he surge of female trouble that culminated, at least for me, in my mother’s decision that she would not be returning from a vacation she had taken in Rome was not so much a last straw as the completion of a basket years in the weaving.
While I focused on the post-Spain entertainment around me – mad women, depressed women, half-undressed women in our garage – I hadn’t paid close enough attention to the gathering storm between my parents, who for years had slept in separate beds, which I accepted as entirely normal (if I thought the idea of sleeping with someone else was invasive, why should adults think any differently?).
Many were the signs. The first came when my father’s Spanish job was not renewed and we came home. The second was the assassination of John Kennedy, which for my mother was the assassination of a stylish America that she, as a new American citizen, swore by. The killing broke her as it broke many others. Hope, even if half-mythical, was undone, and undone hope cannot be fully mended.
My mother became sad, took to borrowing increasing quantities of my father’s sleeping pills, grew tired of my siding with him in all arguments, and began refusing to touch her delicious meals. She also saw around her other wounds, other growing stains, other impressions of decay that the Mrs. Wheelocks and Mrs. Gormans helped convey. These women had given themselves up to rage and silence and everything brittle in between.
I refused my mother’s help in doing my homework and this demoralized her even further. She began, she would later tell me, to think my father had hatched a plan to have me “all to himself,” a conspiratorial exaggeration but one that didn’t lack for facts. I was my father’s mini-man, his confidant. My mother was an outsider.
In Rome, on holiday, she snapped. She wrote to my father, who snarled when he read the letter, and later the two spoke on the phone. I had very cleverly snuck upstairs and quietly lifted the phone receiver from its cradle. “I’ve taken care of him for ten years and that’s enough.” Though the words at the time had little impact on me, I’d remember them always. They made me defiant; now I could do as I truly pleased.
After the call and in the coming months came several summits with my father, in which he was at first conciliatory, saying she’d soon be back, but as time passed, our meetings and discussions grew harsher, his tone more livid, his nostrils typically flaring when he discussed my mother’s irresponsibility.
The descent then grew menacing, openly hostile. He enlisted friends in Rome to blacklist her. To me, he’d say my mother was now a streetwalker, a prostitute, words I only vaguely understood, all this because she’d gone to dinner once or twice with a much older man and the news had filtered back to my father.
On a walk to the drugstore my father spoke a word he had never spoken before in my presence and never would again. “I don’t know what the fuck she’s thinking,” he said, and yet again I was forced to make up meanings. But the blunt force of the statement carried with it an angry and wounded meaning I understood fully. I did not need to know the meaning of the word, which I would in any case soon learn from Tony and Sarah’s adventures.
Now on my own, or with my father only, I spent increasing amounts of time in trees or atop roofs, returning to earlier days.
From time to time I’d go next door to Sarah’s house (never saying a word about what I knew) and was soon officially announced as the hair ironer for the three sisters, who praised me for my light touch and liked the manly way I opened the ironing board. I did this for them in order to be around girls, since the central girl in my life was elsewhere, and our communication was limited to occasional letters in which I continued to take my father’s side. Phone calls were far too expensive. And what would we say, mother and son, in this predicament?
I began listening to music and absorbed myself in the pop hits of the period, memorizing lyrics by The Beatles while finding their hordes of female acolytes ridiculous, because they behaved too much like younger versions of the madwomen I’d seen explode one after another, like mines, around me. It was only at school that I was not alone. After school I carried out my tennis ball ritual, throwing it for hours against the wooden wall of the porch, imagining myself in various Walter Mitty-like roles. Today, no doubt, I would have been in therapy and medicated. Then, my situation was clearer, more blunt, less nuanced: my mother had left the nest and I was on my own to make sense of the world as I saw it from my near-teen vantage point, all the while still dining nightly with my father, whose end-of-world scenarios had lessened only slightly. What did a boy of twelve and a father of nearly seventy speak of? French politics, of course, and how the world had become morally unstable because now the great powers possessed weapons that could not be tested in battle, all but ending the concept of a war that would not be one of human annihilation. This would mean, he insisted, that anxiety in all forms would assume a role as dramatic as war in the relationships between peoples and nations. This was our dinner chat.
As our chats began to grow too weighty, I turned to loving sports, in which my father had no interest. This was an inner medium that provided an escape hatch social media does today, in ways so diverse they can overwhelm even those seeking to belong, to be needed. Mine was a more stripped-down world.
In 1965, as I crept up on age thirteen, I gave infinite thanks to Paul Simon, who with his partner Art Garfunkel wrote a song called “I Am a R0ck,” which became my anthem and ended with the verse, “And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”
Never once did I cry, even when bullied, knowing I could find crevices within me so rich in solace no one could know, or should know.
So that one day when I walked into the garage and saw Tony straddling Sarah, her dress down, sobbing or moaning (I couldn’t tell which), I told Tony, a ruffian twice my size, to leave her alone and get out of my garage. Stunned, he did just that, and Sarah turned to me and hissed, “You ruined everything. Idiot.”
She pulled up her dress and stormed out, and yes, for the first time in my life, my warrior status lifted high only to be broken down by an angry girl, I cried.
I had no idea what had just happened and wondered if I’d ever learn. I would, slowly, but it would start by handing over a quarter so I could receive my first, if dubious, instruction in sex.