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Scott Parson, dabbler in typestries and fabulations

Something True You Never Told Me

“And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove!  for then would I fly away, and be at rest.”
—Psalm 55:6

Was ever a wife’s birthday wish so wrapped in scorpions and barbed wire?

Russell Shears stood outside a dingy little Upper West Side bistro he hadn’t been inside for years.

His wife, Diana, asked him to meet her here for her birthday lunch. She’d given him the address, between Broadway and Amsterdam, but not the name of the place. Now he remembered. The place seemed not to have changed at all. Which made the thought of going inside worse.

The place still had the same narrow front, the same red cabana, and same year-round Christmas lights strung across the entrance. The faded credit card decals in the window still curled at the edges. The neon beer signs still flickered as they had back then. Jammed against the outside wall under the window was the same weathered wooden bench, stained with the same pale rings from the condensation of a thousand wet bottles. An easy spot to wait and smoke.

Russell hadn’t set foot in this place since—since failing miserably in his marriage vows with a redhead from work while his wife was in Austin on business. As long ago as that had been, the buried feeling struggled in its shallow grave, beginning to churn in him again, fresh and vile.

Even now, he couldn’t—wouldn’t say the redhead’s name. Otherwise, he would give her back her power. Power he’d handed over to her the first moment he sat down with her.

Lunch on his wife’s birthday was traditional. But this year Diana had said no gifts. Things we have in plenty. What she wanted was something of him.

Like something handmade? he’d asked her. Like a pot holder or ashtray?

“You be there, and I’ll tell you what it is,” she said, then gave him a bright smile of sudden inspiration. “A reverse birthday surprise,” she said. “I’ll tell you then and you’ll be the one surprised.”

He’d frowned.

“Don’t you like surprises?”

“You know me.” But he added with a smile, “I’ve always left the spontaneity to you.”

“All right. I’ll give you a hint. It’s something true you never told me.”

“That you’ll tell me?”

“That you’ll tell me.”

“About what?”

“I’ll let you know. At lunch,” she said again.

There’s nothing left to tell, he’d said. But her smile suggested she thought otherwise.

It wasn’t much of a surprise. With his hair-trigger conscience that had ravaged him since grade school, he could think of only one secret thing left in him.

The six weeks Diana left Russell alone in the city while she worked in Austin. This place. The redhead.

Early in their marriage, before kids, Diana traveled for work as a Human Resources consultant. She spent six weeks on a project in Austin, the longest she’d been away from him. Russell’s meeting up with the redhead had been accidental and foolish and exciting and stupid and overwhelming and, finally, sad. And finished by the time Diana came home. Truthfully? Finished because Diana came home.

Standing there in front of this place, now, he knew it had to be what she would ask about. What had she guessed, after all this time? What did she know? How little could he say and keep things as they were?

It wasn’t like he could edit out the redhead and simply share the details of his days when he should have been alone. Everything they’d done together while Diana was away had been stirred and steeped in a cauldron of intimacy. Picnics in the park. Athletic lovemaking. Dinner at this little bistro before a long night in bed together, or brunch after a long morning in bed together. They talked books and music and life, pretending a future they both knew was a fantasy, fortified against reality with wine or bourbon.

He had no skill in the language of longing. Never had. Conjuring such words to satisfy his wife now would strike Diana as fragile, empty, false. His remoteness was too practiced, too polished. He could not resurrect the passions of that time and pretend it belonged to Diana.

For the longest time after Diana returned, Russell had withheld himself in dread, waiting to be found out. He could not rejoin himself to his wife with anything like the abandon they’d enjoyed before. It only compounded the dishonesty and sharpened the failure.

Some murmured word or some unfamiliar touch would expose him. So he held back a piece of himself in case Diana, uncovering the truth, left him and he was free—not free, thrown out—to make a different life. An ejected planetary body still within the gravitational pull of the redhead, it seemed possible they would re-enter each other’s orbit. He harbored the tiniest ember of that contraband flame, not of hope, but of necessity, to be fanned back into life. A light and warmth against a cold night of his own making.

He spent long days living in a fantasy of lurking abandonment. He could not imagine Diana having more commitment to their marriage than he had shown. It wasn’t possible for him to relax in the idea she would fight harder to keep them together. Only now did he think he might have been projecting his own weaknesses on her.

As he waited for her to discover his failure, he moved through the days as if already rejected, already abandoned. He culled from her words and actions those that fit his self-inflicted delusion. He spun a fiction of separation until day’s end, when he would find Diana still there, still his. Each evening a surprise, draining the pus of accumulated dread.

Since childhood, he could fashion the most extravagant evasions of painful realities. He would burrow behind the ephemeral walls of an elaborate emotional pillow fort. It was his way of warding off the harshest of blows, waiting for some fantastic escape from hateful truths. Which rarely came. But he stood ready.

Imagining himself orphaned as he sat in the school counselor’s office, waiting for his parents to come collect him after his teacher caught him learning to masturbate in the restroom.

Imagining himself saving co-workers from a crazed office gunman as he sat with a supervisor at his old job, waiting to apologize to the women in his office for the copy of Penthouse left out on his desk.

Imagining Diana interrupting his confession with her own admission of a secret rowdy and random sex life on the road as he sat in their bedroom, waiting for Diana to come through the door, back from Austin.

He wished he could vanish.

Or wake up to find he’d slept through a life-long dream of warning, a Dickensian delusion. It would be the day before she left for Austin. He would have the fresh length of days ahead of him. He could re-live his life in complete fidelity to his wife. The dead weight of wrong would be gone. The malignant mass spoiling what little domestic tranquility he managed for himself would not even be a memory.

He welcomed dementia rather than be here.

Because there is no forgetting. Only those few caustic memories, an acid bath into which he dipped each good memory, dissolving the best of himself in the worst of himself.

He’d been standing outside too long. Diana, who was never late of course, would be inside watching him dither. His discomfort and distraction would harden her suspicions if she didn’t already know.

He wished for the restaurant to collapse at his feet and he would wake up. He would be in the kitchen instead, getting breakfast for the two of them. Champagne and toasted muffins. Served to her in bed for her birthday. He’d never done that for her.

Only by will could he spark his nerves to animate muscle, joint, and blood to move him across the sidewalk and go inside.

Russell lurched down the steps and through the open door. The smells enfolded him all over again. The aged wood, old upholstery, used cigarettes, stale beer, and garlic, all still there. The redhead had been a smoker, the soft pack of Salems always at her elbow. For her, he’d cultivated an affection for the fragrances of her habit. The first strike of a match. Freshly lit tobacco. After-cigarette breath. The memory of it made his mouth water and his lips tingle.

This place had been her suggestion. Just drinks to relax. A spot far enough out of the way so none of their co-workers would happen upon them.

At the time, he’d thought to invite others from the office. A passive show of fidelity, of self-restraint.

But he hadn’t. Sitting across from her that first evening, he was glad he had not.

There’s something magnetic about a woman, who should be off-limits, putting herself within reach over whiskey in a half-lit restaurant.

His eyes adjusted to the light now and he saw Diana giving him a happy wave and a delighted smile. Not the sort of look and reception he’d expect as a prelude to confrontation over the grassy grave of a long-dead infidelity.

Odd. Diana had on the lavender suit she so often traveled in for work. She hadn’t needed to wear it for years now. He thought it was long gone. Time and again she complained how uncomfortable it was. But it looked elegant on her and made a good first impression on new clients back when she worked full time.

It could be nothing but coincidence, made all the more piercing by his guilty conscience. It might even turn out to be an enjoyable and absorbing time with his wife. If he forced himself to bury the virulent memories and relax.

Russell was a step or two away from Diana’s table when he spotted the redhead sitting alone at a table toward the back. She held a glass of wine while studying a book lying open on the table. Their table. How many times had Russell come in, finding her like that as she waited for him? From their first meeting until the last, while his wife worked a half-dozen states away?

He looked at Diana. She still smiled, her hands folded on the table.

This could not be a coincidence. This restaurant. The lavender suit. The birthday wish for something true.

Had Diana and the redhead connected somehow? An accidental meeting somewhere? Here, maybe? Had she recognized Diana? Chatted her up? For what purpose? To confess? Repent? A cleansing of the conscience, thinking it was all old news, surely by now caked over with the dirt of better years?

He looked again toward the back of the restaurant at the redhead. Yes. It was her. Older, wearing different glasses, but unmistakable. She hadn’t yet looked up, still absorbed in her wine and book.

 He felt the old pleasures move again, like the surface of water disturbed at the bottom of a deep well. A sensation too faint to displace what he felt now. Promises made brittle, a grinding grit underfoot, walking through the days of his marriage.

She wore her hair the way he remembered it, a peculiar trigger of passion for him. She had teased him about cutting it all off and leaving it as a wig for him to remember her by.

Had he been that shallow? For a twist of hair, a touch of makeup, he’d chosen to subject himself to the anxiety, nausea, the bursts of temper that went along with his infidelity?

The redhead ran her hand through her hair and turned another page of her book.

Is she part of Diana’s birthday conspiracy? Is that the plan? Diana watches him as the redhead pretends not to have seen him, giving his conscience time to reach a rolling boil?

He stood at his wife’s table, watching the redhead.

Diana twisted in her chair to see what he was looking at. But Russell pulled out the chair across from her, knocking against the table. Diana looked at him instead as he sat down.

“You’re late,” she said.

“You didn’t tell me the name of the place.”

“Wasn’t hard to find, was it?”


“I watched you standing out front. I was about to send the waiter to get you.”

“Wasn’t sure if I had the right place.”


“Didn’t seem like any of our usual places for your birthday.”

“I know, right? So far out of the way. Cozy. Romantic.”

He felt the tick of a clock in his chest. The silent countdown had begun. Confess of his own accord and win forgiveness. Or wait for Diana to lay it out to him and lose it all.

He should have spoken of it before this. Give them time to bleed, and heal, and scar over.

But if she knows nothing, he risked destroying a lifetime with only a few words.

Russell realized he hadn’t been listening to Diana nattering about the old days. The days before kids, being apart, how hard it was. Sometimes the only thing they agreed upon in those days.

Diana had returned early from Austin to surprise him. He was surprised. He broke it off with the redhead, suddenly, painfully. A villain in his own story. It never happened again. Through awkward weeks of biting off his half-spoken thoughts, explaining away accidental innuendo, and steering through his own stormy silences, he dug the grave of his failure and buried it.

Diana must have known from the stilted phone calls between them while she was on the road. The worst of these still played through his head as if re-reading the script of his hollow words. He would catch himself repeating a snatch of old conversation, hoping to speak it into some eternal record with more passion, more authenticity. More innocence.

How much easier it would have been to speak without hiding. To never have come to this place that first time.

But it wasn’t the slow erosion of those sharp peaks of painful dishonesty that frustrated him as he inched away from the episode. It was how he never seemed able to give himself to Diana completely again. He created a rock-hard habit of reserve that Diana could no longer get through.

Perhaps her question about something true was no more than that—an attempt to peel away his encrusted layers. Perhaps she wanted to find underneath the raw, tender person he’d been. She might be ready to accept whatever it was he had done, whatever apology he might make, to preserve what they had.


He’d made every effort to be a competent lover, a tolerable life mate, an enthusiastic companion in Diana’s adventures. But he never unlocked that part of himself again. He tried. He told himself he’d tried. She had the right to it. But he was wily and selfish, and never let it loose.

He hoped that he’d made her happy. She seemed happy as he looked at her across the table. When he was at his moodiest, she would be sad for him, asking what she could do. Of course there was nothing. He would give her his grateful-you-care smile, and jolly himself out of it.

If he’d been a courageous man, he’d have told her. He would have not waited until now.

“What?” he asked, his nerves taut as he tried to fix his gaze on her eyes. Liars don’t make eye contact. It was something he practiced ever after.

“Something true you never told me.”

“What’s left to tell? You know everything about me.”

“Come on. Everything?”

He rolled his eyes but more to look again at the redhead at the back of the restaurant. She still lingered over her wine, still absorbed in her book.

Even if her presence here was a barely believable coincidence, she would see him and Diana when she left. Does he ignore her and betray her all over again? Does he introduce her to Diana and risk her speaking of their infidelity to clear her own conscience?

There was a crashing noise back in the kitchen.

“Hope that wasn’t ours,” he said and immediately regretted it, afraid Diana would look around again.

But she didn’t. She continued to look at him and said once more, “Something true you never told me.”

“Haven’t I always been an open book to you?” said Russell, certain now that something dangerous lurked under her words.

“You think I know you that well?”


The clock’s running. He’s convinced. She’s waiting for the truth. Waiting for him to fight for his place in her love and respect. Waiting for him to prove to her he was worth all her days and effort after.

He looked for something to fiddle with, to buy himself more time. There was nothing on the table. He looked around for a waiter to bring them bread or water or take their drink orders. Something to pre-occupy himself and deflect Diana.

There didn’t appear to be any of the waitstaff on the floor and no one behind the bar. They might all be dealing with whatever crisis had happened in the kitchen. There came another long, tearing crash.

This time the redhead looked up and saw Russell watching her. She seemed confused, then recognized him as if for the first time becoming aware he was in the place. Her surprise seemed genuine, unpracticed.

Now it had become a race. To offer a confession or receive an accusation, having to decide such a thing at heartbreaking speed. All because he lacked the courage to trust Diana’s forgiveness, the granite reality of her love, the tensile strength of her character, and the promises she made in spite of his own fragile character and the brittle promises he made to her in return.

He thought he saw the redhead shift her weight in her chair, preparing to rise. He rose before she could get to her feet.

She hadn’t moved out of her chair. Only watched him.

But he was already on his feet. Diana looked up at him, not curious, not expectant. Just watching him, smiling. The same way she did when she held back telling him she was pregnant, finally blurting out her news.

“It’s not a coincidence, is it,” said Russell.


Instead of answering her, he said, “Wait here.”

Diana gave a shrug of her shoulders and a spread of her hands to show him she had nowhere else to be.

He was the bad guy. The bad husband. That’s what was going on here. He’d given his wife a second-place life in his affections. He’d robbed her. She wasn’t asking for anything to which she wasn’t entitled. She wanted to know something true that he’d never told her.

“There’s someone I want you to meet,” he said. Which wasn’t true. If he was to change, to be truthful, he had to change from this minute onward. “It’s time you met someone,” he said to Diana, still watching the redhead.

“Who?” she asked, twisting around in her chair.

He stepped away and moved back toward the redhead’s table.

He hadn’t quite reached where the redhead was sitting when the hostess intercepted him, asking if he preferred a different table.

“No, I’m going to say hello to someone I know.”

When he nodded toward the redhead’s table, her chair was empty. The table was clear. The wine and book were gone.

Had she slipped away to the ladies’ room as soon as the hostess intercepted him? Had she feared the encounter as much as he did?

He turned back to where his wife was sitting, her eyes fixed on him.

“The redhead,” said Russell, “the person sitting at that table. Did she go to the ladies’ room?”

“Would you prefer this table?”

“No. I’d just like to know if the redhead sitting there was in the ladies’ room. She’s a—a friend.”

“You can have this table if you want.”

“The table we have is fine. But I’d like to know if the redhead is in the ladies’ room.”

“No one’s sitting here. You’re welcome to have it.”

Now the foolishness overcame the dread. Hallucinations because of some guilt triggered by Diana choosing this place?

Worse, some kind of early onset Alzheimer’s or other bullshit? That’s the first thing his children would think.

“You’re sure?” he asked, hoping she was wrong.


Of course she wasn’t wrong.

He was wrong.


Diana still watched him. Somehow he needed to salvage this.

“I was looking for someone to bring some bread to the table. Take our drink orders.” He’d tell Diana that it was a mistake. In the dark. He thought he knew someone from work. But she’d ask who. Someone distant would be better, someone from school.

“You’ll have to wait at the bar until the rest of your party is here.”

“There’s just the two of us,” he said, “me and my wife. We’ve already been seated. It’s her birthday.”

“That’s sweet. Did you want a piece of cake and a candle?”

“That would be lovely.” That would be his out. He’d let Diana think he was arranging something special and tell her afterward that it hadn’t been about having her meet someone. He’d said that so he could slip away and arrange the surprise.

“I’ll let the kitchen know. In the meantime, you’ll have to wait at the bar until she gets here. It’s quiet, so there’ll be plenty of tables.”

He looked over to their table.

Wait for what? Diana is sitting right there, still smiling, sheepish, like she’s been caught doing something naughty, the way she does. In the white silk brocade jacket—which is not the lavender suit he first saw her in.

The white silk brocade.

That he’d picked out himself. It had been her favorite. It’s why he chose it.

Everyone said how lovely she looked in it. Before they closed the casket.

This morning.


This is worse. She won’t be coming. He can’t sit at the bar like she’ll turn up. He could pretend she’s delayed. Or he can go wait at the bar and after a few minutes pretend he gets a call and then slip away.

Was that it? He’d waited too long?

He wished he could tell Diana about this. She’d find it funny.

Not his daughter-in-law. She’d turn it into a diagnosis.

He had to keep his children from getting wind of this—episode. That’s what his daughter-in-law will call it. An episode. She’d act concerned and touch his hand in that irritating way she does, raking his nerves.

Russell told the hostess that he’d wait at the bar for their table.

“You want the table, take the table. But you can’t be in here.”

The warm, savory smell of mussels in garlic was gone. Instead, there was the smell of damp plaster and old wet wood exposed to the air for the first time in decades.

The construction guy had his hand out, corralling Russell toward the front of the restaurant.

There was that noise again. Workers pried lath and plaster off the walls and shoveled debris into a wheel barrow. Two other workers watched him with the construction guy.

All the workers had stopped to watch from behind their particle masks, their crowbars dangling from gloved hands.

Russell let the construction guy guide him to the front, plaster and lath crunching underfoot, out the door and up the steps to the street level. He had Russell sit on the broad edge of a concrete tree planter set in the sidewalk.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I still smell the garlic.”

“You hungry? That it? You should get your wife to make you something for lunch.”

Another of the construction guys came over and held out a bottle of water to Russell.

“Here. Probably just dehydrated.” Then he said to the first guy, “Let him sit for little while, see how he does. If he gets weird again call an ambulance to come pick him up. My sister’s got one like him at home.”

The first guy nodded, studying Russell.

“You need us to call somebody?”

“No. Thank you. No,” said Russell.

“Because we can if you need us to.”

Russell raised the bottle of water in a salute and smiled to show how well he was doing.

The construction guy nodded and went back down into the gutted restaurant. More workers rolled wheelbarrows filled to overflowing up the narrow plank to dump their debris in the dumpsters.

Flashing visible between the interminable line of men and their wheelbarrows, Diana stood inside at the window. The redhead stood beside her. Diana blew him a kiss.

“I guess that’s something,” said Russell.

Diana turned to the redhead to speak, but they moved away from the window, fading backward into the dark of the gutted restaurant.

Which wasn’t gutted anymore. The hostess sat on the bench outside, catching a smoke.


“Popo said a bad word, Nana.”

“Russell. Your language,” said Diana. Then she turned to the little girl. “I’m afraid there’ll be more where that came from today.”

The little girl covered her ears and scowled, prepared for more profanity.

“So. Something true you never told me,” said Diana.


“Austin? A redhead? This place?”


Diana stood, her hand out to him. “Come on. Finish your water. They won’t hold our reservation forever.”

Russell looked up at his wife. “On your birthday?”

“You brought it up.”


Image:  by WEB AGENCY on Unsplash