Issue 127 |
Summer 2015

Dad's Just a Number

Hello! I am 5 feet 11 inches and have a medium build. I have dark brown hair and blue eyes. My skin color is pale. My mother’s ethnic origin is Belgian, my father’s ethnic origin is Polish and French. My racial color code as established by the Chicago Bank of Life is white. I am a full-time student and barista, and on the weekends, I volunteer in the cardiac care wing of a local hospital to tenderize my guilt before gorging on it whole.

Hello. I am 5 feet 11 inches and have a medium build. I have dark brown hair and blue eyes, lagoon blue, which people have remarked on with some incredulity. My skin color is white. My mom’s parents live in Oslo, though they’ve basically retired to their second home on the banks of the Aurlandsfjord. My dad’s parents are dead, but we don’t talk about that much. I am studying physics at a small graduate school because the implacable laws of the universe are of interest to me. My parents give me money, though I tell them not to. We are five kids in the family—me and four girls—and while I’m not the eldest, that doesn’t mean I cannot provide for myself. Especially since the eldest, Janine, is on medication that costs $1,000 a month, except watch what happens if she misses a dose.

I make rent at a café down the block. Whatever my folks give me, I put in a jar with the grand idea of giving it back, though I am equally tempted to donate the money to the hospital where I work. Transcatheter aortic valve replacement; renal denervation; left ventricular assist devices—these innovations can be experienced at facilities nationwide. At my hospital, you’d be lucky to get an ekg. The last time we saved a patient was two years ago, and that’s just because she had acid reflux, which can masquerade as a heart attack. She was twenty-three and manning a local fish-and-chips truck, which paid her in fish and chips. Now she eats salads and tofu, which I credit to my influence, me being a vegan and also her boyfriend, though if you ask Violet, I haven’t been boyfriend enough for several months. She is unstoppably carnal; I am easily turned off. When I am donating to the Chicago Bank of Life, I do not think of her.

Hello. I am 5 feet 11. My build is average, though by this I just mean I’m not winning the World’s Strongest anytime soon. My hair is brown, my eyes are blue. My mom likes to say it’s a miracle my eyes are blue because I am the first to have them in the family. But when I tease her and say maybe I’m adopted, it’s as if all the travesties being executed worldwide find a showing on her face. She’ll say, “Don’t let your father hear you say that kind of thing,” and, like that, there’s the war in Syria coalesced in the cleft between her eyes. My mother used to be a human rights activist. Growing up, I thought jail was where everyone went at the end of the day. As the story goes, she met my father in jail, though he was there for something else. Something stupid, like riding his bike on the sidewalk and resisting arrest when told to stop.

My father does not like the police. He does not like people in uniform. Sometimes I’m not sure if he even likes me. He is stern and dour and weirdly tyrannical given that he mistrusts authority, though my mom says he means well. His name used to be Moishe, which sounds fine when you’re in Poland but ridiculous in New Haven, where he was brought as a boy by Jewish philanthropists in ’45. Problem was, they didn’t have time to raise a boy who spoke no English, so they pawned him off to some other family that also didn’t have the time, so that my dad, at age thirteen, ended up in an orphanage. When he got out, he changed his name to Mike, moved to New York, and landed a job at the zoo, which he kept for most of my childhood. Nights he’d come home bleached in the humiliation of his day and be so tired he’d fall into his chair and say, “Lila, you married a shit shoveler,” before serving himself a ladle of stew.

I never spoke much at those dinners, though I don’t think anyone noticed. I was always spindly and short for my age—unimpressive, Janine used to say—and easily overlooked in the presence of my sisters and my older brother, Ben, whose charisma obliterated whatever affect I might have been trying to cultivate for myself. Ben died about ten years ago in a lake by our house, jumping off a tire swing that’d been there since before any of us was born. He never came up out of the water. Turned out he had a heart condition no one knew about. We were eight years apart, so I was always able to worship him openly and without shame. Janine, though—they were twins, something that runs in the family—she took his death hard. She fell into a hole and the doctors said she was bipolar, and my mom, who had no patience for luxury problems like mental illness when half the world was starving, delegated the problem to my dad, who delegated it right back. Mental illness made no sense to him either.

My father dealt better with Ben’s death because it sustained theories he’d had about the world ever since he was a child—that it was glib and sinful, which was, to him, a terrible combination. If I’ve thought about challenging him on this topic, I’ve also understood the futility of trying to counter an ethos bedrocked in grief, lest I end up challenging that grief by accident. Hence, physics: a discipline in which caprice and cruelty have no standing simply for being human qualities. People are cruel. The universe feels nothing.

Sometimes Violet says my orthodoxies are every bit as austere as my father’s. That I need to be more flexible. She might say this while we’re sharing a Coke float at the fifties throwback diner near her place. She’d say, If I were your dad and been tortured with my twin at Auschwitz, I’d definitely want to petition the universe for answers and accountability. Because, she’d say, if the universe is indifferent to our suffering, then tragedy can never amount to more than the sorrow that proceeds from it. We have these talks, which sometimes mitigate the distance I feel between myself and other people, though it doesn’t last. After, I pay our bill and then we go back to her place to watch movies. Or get drunk and have sex, which is when I am most likely to yearn for more than what has been afforded me in the ways and means of love.

Hello. The main thing is: I am tall enough to handle myself at some distance from my computer camera and still conceal my identity. Mostly I’ve been using an online roulette service, which makes it an equal opportunity experience, though I do have predilections that have begun to assert themselves, though begun is, of course, inaccurate. When I was thirteen, my lab partner was James Kirkpatrick, who dyed his hair black and straightened it with an iron every morning. He’d come to school with it parted in the middle and fanned out down the length of his back, looking like Ian Astbury, lead singer of The Cult, who modeled a life for James that seemed ideal, if unattainable. Acne came early to James, which made his hair an asset the rest of us would covet years later, but which at the time seemed prognostic of suicidal ideation, which it was. James overdosed on morphine prescribed for his terminally ill grandfather. He didn’t have many friends, but we all showed up at his funeral. And that night, after having the same dream I’d been having for months, I awoke to a wetness in my pajamas and an understanding that the raven-haired seducer who’d been featured in this dream had always been James.

After, there was Peter and Alex, Teddy and Neil, though my feelings for them were circumscribed by notions of decorum and rectitude. Even in my dreams, at most we ended up on a beach talking Algebra I. And then not talking at all, because my brother’s death awakened me to obligations that would have never passed on to me had he lived. So I went out with Christina and Deirdre and Caroline Moon. But I’m sure my indifference showed as badly as if I’d had dirt under my nails.

Violet has been my only serious girlfriend, owing to the timing of her stagger into the hospital just days after my father had a mini-stroke that thrust his mortality into the foreground of all our thoughts, especially his. Still, it’s the seriousness and duration of our relationship that’s driven me to seek other sources of gratification. Some nights, I’ve brought her to my parents’ place for dinner and then gone home to have video congress with a Guatemalan prostitute named Modesto. Sometimes I’ve made the mistake of trying to talk to him, but he doesn’t speak English. Sometimes I cannot climax for feeling so lonely. But I keep coming back because here is the answer to at least some of the questions I have had about myself, though it would be nice if answers were also solutions.

Hello, I am 5 feet 11 inches, though Violet recently informed me that I am 5 feet 10 inches, which, she said, makes perfect sense, since I keep lying about everything else. We were at her apartment. She’d gotten a hold of these recordings and been appalled by what she’s decided is my attempt to defraud people who want children. My donor profile is a fake, is what she said, and then she left the room. In other words, we’ve had another fight. Though fighting presumes two people at odds with each other, when, in fact, I have no defense against her accusations. I am unattentive. I am distracted. And while I’m not exactly a liar, I am also not serving up for display or consumption parts of my inner life that recoil even from me.

“Oh, come on,” I said, and went after her. “What’s an inch? Kids always outgrow their parents anyway. 5 feet 11 inches is just a better sell!”

She snorted and reached for her jacket.

“Don’t leave, Vi. I’ll change it, OK? It’s just, I need to look good to these people.”

She laughed. One thing I’ve always liked about Violet is her laugh. It is rich and throaty and tender, whether she’s being scornful or not. She said, “Right, by being a big old liar.”

“Can you stop saying that?”

We ended up sitting on the floor with our backs to her stove, which we’d turned on for heat. I was supposed to have confronted her landlord about this weeks ago. But when I tried, he talked me into having a beer instead, and by the time it was 4 a.m. and I hadn’t so much as mentioned Violet’s name, even I had to concede my priorities were askew.

After a while, I said, “I’m not a liar. I’ve never lied about anything.” I went on to say I had no secrets. And that I’d even been up front with her about sperm donation, which I could imagine a lesser guy being cagey about.

“Wow,” she said. “Good for you.”

“Vi. Come on.” I took her hand. She wore multiple rings on multiple fingers, but the one that counted was bare. I told her I loved her, and this was true.

She began to unbutton my shirt and kiss my neck. I did not pull away, but I didn’t encourage her either.

“Exactly,” she said. And then she asked me to leave. And to return her key.

Hello. I am 5 feet 10 but didn’t have my growth spurt until tenth grade. Shorty, Shrimpy, Half-Pint, Girl. Know what it’s like when Sam Shalako and his crew pin you down and ink girl into your forehead right before a schoolwide assembly convened to celebrate, among others, yours truly for excellence in poetry writing? It was a permanent marker, so I had to get up there and accept my prize with hand pressed to my forehead like a Southern belle, which only grew my roster of epithets by one. I was Belle for the rest of the year.

It didn’t help that whenever I got cut up horsing around with Ben, everyone seemed appalled, like here were skid marks across the face of Venus. After a while, it got so Ben wouldn’t come near me unless I pleaded with him, which often meant crying, which never helped my case much. The day we went to the lake, I’d decided on a different tactic. I said I was going and he could come or not, what did I care, knowing full well he couldn’t let me go alone, the tire swing being old and unreliable and me rather Belle-ish in terms of the fortitude it might take to survive a broken tire swing. So we went. Of course, Ben didn’t even want to swim or use the tire, but I goaded him on. Called him a sissy, which was like calling the sun black, even though it felt great. I hammed up the good time I was having in the water, and tried to push that tire to the max. How high could I go? Something about putting my brother down while sailing through the air exalted my self-worth to include notions of infallibility and certainties of greatness, which I remember because that was the last time I felt either.

Soon, my brother was in the water with me. It seems now that I heard the splash before I saw him on the tire, though this cannot be the case. I swam for where he’d landed, and when he didn’t come up for air, I waited. And when he still didn’t come up, I imagined him breathing through a reed with head submerged, so I skirted the banks. And then I went back out, though by then it seemed he could be anywhere. I was sixteen. Past puberty. Past at least some of the growing pains and big questions that confront us as we transition from adolescence to adulthood. Are people good? Am I good? I had ideas about who I wanted to be in the world, and though they were vague, they still were not built to sustain the profundity of what was happening to me right then in a lake just two miles from my home, where my father was living his last moments under the impression of being a man who had survived the Holocaust and bred a firstborn son.

Panic came as an adrenaline rush that outfitted me with skills I didn’t otherwise have, like swimming under water with my eyes open or swimming several feet below the surface. But it didn’t matter. The lake was dark and dense and finally inhospitable to anyone who’d come to profile her secret life. After fifteen minutes, I went back to shore and sat on the bank with head hung between my legs. I watched beads of water roll down my calves and puddle at my feet. I studied the pruned effect of so much time in the lake on my fingers. I might have been in shock, though it’s possible I was just being pragmatic about what was in store for me. My brother had drowned. Running home screaming would not change that. And maybe I wanted just one more chance to be borne up by the conviction that this wasn’t my fault.

Hello again. I am—well, let’s look at it this way: My father has no pictures of his parents or any real memories of them from which to draw new ones, but it’s safe to presume their features were ranged within ours, or at least his, and that any child of mine can inherit the same: a longish face, as if in the putty phase of development, someone pulled my chin a little too hard, and a narrow mouth as a result. Violet says I look like Alan Ruck in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and I guess that’s right. My father does not talk about Auschwitz, but he does talk about extending our bloodline, which amounts to the same thing. In the years since Ben died, I’ve caught him appraising me like a farmer might his stock. Before Violet, these appraisals were often followed by whispered exchanges with my mother in the kitchen and one of them asking me if everything was OK at school.

Violet’s been over for dinner many times. My dad likes to ensure he’s there for these occasions. More than once, he’s asked about her plans and if she’d like to have children and how many and is she Jewish because with a name like Violet, you never know.

Per my dad’s wishes, I took Violet to Norway last summer, where we spent a weekend with my mom’s parents who are taxed with problems that had them mistaking Violet for Janine and me for Ben until the whole thing bespoke the virtue of a retirement home and the horror of Alzheimer’s Disease. Genetically speaking, the good news is that they both got it late in life. The bad news is self-evident. I have thought about testing myself for apoe e4 but then figured I probably don’t want to know. My dad, in any case, seems to be doing fine, though he is frequently depressed under the guise of fatigue, lest he, too, have to concede feelings he cannot control.

My dad’s number is A-7064. Once, for the holidays, my mom bought him laser treatment, thinking he’d want that tattoo removed now that there was a way to do it. But in the end, the treatment went to Janine, who was more than happy to blot out a Mt. Rushmore-type homage to the Nixon administration she’d gotten on her shoulder to spoof the integrity of our politics, though no one read it that way, and Janine had to stop wearing tank tops. I visited her last week. She’s in an assisted-living facility because while the meds keep her stable, she still can’t keep a job. I bought her babka, which she loves, and pictures from Dad’s birthday, because she hadn’t been up to going. Since Ben died, our relationship has evolved into a source of relief for us both, she trampling me with blame and me heaving underfoot. In general, though, discretion tends to characterize our arrangement. But sometimes not. I hadn’t been in her room more than five minutes before she asked why Ben wasn’t in any of the photos.

I relaxed into an armchair she’d gotten off the street and reupholstered in neckties. “Because, J., I made him come to the lake and he died.”

“Everyone knows that,” she said, and rolled her eyes.

It’s true that being mentally ill has not reformed Janine’s cant toward drollery, but I don’t always remember this when it counts.

“Then what do you mean?” I said. “I don’t understand.”

“Me either. That’s just what I’m saying. Why wasn’t Ben there? Why wasn’t I there? Can you explain any of that?”

Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. “Why am I me and you you? Oh, please, J., let’s not have this conversation again.”

Sometimes it felt as if we’d been having this conversation all our lives.

“You’re gross,” she said. “Your whole attitude. How can you stand to think we live in a morally indifferent universe? That everything’s just chance?”

Janine looked middle-aged, though she was only thirty-four. Her hair was short gray curls cauliflowered about her head. Her neck was already pleated with skin because she’d lost a lot of weight, and about her eyes were the telltale crimps of time gone by, like hash marks on the prison walls of your life. So being queried by her on this stuff was like watching an old man who’d missed the boat on wisdom flounder in its wake.

I told her I had somewhere to be. But that, yeah, I was comfortable with my opinions and that I didn’t want to live in a cosmos accountable to logic of my devising. Which was just as well, because it wasn’t. Character is fate? I don’t think so. But then she laughed, though I’m not sure why, and said the kind of thing that sounds right just for having been put into words, something about how dogma is always forged in dread of its being untrue.

“How’s Dad?” she said. “He have fun?”

“He’s not talking to me,” I said.

“Why?”

“I gotta go,” I said. “Places to be, people to see.”

Hello. My dad is swarthy and squat, which is why, in the photos from his birthday, I look like a beanpole in contrast. I clear him by about four inches now, though I don’t think I’ve been growing. Even so, I never seem to exist for him until Violet shows up. She and I were on the outs, it’s true, but I had begged her to come because her absence would ruin his birthday. He’d get ideas about our relationship being over and even though it was almost over, my plan was never to let him know.

On the phone, it went like this: “Vi, there’s a lot of pressure on me. Just do this one thing, OK?”

“Why? Just say it. If you say it out loud, I’ll do it.”

I heard the faucet turn on and the toilet flush, which should give you a sense of how discrepant were our investments in this conversation’s outcome.

“Because my dad loves you, that’s why.”

She hung up before I could say anything else, so I was surprised when she showed up anyway, with cupcakes that said Happy Birthday, Moishe, which seemed like a bold move, but which dislodged something in my dad so that he patted her cheek and raised his glass to make a toast, even though we were gathered there to toast him. He is seventy and has taken to using a cane. I think he’s done this to appear distinguished, though when he held up his champagne flute, I had to accept the cane’s rollback on his chances of falling down in that distinguished moment. He still has all his hair, which he slicks back with water. He was wearing a pinstripe gray suit that was too big for him and black Velcro sneakers. He asked for quiet and then said wonderful things about my mom. And my sisters. About family and lineage and something confused about a kind of flower he used to see through the gates at Auschwitz, though he didn’t say the place by name, just that he’d been a boy when this beautiful flower caught his eye and that he’d derived courage from knowing its species was immortal, if not the flower itself.

My dad and I have never been close. He’d lavished a good deal of his energy on Ben, and when he died, I suspect my dad’s grief closed shop on whatever feelings he’d had left for the rest of us. But guilt has a way of making you absolve everyone who does you wrong, and anyway, it was impossible to resent a man who’d survived as he had done. And so, despite the subtext of his speech albatrossed around my neck, I was touched. At least until looking at my mom, who had the Holocaust and its burden troughed into her face, and then tracking that look as it landed on my dad, who was talking to Violet.

“What’s this?” he said, and took me by the sleeve. “You two are breaking up?”

I shook my head immediately and looked at Violet with what I hoped would pass for shock in the moment.

“We’re just not…compatible,” Violet said.

“Compatible?” my dad said. “What’s compatible?” He was looking at me now, but I’d had enough. I ushered Violet out of there and said, “Who do you think you’re helping?”

“You,” she said, and walked out.

I tried to tell my dad we were just having a fight, but that it’d be fine. That I was even going to propose. And when that failed, I tried to tell him there were plenty of other women out there. But he just slumped into the nearest chair and tapped his heart. “I’m old,” he said, and seemed to age twenty years just for saying it.

Hello. I am 5 feet 10 and of medium build, but cannot hold my liquor. After the party, I went to a bar and got drunk and met someone named Wyatt. Forgive me if my timeline seems compressed or hasty, but I don’t want to pretend to remember more than I do, or that my experience with this man was distended for being the first of its kind or racked on the magic that makes the turning points in our lives feel any bigger than the moments right before or after. I met Wyatt and two minutes later, he asked me to join him in the bathroom. I didn’t think stuff like that actually happened, but apparently it does. He was from the South. He was unshaven and wore a plaid shirt. He wasn’t pretty. But he still knew his reach. I followed him through the bathroom door, which he locked behind us. And then instinct took over. How did I know to drop my pants and brace my hands on the urinal? I’m not sure how long he had at me, but that it was long enough to agonize into consciousness the knowledge that I had made a choice that would cast my father, irretrievably, into an indifference about his life that was like snapping an astronaut from his tether.

Wyatt left me as I was, bleeding, panting, and wondering how to contrive seeing him again. But I have not seen him again, even though I’ve spent nearly every hour in that bar since.

Hello. I am donor number 13115. I am 5 feet 10 inches, with a medium build, brown hair, and blue eyes. My skin color is egg. My parents are from Europe. The Chicago Bank of Life says I am white. I am a student, but also work at a café and a hospital. I hope my sperm is motile and copious. I hope many families will profit from my contribution to their lives. I hope to bear at least ten children, ten being a minyan, which isn’t so important to me in terms of my Jewish identity, but which will matter to my father when he sees that I am committed to furthering our genetic line even as I cannot do it the way he would have liked. I know you all have hundreds of options. I have seen the competition and realize it’s fierce. And even though I have mental illness in my family and a touch of Alzheimer’s, I’d ask that you not hold this against me. Janine’s problems are circumstantial. And she’s still smarter than most people I know. Sometimes, when I’ve been hoping to see Wyatt and levying self-disgust against notions that I was just “born this way,” I’ve even thought that Janine is right: that the universe does redress our crimes. That because Ben is dead, I have grown into a man who cannot keep us alive.

Which is why I need you. Because if the universe is cruel, people are good. People survive their fate. People keep each other going. And so I’m asking you to do the same for me. Donor number 13115. In the name of kindness and all those other humane qualities that are abundant among us, I ask you to save me.