When I was a kid, I always had to be right. I mean, literally. In our family, being right was one’s ticket to enter the conversation, to be part of the group. My brothers were always right. Even the story of how Zach thought the lobsters at the grocery store were meant to be pets was about how he’s always right, minus that one instance. The story was told to throw his otherwise infinite rightness into relief.
I wasn’t often right. Instead of rightness, I offered a mostly positive attitude, occasional melodrama, and off-brand peppermint patties as birthday presents (especially wrong, I was told). I wasn’t right in thinking that the people in the TV could see us or that all of the planets, gaseous or not, a bazillion miles from the sun or not, were inhabited. And Santa Claus—I wasn’t right about that, but, oh, how I tried to be.
Once, Rachel and I were sitting around discussing our respective wild days of yesteryear—hers spent in Michigan and mine in New York. We were seven.
“You won’t believe this, but, one Christmas in New York, it actually snowed,” I said.
“It snowed pretty much every Christmas in Michigan,” she said.
“No, it didn’t. A white Christmas is really unusual. That’s what my mom said.”
“Maybe in New York, but it was really common in Michigan.”
I didn’t want to have to do this, but, at that point, I told Rachel that, when we were living in New York, my mom and I woke up every Christmas morning, turned on the national weather report, and recorded the snowfall in both New York and Michigan. It was our tradition. We did this in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988, and, if she’d just excuse me for a minute, I’d go into my closet and retrieve the records.
Rachel excused me for many minutes. When I reemerged, I produced the unimpeachable records of New York’s and Michigan’s Christmas snowfall.
She was too nice to say anything, but I sensed she was on to me. I didn’t want it to be obvious that I was worried, so I waited a couple of hours before asking, as if just to make conversation, “Do you think I’ve ever lied to you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Like, earlier today when you went into the closet and wrote all that stuff about the snow.”
I had to admit to the lie because it was too funny not to. I didn’t judge myself too harshly. As far as I was concerned, my greatest obstacle in life was persistent wrongness, and creative falsification was as suitable a substitute as any for rightness.
I was never as achingly wrong as I was about my plans for the future. By ninth grade, it was decided: Rachel and I would take on high school together, separate for college, and reunite in a New York City suburb, where we’d raise our kids down the street from each other.
When she called me one Friday night and told me she was moving to Phoenix, I couldn’t bear my wrongness. I just moved on ahead with the plan and corrected for the new information.
“We’ll talk every other night on the phone. We’ll alternate calling each other, and we’ll tell our parents that we’ll pay for the long distance. We’ll IM on the nights we don’t talk. And we’ll take turns visiting each other. I’ll come to Phoenix over Christmas break, and you can come to Dallas over spring break. We don’t really take the same classes anyway, so it won’t be a big deal. It’ll be like you just went to another school.”
There are moments when the fineness of Rachel’s wisdom demands respect, and this was one. She said, “Mia, we can’t just pretend like I’m not moving away.”
I wished there were some records I could retrieve from my closet. I wanted to tell her that Marty McFly had come to see me and written down everything that would happen between us. I wanted to tell her that pretending like she’s not moving away was exactly what we could and should do.
Eventually, I became an arbiter of rightness, a teacher. I put red x’s over wrong answers. I calculated the rightness of literally hundreds of tiny people. That wasn’t enough, so I became a teacher of teachers. I told teachers that they were right or wrong to tell students that they were right or wrong. I was the Meta-Rightness Grand Master, but I hardly thought of rightness, as such, at all.
My desire to do good work pushed my desire to be right to such a depth, over such a period of time, that, when whatever remained of it resurfaced, it was hard and smooth and shiny, something more like righteousness.
Then, on a family trip to Miami a few years ago, Zach told Ashley and me that he evaluates the accuracy of everything everyone says to him. “Everyone gets a new chance every time they talk to me. I don’t care about anything that happened before. If what you’re saying is accurate, I’ll listen to you. If not, I won’t.”
It was our night out, and this is how we spent it, walking down Ocean Drive through bands of hot and cold air. We talked. Each in turn, we accounted for ourselves.
At first, I maintained the absolute wrongness of Zach’s obsession with rightness. What kind of life is that, going around evaluating everyone’s accuracy? I don’t care about accuracy. I care about humor, generosity, soul.
Later that night, back in the hotel room, I sat on the edge of the bed next to my mom’s, silently running my feet over the sand on the warm tiled floor, waiting for her to fall back asleep. I thought about what Zach said and started remembering the peppermint patties, the people in the TV, the planets, Santa Claus, snowfall, all my grand plans–a childhood spent being wrong. I’d assumed that my desire to be right had long ago transformed into righteousness, into a desire to do what’s right. But I realized then that, more likely, I had managed to arrange a life in which I was always right, and, in that life, the desire itself lay dormant.
Over the next couple of years, I dated two men who had their own fraught relationship with rightness. (One of them stormed out of a family gathering because his mother served farm-raised salmon. I’m just saying.) When I shared my thoughts on big, important stuff and little, unimportant stuff, both would invariably tell me I was wrong. Farm-raised salmon guy did so rather cruelly and the other less so.
On a road trip, the less cruel man’s friend was telling us about the measures his high school took to prohibit school prayer.
“I’m impressed by your school’s commitment to the first amendment,” I said.
“No,” replied the less cruel man, “school prayer has nothing to do with the first amendment.”
Mind, the less cruel man is Canadian. Over the course of the ensuing argument, it was revealed that he didn’t even realize that the first amendment included freedom of religion. He didn’t relent. And I didn’t relent until I felt the heat and tears gathering behind my face.
I decided to spend the rest of the ride taking silent refuge in my rightness. How would I know anything about this? I only grew up in the Bible Belt with an atheist lawyer for a father. Why would school prayer ever come up at our dinner table? It’s not like I, like, actually know what’s in the first amendment or anything.
Back in the city, he took me to the Restoration Hardware by Madison Square Park (don’t ask me), and we had a little talk about the argument on the tufted Kensington sofa in taupe. I hated that sofa.
“I feel like you’ve been picking on me. You’re just tired of me, and so you’re picking on me,” I said.
“It’s not that,” he said. “I always evaluate fact claims.”
This account—“I always evaluate fact claims”—was a red flag I refused to see. If I recognized it, I’d also have to recognize his obsession with accuracy, with rightness. I’d have to recognize that he wasn’t the free-spirited artist I thought he was, and I couldn’t bear to be wrong about that.
When I got home that night, I looked up court cases. I called my dad, and we discussed how people on both sides of the school prayer argument invoke the first amendment. I watched the episode of The West Wing in which Toby soliloquizes on school prayer and freedom of religion. I was right. I was so, very, freaking, extremely right. But it didn’t make me feel any better. I felt embarrassed about the argument and pessimistic about the relationship. There was no comfort in being right, only distraction from the discomfort of needing to be right.
The less cruel man and I broke up. When Rachel and I went to Spain last summer, I was still swimming back up to the surface. One morning, late in the trip, we were eating churros and discussing Morocco. Neither of us remembers what was said, but it went something like this:
“You know the guide book said that Morocco is X.”
“No, I think it said that Morocco is Y.”
“Rachel, no, it said that Morocco is X.”
“I think I remember that it said Morocco is Y.”
“You’re insane. How can you even think it said that?”
“Why…” Rachel said, and in that word the whole question was foretold. “Why do you always have to be right?”
I was right about the Morocco thing, but, as always, in all the ways that matter, Rachel was much more right. I was disappointed in myself. I thought the desire to be right had been purged from my mind. And maybe it had been, but, apparently, it was still in my muscle memory.
Long after Rachel and I made up, as we boarded a 9 PM flight out of Barcelona, I was still demanding an explanation from myself. Why am I like this? What does being right really do for me? I knew there was nothing in it, but I reckoned it gave me a sense–if only the most temporary sense–that I possess some knowledge and wisdom to which I have no real claim. Rachel was asleep as soon as we took our seats. As I struggled to cram my head and shoulder and elbow into sleeping formation, I made a mental note to remember the feeling the high of being right left behind.
Our family spent Christmas in New Mexico last year. We were back from dinner one night, and Zach and I walked up the driveway together.
“It’s so creepy to be out here in the country at night with the stars. Who knew they even existed?” I said extravagantly.
Right then, I remembered who I was talking to, recognized my mistake, and pulled myself in. I expected him to correct me. I expected him to say that there’s nothing creepy about being out in the country at night, that there’s nothing creepy about stars. They’re a natural phenomenon, I imagined he’d say. Just because we can’t usually see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Nature designed them to be there, and there they remain.
“Yeah,” he said. “It is pretty creepy when all you’ve ever known is the city.”
Even Zach learned to concede the limits of rightness. Even he learned that we can’t always see everything from where we stand. Damn him for his progress. I thought I’d always be able to define myself against him. I’d have my imagination, and he’d have his rightness. I guess I was wrong about him. Wrong, wrong, wrong.