I knew when I was still little enough to imagine being a bride in a long white dress carrying red roses, when I was still little enough that when we went to the place with my mother with several little books plump with green stamps that she had licked and stuck in and I could pick whatever I wanted I picked the bride doll, sleeping in a box beneath clear cellophane. When I was still that little I knew my dad had been married before. He had told me. In the back seat one day I came up with a good idea. “Did you have any children in your other marriage?” I asked him. He said no, which was too bad because I wanted a brother.
My mother hadn’t been married before. From what I could tell she’d never had a boyfriend to speak of before she met my father in her late twenties. She mentioned a few times going to a regatta once on a date. I’m not even sure what a regatta is. Something to do with boats. My mother spoke of it as something she had really looked forward to, had really thought of as something special, but when she told the story she kind of injected a mocking tone as if she had been so ignorant then to be impressed by a regatta. It was easy to imagine her though, excited that something was finally happening for her, that perhaps now there’d be glamor. The story ended with her anticipation. We never heard what happened or who was the boy who had invited her.
My father told me about some of his girlfriends. I heard about Ilona, the first one I think, the one in high school. Then there was some countess. I think that was the one he spent a weekend with in some fancy resort, knowing that at the end of it all he wouldn’t be able to pay for even half of it, but going ahead anyway. He liked telling me that story. Then I heard about the American girl -- a Smith girl on her junior year abroad who told him to move to the States, and he did, in time to go to her family house for Thanksgiving when she spurned him. And somewhere along the way I found out that he started seeing her again after I was born. My mother found a letter. We were still living in the basement apartment on Warburten Avenue in Yonkers.
On my sixteenth birthday, wandering through the house -- a house far from the one on Warburten Avenue -- looking absently into drawers, I found a notebook that my parents had used for awhile starting from before my sisters were born. It had been my father’s idea. His is the first entry. He suggests to my mother that they write to each other in the book since they can’t talk to each other.
In one of my mother’s first entries she is suggesting they split up. “You can have the farm,” she writes, “and I’ll take the baby.”
Years later when I was in college, a time when I saw quite a bit of my dad, when he liked to take me out on his arm for expensive dinners, he told me how he had just run into that first American girlfriend again at some conference, how he had recognized her across the room and -- here he is so proud of himself as he delivers the punchline – accosted her with the line, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” That was the end of the story as told to me. His witty pick-up line. He probably stuck on one or two more sentences about how happy she was to see him, but I don’t remember them.
Once my father was looking at a couple of small black-and-white photos I had of him in an album. They were from before my birth. In the first he is jaunty in a trench coat and cigarette between his fingers. He looks like he has the world at his feet. In the second he is no longer smiling. My father laughed ruefully. “Before and after the first marriage,” he said. I’ve been told it lasted six months.
He told me once, on the beach in Santa Barbara, that he had decided early on that he wasn’t good at relationships and that he would focus on his work instead. I was about twenty-two and I had written to him back in New York, my first attempt to break the fraud of our relationship, to tell him all the things I never had. He had written back, had said he would be in Texas on business and that he’d come see me in L.A. and we could talk about the letter.
He came on a Friday night. “Let’s not say a word about it tonight,” he said in my furnished studio. “We’ll have a nice dinner and tomorrow we’ll drive up the coast and we can talk then.” He told me all about the people in Texas he was doing business with. They were very into EST and he had done a seminar just to please them, had hated it, had subverted the process by pretending his name was George and walking around all weekend with that name on his nametag, had hung up on the recruitment phonecalls that came afterwards. But still he wanted to work with the men in Texas. He showed me their business card with its logo of the rising sun.
On Saturday as we drove north I asked what he had thought of the letter, but he said again, not now. We had our extravagant lunch – all I could think about was the letter I had written and what this conversation would be like, but again he said, no, no let’s wait just a little longer.
After lunch he suggested we walk out onto the sand and then he began to talk, saying that thing about not being good at relationships. In my letter I had complained about being brought up Catholic. He said that he had thought it would be good discipline, better than no religion at all. I'd said too that I'd wished he had been more upfront about the money problems while I was in high school. On the beach he said he'd wanted to protect me.
I took a stab or two at conversation, but each time he deflected my words with explanations. I had wanted to show him how grown up I was, or who I was, but I couldn't seem to get out of the back seat.
On the drive home he told me that if I wasn’t careful I’d become like my mother: no ambition. “Ambition” was not the word I would have used, but I knew what he meant. I was broken inside and had no idea where I would find the strength to create anything of any worth or meaning at all.