Codebreaker

...one of my all-time favorite movies is The Birdcage...yes (you pretentious movie snob), the American version (big gasp and then an equally large sigh from said movie snob)...

...in the film, Armand and Albert are having a fight (big plot twist there, right?) when Armand suggests that Albert is tired and needs a few days off of work...to which Albert responds, ''You look tired' means you look old. And, 'You look rested' means you've had collagen"...

...i grew up in southern california...you may have heard of it--land of tit soup and surgically altered body parts that outlive the body...so i understood Albert immediately...no one ever says what they actually mean...
...coded language is pretty common...whether or not the message is intended to be coded is beside the point--we all "code" language in our own ways:

Boss: "How was your weekend?"
Employee: "Fine."
...what the employee wants to say is, "I spent my two days muddling through all the shit you piled on me on Friday because you were 'too busy' playing with your iphone and texting about your upcoming vampire dinner theater party"...

...another example:

Wife: "How do I look?"
Husband: "Fine."
... the wife will then change her clothes/make-up/shoes/hair until she hears one of these two magic words--beautiful or wonderful...

...this is all coded language...

...and it makes me realize some things:
1. ...coded language is how i judge the superficiality of my relationships...or conversely, the depth...if i can honestly answer the "how was your day" question, i know that person is a true friend...

2. ...i've been speaking in code for a long time, so much so that i can hardly get through a conversation without thinking, "Now what did that mean?"...

3. ...since i've been using coded language my entire life--especially with family-- my relationships with them are, at best, deeply superficial (oxymoron much?)...

...case in point, when visiting my mother recently i was asking questions about my father--trying to bang out some details that need to be correct for the book...at some point she said, "Our life was pretty normal before your father...left us."

...immediately, the question became irrelevant...the way she answered it meant everything...

...notice what she doesn't say: "was arrested"...

...instead, she uses the phrase "left us" which i heard pretty often as a child...along with "went away," "was gone," "walked out,"  and "moved"...notice what each of these phrases implies

...went away suggests adventure, perhaps espionage, travel...it is often used with its counter-part, come back, so also suggests that end...

...was gone implies a disappearance (poof!), a mystery of some sort...this phrase we hardly ever used in mixed company as it often raised more questions that only caused more coding...

...walked out suggests the sinister nature of his crimes, paints him as the bastard we all felt (still feel?) he'd been...but it often evoked sympathy from any listener, an emotion that, after experiencing it so often, made my skin crawl every time i detected it...

...moved implies a deliberate action, some decision made on his part...it could also suggest the idea of visiting him--which we never did--and raise even more questions...

...there were other phrases that worked their way into my lexicon of fatherly epithets...among them some of my favorites were from my grandmother: "shirked his responsibility," "abandoned you," "went crazy"...

...as a young adult i could easily use the phrase "my parents are divorced" to tip-toe his situation...but then that muddied the waters when friends began to ask how often i saw each parent, who had custody, etc. ...growing up, though, we never said this because in the eighties shoulder pads were the fad, not divorces...

***

...over time, i learned the nuance of language...how to use it without telling a direct lie or to deflect attention...by the time i was eight, i knew what codes to use with what people, and what family members were really trying to say when they used any of the above terminology...these phrases, when delivered, indicated the speaker's emotional state and how it was tied to the phrase...in their voice was the weight of how distasteful the truth actually was...arrested...tried...convicted... these words left a residue on the tongue and speculation in the listeners' ears...what was said after them was coated with the implication that the speaker was somehow untrustworthy...

...so for years i lived in half-truths for the sake of some semblance of a normal life (whatever "normal" means)...my grandmother bought me a dictionary and i spent hours looking for definitions of words in the definitions of words, all for the chance to use another evasive phrase...

...what was the code?...i questioned everything anyone said...i'd lay awake at night running conversations over and over...what was the double meaning in my math teacher's comment on my homework?...what did my friend really mean in the note she passed to me at lunch?...

***

...not all coded language is negative...it would be way too time-consuming and probably a little dreadful, to have to listen to every little stranger rant or rave about their lives when all you've done is given them a cursory "how are you?"...a few weeks ago i was trapped by a waitress at steak n shake who, after i'd answered her "how are you tonight" with a "fine, and you?" proceeded to go on and on about how she has A.D.D. and was drinking a shake when we were seated and she didn't see us and how upset she was that all of the people were being seated in her section when the rest of the waitresses were just sitting around doing nothing...

...when i said, "more tips for you" she launched into another tirade about poor tipping...if this seventeen year old (yes, she's of the we-don't-even-know-what-etiquette-means generation) had just followed the code, my order would have come out perfect...instead, i my salad dressing what not the one i ordered and she never brought me my shake...

***

...my least favorite explanation for my father's whereabouts (another coded word) was the one used on complete strangers: he'd died...what i thought would be a simple--yet painful--condolence became, as i got older, 20 Questions...how had he died? how old was i? what did he do for a living?...more lies were required...the codes grew so much i couldn't keep track...

...but it wasn't the size that mattered, it was the lying itself...half-truths and evasiveness were one thing (politicians have made them into a job)...flat out lying was disgusting...when i asked a question, i expected truth, however coded...to deal out a lie made me feel dirty, as if i were creating an alibi...

...the fact that my father created the need for deception by lying to everyone around him made me feel even more filthy...i didn't want to be guilty of any action he'd committed...

...still, where lies could build upon themselves, become their own narrative, the truth was often stark and finite...to say that he was imprisoned for rape, that he never harmed me, that my family never knew about his double life, fell hard from my mouth...plunked out...those phrases couldn't catch the emotional and social damage he'd done...they left the listener uncomfortable, with more questions than answers...and when i'd be unable to answer them i'd be met with impatience, sympathy, and even a few times outrage...

...the older i got, the way i spoke about my father became less about him and more about me...what would cause me the least harm, the least amount of damage...

...language is the way i filter the world...

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