"The weather in early November was cool enough for me to start a fire. We settled in. Old friends. Cosy. “Have any of you heard of a game called Self-Deception?” Ellie Kaplan asked."

Joseph Epstein

We had dinner together, the six of us, three couples, at Twin Orchards, the country club to which we’ve all belonged for years. The night still being fairly young, we decided to come back to our place, my wife Susan’s and mine, in Highland Park. We did some drinking at dinner — a couple of drinks before the meal, two bottles of wine with it — not enough to get schicker, as my immigrant grandmother would have said, but leaving us all nicely lubricated.

Five of the six of us went back a long way — to Senn High School, in fact, which meant we knew one another for more than fifty years. The exception was Ellie Kaplan, Irwin’s wife, who came from St Louis and whom Irwin met, pinned, became engaged to, and married soon after he graduated from the University of Illinois. The Axelrods, Artie and Sheila, were high-school sweethearts who have stayed together all these years. More than half a century — that’s a pretty good run. I married Susan when I was twenty-four, she twenty-two. We, too, will soon be hitting our fiftieth. The years pass much the same, as my father used to say, only the decades fly by.

Artie, Irwin, and I were in the same club at Senn (the Ravens) and the same fraternity at Illinois (Phi Epsilon Pi). Irwin and I went to the same grammar school, Daniel Boone. The three of us never really lost touch. Sheila Axelrod and my Susan go back quite as far. When we’re together much of our conversation, in fact, is devoted to the old days: who took whom to the prom or the Mert Davis Dance; what became of our old grammar and high-school teachers; whether this or that classmate subsequently ever came out to announce he or she was gay or lesbian. When Artie and Sheila moved to Highland Park, Irwin and Ellie followed, and Susan and I followed them two years later. During the Michael Jordan days, we had Bulls season tickets, mezzanine seats, all together. Apart from vacations and occasional foreign travel, not many weeks have gone by all these years when we haven’t been in touch, if not in person than by phone. “To the Six Musketeers” is our traditional toast before dinner at Twin.

In our large living room, Susan opened another bottle of wine, a Zinfandel. We all sat on a sectional couch in front of the fireplace. The weather in early November was cool enough for me to start a fire. We settled in. Old friends. Cosy.

“Have any of you heard of a game called Self-Deception?” Ellie Kaplan asked.

None of us had. Ellie said she had never actually played it, but explained that she understood the way it worked was each of us admitted what he or she thought his or her greatest self-deception, and the rest of us would comment on its truth or falsity factor. Irwin, Ellie’s husband, I thought I noticed, looked a touch put-off at the suggestion.

“I’ll begin,” Ellie said. “My biggest self-deception is that, at seventy-two, I can still pass for being in my late fifties. I jog. I go to Zumba twice a week. I do half an hour of stretching exercises and another half hour on the treadmill every morning. I used to do yoga. I’ve had some work done on my eyes, as I think everyone in the room probably knows. All to stay younger looking, which I’m usually able to convince myself I do. But other times, when under pressure of one kind or another, I look in the mirror and think to myself I look less like seventy-two than ninety-two. Who’s deceiving who here, I ask myself. Anyhow, there you have it: my biggest self-deception is that I look lots younger than my real age.”

“I’d like to disagree that looking younger than her true age is Ellie’s biggest self-deception,” her husband Irwin said. “You do in fact look a lot younger than your true age, kiddo, and no one is in a better position to know than me. Everyone in this room would also disagree that Ellie’s looking younger than her age is her biggest self-deception if they saw her last month’s Visa bill. $7,862.39, if I remember correctly. What was most impressive about it, though, is that on examination I discovered it didn’t contain the purchase of a single item you might possibly call a necessity.

“Remember that old Rodney Dangerfield joke. A thief stole my wife’s purse with all her credit cards, but he, Rodney, wasn’t going after him because the thief was spending less than his wife does. Anyhow, I beg to differ, Ellie, about your greatest self-deception. You always look terrific. Your greatest self-deception, sweetie, is that you think that you live moderately and within our means.”

An awkward silence followed, which Ellie, who didn’t bother to shoot her husband a dirty look, broke by saying, “Artie, how about you go next?”

“Sure,” Artie said. “My greatest self-deception is that I’ll some day play consistently good golf — good enough, say, to win a couple of seniors tournaments. In fact, I think my golf game may be getting worse, going lately from the middle and high 80s to the low 90s the last three times out. Still, I find I need this little deception, maybe I should call it a fantasy. It keeps me coming back to the links. I see golf trophies on the mantel in our rec room with my name on them. If self-deception it be, which is no doubt is, it’s one I’m reluctant to let go of.”

“Excuse me, Artie,” my wife Susan said, “but I wonder if an even greater self-deception of yours isn’t that you’re a good father.”

I gulped. This wasn’t at all like my usually demure Susan. Must be the wine.

“I don’t understand,” Artie said.

“What I’m thinking of is your son and your daughter both married non-Jews, and your son’s two children are being raised Catholic, no? That’s not such a good father, or at least a good Jewish father, at least by most people’s lights.”

“Give me a break, Sue,” Artie said. “I can’t control whom my kids married. As for Josh’s girls being raised Catholic, he didn’t really have much of a choice. He’s agnostic, and Nicole, his wife, is a serious Catholic, devout even. What was my son supposed to do?”

I squeezed my wife’s wrist, signalling her to take it easy, go slow.

“I don’t know what your son or you were supposed to do,” Susan said. “All I know is I recently heard that you’re not Jewish unless your grandchildren are Jewish.”

“You saying I’m not Jewish, Sue?”
“Something like that, yeah, I guess I am,” Susan said.

Well, I thought, there goes our fifty-odd-year close friendship with the Axelrods.

“What about you, Sue?” Ellie said, attempting to relieve the tension. “What’s your great self-deception?”

“My greatest self-deception was that I was a great homemaker. Notice, please, the past tense.” I noticed it and I also noticed that my wife had poured herself a second full glass of the Zin, the bottle of which was just about empty.

“Only now, I just realized, I’m not longer deceived about it. I’ve had it with the whole homemaking, stay-at-home mother bit. Boring! While I’m at it, I may as well admit I’ve also lost my enthusiasm for cooking, too, especially ambitious cooking. You know, fancy things — complicated quiches, cassoulets — heavy on the presentation. Just not worth the effort.

“My deception is that I used to tell myself that staying home for my children was much more important than doing something dumb, like being an interior decorator or another unneeded female divorce lawyer. Now, my kids long gone, my grandchildren growing up on the west coast, I’m not so sure I made the right decision. I guess I’ll have to find another new self-deception to replace the old one about the ultimate significance of being a good mother, cook, and all that. I’m open to any suggestions.”

I decided it would be a big mistake to respond, though if I understood what my wife had just said, evidently her life with me didn’t turn out very well. We’d have to talk about this later when we were alone.

Others were also apparently left speechless, and so, after a mildly embarrassing interval, Ellie Kaplan turned to her husband.

“So, beloved husband,” she said, “what’s your great self-deception?”

“I hope nobody thinks it is going to be that I am a champion lover, a sack-artist extraordinaire. No, my self-deception is a bit more complicated. As a lawyer and as a tax accountant I probably see more greed and envy and idiotic competitiveness than anyone else in this room. Men come to me at tax time with wild ideas for saving on their income tax. A guy last year wanted to claim as a business expense a new bedroom set he and his wife purchased because, he claimed, to be sharp for his exacting business — he owned a women’s shoe store — every night he needed a good night’s sleep. Men and women, it won’t surprise you to know, turn litigious if they think there is a serious buck to be made, with my help of course. I had a woman client three years ago wore a whiplash collar for fully sixteen months in the hope of collecting a million six because of a car accident. She might have won it, too, if her picture didn’t show up in the Sun-Times playing in the finals of the park-district tennis doubles tournament. I could keep everyone in this room till morning before I ran out of such stories.

“So, my self-deception is that, despite all the rotten behaviour I have personally been witness to, and some I admit I collaborated in, I prefer to think that, on balance, there is still more good than bad in the world.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Sheila Axelrod said, “Forgive me, Irwin, but what you just said, about believing there is more good than bad in the world, sounds to me, if I may say so, like utter bullshit.”

That got everyone’s attention. All the more so since Sheila, so far as I could recall, never used profanity.

“Why do you say that?” Irwin asked, with what I took to be lawyerly calm.

“I’ve known you too long to believe a word of what you just said. I’ve never met anyone more cynical than you, Irwin Kaplan — no one who even came close. Besides, you’ve made a good living all these years on the greed of all your clients. Despite this you’re telling us you still believe there is more good than bad in the world. Who’re you kidding.”

“If you don’t believe me, then who do think I’m conning?”

“Two possibilities. Us or yourself. Probably both parties.”

“Talk about cynical! C’mon, Sheila, give me a break. You still haven’t supplied a motive for my lying about this, if lying I am, which let me assure you I’m not.”

“What you’re doing, dear Irwin, is what is nowadays called virtue-signalling. You’re telling us that, beneath your rough — and highly profitable — exterior beats a large and good soul. Sorry, I don’t buy it.”

“What would it take to make you believe it?” Irwin asked.

“I’ll believe it,” Sheila said, “the day you show up for dinner at Twin Orchards in a Salvation Army uniform.”

My wife, pouring the dregs of the bottle of Zin, giggled. Artie looked down. I tried to keep a straight face.

“I guess you’re next, Sheila,” said Ellie. “What’s your great self-deception.”

“My greatest self-deception,” said Sheila, “one I refuse to relinquish, is that I shall one day conquer the anxiety that has been with me all my life. I hope I’ve succeeded in camouflaging how prevalent it has been from all of you — my sweet Arthur of course excepted, who has had to put up with it all these years.

“What you can’t know, because I’ve never brought it up, even with you, my closest friends, is that my mother, prominent in the Sisterhood at Ner Tamid Synagogue, was an alcoholic, a functioning one, I guess, as we nowadays say. But when she’d be drinking, her capacity for shaming my brother Eddie and me could be very impressive. She wasn’t above showing up late and loaded for a teacher’s conference, or neglecting to pick me up for a dental appointment after school, or burning our dinner. My father bailed out on her when I was eleven and Eddie fourteen. Jewish divorces in those days were rare, at least they were in West Rogers Park. The official story, some of you may remember, was that my father had run off with a younger woman. The truth is that he ran away from a secret drunk, my mother.

“Somehow my brother hardened himself to our mother’s behavior. I never could. Not being able to depend on an only parent shakes a child’s confidence, and shakes it permanently. I know it shook mine.

“I’ve been in and out of therapy for years. I’ve told you, Susan, about this, and I’ve told you, too, Ellie, though I preferred to stay vague about the reasons. I hope none of you ever knows what it is like to live with serious anxiety. What it’s like is never to feel confident about the most trivial meeting, plan, friendship. It’s hell, let me assure you. I still hope to conquer this anxiety, to live something resembling a normal life. That’s my self-deception, and I’m sticking with it.”

Sheila had no responders.

“As our host,” said Ellie, looking at me, “you’re our closer, Eric. What’s your greatest self-deception?”

“Less than an hour or so ago I might have said that my greatest self-deception was the belief that I was charming, that I could get on with anybody and everybody, and that this was the secret behind my modest success in the home-improvements business. But now I’m not so sure. Now, after this Self-Deception game I wonder if my greatest self-deception wasn’t that for all these years I thought we six all knew and loved one another. I also thought I had a relatively happy wife, which maybe turns out to be my biggest self-deception of all.

“Would it be another self-deception on my part to say I like to think we’ll recover from this evening? Meanwhile, when the six of us gather at the end of next month for our usual New Year’s Eve Party, I’m going to lead off our round of annual new year’s resolutions by resolving that we never, ever play this goddam dangerous Self-Deception game again.” 

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