Unless you have a big flair for the dramatic, you’d be hard pressed to call it incest. But it was something like that on an emotional level, that’s for sure. Of all his stepchildren, I was the one he singled out for deep, long heart-to-hearts at way too early an age.
Al met my Mom at a forties and older singles event, sponsored by Hillel I believe. See, I’ve heard this story a million times and still I can’t retain the details. I can’t seem to make them fix in place. Maybe it’s because when my Mom or Al tell the story there’s a quality of inevitability about the whole evening that rubs me the wrong way. Al always starts the story with the classic chestnut of how he noticed her from across the room. (no duh. What kind of story would it be if it begins with the bridegroom claiming he didn’t notice his future wife until he tripped over her on his way to the bathroom?) Then he slips in a zinger, sounding a note of incontrovertible truth. And you find yourself giving him all your “I believe you’ cards without a backwards glance.
This is typical Al. “On the night I met your mother, she was wearing a dress the color of which I don’t recall. But what I do remember is, that despite the fact that her roots were showing, she looked elegant. The most beautiful woman there. I knew right then that I wanted to spend the rest of my life getting to the bottom of her mystery.”
The power of his personality is such that when he says something like that your critical facilities simply take a vacation. He’s got millions of these saying stored away, things like “to love someone is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten.” I’ve literally seen people take my Mom aside at one of the thousands of dinner parties Al hosted and congratulate her on her good fortune in marrying him.
Al and my Mom met at a time when it was fashionable to cover everything with high gloss polyurethane. Maybe that’s why my Mom was so drawn to him. I tried to be happy for her, but every time I worked up a feel good head of steam, Al did something undo it. He’s big on sucking all the oxygen out of the room with his needs, his dramas.
Even now at the nursing home he tries to organize the world around his needs. When I put it like that, I realize it makes me sound kind of mean and bitter. Why should anyone begrudge Al the illusion of dignity and independence in the face of everything he has to deal with on a daily basis?
Ha! Did you notice how I came this close to joining the “poor Al” chorus. Poor Al who insists that the nursing staff call him Dr. Smogen even though he’s just a PhD, specifically a therapist who never quite “grokked” (one of his favorite words) the notion of boundaries.
I remember being twelve years old. A tender age we now know for girls. Unbridled confidence slips away and in its wake is crippling self-doubt and a growing awareness that this changing body is now running the show. My pathetic little breasts are tucked inside a more pathetic hand me down training bra with fraying elastic. Suddenly, I have my period, monthly cramps, migraines and a crop of pimples that blossom overnight. At school there’s a new political hierarchy, with me on the bottom. And every day I suffer the pangs of love, while Mr. D’Onofrio ignores my eager waving hand and calls on anyone else first, especially the slugs occupying the back half of the room. When no one and I mean no one can provide the right answer, Mr. D’Onofrio, barely masking his weary resignation, calls on me. I know my answer is right. I also know that when I say it, Mr. D’Onofrio will respond not with a smile, but a slow nod, as if to say, of course the brainac knows it.
One night I made the mistake of confiding in Al. I should remember that. Repeat that to myself. I started it. Not Al. I may have been preyed upon but I am the instrument of my own undoing. I opened the door and the snake slithered in.
He was working on one of his model airplanes. The combination of airplane glue, washed down with sips of vodka must have been a heady mix. Maybe that’s why he seized on my confession, and let everything; the little pilot, the half-painted wings and the parts of the engine stick to the pool table where he was working as we talked.
Unlike every other time, he listened. He didn’t dispensing advice or relay in vivid details his patients’ problems. He didn’t mention young Alice who was about my age and who came close to seducing him. Nope, he was on his best behavior. Looking back on it, I wonder if this was what he was always like with a new patient. I can just picture it. A big box of Kleenex discretely positioned on the coffee table, tears flowing and the ugly truth spilling onto his bright Chinese rug.
But in that first time, Al tricked me into thinking that I had an ally, a wise ally who would see the world through my eyes, validate my worth and say that one smart thing that would pry the clam shell apart and let in air.
The green pool table with all the glued model airplane parts stuck to it had to be replaced. My Mom was furious. But I was thrilled. Al and I shared a secret smile when the pool table fix it guy interrupted our dinner to present the bill. Al winked at me. My Mom looked confused, as did my siblings. I didn’t care. Al and I were a team.
It took me forever to figure out that the shared intimacy of that evening would never be replicated. In its stead, there were years of secret conversations where Al did most of the talking and I felt obliged to weigh in on this quandary or that. By then I was a fourteen year-old and he was in the habit of asking me how to handle another troubled girl’s crush. Initially, I felt flattered. It felt so adult hearing Al relay his daydreams, his erections, his secret yearnings to ditch it all, pack two bags, one for me, one for him and head off to someplace like Tahiti or Hawaii or the North Pole.
I stopped paying attention in class. Even Mr. D’Onofrio lost his hold on me. It was then that I noticed his thinning hairline. The way his pants bagged around his butt as he wrote on the blackboard. None of what I was learning mattered. Al (I never did call him Dad) would take me away and we’d lead a life immersed in color, endless sensations. Instead of heading off to college, Al would teach me how to play pool.
One day it snowed heavily and no one left the house. My Mom lived for days like this and went into high gear baking cookies, perfecting her hot cocoa recipe and tucking in with her brood as we watched cartoons in pajamas. Just as I was reaching for my forth or fifth warm cookie, Al stood, one hand on the billiard room doorknob and motioned for me to join him. I didn’t want to go in. I wasn’t in the mood for a heart to heart. I didn’t want those creepy details in my head anymore. Endless vacation be damned, I chose instead to stay where I was, with eyes firmly focused on the cookie plate.
From then on I scrupulously avoided the Billiards Room, Al’s haunt. By the time I headed off to college we barely spoke. Al made it clear that he was confused, baffled by my silence. He hopefully kept the door to the Billiard Room open. The toxic smell of airplane glue floated up the stairs and into my room.
I closed the door.
Last week my Mom called urging me to visit Al. He was asking for me, wondering when I would visit next. “He speaks about you endlessly, Deirdre.” My Mom told me how he clings to the details that I share with them. Always benign stuff like my two boys progress in school or my husband’s latest cause taking him to exotic and dangerous places in Africa, Samoa or remote Tibet.
So yesterday I visited him. I urged my Mom to take the day off. I told to get a facial, go shopping, have lunch with friends. I had resolved to confront Al and give him a sense of the anger that still propelled me blindly forward. Maybe this would all come off as psychobabble, but that was his field after all.
Al is in a wheelchair now. His mind is sharp, but his body won’t cooperate. I couldn’t help but notice that we were in fact mirror images of where we were when he first entered my life.
He looked genuinely thrilled to see me. I brought him a few books I had finished. It’s a habit that we fell into years ago. At family gatherings, talking about books gave us that neutral topic to chew over. We never agreed on anything, but despite that he read everything I gave him, roundly criticized it and then asked for the next book.
It was snowing out and I had promised to stay for lunch. Arrangements had been made. Just as I was about to wheel him down to the lunch room, he farted. I was right behind him and the smell hit me square in the face. I asked him if he was feeling alright and he feigned indifference. “Right as rain” he replied, eager to prove to me that he was still in firm possession of all his marbles even if the balance of his body was betraying him.
In the elevator going down to the lunchroom, I noticed he looked pale. Across from him at lunch, his pasty pallor was undeniable. Playing the role of the dutiful daughter, I asked the support staff if it would be possible for my Dad to see the Doctor. They assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem and they made an appointment for next Tuesday.
It seemed that Al was growing worse by the moment. I noticed I was feeling a bit panicky. The last thing I wanted on this rare visit was to be responsible for Al’s death. My Mom would never forgive me. The Staff called the Doctor’s office and the appointment was pushed up to yesterday afternoon, but only if I would bring him.
In short order, Al’s wheelchair was folded into the back of my trunk, Al was deposited in the front seat and I was promised that at the other end, two assistants were standing by to help get Al into his wheelchair.
The day was not going as I had planned. Suddenly, there I was alone with Al in a car, inching along the slippery highway. The silence was dense between us. I am not a stellar driver in the best of times and I would never ever dream of driving on a day like that with the snow hitting the windshield sideways, the wind howling.
The defrost is blasting full tilt, when suddenly I hear a loud thunk and a crunch. Immediately, the car careens across three lanes and we land sideways in a ditch. Al’s whole body is pitched against the crumpled passenger door and he is screaming. I scramble out of the car. My knees are buckling, my hands tremble as I kick at the passenger door furiously and wrestle it open.
Al tumbles out into my waiting arms. I’m holding him, cradling him like my son. The snow is everywhere and all I can feel is this strange clear love. As strong and as real as the cold snow falling around us.