White Lies by Linda Bilodeau

The silence between us breaks only as Joe sets his half-empty coffee cup on the stone countertop. He heads into the bedroom, taking the kitchen’s dead air with us. The shower comes on, and I know, after fourteen years of marriage, it will take him fifteen minutes to shower, shave, and dress. Our mornings weren’t always like this. We used to talk uncensored about the implications of a nuclear Iran, how to fill every minute of our vacation, and what we were going to do to each other in bed. We sometimes fought, our arguments cleansed pent up emotions, but we often laughed and joked and carried as people in love should. I long for those times and talk that goes beyond ‘how are you’ and ‘how was your day’. I tell myself we’re just old-marrieds but it isn’t true. I would rather believe my white lie then admit I’m living in purgatory; that place between heaven and hell where you wait.
I rise to make his oatmeal. My pregnant belly bumps up against the stove. Is that what causes the baby to kick? At nearly nine months, I almost fill the space between the range and the kitchen island. I blink away the sleep from my eyes that the morning hour of six thirty fails to clear. The smell of cinnamon wafts, and the oven timer dings. I remove a batch of hot rolls. A gust of fresh morning breeze, blowing in from the open window, carries the love song of a mourning dove, cooing to its mate. A pair returns every year to our backyard to nest. I pour fresh-squeezed orange juice into two glasses. They stay together those birds. Both parents care and feed their young. Will Joe be there for me when my time comes? I finish setting the table. My husband comes back into the kitchen, smelling of lemon soap and his woodsy aftershave. He sits and, with his doctor’s eyes, studies all I’ve set out as if the food was some strange species of bacteria. He drinks the juice then takes a few bites of oatmeal. He skips the roll as if it were a gift of the wrong size and color.
“What’s on your agenda today?” he asks.
“I’m going over to that new furniture store on 301 to see if I can find a desk.” He nods and rises without finishing the oatmeal and heads to the door. I hope he’ll ask about the desk, but he doesn’t. Following him, I think of starting a fight. At least we’d be talking. But an argument won’t undo what I’ve done.
He seems annoyed that I’m behind him. I touch his shoulder, aching for the hug he won’t give me.
“I’m late. I got rounds at the hospital.”
He closes the front door without blowing a kiss. I want to tell him to be careful of the construction by the exit on Fruitville road, ask if he wants to see, Carmen, it just opened at the Sarasota opera house. I could run outside and stop him, but instead, I watch him back his red Miata out of the driveway and disappear down our suburban street.
I suppose our problems started when we moved from Indianapolis to Sarasota five years ago after my mother died. I told Joe I wanted to live near my dad. I didn’t want him fighting his lymphoma without family nearby. That’s the story I gave my husband. I know little lies blossom into bigger lies, and that lying won’t solve problems. The truth was an old boyfriend, Sam Carlson, had offered me a better job in Sarasota as a columnist in the Living section of the Herald Tribune.
My unborn son kicks the side of my belly. I can see the outline of his foot indented in my skin. He’s upside down now, entering the birth canal, my gynecologist said.
The title of my column is Starting Over. I never thought of Florida as a beginning. Didn’t people come here to retire and die? But seeing sixty-five year olds falling in love, and retirees starting new careers, returning to school, and turning life-long hobbies into profitable businesses, changed my mind. Lately, and because I just turned forty-four, I’ve been writing pieces about older, first-time mothers. This week’s column was titled: Moving the Belly, all about how dancing and walking ease the aches and pains of an oversized midriff. Last week’s column featured unusual baby names and their derivations. But always I deny the topic first and foremost in my mind.
As a child, I was frightened of my mother’s moods that were as unpredictable as the north wind barreling down the streets of Chicago, my hometown. To me she was a witch, possessing magic of good and evil. Sometimes I’d come home from school to find a warm plate of oatmeal raisin cookies waiting. I ate them, watching her mop floors while singing, You Are My Sunshine. When like this, my father would call her his happy go-lucky gal or the white tornado. At other times, she’d lock herself in her bedroom. My dad would say, “Your mother isn’t well today. I’ll make dinner.” We ate canned chicken soup and sandwiches. My mother never made a sandwich the same way twice, but dad’s were dependable, ham and swiss with lettuce and tomato and mustard all tucked neatly between two slices of freshly- baked hard crusted bread. He’d help me with long division problems while we ate. When mom came out of her room, usually just before I went to bed, her raven hair would be flying in every direction, and her coffee-shaded eyes would be moist and damp. Her blank stares frightened me, that and her silence.

We lived like that for the longest time. Then one day, just after my eleventh birthday, I came home to find my mother’s younger sister, Carol, in our kitchen. She told me, my mother was sick and dad had taken her to the hospital. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Your mother will be fine.” She set a plate of warm oatmeal raisin cookies in front of me. I sniffed their sweet aroma, and shoved the plate off the table, sending it toppling to the floor. Glass shattered, the cookies spreading amongst pieces of fractured china. “I hate you,” I said, and ran to my room, slamming the door. As I lay on my bed, crying, I knew my mother would never be fine.

That night I tiptoed down the stairs and overheard Aunt Carol tell my father that I was upset because she’d told me a little white lie. In catechism we learned about confessing our sins, but I wasn’t sure where on the lying scale a white lie fit. I turned these two words over and over, finally asking Father Murray.
“White lies?” He tugged on his chin as if pondering something of grave importance. “That’s what people say to justify their actions for the greater good. Do you know what the greater good means?”
“No,” I said. I filed away those words, thinking them important.
“Sometimes people tell white lied to protect another person,” he said.
“So it’s a lie to make someone feel better?”
“A sweet girl who goes by the name of Lilly has no business telling any kind of lie; now does she?”
The next day, Sister Mary Francis passed around pictures of hell, the underworld, she called it. Red pointy-eared devils poked at naked people with pitchforks. Flames, failing to consume their naked bodies, roared all around them. I shivered when looking at them, almost feeling their pain. Sister said the people were thirsty, but there was no food or water in hell, only suffering, and the kind of blackness that settles in on moonless November nights. “This will be your fate if you lie, cheat, or steal,” she told us.
I clear dishes from the table. The mourning doves fly off, but my memories linger. I go upstairs, undress, and turn on the water in the shower, and climb inside the stall. The warm water soothes my back. I pick up the lemon soap, sniffing it. There is no scent of Joe, only bitter-sweet smell of lemon rind. I shampoo my shoulder-length mane.
I was shocked at how easily I had lied to Joe the night I came home, after sleeping with Sam. It wasn’t unusual for me to be late. I had been working on two columns and had deadlines to meet. But even though it was eleven twenty, he was still up, stretched out on the couch, watching a Western. We were still living in our refurbished, nineteen-twenty style bungalow and I had to walk right past him to get upstairs. I tried being quiet, but the oak floor creaked under my patent leather heels. When he asked where I had been and why I hadn’t answered my cell, I simply said, “entanglement at work,” and disappeared up the stairs. When he slid into bed, under crisp, white sheets, and cuddled next to me, I worried he would notice Sam’s scent. And maybe he did because after that, the silence between us started. One month later, when the dipstick on the pregnancy test turned blue, I told Joe I was pregnant. He never said a word and turned up his mouth in one of his coy little smiles that always left me guessing.
I towel off, dress, and grab my purse. I find my keys and climb in my car, shutting out my unhappiness with the slamming of the door. I drive along University Avenue. The lanes are free of rush hour traffic. Southern oaks, lining the median, and separating the six lane highway look in need of a good watering. It’s the dry season in Southwest Florida. Rains won’t come with any regularity until June. Purple and pink bougainvillea bushes spice up the grass on each side of the road. The tourists call Florida paradise but for me, it’s the Garden of Eden and like Eve, I may get my walking papers out of here. I don’t want to believe Sam will divorce me. Not with a child. Instead I concentrate on the warm March sun streaming through my windshield. I head east, hoping for a new beginning.
I try conceptualizing my ideal desk. It cannot be more than six feet long if it’s to fit in the space on the wall opposite from Joe’s antique roll-top, and the style should inspire creativity. Nothing comes to mind except drawers. I want three I think; one for folders, another for paperclips, tape, and pens, and the third should have a lock, a place to hide my secrets.
A saleswoman introduces herself as Marla. She takes a long look at my belly then directs me to the back of the store. My middle precedes me these days. I wore my regular clothes until my fourth month then switched to loose-fitting shifts. No one at work noticed and neither did Joe. But one day, in my fifth month, my face, hands, and feet swelled and from then on, there was no hiding anything. I didn’t mind. I had wanted to be a mother for as long as I could remember.
As a teenager, my relatives sometimes asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was funny how I never said a writer or teacher though I had considered both careers. Instead, I told them I wanted to be a mother with three children. I didn’t care if they were boys or girls, but I visualized three healthy and happy replicas of myself, following me, pied-piper style. I never talked about a husband, though in my catholic relatives’ minds it was presumed. I didn’t feel a need to get married, that is, until I met Joe.
Marla leaves me alone to look over several desks. I sit behind a sleek writing table. I’m sure the oak shade will match the stain on Joe’s desk perfectly. The 599.99 written on the price tag is a bit above my budget, but doable. I wait for that feeling to come, the one telling you that this is right, but there is only an empty fondness.
There was none of that magic when Joe and I met; the kind where you just know by seeing fingers entwined. We were friends who sometimes shared a bed. One day he shocked me by adding, I love you, before his goodbye, upsetting the nice distance I had placed between us. Two days later, he asked me to marry him. I said yes, but, love came later, slowly and in stages, taking years to craft.
I get up and try three other desks, each seems wrong. A fourth has light oak with thin, sleek legs, and drawers on the right, cubbies on the left. It is very modern and will nicely contrast Joe’s antique. I picture my folders in each of the cubbies alongside one or two of my son’s toy trucks.

After we married, I talked about having children. Joe would smile when I went on about helping our child with homework, reading bedtime stories and waiting for them with a plate full of oatmeal raisin cookies when they returned home from school. I should have taken Joe’s comments about the kids he cared for with Down syndrome, leukemia, and deformed limbs as a sign. But I wanted a son or daughter too badly to believe The Fates would send me anything but perfection. I was patient when he said we should wait until he finished residency and then until he built his practice. When he was asked to serve on the Indian State Medical Board, he said he would be away at meetings most evenings. Did I really want to be burdened with raising our child by myself? New excuses cropped up after we moved to Florida. I was torn. Good wives support their husbands. I didn’t want to be the kind of woman who greets her husband with, “Hi honey, glad your home and oh by the way, I’m pregnant.” I wanted him to want a family as much as I did.

“You look comfortable sitting there.”
Marla seemed to come out of nowhere. “It’s nice,” I said.
“A matching side table for a printer comes with that one,” she said. “If you want to keep looking I have several nice desks on sale in our warehouse. I’ll be glad to walk you over there.”
I get up. “I just need to—”
“When are you due?”
“Two weeks.”
“Oh, please take your time.”
She walks off looking frightened, worrying, perhaps, that my fragile condition might result in my fainting, throwing up, or ejecting amniotic fluid all over her navy heels. Since my eighth month, grocery store clerks have offered to carry my bags, men opened doors for me, and a couple gave up their place in a restaurant waiting line so I wouldn’t have to stand. The attention stabbed at my conscience—all those good deeds wasted on someone like me.

I move behind another desk designed like a saw horse. Its tabletop is roomy enough for my laptop and printer, my pen cup, a bowl of paperclips, and a tiny ream of post-it-notes in sherbet colors. The price perfectly matches my budget. Maybe this is the one.

During my eight month, my blood pressure soared and I was put on bed rest. A few weeks later, the problem resolved itself, but Sam thought I should work from home. I’ve been using Joe’s desk since, which never seemed right. I want my own space, away from what belonged to my husband.
A pain, sharp and intense, stabs at me, taking my breath away. Instinctively, I breathe, slow and easy, the way I was taught in natural child birth class. I stare at the ceiling, directing the hurt upwards, until it floats away. Suddenly I want someone holding my hand.
Joe was supposed to be my birthing coach. When the time came, I always thought he’d be at my side, wiping my brow and feeding me ice chips. At the first childbirth class he said, “I’m a doctor and I know what to do,” and never returned. The class instructor became my coach and offered to replace my husband in the delivery room. I never committed to her or Joe being there.
I rise and stretch; wanting to find Marla so I can look at the desks on sale in the warehouse before I make my choice. I notice a family looking over a couch, for their family room perhaps? I imagine all of them sitting and watching Disney cartoons, happy and giggling.
Because of my age, amniocentesis was ordered, and the results showed a normal boy growing inside me. Under ultrasound, I would watch him float, a happy go-lucky guy like my dad. The technologist printed pictures. I made a baby album out of them. One day, I saw his tiny little hand moving as if he was waving. I envisioned him as a six year old with my green eyes and straight brown hair, backpack slung over his right shoulder, waving goodbye as he set off for school. I wanted to name him Joshua for no other reason than I like the way it sounded. Joe was in favor of Samuel, after my father. That sounded right, too. But I knew everyone would end up calling him Sam, and I couldn’t have that.
I feel a quickening. This time the pain rings true. I remember from birthing class that false labor occurs with no regularity, and that real labor can be clocked. I check my watch and note the time.
Everything at home is in place. We sold the bungalow right after I told Joe I was pregnant and moved to a sprawling one story courtyard home. I painted the spare bedroom a lemony yellow. I bought white sheets with yellow stripes and a few blue scatter pillows, trimmed in yellow. My good friend from work, Sally Hayes, organized a baby shower. All my co-workers were there. Sam never came. When I walked into her house that Saturday afternoon, under the pretense of a lunch date, everyone jumped out of hiding and yelled, “Surprise!” Sally sat me in front of a mound of gift-wrapped boxes. I tore into them with the gusto of a five year old on Christmas morning, excited beyond belief by diapers, layette sets, blankets and bottles, and a gift certificate to Baby World. We ate blood orange cake and homemade honey ice cream. The women, who had been through childbirth, reminisced about their waters breaking, and long nights in labor, and the joy of seeing their child for the first time. I wondered how Joe would take seeing our son when he was born.
“Are you okay?”
Marla’s presence startles me. Another intense pain roars through me and is followed by warm, sticky fluid, trickling down my leg.
“Could you call an ambulance?”
“Oh my!” She springs into action, shouting orders at salesmen. One takes my arm and ushers me into his office. He helps me sit and props up my legs.
“Shall we call your husband?” Marla asked.
“No. His office is right next to the hospital. All I need do is text him when I arrive.”
“You’re lucky,” she says. “My husband missed seeing my daughter’s birth. All because of an accident out on 75.” Her eyes are full of regret. But I have none. Now that the time is here, I’m not sure I want Joe in the delivery room. Perhaps I’ll skip texting him.
Within minutes, ENTs arrive, and they hoist me on a stretcher. They start an IV, and dial up my obstetrician. “Is someone meeting you at the hospital, ma’am?”
“I’m fine, yes. I’ll be fine,” I keep saying.
By the time I get to the ER, my baby’s head crowns, and they rush me into delivery. My feet are placed in stirrups. A large overhead light blinds me. I hear my OB doc paging Joe, and I’m too wracked with cramps and the urge to push to stop him. There is no time for drugs, my baby is emerging fast.
The birth is easy. There is pain, but natural like, and it comes in waves, cresting and ebbing, like tides flowing in out of the Gulf of Mexico. When it is over, my doctor pats my shoulder. “I always suspected you were the kind of woman who might deliver in a taxi cab.”
“This one nearly came in a furniture store,” I said. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Joe says. I see him looking my child over as the nurse bathes him. Overwhelmed by the instructions my doctor was giving me, about breathing and pushing, I hadn’t noticed him coming in.
“Show him to me,” I beg.
The nurse places my son, blanketed in blue, in my arms. He wears a little blue hat. “To keep him warm,” Joe says.
The baby’s skin is milky like mine. He has the blush of a fresh peach. He makes little sucking motions with his mouth, but his eyes are closed.
“Did you decide on a name?” Joe asks, brushing a strand of my hair out of my eyes.
The nurse hits the switch on a remote, and the top of the bed elevates. I cradle my son tight against my chest and notice his nose. It isn’t mine, nor does it belong to Joe.
“I’m still thinking of Joshua. What do you want to name him?”
Joe steps back as if suddenly burdened with a grave task. Does he know?
“Would you like to hold him?”
“Let’s get you all in the holding area,” the nurse said. “It’ll be more private, and I can you bring you juice while we’re waiting for your room to be ready.”
“That will be fine,” I say to her. Then I look over at Joe. “You must be busy. If you have patients to see, well, I understand.”
“I told my office staff to cancel the rest of my scheduled patients. I want to be here with you, Lilly.”
The holding area is just two doors down from the delivery room. My bed is positioned in view of a window but there’s only a parking lot to see, which doesn’t disappointment me. I’m too pumped up staring at my son. The nurse puts down a glass of cranberry juice on the bedside table. “I’ll leave the name as Baby Morgan on the birth certificate,” she says to Joe. “When you decide, let me know.”
“His face is shaped like your dad’s,” Joe says. “I think Samuel suits him.”
“I’m not sure dad would have wanted that.”
“Are you kidding? Your dad would be in here, popping a bottle of Dom Perignon if he were still alive.”
“You think?”
Joe nods.
I miss my dad just then. Joe is right. He would have been proud of his grandson and of me, the new mom. He would have played chess with my son for hours or taken him fishing in one of those lakes, dotting the landscape around here. He died before I found out I was pregnant. I miss our conversations over a Heineken and his stories about his job as Business Editor for the Chicago Tribune. Once he told me he had met my mother while waiting for a bus. He had found her black eyes captivating, her smile intoxicating. I never saw that woman. One night, after we’d had three Heinekens each, he said, “Honey, your mother was a good woman in her own way, but if I had to do it all again, I would never have married her.”
“What was wrong with mom?”
“Oh, she had bi-polar disease.”
“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me? Why wasn’t I allowed to see her when she went to the hospital?”
“I never understood your mother on that one,” my father said. “She kept trying to protect you. She didn’t want you thinking she wasn’t a normal mother.”
“But all the time she was away, I wondered and worried.”
“I should have said something.”
I could see there was more to his story. “What is it, dad?”
“Oh nothing, your mother was different.”
“You keep saying that. What do you mean?”
“She had trouble relating to people. She had a friend she trusted more than me.”
“A woman friend?”
“It was Mr. Henderson, down the street. She stayed with him sometimes.”
I took his hand. “You never left her.”
“Of course not. Marriage is serious business. You don’t go around giving up on someone you love.”
I never said anything more to my dad about my mother. Before he died, he asked me to bury him beside her and I had. I told that story to my friend, Sally, but never to Joe. Maybe it was time.
I hand the baby to my husband. He unfurls the blanket. My son shivers. He looks over the boy with clinical eyes; examining: hair, face, arms, fingers, belly, feet, and toes. The baby opens his eyes.
“They’re blue,” Joe announces.
“Maybe they’ll turn hazel like yours.”
“Or green like yours,” Joe says. “I see you in him.”
“He has your nose.”
“No. It isn’t my nose or yours. But he does resemble you. He is your son.”
I blink, hearing his words. “He’s your son, too.”
“Look, Lilly. We both know that isn’t true. But it doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean?”
“He isn’t my son.”
“Why are you saying that?”
“Because he isn’t. I knew about you and Sam. I was angry at first, but I got over it. Then after you got pregnant, you seemed so happy. I knew you’d stay with me.”
I have questions with no answers. I bow my head, ashamed. “He could be yours or Sam’s.”
“He can’t be mine, I’m sterile.”
“I had a test.”
“Why didn’t you say something!”
My yelling startles the baby. He yowls. Joe rubs his chest and settles him down.
“Maybe you should nurse him,” he says.
I open my hospital gown and show my son the way to my right nipple. I take comfort in the maternal feeling of his suckling. He is my treasure.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I knew I’d never be a father.” He shrugs. “It’s a guy thing. I didn’t want you to think—”
“Don’t explain. I should be the one explaining.”
“Are things really over between you and Sam?”
I blink away tears. Do they come because I’m caught in the spider’s web? Or am I relieved there is something meaningful said between us? “For a long time now.”
“You tried to get away with it, like your mother.”
“My father told you that story?”
Joe nods. “He said you have a lot of your mother in you. Your father believed in you, just like he believed in your mother. That’s what love is, Lilly. You stick with someone in spite of everything.”
“Are you saying you love me?”
“Always have, always will.”
“I don’t understand any of this, Joe.”
“Does Sam know he has a son?”
“I never told him. I wanted him to be yours.” My voice crackles with sadness and eagerness. I look up at Joe. “Do you think we can start again?”
Joe stares at the baby. He is sleeping. A quiet settles in the room, a satisfying kind of perfect stillness. I shift the baby in my arms and knock over the juice. Joe kisses my forehead and turns up his mouth in one of his coy smiles. We both watch the crimson puddle forming. Neither of us wipes it up.

About the Author:
Linda has written nonfiction articles for The Journal of Nuclear Medicine and The Champlain Business Journal. She won an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 74th Annual Short Story Competition. She continues to write from her home in Southwest Florida. She loves to treat family and friends to good French food. Her biggest fear is to wake one morning and find she lives in a world without stories.