I don't remember him saying it specifically, but I think he must have talked about it just once or twice, about his worry that he was a mere dilettante, not a real scholar. Most of the time my father worked to give me a very different impression. He was proud that he'd gotten his PhD by the time he was twenty-one. I wonder about this PhD. What kind of degree could he have gotten? Was it something to do with the war, that people were handed doctorates in a hurry? The few people I know who have pursued these things spend years grinding away in agony. My father has no such stories. It's like he got it by snapping his fingers. Maybe he faked it. My father is the kind of PhD who likes to be called "doctor."
My father liked to describe himself to me. He liked to talk abut his height. He was 6' he told me with a smile of self-satisfaction. He talked about his hair too. "My friends used to say I looked like Beethoven!" he said to me, alone, with delight. He told me that when he first came to the States in his early twenties that he'd been persuaded to get a crew cut. He said the words "crew cut" as if he were smelling something bad. Clearly, a crew cut was one of those tasteless American things that he would never lower himself to again.
When my father got a new suit, he showed it to me. "You see," he might say, "this is a real tweed, the best you can buy." There was a month in the mid-seventies when he thought to try a pipe. He went out and bought the pipe and a tobacco pouch and showed these things to me. Another time, also in the seventies, he tried carrying those leather male purses. This too he showed me. Neither the pipe nor the purse lasted.
When he first got a Water Pic – I was still in high school – he had to show it to me and explain how it worked.
And I was always polite, or showing as little interest as good manners allowed. It was as if there was a certain agreement or tension between us that I dared not break. I dared not say fuck off and leave me alone.
I could yell stuff like that at my mother and sisters, but I think I was more afraid of my father's fury. I knew my rebellion would unleash a really scary anger. I didn't go so far as to even contemplate it then. It's just that when I look back now and try and feel what it is that stops me from yelling at him, it's fear.
My father didn't get out-of-control mad very often. My mother did all the time – out of nowhere she'd be yelling, swatting – she was scary in a different way. I was careful around her. I was careful around both my parents, monitoring their conversations, stepping in when the needle veered into the red zone.
My father had a way of letting me know he was angry. He might raise his eyebrows and look at me directly. He might raise his index finger or jab it into the tablecloth as he spoke, or put it along the side of his nose. "No daughter of mine…" might be the start of his sentence.
I did get angry at him twice, I think, to the point of yelling.
The first time was under Natvar's influence, Natvar who made fun of all our parents, who told us we were all under our parents' thumbs. I wanted to prove that I wasn't afraid of them. We needed money. Natvar had gone on ahead to Athens and was telling us to join him. I knew he'd be able to do it, conjure money out of thin air. I tried doing what I'd seen him do. I dressed up in the woolen suit and the high heels a client had passed on to me. With Mark, my brother in crime, I drove out to the elegant little home my father had finagled – he'd gone broke, they were homeless, my father had started going to church again, a friend from the church had told him about this caretaking position.
I was scared going out there, but I thought the only way to succeed was to act like I wasn't, to put on an invisible suit of armor and act like I was invincible.