We lie best when we lie to ourselves *

I'm sitting stiffly in a room lined with polished, padded chairs and a gleaming conference table. There's a shiny black coffee maker at the end of the table, surrounded by napkins, cream, sugar, straws and styrafoam cups. My bouncing feet are muffled by the off-white carpet that covers the floors, free of dust and dirt. A wall of glass and two double doors separate the room from the outside office, and maroon curtains at either end of the room serve to hide from possible intruders any events that may transpire while a conference is in session. I take a sip of my own coffee and my eyes wander to the double doors that bear the logo of KBNHA Records. I turn slowly towards the designer clock mounted on the wall and sigh. Six a.m. and not one person has yet to arrive.

I realize, though, that it's probably just as well. Because, as I'm looking around the conference room for the millionth time in the past five years, I come to a frightening realization that I'm not all too sure how to handle.

I don't know where the hell I am anymore.

Oh, I know the record label. It was never really my dream--Kevin was always a tad bit more excited about recruiting another project than the rest of us. However, we're good younger brothers, and we stood in support of everything he wanted to do with it. We went to all of the initial meetings, met with all of the potential artists, and listened patiently to all of the ideas that blossomed when each session was over. At first, it was an obligation, but the other three were gradually roped into it. For a long time, I thought that I had been roped into it as well.

Sitting here, though, everything looks different, and I suddenly realize that I don't care. I don't know what the meeting is about anymore, or why we even bother to look each other in the face. The eager brothers that began the company together are framed on the wall, donning smiles that serve to brighten the formal room to a very minor extent. Still, I can't help but smile when I see that picture. I look at it and see who I was, and who they were, and the memories fill me up until the corners of my lips curl in contentment.

Then I see the damn logo on the door, and the contentment fades into the knowledge that we aren't anywhere near who we were. And it's not the change that bothers me. It's the fact that we don't know who anyone else has become. It's the fact that we don't know each other anymore. And for me...

Well, for me, it's the fact that I'm not so sure I know myself anymore.

But just as I'm getting used to the peace, just as I'm preparing myself to begin thinking about who I am and where I want to go and what I want to do with this newfound knowledge that I don't give two shits about the success we've built in our five initials, they enter the room and everything goes to shit again. That contented smile and that look of despair fade to form one of the same fake smiles that stare back at me from the four men I used to love like brothers. I like to think that I still love them like brothers--I'm just not so sure who they really are anymore.

I sit, patiently watching as they take turns pouring coffee and making small talk with each other. Kevin takes his coffee black, claiming that the caffeine will do the right job without clogging his arteries or his head with unnecessary nonsense. Completely provoked by the usual speech of righteousness, Nick pulls two more sugars from the small wicker basket and empties them into his own cup with an impish grin. Brian shakes his head and pours himself a cup with only one container of cream. AJ, however, ignores the coffee completely and takes a long swig from a large carton of orange juice that he has apparently brought with him. This perplexes me a moment--since when did AJ drink orange juice and not coffee with caramel and whipped cream? The answer is as clear as day within the next second. AJ has children now. AJ never really had a childhood, so AJ tends to live through his children. As I watch Nick toss his empty sugar packets into the trash can, it occurs to me that he never really had a childhood either. Of course, Nick's adulthood was his childhood, for the most part. Now? He's cleaning up after himself, for one, and I'm left wondering when the hell the kid I loved grew up.

For me, the small amount of time before a formal meeting is the closest to my preferred reality that I'll ever get. The way they take their coffee is the most that I know about them now. That, and the way they look when they're ready to offer another proposal. Eager, anxious, excited...somehow, the joy of the business never left any of them.

Now, as they sit down at the table, I'm beginning to wonder if I ever had it.

They wait until they're seated to greet me. Of course, that is the way things are. I'm just Sweet D, the polite and content older brother that makes peace and agrees with the majority of the ideas that are proposed. I don't mind increasing the amount of employees in the studio. I don't mind adding another jazz artist to our regime. I don't mind watching my career float by while my brothers make the decisions. I don't mind watching my brothers fade as my career gains speed and office space.

Only I do. But, like the others, I know my place, and I know when not to question my role in the family we seem to have built. Even as I watch the family crumble at our feet, even as I inwardly cringe at the tense smiles we aim at one another, I remain in my place with my happy face on. Because, in the family we've built and the office our family has created, that is my job.

I smile because I hate it. I smile because I feel like I'm having tea once a week with strangers. I smile because I'm not entirely sure whether my entire past with them is a bittersweet memory or a beautiful dream. I smile because I don't want to know, and I pray that the pain beneath the smile leaks through enough that one of them might catch it someday, and the meetings will finally be worthwhile.

I know they won't. So I keep on smiling.

I watch Nick's blue eyes ignite as he tells us about a folk artist he's discovered in a coffee shop and wants to sign to the label. And, somewhere in the midst of smiling and nodding and pretending to pay attention, I wonder when the hell he started to like folk music and what the hell he's doing in a coffee shop. I wonder if he's dating anyone that might have caused the change, and then my eye catches sight of a silver glimmer on his hand and memory knows even though knowing is just remembering. Nick is married already. His wife is pregnant. The blonde kid that used to throw fruit at me and tease me, only to come crying in my room at night because he needed a friend is going to be a father. And then I hear my name, and his blue eyes are shining fire in my direction.

What do you think, Howie?

Sure, Nicky, sounds good.

And the lie does not surprise me, nor does the ease with which it slips from my mouth. The smile that follows is a lie also, but he does not notice. His eyes are still shining, and he's excited. He's happy.

I don't know why I still call him Nicky. He's not Nicky anymore to me.

Kevin begins to discuss business arrangements, and Brian begins to discuss the musical aspect. Their suggestions quickly become a subtle, polite argument with each other, and the rest of us are forced to watch as they continue to smile. The biting words are sugar-coated, and the daggers in their eyes are masked by the saccharine of their smiles. However, as anticipated, they eventually reach a compromise and their levels of excitement grow to match Nick's. This time, it is Brian's southern drawl that addresses me.

What do you think, Howie?

Sure, Bri, sounds good.

I'm not even sure what he said. I'm still swirling my coffee around in my cup, wondering why I bothered to pour any. I don't really care for coffee. I feel nauseous, and I suddenly have the urge to snatch AJ's orange juice.

Instead, I smile at him, and he smiles back.

Very, very typical that, once AJ finally gets it all together, I start to fall apart. And, looking at his smile and seeing the hint of genuineness that radiates subtly from him, I'm not sure which scares me more--the fact that he doesn't need me anymore, or the fact that I don't need him.

A part of me--a very hopeful part--prays that I'm just lying to myself again. I need to need these four people. I've needed them throughout my whole life. Once I let go, they let go, and I need to stay together. I need the stability. Or do I?

AJ speaks, and in his own way he begins to toss tour ideas back and forth for this little folk artist that Nick has suggested. Does he have a tape of her? Could we hear it before we make any decisions? Is she picky, or could we stick her with another artist on the label as an opening act? Does she want creative control, or can he design something for her? Will she need a road manager?

I've heard all of his questions before. Even now, AJ lives for the live music and that much is apparent. However, when he suggests that we consider sending in one of the interns to play road manager, the walls begin to close in on me.

AJ has children now. AJ has no need to tour. AJ's life is in his house, his home, his kids and his family. AJ invested in the little things in life, and Nick is well on his way. Kevin and Brian have their outside lives. Each one of my brothers is grounded, rooted in something that he managed to gain somewhere along the way.

And I'm scared, because I'm starting to realize that they are my ground.

Looking around, I also begin to realize that this stiff, dusty replacement for the warmth that once existed is a really shitty ground to be standing on. But AJ's looking at me imploringly, his rasp echoing in the room as he calls my name.

What do you think, Howie?

Sure, J, sounds good.

In actuality, I'm still trying to remember the last time something actually "sounded good" to me. I can't. No, wait...going home. Going home always "sounded good", especially after the end of a long and especially grueling tour. I'm suddenly very ready to go home.

I'm just not sure where home is anymore. And, yet, as I'm looking around this room at these people that I used to know, I'm suddenly very aware of the fact that home is not here anymore.

They're making closing statements now. Going around the room and taking turns throwing their own two cents into the slot machine of ideas that our success is based on. Each one of their voices is engrained in my head, but I can't hear them anymore. I haven't really heard them for a long time, and I'm not ready to start holding on today. Their smiles are still in place, the gentle nods and occasional intelligent comments probing the atmosphere for common ground. The smiles on their faces stretch, and I know they're learning what I know already.

There isn't a common ground anymore.

And, suddenly, Kevin's slow, rhythmic speech is directed towards me, and I know they've said their peace. I'm always the last to reach peace, but that's okay. That's my job, and I do it with a smile, regardless of how much of a lie that smile might be.

Anything you have to add, Howie?

No, Kev, I think you guys just about covered it.

Their footsteps are muffled by the carpet as they head out of the room and in their different directions, taking their cups with them. They leave the door open behind them, and it's suddenly my turn to leave. As I walk out of the room without my coffee cup and close the door, leaving my fingerprints on the flawless glass, I wonder--for exactly how long has it been my turn, anyway?

I have an office to go to. I have a list of things to do, concrete proof that I'm still needed to keep the company running. I have a secretary and a staff and a section over which I have complete and total control. I have a desk and a nameplate and a briefcase and a wink and a smile. I have all the things I need to stay, to keep holding on to this one common ground, to remain the same so that they may feel like nothing has changed, though change runs rampant every time we sit in the same, stiff room.

I have an office, but I walk right past it and to the elevator. I have an office, but I have an agenda of my own. I have a place, but I can be replaced just as easily. I have a smile, but it hasn't been real for too long.

And, for the first time I can remember, I'm tired of smiling.

I walk past the front desk and wave to the security. I call greetings to those I know and don't know. I play my part and take my place with the same, saccharine smile until the doors close behind me. Then the smile fades and I keep walking. I'm not sure where I'm going, but I know I'll get there eventually. The doors have closed behind me, but somehow I know I won't be going back.

The smile has faded, but finally, I'm armed with the hope that I might smile again. And, this time, it will be genuine.

* Ann Rinaldi
Mine Eyes Have Seen