I learned how to be charming by watching my father interact with his mistress. I didn’t know this at the time, as I saw him touch her elbow softly, teasingly—his brow creased from smiling so much, from showing regard for the unimportant people. He flitted about the room, fitting snugly into various circles of party guests, his shirt tucked in precisely. He wore the tweed with leather patches at the elbows. Before the parties, I liked to sit in my parents’ bedroom and watch them both get ready, scratching my knees as my thick stockings rasped against them. My mother liked to call him things like dashing, dignified. Other endearments. Still, he went back to this other woman. At the party, he grazed her shoulder lightly, telling her a secret. She thought no one could tell how happy she was as my father’s eyes grew rich with attention. She thought no one knew.
It ends in divorce. I’ll tell you this from the beginning. No false hopes. Neither of my parents, Bernard and Judy, is to be put on a pedestal. This is a limited release, a limited engagement.
I will tell you what there is. There is the silence of an unhappy marriage. There are the settlements and the division of assets. There are the conversations spoken through the mediums of lawyers and legal suits, custody battles, attempts to forget the joys that came before these events, before bitterness. None of these things are important. Here is what is important.
My father is flagrantly violating his marriage vows. This dinner party is loud and the guests are frightening, verbose. None of them have children, so my sisters and I are forced to entertain ourselves. I want to take off my frilly green dress and run around naked. Instead, I am playing with the large plastic buttons that are sewn down its front, purely for decorative purposes. I spend most of the evening trying to twist them off and put them in my mouth, to feel the shiny smoothness on my tongue.
The party is chock-full of academics and their spouses. My father is newly tenured. This is the first time he has hosted a party of this latitude. He, for once, is older than most of his guests. This is where my mother makes the diagnosis: mid-life crisis. My mother tells me these things because she doesn’t know who else to turn to. She says I am the only one who can empathize, the only one who can understand. I am the child old enough to remember life before and young enough to piece it together after.
I start to wander. The house is different when it is full. Floorboards creak like old knees. Laughter is honest and jarring. There are empty champagne flutes on the tabletops and half-eaten plates of hors d’oeurves. The toys are tucked into various chests and closets. For the first time, I feel young and lonely. Skimming the periphery. I want to violate certain household rules.
We have this grand staircase that spirals into a landing on the second floor, and I slither up it discreetly, my belly pressed against the wooden slats. Dusting them with my dress. I know which panels groan under my weight and avoid these landmines.
There is a light flooding from my parents’ bedroom and I decide to burrow myself in their bed, under the coats of various guests. Earlier, I draped these jackets over my arms and threw them over the soft duvet. There is a strange allure to burying myself in other people’s belongings, caressed by silken coat-linings and pocket hems—to invading and keeping secrets.
It strikes me as odd that the door is open. My father is firm about keeping his bedroom door sealed. There are delineations for what and where children should be at given points and times. My mother will tell me years from this very moment I am trapped in—as when they, too, are trapped in distinctive moments—that this was another indication of the fall of her marriage. An era. He only approved of certain colors. My father was strict with children’s apparel, our everyday play-clothes. There were bans on certain hues. He insisted that red clashed with my rosy cheeks, so very much like his own. Only light blues for my sister Robin; they matched her eyes well. Judy was not a fan of this color coordination but remained silent. These personal ticks made her uneasy. They were a manifestation of something wrong inside Bernard, of some sort of perverse frustration. Proper bath and bed rhymes, garnishes on meals (or lack thereof), Judy’s music choices while she cooked. (Her Vivaldi and Brahms thoroughly disagreed with him. He called it funeral music). These tiny cracks were leading to a bigger disaster, one that she refused to name.
I am pressed against the wall. There are voices coming from the bedroom, people sitting on the bed. I am soon to be privy to something my mother has suspected for a long time, too long. I quietly, innocently spy through the slight crevice of the unfastened door.
There is my father, there is Bernard. I still have not reconciled myself to the fact that he is the same person as he was when he met my mother, before I was a problem, responsibility, or a child. His tweed is off, tossed on top of the pile, with the others. He is kissing the other woman. It reminds me of frustration, the way they grope at each other. Fast hands on her part. He is clutching her hair, her red, straight hair. As if he is at sea in the midst of a terrifying gale, grabbing onto the decks of the lifeboat. As if there is an indifferent god, watching.
I can hear my mother downstairs. She is an engaging hostess; she tries hard. Judy makes some sort of sound, as my father kisses someone who isn’t his wife. A sad, mangled laugh.
Clues were all over the place. We talked about it often as I grew older. Pieces of the story came together from various secondary sources. Fragments of arguments. Heart-to-hearts after sessions with her parading, successive therapists, or sessions with mine. Judy was taking a lot of Xanax at the time, some generic anti-depressants as well. She couldn’t drink red wine with one of her prescribed MAOIs for a few months. It made her anxious. She dropped them on the sly.
Judy and Bernard had kitchen conversations with the blinds closed. The neighbors saw nothing; they rarely noticed our presence as they bustled outside, raking leaves into small dunes and tending riotous gardens. Pulling out of driveways. My sisters and I were banished from the living room and other first-floor quarters. My parents were in there. My mother haggled over her marriage rights. Neither Bernard nor Judy wanted us to see their failure. We played outside; hide-and-seek. I counted to infinity, and my sisters scurried off. Robin hid behind fence posts. Emma crawled beneath the browning tree house held up with stilts, peeling splinters. I lost track of counting. Numbers drifted. A woman next door turned her face towards her garden, but the corners of her probing eyes were a solemn blue. At night she listened to our familial bickering. We were a private radio show. She ignored us, because to open her heart and mouth would be too much to handle, too much to cup in a palm full of seedy dirt and budding age.
I still have routine conversations with Judy. Play-by-plays of what I missed on forlorn, groping twilights. Your father and I argued over a vase that my aunt had given me; my Uncle Victor had bought it for an anniversary, or maybe my mother’s birthday. And it was mine, though he claimed I had always hated the thing, anyway. He doesn’t get it, your father. She likes to spit out this word. It is distasteful. He grabbed my arm. I slapped him. And suddenly he did a quick little maneuver, this sharp turn. She snaps her wrist to the left. A grand crescendo. I was screaming all kinds of murder. One hand had my arm against my back. The other covered my mouth. So I—a harsh click of teeth—bit him. His hand. The one that had stroked her jawline while she slept, long ago.
She is a Diane Arbus self-portrait. Heavy bags under her eyes weigh her face down; dark semi-circles accenting the edges, a receding shoreline, a lot of crying. In an few years she will remarry, but there will always be that deep purple and that puffiness, though no man has hit her since.
He screamed. Like a baby. No blood, though. Thank God. I would’ve gagged.
They met at the Black Rose Pub in Faneuil Hall. Twenty years ago, more or less. Blondie played in between garage band sets. “Heart of Glass.” Drunken college students commiserated. The regulars nodded in agreement, drooling on the bar, slouching on the stools. The Black Rose was a popular venue. Local bands got their start here, man. Some now attest to seeing certain Bostonian darlings. When questioned, the bands will not comment. Alleged bystanders are unreliable. Their livers have hardened, their minds have grown soft. They are now old, but a part of them rests on a barstool in that pub, infamous in their own convoluted, intertwining personal histories. Pulsating memories.
In recent years, the Black Rose has been refurbished. The seats they sat in have most likely been replaced by updated models. It is now family-friendly to the nines. All traces of slovenly misconduct, alcohol poisoning, and Irish brawling have been erased, lacquered with fine mahogany finish. The ghosts of local bands echo in the newly-installed speaker systems.
Judy and Bernard, however, were witness to the heyday. The purpose of the meeting, arranged by friends (none of whom would whisper the deadly phrase “blind date”), the excuse, was a small local show. No one remembers the band. It was all so important at the time.
Here is what the party of six ordered: two stout beers (Guinness), two pale ales (IPA), one Pilsner (Beck’s), one water (for the recovering alcoholic), a plate of nachos (cheese, ground beef, onion, tomato, pepper, black olive, salsa, sour cream, E.coli), a spinach dip (for the vegetarians, for the observant Jewish girl who would not eat meat unless it was blessed by a rabbi or something, and for the British man with a sensitive stomach, psychologically allergic to USDA-approved lard). Bill ordered the stout in advance for Bernard, who was running late due to the commuter rail. He had taken a later train in from Waltham; he was involved heavily with his dissertation. He was in the midst of a torrid love affair, involving late nights and brief returns to the marriage of his classes. This is what was tearing his mind apart as he boarded the train and sidled into a greasy seat. He was not expecting much of anything besides some local tunes, amicable conversation, and maybe a slight inebriated buzz. Good times! There were no omens to predict life-altering events. Bernard did not meet anyone on the train. He had no life-affirming conversation with any stranger. Here is the point: this entire thing was about to catch him off-guard. So, in the meantime, he daydreamed about galleys and editors as the train barreled onwards, towards Boston. The dissertation would, in fact, become the book that would make his name in the realm on academia: “The First Fruits of Fascism.” The inner-workings of the heart would be hidden.
Bill apologized to Judy. His accent will make up for it, I swear. A charming lilt. He blushed. He had forgotten the cardinal rule: this was not a blind date. This was an incidental happening.
Bernard wore thick glasses with aviator frames and a pea coat with an upturned collar. He was trying desperately to be American. His accent was failing him. The long ahs and strange vernacular. He did not know it at the time, but it was the desperate attempt to be something he was not that would make him appear so unbearably cute to Judy. She said it exactly like that: unbearably cute. As he blustered through the oak doors like a gust from the Harbor, she knew exactly who it was, who he was. She felt it, a hard, constricting ball in her belly. She had rejected a proposal from an on-again, off-again med student boyfriend at Emory, the school she had attended as an undergrad. He was an ambitious boy, handsome in a hairy, five-o’clock shadow, swarthy sort of way. David sported polos selected from a wide pastel palette and a heavy Rolex on his thick left wrist. He wanted to be a plastic surgeon. He wanted to rebuild noses, smooth harelips, construct smiles from scratch. He pinned her at one of the last fraternity parties that year, reminding her that it was more than just a promise, it was a lifetime commitment. David was hinting. Judy’s hands shook and the veins in her cheeks ran cold. She removed the pin from her blouse lethally, with young conclusiveness, and placed it lightly between his palm and limp fingers.
Bernard had smooth cheeks. It was hard for Judy to believe that he had ever taken a razor to them. His face was somewhat cherubic, rosy, the kind of face that had grown soft during graduate school from food, drink, and other vices. A slightly awkward nose, perhaps broken in a fight or sporting event. His face was flustered. He scanned the room vainly, in search of their party of five, soon to be six. They locked eyes.
It was like a gold thread jutting out of his gut, led by a tailor’s needle, stitching itself into her waist. This was how Bernard described this first look. He didn’t like to mention the clichés, the thrum in his chest. The sheer wonder of living that rushed to the back of his throat, a swell vis-à-vis his spine. This, he said, was where eternity stopped for me.
He took a step forward, begging himself not to trip. Please please please. She wasn’t blinking. There was some intrinsic ban. Something was telling her, do not let this pass, the end is of this moment must be delayed for as long as humanly possible.
There was some stilted choreography. He was close, very close. Looming. Gaze intact. She lifted her head; sitting down, it was hard to look him in the eye. He liked her hair and its curly tendencies, its dark gloss. Her lips were thin, but that was fine with him.
An object in motion was interrupted. Buddy! Bill slung his arm around Bernard’s shoulder, pulling him back. Easy, buddy. Tonight is just getting started. He murmured a precaution in Bernard’s ear. Lie low. This is an Irish pub. You know, current events and all. Could get a bit sticky. He was referencing attacks made by the Provisional Irish Republican Army; crimes against humanity, the British Army, Northern Ireland security forces, troubled times. There were certain things Bernard had to remember in these Irish-infested waters. Don’t speak about Western European politics in locations with an abundance of social lubricants, i.e. pubs, bars, Southie, liquor. Don’t speak so loudly. Don’t speak about football. Don’t fraternize with hooligans or men with bulging foreheads. Don’t fraternize with men in rugby shirts. Don’t fraternize with men in jerseys. They won’t know you’re only a first-generation Brit. They don’t know your parents are Holocaust survivors, and that your father’s heart is pittering away, nor that your sister dearest shot out two bastard children before marrying a non-Jew, Peter, whom you love and cherish and are closer to than your eldest brother, Danny, who is off gallivanting in tropical New Zealand, yet is cold and distant to you still regardless of climate, nor that anxiety tears your bed sheets because there is so much death and life and satisfaction and loss, and nothing will stay permanent, and that you are so, so lonely here at grad school on full scholarship, here in Waltham, here in Boston, here in America. No one knows.
Judy watches as Bernard grabs a chair. His hands are surprisingly callused in contrast to his soft, unimposing, pleasant face. That face could listen to her stories for years, she can already tell. It will. Bernard’s face will bear the guilt and joy of them all. His ears will cushion the fall of these stories, so that they are stored and remembered for future years and children and lawsuits. She will tell him stories while they are in different beds in different apartments and houses, a pair of fitted spoons. She will tell him stories and complain to no end. He will try to interject with advice, or tell one of his own, but she will ramble and refuse these verbal advances. Bernard will remain silent. He’s not one to carry this weight. But that is for later. This, right now, is a love story.
Bernard lets Judy say the first hello, make the mandatory introductions. He can tell she’s a conductor, she likes orchestrating these kinds of affairs. She’s telling him where she came from. She’s telling him of the Tropic of Florida, the home of the Fountain of Youth. She’s telling him about Santerian priestesses and the Little Sur, of how the Atlantic is far superior to the Gulf. She’s telling him about her parents, about her mother from Rockaway, the one that frequented the Apollo before the Civil Rights Movement, about her father from Georgia who owns a nut-shelling company and is partly paralyzed, who walks like an old goose. He hit his head on the bottom of a pool. She rescued him, she was only eleven, she kicked and kicked and kicked, hard. It’s really no big deal. Really. She is telling him how very old they are in comparison to other parents, mainly her friends’ parents. They were never exactly hip, they never really got with the program.
Bernard and Judy are looking into each other’s eyes.
Bill thought it was chemistry. Charlotte thought it would be a one-time fling (she became a bridesmaid). Tim thought Judy had a pretty nice rack, still wonders about it from time to time.
Here is the secret. This was a moment suspended in time, reoccurring again and again in some sort of karmic dream-state, a purgatory of love. This was what they were saying all along: I am scared. I am looking for someone to be afraid with.
It started when Bernard stopped bringing up the idea of adopting a fourth kid. He wanted a boy. Three girls were lovely, but three girls couldn’t participate in male-oriented activities. Three girls tended to drag a father down. Three little women. Later, he told me that the fact that they didn’t go through with it was probably all for the best. I wouldn’t have been a very good father for a boy, he said, I wouldn’t have been the best example. But at the time, Bernard rallied this notion ad nauseam. He collected adoption agency brochures like rare postage stamps. Zealously. At the time he met the other woman, a year before I witnessed him rock furiously in her arms, Judy was starting to come around, take it seriously. She listened patiently as he listed off facts and figures, calculations he had concocted with his accountant-friend Michael about household expenses, and how it could all work, if we tried hard. It was finally up for discussion, and then Bernard dropped it abruptly. Judy didn’t want to wheedle him; he was so touchy in those days.
Then Bernard got that job in D.C., doing research for the CIA and other federal bureaus on car companies and slave labor during World War II. I was nine, ten. He commuted back and forth, staying in Washington for days at a time. We had him for weekends: strange custody contract. I asked him what he did while he was gone. He tickled my belly and told me he was a spy. My father met men who had phones embedded in their shoes and microphones planted in their ties. Really, he was having dinner dates with younger women.
Her name was Jackie. My father hardly mentioned her to my mother. They worked together. Jackie was some sort of attorney. She represented a branch of Ford Automotive. She wined and dined clients and discussed the compensation of right livelihoods. Like everything, the complexity of Jackie’s role in my parents’ lives was somewhat hazy. Judy had seen neither a picture of Jackie nor her face before the party, but conjured her with red hair, frizzy, thick bangs in front of her eyes like parted plush velvet curtains. Red hair. Lips thick and full.
It was the informal nature with which Bernard referred to Jackie that had first caught Judy’s attention. A cold chill subsided in her lungs. Not “attorney.” Not “Jacqueline So-and-So, Esquire.” This lent itself to other suspicions. Casually slipped inquiries: Oh, Bern, how is that woman doing? The attorney? What’s-her-name? Bernard would shrug his shoulders, though Judy could swear she saw a thin film of sweat on the slope of his upper lip. She formed a mental case-file, color-coded: red. In some ways, it was good that Bernard was often gone, driving on those dreamy, fog-shrouded interstates through Appalachia, from Pittsburgh to D.C. She was privy to his home office. She combed the room with magnifying-glass eyes, sifting through stacks of paper like grains of sand in a sieve. His Rolodex seemed an obvious place to look, but ultimately it confused more than it clarified. The noises it made as she flicked through it with her thumb were almost taunting. Jackie’s number was in there, of course, but whatever general suggestions she had hoped for weren’t there. Her address was smooth on the card. No embellishments. Everything was ordinary. Frustration welled like a tumor, a sign of consuming cancer.
Even worse: other women’s numbers were scattered throughout. They pulled on the roots of her hair and slapped her face. Had Bernard done this before? Was Jackie the first? How long had this been going on? How many women had Bernard kissed, sealing himself like a promise? My father, the conquistador.
I picture the hotel room Bernard inhabited every week. So much can be explored in a four-walled room. There is a red carpet and a window like a half-lidded eye; there are crinkled sheets, a soft duvet. Satie plays in the hallway and filters through the cracks in the room like carbon monoxide. Stale, smoked cigarettes in a little glass dish.
I am Tiresias. In my vision, I hide myself behind a curtain. Eerie déjà vu. I can’t imagine anything like Last Tango in Paris. My father is too quaint for obscenities. Bernard lays a checkered cloth procured from the gift shop in the lobby. He tenderly sets an assortment of delicacies in candid formations. Two crystal wine glasses missing from Judy’s set are resurrected from his black Samsonite. He stands and dusts his hands off on his pleated chinos, and then methodically, gleefully, begins to unbutton his pinstriped Oxford. His trousers fall to his ankles, and he gingerly steps out of them. He remains in his boxers. Waiting.
His eyes hurt me the most. Bright with excitement. He clenches and unclenches his fists.
The phone in the hotel room rings twice, and Bernard rushes to it, kicking his shirt in his wake. He picks up the receiver and speaks, replies, nods, like someone is watching. He hangs it up, and a knock comes at the door. I turn away, unwilling to breach his privacy.
I overheard my mother on the phone once, years ago, after my father finally left her for the other woman. She was telling her friend Charlotte about the first time she had bedded Bernard. He had whispered, in the dim light, chairs scattered around them like peeping voyeurs in his grad apartment. How everything was so new. She was so new, and so special. She was everything, fit into a body, inexplicably stuffed with everything beautiful. It was a wonder for him to be able to hold her, this enigma.
Maybe I’m an unreliable narrator. I ramble. I talk to strangers. I want to be reassured that I am not the beneficiary of an incapacity to love—for who is not afraid?—and that we are not imbued with legacies we refuse to accept, which find us out without regard to what we want. That the stories we tell are only stories.
I am waiting with you, alone in this place, for someone to finally prove me wrong.