Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Maddie Dawson's The Stuff That Never Happened

The From Left To Write Book Club discusses new books in a particular way - instead of reviewing what we've read, the contributors share their personal experiences that have been inspired, or, as in my case this week, dragged up by the text.

It was hard for me not to sit as judge and jury when reading Maddie Dawson's first novel, The Stuff That Never Happened. The story of a young adulterer stirred up all sorts of muck from the shallows of my history and it was not a fun time to recall. So I hoisted all my discomfort back onto Dawson's protagonist Annabelle McKay and read her antics with ire and a self-righteousness it was difficult to resist.

The illicit sex in The Stuff That Never Happened occurs between two married people, in the same home they share with their spouses and young children, but this flagrant cheating, for me, did not seem like Annabelle's biggest betrayal of her even-keeled yet distant husband, Grant. It was her casual lying about meeting with her old lover twenty-six years after the affair that felt even more deceitful and had me scribbling "LIAR!" and "O.M.G.!!" in the margins.

Like this passage, where Annabelle defensively misrepresents her reunion with the old lover to her husband: "Come on, this is ridiculous! Okay, fair enough, I saw Jeremiah Saxon. Twenty-six years have passed, and big deal! I run into him in a market, against all odds. And then, yes, I go for coffee with him. I sit in Starbucks with the man and hear about his boring, trite, dull life."

She omits the part about she and Jeremiah making out in the park, "like a couple of teenagers."

We've all heard the adage from a cheated partner: "It's not the physical relationship that hurts the most, it's the lying." Dawson's book brought this line roaring back into my head.

We all operate in the social world by interacting with the people around us on a bedrock of trust. Any question we ask of another human, from the innocuous ("Can I have this by Tuesday?" "Would you like fries with that?") to the most vital, ("How can I help?" "Will you marry me?") presupposes an answer that corresponds to a shared reality. We build our plans, our hopes, our work, our relationships on the presumed truth in those answers. That's why, when faced with a suddenly revealed lie, we can have a hard time understanding or accepting that we've been deceived. And that is why, when caught in a lie of our own, we can experience the deepest shame. We haven't just chosen the wrong words; we've ripped the social contract. We've messed with the rules of logic that run our world. And for the people we have lied to, finding out that their version of reality is broken can be torture.

When the man who is now my husband and I had been dating six months or so, we flew to Florida to meet his parents. I had never had such a well-matched boyfriend - he was kind, respectful, fun and funny, open about his imperfect past and willing to listen to me pour out long, if somewhat edited, stories of my own. And, most importantly, he seemed really into me. And he was gorgeous. (Still is, but back to our story...)

One night on Sanibel Island, during a lull in the family drama, Randy and I stepped outside to sit by the pool. My head was spinning from all the emotion and hasty intimacy at my first gathering of his unusually close family and I suddenly felt an urge to come clean to this man.

"I have something I need to tell you." And with that I fell silent. Here I was again, standing in front of a beautiful trusting man, the hard truth stopped up in my throat. But this time would be different. This time I would make good. I wouldn't change the subject and commit the sin of omission; I wouldn't slip into another lie to avoid an awful truth. I pressed on.

"I need you to know something about me. I have never been faithful in any serious relationship."

My announcement may have been immature dramatics or a compulsion to stir something up, but it was also true.

"Okaaaaaay...," Randy replied, still smiling. "Why are you telling me this? Is there something I need to know?"

"Oh, no! I'm not talking about now, with you!" I had to stop to think. "I'm not completely sure why I'm telling you this. I think...it's because...I want us to be honest with each other. And I don't ever want to go through that again."

I need to emphasize how much I really didn't want to go through that all again.

I don't know if Maddie Dawson has ever seen the face of someone she has hurt deeply or if the cuckolded husband of The Stuff That Never Happened is purely a work of the imagination. I hope the latter. No mind-blowing sex, no thrill of getting away with it, no sweetest taboo, is ever worth the pain or the long-living guilt of knowing you have inflicted that pain.

Maybe I wasn't confessing to Randy so much as professing - letting the man who I would marry know that I was done done done with cheap drama, that I had outgrown honky-tonk over-romanticizing. Letting him know that I could no longer believe in the excuses of loneliness, immaturity, confusion, deluded ideas about passion, bad examples, desperation, indecision, tattered self-esteem, cowardice, alcohol, or Billie Holiday. Letting him know that I had grown up a little since that stupid time in my twenties. And that I could now hardly recognize that cowardly lyin' girl, even though she was me.

Randy's response to my big reveal, "Well, you let me know if there's anything I should worry about," was the equivalent of a shrug. He would tell me later that he did worry a little about what I had said, but in the seventeen years since then, jealousies and suspicions (except about those two bitches, Ms. Bar and Ms. Work) have had little place in our relationship. Honest.

May it ever be so.

You can find more posts about The Stuff That Never Happened here, at From Left to Write.

The participants in From Left to Write Book Clubs receive from the publisher a copy of the book discussed.


melanie said...

that's funny: we have had to deal with ms. ministry, ms. comprehensive exams, and now, ms. dissertation. i'm pretty sure ms. profession is going to follow...ugh.

Pamela said...

I think you came clean because you knew he was "it" for you. The others weren't. You did good!!

I continue loving this book club because all the posts are so diverse.

Maddie Dawson said...

What an insightful comment! Thank you for taking the time to write it and for reading the book and relating to Annabelle's transgressions, even to feel the irritation and anger with her for the things she did.

Sky Princess said...

Such an honest post. I don't think you would ever have a problem sharing the truth.

Lisa Hanneman said...

I had to admit the same thing to my husband when I knew things were serious. Man, you hit it on the head with all the reasons why we do those stupid things... Though instead of Billie Holiday, I would have to blame Van Morrison.