The situation was awkward. I switched tables three times before coming to rest in a small booth where foot traffic seemed nominal. It also gave an unobstructed view of both entrances.
I might not recognize him.
He said he’d have his secretary with him, not his wife. As the room began filling with patrons, most of them elderly men with female companions, I found myself smiling nervously towards each oncoming couple. Each prospect would gravitate to a nearby table and wait. Wait, it seemed, for eternity, but not for me.
They filed in steadily – their empty lemming gazes piercing my hope – and took their places. No comments. No expressions. Occasionally, I boldly muttered to the approaching dead, “I’m over here…?”
The waitress brought me two havarti shrimp quesadillas. They were smoky and delicious. They readied me for the future.
I’d seen my father only once in my life.
When I was 19, of my own volition, I crossed the country to find him. Across the years and the few phone calls since, he never shook off the aloofness that characterized that first encounter twenty-three years ago.
I wasn’t sure he’d even recognize me.
It was almost one. The lunch crowd was actually dying down. I paid the bill and walked into the main lobby. Its decor was stark, uninteresting, even
dull. A single man stood in its expanse, head slightly tilted, slowly wiping his hand across his gaze as I passed by.
“Steve! It’s good to see you.”
We shook hands and settled into a nearby love seat, as if old friends. Almost immediately the secretary appeared and was introduced. She sat in a high back chair designed to embolden her.
“I’m looking for similarities,” she chimed. “I didn’t know Jack had a son.”
There it was, out of the bag like the viper it was that had threatened to make its caustic appearance for over forty years. Dumped on our heads in one quick thud.
“I look exactly like my mother,” my quick retort.
“You have her profile,” Jack added.
That was accurate and perceptive. Perhaps even sensitive.
They chose a small Italian cafe for their lunch. It would have been my
choice had I known the area. Sharing a sloppy spaghetti meal on one plate, not as friends, but lovers, they wrapped the leftovers for her mother. I feigned being comfortable yet was reeling inside over their flagrant relationship. Where was that wife of his?
Talk turned to discussion of my recent stomach churns, of stress. My father eagerly fanned the flames.
“Your grandmother died from stomach cancer,” he brayed. “Your grandfather, cancer of the pancreas. And your uncle, abdominal cancer. It runs in the family.”
That was enlightening. Not only did I get the only poor lawyer in the world for a father, but, apart from my conception, his major contribution to my life was a seemingly genetic predisposition to its end.
After their lunch, I suggested a walk on the beach. It was just the two of us. Jack commented on the expense of the houses stretched across the sand, saying he couldn’t afford to live that close to the water. Here it was, the day’s first stab at an old tune invalidating his wealth.
I helped him back up the steps from the beach.
Our meeting had taken little more than an hour yet it was time to say
goodbye. I drove him home, not caring about his expected lack of invitation. At the end of the block I shot a quick glance back. A sad, pathetic man, head lowered, was slowly walking up my father’s driveway.
I wondered where he’d say he’d been.
A few days later I called the secretary and told her I was moving. What would Jack think of me moving near him? They were going whale watching Sunday, she said. She’d ask him then just to make sure, but I should plan on moving down, perhaps to Laguna. I could live there again, we agreed.
At last, I’d be close to my father! He was old now and could use me to drive him places. It was a twist of fate. I’d take care of the man who never took care of me, with no expectation than to make up for lost time.
She talked extensively. She talked too much. “I was the one who got the romance,” she shared with confidence, “the one wined and dined, who took the yearly trips to Ireland with your father.”
“He’s a curmudgeon! I’m attracted to what makes him who he is,” she
giggled. “I can be attracted to you that way.”
My stomach turned.
“He’s broke, you know,” finally came out of her. “He has no money. He spends what he gets and holds onto nothing.”
That was the message that needed to get across to me, to be ruminated, over and over, no matter who was speaking or whatever else might be revealed. Though I never wanted him for his money, I would never be able to erase that fear from his mind.
I took to the freeway knowing all the years of hope were finished. There would be no right in this world. Adding insult to injury, my inheritance would go to a floozy — to good times spent with a fun broad.
A message on my answering machine Monday assured me my father wouldn’t mind if I moved near him. I played it twice, just to make sure the same indifference I’d absorbed across the telephone these 20-odd years was now surprisingly evident in her voice as well. It was.
I erased it.
And just as well. I’m already much too close to a woman I’ve never met, who must justify the confines of her space when a faded memory glides past every now and then, as it cautiously weaves in and out of her loveless world.
Reprinted from Genesis, Volume xxxiv, Spring, 2003, Indiana University.