Robin Antalek | Longreads | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,599 words)
In 1964, when my mother was pregnant with my younger brother, she found out that her husband, my father, had married another woman and that woman was pregnant as well. My father’s new wife had left her family and three small children, and then she and my father had created a subset family, making us a complicated algebraic formula, resistant to logic. He and his new wife lived together somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, commuting distance to their jobs in Manhattan, where they had met. For a while they lived in his red Volvo wagon that smelled of his ever present Camel cigarettes.
Once, way before my brother, he drove us in that same red Volvo wagon down the wide tree lined Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn to a pre-war apartment building overlooking Prospect Park for a visit with his parents. The adults gathered in a room with windows that offered a view of the tops of the trees while, at 3, I remained in the kitchen with the housekeeper and a parakeet in a cage in front of a window that looked out onto a brick walled airshaft.
The bird turned its back on us while I ate Milano cookies. When dinner was ready the housekeeper took my hand in hers and led me into the big room. I was too full to eat the bright pink roast on the broad, gold-rimmed dinner plates, or sip from the tiny glass of tomato juice resting on a paper doily on a miniature plate. I know the attention on me was uncomfortable and confusing. My feet dangled from the chair in patent leather shoes and I was reprimanded by my father more than once for kicking the bar that stretched between the legs. Tucked in the large bureau behind me was a Batman and Robin coloring book, a gift chosen I supposed because of my name, not gender, along with a fresh pack of crayons, promised to me only if I ate my entire dinner. Later I am shattered, inconsolable, my face rubbed raw against the shoulder of my father’s tweed coat as he carries me from the apartment, a piece of meat still lodged between my cheek and molars.
My father hadn’t formally separated from my mother, he just stopped returning home. His presence up until then was so sporadic I never considered him part of our lives. In her eighth month my mother consulted an attorney and confessed her husband’s indiscretions. She understood bigamy to be a crime and I imagined, at just 23 years old, she had some hope that a man of the law would save her from this mess. Through a series of phone calls, to his employer, his parents, and finally her sister-in-law, she discovered he and his new wife had been fired from the company that employed them, and that there was no money, because my father gambled until love or luck ran out.
My father’s new wife had left her family and three small children, and then she and my father had created a subset family, making us a complicated algebraic formula, resistant to logic.
The attorney suggested my mother entice her husband to return home. To make an effort with her clothes, wear bright lipstick, make his favorite meals. He insisted it would be easier that way. He didn’t tell her what she should do with his second wife or their child. When she parted her coat to reveal her swollen belly he averted his eyes and added that men like my father often come back with their tail between their legs.
My mother parceled out the sins of my father, like jigsaw pieces, spread out over too many years. Which is why I struggle with telling this story from the beginning. I wouldn’t know any of this until decades later, that my father did come home, but not for us. His visits were poorly disguised reconciliation attempts he used to garner money for his other family. My mother worked in a bank and he was careful to show up around payday, after I was in bed. He arrived as a surprise guest at my brother’s christening lunch at my grandparents’ home, and when he disappeared afterward my mother discovered that he had stolen cards with money, gifts intended for my baby brother, along with bottles, formula, diapers and clothes. She guessed that his new wife had given birth to a son too, and moved us to another apartment in the hope he wouldn’t find us. When two men showed up to collect on one of my father’s debts she put us in a closet, unsure what they would do if they saw his children, and was saved when a neighbor opened his apartment door because he’d heard the raised voices in the hallway. The men retreated; my mother would need to move us again.
Opportunity presented itself in a former coworker of my father’s, an engineer, who had heard the ugly rumors. He offered a solution: If my mother would care for his legally blind wheelchair-bound wife suffering from multiple sclerosis, in exchange he would care for us. At the end of the 1960’s and against a great uproar from my mother’s family, we moved from New York to the West Coast of Florida near the Everglades, into a yellow one-story house surrounded by hibiscus flowers as big as my face, and sand, and scrub pine, black snakes, and chartreuse lizards. Life was no longer recognizable.
Inside the yellow house was illness, half truths, and disappointment. Dinners were often silent, interrupted only by tinkling ice in a whiskey glass. I was instructed to address the couple as aunt and uncle even though we were not related. Responsibilities shifted. I was often my brother’s sole caregiver, signed our permission slips, and knew the names of all his stuffed animals. I never had friends over because there was too much to explain. When I eventually left home, I left him behind as well, confused and resentful. A rift that took work to repair.
I longed to find my place in the world, reinventing as I went along. As an adolescent and teenager I was sullen, moody, and unpredictable, driven by rage and ennui. I refused to be the meek, docile pretend niece and stand-in for a daughter that was expected. My body erupted in a bubbling, crusty eczema and I had to wear white cotton gloves to bed so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep until I bled. Doctors treated me with a variety of topical ointments but never suspected that whatever the cause the ugliness was coming from within.
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My pretend uncle was a man of mercurial moods, sometimes melancholy, often dark, and directed his cocktail hour anger at me in micro bursts hinting that I inherited the worst traits from a man I didn’t know, that before he stepped up to claim responsibility, we had a father who didn’t want us. I was reminded always that without him, we would be nowhere. I fought back and demanded answers. I pushed and pushed until threats were made, words he refused to take back. I looked to my mother but she was powerless for all the reasons women who rely on men to save them usually are. Juxtaposed against that were the times he handed my brother and me the Sears catalogue and told us to mark what we wanted for Christmas, or piled us into his Cadillac to visit a wealthy client who had exotic animals and a private African safari in the acres behind his lush, tropical gated house that backed up to the Gulf of Mexico. Even those occasions I would berate my mother with questions. How would my father ever find us here? Why did you do this to us? Why was this life the only option? Every answer placed blame squarely on my inability to be grateful. It was my problem. I ruined everything I touched.
When I was in college, the wife died and I encouraged my mother to take my brother and leave. For the first time in her life she was free.That I misread the situation entirely was how removed I was from the people who had raised me. My mother and my father’s former coworker married soon after, calling to tell me only when it was done. They both, but especially my mother, expected me to transition to the role of daughter now, as if the piece of paper signed by a judge validated my existence. I couldn’t bring myself to call him “Dad” until my first born was nearly one and still, 27 years later, when he is now a decade shy of 100 and an entirely different man, the word does not roll easily off my tongue. When I asked my mother why this had been her only choice, she feigned ignorance. Much later she would tell me again how no one wanted us. He saved your life, she repeated over and over again, just as she had when I asked her this question as a child. In her mind she was offering me the nuclear family of my dreams, 20 years too late, refusing to grasp that the damage was already done.
Secrets begat secrets. I see that now, how deep and dark and tempting that hole became. I had no concept of divorce, let alone the meaning until a teacher and a classmate cruelly explained it to me in fourth grade, when I couldn’t fill out the family tree project, nor did I have any pictures of my father and instead I took crayons and drew in the boxes an imaginary family. When I repeated the word to my mother she said no, as if her refusal made her marriage valid. In fact it was one of the few moments of truth between us, but I didn’t know that. My mother was not able to divorce my father until the late 1970’s, because the law was not in favor of abandonment, which was what a woman who took her children and moved to another state was considered, despite his illegal second marriage.
Way before that my grandmother had gone through my mother’s wedding album, cutting my father’s head from every page, leaving the empty circle floating above his body, so I really didn’t know how he looked except what I saw reflected in the mirror. I knew his first and last name. Not where he lived, not when he was born. I knew that I had been disregarded, but I did not know why. I blamed myself because that is what children do. I wasn’t good enough to be loved.
My classmates all had fathers. Men who tossed their children over their shoulders to avoid the hot sand at the beach, or coached ball games, or blew up balloons at birthday parties. They weren’t all case studies on what fathers should be. There was cruelty and alcoholism, there was illness and joblessness. Still, I studied those families like I was starving. If I was invited to a birthday party or sleepover I’d have a knot in my stomach as the dad interacted with the kids. I tried so hard to stay out of the way and not draw attention to myself. I was so very hungry for the mess of family, for the easy jokes and casual expressions of love, that the periphery was good enough, because I was positive they all knew my shame. The man who had fathered me had left. Surely they could tell that by looking at me.
Don’t forget where you come from took on a totally different meaning. It wasn’t long before I realized the power of my words, of my secrets, and I started telling people the make believe version of the truth. I invented a good smart fictional man who simply vanished. (Why allow him to be good? Because without good there is no evil. I understood that at an early age.)
When two men showed up to collect on one of my father’s debts she put us in a closet, unsure what they would do if they saw his children…
The smart part wasn’t a lie, my mother had described him as brilliant and terrifying, but then I had no understanding of how smart. An early adopter of computer code, he introduced these systems into the advertising agencies in New York City beginning with J. Walter Thompson. That technical language — with its rigidity that lacked a margin for error — my father understood better than his native tongue. This I found out only after my mother watched an episode of Mad Men where they chronicled an event similar to what had actually happened when they were together. She whispered this part of the story into the phone, wondering aloud how a fictional show had gotten it so right. She was more than a little paranoid and frightened that somehow my father and the cast of Mad Men were connected, and vowed to no longer watch the show.
Not long after the episode, she launched her own investigations, through which she found out my father was dead. We had gifted her a laptop for Christmas and a favorite pastime was looking up random people. It was her game of Russian Roulette that often ended with an obituary. It hadn’t occurred to me to google search my father, and I was shocked she had. By the time that Mad Men episode aired, he had been dead for 10 years. So as for my father sharing his story with the producers, that part at least would have been impossible.
I didn’t have any of those puzzle pieces when I began to tell the made-up version of his life. But I trace the beginnings of my writing career back to that moment. My fiction is all about the machinations of family, or what passes for family. So I dispensed my fictional version to anyone who inquired like a clinician until it made people uncomfortable to ask further questions. An immature defense in my teens that followed me into adulthood. Not caring was my default mechanism. I was angry and envious, sad and lost, wanting to be loved but not deserving. I was needy and clingy and searching for a savior, and I was terrified of that need, I was terrified of losing my anger. I suffered from a separation anxiety so severe I thought the only way was not to get attached. I burned through relationships, sexual and platonic, and used nameless boys for alcohol and sex before I even understood what I was giving them with my body. Those who dared to want to know me I treated with abject cruelty. I rejected any offers of guidance by refusing to engage, or by blowing up whatever opportunity presented itself. My self-loathing was all I obliged. I lived in a perpetual state of chaos, a product of my own madness.
Years before I managed on my own to get into a university across the country and far enough away from Florida — a ridiculously expensive plane ride from my family, with a patchwork of student loans and part time jobs supporting me — I was determined to never go back. I ran from the past without thought to a future until the man I would marry forced me to stand still, feel the ground beneath my feet and exhale. My assumption of his happy childhood was correct. Yet my fury didn’t phase him. The louder I screamed the calmer he became, until my rage collapsed upon itself. The first time I experienced remorse for telling the lies that had become a part of my story, was to him. I figured he would never have to know the truth. He would be gone like everyone else as I slowly revealed my truths. But he stayed. Exposing myself to someone who had only known one kind of family, the security that comes with a secret love language I would never use, filled me with shame. But he showed me a steadfastness I hadn’t known existed, security without striking a bargain in exchange. He loved me. He believed I could save myself. Many years into our relationship, when our daughters were born, he was there for them. As infants, as toddlers, as teens, as the young women they are today, he has given them everything I ever imagined in a father. Our story together, and all I have become, begins with his looking beyond who I wanted him to see, with an unwavering belief he would discover who I really am.
And yet my inability to forgive, the fear of abandonment, the heaviness I carry, lingers still.
Even now, all these years later, this is not an easy topic for my 80year-old mother. I have worked at having a relationship without history, but sometimes it is too damn hard. She made choices that hurt me, and choices that she believed would save me. We are never going to agree on those. When I had children she and my stepfather moved to be near us, to be a part of their lives. This is the closest we have been geographically in decades and I expect we will remain this way until the end of her life. Some days I feel that more heavily than others. In this second act they are indulgent, loving, attentive, and I find myself embarrassingly envious of this version. Now that the girls are in their 20s my mother longs to turn back time. She misses being needed. She warns me that someday I, too, will be an afterthought and it treads close to those feelings I had as a child. I stay in the present no matter that garbage floats to the surface.
There was the time years before when our mutual hairdresser leaned over my shoulder, scissors poised near my cheek, and told me that my mother shared with her how horrible a man my father had been, and as she snipped, she repeated stories from my mother about him I had never heard before. When I could no longer bear to listen, I stood up from the chair, wrenched off the cape, pressed cash into her hand, and with my hair still wet left the salon. Perhaps we only tell our truth to strangers. Isn’t that what I am doing now? Isn’t that, through my writing, what I have been trying to do all my life?
My mother and I never spoke about this, and she continued to see that hairdresser for many years after. Whether she mentioned what happened between us I will never know, but I can still feel the weight of that day. Given my mother’s fallibility of memory, and her predilection to rewrite our history, I anticipated her reaction and couldn’t bear the burden of histrionics that would follow, so I let it go. Years later bring even more startling revelations that I don’t know what to do with, tossed out casually because there is much she never said, and no way to begin at the beginning. There are things I wished she never shared. How my paternal grandparents eventually found us in Florida, how for years they sent birthday and holiday cards, checks tucked inside, how my mother destroyed and disposed of them, afraid it would somehow lead my father to our doorstep. There had been a thread of hope after all and even now to this fatherless daughter, that deliberate destruction manifested a loneliness and despair that cut deep. My father’s rejection, and that of his family, had appeared casual and cruel, laying blame solely at my feet. That will always be a part of me. The discovery that they might have cared has no place in the narrative because now they hadn’t cared enough to keep trying.
The rise of genetic technology, the advent of Google, ancestry tests in every drugstore, a great big slurry of DNA, speaks to the part of me that needs to know more, and can do so without rousing suspicion. In the 21st century secrets are harder to keep. My father died in Fairfield County when he was 65. Another search mentions that there are arrest and court records for a fee. I cannot find an obituary. Was his family afraid if there was a public notice his other life might show up? Were they afraid of me? I cannot bring myself to pay the price that will allow access to the grittiest of details. I can see that he had children and a wife at the time of his death. So there is more than one half-sibling out there. And I wonder — did my father look at them with pride and love? Did he show up for them? Did he coach their teams and tie their shoelaces and search for monsters under their beds? Did he live long enough to see them married? Have children? Do we look alike? All of us?
Perhaps we only tell our truth to strangers. Isn’t that what I am doing now? Isn’t that, through my writing, what I have been trying to do all my life?
I’ve long had a recurring nightmare where my fingers fumble and slip and I am unable to operate the lock on my front door and some faceless man/monster forces their way in and I push back with everything I’ve got and still it is not enough to keep them out. You don’t have to be a genius to unpack that nightmare.
Most days I do push back against that door and succeed. The daylight hours are kinder to demons. Even though I bear my father’s name it is now just an initial, the twelfth letter of the alphabet, between my first name and my husband’s last name. And while I took my husband’s name when we married it was years before I officially changed my name to his with a government form. So now that initial is all that’s left, a place holder. It is not about honoring someone I never knew — more about erasing a part of me that seems so very relevant to who I have become.
If his other family, his chosen family, if they knew about me I suppose it would be easy enough to track me down. I have thought about that every time someone tells the story of their ancestry test. I devoured Dani Shapiro’s book, Inheritance, about the shocking discovery that her biological father had been a sperm donor. It’s so very different from my story, but in the end similar because it bears the burden of a secret. A secret her family took to the grave. She handled the revelations with strength and courage and grace, and even when the truth could have broken her, she expanded.
I simply cannot bring myself to do that. The man who can tell me why he left is no longer here to answer for himself. I don’t want to meet his wife, or my half siblings and hear how loving he was to his new family. In a lot of ways I am still that child who was left behind. I don’t want them to know my secret. I don’t want them to study my face for signs of their father, I don’t want to prove who I am. I don’t need pity. I don’t think I deserve that after all this time. Not today, anyway.
Of course the truth remains that they most likely don’t want to know me either.
Tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that I might change my mind.
For now I torture myself with searches for his older sister, my aunt, who is still alive and into her 80s. She lives not far from me, in a neighboring state. It would not take me more than a few hours to drive there. I have her address, and Google maps, much to my embarrassment, allowed me to see a lovely neighborhood with big trees, winding streets and a mix of ranch homes and colonials. I have also found her children, my cousins, only one of whom I remember meeting, and only because my mother had a photo of us by a Christmas tree. In it, my cousin and brother are toddlers, and I’m around five. I’ve thought that maybe I should copy this photo, enclose it in a letter to my aunt, soften the shock because all I want to know is why. I have yet to reconcile with myself whether my surprise appearance in her life would be welcome. I can only guess from her silence all these years now that it would not.
It is likely she would have no answers to my questions. I know that when my mother was hunting my father down for years of child support that he never paid, she found the courage to contact his sister. My aunt confided that he had used his power of attorney to gut their elderly parents’ of their home and savings. They died in a state-run nursing home before anyone could unravel what he had done, and her efforts to find him and hold him accountable went nowhere.
There is a swath of destruction in his wake that runs deep. There are no good answers. For months at a time I am able to leave this alone. My brother, who has no memory of him, is not at all curious. Even that half sibling, born months apart from him, is not enough to entice. Long ago he legally took the surname of our stepfather. His experiences are much different. He owes his namesake nothing. He doesn’t understand why I still want answers to something that to him seems obvious. Perhaps that is because physically, anyway, he looks like my mother, her brothers, her father, tall, with dark hair and eyes, classic Italians. My looks betray my Russian-German heritage, so different from all of them it caused my mother’s elderly relatives to make the sign of the cross, kiss their fingertips and touch them to the strands of gold crosses and Italian horns that they wore around their necks to ward off the evil eye when they saw me.
Even after all of this I want to know more. Wasting time online I put his name in the search bar to see if anything new pops up. I don’t understand the pathways of the internet. The acquisition of information old and new seems fluid. I searched for his sister, my aunt. She has a social media account. From everything I can piece together: location, mutual friends (my cousin, her daughter) I have found the right person. Her husband, my uncle, appears to be deceased. There is a new picture of her with a dog I haven’t seen before. She smiles impishly at the camera, a pink flush to her high cheeks, and grey blue eyes like mine behind wire rimmed glasses. I study it carefully, looking for my father, or me, in her face. I think there’s something in the almond shape of her eyes, the color of her hair, the definitive characteristics and lineage of Russian German Jews. I click on my cousin’s profile picture, her features ghost that of the childhood photo I have, her hair still blonde. She has her mother’s chin. I find her brother as well. He has dark hair, like his father, but his smile belongs to his mother.
If I were brave enough to write a letter I would tell them I wanted nothing. Just to connect. But that isn’t entirely the truth. They were a club to which I never belonged. My birth didn’t even guarantee entry. The little girl inside wants so much that I will never have. The need overwhelms me. The ache all these years later is embarrassing, alive and fresh. The knowledge that I do not have the luxury of time weighs heavy.
Most days I convince myself that I want nothing but the life I am living.
These are the lies of a bigamist’s daughter.
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Editor: Sari Botton