In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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When I was fourteen, my little sister, Coco, told me she believed our father was having an affair.
The swimming pool hadn’t been cleaned yet that year, and the water was verdigris green. I sat on the side with my legs in the pool, watching Coco hold her breath near the bottom, which was covered in rotten leaves. The water was cold because it was only June and the heater wasn’t working. While I was distracted by a maple leaf floating by, my sister swam up and touched my ankle, startling me.
“Frank,” she said, “how long was that?”
“I don’t know, Coco.” Her name is actually Corrine, but we always called her “Coco.”
“You said you’d count.”
“A minute,” I said.
“Frank, you’re such a jerk.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Start over. I’ll count this time.”
But Coco got out of the pool and spread her towel on the cement. Looking down our lawn at the beachfront of Lake Ontario, she said, “We should just swim in the lake. It can’t be any colder than the pool.” We never swam in the lake, because sometimes it had too much bacteria in it and would make you sick.
I slid into the pool and shuddered at the cold, then floated on my back for a minute or two and watched the gray clouds coming in off the lake and thought about a particularly difficult piece by Chopin I was trying to learn on the piano.
“I have to get ready for my lesson,” I said, and I got out of the water. The ladder was missing, so you had to climb out over the side, pushing yourself up with your arms, which was sadly difficult for me. I was physically weak, despite my above-average height and years of swimming and tennis lessons. I slipped my feet into Coco’s flip-flops and walked across the soft and spongy lawn toward the house.
We lived in an old, two-story Arts and Crafts house with an elevator, which was permanently stuck on the second floor. We used it as a storage closet, and it was my favorite place in the whole house. Now I went into the elevator and shut the gate and sat in one of the antique ladder-back chairs that my father had put in there, and I looked over the Chopin piece in my piano book and tried to visualize my future. Would I become an artist, as I dreamed, or a financial consultant, as my father wanted? Would it matter to anyone, including myself? I hoped that it would, but at fourteen I already had my doubts.
My father wanted to call our house “Sea Breeze,” the way people name fancy estates in Europe or wherever. I tried to oblige him whenever I remembered to, but my mother refused. She was twenty years younger than my father and called the house the “Junk Shop” because it was full of broken-down antique furniture that he had collected over the years. Coco called the house “Lake Breeze” because, as she correctly pointed out, the house was on the lake, not the sea. None of our neighbors had names for their homes, many of which were older and grander than ours. My mother said that giving your house a name was a sign of being nouveau riche, which I suppose was meant as an insult to my father, who grew up the son of a postal worker. He’d gone to college and become a successful defense lawyer, then quit law and made even more money from a washing-machine-leasing business called All-American Coin Corporation, which supplied washers and dryers to college campuses across upstate New York.
Personally I loved our house, but I suppose it was something of a junk shop. The rambling, once-beautiful waterfront property hadn’t been kept up. We had a tennis court, but the net was missing and the cement was full of holes. Sometimes in the winter we would flood the court and skate on it; that’s about all it was good for. Raccoons had built nests in two of the house’s three chimneys, and we could smell their burning scat whenever we used the fireplaces. In the front yard there’d once been a beautiful, royal-looking European beech that must have been a hundred years old, but the tree had gotten sick with some sort of blight and had to be removed by a team of graduate agriculture students from Cornell who wanted to study it.
But I don’t want to dwell on the negatives. The house also had a beautiful lawn that was thick and wet and wonderful to lie on at night and look at the stars and listen to the waves on the beach. There were driftwood bonfires all down the shore on summer evenings, and tall, majestic maples grew between the houses.
Coco appeared on the other side of the elevator gate with a sundress on over her wet swimsuit. She looked lovely in the soft glow from the skylight. Curls were already forming in her damp hair.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, sugar,” she said. Coco had begun using “sugar” and “honey” and other terms of endearment after spending a week with our paternal grandmother, who lived in a trailer park in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and tended bar at a VFW post.
“Is our mother home?” I asked.
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Do you know where she went?”
Our mother wasn’t exactly what you’d call a typical stay-at-home mom. She stayed home a lot, but she didn’t do much mothering. She occasionally got her marijuana out of the wall safe in the basement and smoked it in a small wooden pipe. She read books and went to the hairdresser and gardened and sunbathed and golfed. She was beautiful and intelligent, and for the most part she ignored Coco and me — except that she paid a lot of attention to our diets and how much television we were watching. She made us eat yogurt and granola and other natural foods, and she had us study maps and read various religious books instead of watching TV. She claimed to be an atheist, but she had studied religion rather extensively and had been working on a book on Mormonism for about twelve years. She’d never finished her dissertation, so technically she wasn’t a PhD, but you could tell she thought of herself as one. To each other, Coco and I referred to her as “our mother” as a kind of joke, but it wasn’t that funny.
When I was eleven, I’d found my mother’s stash in the basement one Sunday morning; she had left her safe open the night before, and inside was a plastic zip-lock bag full of marijuana and some orange peels, which I later learned were to keep the pot moist and spongy. Seeing the drugs felt strangely erotic and taboo, not unlike the time I’d seen one of my neighbors skinny-dipping at night. I put my face into the baggie and inhaled the deep, musky, green aroma.
“I had a funny dream last night,” I said without looking up from my Chopin book. “I dreamed that there were all these huge, exotic birds living in the maple trees beside the house. They had long, colorful tail feathers, like half peacocks, half parrots.”
“I’ll look it up in my dream book,” Coco said. “I had a dream, too. I dreamed that Dad came home from work with a paper bag over his head and he wanted to be called ‘Bag-Dad.’ ”
“Like the city in Iraq?” I asked.
“No, like a bag, and a dad. Bag-Dad. Get it?”
“I guess,” I said.
“What do you think it means, Frank?”
“I have no idea.”
“Frank, honey,” Coco said, “can I tell you something else?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I think Dad is having an affair with Miss Kate.”
I put down the Chopin and closed my eyes and sighed. Coco didn’t say anything. I could hear her swimsuit dripping water onto the hardwood floor. It didn’t matter; the floors all needed to be refinished anyway. Finally I opened my eyes and spoke: “What makes you say that, Coco?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I just do. Look at him.”
Somehow I knew what she meant. Our father did look different. His face was less gray. He had started using whitening toothpaste and was quicker to smile than ever before. I’d even found a bottle of Just for Men in his bathroom, which I believed he was using to color both his hair and his beard.
“And sometimes Miss Kate stops by his study after your lessons, and she stays in there for a long time,” Coco added.
“That doesn’t mean they’re having an affair,” I said. “Maybe she’s trying to convince him that I have talent.”
“I doubt it,” Coco said. “Can I have my flip-flops back now, please?”
I did not want my father to have an affair with Miss Kate for several reasons, none of which had much to do with our mother. For one thing, I was afraid that if it came out he was having an affair, then Miss Kate would stop giving me piano lessons, and I’d have to start over again with a new teacher, which I assumed would be traumatic and detrimental to my career as a pianist. I was counting on a music scholarship to college because my father had already made it clear that he would pay for college only if I studied finance. He wanted me to get a business degree and work as a financial consultant at some big-city firm for a few years and then come home and take over the All-American Coin Corporation. Another reason I didn’t want my father to be having an affair was for Coco’s sake. I felt that it would somehow ruin Coco’s innocence, even though she was only thirteen months younger than I was. In retrospect, I think I saw her as a more innocent version of myself.
Lastly, I didn’t want it to be true because, of course, I was in love with Miss Kate myself. She was in her early thirties, tall and fair with long blond hair that she wrapped up in a bun on top of her head. She smoked mentholated 100s, and her voice was always scratchy. “That was beautiful, Frank,” she’d say if I ever got a piece of music just right.
“Thank you, Miss Kate,” I’d say and blush while looking out the nearby window.
Coco and I left the elevator, went into our parents’ bedroom, and began to rummage in our father’s drawers for evidence. Coco looked through the mahogany desk in the corner, and I took the dresser. While I searched, I thought about my father and decided that I’d managed to love and hate him simultaneously for many years. He wasn’t downright negligent, the way I suppose my mother was, but he was close. Perhaps inattentive is a better word. For example, once when I was twelve he took me on the train to New York City to look at some European antiques he was interested in buying. We rode the Lakeshore Limited from Rochester to Manhattan. Outside the windows of the club car, the rolling green of the Hudson Valley gave way to the heavy stone world of the Bronx and then the dark underground of Manhattan’s subway. My father didn’t seem to notice me sucking on the limes from his rum-and-Cokes, and I was half drunk by the time we walked into the vast, hopeful space of Grand Central Station. The ceiling was a slate green night sky.
In my father’s sock drawer I found many rolled-up pairs of nylon socks. They all had gold toes and were either dark blue, brown, or black. Under them I found an ivory-handled jackknife and a belt buckle and a condom. I don’t believe I had ever seen a condom before, but somehow I knew what it was. It was wrapped in a small square of plastic, the back of which was clear. The condom seemed to float in a pool of liquid the color of iodine. My stomach fluttered for a minute, and I couldn’t decide if it was evidence or not. Then I put the condom back where I’d found it, and I decided not to tell Coco about it.
Coco and I fixed ourselves a late lunch. I made ants-on-a-log — celery with peanut butter and raisins. Coco wanted a peanut-butter-and-Marshmallow-Fluff sandwich, but there was no Marshmallow Fluff, so she tried to make some in the sink with a rubber kitchen mallet and a package of mini marshmallows. Eventually she gave up and simply dipped the marshmallows in peanut butter and ate them that way.
While we ate, Coco looked up birds in her dream book. “It doesn’t sound like they were peacocks, honey,” she said. “It sounds like they were birds of paradise, which means you were actually dreaming of beautiful women.”
I thought about Miss Kate.
“There isn’t anything in here about paper bags, though.”
“Oh, well,” I said.
“I’ve been thinking,” Coco said. “Our mother has been trying to teach me how to read palms from a book she got at the thrift store. What if I asked to read Dad’s palm?”
“It wouldn’t exactly prove anything. Maybe we should just drop it.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
My father came home from work early that afternoon, carrying groceries in a brown paper bag. He was wearing a tan summer suit and a pink oxford shirt with no tie. He looked handsome.
“Why are there marshmallows in the sink?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have a piano lesson tonight.”
“Where’s your mother?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “We haven’t seen her all day. I think she’s golfing.”
My father looked tired and annoyed. I thought maybe Coco had been wrong about his affair.
“Bad day?” I said.
“No, it was all right. What time is your piano lesson?”
“Tell Miss Kate I’ll write the check for her tonight. You can send her up to my office after the lesson. I’ll be in there working late.”
I must have given him a funny look because he suddenly turned and busied himself in the kitchen. He took off his suit coat, rolled up his sleeves, and began to clean up the marshmallows. He wore a beautiful gold Rolex watch that he had bought himself a few years earlier on his sixtieth birthday. A watch that big might have looked ridiculous on another man, but my father’s hands were large and dark and hairy, and the watch looked good on him.
“That’s Coco’s mess in the sink,” I said.
“I thought so,” he said, but he kept cleaning it up anyway.
My father ordered a pizza and tossed a salad to go with it, and the three of us ate at the dining-room table. After dinner Coco asked our father if she could read his palm, and he said sure. I tried to act as if I weren’t interested and stared at my father’s antique-bell collection, which was displayed on top of a busted Victrola in a corner of the dining room. One bell was shaped like an apple, and another was a red cardinal. There was a winter cottage and a turtle and even one made to look like a washing machine.
Coco pulled her chair up close to our father and said, “OK, let’s take a look.”
Her hands were small and fragile compared to our father’s. I decided I didn’t want hands like his. They’d be no good for playing the piano.
“Oh, dear,” Coco said. “It says here you have had a lot of trouble, Daddy. It says you have always loved your family and felt loved by them, but that something has been giving you trouble.”
My father was quiet. I could hear the sound of the cuckoo clock ticking on the wall. As an older man with younger children, my father often seemed surprised by us, and this was certainly one of those moments. Sometimes it was as if he were our grandfather rather than our father, and he just didn’t know what to do with two kids.
“Daddy,” Coco said softly, “it says here that you’re having an affair.” She tilted her head to one side and parted her lips in surprise. She was very convincing. I had to remind myself that Coco was making this all up.
My father didn’t blush or get angry, as I had expected him to do. Instead he grew pale, drew his hand away, and frowned. He looked very hard at Coco, looked her right in the eye.
“Corrine,” he said, sounding disappointed.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Coco said, as if she suddenly realized that she had gone too far.
My father sighed, then stood and went upstairs.
Coco was quiet. Her two little hands appeared very white against the dark wood of the table.
“What do you think that means?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Coco whispered.
I went up to the elevator and sat in one of the chairs and waited for my lesson.
Around seven my father called to me that Miss Kate had arrived. She was already seated at the piano when I walked into the music room, which had a large bay window and also served as a kind of greenhouse for my father’s extensive collection of geraniums.
“Hi, Frank,” Miss Kate said, but I didn’t say anything. I sat down next to her on the piano bench and leaned in close.
“What are you doing, Frank?” she asked.
I breathed her in deep, smelling lavender and mentholated cigarettes. I remembered the first time I’d heard her play Chopin’s Nocturnes. I wanted to tell her I was in love with her, and I said, “Miss Kate, to me you are the one true star in a night sky full of satellites and airplanes.”
I had come up with this line one night after a lesson and had even written it down in a letter I’d never mailed to her. It must have sounded ridiculous coming from a fourteen-year-old boy, but I imagined it was one of the most romantic things anyone had ever said to Miss Kate. She seemed surprised, then sort of frowned, as if she was not happy that I was the one who’d said it.
“Frank,” she said, and she squinted at me.
I leaned in even closer and put my lips against her neck.
Miss Kate put her hand on my shoulder and pushed me away. “Don’t do that,” she said. Her hand felt cold, especially at the fingertips. I stood up.
“Are you having an affair with my father?” I said. Everything inside me felt tight. Then, without much thought, I slapped her on the face. I did not hold back. I slapped her as hard as I could. My hand stung, and Miss Kate shrieked, and I ran up to my room and locked the door.
When my father found out, he used a skeleton key to come into my bedroom, and he punched me in the chest and asked me how I liked it. He had never hit me before. I couldn’t breathe for a moment, and then I started to cough. He said he was sorry and left the room. Then I collected all my Chopin records and broke them. In a desperate and adolescent show of sadness I put on Mozart’s Requiem so loud that I blew out one of my stereo speakers and the music got all faded and staticky. Coco knocked on my door at one point, but I didn’t answer it.
In my senior year of high school a private foundation awarded me a scholarship to study music composition at Indiana University. I later learned that the scholarship had been secretly established by my father. He told me he had done it so I would feel more confident about my music, but I never really did. I transferred in my sophomore year and got a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Potsdam and then ended up going to law school at the University of Buffalo. I did not take over my father’s business, however. I now practice law in a little office in downtown Buffalo, where I handle a lot of Canadian immigration cases. My parents eventually divorced, and my mother moved to Costa Rica with an asshole hippie lawyer whom I met only once, at their wedding. He was all messed up on cocaine and Beaujolais, and while we were taking pictures after the ceremony, he said to me, “Now, no pouting at my wedding, buddy.” I was thirty years old at that point and had a good six inches on him. I wanted to hit him, but I remembered Miss Kate and my father and thought better of it.
I’ve never married, and neither has Coco. She moved to San Diego, where she teaches yoga, and I miss her very much. She came home recently to help me put our father in a nursing home. I visit him on Thursday afternoons, and he always says, “You better hope I don’t last long. This place is eating up your inheritance.”
He and I have never spoken about Miss Kate, and I still wonder who let the other one down more. I have always wanted to apologize for what I did, but I can’t. Just this past Thursday, though, I wheeled him down to the music room and sat at the piano there and played Chopin for him. It was one of those moments where everything comes together and makes sense: that a geranium can smell like iron; that a photograph of a piece of fruit can remind you of your lover’s naked body; that, deep in an Adirondack sugarbush, you can breathe in the maple-and-snow smell and in it find summer.
After the Chopin I played a sad old jazz standard made famous by Chet Baker called “I Get Along without You Very Well,” which just seemed right at the time. It was warm in there, and my father fell asleep as I played. When I was done, I turned around on the bench to look at my father and practiced this prayer where you recite a name or a word over and over again. I chanted the word love in a soft voice, and eventually something happened for me: I saw my father’s body start to glow, like in a painting of Christ at the Transfiguration. I took my father’s hands and wished I could read his palms. His hands were heavy and dry and warm. I kissed them while he slept.