I was raised by serial liars.
I'm not entirely certain they could help themselves. My parents lied about so many things, they couldn't track their stories between their kids, so my two sisters and I would have to huddle up to compare notes, trying to wring some facts out of them, like blood from a...a serial liar...stone. Screw metaphor. I was like 12.
I don't just mean they lied about stupid stuff, like when Mom told me she was regularly lifting soup cans for her physical therapy when that Campbell's can of Chicken Noodle CLEARLY had dust on it. No. I don't mean the of-course-I-paid-the-rent-I'm-sure-the-landlord's-just-here-to-say-hello lie or the we-have-new-cars-cause-we're-rich-not-cause-they're-all-being-reposessed lies, either. I mean the pull-over-the-car-on-the-way-home-on-a-college-break-to-tell-me, "I'm not actually Jewish. I was born and raised Irish Catholic" lie. With a voice like that. The nerve of her to not be a real Jew and leave me, who looks exactly like my Jewish father, some kind of fake. The. Nerve.
I was lied to about my background, my siblings, our money, their pasts, and Christ, probably what they had for breakfast. ("It was pancakes AND GOLD! I swear it.") Dad would just fall silent if I questioned any of the stories, and then he'd spin another yarn to make that one look prettier, weaving them both together in a perfect tapestry of cigarette smoke and bullshit.
But Mom? Mom had the Magic Wave. Since she lived longer than my dad, she got a lot more questions about her lies catching up to her, and she didn't enjoy being questioned. Hey, I don't either, but I didn't tell my kid I was a ballerina. So. If I asked her about any of these heaping piles of fallacy, she would, with a cigarette in hand, flick her wrist in an almost regal dismissal of the air. As though she could shoo away the peasants of fact with this gesture. The crazy thing is, it worked most of the time. Except one.
In my twenties, I hadn't yet received the bombshell of the bigger lies my parents told, and I was carefree, living on smokes and other people's boyfriends. I was a producer, improviser, and an actor with a penchant for never sleeping or respecting myself. So, naturally, I was a waiter.
I worked, among several other weird places, at a Chicago institution called The Mashed Potato Club. Yes. It's exactly what it sounds like. This glory hole of a restaurant was where I hung out, dated an alcoholic too old for me, learned how to handle a drunk owner screaming in my face, crowd surfed with a tray of martinis, and ate my weight in mashed potatoes. See, their regular mashed potatoes were red potatoes, cream cheese, and garlic, while the sweet ones were sweet potatoes, butter, and brown sugar. From there, you could choose from 100 a la carte items to put on your mashed. That included caviar. That included raw oysters. Name it, we were gonna charge you for it and you were gonna eat it. It was a goddamned miracle of a place that served massive martinis. In its prime, the place had a 2.5-hour wait and only sat 21 tables. They moved downtown to make it big and added drag shows, but nothing is ever fair and they closed and now I've talked more about potatoes and this restaurant than my family. I AM COMING BACK HOLD ON.
When our shift was over, the only bar open was Smart Bar, the club downstairs from The Metro in Wrigleyville. In the 90s, Smart Bar was home to people looking for a place to dance, a place to cry, and a place to get laid ALL AT THE SAME TIME. So your only option to drink away your phone bill was a smokey loud club that didn't know it was a last resort for hookups and industry people. It thought it was a real, fun place...and that was sad.
Because I was 24, I had lost my ID at some point. Not to worry, I thought, because I still had my birth certificate. So I carried that around, the folds in the paper from long storage now deep grooves in the wax laminate. I treated it less like a sacred document and more like change for a twenty I happened to have. One night after the owner of the Potato Palace had stumbled in, demanding to know everyone's ring total so he could decide if they deserved the post-shift beer they were enjoying, we were all quite ready to get the hell out and go drink without being questioned. I rolled my silverware as fast as I could, married the ketchups, and headed down to Smart Bar.
The bouncer, trying to make it look like there was some kind of vetting process to this human sweat-pit, held up his hand to stop me. "ID," he said, all self-important and smelling like Drakkar and poppers. I took out the PROOF OF MY BIRTH and a photo ID with no other info on it, cobbling together some passable identification to get me a Rolling Rock. Like I said, no self-respect.
Captain Black T decided to quiz me, as though the hot thing was borrowing other people's birth documents to get into abysmally shitty bars. Sure, we could take a photo, laminate it, and make it look like your driver's license. Sure, you could use your sister's. But nah. Gimme your social security card and some official city papers, Kiersten, we're going to PARTY. But ok. Fine. The Sentient Bottle of Dippity Do was just...dippity doing his job. Quiz me, Kegger Brah-naugh. No? too much?
"Mother's maiden name," spat Donnie Deadlift (I could do this all day). Softball.
"Cregg. C-R-E-G-G." Mother's maiden name is like the low bar for security clearance. It's right up there with the code on locked washrooms. It ain't nothin.
Chesty McSlackjaw looked puzzled. Like...more, though. I immediately knew something was off. And I knew why, even if I didn't know what.
"That's wrong, isn't it. I can't tell you what it is, but I know it's wrong."
Years later, I was sitting in a Golden - Angel, Nugget, Waffle, a GOLDEN - with my mom and ex-boyfriend. She was telling us some delightful anecdote from her childhood that ended, as most of them did, with, "and then they beat the shit out of him." She was quite proud of herself for her stellar execution when I decided to make a hard turn in the conversation.
"Who the fuck is Cohen?"
She looked at me, half perplexed and half pissed.
"What are you talking about?"
"Cohen," I pressed, "is the last name on my birth certificate where Cregg should be. And you're not even really Jewish. Why the hell is that name there?"
She instantly invoked the Magic Wave, her long fingers cutting through her Marlboro Light smoke and nothing else. Not her bullshit, and not my resolve.
"Na na nah," I said, imitating the gesture back (and I LIVED!) "you don't get to this time. Who. Is. Cohen."
She went on to tell me that her mother had been carrying on with a married man after her husband died. He was kind, my mother said, and had promised to leave his family and take care of hers. That never happened, of course, because kind people don't usually offer to leave families. His last name was Cohen.
It was a compelling story, as were most of her stories...but it didn't explain why I - THE LAST CHILD - would have this dude's name on my birth certificate. He was certainly NOT in the picture when my mother had me at 38 and her own mother was only a couple of years from dying. What the actual hell, mom?
I never found out. My stay of the execution of the facts that the Magic Wave brought was only temporary. Later, when I would plead with my mother to tell me the truth about the big things - my half sibling I never met or the gambling she was tangled up in - I would tell her I didn't want to judge her. I wanted to know her. "Some things are buried too deep," she said. She magic waved me without raising her hand, and I left it alone.
I'm brutally honest now. I feel bad even lying to my five-year-old about Santa or the Tooth Fairy, but I also know which truths can hurt, so I've learned to be diplomatic and kinder about my truth. But the second I even raise my hand to wave it away, everyone has permission to knock that hand down faster than Bouncer McKegstand can shotgun a Keystone light.