My mother has an inability to say no. I don’t know why, but she’ll never say no. Ever. To anyone. She’ll equivocate instead. “Maybe,” or “I’ll think about it,” or “We’ll see.”
My sister figured out that “maybe” meant “no” early. Not me. To me, mom was saying maybe, which was an ambiguous answer. As such, I was always more disappointed when the requested thing never materialized. An explicit “no” to space camp, for example, would have been easier to deal with than months of hope and then it never happening. Because maybe wasn’t no, so I’d hope and hope for it, but it would never happen.
My sister was the one who taught me that “maybe” meant “no” when it came from mom. Mom said maybe to something that my sister had asked for, and my sister complained that she was never allowed to do whatever she’d asked for, in the way that elementary schoolers will when they’re told no. This had happened before, but for some reason, this was the time that I noticed my sister had responded to a maybe as if it was a no. My sister stormed up to her room, and I followed.
“Why did you get mad at Mom?” I asked. “It’s not like she said no.”
“She might not have said no, but that’s what she meant,” my sister huffed. She punctuated her emphasis by throwing a toy. I winced as it hit the wall.
“I don’t get it,” I said. My face was blank. Others would call it my “deer in the headlights” face.
My sister rolled her eyes. “Of course you wouldn’t.”
“How did mom mean no when she said maybe?” I persisted. It felt important somehow, in a way I couldn’t articulate.
My sister rolled her eyes again, as if she thought I was being purposefully obtuse. “Mom never says no. She says maybe instead.”
“Why?!” I exclaimed, outraged. It offended me greatly that one would lie by saying maybe when they meant no. Maybe meant there was some possibility. No was, well, no. You couldn’t argue with no. You could with a maybe. Or so I’d thought. Now that rule had a hole poked in it, and I needed to patch it as soon as possible.
My sister shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I just know she never says no.”
The next day, I asked my mom if I could get a snack. She said maybe. I turned to my father.
“That means no,” I said proudly, showing off my knew knowledge. My father burst into laughter.
“Excuse me?” my mother almost-shouted. Her voice stabbed into my eardrums.
I winced and plowed on, oblivious to the danger in my mother’s tone-of-voice – I wouldn’t pick that up for another two years. I replied, quite matter-of-factly, “You don’t say no. You lie and say maybe instead. When you say maybe, it means no.”
My mother stared, speechless for a moment. Her cheeks began to turn red. My father was bent double, clutching at his sides in mirth. Mom smacked him to shut him up.
“But I don’t understand why you lie. If you mean no, why don’t you just say no?” I asked. “Why do you lie about it?”
My mother sent me to my room with a stinging cheek, and I went, at once angry at finding yet another example of my parent’s mantra of, “You know you can ask us anything,” being a lie and puzzled at why it was wrong to point out when an adult was lying. My sister shook her head as I climbed the stairs, a wry grin on her face. “You idiot. What did you do that for?”
“I wanted to know.” I shrugged.