Some people are better than others at hiding things.
There have been many times in my life when I’ve known or done business with people who truly disturb me. I’m not talking about a cynical salesperson or someone who’s simply socially awkward. I’m talking about people I wouldn’t want to be alone with on a bet. I once made the mistake of getting personally involved with someone who could be described as a psychopathic, antisocial narcissist. (That’s not a diagnosis, I know.) There’s no doubt in my mind that he could kill a person and dispose of his or her body with impunity and without guilt. While I won’t make that mistake again, he’s unknowingly given me plenty of material for my fiction.
I confess that I’m always initially suspicious of charm. Sometimes a person’s charm hides a good and clever heart; but it can also hide a deep, frightening darkness. I find it difficult to write the second type into my fiction (seriously, I don’t know that I’ve ever written the first type). I took a shot with my character Miles, in Isabella Moon, and I think he comes off as pretty believable. But so much depends on the personalities of the other characters: their vulnerabilities, their capacity for trust, their powers of observation.
Here’s something that happened to me recently. As events go, it was brief and insignificant, but not charming at all.
I was browsing the shoe department aisles of a particular discount store. (Finding shoes has become a big challenge of late.) When I turned into the aisle that held racks and shelves of sandals, I saw a woman standing beside a shopping cart, and a heavyset man sitting on the bench that was tucked between the racks for trying on shoes. He wore blue jeans, a cap with a sports logo on it, and an ill-fitting plaid shirt. He wouldn’t look at me or make eye contact, and his face was serious, like he was thinking about something ponderous. He also looked like he wished he had a cigarette, but I didn’t smell cigarette smoke as I passed him, so I may just have been making that up.
Now the woman–she looked at me immediately. And she didn’t seem happy to see me. The second thing I noticed about her was the pair of black sandals she was wearing. I had bought the same ones a couple weeks earlier and there were still a few new pairs left on the shelves. I almost said something to her about how comfortable they were–Talking to strangers is a bad habit I have that I got from my perky, gregarious mom. But I thought better of it. This woman definitely didn’t want to interact with me.
At first, I wondered if I’d walked into the middle of an argument. The pair was obviously together, though they weren’t communicating. The woman let me get by her with my cart, but she didn’t do it with any kind of enthusiasm. I hung around to look at shoes, but what I really wanted to know was what was going on.
She messed with a few more boxes of shoes. I don’t think her heart was in it any more than mine was. It was all very awkward. Finally, the man got up and wandered away without saying a word.
I tried on a pair of shoes. The woman didn’t. She just absently touched some boxes. After another minute, she hurried away in the opposite direction. She was still wearing the black sandals.
The whole event left me puzzled and vaguely uncomfortable. I made up a ton of stories in my head to try and explain what had been going on. But the answer eventually came to me with an intense, sudden clarity a few hours late : When I turned the corner, the woman had been in the process of stealing the shoes. The man was involved, and he didn’t want to stick around to see what she would do.
I like to think the best about people. And God bless her if she couldn’t afford an $11 pair of shoes. I’m no saint, but I certainly would have bought them for her if she was so desperate.
Is this what really happened? Who knows. But I had a very brief, exciting period of shoplifting myself when I was a young teenager, and I remember the bleak feelings that guilt and necessary secrecy brought into my life. Isn’t it always that way with unpleasant secrets?
I don’t think human beings are designed to keep secrets. Otherwise we wouldn’t have such observable, clinical, physical reactions when we lie.
Click here and here for a couple of simple lists of things that will help you know if someone is lying to you. But make sure you really want to know if they’re lying. Sometimes there’s such a thing as too much information.