A year after I got my New Hampshire driver's license, my friend Maureen called to tell me she'd found the 4s we'd been looking for right size, right typeface, right shade of green. At her house, with the efficiency of two Heloises, we steamed the lamination from our licenses, razored out the 9s in 1969, tweezered in the 4s, and ironed the laminations back together. We then wrote to the DMV to get new, real licenses in case we got stopped by cops. We told them that we'd "lost" our originals.
That's where my own craftiness ended. At the DMV, I suddenly realized I'd forgotten to bring a picture ID. In a spontaneous act of dementia, I decided to show the DMV guy my altered license, just for the picture. When he handed me my warm new license, it was wrapped in a piece of paper that said: "SEE YOU IN COURT."
My mother decided I should wear a red sweater and a sad, repentant gray skirt when I made my plea. She came along in a yellow suit and a matching scarf. We were ushered into the chambers of a chubby judge a windowless office containing empty "in" and "out" boxes and smoky air but no cigarettes.
I tried to act like a remorseless, un-nervous replicant because I had a little something up my sleeve: lying. The idea came when Maureen, in helping me prepare for the trial, had introduced me to a happy and useful phrase: "novelty game". I was going to tell the judge that I had altered my license with no intent to use it except in a harmless "novelty game" with my playful, inventive friends!
I planned my perjury without hesitation because I was a teenager; I genuinely thought that my first moral obligation was to get myself out of trouble.
When the judge asked me to raise my right hand, I obliged, smoothly choreographing my own body into the iconic one-hand-up,one-down position. I smiled at my mother. And then I ran into trouble. The posture felt religious and I got the same surge of giggly nervousness that I get in church.
I looked sidelong at my raised right hand, which to my horror was becoming a beacon of anxiety: shaky, dark red, and damp. I tried to spread my raised fingers casually and let my hand fold a little, as if I were relaxed, but then my palm seemed to radiate heat to my fingers. I began to wish that both of my hands were on Bibles.
In a turbulent voice, I swore to tell the truth. To myself, I sounded like an open, institutionalizable liar.
"So tell me about this ID," the judge said, indicating People's Incriminating Exhibit A, my slashed and patched driver's license.
I sat down and smoothed out my lame gray skirt. I pushed the Bible away.
"On May 14, I lost my license
" I began, mechanically weaving my web of deceit. "So it was a game, a novelty joke," I finished, with a flourish of elegant substitution, perhaps overstressing the word "novelty". "A misunderstanding."
For a second the room was dead. The judge, his tan hands clasped, stared at my driver's license with its makeuppy picture. I looked down at the Bible. Does lying show more in court? I wondered. Will the Bible flip open and mysteriously highlight Psalm 10, verse 7, "under her tongue is mischief and vanity"?
It didn't. Everyone relaxed. The judge gave me a warning. We made small talk, and I was welcomed back, slowly, then heartily, into the world of people who make common mistakes but are generally OK and have something to make small talk about. Getting away with a self-protective lie feels a little bit bad but mostly fine. My right hand got steady and dry. The judge wished me good luck in college. </end>
Virginia Heffernan is a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.