Saturday, October 8, 2011

Torn Asunder

The front room window, circa last week. Now occupied by millionaires.

During my parent's sadistic mid 70's divorce, there was a strange transient period where my dad lived in small apartments around New York. My mom stayed in the too big, un-renovated brownstone with too little money, and us kids. She "took in" a college girl, turning what was once my sister's and my domain into a slender little third floor apartment with a mini-kitchen. The woman walked through our house to come and go. We didn't care. My sister and I just shifted our act downstairs into what was once the master and second bedroom, while my mom moved into the vast downstairs "front room" that had a giant window that looked out onto 95th street. The room had formerly been my Dad's office.

In that room our dad had lectured my sister and me about the use of the calculator. We were not to use it, without express permission and supervision, because it cost a hundred dollars and it added numbers together, you see. But we loved the clicking chunk of those buttons and the (were they digital?) red numbers it displayed.

Later, Mom slept on a single bed in the corner next to built-in bookshelves, sort of tucked in the back corner of this huge, bright, cold room. I now think living small in a large space is one of the most depressing things a person can do. All one can do is hide in plain site. If it had been me, I'd have erected a tent in that room, and slept in that.

Anyway, my Dad was out of the house.

Under the deafening screech of my parent's split, there was this short-lived, quiet and transient reality my dad and I tenderly occupied in short spurts - times when I spent weekend nights at his various divorced-guy apartments. This was an unhappy time, writ large.

But buried in there, between the lurid and humiliating rages he launched against sales-girls in the Bloomingdale's junior department, and shit-fits turned against camp councilors and difficult packaging, I got to watch, with tender awe, as he worked a can opener around a can of tuna and accompanying Tomato soup for our lunch, a Tab for each of us.

I'd never seen him cook a single thing, ever, in my entire childhood. So I think he may have been digging into some college sense-memory, trolling the canned goods isle of Gristedes.

His apartments were always tidy, with a manly minimalist style. He was a bit of a metro-sexual, by today's standards, with his Mason Pearson bristle hairbrush and his shaving cake in a wooden bowl that he swirled across his face with a stubby, soft, round paintbrush.

He had bookshelves bought from Conrans, medal frames with glass shelves, on which he kept some select doodads I always found amusing. Wind-up toys and paperweights, small boxes and maybe an ashtray, or five. He had coffee table books, couches, and nifty cork-wrapped bedside lights, on articulated arms.

For fun we did things around the city, things I now imagine he had to think hard to come up with - ways that I might be amused by his bachelorhood, rather than terrified by it. He had many movie posters, and a couple of times we went to one of those now extinct u-frame it places, and picked out colored, beveled woods, which he paid for by the linear inch. We'd nail them together on the carpeted table tops with the tools they provided, laying the glass in on top of diamond shaped metal bits we'd carefully hammered into the wood. I always got to Windex the glass with newspaper, which felt important and a little dangerous actually, holding the big piece of glass with his help, wiping it clean.

Because he's the film guy, reviewing and making documentaries his entire career, there was almost always an old film in some director's oeuvre that we had to screen together.
This was pre-Beta Max even. So he borrowed or rented a film projector on a rolling cart. I'd pull the telescopic screen with tripod legs from the front closet. I'd tilt the green cylinder horizontally and pull the white scrim from inside it, hooking it to a metal loop at the top.

Together we'd watch old movies; Sullivan's Travels, The Third Man, The Philadelphia Story. He taught me how to thread that machine, a thing I loved, looping the film before snapping the lens shut, sliding it through all the slots and over sprockets in correct and precise order before winding it over the back reel and giving it a little spin to gather the header. He might even have some Jiffy Pop, and we'd shake it over the electric burner until the silver dome helixed out from its center, filling with hot buttery air first and then popcorn. More Tab.

He'd pull out the couch in the living room (in that apartment) and we'd together put the sheets on, sliding a pillow into a special single case he pulled from his closet. After tucking me in he'd go back to his room, reading and smoking into the late hours, long after I'd fallen asleep. I might have to pee, and I have a strong memory of him sitting up in his pajamas, half-glasses on, smoke curling up from his bedside ashtray.

A couple of times we went to the bubbled indoor tennis dome - a sort of Jiffy Pop container for tennis enthusiasts. We'd whack a ball around with wooden rackets, dad always torturing my nine year old back hand, with his lefty forehand. Then we'd go eat somewhere. Often as not, dad would take the opportunity to mine for and curse the events of my mother's life. He berated her horribly, and made me feel nauseous under the weight of my loyalties and betrayals, which were of course exclusively theirs. These were dark and mysterious times.

Soon enough my mom hooked up in a serious way with a man I grew to love very much, and after putting my sister in boarding school, the three of us, Mom, David and I, moved to Santa Fe New Mexico, which I know devastated my father and ultimately us, until we moved again, this time to Los Angeles, another doomed year for me, until the following one, when I too went to boarding school and thrived.

It would be twenty years before I would live in the same city as my dad again. By then so many years had shot through the goose-ass of life, so much wreckage and hurt, so many wrong moves and bad choices by everyone around me, that I'd become independent of the grown-ups in my life. I was an adult by the age of thirteen, and an old soul by my twenties. Dad became more stooped and internalized, and I was no longer a child he could amuse easily on a rainy Saturday.

I think back on those days, wading frightened in the dark waters of my parent's adult humiliation and defeat, through their bitterness and regret, and I find kernels of memory that taste sweet on the tongue. Something in there seems rare and momentary, a suspended dream of a time where buoyed by sadness, my dad and I bobbed along on a raft of tissue paper that too quickly dissolved under us.


  1. Oh God Jess, this is so beautifully written, and of course, I remember all of it. The details are exquisite and evocative -- and of course, every word of it was as true for me as it was for you. How did we survive all that? Or are we still trying to even now, all these years later?

  2. wow. this is too beautiful and poignant to gush about. you are just connected to Truth. thank God.

  3. So good. So good. I love a little dad appreciation, especially when they are still alive and kicking. So funny how our lives have these constant intersections - Manhattan, Santa Fe, LA, not to mention Northampton and a certain crack den known as San Francisco. These intersections seem to have come to a "deadening screech" halt when you moved to Ohio, and I to wherever it is. Is there another criss cross in the helix I wonder...

  4. This is really good, Jess... so visually evocative and viscerally honest without being judgmental. Stark in it's beauty.

  5. Your words hit me like a brick. You write so beautifully and with such distinction. I am 22 years old. I am still having a difficult time with my parent's divorce. Your last paragraph is my life. Were you ever able to make amends with either of your parents? I'm still trying, but there's no light at the end of the tunnel and it's very disheartening.