Love, built on mutual fantasy in order to fortify against loneliness, eventually becomes a prison.
I approach the beginning of the end never really having had love that doesn’t feel like a betrayal.
Anyone I have ever loved was like a visitor, a man of infinite desire who, given the same in return, comes and goes, intermittently silent, unpredictably absent, going, going, gone.
Once, when I was nine, my father had another blow out with my mother. They could never stay away from each other for long, even after the divorce, but then, I didn’t see him for six months. As one sister told it, he’d been in jail. Having three older sisters, confirmation of reality depended on their accounts. I was frequently confused. As one sister remembers, it was about forged checks. My father had artistic gifts and was probably able to copy a signature with reasonable accuracy. But apparently not enough to avoid getting caught. Six months for forgery in 1957 sounds about right considering he probably had no priors and it’s unlikely that the checks were for very much. Wealth was not a motivating factor for my father. He was a labor journalist in the 1930s, a Communist party member for a short time in the early ’40s, a socialist for the remainder of his life who once ran cell meetings in my parents’ home when my sisters were small and I hadn’t been born yet. It was probably just enough to tide them over. He wasn’t much of a businessman. He got swindled by his brother which cost him his leftist labor newspaper in the Pennsylvania coal-mining region. Or something like that. By the time we moved to Brooklyn and I was old enough to know some of what was going on, he was supplementing his monthly welfare checks by hustling pool and card games.
He was an intellectual and a clown, hermetic and Dionysian, a fighter and a lover. Besides pool halls, card games and his rented room, his favorite places were libraries and Greenwich Village bars. At a mid-town pool hall, Guys ‘N Dolls, he shot pool with Art Carney, Peter Falk and Lainie Kazan. In Brooklyn, in the basement of the Menorah Temple on Fourteenth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, he hustled Italian teenagers. At The Q Ball in Queens, he shot pool with mobsters who invited him home for family dinners.
Almost every day after school, when my mother was at work, he’d whistle up to my window from the courtyard, usually having stopped at the White Rose Bar on New Utrecht Avenue under the El. From a very young age, full of awe and curiosity, I listened to him talk about parallel universes, romantic poetry, Adlai Stevenson vs Dwight D. Eisenhower, capitalism and evil nineteenth century industrialists, and his uncle who kept one of his two heads in a pickle jar. Some things were purely for my amusement and that of the neighbor kids who, uninterested in me, came over to sit in my kitchen and listen to his stories.
He rode boxcars from Philly to California in 1918 when he was seventeen. Stopping along the way, working when he could, he camped with hobos, worked as a cowboy, stopped in Chicago and hung with gangsters. He dated Legs Diamond’s girlfriend.
As he told it.
My father and Legs were both from Philadelphia, though Legs left when he was about sixteen and my father left when he was seventeen. So it’s possible he dated some girl Legs dated before he was “Legs.” But that’s not how he told it.
As he told it, it happened in Chicago. He met her in a bar and she liked him. He left town before anyone could get mad. I don’t know if this is exactly how he told it or if it’s how I imagined it between the lines, in the spaces that he left blank. I assumed he told me the short version because I was a child. A girl child. This was one of many reasons why I wanted to be his son.
He did things that only boys who grow up to be men can do. For example: One night, under a full moon, he lay on his back in a field among the hobos. Suddenly, a face appeared in the sky, hovering above them, enlarging as it came closer and closer, until it covered his sight. He was sure of this. The other hobos saw it too. It was real. It happened. He told me.
He finally arrived in San Francisco at the end of WWI. Walking down a dark, dead end street in Chinatown, a giant ball of fire whizzed past him then disappeared when it hit the wall. Later, when I discovered drugs, I wondered whether he’d discovered opium, riding rails among hobos and finding himself in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1918. But that’s not what he told me.
Many years later, I was talking to a man I knew at work who also grew up in Brooklyn. His name was David. He recognized my last name and told me a story. In the 1950s he had a girlfriend who lived in the neighborhood where I grew up and where my father lived in a rooming house, not far from where I lived. He remembered coming into her kitchen many times and everyone would be excited, saying, “Mistah Finberg’s comin’ ovah! Mistah. Finberg’s comin’ ovah!
David said my father would sit at the kitchen table telling them stories of his life while his girlfriend’s mother filled his coffee cup. Thinking about it now, I wonder if he was there because the woman pouring his coffee was his lover. He was like that. I know this not because he told me. I know this because I’m not a child anymore. And because my mother used to walk alone to his rooming house at night after they were divorced. And on one particular night that etched itself into my brain, when they thought I was asleep in my room, they were talking in the kitchen (he often came over in the evening after the divorce). I heard him tell her, “You know I’m oversexed.” It was a little shocking, though no surprise. It explained a lot of my own feelings, even at nine. So much I wanted to know. But no one told me. I had to put the pieces together myself.
I was jealous of all the unknowns in my father’s life—hobos, cowboys, pool players, mobsters, the people he drank with, the people in someone’s kitchen—existing somewhere else, away from me with other people in an inaccessible, parallel universe. He moved freely there. Not just Daddy, but, Bob, as my mother called him, or, Mr. Finberg—other people happy to see him, to love him.
There is some kind of poetry in the fact that my father died in his kitchen. They found him in front of the open refrigerator door. The TV Guide on the counter was open to the Sunday Sports Listings. He was probably going for a beer, reaching for the makings of a ham sandwich, and his heart stopped.
He called me about two or three weeks before they found him. His voice sounded different. I noticed an urgency in his tone. It was a Friday night and I was getting ready for a night of partying with friends. He asked me, “When can I see you, baby?” unusual in that he never pressured or interfered in my life. I said something like, “maybe next week,” or “soon,” but I don’t remember. I only remember that I wanted to get off the phone. That was the last time I spoke to him. Three weeks later I called my husband from a phone booth on my way home and he told me to come home right away.
When he told me my father was dead, I remember, the animal sound that erupted from my throat, the feeling that the world had ended. I’d never felt grief like that. It was the shock of death. Its inevitability. Reality as tsunami.
My father lives in what he told, in stories—he is his stories. Dead over forty years now, he continues there—in someone else’s kitchen, inventing his better self, someone else’s mother pouring his coffee, eternally out of reach, what he told, surviving in the memories of strangers.