Everything about me was made up, except the one truth I couldn't tell her.
At Bud & Alley's, a Florida bar overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, I told four women I'd just met, a group in their mid-forties on a ladies-only trip to the coast, about my plans to ask my girlfriend to marry me. Jocelyn was in the bathroom. Earlier she and I had coaxed the women from their bar stools and asked them to join us on the dance floor. We all managed to work up a sweat. Afterwards, sipping our drinks, the women asked me how long Jocelyn and I had been together. That's when I told them about the proposal.
Jocelyn and I first met three years ago, I explained, when we were sophomores at Dartmouth. One fall day, while jogging through the woods, she and I literally ran into each other on the Appalachian Trail. I knew we were on the trail because it is marked by lengths of twine strung between the trees. We went on a date the next day. "And y'all are still together," one of the women said. "That is just too romantic." I asked if I could let them in on a secret.
"Tomorrow when we get on the plane to fly home," I said, "I'm going to ask Jocelyn to marry me."
Although I'd gone to college up north, I was born and raised in Mississippi, which is to say the women's flamboyant, drawling gasps of "Aw muh Gawd!" did not come as a culture shock. I explained to them that, because I wasn't yet making much money at my job, I couldn't afford a ring. Instead I was going to tie a piece of twine around her finger. The women fanned themselves with cocktail napkins, saying they wished their lives were such a fairy tale. I told them mum's the word just as Jocelyn got back from the bathroom.
They were right about one thing. The story really was a fairy tale. Not a single word of it was true.
The act of lying has been one of the few constants of my love life. More so than clumsy first kisses. More so than awkward first dates. Telling elaborate lies is something I've done more often than getting my heart broken. Throughout college and into early adulthood, my go-to name when hitting on women in bars was "Gardner Barnes," a character played by Kevin Costner in Fandango whom I'd idolized as a teenager. During my twenties and up until recently, my standard persona with girlfriends made me out to be a talented artist undaunted by my prospects, though I secretly agonized I'd never succeed as a writer. I have acted like a handsome man while believing I am ugly, and I have acted like a kind person while believing I am cruel. Honestly, I have considered myself a complete fraud.
At the bar in Florida, returning from the bathroom, Jocelyn could have easily ruined the ruse. She could have wrinkled her brow and shook her head at mention of a jog through the woods and meeting around twine. So, before the group of women had a chance to break the spell, I said to Jocelyn, "Honey, I was just telling them the story of how we first met. Can you believe it's been three years since that day on the Appalachian Trail?"
"But I thought it was four years ago." Jocelyn took her seat, no confusion in her eyes, no strain to her voice. "Wait, you're right. We were sophomores, not freshmen."
"Consider yourself lucky, sweetheart," one of the women said to her. "My husband never remembers our anniversary."
I pantomimed loosening the knot of a necktie and asked them not to put any ideas in my girlfriend's head. One of the women sitting out of Jocelyn's line of sight gave me a less than subtle wink, and another of them pinched the side of my kneecap while pretending to pick up a straw. I didn't know what to say next. All the sudden I became very thirsty.
Without a moment's hesitation, Jocelyn took up my slack by telling the story of how, about a month into our relationship, we had made plans to elope. She told our new friends how the two of us would stay up late discussing our life together. "We weren't just talking about a future," Jocelyn said like a world-class grifter. "We were talking about our future." We planned to move to L.A. I would write screenplays, and she would produce films. We'd buy a house in the hills, drive matching sports cars, and own at least two dogs. Again, it was nothing but lies.
None of the women asked Jocelyn what we had planned to name the dogs, but if they had, I am certain Jocelyn could have effortlessly spouted off a list. Dirk Doggler, Rover Cleveland, Sherlock Bones, Virginia Woof. That night at Bud & Alley's was not our first con.
For years Jocelyn had been my partner in deceit. Despite the on-again, off-again nature of our relationship, she and I, whenever we veered to the more-than-friends side of the spectrum, always turned our courtship into the stuff of legend. "Romance" can mean "flight of fancy" as well as "love affair." One time we ordered up champagne to the honeymoon suite at The Stanhope Hotel. Another time we accepted toasts for our anniversary at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. During all those occasions and after all those falsehoods, however, the only real lie was the one I told myself. What I'd said about Jocelyn wasn't a charade. I was in love with her.
I really did want to ask her to marry me. I really did want to grow old with her. All of my ridiculous lies were actually wishful thinking. Jocelyn was the most beautiful, charming, intelligent woman I'd ever met, so how could I not want to have a long, happy life with her? Every time she laughed at one of my stupid jokes I allowed myself to believe I might really be a charismatic person, and every time she complimented the color of my eyes I allowed myself to believe I might really be a handsome man. Each of the lies I told not only Jocelyn but also the other women I'd dated — that I was a generous and confident writer with an undoubtedly bright future ahead of me — were in truth the things I wished I were and could very possibly become. Gardner Barnes was just a guy played by Kevin Costner. Only people who don't believe in themselves try to be someone else.
It was getting late at the bar. Soon enough Jocelyn and I would have to head back to the beach house we were staying in for the weekend, the fairy tale of our marriage vanishing with the bright Florida sunlight at dawn the next day. I paid our tab as Jocelyn made one last trip to the bathroom. The four women swarmed around me.
"She is gorgeous."
"Y'all are perfect."
"Both so adorable."
"Dream come true."
One of them handed me a cardboard coaster soggy with Bud Light, on the back of which she had written a phone number. "Be sure and call us after you ask her," the women said almost in unison. "We're all dying to know what she says." On Jocelyn's return, I told our new friends goodbye, promised to be in touch, and patted my back pocket, where I had placed the soggy coaster.
The next day, lying on the beach, Jocelyn and I had a good laugh about the previous night, both swapping turns recounting the details. Our flight was not till later in the afternoon. Even though something inside me ached — not just with the thought of what supposedly lay ahead at the airport, but also with every mention of the lies we had told about our relationship — I was oblivious in those days to the cause of the pain.
Back then I was a con artist of my own heart. I was the mark, and I was the crook. What did that make Jocelyn? She was, unbeknownst to herself, the shill. My true feelings for her were stolen from me by myself. Jocelyn helped without her knowledge.
All I could do on the beach was act as if I bought the lie. I pretended not to notice the way her shoulders caught the light while she swam through the emerald water. It took incredible effort to ignore my pulse ratcheting high as she lay in a chaise lounge with her hair dripping on my shin. I attempted to overlook how each of her freckles distinguished itself while her cheekbones dried from the cool gulf breeze. Two hours later, it was time to go to the airport.
"I had a really great time with you this weekend," Jocelyn said when we arrived at Panama City Beach International. "Wish I could tell you how much I appreciate it."
There were certain things I wished I could tell her as well, but the only thing I could manage was to offer her a smile. Jocelyn returned the gesture. Her skin was tan from the beach and her hair was frizzy from the wind and her cheeks were rosy from the heat. For a moment I could not gather my breath. She had taken it from me. On the intercom a robotic voice announced the gate of our departure.
Some might say our flawed reality can never equal the perfection of our fantasies, but I prefer to think the only difference is in the particulars of each. One day I will find someone to live with in truth, just as happily as I did with Jocelyn in my lies. The only thing is it will not be her. Eventually someone will come along whose actuality exceeds the fiction I have created of my life.
But at the airport, about to fly home, I had not yet come to that realization. The flight boarded in ten minutes. The terminal was almost empty. I removed the coaster from my pocket and typed the number into my cell phone. There in Florida, I sent those four women from Bud & Alley's a text message that, though not true at the time, I know will be for somebody, one of these days.
"SHE SAID YES!"
Photography by Laetitia Eskens.