guess the little girl's maybe three years old. Mariana's got her purse caught in the door, or her keys fall or something, and her daughter runs into the street and then this cab comes out of nowhere.” Tim claps his hands together suddenly, and the sound smacks the far wall. “Just like that, her daughter's killed right in front of her.”
Mariana and her husband became ghosts in their house. He held her responsible for their daughter's death and she took a hiatus from her firm, sleeping all day. Finally they got a separation. Mariana went back to Lisbon and discovered her mother was in a terminal stage of cancer but hadn't wanted to bother anyone. She died shortly after Mariana arrived.
I could see it. I could see the little girl on West 82 nd . I could see Mariana and her husband passing each other quietly in the hallway. I could see the mother, apologetic and ill in a well-lit room filled with blue azulejos lining the wall. I could see this sister of mine lost in so much loss, and I wanted to help her.
My brother continued. “Mariana tracked down my dad on the phone, and when they met it was weird. So he called me, and I came over, and she and I went out to lunch on our own. She was sad sometimes, but really curious about my life. She seemed excited to meet me, you know?”
That night, I drove back thinking, I have a sister I never knew about. She felt familiar, already like family for any number of reasons: because of her recent history; because she was wary around my stepfather, a man from whom I'd been estranged for years; because of her obvious warmth and grace toward my little brother. I called him later that night to ask for her phone number and he said he'd look for it.
What is it about family that makes us crave connection so intensely? Why do we push so hard for strangers to understand us and yet at the same time take it for granted that – for better or worse – our family understands us a little too well? We want to be seen, we want our stories appreciated, and yet there's something about the way family will call you on your bullshit. Tall tales from one's childhood, for instance, sound great to people you've only just met because they have the power of assured language. When I tell the story about how I was dropped on my head as an infant, and how the doctor told my father not to worry, that babies' heads are all cartilage at that stage – “like sharks,” he'd said, “and anyway the kid's skull will pop back like Tupperware in a week” – my friends think it's a riot. “So that's why you turned out this way,” they reply, following a predictable script and maybe as well the necessary social response. Perhaps it's the oldest kind of oral storytelling: a call-and-response form, the time-honored personal joke. Maybe the intersection of story and reaction is where connection is rooted between two people, and it's hardwired in us deep down to where we can't help but exaggerate, embellish, we can't help but want others to smile and believe what we're telling them about us.
And yet, there is this problem of family. When I tell the shark's-head baby story, my family gets uniformly indignant. My mom, for instance, can't resist correcting the chronology in front of others – I was an infant, lest we forget, and hardly in a position to remember conversations accurately. My grandmother shakes her head and recalls the huge bruise I had the next week when they baptized me at the local church. Her version focuses on the half-shame of an imperfect ceremony, and she's teasing yet still appalled. “Dented up like that,” she croons, “you were the ugliest baby the pastor had seen all year.” My father simply shrugs, thinly amused since he was the one who dropped me back then. “You just can't imagine,” he says, “what it was to watch you fall head-first into the tub. You pushed off with your legs and shot out in this neat arc straight down. Why do you like that story? The cops came to the hospital, you know, to see whether it was child abuse. I remember thinking, I've killed my son and now they're taking me away .”
Our stories are never are own. Family corrects, constrains, wraps us up tight so that we might stay warm in our own personal winters. Sometimes, my family has felt like bonds that held me in one place too long, and I suspect their need to “keep me honest” covers a wide range of limitations, from wanting me to stay in Los Angeles to keeping family history as factual and even as absent as possible in my own fiction writing, lest they end up embarrassed. Movement may be the key to surviving as a storyteller, and it's why I pushed as hard as I did to study abroad, to travel and move every couple of years, and why I also return inevitably to Los Angeles as well. But the bond between Tim and I is a specific one, complicated and rich, full of stasis and motion. It's very possible that he's grown up in my shadow, that often I'm Cartier-Bresson's running man shot long across the water, running without noticing the water ever existed. It may be that Tim has been reacting for years with a kind of slow stumble toward inertia, seeing me run and wondering how to get to the far shore. I don't know that I can even limit myself to just one analogy in that photograph that captures my brother and me, for as I write this I'm the photographer, and Tim is the running man as he tells me about Mariana, and there she is in the poster, the dancer leaping in the opposite direction. And you, faithful reader, you're the shore-stranded man this time.
After a week, Tim summoned me to Sierra Madre again. He had a new watch, fat with chrome and dials. “It's a gift from Mariana. She says hi, she's sorry she couldn't meet you. Damn is she a good cook, though, it's a shame you had your cell phone off last Thursday.” I made some short, testy reply. “Anyway, M had to get back to New York since her conference was over. We've got a couch to stay on if we ever go out there.”
“You call her M?” They were pretty chummy, it seemed to me.
“Yeah, well… yeah. Says she knows a college in the city that'd be perfect for me. I showed her my sketches and she totally thinks I should do graphic design.”
“Well, we've all been saying that for months,” I replied, and Tim grinned.
“M just knows about this shit, all right? Anyway, I bet she could help you out as a writer too.”
“You mean she's got some buddy in the publishing industry too?” I asked. And Tim nodded, then shook his head.
“I don't know,” he said, “but she'd give a shit about what you wrote.”
Tim looked like he hadn't slept in a week. I wondered if he and M gone out every night. I could see him at a café with our sister, chain-smoking and cheerfully rattling off his dreams, never admitting he hadn't made it though a semester of college, or that he'd never kept a job for more than two months. Instead of resenting their closeness, or coveting it for myself, I tried to be pleased for him.
There were clues if I'd wanted to see them. The watch looked nice but was a knock-off, which was his father's special brand of gift. There was the matter of my never getting to meet Mariana. The fact he'd implored me not to tell our mom because it might upset her. I called home a week later, told Mariana's story and my mother's silence down the phone made me suspect Tim's rationale had been right. Then she said, “The dates don't add up.” And they didn't once you looked at it – our sister would have to be my age, not a decade older.
I drove out to Sierra Madre a third time, took Tim out for coffee. My chest was tight. I felt like I was the one in trouble, and I danced from subject to subject. When I finally brought up the question of Mariana's age, when I asked if he'd really met her, Tim exploded. “Fuck, Ryan. I don't know why I said anything to you. You never trust me, why can't you ever just trust me?” My sister was slipping away and I wanted, right then as he raged, to take it back. I wanted to go back to what we had been building together, a closeness we hadn't had in years.
Three weeks later my brother robbed the local coffee shop. He went through the service door late at night, taking $800 from their lockbox. He'd worked there awhile, and knew where it was. He also knew about their video camera, he had to have. And so when the police came through his door the next day and found he'd spent $80 on beer and had the rest stuffed under his mattress, he must have seen that coming as well. I don't know what he was thinking. He plea-bargained to get his sentence reduced from felony to misdemeanor by joining the Army. Right now he's guarding the highways outside Baghdad , and when he calls me occasionally he says he's using a phone at one of Saddam's palaces. Tim is dust-blown and lonely.
I have a fascination with the lie that is well-told. Cartier-Bresson may have staged his photographs but the fact that he still insists he never has lied, and the debate surrounding his protests, only makes me work harder as a viewer to decipher what's worth looking at there. The same can be said, of course, for Mariana's tale. I am trying, through telling you what my brother told me, to give Mariana realness. I'm trying to make her whole, independent of my needs or Tim's, to have her live in your imagination and on the page. The hint of what lies beneath the work created makes, with time and reflection, a kind of hidden lens, attached to the carapace of a work and possibly the means to look through it at the authentic world the lie has imagined for itself. Perhaps in time I've become the critic and wonderer at once, something I would have thought paradoxical in my London years. In his Duino Elegies , Rainer Maria Rilke exclaims to the reader, “Don't you know yet ? Fling the emptiness out of your arms / into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds / will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.” It's this kind of cause and effect that the authentic lie comes down to. The artist flings emptiness away – for it is unknowable what has caused it to come into being, malleable and shapeless and full of import as it is – and we instinctually adjust to the change of pressure, forgive its unsteadying effects as it bears us up and revel in the urgency and beauty that has been lent us for awhile. How can my brother be anything other than an artist in the great care he took to construct a living, breathing woman – my half-brother's half-sister, a sibling so removed that even fiction makes her closer to me than reality – and I connect with the breathing, passionate idea of her.
Over the years, I've thought about Mariana. I've since moved to New York , and I imagine her delight at my apartment, or a small, elegant café that she would've liked. I've told and retold her story, and in taking it on I've embellished it in small ways, fleshed it out. Given her a name, made her my own. Tim gave me a gift in M, our suffering sister just somewhere off-screen. Lately I've come to realize that we both took so much pleasure from his well-told tale. I've had to wrestle with my willingness to ignore Tim's situation – whether I could have helped him or not – in favor of the miraculous appearance of my long-lost sister. I wonder sometimes if he half-believed the story himself while he was telling it.
Once, just before he shipped out to Kuwait , Tim came home and we sat in my car talking. I asked him if Mariana was real – he'd never told me that she wasn't. He just chuckled a little, and said, “I'm really not sure.”