Sometimes it is hard for me to remember my childhood without viewing it through a lens of sadness. There were many bright spots but it often seems as if every one of those spots is tied to three or four dark ones. As if each of my defining moments look like soccer balls with the colors inverted, more black showing than white.
I was reminded of one of those soccer ball memories this weekend. Some friends were talking about educating their theoretical future children and how much pressure should or shouldn’t be put on kids. How do you help them learn to self-motivate? It made me think a bit about my own childhood and how I managed to do so well without many outside motivators at all.
As a kid, I always felt like I had very little in common with my family. It seemed as if my personality, interests, and values were always at odds with everyone else’s. When I began pulling away from the pack intellectually the gap widened even further.
By age ten, I had stronger vocabulary, writing, and spelling skills than many of the adults that I knew. My parents were unable to help with math problems and didn’t talk to me about the books that I was reading or drill me on science. They cared but hardly ever checked in.
I got a lot of “you should do this” orders but there was never any follow up and the grownups in my life seemed very out of touch with the reality of life at school. It was easy to ignore their advice when it was given because it never made sense. I stopped sharing information with them and they stopped asking. We only rarely talked about grades, homework, or my plans for the future. I pulled A’s when I felt like it and lower grades when I didn’t.
To this day, none of my family members know that I almost failed 7th grade. That year was difficult for me. When my mental health tanked, I stopped completing assignments. My parents knew that I was depressed and my teachers knew that I had checked out, but school never managed to follow me home.
When I was told that I was in danger of failing, I did just enough to pull a D. My report card came in the mail but I threw it away and went about my business. No one asked so no one knew. I felt like I had accomplished something but wasn’t sure what.
There was only one adult who was able to get me to think about my education seriously and help me come to know that I would go to college and maybe even grad school.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the bright side of divorce. But, as a child of divorced parents, one of the positives was getting introduced to people whom I otherwise wouldn’t have met. Imagine all the friends and romantic interests that my parents wouldn’t have had the time or opportunity to know if they were still a couple and all the people I connected with because their parents are also divorced. It’s amazing to think of all the random things that can bring people into and out of your life and what a difference those people can make to you. The fact of meeting one person can have enormous impact, both positive and negative.
I was about eleven when my mom met Mike.
During my middle school years, at my academic low point, my mom started dating someone interesting. Mike was an executive with a nationally recognized company, had a PhD in education, and quite a bit of money. Up to that point, my mom had dated mostly working class guys. There was a truck driver, a bartender, the guy who sold water tanks, and her old boss. One or two were nice men, one was a complete asshole, and the rest I only met once or twice. But, none of them gave a shit about me and (other than the extent to which I hated the asshole) I didn’t give a shit about any of them.
Mike was different. He is the only guy besides my dad who ever took the time to build a relationship with me. He asked me questions and seemed to care about the answers, he took my brother and me places without my mom just for fun, and paid for our family to go on vacations (with and without him). He wasn’t perfect and we had our moments but, for a while I was closer to him than most other adults. He was around long enough that I viewed him as a stepfather.
My mom and Mike dated for a really long time and as the years went by, he became a fixture for me despite the fact that he never lived with us and was out of town a lot. I thought his life was incredibly cool. In the early days of the internet, he was the only person I knew who existed in the world outside of my small town. He regularly traveled for work and had condos in several cities where his company kept offices.
Mike would bring me college catalogs and talk about how maybe we could go visit schools. When I was old enough, he bought me an SAT prep book and explained that I should take AP courses. He is the only adult that I can remember talking to about what kind of job I might like to have. I idolized him. He was my first mentor.
When I was 16, my mom told me that he had asked her to marry him. She didn’t have a ring or a date but she was really happy. For a month or two, she was the happiest that I had ever known her to be. Unfortunately, the moment seemed to fade. That year, the engagement never really got off the ground. When I asked about it months later, she said that she didn’t know and that they hadn’t talked about it in a while.
Everything started to change.
One day, when my brother and I had just gotten home from school and were getting ready to leave and go to my dad’s house for the weekend, my mom called and told us to stay put. When she got there, she was an absolute mess. Her face was swollen from crying. She made a beeline for the couch and told us that there was something important that we needed to know.
I was sure that someone had died. Her voice broke when she started to explain that it was worse. It turns out that the one person that I had looked up to had been a fraud all along. Mike was alive but he was about to become dead to us.
My mom and Mike had been together for six years when she figured out that he had been married to someone else for seven. In addition to his condos, Mike had a million dollar home on a half a million dollar lot and a country club wife.
My mom had apparently suspected that something was off for a while but, the day before, something had tipped her off. She had wanted to send a card to Mike for his birthday and had addressed it to his primary address (an out of state residence that he had previously provided to her for some reason that I can’t recall) but the card came back as undeliverable. When she went to look him up to make sure that she hadn’t made a mistake, the address that she found online was completely different than the one that he had given her. Moreover, the incorrect address was for a mini-mall and the correct address had no apartment number. It looked like the correct address was for a house.
It turned out that my mom had taken off work that day to drive three hours away and find Mike’s house in northern Delaware. He was supposed to be in California. Instead, his car was in the driveway of the house and his wife answered the door. My mom made something up, left, and called him. He met her in the parking lot of the mini-mall down the street and then they broke up.
It was like someone had knocked the wind out of me.
As mom dissolved into tears in my 14 year-old brother’s arms, my mind immediately went to a day that I had been in the back of Mike’s car and noticed a child’s bath toy on the floor. At the time, I had written it off as belonging to his nephews – he had said before that he had nephews – but now I wasn’t so sure.
I asked my mom if he had kids and she said that he had sworn that he didn’t. She didn’t look convinced. I decided not to tell her about the toy.
My mom went on to explain that there must have been many, many lies. After all, they had been together for the better part of a decade. That time that he couldn’t be with us for Christmas because his work was sending him to Turkey? She was certain that that had been false. There had been details that were off at the time that she had decided not to question.
Every Christmas, in fact, there had been another Turkey. Where were the pictures? Why hadn’t we gotten any souvenirs? Why would someone of his standing in a big company need to travel on holidays?
Mike’s parents supposedly lived in Pennsylvania, just two hours away. Why hadn’t we ever met them?
He owned condos in California, Florida, and Texas. Why had my mom only been invited to California?
As my mother started to overwhelm us with information, I began to get over the shock. A feeling of disgust, mostly with myself, began to take hold. It was as if suddenly I could see colors which were previously unknown to me. We had been oblivious to so many clues.
Truthfully, though, he had just been a really good liar. The lies themselves weren’t great but the delivery had been impeccable. He had been able to feed us information in such a way as to never prompt us to question him.
Eventually that night, my mom asked us to head on to our dad’s house. She was ready to be alone. Before I left, I called my best friend Leigh and told her that I needed to come over. I dropped my brother at my dad’s, leaving him to explain all this to my father and stepmother, and then drove to Leigh’s. When she opened her porch door, I finally broke down. It was the hardest that I had cried in a long time. It took Leigh nearly ten minutes to get the story out of me.
My mom was broken for a while after that. She’s had a lot of practice with hard knocks and, most of the time, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that something was wrong. But, I kept catching her crying in the moments when she thought she was alone. She started turning music on when she took a bath, would disappear for long periods of time, or “go read” on the porch but return with red eyes. Once I walked into the kitchen to see her entire body shaking with tears, chin on her chest, elbows deep in dirty dishes. I hated Mike more in that moment than I ever thought possible.
It broke all of us a little bit.
My brother couldn’t stand watching my mom fall apart. He started finding excuses to be elsewhere. You could see the anger radiating off of him at times. And, we had found out about the lies just months after my grandmother had passed away. Suddenly, we were grieving two deaths. As much as I loved my grandmother, this somehow hurt more.
Every time I was forced to tell someone what had happened (my friends and even a few of my mother’s friends approached me with questions), I discovered more falsehoods, half-truths, and details that I should have asked about but which had failed to occur to me.
I had been so stupid, so naïve. Being played as a fool did not sit well with me. It was incredibly embarrassing. I had always been cautious about getting attached to others but finding out about Mike absolutely cemented my inability to trust.
It didn’t take long before Mike started to try to contact my mom. I think she must have been ignoring his calls to her cell because he started calling the house.
Once, I picked up the phone. When he identified himself, I just hung up. I told my brother, and he said that the same thing had happened to him. We decided not to bother my mom with it.
Eventually though, my mother couldn’t take it anymore. She mentioned that she had talked to him and that he wanted us to know how sorry he was. He had asked if he could come over to the house to talk in person. My brother and I immediately knew that that meant that she was starting to cave. My mom would never forgive Mike but she also wasn’t quite ready to live without him.
It was weird seeing him for the first time after we found out about the lies.
Mike swore that he had left his wife and showed my mom the paperwork that was being drawn up. My mom agreed to take him back. My brother and I didn’t approve but we also couldn’t stomach the idea of her being heartbroken forever. When Mike came over to apologize, we accepted but then immediately left to go to stay with my dad for a few days. After all, I could barely look at him. It was like setting my eyes on a completely different person. He might as well have showed up with green hair or a clown suit on.
That night, I sat at the dinner table and told my dad and stepmother, Sharon, that Mike was back. They were absolutely shocked. My stepmom rhetorically asked what on earth my mother thought she was doing. I left the dinner table shaking and near tears.
Sharon’s comment wasn’t that far out of left field. I had thought the same thing myself. Its just that I was furiously defensive of my mother at the time. When Sharon came to my room later to apologize, I was barely able to articulate a reply. I couldn’t tell her but, I was also disgusted that my mother hadn’t been strong enough to tell him to go to hell. My mom may have been ready to let it go. I was not.
Our family pretended that things were back to normal for a while but it was never really okay after that. Suddenly, they were a couple again and it was understood that we were not to discuss the matter any further.
Even though my mom was with Mike, it was clear that she didn’t trust him. She kept saying that he owed her and starting spending a ton of his money. He mostly acted like he was around out of obligation.
My own relationship with Mike was fairly strained after that. I ended up researching scholarships and colleges on my own. I drove myself to the SAT test, filled out my FAFSA request (for federal student aid), and edited my own college application essays. My mom and dad visited potential colleges with me. Mike didn’t make it to my high school graduation.
They were together for almost a year before things fell apart again.
This time, I was in college and mom caught him in another lie when just the three of us were on a trip to San Francisco together. It was my first trip to California and the first few days in the city were great. I liked the vacation even better when we drove down the coast to Carmel and Big Sur.
The blow up happened when Mike took us to his condo in Monterrey. He had the nerve to leave his wife’s bicycle in the apartment and then try to tell us that it was for his bosses daughter. Mike was “just holding onto her birthday surprise.”
It was a weak lie to begin with, made even more ridiculous by the fact that both bikes were clearly well-used. When confronted, he admitted that he had felt obligated to at least try work things out with his wife.
My mother was absolutely livid. This particular lie, the fact that it was so dumb, didn’t make us feel stupid. Instead, it made it clear that Mike thought we were stupid. We were not.
The anger that we felt that day did the trick. My mom and I spent our last night in California at the Westin. She took a long bath while I used his credit card to order tons of room service and Pay-Per-View movies. We put strawberries on our ice cream and drank an expensive bottle of champagne.
Somehow, I know that we were both happy that night. There was an overwhelming sense of relief that a decision had been made and it was the right one. My mom seemed powerful to me for the first time in a long time.
There were no tears that night.
That was the last time that I saw Mike. It will be 15 years ago this year and my mother hasn’t been in a relationship since, even though she was only 45 when they broke up for good.
In Mike’s absence, I finished college, got into law school, ditched it after a year, and went on to a relatively successful career in a field that I’m good at but couldn’t care less about. In short, I’m not a rock star but I turned out okay. I’d like to say that I never received another D but there was one more in college. The difference is that it was a D+ and I worked really hard for it.
Despite the damage he did, it’s difficult not to think of Mike a little fondly. His encouragement made quite an impact on me. I am certain that he would be proud of how far I’ve come and am thankful that he helped open my eyes to the possibilities available to me.
From time to time, I consider getting in touch. He almost got an invite to my college graduation, an email when I found out that my LSAT score was in the 94th percentile nationwide, a call when I was thinking about leaving law school. But I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. I can’t help but remember that most of the life lessons he taught me were painful and that I’m still angry with him.
In the end, the most important thing that I learned from Mike was how to spot a lie.
Sometimes, I wonder if the good memories that Mike helped create and the resulting drive to be more serious about my education are worth the blows that he dealt me. I find it weird that one person could both help and hurt me so much. It’s hard to tell if I would have been as successful without him.
In the end, wondering is an exercise in futility. I’ll never know if I would have been as motivated under different circumstances. Maybe if my mom hadn’t met him, the next guy would have helped me even more. On the flip side, it’s possible that I would have been more successful if my mom had carried on as his mistress: in some alternate universe, maybe Mike helped me get a better GPA in college or encouraged me to stay at law school instead of quitting my first year.
The only thing I can be sure of is that, for a little while, it was really nice to know that someone was paying attention. When my friends were discussing their future kids, I couldn’t help but think that those kids are very lucky to have parents who are already worrying about their academic future. It made me thankful that Mike came along when he did, before it was too late.
After the conversation with my friends, I got curious about what Mike is doing now. I thought maybe I would actually reach out this time and say thank you. Ironically, this research turned up one last lie. It turns out that Mike doesn’t have a PhD in Education after all. His company bio lists a Masters in Psychology. I wonder if he knows that he’s a pathological liar… I decided to pass on that catch-up email one more time and write this post instead.
Thanks anyway, Mike.