Three Secretsby Lewis Warsh
"You look just like your father."
A man reaches out and pats the top of my head; the gesture accompanies the words, a disembodied hand parting the curtains of air. The words are spoken to please my father, of course, who stands alongside me, a firm hand on my shoulder to emphasize possession, but I don’t know what it feels like to feel proud— is this it? I don’t feel I’ve done anything to deserve the compliment.
Sometimes, if my father isn’t standing nearby, the stranger presses a folded five dollar bill into my palm.
"You look just like your old man," he says, closing my fingers over the bill.
Then he shakes his head in disbelief and turns away. The assumption is that I’m going to tell my father the identity of the person who gave me the money, that I’m going to put in a good word for him. It’s like I’m the middle person in some secret adult game where strange barrel-chested men with square jaws and receding hairlines give me money in order to get something from my father. The only problem is I have a hard time remembering names. "Tell your dad Jim Somebody says hello," and I forget the name immediately. I forget when I want to forget, and even if I could remember the name I would never dream of telling my father. I unfold the bill to check the denomination and then add it to the roll in my shirt pocket. It’s my money now, the less anyone knows the better.
It’s the last memory of my father, but the most insistent one. The anonymous stranger mouthing the words: "You look just like…" and then wandering away. The ritual of slipping me the money as if it was something I deserved. My father drapes his arm around my shoulder and looks proudly into my face as if he can’t believe I’m his son, that after he’s gone strangers will approach me and say: "I remember your father…"
The scene of this memory, this glimpse of the past, is a roadside bar called Eugene’s outside Boston or the house my father rented after he and my mother split up, or a larger party at someone else’s house, where different people, both women and men, all say the same thing, every sentence begins "You look…" and then they present me with money, especially if they’re drunk. My work is done. I’ve played the role of my father’s son, I’ve watched my father play the role of the proud parent, his hand on my head as if he were a ventriloquist working the strings, mouthing the response (but I never say anything) without ever moving his lips. I feel like I’m at the mercy of what other people choose to say, that if I go up to my room or leave the bar unnoticed and stand in the parking lot watching the lights on the highway, my father will be angry with me, and nothing is worth that. Someone will approach him and he’ll say "I want you to meet my son" and I wont be there when he needs me. Even now, fifteen years after he died, I can stare into his photograph and compare it to my own face in the mirror, or to a photo of myself taken at the same time, and there is nothing, not the slightest hint of resemblance.
"Maybe," I once told Angela, a woman I lived with for a year after graduating from college, "maybe they were just saying it to be polite. But if that’s the reason it wasn’t me they were talking about. I could have been anyone. The whole point was to kiss my father’s ass by playing on my vanity. They’d say anything to me whether I looked like him or not."
It’ll go on forever, this memory, outlasting all the silences, another myth of childhood, last glimpse of dad blowing smoke in my face as I look up into the eyes of a man with pink jowls and a handkerchief folded neatly in lapel pocket, some strange oily substance coating his fat pink lips, this friend of my father, this colleague whom I was supposed to call uncle, Al or Fred.
"Shake on it partner," the guy said. "Did anyone tell you you look like your dad?"
The spitting image: that’s the expression they used. It was the last time I saw my father though I wasn’t aware of it then. He was being honored for something in a nightclub in Boston and had to make a speech. But beforehand, everyone mingled around drinking and shaking his hand, and shaking my hand. So I remember his face that night as a blur of smoke and I remember the women in short dresses and long hair entering the sphere of his conversation as he sat on the edge of a barstool, a drink in his hand, a cigarette, while people dropped out of the immediate circle and others stood in the background waiting to be introduced, while still others just shook his hand, said "Congratulations," and moved on. And I was there beside him, he had a hand on my shoulder at all times, while the other hand never stopped moving, lifting a cigarette or the glass to his lips, as he talked and smoked and drank simultaneously: was anyone listening? Two men stood behind him at all times like bodyguards who did nothing but nod their heads in encouragement and laugh in the right places. He was talking about nothing. Every few words he said "fuck" and then apologized, squeezing my shoulder. All of the men, and even some of the women, as if he had given them permission, used the same word to punctuate their various responses. Even the women with their permed hair and their perfume that smelled like lilacs used the word "fuck" as a hinge at the end of their sentences. Possibly they would use this same word later in the night in another context, as in "do you want to fuck?", initiating the idea that anything was possible. Yet it was the first time I ever heard a woman speak this way. The woman who perched on the barstool near my father smiled at me lovingly with the hope (the same hope as the men who offered me money) that I might play favorites and put in a good word with my father. As if it were up to me to choose a new mate for him, a new sleeping companion. One woman with silver lipstick even kissed me on the mouth. I watched my father’s hand disappear beneath her skirt as she threw back her head and exhaled the words "Fuck him!" to describe a mutual friend, her boyfriend or husband whom she would leave in a minute to be with my father.
After awhile, he was so drunk I don’t even think that he realized I was there. Someone drove us home, eventually, my father in the front seat, dozing off, me in the back between two women, the windows wide open so no one would get sick. I was aware of their thighs and legs pressing against me and I held my hands in my lap for fear that I might reach out and touch them, put my hands between their legs (I was a step away from believing they wouldn’t stop me if I did), and when the car stopped suddenly I would feel their breasts push against my shoulders, and one of them said "Fuck" again, because that’s what we were doing, in a way, and no one cared. I was happy that when we arrived at my father’s house my mother wouldn’t be there, that they lived separately, since I knew how angry she would be if she saw him drunk, unable to walk. I knew that my mother, who hated being alone for even one minute of the day, had left my father because he wouldn’t stop drinking, because he went out every night, because he slept with other women and because he did all of these things openly, as if he purposely wanted to hurt her. It was logical that they should separate. At least now I didn’t have to lie in bed listening to them fight at three in the morning.
But before we went home he made a quick speech to his constituents. He pontificated drunkenly into a microphone about labor unions and strikes and the relationships between management and workers and the laws, the "fucking laws," that allowed management to hire replacements when the workers went on strike. I can’t imagine that anyone was listening. I stood in a corner, trying to make myself invisible, frightened that he would call me up to the platform with him (as if the fact that I existed somehow validated his principles), drape his arm over my shoulder, as he sometimes did, and introduce me once again to all his cronies. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to mistake me for him.
"He got drunk again, I bet," my mother said. Those were her first words when I called her the next morning. Followed by a sigh. My parents lived all of ten blocks away from each other. Two weekends a month and special occasions like this one I slept over at my father’s.
"I bet he brought someone home with him," she said.
Before calling her, I looked into my father’s bedroom, which was empty of furniture except for a king sized bed, and he was alone, lying on his bloated stomach in a white undershirt, one arm hanging over the side. I knew the women who had accompanied us on the ride home, either one of whom would have been willing to spend the night with my father whether he was drunk or sober, had stayed in the car while the driver carried him in the house and dumped him onto the bed. That was really the last time I saw him. When my mother came to pick me up, though I insisted I could walk home alone, was the last time. My mother never came inside when she picked me up. She was certain, if she ever crossed the threshold, that a strange woman in a short red nightgown would appear, my father’s latest "piece of fluff," and question her right to be there. Before I left I went into his room, said "Goodbye Dad, " but he didn’t hear. Then I put on my jacket and closed the door behind me.
I tell people my secrets in the hope that they’ll tell me theirs. People think I’m an attentive listener but the only reason I talk to them is to use what they say in my writing. I ask them about the first time they fell in love, or went to bed with someone. I ask them about their diseases. Their addictions. I get them to tell me things they never told anyone else. "I once hired a hit-man to kill my mother," she says, "but it all fell through at the last minute." "I slept with my shrink," she says. "I never told anyone about this before." Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in some of my stories, maybe not. Maybe everybody’s stories are the same. Teeth. Everyone has problems with their teeth, but these aren’t stories I’m interested in. Root canals. Periodontal work. "I had an affair with my dentist," she says. "I never told anyone this before." She was the last patient of the day and he locked the door of his office behind him. There was a couch in a room behind his office, away from the bright lights and the X-ray machines and the plastic gloves. She had the feeling that she wasn’t the first patient he had seduced. "I leaned over the arm of the couch and he lifted up my skirt," she said. Sometimes people tell you more than you want to know. I had simply asked if she could recommend a dentist and this is what she told me. The affair with her dentist lasted three years. After he finished work on her teeth, they began meeting twice a week at a hotel near his office. They met during his lunch hour and eventually he left his wife and children. "But we never lived together," she said. I wanted to ask "why" but I had already heard too much. I was taking Tylenol with codeine for the pain in my tooth and I was conscious of our thighs touching as we sat side by side in the booth in the back of the bar. It was closing time. I could imagine walking her home, climbing the stairs to her apartment, and making love to her without taking off my clothes. But then I remembered my wife, waiting at home, waiting up for me in our bed reading a book, and I didn’t want to walk through the door with a secret of my own.
She was reading one of the long later novels by Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, I think. She was on page 320. My wife likes to talk about the books she’s reading and I am familiar with The Wings of the Dove, I read it in college, but I had forgotten the story, so hearing my wife talking about it was like rereading it. And I know I’ll never have time to reread it. What I like to read, as I get older, what I tend to enjoy reading, are biographies, life stories of people who overcame adversity, who perform heroic deeds under the worst circumstances, exile and imprisonment. I recently read a biography of Chairman Mao which had mostly to do with his sex life. Apparently, at all state functions, there was a room where Mao could go for a "rest," accompanied by two or three of his favorite consorts. I also read a biography of Bertolt Brecht which claimed that Brecht didn’t write any of his major plays. That he had a group of women, his lovers, who wrote the plays. Elizabeth Hauptman. Ruth Eisler. There were others as well. Brecht always had two or three girlfriends at the same time. It seems odd to me that we remember Brecht’s name but we don’t remember the names of his collaborators. That he didn’t even give these women credit for their work. That he cheated them out of royalties. That he never wrote a good play after they grew bitter and stopped working for him. They were in love with him and that’s what inspired them to do his work and let him sign his name to the work they had written. They thought he would love them more, but he jilted them all instead.
I get into bed beside my wife and rest my head on the pillow while she continues to read. My wife and I have been married for fifteen years and sometimes we read aloud to one another before going to sleep. The main secret of our marriage is that she had an affair with another woman which lasted five years, and that half that time we lived separately from one another. But we’re past the point where we talk about this anymore, though for a long time, even after the affair ended, it was our main topic of conversation.
"How’s your tooth?" my wife asks.
"It hurts," I say. "I’m going to the dentist tomorrow."
And then she says: "Let me read this to you."
I close my eyes and listen to the voice that begins and ends every one of my days, surrendering to the convoluted hum of sentences with no boundaries until my own thoughts are a blur of clouds and shadows on the distant horizon. Memories, secrets, all my fantasies— everything fades under the hypnotic sway of my wife’s voice— until all that remains is the dull pain in the side of my mouth.
Sadness on Ludlow Street
It doesn’t matter where she went. There were probably stories about her, all the unmentionable things, which I was meant to write. I knew I would write them in the future, that writing about her would be a part of my future, but I didn’t know it would happen so soon. It’s only when something’s over that you can dream of writing about it. That you can dream at all, with your eyes closed, pretending to be asleep so that when a stranger enters the room and gets into bed with you, you can roll over into her arms, just like you did with the person who’s gone.
People aren’t interchangeable. At least that is what we want to think. When I met Jennifer she didn’t even own a skirt. Just some t-shirts and baggy pants and a sweatshirt two sizes too big. We went shopping together, at my insistence, on Lower Broadway, but being in clothing stores was confusing to her and made me feel claustrophobic, like I felt when I went shopping with my mother when I was a kid. Now I was the parent leading the child by the hand into a circle of hell where I didn’t want to be. I didn’t like the idea that I cared about the way she looked more than she did. She was comfortable not caring, it was part of the style that conformed to the way she felt, and I was confusing her by taking her hand like a parent and forcing her to change, to grow up, so to speak, into an icon of vanity. She cared about some sixties version of what a political activist looked liked and that meant not giving a shit about the way she looked, even though it was the late nineties and part of the politics of the present involves an engagement in a relationship with yourself. Your sense of who you are is a form of politics. The image she emulated had faded into a caricature of a place in time that had as much relevance to the present moment as a song by Grace Slick. I had to lead her in the direction of the skirts and dresses which were usually in the back. A saleswoman in a black slip and perfect shoulders slid towards us and I waved her off. I had to choose a skirt for her and point to the dressing room but Jennifer always tried it on without even showing me. Finally I said, "this is it, just get this one." And she said: "I don’t think it’s going to fit." We left the store empty handed and for a long time didn’t say anything. It was up to me to buy her clothing for her birthday or Christmas. Otherwise she would wear the same thing everyday. She would never have even changed except for the times she wanted to please me, which was a mistake, since the whole point was that I wanted her to please herself. She knew that I wanted to see her wear something other than t-shirts and jeans. It was also my mistake to impose what I wanted on her, some image I imagined that she was supposed to conform to, like a page out of a fashion magazine that would stimulate me into thinking that she was someone else when we got into bed. I didn’t want to accept her except in a diminished way without realizing that the only person I was diminishing was myself. If you don’t love the person as she is, get out of it. There are reasons for everything.
Things were not that simple for me then. It’s already part of my past. My past, these days, let me say, is not high on my list. It’s just there, like a train wreck, with a lot of cars piled up, and people screaming. The sound of ambulances in the distance and medics with stretchers. I want to blot out whole years as if they were part of a war, a skirmish on some different continent. Like in war movies, when the men on boats arrive and are ambushed by the enemy soldiers hiding with machine guns behind the bluff. But if you want to know what I was fighting about I can’t answer, not truthfully, and it’s not as if it still matters enough to go into detail about what I was feeling. Eventually, she went somewhere else, packed up and left, and that was that. We were together for a few years and then she was gone.
The first time she came to my house, with her cigarettes, which she rolled at the dining room table, and the first time we slept together, actually, when she walked in the door and I pushed her down on the bed. That goes back awhile but I can remember what she was wearing. She was hiding her beauty behind something, enclosed under a dome, the upper story of a dollhouse, and I wanted to get at it, saw a glimpse of what she might be like, some image I had of her and wanted more. Her blond hair was too blond, her skin too pale. Her forehead had lines in it. She was worried about something but she wouldn’t say what and it was only later that I found out that it wasn’t me that she had fallen in love with but a person in her past whom I resembled and who she had been in love with once before. The whole point was that I would reject her the way he had done. The pain was part of the fantasy. It wasn’t important to be adored.
We went shopping for bad food but before we ate it we had sex with our clothing on. It was what we both wanted. I was the adult and she was the child, only a few years older than my oldest daughter. It was still possible, in the early days, to come and go as we pleased. I began to lie to her about what I was doing when we were apart. I was older but could merge with a part of myself that had stopped growing a long time ago, a half-brother hidden in the indentations beneath my skin. We dropped the food on the table and fell into bed. Sometimes we cooked food and had sex watching television. We had rituals that had to do with going into the world and working and returning home and making food. One of us would buy the food and one of us would cook it. We watched cop shows and ate in front of the TV and argued, mostly, about music.
It felt like if I touched her skin, she would bruise. There were rashes on her skin. Stitches on her breasts. "Let me touch them," I said. The problem was that I’d lived with someone else in this apartment and now she was here among the ghosts and echoes. I knew that if I were her I’d feel the same way. "Let’s move," she said. "I want to move." But I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to lose the past I’d had with this other person. I didn’t want to liquidate what had happened before, even though it was I who had been hurt. The person whom I’d been living with in this apartment had left me but I didn’t want to let the memory of it all go. Whenever I left my mark on her, I had the feeling we were the same person, holding on to the pain, reducing it to a headline on a scrap of newspaper that was floating across the pavement. Some detritus out of the past that seemed to hover over the present moment. Make it last, we both said, even if it causes pain.
If you let go of your fantasies you’ll die, I know that much. Whenever we fucked I assumed she was thinking about someone else. I always knew when she was about to come. She was concentrating on the image of someone else in her head. We had arguments about everything but it all amounted to nothing. There was a period where we had sex as soon as she walked in the door. Where we stayed in bed all afternoon, letting the phone ring, letting the messages add up. Jennifer said, "You can do whatever you want with me." I knew that meant I could hurt her, in ways I didn’t even know about, and she would stay.
The last thing I imagined was that she would end up hurting me. She found out I was sleeping with others; that was the first prong in the sentence, like a German translation, where the verb follows the pronoun or comes at the end, a feeling of self-doubt when you know something’s over but it’s not. In this case, I let it happen and watched her suffer, saw her withdraw for a moment out of a sense of pride, and then return, as if, on her hands and knees, it was she who was begging me for forgiveness for betraying her. I wanted her there but I had a sense of commitment to myself that made it impossible not to betray her. The commitment to myself involved a commitment to others as well. I made excuses to myself, as if I had no other choice. I could see the pain in her eyes and I thought to myself: this is what she wanted. It was an unwritten contract, that she would stay with me no matter what happened.
You could say that I hurt her during the first two years that we were together, but there was an illusion of happiness and I was really there, inside the pleasure and the possibility that it might end, but living in the moment. Then we broke up, but only for a few weeks. During that time she called me every day. There was a possibility that my old girlfriend and I might get together again, the woman who had left and who was now pregnant with someone else’s baby. The possibility of playing the role of father was part of it even though I already had two children who were older. It seemed like I wanted a person who acted younger than her age, who needed something I could give, as a father might, but in exchange for sex.
To say that I was "confused" or that I created a problem for myself was an understatement. It was my problem really. We broke up, and then I suggested we get back together. Not with pressure, but because I assumed it was something she wanted to do. She had made a scene when we broke up and then she had called me everyday so I assumed it would please her. The new plan. I was committed, I wouldn’t sleep with anyone else, I would always tell the truth. She hedged, but only for a moment.
She still wanted something from me that had nothing to do with her feelings but with her identity, that it meant something to other people. I forgot how slowly she moved in her head. But it was really a way of letting her get back at me. Why not? I made myself vulnerable so she could even the score. We would live together and she would lie to me about everything as a way of getting back. As a final act of compensation, I fell in love with her so that she could hurt me if she wanted. I’d made a mistake, but I was trying to make things better. I felt guilty for hurting her in the past. It was my old-world self taking over, the guilt I’d inherited from my ancestral tribe. She was upset with herself for not breaking up with me when she found out about my past crimes so as a kind of delayed response she was enacting revenge when there was no reason to get back at me in the present. We were adding up the score. I wanted the ledger to add up— both sides. It had less to do with love, except for a moment or two, than with greed. How much can you endure? What is your capacity to deflect pain? How much unhappiness can you absorb without going crazy?
Warsh is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and autobiography.