I was having lunch with my father at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, chosen because it was cheap and I wasn't sure if my father could pay even his half, let alone treat me. I was twenty, a waiter wanting to be a writer; he was forty-three, a devious little boy trapped inside the slump-shouldered body of a middle-aged man. Two clichés, sharing a meal. Last time I knew my father, I was fourteen and he was working behind the register at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Rockville, Maryland, talking constantly about how the rotisserie oven was going to revolutionize the industry. I was a high-school freshman, partial to Roy Rogers, so there was already some space between us. Then he met a woman who lived in Jersey, and, having little money, moved in with her a few weeks later.
Finding women to live off had been a skill my father refined in the years after the divorce — every few months he'd have a new address, typically some good-humored, quietly insane divorcee's home. But living in different states, we quickly lost touch: nothing dramatic, just two boys too preoccupied with their own navels to make a phone call. At seventeen I moved to New York, which was when I heard he married the woman, and had another son, though not in that order.
Women love my father. He is one of those men: the sort you are not supposed to love, knowing you may regret it, but you go on loving anyway, love being a perennial nemesis of common sense. My mother left him because his drug habit put our family in over $50,000 of debt at a time when my parents' combined income was under $30,000, and yet twenty years later she still (reluctantly) gets a whimsical, sly-dog grin when he comes up. It isn't that he has a con artist's calibrated, self-serving charm — no, his is the clumsy, endearing charm of a man who means to do the right thing but rarely does. Raised on a farm along the Maine-Canada border, he is especially lethal in metropolitan areas, his crooked smile and goofball jokes and quirky turns-of-phrase seen as exotically redneck. He can fix anything with his hands — a blender, a shelving unit, an antique muffler — a beautiful quality that, for some women, is sadly mistaken for stability. He saves stray animals and, I swear to you, can get birds to land on his pointer finger by calling out to them in the woods, though unfortunately this kind of sensitivity doesn't always translate over into his human relationships. I can think of little he did as a father that doesn't fall under the category of negligent parenting, and yet, because he is so likeable, all my memories of him are fond ones.
Here in the restaurant, however, something was off. Missing. The drink in his hand fit, true, but the defeated look on my father's face — brown eyes dimmed, lips frozen in a hard frown — was the sort of look I associate more with the type of dude who kills afternoons blowing disability checks at the OTB. My father's hair was stringy and gray, his charisma gone, his whole demeanor slack and dejected. He mentioned a 1973 MG convertible sitting on blocks in his garage ("Fixin' her for my dentist since I was a smidge short on the last
Since moving to New York, I had not been in a single relationship, opting instead to hone a peculiar, G-rated fetish.
bill"), but even this, a subject he typically could talk about enthusiastically for hours, inspired only a few melancholic grunts. He seemed to be holding something back, something in, for so long that it had grown thorns, turned toxic. Because my father has always been less a parent than a template for how not to live a life, I wanted details, information, facts and figures I could store away for further inspection, to keep my own developing personality in line.
Problem was, I didn't know the man anymore. Wished I did, but didn't. Didn't know his address, didn't know what he did for a living, didn't know where to start. And so I resorted to that simple but loaded question so popular among strangers looking for something, anything to say to one another —
"Ah . . . uh . . . all's fine," he said. And then, in the way B-movie heroes repeat certain lines to indicate both gravity and a darker subtext, he added: "All's fine, all's fine."
"Dad," I said, "what's going on?"
He smiled weakly, shook his head, sipped his drink. He shrugged. Then he uttered his wife's name, as if this meant anything to me.
"That's vague," I said.
"Marriage," my father replied, his tone a mix of irony and hyperbole, "it's a difficult thing, you know?"
Well, no, I didn't. My parents, it seems my father had forgotten, divorced when I was too young to have any memory of them as a married couple. And probably thanks in part to the man sitting across from me, I had developed — how shall we say? — some issues with the opposite sex. Since moving to New York, I had not been in a single relationship, opting instead to hone a peculiar, G-rated fetish that I merely confused with having relationships: inviting women into my apartment, asking them to strip and walk across the living room in their underwear — slowly, no, even slower — and then asking them to leave without ever actually touching me. I did this, I'm sure, to convince myself that proximity to intimacy is the same as intimacy experienced, the same way my father has spent a lifetime thinking that being loved by many women for the wrong reasons is the same as loving a few for the right ones. Sex had become, for me, an act of desperation and manipulation, too psychologically filthy to be enjoyed physically, a view that was hard to reconcile with the fact that I was a post-adolescent boy who thought of almost nothing but sex. The girls in my apartment . . . I took comfort in them because they supplied the illusion that all was well, all was well: a post-coital state without actual coitus, which I told myself was a sensible and healthy and rewarding way to live.
"You're going to have to be more specific," I said to my father. "Marriage is a difficult thing how?"
"Oh," he muttered, "just your usual snags and glitches . . . "
I noticed his nostrils flare in the same way that (according to my mother) mine do when I'm trying to hide something that, in truth, I want revealed. And suddenly, strangely, in that instant I did understand what he was
After his third or fourth drink, he told me that she trimmed her pubic hair into a neat little thatch of clipped brown hair, which, jeez, was so much more manageable.
trying to tell me: marriage is a difficult thing, yes, especially if you are having sex with someone who is not your wife. I don't know how I knew. I just did. Aside from waiting tables, I was also working days as a reporter for the gossip column at New York magazine, a job that had fostered a good deal of dread and self-loathing, but also helped me fine-tune the dubious talent of asking near-strangers uncomfortable, personal questions, many of which dealt with infidelity. I have asked a famous chef about why he doesn't pay child support. I have asked Alicia Silverstone about her preferred sexual positions. And now I was asking my father, the ultimate near-stranger, about the woman he was fucking.
"Ha!" he blurted, not for second denying it. "How the hell'd you know?"
Instead of being ashamed, he smiled that crooked smile, thrilled to have someone to confess his secrets to. A brother — a son — in arms! He sighed, he slapped the tabletop. He ordered another round, and, once it arrived, went into detail. First he told me her name. And that they met at the deli where he works. And that (my father never being a man of couth) she was toned and olive-skinned and heroically flexible, a veritable contortionist in bed! Also that she was only twenty, my age, which was momentarily unsettling, though only momentarily, given that only a masochist would attempt to view my father as a legitimate adult. Finally (here after his third or fourth drink) he told me that she trimmed her pubic hair into a neat little thatch of clipped brown hair, which, jeez, was so much more manageable than that of women his age! Have you, he asked giddily, experienced this? Wait, what — really? It's common with girls your age? He shook his head wistfully and finished his drink.