We the Liars by Sam Simas
This opening chapter of Sam Simas’ We the Liars is the first-place winner of the 2021 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, judged by Masie Cochran of Tin House.
We the Liars begins with James preparing to visit a local community college with his mother and boyfriend. The day starts unpromisingly with the burning of bacon, setting the trio off early to stop for breakfast along the way. As the day unfolds, emotional truths and deceptions are revealed: a mother’s longing for a better life for her son; a romantic relationship on the edge of significant, perhaps irrevocable change; and a boy on the cusp of adulthood, navigating and trying to bridge the deep divides of language, race, class, and education. The author is not afraid to tackle these big themes and sets the stage with nuance and care, promising a perceptive and powerful read on love, belonging, and acceptance. —Masie Cochran
James steadied the table as Augie reached into the hazy air to disarm the smoke detector. The hem of Augie’s new sweatshirt lifted away from his stomach, and James glimpsed his hip bones, the bumps of his abdomen, and the trail of light brown hair leading up and down. James glanced toward his mother, who, had she not been fanning the smoke through the open window with a paper towel while the charred pan continued to emit fumes from the sink, would have smirked at his blush. She had intended to wake early and cook them breakfast before their visit to the community college, but she had been sidetracked. Distracted, she said, by a little fox that wandered into the backyard and blinked at her through the window.
His mother stopped fanning to take a wooden spoon from the utensil crock and scraped the pan in the sink.
“Eu esqueci o bacon,” she said to him. As she had done when he was a child, she mostly spoke Portuguese to James. Then, as if remembering Augie could not understand, she said, “Don’t mind me. I forget the bacon.” She bent over the pan, fighting the charred bits, breaking off chunks, then stood up straight to wipe her dark hair away from her forehead and, as she did, moved into a beam of smoke-thickened sunlight that shone through the small window above the sink.
James looked at Augie again—at the large embroidered D claiming all that space in the middle of his green Dartmouth sweatshirt—then, when Augie leaned out too far, James sat on the table and held onto the sweatshirt with both hands.
When Augie had first taken the sweatshirt out of the package, James found the colors generic, the D boastful. But the material felt soft between his fingers as it had against his back while Augie slept with his arm thrown over him, sometimes pulling him closer as if some dream force threatened to pull them apart. He held him tighter.
After Augie silenced the device, James helped him down from the table letting his hand slip under the back of Augie’s hoodie, feeling up the knobs of his spine, lingering between his warm shoulder blades, then removing it before he asked his mother, “What will we do about breakfast?”
“We will get breakfast on the street.”
“On the way, Ma.”
“On the way,” she said with a final push that loosened the remnants of the food sending some skittering across the counter. She looked up at them. Augie stepped toward the counter to collect a morsel in his palm and sampled it.
“Not bad,” he said. “Crispy.”
His mother ate one, too. She and Augie laughed.
“Will we be late if we have to stop?” James asked.
“We will leave now,” she said.
They piled into the beige sedan—a lightly used, non-luxurious well-built car that had been registered to Ana Santos in 1992, but one she had not driven since the day James was old enough to drive himself. On his sixteenth birthday, Ana had said to him, “Dirija para o mercado,” so he’d taken the keys and made only one wrong turn on the way to the market. They’d carried bags of kale, olive oil, and whitefish, as well as the birthday cake, back to the car; and when he’d tried to sit in the passenger’s seat, she’d said, “Não, you drive home, too.” So, he did, and from that day forward, he would drive her wherever she could not walk. She’d ride in the backseat, humming along with the Portuguese music on the radio, relieved she did not have to open her eyes to the roads, which she was convinced would confirm her terror that ghosts rose from the pavement at night.
“I like this song,” Augie said. He held his hand out the window and rode the currents of the cool early spring air. “What are they saying?”
“It’s just fado,” James said. “Love songs.”
“Just fado?” Ana said. “If you don’t like it, then change the channel.”
But James left it. Asking her to find the channel again would have been as cruel as setting her adrift in the sea without a paddle, so when he drove alone to school, to the beach, or to Augie’s house, he either turned the volume down or, on the rare occasions he felt nostalgic, made half-hearted attempts to listen to the news in their language so he might surprise her.
“It is a… a marinheiro saudoso,” she said, then tapped James’ shoulder. “Tell him.”
“A sailor,” James said. Ana hit his shoulder again. “A homesick sailor.”
“See? Not just love longs. Ora eis que embora outro dia, quando o vento nem bulia e o céu o mar prolongava.” Ana nudged James.
“I’m not sure, Ma. Something about the wind and ocean.”
He looked into the rearview mirror and saw his mother frown. She picked at her nails with her eyes closed. And he watched her like this for a moment, promising himself that the next time he was alone in the car, he would try to understand the words coming through the speakers.
The turn for the diner came up on his right. James drove into the parking lot and killed the engine.
Before AJ’s diner, the building had housed a small hardware store. When it was converted into a restaurant, the owners installed booths in the wide, bright display windows and left signage dangling from the ceiling that suggested sections where plasticware, electronics, and gardening supplies might have once been arranged on clean, white metal shelves. A server led them to a booth. James scooted across the wooden sun-warmed bench next to Augie. When the server took their drink order, James asked for a large glass of orange juice. While they waited, his mother stacked creamers into a pyramid, and James pressed his leg against Augie’s under the table.
“I’m excited for the school visit,” Ana said, placing the last creamer at the structure’s pinnacle.
Underneath the table, Augie nudged James’ leg, then said, “I am, too. I’ve never visited the community college.”
The server returned with three drinks so cold they dripped condensation onto the paper placemats before she set them down. On James’ the ink for the landscaping advertisement leeched into the other ads running around the mat like a cheap Monopoly board. They ordered variations of eggs and pancakes and bacon, while the server tucked a strand of hair behind her ear before returning to the kitchen and thanking the Woodwards as they shuffled toward the door.
Mr. Woodward, his khaki pants pulled high around his waist, the tall white socks sprouting from clunky shoes, followed Mrs. Woodward in the wake of her rose-scented perfume. When he noticed Ana, he tapped Mrs. Woodward’s shoulder. The couple waved at Ana, who tried to dismantle her pyramid before her employers could see it. James helped his mother put the creamers back into the ramekin.
“Good morning, Ana,” Mr. Woodward said. He stood at the edge of the table and rocked back in his shoes. “Are you enjoying your day off?”
“Yes, Mr. Woodward. Thank you.”
James made eye contact with Mr. Woodward, then looked down. He pulled his leg away from Augie’s. His mother often reminded him of the forms the Woodwards’ kindness took—the food they ate and the clothes that kept them warm, the only trip his mother had taken to return to Lisbon for her sister’s wedding. He wanted to give them no reason for questioning his mother’s integrity.
“College for you then,” Mrs. Woodward said. “Your mother tells us how proud she is of you.”
Augie’s leg sought James’ under the table.
“Thank you,” was all James could manage.
“I hope you enjoy all of this,” Mr. Woodward said. “An education is the most valuable opportunity you could be given.” He dug through his pocket, his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration. “Breakfast is on me.” He placed two twenty-dollar bills on the table. Mrs. Woodward, beaming, held her husband’s arm, then turned her smile toward James, who forced himself to reciprocate.
“Thank you,” Ana said. She did not look at the bills.
The couple walked away.
“Well, it’s our lucky day!” Augie said.
Neither Ana nor James replied. They both watched the Woodwards as they passed the windows and disappeared from view.
Augie grew quiet, so James placed his hand on Augie’s leg and pulsed his fingers a few times to remind him he was free to be as happy and sensitive as he wanted—that they could never be angry with him, not really, for misunderstanding the heat of that particular embarrassment.
“May I have more milk?” Ana asked, shaking the ramekin at the server, who brought the creamers back with an amused look.
James helped his mother fill the table with an enormous pyramid. When the food came there were so many plates James and Augie held theirs in their laps so Ana wouldn’t have to dismantle her sculpture. The server didn’t ask if they needed anything else. After they ate, they left Mr. Woodward’s money on the table without discussion.
In the car, James said, “Not as good as your cooking, Ma.” She smiled and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. It was true, too. She often cooked for him, beautiful dishes she said tasted like the memory of certain streets: caldo verde, she told him, was the Rua da Guilherme de Azevedo, where cars parked front to back, back to back, front to front on the narrow street, and where, when she’d been a student at a conservatory near Universidade de Lisbõa, strung her clothes to dry on the line outside her small apartment in the pink building. Bacahlau reminded her of the Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad cobbled streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ended—that stretch along the quiet docks where she had fallen in love with a poor young poet who wore a fedora and full-moon spectacles as he gazed over the edge of his notebook at the sea. She had grown up on the island of São Miguel and fled to the mainland to study music, so most any dish with white fish or lamb reminded her of home.
Many of the stories she’d told him were fairy tales, meant to convince him magic was real and happened to even the most ordinary of people, but only if they paid attention, only if they did not discount its possibility. As he looked at her in the rearview mirror, she closed her eyes and hummed to another song. He wondered if the stories were told to comfort them both.
The engine whined as they climbed the enormous, pitched parking lot leading to the building that would have more closely resembled a prison than a college if not for the wide panes of glass reflecting the sunlight. Portions of the building jutted out at odd angles, other structures bulged or loomed high above the others with no identifiable logic. High above the tallest parapet, seagulls wheeled and shrieked as they flew in circles, breaking their flight to scavenge old French fries from the large dumpster tucked into the back corner of the lot. James parked, facing downhill, away from the building, and let the engine run for the rest of a song before turning the key. He could not forgive this place for not being a manicured green quadrangle, for not being covered with vines like the campus pictured in Augie’s acceptance packet.
“So excited!” his mother said.
“Exciting, Ma,” James snapped.
“I am both,” she said before getting out of the car.
They walked to the entrance where a student tour guide, holding a clipboard against her chest and wearing a backpack strapped to her back, waited for them.
“Hello! You must be the Santos family. I’m so excited you came. I have a great tour planned for you. Let’s get started.” And she launched into it, speaking so quickly Ana tilted her head and said, “Ah, I see,” which James knew meant she didn’t understand.
They hustled through the student offices, the administrative offices, the faculty suites, the classrooms, the strange zigzagging staircases, the cafeterias, the study rooms. They zoomed past the bookstore, the café, the telephone booths, the student lounge. They ended the tour in the library: a glass compartment that offered a generous view of the surrounding forest and ocean beyond it. James imagined himself spending time by the windows, reading, a small spark of not-quite excitement lit within him.
“School was not like this for me,” Ana said. She gazed toward the ocean.
James knew, from the stories she’d told, that Lisbon was likely even more beautiful than this.
“It is beautiful,” Augie said.
“And to think it’s free,” Ana said.
“It is free?” she said to James.
“Não é gratis, Ma.”
“Não é gratis! How could you think it would be free?”
Augie turned and looked out the window. The guide wrote something on her clipboard but didn’t stop.
“Excuse me,” Ana said, then walked away—maybe toward the bathroom, maybe toward the vending machine—James did not know.
The sun, he thought, coming through those windows was too warm, anyway. There were better places to read.
When his mother returned, they thanked the student and walked in silence to the car. Before James could get in, Ana took the keys from him. He sat in the backseat. His knees dug into the back of Augie’s seat. Even if he were to complain, his mother would not have heard him. She had turned the radio up and sang so loudly that, when they stopped at a red light, the other drivers looked over at their car and laughed. Some even clapped as she drove onward, singing over the muffler, singing over the whining engine, singing over the ring of the morning’s fire alarm and the shuffle of Mr. Woodward’s shoes and the crinkle of his bills as he laid them on the table. She sang to hypnotize herself and James, to keep their eyes forward, not looking back at what they both knew they could never afford.
The reek of smoke lingered in the kitchen. Ana sat near the window and drew flowers on the corners of a sudoku she could not complete. The house was silent. James hid in his room with Augie, who sometimes held him or gave him distance when the holding did not work. They shared no common language. And when night fell, James drove them to the beach where the black ocean spit salty air. It lapped James’ feet and ankles, the dark hairs on his legs. He leaned back into the sand with his eyes closed, his fingers interlaced between Augie’s. He squeezed.
“I want you to enjoy Dartmouth,” James said. “I want you to send me facts and tell me stories. I’ll visit.”
“I will,” Augie said.
He squeezed harder.
“You’re hurting me, James. James, you’re hurting me.”
But James would not let go until Augie wrested his hand from him. They lay inches apart, the warmth between their bodies creating a faint static that worked as magnets do, half-heartedly repelling the other so the metal never touches.
“I’m sorry,” James said, “I didn’t mean to.” He pushed himself up onto his side and leaned over Augie. In the moonlight, he couldn’t see the freckles on his nose. “When do you leave?”
James leaned back. The sky, clear above him, its many millions of stars winking at one another, reminded him how much he wanted to know and how little he did.
“Do you know any constellations?”
“The Big Dipper,” Augie said pointing upward. “That one is Vulpecula.”
“Vulpecula,” James said, trying find the stars that Augie said with such confidence were there and there and there.
“I think I see it,” James said. That James could not make out the shape of the stars bothered him at first, but he’d stopped searching the sky and looked at Augie, amazed and angered by his intelligence, his sensitivity, the wide future he would step into, leaving him behind.
SAM SIMAS (he/him/his) lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island. His writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Copper Nickel, Carve, Foglifter, F(r)iction, Sycamore Review, and other literary magazines. Visit www.samsimas.ink or @simas_sam to find more of his work.
Featured image by Greg Rakozy courtesy of Unsplash