Petersbook Note:
That’s a Lie!
15 July 2019

When we had done eating the artichokes, I noticed that, while my plate was bare, except for the remains of the choke, the three others on the table were carefully littered with the better parts of the leaves that I had eaten whole.

It was now that our host commented on it as well. If he or his wife had observed my way with artichokes before, neither said anything. Nor did my wife.

I think she was my wife. She may still have been my fiancée, but I think we were married by the time that my mother-in-law’s friends, also professors from the Baylor College of Medicine (well, he was, anyway), asked us to dinner.

Our host and hostess were Romanian Jews, refugees from Communism. Another doctor friend of my mother-in-law’s, Hilde Bruch, was a refugee from Hitler. The Holocaust thus manifested itself to me, in Houston and for the first time, in a handful of extremely sophisticated and intelligent people who ought to have been prized by fellow-citizens anywhere they lived. Perhaps it was a peculiarly American experience, one that led people like me — people who met and had lovely dinners with such refugees — to begin to suspect that, no matter who the oppressor was, it wasn’t really being Jewish that had brought on the wrath of bigotry, causing them to flee for their lives. It was their exceptional gifts that were resented, along with, and in part because of, the disproportionate frequency of giftedness that was apparent among them. 

I had never been in a home like theirs. While not uncomfortable, the spare, modern furniture did not encourage loafing. There were few if any “pretty things.” The place seemed designed to suggest an austerity that was not actually imposed. I could imagine my mother shriveling in it, as if standing on the North Pole without a coat. This made me want to feel at home. I couldn’t, not really; even today, leather strikes me as an emotionally impoverished substitute for upholstery. But I was eager to try, so eager that, confronted for the first time by an unfamiliar vegetable, and unaware that the proper way is to scrape the soft tissue from the inside upside of the leaf with the teeth, discarding the tough remainder around the outer ring of the purpose-shaped artichoke plate, I ate it up with indiscriminate gusto. 

“You ate the leaves whole,” said the doctor. 

“That’s how we eat them in New York,” I replied. 

The lie flew out of my mouth without a thought, as though it had been waiting on standby, like an understudy, just in case this very eventually arose. As I say, I had not realized the peculiarity of my artichoke consumption. I had not seen that I was out of step but decided against acknowledging it by changing course. Nevertheless, the lie was right there when I needed it. 

Of course, I didn’t think of it as a lie. I thought of it as a bluff. (I was now living in Texas, after all.) Not as a successful bluff, of course. I did not imagine — not for very long — that these well-traveled people were unaware of how people ate artichokes in New York. I acknowledged my dissembling as soon as my wife and I were in the car driving home. I don’t remember what we said about it. But I put it all down as a joke. 

Whether my marriage did not last long enough, or the doctor and his wife had had enough cold-blooded mendacity in their lives, I was never in their home again. 

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