These divergent dichotomies of ours catch up with us over time.
I was my father’s son once upon a time, before I was on my own – before I was part of a new binary system. Another woman, Brenda, defined my life for the next thirty years, our time longer but less complex than the time I spent under my father’s roof. Brenda was all about love, the simplest, most powerful time there is, while my father was about unquestioned support, about passing on what he’d learned about what makes for a good life.
Then hate came into my life. Slowly at first, but with gathering momentum. It’s hard to look back at those years because there are so few memories worth holding onto, looking back at. Hate blinds so completely not even memory survives.
Hate is a little like putting on a suit of shining armor. It’s hard, beyond rigid, a polished shell covering all our soft, vulnerable parts. Difficult to move around in too, the limited range of motion, I guess, accounts for that. You lower a visor when you suit-up, see the world ahead through tiny slits and there’s no such thing as peripheral vision anymore. There’s just the one way ahead, and even the parts of the story you see aren’t really representative of the greater landscape anymore. Hate blinds you, makes you rigid, and about all you can do is charge off and hope it doesn’t hurt too much when you run into the walls of your own ignorance.
I put that armor on one day and intuitively knew it wasn’t a good fit, and I tried to cast it aside, turn away from all it wanted from me. Still, there came a time when I saw that cool metal still sitting there, cast aside yet still oh so shiny and strong looking, and I was tempted, sorely tempted to put it on again. And that’s when I fell into Rosalinda’s eyes. That’s when she cleaned my clock and set me straight, when I discovered how little I knew about life in the ‘hood, even my own little corner of our world.
I think she was getting me ready for the last act of my life, an as yet unfinished comedy waiting for a little resolution. And I say this advisedly: when I looked back at my life with Brenda, from the vantage point of my time with Rosalinda, I understood I’d gone through three decades of marriage absent one vital thing.
I’d loved that woman to within an inch of our lives, yet in all that time I’d never felt the sort of passion Rosalinda brought into my life one afternoon. Yet I lay with her after and felt tugged between two stars, a planet caught in a tight binary system. Brenda’s had been a slow, steady warmth, probably more conducive to life but never too much so; Rosalinda’s was a spontaneous combustion, a cool blue star one minute, then impossible, blinding radiance the next. One had a sensible gravity well, pulling gently, holding me close, while the other went from zero-G to crushing in a flash – and once Rosalinda’s gravity took hold it was impossible to break free.
And her love, once given, was never in doubt. One hour with Bettina convinced me of that. One hour hearing the real story behind that love left me in awe. Left me reeling in wonder. So much in love I had no hope of recovering.
But you knew that already, didn’t you?
Her mother fled Spain in the 30s, when leftist ‘revolutionaries’ – though legally in power – were challenged by rightist ‘counter-revolutionaries’ – supported by, among others, Hitler and Mussolini, as well as large corporations. It was, in some respects, a civil war between ‘the people’ and large corporate interests, global interests that had vast sums of money set aside to raise new armies wherever their control was at risk. The war rapidly became a proxy war, with Hitler using the conflict to ‘blood’ the Wehrmacht, to get them ‘battle-tested’ in his warm up to the main event, and the Luftwaffe conducted the first large scale aerial bombardments in Europe’s history. The leftists were, of course, supported by the Soviet Union, but Mexico also played a role in the conflict.
When, in 1939, it appeared the leftists were going down in defeat, those with money fled to the Americas. Some to the United States of America, many more to the United States of Mexico – but often by way of New York City, and Rosalinda’s mother was in this latter group. Nineteen years old and by all accounts as glamorous as any movie star, Bettina Louise arrived in New York City one December morning sporting a high fever and severe pain in her gut, lower right quadrant. Appendicitis, in other words, and she was taken to Columbia Presbyterian where a brilliant young surgical resident operated. In the course of her post-operative care, Bettina Louise found out she was diabetic and she fell in love with the young surgeon, a man named Paul Latimer, and of equal importance, he fell in love with her too.
Bettina Louise went on to Mexico City, but the two corresponded, and their love only deepened. Her father was against all this, of course, and did not want his daughter getting mixed up with some unknown Yankee – from Oklahoma, no less – but when the surgeon finished his residency he took the train to Mexico City and that was the end of that. Paul had no trouble finding work, of course, but with his new family’s ‘connections’ he soon found himself working for the Ministry of Health – and knee deep in Mexican politics.
And of course, as his family’s political connections were ‘leftist,’ they still were invited to lavish political dinners, many at the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. And, of course, as rightist, corporatist powers emerged after the war, they took power in Mexico, and they began to purge the government of anyone even remotely leftist, or ‘communist.’ Fearing for their lives, again, Bettina Louise’s family fled to California, to Los Angeles, and Paul, of course, went to. He had no trouble finding work in California because he was a US trained and licensed physician, and his political work was as yet unknown.
Of course, all that was before the McCarthyite purges hit the United States, and within a year Latimer was unmasked as a high government official with deep ties to the Soviet Union. He was, in due course stripped of his medical license and eventually jailed for lying on his immigration forms, and he died in federal prison under circumstances that remained unclear for decades, having never seen the baby girl born to him and Bettina Louise in 1952.
After the McCarthyite ‘Red Scares’ subsided in the mid-50s, Bettina Louise was offered a part in a movie, and because her family needed the money she took the role. Over the next ten years she worked in several westerns, many with big stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck, but she was never considered anything like a leading lady. No, she played the Mexican barmaid or the downtrodden shopkeeper’s wife, a decorative ‘extra’ with rarely a speaking part, but because of good looks she was always in demand and she always made good money, enough to buy a house near Elysian Park, enough to raise her daughter and take care of her ailing parents. After her father passed she took care of her mother, took work in an office at Paramount Studios, all while she raised her little Rosalinda. Because she was not simply attractive, she made better than good money in the back offices, for more than a few years, too.
Bettina Louise’s mother passed and then it was just the two of them, and Rosalinda took an interest in nursing after her grandmother’s death, though in truth medicine was really what interested her. Bettina Louise had taken her family name, Rodriguez, after her husband’s supposed disgrace, and in Los Angeles she was regarded as one of ‘them,’ a Mexican, and therefore some kind of Third Class citizen. Yet she wasn’t so surprised when most of the locals she talked to didn’t know the difference between Spain and Mexico, or that the State of New Mexico was in America, not Mexico, but she accepted what was and moved on. She tried to keep away from people who, in their ignorance, perhaps, found it so easy to judge, too easy to look away.
In time Bettina retired. She settled in for the duration in her little house by the park, saw Rosalinda graduate from nursing school and begin working at County SC. Her diabetes, always a problem, soon became a bigger issue and she lost a leg two years later, and that marked the beginning of her end. She lived long enough to see Rosalinda fall in love with a physician then was soon gone too.
I listened to Bettina’s retelling of her family’s origins in fascinated awe. So easy to see where her passionate intensity came from, her drive to excel. And me? I’d always considered her Mexican, when in truth there was nothing at all ‘Mexican’ about her, or her mother. They were Spanish-American, in truth as European as I, yet how comfortably had I slapped one set of labels on them – not to mention entire sets of expectations – because of a name. A name I knew nothing about. Because my expectations were so hollow, as hollow as my understanding. But hell, I guess you knew that already.
School had just let out for the summer when our third Saturday of flying came ‘round, and the girls were full of joy, full of all the anticipation that comes with graduating from high school. What came next had already been decided, of course. They were both starting at UCLA in August, so we had some serious flying to do over the next two months.
And I should say I had some serious flying to do too. Stan had me booked up several hours a day, five days a week, usually working with pilots trying for their instrument or multi-engine ratings, and before I knew what was happening to me I was working longer and harder than I ever had before. I mention this as I’d never planned for something like this…this new life had, quite by accident, found me – yet I wasn’t sure I wanted my life to be so suddenly all-consuming and hectic.
But there were Rosalinda’s eyes waiting for me when I got home, and that made all the difference.
I see her now standing in the kitchen, chopping and stirring, explosions of life in the air, twirling between the counter and the stove – turning the mundane into something like wild magic. She was a magician. Nothing less than that. She was one of those special souls who made life worth living.
Yet Bettina was now, more than anyone else in my life, the anchor that held me fast to the here and now, and I know that must sound distorted and strange. Where was Terry, you ask, my daughter? In all this had she simply disappeared?”
Well yes, if you must know, she had.
But that was about to change, too.
She called one day that June, and she was, like women in my life tend to when they call, in tears. She’d been counting on getting a position at Sloan-Kettering, but that hadn’t happened. She was devastated and needed some ‘Dad time’ – as she called it – but I was no longer just out the Long Island Expressway. I was about as far away now as I could possibly be, and she was in a cab headed to LaGuardia, would be at LAX in six hours…
This, coming at five in the afternoon. With a full day of flying lined up tomorrow, starting at 0800.
I turned to Rosalinda, then elbows deep in pyrex bowls full of marinading something, and told her the deal.
“Tonight? She is coming tonight?”
“Excellent! I have time to make a paella!”
Dear God: When you have a minute to spare, would you please drop me a note, give me some sort of clue what it is with women and food? Yours truly, Clueless.
She, of course, called Becky, and then the three of them got to work. Kitchen cleaned and ready for inspection? Check! Maddie’s bedroom, ready for business? Check! Bathroom? Ditto! In two hours the house was an immaculate conception ready for hard duty, then the girls hit the cupboards and got to the real work at hand.
Me? Get out of their way, and stay away.
So I drove across town to LAX, got there about a half hour too early, sat around thinking about Rosalinda and Bettina – and Terry. What would happen when they mixed? Two unstable compounds joining under unknown pressures and temperatures…what would emerge? And would anything survive the reaction? For some reason I thought of stars colliding, and wondered what happens then.
She looked like she’d just been discovered in a concentration camp and set free. Emaciated. Gaunt eyed and scarecrow thin. She didn’t look like a cancer researcher – she looked like a cancer patient…with about a week to live. I wanted to cry, then I thought about Rosalinda standing in that kitchen – and I laughed.
“Dad? What is it?”
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking about unstable chemical reactions…”
She looked at me like, well, I think you know, don’t you?
And I filled her in on my life since Long Island while we got on the 405, then the 10. About working on the house, a house she might have seen once in the past twenty some-odd years, and about flying with Becky and Bettina. And then – about Rosalinda.
“Dad? You’re seeing someone?” She sounded hurt, disbelieving.
“It just sort of happened.”
“Nope. Spanish. Her father was from Oklahoma, a physician, trained at Columbia.”
“They’re waiting up, cooking some sort of blowout dinner.”
“Really? Oklahoma food?”
I grinned. “I have no idea, kitten.”
She used to love it when I called her that. Now she seemed distracted and angry.
“So, what happened in New York?”
“They didn’t want me, that’s all.”
“Any idea why?” If she’d been acting like this, I knew the reason, but Terry? Not my little Terry…
“I’ve been having a hard time, Dad.”
“Since Mom died. Since you left me.”
A-ha. Thirty one years old and having a case of full-blown separation anxiety? Someone, somewhere along the line had screwed the pooch – and that someone had to be me, didn’t it? Yet in a flash I’m seeing PJ in my mind’s eye, hanging out there in the air apparent. Curled up on her duffel bag in San Fran, talking at breakfast about some drugged out cock dangling from her mouth. What goes around comes around, I think I might have said while trying not to choke on the irony.
“Are you angry at me for leaving?”
She nodded her head. “Yeah, but I understand. You have your life to lead, and I get that.”
“And that means there’s no room in my life for you? Is that what this feels like?”
“Yeah. I know I’ve been busy, inaccessible, but everything happened so fast and I turned around and you were gone…” And she was crying, real off to the races crocodile tears. Instinctually I thought about heading over to Tommy’s, but no. Time for a new tradition, I thought.
A game had just finished at Dodger Stadium and traffic was a little tense, but we were swimming against that tide, the going not too bad, and we pulled into the driveway a little before midnight.
Of course the entire neighborhood was ensnared in the scents coming out of my, well, Rosalinda’s kitchen, and even Terry’s remarks were hopeful, but stepping into the house was like stepping into another world. Lighting and furniture: perfect. Pitcher of sangria on the table, fresh citrus floating on top. Candles everywhere, the dining room table almost ablaze with them. It was almost five in the morning for Terry, yet she came alive in all the sudden attention.
Rosalinda had made a paella with scallops and huge prawns, and just to confound things a bowl of her guacamole adorned the middle of the table, and while I took Terry’s bag back to Maddie’s room she settled in, with the girls passing snacks and wine while Terry looked around in a daze.
Unable to drink anything but water these days, I sat back in a fat chair in the living room and watched the night unfold like some kind of lorded paterfamilias, and within an hour it was apparent that Bettina and Terry had suddenly become something like, well, if not sisters then really good friends.
And that was the last thing I remembered.
I woke up at six, feet up on an ottoman, a blanket tucked neatly under my chin.
The house, of course, spotless.
I showered and was gone before Terry woke, and when I came back a little before noon she was still unconscious. Rosalinda came in after three and Terry was still snoring away, but she filled me in on the parts I missed.
Terry put down most of the sangria in short order, after I conked out, then put down a six-pack of beer and was rummaging around for the hard stuff when Rosalinda stepped in and put the brakes on. The three girls talked until four or so, then Terry started crying and Rosalinda sent the girls away.
They talked some more after that, until Terry began running out of steam, then she helped my little girl to bed. Interesting conversation, that was.
Because Rosalinda now knew the lay of the land. The contours of my existence a priori, I think you could say. She finally knew the other Brenda, our backstory, and Terry’s and Michael’s, too. She learned what it was like to grow up with an airline pilot as father, all the nights away, the big events missed. What my son was like. Why I couldn’t talk about him. Even what my parents were like, too. All the million things I’d turned my back on and walked away from.
Rosalinda was always a good listener, an empath full of compassion – a rare combination – and by the time the evening was done she knew what was bugging Terry, and what she needed.
“And that is?”
“A job, here in LA. Someplace where you’ll be about ten minutes when she needs you. Which will be often,” Rosalinda added. Then she scowled a little – always a bad thing – and she looked at me: “You should not have left her so suddenly.”
“I know, but I…”
“See her, and you see your wife.”
“Yes, but I…”
“Had to get away from the memories.”
“I know, but I…”
“Have yet to grow up, face the responsibilities of being a father. You had your job, but now you are free of that. Well, the bill has come, and it is past due now.”
“So, what do I…”
“I have an interview set up with Oncology on Monday morning. Now the job is to get some food down her, pack a few pounds on her between now and then.”
Terry, for her part, took the position at County SC. I helped her put some money down on a downtown loft, too. About ten minutes away, on an average day, I think.
Need I say more?
That summer was loaded with divergent dichotomies, more than a little cognitive dissonance, but it passed by so fast.
Terry, moving cross country for the first time. Helping her settle in, learn the ropes in this strange city. I took her to Tommy’s of course, then had to explain, for the next several hours, why her stomach was rumbling like a volcano. And that it was not necessary to apologize, just roll down your window, please.
PJ. Where do I begin? When will it ever end? She and Judd, on the ropes within weeks. Then we found out she had stopped taking her meds and a whole new struggle began. Got her back on medication and she evened out again, but that’s when we learned a hard truth. Many psych patients don’t like their meds. They devise all kinds of weird ways to stop taking them and not talk about it – until the cake blows up in the oven. Judd loved her, I mean the real deal, and he wasn’t about to give up the fight, but it went deeper than that.
She came home on her bad days, went into the parent’s old bedroom and sometimes she’d just sit there, looking at the corner where Dad’s bed used to be. On those days I’d load her up in the Porsche and we’d drive out Sunset and go sit on the rocks above the surf, listen to the seagulls before heading in on Beverly, stopping off at Tommy’s for a dose of memory, with chili and cheese on top.
Maybe the biggest deal that summer came along in the middle of August, on a cool Saturday morning at the airport in Van Nuys. The girls took turns pre-flighting my Cessna, then, after our obligatory coin-toss, Becky saddled up and taxied out to the active. I stood there with Judd and PJ, Judd’s ex, too, a cute thing named Cindy, and of course Rosalinda and Bettina were there too, and we watched Becky make her run down the runway, lift up and fly a long, extended base, then settle in for a gracious landing. She taxied back to us and shut her down, and after she’d grasped the significance of the moment she bolted out the door and ran – right into my arms.
“You’re a pilot now, Becky,” I whispered in her ear. “And I’m so proud of you.”
Bettina was next of course, and I held Rosalinda’s shaking hands as her daughter charged the runway, and I looked at her up there, so proud of her – proud like a father, maybe like her father would have been – when she turned on final and the landing light popped on. My fingers were shadowing hers, I was feeling my solo again for the first time on a long time. I watched her landing with something more than pride in eyes, too. I loved her, simple as that. When I turned and saw Rosalinda’s tears, she reached up and wiped a few off my face, too.
Flying was far from over in the little house on Academy Road. Classes were still held every Tuesday and Thursday evening from six ‘til nine – and for the next four years, too. I took them through their instrument and multi-engine ratings, let them use 6-8 Romeo to build hours and hone skills, then they got their instructors tickets. Then they graduated from UCLA and both were soon gone, following in my footsteps one more time, both of them, into the Navy. Both of them, in time, pilots.
One more thing happened that summer. Rosalinda and I drove up to Vegas after the girls started school, and we tied the knot, made it official. Strange too, telling Bettina that next week she could call me Dad now.
She smiled, told me she had been for a while, if only to herself.
But of course, you knew that already.
After a certain age, getting old is funny. Like a series unexpected, not to mention unwanted compromises sneak up on you. Maybe we should expect the unexpected that attends aging, yet getting old is something relatively new for our species. Some people did indeed live to old age even thousands of years ago, but for most it’s a relatively recent development and I think that’s why more people are blindsided by the changes.
First, things start to break, things like bones, but then maybe your hearing or sight starts to fade, yet I soon figured out that the real killer is losing your sense of humor. If that breaks down you’re screwed, because all the rest barreling down on you soon becomes unendurable. Think of it this way: no one likes a sore loser, and you’re going to lose this one, one way or another. This thing called life…and no matter how well you take care of that meat and bones sack thingy that holds your brain, it will stop working the way you expect it to one day.
Before that day rolls around things are going to start to hurt. All those broken bones in high school, when you were growing up? Yup, they’re gonna hurt. The time you fell and twisted your ankle? Yup, that too. Then the real fun starts. The colonoscopies. The prostate exams or the PAP smears. Maybe a mitral valve will fail or your arteries will clog, or this or that and on and on. All those medical specialties in the hospital? They each represent the myriad ways we can take on our way out of this life.
I had two other sisters and I’ve not mentioned them here as both checked-out early. Deirdre in an automobile accident when she was seventeen, and Stacy, of uterine cancer at thirty. And then there was Michael, in Afghanistan. My parents and Brenda. You get used to the idea as the years roll by that this is a one way trip and no one gets out alive, but that’s not the point. It’s the time between birth and light’s out that matters, assuming anything at all really matters.
Judd came home one day and found PJ curled up in her favorite chair, not breathing. No warning. She’d had a stroke of some sort, an aneurism up there somewhere, and lights out. Nothing dramatic until the funeral, then all kinds of drama.
Rosalinda prepared one of her massive blowouts that night, and all our friends came over a few hours after the services, including half the LAPD, and I cooked steaks out back, just like my dad and used to. By the way, did I tell you about that?
It was a ritual, Dad and I, cooking steaks. Ever since I was a spud.
Twice a year he bought a side of beef, literally – half a cow – and twice a year we got a load of steaks wrapped in white butcher paper, ground beef, sausages and ribs – half a cows worth all packed into a chest-style freezer he had in the garage. Mom made a huge salad and cottage fried potatoes, and the night before Dad whipped up his marinade, and pay attention here, ‘cause I’m going to pass on his recipe.
In a two cup measuring cup, put about a cup of catsup in, then around a half cup of plain yellow mustard, add a hefty dash of Worcestershire sauce, a splash of soy sauce, a dash or two of Tabasco, some garlic, a pinch of cumin and, to top it all off, an ounce or two of bourbon – or, in a pinch, whiskey. He had this little metal skillet he used to simmer this concoction in, reduce it to a thick sauce over low heat, then he added a little more bourbon and lime juice, salt and fresh cracked pepper and stirred it until well mixed. He’d take six steaks and rub that sauce all over them, wrap ‘em up and stick ‘em back in the ‘fridge ’til cooking time.
When it was time to cook he got his fire going super hot to cook down the charcoal, and once he had a good bed of coals he’d toss a couple of stumpy cubes of mesquite wood on the coals, then toss the steaks on.
After PJs services I cooked forty New York strip steaks just like that, and I’d like to think she would have appreciated the gesture. She rarely ate meat – unless I was doing up ‘steaks a la Dad,’ at which point she became a ravenous carnivore. I had the same old metal skillet, the same recipe, the same brick and mortar Bar-B-Q in the back yard, and the results were – the same. Rosalinda, however, did not make potatoes and salad. Heaven forbid. Two paellas, enchiladas, empanadas, taquitos and enough guacamole to feed four hundred people. I charcoaled some flank steak and chicken and she made fajitas – as snacks for the main event! Judd called all the local patrol officers over for dinner, and they drifted in one by one, giving me a new perspective on how popular she’d become with all his friends in the department.
Of course Becky was there, Bettina too. Becky, still in the Navy, still flying, and Bettina now with, gulp, United, flying 777s from Houston to London twice a week. She told me she was engaged that night, to a flight attendant of all things. A nice guy who was trying to get into med school, flying to make ends meet when they collided. Becky? Devastated, in the end closer to PJ than she had been to her biological mother, but more than that she told me. PJ was her best friend that last year in high school, when we started flying together, another thing I never knew.
That’s another thing about getting on in years. You start to learn where all the bones are buried, where all the skeletons have been hiding, but in truth I think I found they’d always been there, waiting for me to get smart enough to figure it all out.
Judd gave me all PJs diaries; little books she’d kept under lock and key since high school. All of it, the cause of all her anxieties laid out in nauseating detail. Her fights with Dad, the guilt my mother laid on her doorstep, how she looked up to me – yet hated my guts because I was the boy and so got all the good time with Dad. I read through them one night a few weeks later and I was stunned to realize how central to all our lives my father had been, yet how peripheral Mother had been. He dominated everything about our lives while she remained in the background, he was always the main course while she kept to the shadows, making her salads and potatoes, yet PJs sketches of my mother revealed a troubled soul. Kind of mean, a borderline alcoholic by the time she was in high school, the classic portrait of a woman who could have, and should have done so much more. She was a woman who chose to remain at home and raise her kids, probably because her mother had too, and she saw no way out of the deal.
There is a little attic space in the house, and I hadn’t been up there in years, yet I found references to a box PJ had put up there buried in her diary. She’d labeled it ‘Mom’s stuff’ after we cleaned up the house, after Mom’s funeral, yet I’d never seen PJ do it. We’d always kept some stuff up there, things like Christmas tree lights and ornaments, things we didn’t use often, and I didn’t think there was much else up there, so this came as a surprise.
And so I crawled up there one day, flashlight in hand, and I tripped and stumbled my way around the rafters until I found PJs scribbling on a dried out box, and I carried it downstairs to my flight training classroom, opened it up like an explosive ordnance technician might open a suspect suitcase. Pictures and lots of academic transcripts lay on top, some of the things she’d written in high school, and in college under that layer.
I picked up the photographs first, most in black and white, though a few were color prints – and those had faded badly in the attic’s heat. Yet one thing was immediately clear: my mother had been a babe. Runner up in a Miss Pasadena contest, 1938, images of her on bandstands at a county fair, images of a sort of vitality that seems forgotten these days. Report cards, from first grade through high school. All As, not one B, not in any subject, over twelve years. Her transcripts from USC, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, top of her class, an English major. Her senior dissertation, on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Transcripts from work towards her Master’s degree, said work cut off abruptly two months before I was born. Never resumed.
I carried her dissertation to bed that night and read it, all 117 pages of it. I didn’t understand half of the things she wrote about – she was so far over my head I felt like a dullard – but I learned enough to understand that I’d never known her in the least. She was this dull creature who kept to the shadows, right? Who made salads and cottage fried potatoes while Dad designed airplanes that carried movie stars around the world.
Madeline moved back in a few months later, after her husband passed, and we stayed up nights talking about mother a lot after that. My surprise was a surprise to Maddie, because she’d known mother quite well. She was also, I’d never known, an accomplished pianist, yet father didn’t think that warranted buying a piano, which had devastated her. All kinds of little contests of the will played out between them during our childhood, too, and in the end I ended up with this image of my mother as someone my father had slowly worn down over the years, beaten in a war of attrition, and as father wanted nothing more than a son to follow in his footsteps I got all his attention. The girls got the leftovers, maybe a little more after I left the house to go to USC, yet what struck me was how much the girls wanted time with him. It had to be obvious to him, yet he never relented, never spent much time with them at all, and I had to wonder why.
I found her diary in the bottom of that box, wrapped in brown paper, bound tightly with old shipping twine – like there were secrets inside she couldn’t quite get up the nerve to destroy – but I thought long and hard about cutting the cords, releasing those memories. I fixed myself a glass of iced tea and went to the living room, sat in the light, hoping to find resolution in her wanderings.
It’s a remarkable document, a chronicle of her times as much as it is about her life. Starting at age fourteen, she wrote a new chapter once a year, on her birthday. She recorded the most important things of the past year, both in her immediate life and the momentous happenings in the world around her. And she loved to write, apparently. She wrote beautifully, too, in handwriting so shatteringly clear, in prose so lucid there was no way you couldn’t see the point she driving home.
Growing up in the 30s, destitute lives all around her, the glamour of Hollywood just a few miles down the road. December, 1941 was important to her not because of events in Hawaii, rather because of a movie that came out just days before – Sullivan’s Travels – which at first seemed to sum up her experience of the Depression. Her own divergent dichotomies, if you will. Stranger still and unknown to everyone in the family, or so I thought, she had been one of five actresses to audition for the role Veronica Lake played in that movie.
My mother? An actress? This was news to me, so I read through her undergrad transcripts again. I found the classes in drama, more classes in stage and film production. Oblique references to casting calls at Paramount and MGM. All news to me, so I asked Maddie.
“Did you know about all this?
“I had no idea.”
“You were never close to her.”
“That’s not true.”
“She was my mother. Of course I was close to her.”
“Is that why all those years you sent Dad birthday cards, but never one to her?”
I didn’t have a pithy comeback ready for that one, did I?
“Father didn’t want her acting,” Maddie told me with an air of finality, and I guess that really was that. She loved my father, and the idea of having a family, more than she was willing to entertain the notion of striking out on her own. And Rosalinda listened to that exchange with a world-weary, all-knowing glaze in her eyes, like yes, she too knew all there was to know about men and Hollywood, and how choices were narrowed and narrowed until there is little left beyond the burned our shell left by compromise and compliance.
There were more surprises in that box, more cause for introspective analysis and a sense of how thoroughly I’d betrayed my mother, but in the end it felt like some sort of choice had been demanded of me, some oath of fealty, that I never understood. Some forced choice very early on. Like I could be my father’s son or a mamas boy, and that was the divergent dichotomy that stumped me. Probably the first choice life threw at me, yet even so one I just couldn’t remember anything about. Maybe the choice was lost in a haze of unconscious denial or, more likely still, lost in some obscure coding sequence in my Y-chromosomes; whatever ‘it’ was, I felt I had grown up almost completely cut off from my mother.
Yet a few days later Maddie had one more insight to share, one more bombshell to toss my way.
“I was thinking about it after the other night, and I remembered something she told me once. She said something like she resented you from the first because she’d wanted a girl, someone who could help her stand up to Dad.”
Rosalinda was working in the kitchen just then but she heard those words and froze. Like some cosmic tumbler had just slipped and fallen into place.
Then she turned to Maddie.
“And you just now thought of this?” she said. “This most important thing? Do you want to torture your brother, too? Like all of you tortured your father?”
And Rosalinda ran out of the kitchen. Maddie sat and wept for a while.
Families are complicated things. Dangerous, too, if not handled carefully. Like marriages, families can swiftly move from beneficial love-love relationships into uncharted love-hate toxicity, and I was left reeling in unseen implications after that revelation. Like: when had my mother’s resentment settled in to roost? When she first picked me up and held me? When I suckled at her breast? And had father seen her reaction and stepped-in, tried to intervene? Only to make things worse, to drive her to new extremities?
I reread her diaries after that and the most obvious things stood out. No mention of me over the years – until I graduated high school.
Then, the last words about me in all her writings: “He’s gone now.”
Was that a sigh of relief, or an admission of failure?
What had I been to her? Why had all my sisters wanted attention from my father, attention he was unwilling to give them? Had my mother’s resentment of me fueled his resentment? Not only towards his wife, but his daughters, too?
Is that why PJ made her way to my doorstep in San Francisco? Why the boundary she saw between us was so amorphous, or is polymorphous a better choice of thought? PJ always seemed in a state of flux, pulled by different tidal flows. Had she been caught up in the ongoing drama between mother and father and been unable to pull free? Or had her biochemical imbalances predisposed her to a kind of schizoid break – like manic she took Dad’s side, then depressive she recoiled to Mother’s point of view. If so, I don’t know how she survived.
The point is, I think, she didn’t. Not well enough to break free of these flows, certainly not well enough to stand on her own as an adult. Not until Judd came along and helped her over the bridge, to walk free of the tides to the other side.
Yet now I had to ask myself one last question.
Had those tides affected all of us? And how? Did the difference between PJ and me reside solely in our coding, or had something else been put in place to get me through?
Had the walls she placed between the two of us actually served to protect me?
Odd, I thought. Kind of ironic, too, in a ‘what if’ kind of way, because pretty soon I realized there were no answers in these speculations, just all sorts of new, unexpected doubt. Casting memory in these new lights did little to settle the matter, did nothing to ease my mind, because I didn’t want or need to redefine my existence, my relationship with either of my parents, or PJ. They were gone now. Even Brenda and Michael – gone. Why redefine everything?
I remember reading an article about that time, something about astronomy. About galaxies colliding. About how those huge spiral bands interact in such collisions. With all the vast distances between stars still in play, stars within the galactic bands of each galaxy could avoid collision when the two galaxies ‘collide’ – or there could massive, devastating collisions. Stars could be literally ripped apart, their remains set adrift – until, that is, gravity pulls these remnants back together – and new stars were formed. In the endless seas of space, such collisions are more common than you might expect, too.
And maybe families are like that, too.
Random collisions tear us apart, and in the aftermath we reform in other, more comfortable gravities.
We had a big coming together when Bettina got married, not quite a collision but we had our moments. She’d met this big, garrulous Texan during the ‘meet & greet’ – when your pilot stands by the door as you deplane – and they’d sparked a wildfire and took off from there. Scott Kelly was working for an oil company, spent all his time flying to Africa and Saudi Arabia, but he wanted to settle down some, maybe have a kid or two – his words, not mine – and Bettina was good with that. Sort of. Really, I didn’t think she wanted to get off the merry-go-round just yet, give up her seniority and so miss making the captain’s list, but where women and biology are concerned I plead ignorance.
I thought maybe we could block off Beverly and have a street party at Tommy’s but Rosalinda wasn’t having any of it, so we settled on a church wedding and a street party centered at my house. Most all the neighbors were up for it, and there was kind of an otherworldly, old world vibe about the whole thing. Everyone, and I mean everyone walked down to the church together, and we walked back up and the festivities began in earnest. Rosalinda had set it up where each house had a little party going and people wandered from house to house, party to party, and tequila and champagne flowing in surreal abundance. As the sun went down the party moved to the street, and the band played while people danced out there under billions of light strung up across the street. Bettina and Scott cut the cake out there and a roar went up when they danced, and not long thereafter they cut another rug and took off to the airport to catch a plane headed for some island in the South Pacific. I thought the whole thing looked a little like colliding galaxies, but maybe that was just me.
Things got real quiet around the house after that. Like Rosalinda had seen the page turn once again, and a new, not quite unexpected chapter was about to unfold. I think most wives know this chapter is coming, and this is the one they really don’t want to read.
This is the chapter where their husbands get sick, then die.
This part of the story begins with the husband feeling a little too tired, then he experiences a fullness in his lower left gut. He’s no longer interested in eating, too, and she gets really scared then.
She makes an appointment, because he is, of course, too stubborn to admit anything’s wrong. The appointment is with ‘someone she knows’ – and not his daughter, who is otherwise more than competent to tell him he is experiencing indigestion. She takes him to the appointment because she is sure he will otherwise slip off to a movie and come home four hours later, telling her nothing’s the matter.
Said doctor, a man with tiny hands and sharp, ferret-like eyes, palpates the man’s belly and orders blood work and an MRI. Two hours later they rejoin the doctor in his office, a quiet, windowless room with cozy warm lamps all aglow, and the ferret faced man says something that goes a little like this:
“Welcome to the final chapter of your life. You have pancreatic cancer and you’re going to die real soon. There’s not a goddamn thing we can do about it, so why don’t you go home and figure out how you want to do this.”
I mean, really, I could tell you how he spent the next half hour telling me this, but what’s the point? I’d have appreciated the short and quick over all that florid nonsense any day, but the thing is – Rosalinda was in the room too, and she wasn’t taking this news too well.
She was the one who asked if there was nothing that could be done. No chemo, no immunotherapy?
“Not when it’s this advanced.”
“It’s metastasized. Liver, lungs, throughout the gut.”
Then there was the dreaded: “How long has my husband got?”
“Best guess, six weeks, two months, tops. Maybe less.”
I checked out after that, just sort of shut down and drifted away. If there’d been a window in the room I’d have gone over and stared at all those colliding galaxies, but really, at a moment like that what’s the point?
We walked over to Terry’s office after that, without an appointment I guess you’d say, and we told her the news. Well, Rosalinda told her. I just sort of stood there in a foul, mute humor while the words flowed between them, thinking about how I wanted to ‘do this.’
What the fuck did that jack-ass mean? How did I want to do this? I didn’t want anything to do with this. Leave me alone. Go Away!!!
Go out in a blaze of glory, perhaps? Is that what he meant? Or in a haze of morphine? Alone, in hospice, or at home, surrounded by family and friends? Or maybe flee, run into the arms of desperate measures, waiting con-men and other assorted jackals ready to offer comforting do-nothing measures, for a price? My guess was the poor guy had seen it all, had grown bored with charlatans and quacks. He had science to sell, not peace everlasting, and as I presented a no-win scenario he had little to pass along than science’s absolute benediction: “nothing we can do.” Let the chorus sing it to the angels: “there’s nothing we can do.”
Rosalinda called the girls that night, and we took Terry and Maddie out to dinner after. I, of course, asked for soup and took two spoonfuls, and that put a damper on things so I tried to eat more.
And that becomes the metaphor you live with those last few weeks and months of your life. You try to do things so the people you love won’t be too upset by the prolonged ordeal of your passing. You try to slip away, slip out of sight when the ugly things happen.
Rosalinda, on the other hand, cooked.
People, both friends and family, were a constant flood, and Rosalinda fed them all. My death was not going to be a lonely affair, not if she had anything to say about the matter, and things proceeded along nicely, that is to say I went from bad to worse much sooner than anticipated. In fact, I barely made it three weeks.
Maddie was there, of course, to ground me in the past, and Bettina too, holding me fast to a once and certain future, my last dichotomy. Terry stood back, terrified, and Rosalinda held her close, and the last thing I recall was standing out on an airport runway, watching Bettina come in for that first landing of hers. How I watched her turn onto final and settle in the groove, and how she turned on that landing light. How proud I was of her. I watched that light as it grew closer and closer, until there was nothing left but the light…
And then I was in this dark place, maybe in a rowboat on a lake in the middle of the night. Stars overhead, vast fields of stars. I saw an island ahead and started to row that way, then I saw my mother and father there, and my sisters, too, all of them waving at me, then stars colliding up there in the night, playing such strange music, their shattered light washing over me as I smiled at Rosalinda’s eyes.
© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | fiction, nothing but fiction…just some smoke and mirrors here folks…so move along, move along.
Tied off nicely. No garish bows, just loops and knots. Almost everything wrapped up and resolved. Painful ending though. One gut bomb too many.
An ending is only that, and just that. Sorry.
I liked the story. I also liked the way you brought everything to closure. My reaction was personal and comes from two different directions in my past.
First and hardest was the way cancer took my father. Not undiagnosed, but misdiagnosed. One winter they tried something new (for them) being snowbirds. Following the migratory pattern of seniors in colder climates relocating to the South for the winter. After some irritation for what he thought was an ear infection dad went for an office visit and some medication. 2nd visit was followed by a 3rd visit. After another trip to the clinic a tube was put in the inner ear to drain fluids. When the discomfort was more than annoying they went back to the great frozen North, home, and their own primary care physician. Actual tests were taken and Cancer was discovered to already be in major organs and the lymph system, stage 4, too late. I was with him for the final weeks.
Second was his immediate reaction, screw the heart healthy diet, it doesn’t matter now! It was time to enjoy all the forbidden culinary pleasures he had been denying himself. The story brought back memories, not of Tommy’s, but one closer to home. A local drive in that has been there for 4 generations serves one of his favorites. a concoction called The Mess, claimed to have been a happy steam table mistake. In a large food boat (a heavy duty paper container in the shape of a garbage scow) put: a layer of spaghetti noodles, cheese, onions, smother it all in taco meat, slather on taco sauce, and more cheese. Add Tabasco to taste, and wait for the gut wrenching result you know will inevitably follow. Open the windows and always be aware of the closest facilities.
I’m at the point now where endings are as important as the rest of the story. My father, then Annie, then my Mom, then my kid sister – who for years was my best friend in the world. Gone. Too many others to count. Cops, relatives, friends. Gone. Erica’s cancer, and two of my own, what looks like my third staring me in the eye now. Death is instructive, a vital part of life if we choose to let it be so. This story, like all my stories, even the silly UFO stuff: vital to me, the things I need to talk about and to pass along.
It’s gonna get dark.
I think because of the boat, water and island, you ending brought to mind a passage from Tolkien near the end of Return of the King “the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise”.
Everyone borrows from Dante and the boatman over the Styx. Even Dante.
I am not set to fear death:
I have too much yet to do.
But when the time comes,
I hope to be too busy to care.
That good night might come gently
at that, to my great surprise.
As I ride this carousel,
on this planet ’round the sun,
I hope for a few more rides,
perhaps even snag the ring.
My autopsy report will
be my only epitaph:
‘His heart was in the right place.’
Well said. Nice double entendre, too.
Great story. Just lost my best friend of 47 years. Part 135 type pilot. Had access to a couple Cessna jets the last few years. I always figured i’d get a call that he flew one into the ground. But, nah, got t-boned by a Porsche turning into his driveway. His ’47 Willys didn’t have much safety equipment. Death is, well, it’s just death.
That manner of death is well known to me as well. And I don’t think a 47 Willy’s had any safety equipment, other than a gun rack between the seats.