Doing stuff in secret is usually a mistake. Often times it’s not the action itself but the secrecy surrounding it that implies guilt and scandal. Because one secret is usually hiding a whole family of secrets. So, on Sunday evening I was completely open and transparent when I told Monty I wouldn’t be home much in the coming week.
“You’ll need to pick the kids up from daycare, and you’ll most likely be putting them to bed as well. The deadline to submit a paper for the Northwest Political Science Association’s annual conference is Friday, and like it or not, I promised Brad I would work with him to submit something.”
His mouth set into a frown. “Can’t you get out of it?”
I shook my head. “I haven’t published anything for a couple of years. This will be good for me too. Besides, you owe me.”
“Why do I owe you?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Your trip?”
His mouth clamped shut, because he knew better than to argue. Another one of his work trips is coming up, this time to Botswana, and it’s still a point of contention between us that he’s going. So he agreed to come home early enough every night this week so I could work late. Nonetheless, on Monday night I came home anyway, made dinner, gave Noah and Abby a bath, then changed into a shirt with dry sleeves. I told Monty not to wait up and returned to my campus office.
If only every day had been like that.
I can imagine how Obama must feel. When the week began, he probably thought the lingering questions about Benghazi were the worst he would have to deal with.
Like a rash that won’t go away, the spreading of blame about the Benghazi attacks continue to irritate. And Hillary Clinton is at the root of it. After all, if she’s going to run for president in 2016, it’s important to paint her as motivated by self-preservation and self-interest, to the point where she would deny, for whatever reason, a resurgence of Al Qaeda.
Yet while this issue may have teeth, so far there’s been no real bite, and it’s easy enough to let it hibernate until 2016. If Clinton is the nominee it will definitely be brought up again. Repeatedly. And if there is any secrecy to be revealed, that will be more damning than the events themselves.
Tuesday evening I sat in a meeting that ran late. Then I called and talked to Abby before bedtime, and I sang Noah the “Five Little Ducks” song, though he dropped the phone before I had made it to the third duck. Afterwards I ate a sandwich at my desk and reviewed Brad’s work while I waited for him to show up. But I was tired and to give myself a break, I ran the paper through my computer program that checks for grammatical errors. It also checks for plagiarism.
That’s when my stomach turned.
It was like seeing the headline about how the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed phone records from the Associated Press. This wasn’t something that could be dismissed as groundless.
When Brad showed up I confronted him. “Do want to explain all this? There is stuff in here that should have been cited. You know that’s plagiarism.”
His face turned bright red. “I… I thought that part…that it had all been taken out.” He stammered, like now he was testing his words for accuracy as he spoke them.
I sat up straight in my office chair, my back unsupported and stiff. “What do you mean? How could you not know if it had been taken out? Why was it even there in the first place?”
He wiped his forehead with the palm of his hand. There was a stretched out, silent moment before he said, “Originally, Sally and I were working on this paper together.”
It took a minute for his words to sink in. I skipped reprimanding or interrogating him any further. “We’ll talk more about this later.” I got up and gathered my stuff. “I need to talk to Sally.” He nodded and exited my office, and I left to go home. By the time I walked through my door Abby and Noah were asleep, dreaming and unaware of the world around them. But my own anxiety gnawed away at my thoughts, keeping me from sleeping soundly myself.
“Why would they keep it a secret?” The next morning I asked Monty as he prepared to leave for the day.
“Only two people can answer that.” He kissed me on the cheek. “Good luck talking to Sally.”
On Wednesday I taught in the morning, and Sally taught in the afternoon. It was close to five before I could find her alone. But Brad must have warned her about what was coming, because she was tapping her pen expectantly against her desk when I entered her office.
“It’s not what you think,” she said.
“So explain it to me.”
Her breathing seemed shallow, making her voice sound tinny. “We were working on this paper together. I contributed some sections, but I lost track of some of the sources, and I meant to go back.” She looked down, and drew circles on a piece of scratch paper with her pen. “I was never going to submit it like that. But then, well, something happened.”
It was warm in her office, but I felt a chill. “Did you…”
She set down her pen and looked at me. “Nothing happened, okay? But we developed feelings for each other, and...”She leaned back, suppressing a sigh. “…I don’t know. I wanted to start something more than Brad did. And then he felt it would be best if we didn’t work together anymore, so I agreed, even though I was hurt by it.” She rolled her pen, back and forth underneath the palm of her hand. “But I made him promise to take out all of my contributions to the paper, and I warned him there was stuff in there that wasn’t cited yet. And he promised me that he would.”
I strained to find my voice. “Well, he didn’t, and if I had submitted it with my name attached, I would have been guilty of plagiarism too.”
She closed her eyes and dropped her head in her hands. “You’ve just lost all respect for me, haven’t you?”
I stared at my feet instead of answering. Like learning that the IRS has been targeting Tea Party groups for intense scrutiny, the realization that some paranoid accusations are actually true plowed into my brain like a headache.
“Things haven’t been good between Carl and me,” Sally continued. “But I never meant for anything to actually happen. Lately I feel like all I do is damage control.”
So is it the action itself that is so terrible, or is it the secrecy surrounding it?
Case in point - Tea Party groups are openly against paying taxes, right? Wouldn’t it make sense that the IRS should target them? The IRS’s mistake was doing it without telling people. Similarly, while Sally wasn’t acting with much integrity, perhaps one lie snowballed into something worse than the genesis of what happened.
“Please don’t tell anyone, okay?” Sally pleaded.
More secrets. “I don’t know,” I replied. “This is about me now too. If someone else finds out…”
“Nobody else has to find out.”
I stayed and we talked a while, and I tried to be the good friend who listened to Sally’s convoluted story. But at the end of the day I still didn’t know what to think.
On Thursday afternoon I texted Monty and told him I would pick up the kids from daycare. When he got home at 6:00 they were already eating dinner, and afterwards we played outside in the backyard. It was a beautiful spring evening, and Abby picked weeds and chased after ants while Noah ran around in the mud.
“They’re both getting baths tonight,” I said.
Noah then fell. Monty smiled and placed him on his feet again. “Are you going back to work afterwards?” he asked me.
I sighed and looked up at the evening sky. “I can’t decide. Brad is expecting me, but I don’t want to.”
“If he’s expecting you, you should go. I can give them baths.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
So I went, and we worked, talking only about the paper and nothing else. I guess when you’re swimming in a sea of controversy the only real life preservers are the facts.