The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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As children of a psychoanalyst, my brothers and I were brought up with three basic beliefs: everything has some deeper significance, there is no such thing as an accident, and never buy retail. Of course, my father rarely told us those things directly. In fact, he hardly ever told us anything. We were just supposed to listen to what was unsaid and figure out what it meant. The only thing we weren’t supposed to analyze was our parents’ marriage.
“The reason we fight more than other couples do,” our mother would say, “is because we’re more honest and passionate than other couples are.” And it was true that when my parents were getting along, you couldn’t help but get swept up in the energy and excitement they generated. And so I believed things were OK right up until one night at the Ashkenaz, a deli on the north side of Chicago where we often ate dinner.
The truth is that my parents didn’t fight: my mother fought. My father would just stare at her as if what she was saying were mildly interesting but not really his business. If her attack grew especially fierce, he would take off his glasses and massage his eyebrows and forehead in slow circles. Or he’d close his eyes, drop his chin to his chest, and scratch the top of his shiny, bald head.
Those dinners at the deli all began with our mother questioning each of my three brothers and me about the details of our day at school: what our teachers thought about our work, whether anything new or interesting had happened with our friends, what we had for homework. During the questioning our father would study the menu or stare into space.
“So, Dan,” she would say, starting with my youngest brother, “did you get your paper back?”
“Yeah,” he’d respond.
“And? What did Mrs. Sluzarzek say? Did she like it?”
“Yeah. I guess so,” he’d reply in that flat, affectless voice my brothers and I all used whenever we were faced with our mother’s questions in our father’s presence. “She gave me an A-minus.”
“An A-minus! That’s great, Dan. Tell me exactly what she said.”
Like an investigative journalist, our mother would pounce on the smallest statement with more probing questions. Looking back, I’m sorry that we gave such sparse responses, but I think we were scared by her intensity, by just how much she cared about all of us. And perhaps we sensed that, as interested as she was in us, it was our father’s reaction — or nonreaction — that really mattered. At some point in the interrogation she’d turn to my father and ask, “Did you hear that? Are you listening? Did you hear what Lad just said? Can’t you respond? Can’t you show some interest? I know that our lives couldn’t possibly be as interesting as whatever you are sitting there dreaming about, but you could at least pretend to care.”
“I’m sorry. What were you saying again?” he’d ask me in a tone that betrayed no irritation but also no great interest.
Before I could answer, my mother would jump in: “Tell him again, Lad. Start over. He wasn’t listening. He was thinking about something more important.”
“No, that’s OK. It’s not important, really,” I would say.
“No, it is important,” my mother would say. “Tell him again.”
“No, it doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter. To me, anyway.”
But as soon as she’d cajoled me into speaking, she’d interrupt again: “Excuse me for a second, Lad,” she’d say, holding up a finger, and she would turn to my father: “Are you listening now, or have you tuned us out again?”
“No, go on,” he would say dryly, as if nothing at all odd or uncomfortable were happening.
And I would go on, reluctantly, self-consciously, and he would respond in some distant way, and I would feel angry at him for not listening and at my mother for making him listen and at myself for not being interesting to him in the first place.
It’s funny in a way: as a Freudian psychoanalyst, my father made his living listening to patients talk about their problems, exploring every detail of their dreams and childhoods, helping them understand themselves. Since he was so scrupulous about never discussing his patients with us, I had trouble imagining what he was like during a session, though I had to guess that he was different than he was at home with us. When I was thirteen, my mother had taken me to hear my father lecture on Freud and sexuality for a group of social workers. As unsettled as I was by the content of the talk (I remember being both mortified and fascinated when he described a patient who confessed to getting an erection when his four-year-old daughter sat on his lap), I was even more shocked by his style and delivery: I’d almost never heard him speak with such energy and conviction and wit. Working without notes, he moved from colorful examples of sexual obsessions and perversions, to explanations of Freudian theory, to stories about his own clinical experience. Who is this guy? I thought.
It wasn’t just that one lecture: Whenever I’d see him for a minute or two between patients — he had an office in our basement, where he worked in the mornings, and another in the city, where he worked in the afternoons — he was more alert and engaged than he was during his off hours. And when we had other families over to dinner on the weekend, he could be amazingly animated and charming. But in the evenings during the week he didn’t seem fully present. It’s not as if I never saw him show emotion. Once every year or so something would happen — one of my mother’s rants about his insensitivity would finally break him down, or he’d discover that someone had thrown away the brown banana he’d been saving to whip into his sour cream at breakfast — and he’d explode with a fury that was all out of proportion: “Goddamn fucking shit!” he’d yell, slamming a door or knocking items off a table. But in a few minutes the outburst would be over, and he’d be back — or gone again, depending on how you look at it.
My mother would sometimes tell us about my father’s past: how, as a teenager in a poor, immigrant Jewish family on the west side of Chicago, he would sneak into weddings to eat the free food and meet girls; how he had moved from one passion to the next, allowing his father to train him to become a boxer, then enrolling in the yeshiva so that he could become a rabbi. I felt as if I were hearing about someone I had never met. Trying to picture my father doing these things was like trying to imagine what dolphins do all day underwater based on the brief glimpses you get when one leaps above the surface.
From what I could gather, my father had an unusual ability to discern the hidden meaning behind people’s words — which only made it all the more maddening when he didn’t follow our conversations, much less join in to encourage or disagree. His expressions gave little away. Sometimes he nodded, but usually it came a fraction of a second too soon or too late. Sometimes he murmured, “Mm-hm,” but it was so quiet that I wondered if I’d imagined it. Every once in a while, when I was saying something about a friend or a television show I had watched that day, he would focus on me suddenly and fully, and I would feel exposed and embarrassed. He’d say nothing, but somehow I’d hear his voice: Don’t you know how trivial this is? Don’t you have anything better to talk about? And I would step into his mind for a minute and see myself and my brothers and my mother talking about the smallest details of our day, sharing funny stories about our relatives and celebrity gossip, and I would blame my mother for making us just like her. And in those moments when I saw us through my father’s eyes, I would hate her, and I would hate myself, and I would decide to shut up. But I was not comfortable in my father’s mind for very long, and slowly I would rejoin the conversation.
On that hot June night at the deli — I was fifteen — the six of us were crowded together in our usual booth. My mother sat on the inside, near the wall. She wore a low-cut, Hawaiian-print muumuu and large earrings shaped like peacocks, her sunglasses resting on her frosted blond hair. My father sat on the same side in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. My ten-year-old brother, Dan, sat between them. I was on the other side, crammed between my other brothers, Joe and Jeff, feeling suffocated.
Earlier, on the way to the train station to pick up our father, who was returning from work in the city, our mother had told us, “Your father and I have something important to discuss with you boys.” I knew from her tone and word choice — she only called him “your father” when she was angry at him — that the news could not be good. But neither of them had said a word in the car, and at the deli nothing seemed amiss: my mother asked the waitress about the specials while my father studied the menu as if he might be quizzed on its contents at the end of the evening. I waited, hoping that my parents had forgotten or changed their minds about what they needed to tell us.
After we ordered, my mother kept giving my father significant looks, like an actor playing to the last row of the balcony. But he continued to look at the menu, even though he had already told the waitress what he wanted. I watched the counter-men assemble a corned beef on rye, a lox-and-sable plate, and a chopped-liver-pastrami-turkey combo. Usually seeing them work, their hands quick and deft, relaxed me, but that night I had the feeling you get in your stomach the morning after you went to sleep without resolving some terrible problem: you can’t quite remember what it was, but you know something, somewhere, is wrong.
“Oh, Dan, how could you?” my mother said.
My brother had knocked over his water glass, and my mother covered her face, as if about to cry. Dan was desperately trying to wipe up the water and dry off his paper place mat (“The Ashkenaz: All the Deli Items from A to Z”). I felt his embarrassment: As I said, in my family there was no such thing as an accident. Every one of our actions and inactions had a meaning, a cause. When I was little, my father had told me this.
“But what if I fall off my bike?” I’d asked him. “Isn’t that an accident?”
“Is there some reason you might want to hurt yourself?” he’d said.
“No. . . . Well, maybe. . . . Well, I don’t know, maybe I feel guilty about something I did. Is that what you mean?”
I always felt guilty about something, and I did want to punish myself. Our parents never once hit us, or kept us from doing what we wanted to do, or gave us extra chores around the house, or grounded us, or inflicted any of the other punishments my friends received. When we were bad or let them down, all my mother would say — all she needed to say — was “Why don’t you go to your room and think for a while about what you just did.” If we were very bad — say, I promised to be home at five but forgot about the time in the excitement of a baseball game and showed up at six — she became more dramatic: “Why do you feel compelled to do this to us? What have we done that was so terrible it makes you want to hurt us so much?” And I would go to my room and think about how my life would probably have been easier if my parents had been stricter.
When Dan knocked over that water glass, it was as if he’d stood on the table and screamed, I can’t stand this tension. We all knew something terrible was coming. And after the busboy wiped up the water and replaced Dan’s wet paper place mat with a dry one, my mother spoke: “I’m sure you boys know what we are going to say. Your father has something to tell you. Don’t you, Arnold? Go ahead, tell them.”
For an instant he seemed caught off guard, like a boxer hit by a punch he didn’t see coming. I could have sworn I saw a flash of anger in his eyes. He leaned forward as if about to speak, but then . . . nothing.
“Go ahead,” our mother said. “Here’s your big chance. Break their hearts.”
Silence. A blank stare.
Our mother began to cry. “Tell them how unimportant we all are to you. Tell them how you are unwilling to lift a finger to save this marriage.”
My father closed his eyes and began rubbing his forehead.
“Tell them —”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Tobin.” It was Sophie, our usual waitress. My mother flipped down her sunglasses to hide her tears. “Dr. Tobin,” Sophie said, “we’re all out of the brisket. Would you like the pastrami sandwich? It’s really lean tonight.”
“Pastrami? Uh, no, I don’t feel like pastrami tonight.” And he picked up the menu that he had just put down. “Let’s see. . . .”
Sophie put her head close to the menu to read it with my father. “What about a bowl of the sweet-and-sour cabbage soup? You like that, right?”
“Soup? No, let me just look here a second.”
While my father and Sophie stared at the menu, my mother finally made the announcement herself: “We are getting a divorce. Your father won’t compromise, and I am tired of being a bit player in my own life. I want a lead role. You hear that, Arnold? For once I want a lead role.” Sobbing uncontrollably, she shoved past my father to get out of the booth. “Excuse me, Sophie. Boys, I will be waiting in the car.”
When she was gone, my father ordered the chopped-liver plate with a couple of extra slices of Bermuda onion on the side. Then he told us he was sorry, that he did not want to put us in the middle of their problems. And that was it.
In the car on the way home, my mother’s quiet cries grew to heaving sobs and finally to all-out wailing. The rest of us were silent. I remember thinking, This is the worst. It can’t get any worse than this. When we got to the house, my father did not pack a suitcase and leave, as I’d expected. Instead he headed down to his basement office. My mother went upstairs to her room and slammed the door. Joe, Jeff, Dan, and I went to watch TV.
When I came down to breakfast the next morning, my father had already left for the city, and I could tell by the way my brothers looked up from the table that my mother had been waiting for me to get there.
“I need to talk with all of you,” she said. “Last night I called Joan Bernstein — she’s the lawyer who handled Rochelle’s divorce — and she said that I have to take this all very slowly, that I have to make sure I do what is best for me. I also called Brenda” — her therapist — “and she also said that I should protect myself and not do anything self-destructive. And you all know better than anyone how hard that is for me. I always think too little about my own needs. I don’t want to rush into this divorce and end up hurting myself.”
She then explained that my father was not willing to give her what she needed in the marriage, but that he also did not want a divorce. And she asked my brother Joe, the oldest, to tell my father that he could stay in the house until she decided what to do next, but that he had to move down to the basement. She had put all of his things — clothes, books, toiletries — in a pile in the hallway, and she wanted him to take it all downstairs immediately.
Joe looked sick. “Couldn’t you tell him yourself?”
“I am feeling very fragile right now,” she said. “I am not up to seeing him. It would be very painful for me.”
“But we shouldn’t really be getting involved in this, should we?” Joe said.
“I have not asked very much of any of you boys. I have always put your interests first, but I am now asking you this one small favor.”
What did this arrangement mean? That they would get a divorce, but we would have to live with both of them? Suddenly I didn’t know whether I was more scared that my parents would divorce or that they would stay together.
Once, my parents went away for the weekend, and my favorite baby sitter, a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Luchesi, stayed with us. I was about nine, and I liked Mrs. Luchesi because she liked me and because every time she came, I got a Salisbury-steak TV dinner. That Saturday morning I got up early and asked Mrs. Luchesi if I could ride up to Laegeler’s drugstore to buy some baseball cards. Fine, she said, and then she gave me a dollar and asked me to buy her some cigarettes: “Just tell them that the cigarettes are for me.”
Horrified, I watched myself nod and repeat, “Salems. Green box. Extra matches.” I could not tell Mrs. Luchesi that she had made a mistake; that a nine-year-old boy, especially such a good boy, could not possibly buy cigarettes.
And so I rode my bike to the store and practiced two speeches: one to Mrs. Luchesi, telling her why I could not buy the cigarettes; and one to Mr. Laegeler, explaining why I had to buy them. I pictured how shocked each of them would be, how angry, how disappointed. By the time I reached the store, I was in a panic. I couldn’t even go in. On the way back I decided to lie to Mrs. Luchesi and tell her that the store was closed, that it had burned down, that Mr. Laegeler had told me there was a law that you had to be sixteen to buy cigarettes — anything that would not embarrass her or me. But I have never been able to lie, and so when I got home, I told her the truth: “Mrs. Luchesi, I feel sick.”
In those weeks after my mother’s announcement and before Joe left for college, I felt the same sickness, the same dread. Every night after dinner my brothers and I would retreat to the family room to watch television and do our homework and wait for the phone to ring. When it did, we would look at each other as if to say, You answer it; it’s your turn. Sometimes it was one of our friends, but usually it was our mother (our house had three phone lines: my father’s office line and two different numbers for our family), and we knew what she would want: “Would you all please come up here right away? I need to talk with you.”
And we’d swear and shake our heads and troop up to her room to listen to her rage and accusations, her doubt and self-pity. Sometimes she would calmly tell us how the divorce was proceeding, what her lawyer had advised, how her therapist had reacted. I think she worried that we would side with our father. To try to prevent this, she would attack him, telling us things he had done or failed to do, and we would stare out the window or study the pattern on the bedspread. I would try to think about something unimportant, like baseball statistics or Top-40 records.
“Boys, I have a favor to ask of you,” she began one night. “Now it seems that your father does want a divorce.”
We all spoke at once:
“What? How do you know?”
“When did you see him?”
“Did you talk with him?”
“Uh, yes, I did,” she said. “I’ve seen him a couple of times. We met yesterday for lunch. I thought we could at least be reasonable. Anyway, suddenly he’s saying he does want a divorce. I think it is important that you boys make it clear to him that if he goes through with it, none of us will ever see him again.”
“But that’s not true,” Joe said. “We will see him. He’s our father.”
“Do you have any idea how much damage that will cause if you let him know that?” our mother asked. “If you tell him that no matter how horribly and cruelly he treats all of us, no matter how contemptuous he is of all of us, you will still see him?”
“But he hasn’t really treated us cruelly,” Joe replied.
“Then I have to tell you this. I didn’t want to, but you should know the truth: I called your father today at work, and I told him that you wouldn’t see him if he left, and do you know what he said? He said that it didn’t matter to him that much, that of course he’d like to see you if he could, but if he couldn’t, so what? How does that make you feel?”
It made me feel as if I were being held hostage by someone who wanted something from me and was making all sorts of threats to get it, and I suspected that some of those threats were lies, but I wasn’t certain enough to call my captor’s bluff.
One night our mother told us to tell our father that she wanted him out of the house in three weeks. We walked from her room, looking at each other like Dorothy and her friends when the Wizard told them to bring back the broomstick of the Wicked Witch. I couldn’t even imagine going down to my father’s office to deliver this message.
It’s funny how little I knew about my father and his work, considering that he worked Monday through Saturday mornings in our house and, when he wasn’t there, the waiting room of his office doubled as our playroom. When he was seeing patients at home, all of our sports equipment and toys were hidden behind a thick black curtain that cut across the middle of the room.
This system worked seamlessly except for the morning I realized I had forgotten my baseball mitt in the playroom. Deciding it was too risky to go through the waiting room — I could have run into a patient! — I planned to enter silently through one of the windows behind the curtain. Gently pushing open the window, I turned around and searched with my sock-covered foot for the floor.
As soon as I landed, I knew I had made a terrible mistake: I had climbed in the wrong window, right into my father’s office. For a second he and I just stared at each other. Then I heard a sound from the woman lying on the couch. She’d been crying, but now she scrambled to her feet and pointed at me and looked to my father for an explanation. I felt I ought to say something about meaning to go through the other window, about needing my catcher’s mitt, about being sorry, but I couldn’t get a word out. I thought my father would be furious — we’d been told that what he was doing in his office was intensely private — but he looked as if it were not at all odd that I had suddenly dropped in. Overwhelmed by guilt, I quickly climbed back out the window. Later he waved off the apology and explanation I was desperate to give him.
It was Joe who went down to our father’s office to deliver our mother’s ultimatum. When he came back, I asked, “What was it like?” I guess I wanted to be prepared for the day when Joe would leave and, as next oldest, I would take over his role as intermediary. I just could not picture my father alone in his office, and since I could picture nothing, I could imagine anything: that he was down there in bed with another woman, or whipping himself with a leather belt, or smoking opium from a hookah. Joe’s report was not that exciting, but it amazed me in its own way. “He was sitting on the couch eating Chinese food out of one of those cardboard containers . . . with chopsticks.” I was especially surprised by those chopsticks. I’d always thought non-Chinese people used them only to impress whomever they were eating with. But my father was alone.
“Oh, and he was watching TV,” Joe said. “He bought himself a black-and-white portable.”
“Did you tell him what Mom said about moving out?”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing, really. He just said, ‘Oh, OK, thanks.’ Then he said he was sorry that we got caught in the middle of this and that he didn’t know how to talk to us about it.”
The only time he did talk about it was when we were driving back from one of Joe’s wrestling tournaments. Joe had made it to the semifinals and lost to one of the top-rated kids in the state. Our mother had decided not to come — “I’d love to see Joe wrestle, but I’ll make the big sacrifice: I’ll let him have a day with all of you” — so it was just our father and us in the car.
The match had been close, and I could tell my father was upset. His driving, which was always aggressive — lane changes when you least expected them, rolling stops at busy intersections — was even wilder than usual. Finally he spoke: “That goddamn referee. That goddamn incompetent ignoramus. That takedown was clearly off the mat, and he wasn’t even in position to make the call. Damn it, you had him at that point, too. That was the turning point. That was the whole goddamn thing.” He seemed barely to look at the road. “Such an arrogant asshole. He screwed you; he goddamn screwed you. There was no way that takedown was on the mat. Right, Joe? Aren’t I right?”
Joe was staring out his window. “Yeah, I thought it was probably a bad call.”
Our father cut through a gas-station lot to avoid waiting at a traffic light. “I keep thinking that everything will settle down,” he said, “but instead it’s worse than ever. I mean, she’s still angry about something that happened when we were seventeen years old. The other day she brought up some time when she said I wouldn’t go to some dance or some goddamn thing because I didn’t like her friends, and now, all these years later, she is still holding that against me. I mean, that was twenty goddamn years ago.”
I slid down in my seat and glanced over at Jeff and Dan, but they had turned away.
“I was seventeen goddamn years old. What the hell does she expect from me? What the hell does she expect?”
I had no way of knowing then that this would be just the first of many times my parents would announce their impending divorce. As far as I knew, this was the end.
The night before Joe left for college, we all went out to dinner together. Our mother asked our father to join us, “for Joe’s sake,” and for the most part the dinner was fine: no fighting, everyone restrained. But then Joe and my mother got into an argument about whether he had to wear nice clothes for the trip, and she started to cry. “I have tried so hard. And everything I have done is a failure: my marriage has failed; I don’t have a career; my sons think I’m a joke.”
“OK, Mom,” Joe said. “I’m sorry. I’ll wear nice clothes. It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s not that, Joe. I wanted this night to be special for you, and I’m ruining that, too. I’m sorry. I never wanted to put you boys through any of this. Being a mother was the only thing I was ever really good at, and now I’ve made a mess of that, too. And now you’re leaving.”
She got up from the table in tears.
That night my brothers and I stayed up late watching TV. We couldn’t or wouldn’t say why: that we were scared to go to sleep, scared to be apart. When I finally went up to bed, I walked by my mother’s room. Through the door I heard her crying, and I thought I should knock, should try to console her, but I could not go into that room. Still, I went to the door just to listen and make sure she was all right. And that’s when I heard my father. I could not hear his words, but his voice was quiet, soothing, gentle. As I turned to leave, the light under the door went out.