“Well?” Greg swung his jacket over the back of his chair. He sat down, but somehow he still projected just as much energy as he had when he was standing. Greg’s broad smile revealed teeth that shone bright, as though they had somehow caught and intensified the sunlight pouring in the café window. “Tell me about her! Come on, man.”
Mark’s smile was much more tentative, and, he believed, less attractive than his brother’s. His older brother had a charisma that filled the room, with a handsome face and muscled body to match it. It was intimidating, to say the least.
Mark sat down across from Greg. He felt clumsy and slow by comparison. His hand shook slightly as he adjusted his chair. “Well, I, um,” he stammered. “Where do you want me to start?”
“Wherever you want.” Greg smiled again. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never stopped smiling. Mark could hardly picture Greg without a smile on his face. Even when it wasn’t on his lips, it was in his eyes.
“Okay. Um, she’s, you know. She’s nice,” Mark said.
The waitress arrived. Mark was so grateful for the distraction that he couldn’t focus on her words. He brought the slim menu up in front of him, like a barrier between himself and his brother. Greg reached across the table and gently pushed the menu down.
“Mark, you’ve been like this your whole life,” Greg said. His smile transformed into a smirk, accented by a raised eyebrow. “You’re so secretive! I’m your brother, man. I want to know about this girl you’ve been seeing. I always told you everything about mine!”
True, Greg had done so all through high school and college. He’d shared what Mark considered an embarrassing amount sometimes — no, every time. He still shared more than his wife would probably want another person to know, but knowing Rhonda, she would just laugh it off. She loved Greg. Women loved Greg. People loved Greg, and not just because he was physically attractive. He always seemed interested in what someone had to say. He wanted to know about you, and what you were doing, and what was going on in your life. He was doing it now. He was incessantly genuine.
So how did Mark let Greg know that he had been lying to him?
“I said she’s nice,” Mark said.
“Yeah, I got that part,” Greg said. He laughed. “I wouldn’t let my little brother date her if she was mean.”
“You don’t get to say who I date,” Mark said, pretending to be offended, while also hoping to sidetrack the conversation just a little bit.
“No, I don’t,” Greg said. “But you know what I mean. Mark. What is she like?” Mark opened his mouth, but Greg held up a warning finger. “And don’t you dare say she’s nice.”
Mark hesitated. He didn’t know what to say, because he didn’t want to keep lying to his brother. He knew it wasn’t true, because everyone lies, but he just had this sense that Greg had never lied to him. “She has blond hair,” Mark said. It hurt to say it, because he was just continuing the lie. The further he went with it, the more painful it would get. He knew that, while also recognizing that he would still do it. He’d been doing it for years.
“There we go,” Greg said. “Now I know more about her than I’ve ever dreamed of knowing.” Greg winked. “You can tell me what she looks like if you want, but that’s not the important stuff. What is she like, man? What does she like to do? She’s your first girlfriend. You can’t just leaving me hanging here with no details.”
Mark smiled, and this time, he felt he almost matched his brother’s authenticity. Of course his brother would say her looks weren’t the important part. It was sort of funny, because every girl Greg had ever been with had been at least as physically beautiful as him; but when Mark thought about it, Greg had always talked about something other than a physical flaw when he’d broken it off with a girl.
“She likes video games, I guess,” Mark said. The lie continued, but how could he break it off now? Greg seemed so excited. “It’s nice, because we get to play together. She likes to play co-op more than compete against each other.”
“That’s great!” Greg said. “I don’t really play much anymore. Rhonda only ever played to humor me, and Ethan won’t be old enough to play with me for a long time.”
“Yeah, it’s nice,” Mark said. He’d played video games with his brother when they were both younger, but their age gap meant they weren’t really on equal footing. Greg was better than some older brothers at putting up with him, but he still had been at his least accommodating when Mark had been a bit too young to actually be any good at the games. “She doesn’t really like movies, though. Especially the comic movies.”
Greg looked aghast. He put a hand to his chest. “What? Who doesn’t like movies?”
“She doesn’t.” Mark shrugged. “She wants to be engaged in the things she does. She’ll read, some, but she can barely sit through a movie.” The lie was coming out easier now, though it still cut Mark a little every time he spoke. The only balm to the pain was the fact that he was at least telling a partial truth.
Greg shuddered. “Not even the Marvel movies?”
Mark shook his head.
“Or romance? Romantic comedies? Period dramas? Horror?”
“Man, those are all at like, opposite ends of the spectrum.” Somehow, Greg managed to feign disappointment while still smiling. He laughed again, easily. He wasn’t truly disappointed. He was just engaged in what Mark was telling him. “It’s cool, though. Everyone has their interests.”
That was almost word-for-word how Greg had defended Mark to their parents, when Mark had refused to do any of the sports they had insisted he try out for. Greg was a prodigious athlete. Through his time in grade school, he had participated in, at various times, baseball, soccer, football, track, swimming, wrestling, tennis, and even fencing. He was good at all of them, though never the best on the team. Because he enjoyed them all equally, he had never put his focus on excelling at one.
Their father, who had also been an athlete when he was in high school, had insisted that Mark had to participate in a sport. But in that respect, Mark wasn’t anything like Greg, their father, or their mother, who had been on the volleyball team herself in high school. Sports held almost zero interest for him. He had relented, slightly, by participating briefly in gymnastics and judo. He wasn’t horrible at either, admittedly, but he didn’t have any love for them. Still, it had only been Greg’s insistence to their parents that Mark should be able to do what made him happy that had convinced them to stop trying to force sports on him.
When the waitress came, they both ordered soup and a sandwich. Greg ordered a black coffee, while Mark ordered an herbal tea. Greg had always been such strong advocate for his brother. Mark questioned why he felt he needed to continue to lie to him. Surely, if he told the truth, Greg would just accept it, smile, and ask friendly questions.
Yet Mark remained intimidated. If anything, it was Greg’s every-accepting, congenial attitude that scared Mark away from the truth. His brother was so frustratingly good, and good at everything. He felt like a failure for lying to him, and for what he was lying about. He was afraid his brother would be disappointed in him. Lying, of course, would only make it worse, but it still felt like the only tool Mark had at his disposal.
“I taught her how to play Magic,” Mark volunteered. Another partial truth. No, it was mostly true. There was just one little lie that kept running through everything Mark said, because he was afraid.
“Oh yeah?” Greg said. “How did that go?”
“Well, she’s better at it that you are,” Mark teased. Greg had begrudgingly agreed to let Mark teach him how to play the complicated card game when Mark was still in high school, since Mark was too nervous to go to any of the events at the local card shop, and he didn’t really have many close friends at the time. It was one of the few things Mark had seen Greg try, struggle, and, basically, fail. “She actually caught on really easily.”
“Good for her,” Greg said. “It seems like a cool game. I get that. But why the heck does it have to be so complicated?”
“That’s what’s fun about it,” Mark said. “The rules are so deep, and intricate.”
“Look, I’m happy with Cards Against Humanity,” Greg said. “That’s as about as deep and intricate as I want to get.”
“Well, she likes board games, too,” Mark said. “So she’s used to, ah, more complex rules systems.” Mark had tried to introduce his family to some of the board games he liked to play with his college friends. His father had given up and left the room, and his mother had suggested that perhaps they could just have family conversation or watch a movie next time, instead. Greg had been alright with continuing to play, but it wasn’t nearly as fun with only two players.
Mark wondered, if he revealed to Greg that he’d been lying all this time, what Greg would say. If he was honest with himself, he knew Greg would be fine with it. He would understand why Mark was lying, and would forgive him without question. He knew that, logically, but it didn’t feel real. There was so much pressure from their parents for both of them to have wives and be successful and give them grandchildren. Mark knew that Greg had to feel it, too, even if he bore it better than Mark did.
“Have you met her family yet?” Greg asked. Mark blinked. The question felt close enough to what he had been thinking about that, for moment, he wondered if he’d been thinking aloud.
“No,” he said, feeling anxiety creep up in his chest. This is where maintaining the lie would be more difficult. His parents would never accept the fact that he had lied to them. They would be furious. But wouldn’t Greg defend him? “No, uh. No, they don’t know about me.”
“What?” Greg said, and for the first time, all hints of his smile left his face. “What do you mean they don’t know about you? Like, she’s ashamed of you?”
“No, it’s not quite that —”
“Look. I love you. You are nothing to be ashamed of. You are wonderful, smart, and handsome. If she feels like she has to hide you from her family she doesn’t deserve you.”
Mark’s cheeks prickled with embarrassment. “Greg, no. It’s not like that at all. You’re overreacting.”
“Is it a race thing?” Greg asked. “Because if it is, that’s shitty. If she’s making excuses for her parents being racist, then that just means she’s a different kind of racist.”
“Oh my god, Greg. No.” Mark put his hand over his eyes. This is where the lie began to fall apart. He found himself desperately trying to find a way to maintain it. Yet within him, fighting against that drive, was another: Stop the lie. Do it now, because the conversation had already led naturally to that point. Just tell him. Just tell Greg —
“She’s a boy,” Greg said. His smile was lighter, now; just a faint curve at the corner of his lips. “Right?”
Mark froze. He stopped breathing. It felt like his heart had just stopped in his chest. He finally managed to peek out from between his fingers. “Yes,” he whispered.
“Mark,” Greg said. “Dude. Why did you lie? You know I don’t care about that stuff.”
Mark found himself crying. He shook his head, thinking about Elliot. Thinking about how he could have been talking about the real Elliot this whole time. Well, he had been, but he’d been forcing Greg to picture a woman.
“His name is Elliot,” Mark said. “He’s not a she. I’m sorry.”
Greg smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I want that to be the last time you ever apologize about Elliot,” Greg said. “And you’re not apologizing about him, got it? You’re saying sorry that you lied to me.” Greg reached across the table to take his brother’s hand. “I love you, man. You don’t ever need to lie to me. Now. When do I get to meet him?”