My father seemed well enough when I saw him, though he did remind me of someone who’d been woken up too quickly from a deep sleep and was trying really hard not to bump into any walls. I’m not sure how reliable my opinion was though, since I was only there for the weekend and was coming down with the flu or something by the time I got to the house. I felt feverish and sort of submerged most of the time and only felt better when I headed back to the city Sunday night.
Sometimes when I come home to New Jersey, I duck out to The Pub, which sits across from the local rec center. I look for old friends or familiar faces, some weekend visitor like me, maybe somebody I went to high school with ten years ago. But this time, because I wasn’t feeling great, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I’d be a captive audience and I could see this pleased my dad—though, obviously, he wasn’t exactly happy I was sick.
When my brother and I were kids all our plans revolved around him one way or another. My father was a great one for keeping us active—sports, hikes, random outings. (Our mother used to refer to him as The Cruise Director, not always kindly.) Even when we were surly teenagers he liked hanging around with us, even when we were silent or hostile and treated him like the designated chauffeur.
Soon after I got to the house on Friday night he had me on the sofa in front of the TV with burgers from Five Guys and all the junk food I loved when I was like 12, cherry pop tarts, sour patch kids, and triple-stuffed Oreos. All of which I was too queasy-sick to even contemplate.
It wasn’t long before he settled next to me and picked up the remote. He must have recorded everything off Turner Classic Movies for the last month. The DVR was flashing in a catastrophic way, showing that it was 98% full. I can’t imagine the tough decisions ahead when he’ll be forced to whittle down the queue. It will be a real Sophie’s Choice for him—which as far as I could tell was not one of the titles on that very long list. My dad’s always been into old movies. I figure this hobby is giving him more comfort and distraction than usual, now that my mother has announced her engagement to a guy I refer to as Dr. Fabuloso, a chiropractor with a contrived accent and the ego of a brain surgeon.
My father made a big show about how he wanted me to choose the movie we were going to watch that night, but since all the options he scrolled through were black and white and about 80 years old, it felt like asking me to decide which method of slow torture I would prefer. It was obvious which one he wanted me to pick because he kept lobbying for it as if he was getting a percentage of the gross.
So I let him have his way and that’s how we ended up watching a movie about a butcher from the Bronx who can’t get laid because he looks like a pit bull. He goes to a dance and meets an ugly duckling girl who is having similar troubles—though the actress playing her was not particularly unattractive. It’s only that she was nobody’s idea of a movie star. (They’ll probably cast Emma Stone with a fake nose if there’s a remake.) When this pair hits it off, you know just where it’s all headed, except there are all these complications first, like from the butcher’s mother, an ancient and bitter old-world type, a portrayal that would never make it past the Italian Anti-Defamation League if the movie were to be released today. And also from the guy’s best friend who probably wanted the butcher all for himself, but couldn’t come out and say so because it was the fifties and he was surrounded by morons.
There were other tribulations too, but I was fading in and out by then, since I was getting sicker, and for some reason the movie, which was less than 90 minutes long, felt like it took two years to get through. Of course my father was doing his running commentary throughout, about the actors, the director, the screenwriter. This was all more than I needed to know. He told me again about a roommate he had at NYU who is now directing for Criminal Minds or SVU or something like that. My father has always implied that if he hadn’t dropped out of film school to go the office worker route we’d all be living in Malibu and he’d be directing police procedurals, too. Luckily when he says this it’s in a cheery and amused tone and not like he wished it had really happened.
My brother Marcus knew I’d be visiting this weekend, so he asked me to bring up the house question again. He’s two years older so he’s always been comfortable giving directives, but now that he’s a California lawyer, he’s even more of a dick about it. I did raise the issue though, wedged in between movie showings and my own groggy sickness. I reminded my dad that since Marcus and I are long gone, it might be a positive thing to sell the house, especially now that it’s finally over and settled between him and our mother.
“You should downsize and find yourself a condo,” is what I told him.
My father fixed me with a stony glare, like he was an old pioneer with a shotgun on his shoulder.
“This is my home, Joshua,” he replied.
I know he’s serious when he calls me Joshua and not his usual Joshy, the embarrassing nickname he’s used my entire life. At any rate, he refused to discuss it further and changed the subject immediately.
“Why is it,” he said, “that whenever I speak to your brother on the phone he always sounds jittery and out of breath; like someone has a knife to his throat?”
“One can only hope,” I replied.
I did not tell him that when Marcus flies in for my mother’s marriage next month he’s not planning to swing by New Jersey because he has to get back to the coast right away for an important trial. My dad’s not overly impressed by my brother’s legal career. His recent divorce experience hasn’t improved his opinion of lawyers. He’s not thrilled by my fundraising job either. He finds it distasteful, the notion that I have my hat out to rich people for a living. That’s not a guess. He actually said that to me once, though earnestly and wide-eyed, as if it was constructive criticism.
After this last visit I think he’d have preferred it if Marcus and I had remained slackers (each of us dropped out of college for a while, taking some extra time to graduate and find our ways) and were sitting on the sofa next to him full time, improving our film knowledge. I imagine this is probably because of my mother leaving and how the loneliness and aftershock have knocked him sideways.
We finished watching the movie and then I went to bed. I noticed that he still hadn’t made any changes upstairs. In fact, the whole house feels shrink-wrapped or encased under a snow globe. This is something that has been creeping out my brother and me for a while. I’m surprised that after Ruckus was put down last fall (he was 18, ancient for a black lab) Dad didn’t have him stuffed and mounted, so he’d be waiting by the door for eternity. His dog dishes, however, are still right there next to the refrigerator. Jesus!
I slept late the next day and when I got up, still a bit shaky and unwell, my father fixed me his famous eggs Benedict, which I struggled through by trying to remember hungrier times. I could tell he was antsy to get us back to the living room and in front of the TV again. This time we were going to watch a Hitchcock film I’d never heard of. My father blamed my ignorance on Twitter and the Kardashians, his usual villains of the pop culture world.
The movie starred Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant and was about how Bergman becomes a spy for the government to take down a bunch of Nazis in Brazil after World War II. At the beginning of the movie she’s kind of a drunk who sleeps around because her dead father had been a Nazi and she hated him for it and so she lost her shit for a while. Cary, who is with the FBI or CIA or whatever, falls for her despite these lapses and then she’s asked to go undercover. Later, she has to actually marry the most pivotal Nazi as part of the trap, but Cary hadn’t realized this was part of the plan, so he fumes at his bosses and at Ingrid too. There’s a lot of back and forth, but you know how this one’s going to turn out, too. There’s another Old World terrible mother in this film as well, except this time, naturally, she’s German.
I’m sure the reason my father chose this film was because he wanted to think about my mother in a socially acceptable way, considering how he was always saying how much she looked like Ingrid Bergman. I can see it now, I think—a certain gleaming Nordic health. My mother was an actress too, briefly. Her good looks must have helped her land those television commercials she did, before she quit the “acting biz” and got her real estate license, which was all prior to her and my dad having Marcus and me.
At the point where Ingrid is about to be rescued from the Nazis and becomes saintly again, my father nonchalantly paused the movie and asked if I’d seen her recently—my mother, he meant. I said no as convincingly as I could because otherwise it would have led to more awkward questioning, and I wasn’t going to tell him about her new Soho loft, which she shares with that fake-ass doctor—a place so streamlined and free of clutter it looks like an airplane hangar! It’s the exact opposite of how he lives in NJ, in our old tumbledown house, surrounded by our former lives, as if we shed them like wet towels and left them lying there, piled up and forgotten.
Then before putting the movie back on, my dad started in about how they first met. I’ve heard this story before but it seemed like he needed to tell it again, like it was a seizure coming on. And I wasn’t against hearing it. After my last few Tinder dates, I could use some tales of romantic optimism. So he started in—telling me how they found each other at the very end of an extremely long line in Central Park one summer waiting for free Shakespeare in the Park tickets. My dad was still in film school then; my mother auditioning for those commercials. One of the theater geeks herding the crowd explained that the folks at the end of the queue were standing right next to a big slab of granite considered to be well past the cut off point for anyone likely to score tickets for the performance. The staff called it The Rock of Lost Hope. This term cracked my mother and father up. Laughing, they turned to each other, introduced themselves, and struck up a conversation. They waited in that line for hours, getting to know each other, despite their unlikely chances of getting into the show—and then, incredibly, they were rewarded with the last two tickets available. That’s how my father remembers it at least. They sat next to each other that night watching a production of Othello.
“But mostly we watched each other,” my father said. “When I looked at your mother, it was like electricity was running through me, like it could have been coming out my fingertips or the soles of my feet.”
When he said that, he looked over at the frozen image of Ingrid Bergman on the television screen. I wondered what my mother remembers of that night or what she’d admit to now. I love the woman but my dad is the sentimental one in the family. I’m not sure who she was back then, but these days, settled in Manhattan, she is briskly competent and glacially composed as she sells glass-walled penthouses to 20-year-old music producers. My father will still talk her up like a press agent, even after everything. He says there aren’t many people on the planet as beautiful or as accomplished as my mother. He says this a little too often, as if it’s his very own catch-phrase.
My mom has let it slip that she was always a little bored with my father, impatient with his corny charm and how quickly he took to the poky suburbs, once they moved us out there after I was born. He’d given up his film aspirations by then and was managing an employment agency for visiting nurses. This might not seem like the most glamorous job, but now she’s with someone who feels up broken strangers for a living. I don’t always understand my mother, but she doesn’t spend much time explaining herself either—which is something I’ve come to admire.
I wasn’t going to reference her specifically once my father finished his story, but I thought I might slam Dr. Fabuloso some, as a sort of gesture or offering. I could have told my father about the guy’s ridiculous bow ties or those flashy rings he wears on practically every finger (does he take them off before he rubs people down?) and how he’s always stroking that little Hitler mustache of his whenever I see him. But then I was afraid any mention of the guy would trigger ugly images of him cavorting with my mom, especially now that it’s come out that this relationship has been going on for years, ever since my mother fell down some stairs at a real estate conference and had the need for chiropractic consultation!
We got back to the movie eventually and watched Cary and Ingrid conquer the world. After it was over, my father was gearing up for lunch, his grilled cheese sandwiches this time. I sat in the kitchen at the nook and watched him going about the happy business of feeding me. I noticed his forehead is a little more creased now and his hair is seriously thinning. But the morning jogs still keep his paunchiness in check, though like shoreline erosion, you get the sense that it’s just a matter of time. He got the griddle ready, got out the bread, the cheese and the butter, like he’s done a thousand times for us. It must be muscle memory at this point.
As I sat there, I suddenly remembered something from years ago. We were driving to one of my brother’s baseball games on a Saturday afternoon. Marcus and I were in the back seat. I think it was the year my brother moved up from Little League to Babe Ruth because I remember we were going to the 60/90 field in back of Trader Joe’s. Dad was driving and my mother was in the passenger seat. By the time we got to the field, the parking lot was crazy full. My father had to double-park and drop Marcus off to join his team. We’d have to go find a space somewhere else and walk back. There was some confusion when they got out of the car and went to the trunk, about whether Marcus had packed the right bat or something. Cars were stacking up behind us now and were honking. My mother was pissed off, freaking out. They got into it as soon as my dad got back in the car. Mostly he was just trying to calm her down.
“Is this really such a big deal, Lila?” he said. “A few honked horns? A lost parking space? Look, sweetie, it’s a perfect summer day. We’re on our way to watch our boy play some ball. These are the good old days, baby!”
He was in that jokey, game-show host mode of his. He half turned around to wink at me in the back seat as he spoke. My mother was still seething. I remember thinking it was a stupid argument, like most of them were, and also that what he’d said to her was ridiculous too. I mean, it was just an ordinary day, what was so fucking great about it? I only wanted to get to my brother’s game, so they would shut up and stop fighting, as they never did this in front of the baseball crowd.
As he was putting those sandwiches together with a dopey, satisfied grin on his face, I wondered if the smile was because he was remembering some day from the past too, maybe even the same one I was. He couldn’t have known then how it was going to turn out for him, how his marriage would evaporate like rainwater off a sidewalk. My mother leaving the way she did was a great shock to him, one he might never get over. I realized he was right about the ‘good old days’ though and how ordinary happiness can’t last forever.
I wanted to ask him about this, how he saw his life now and how he saw his future, too—though I was a little worried about the answers. I even wanted to ask him about betrayal and how it felt to still be in love with my mother. But it didn’t happen. He was dishing up those sandwiches and wiping down the counters, and before long the moment got away from us. We must have talked about something else then, maybe my life in the city or the world at large, but that’s the part I honestly can’t remember.
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