The phone on the kitchen wall rang again during dinner. My mother picked it up and said “oh, hi, Mike, hold on.” My sister and I burst out laughing, we howled like monkeys as our father took the receiver on it’s extra long curly cord and walked into the dining room. This had happened every night this week, exactly when we sat down for dinner. Mike Levine, our dad’s surrogate son, the first I can remember from that long succession of surrogate sons. Rather than scowl and curse the way he would have if my sister or I made some demand on him during dinner, he seemed to have infinite patience for this needy high school kid Mike Levine.
My father was the faculty adviser to the G.O., the general organization run by the students of Martin Van Buren High School. Mike Levine was an officer in the organization, as far as I can remember. Mike Levine is in his seventies by now, if he’s still alive, but that’s not the point. The point is the way some of us try to get things right with surrogates, people with a psychological resemblance to people from our early lives, instead of with the actual people in our lives it is most important to straighten things out with.
I went to law school with an insane fellow, a later in life law student like myself, who’d taken a Masters in Criminal Psychology or something. Drinking coffee in the shabby cafeteria, or on our commutes back from Newark, he gave me several insights over the time I knew him. One was the concept of ‘repetition compulsion’. People are doomed, by bad programming and early life trauma, to keep reliving the trauma in hopes of getting it right, blindly trying to resolve the underlying issue with surrogates without ever becoming meaningfully aware of what they are doing. It’s a hopeless cycle, which is why it’s called a compulsion.
I had a close friend for many years, perhaps the most unhappy and demanding person I’ve ever met. He was smart and adept at wheedling and eventually built a lucrative empire based on this talent for extracting the most from any situation. While building his empire he met a series of people he felt were amazing. There was a succession of such people, great, selfless, indescribably cool guys who were helping in ways he could never have imagined, amazing, remarkable people. That was the set-up to each identical three act drama.
Act two was odd behavior he couldn’t explain, the amazing person was acting differently, less amazing. There was some vague foreshadowing, what someone with my friend’s vocabulary might have called sinister adumbration. Act three was identically aggravating, 100% predictable, and had to be told in excruciating detail. Since I’d heard this same story many times I’d intervene here and ask: did he steal from you, curse you out, do something to sabotage your business or physically assault you?
My question would be met with a baleful look each time. He’d suck his teeth churlishly and look at me from under his eyebrows. “Will you let me tell the fucking story?” he’d say with the last of his patience. “Can I just finish the fucking story?”
I’d nod for him to continue, though I was sick of the endless variations on the same story. Turns out this guy threatened him, cursed him out and stole from him. Amazing, really. What a seamless string of bad luck my friend was having. Unexplainable, really.
When my father died this miserable friend called every hour, at the funeral, messages while I was on the plane, at 2 and 3 a.m.. This was toward the end of our friendship, when it was dawning on me how much like my father this implacably unhappy fellow was. When we finally spoke he was hurt and angry that I hadn’t picked up the phone, no matter how inconvenient it might have been for me. Didn’t I realize how important it was for him to console me, even if he had no real idea how to do this? Much like my dad would have done, he made the fault mine for the painful stalemate in which we now found ourselves.
His first question when I called to tell him my father had died was “did you let him have it? did you tell him what an asshole he was?” The question caught me like an elbow to the jaw. What the fuck? Did I what? No, actually, he was very repentant, he apologized for the first and last time in his life. He was the one who was dying, not me. What? What the fuck?
Thinking about it, I had images of his father’s death. The old man, a master of the parrot joke who had never seemingly appreciated the genius of his youngest son, died a long fearful death over the course of several years. At one point, not long before he went into a coma, he’d signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. This meant when his time came no heroic measures would be taken to bring him back. He was close to ninety at this time, and in the hospital.
My friend dutifully attended his zombie father, hoping against hope for some breakthrough, some recognition from the withholding old man that he was a good son. He bitterly described the many things he’d done for the old man in his hospital bed, suggesting it included wiping the comatose man’s ass and cleaning his balls. The old man remained ungrateful and uncommunicative.
Then one day he came out of his coma, called for the doctor, told him he was rescinding the DNR. “Doc,” he begged, “you have to do whatever medical science can do to save me! I don’t want to die!” The doctor agreed and the old man went back into a coma.
He came out again and my friend called to tell me the news. He was sitting by the bed and asked if I wanted to speak to him. I’d always liked Al and told my friend to put him on the phone. “He can’t really communicate, he’s pretty much out of it, but I’ll hold the phone up to his ear and you can talk to him, I’ll give you a couple of minutes.”
When he heard my voice Al became instantly excited . “Eliot!” he said, “so good to hear your voice. Oh, man, it’s great to hear from you!” I told him I was sorry to hear about his situation, he asked how I was doing, I gave him a short answer then he asked if I could come to see him.
“I’m in New York, Al,” I told him and explained that I had recently been to Florida and wouldn’t be back there for a while.
“Oh, that’s too bad. I probably won’t get to see you then…” he said, before telling again how great it was to hear my voice. The next voice I heard was my friend’s.
“You see what I mean?” he said, wearily.
What I did finally see was that in exhibiting patience and trying to be understanding toward this mercilessly unhappy, carping friend, I was trying to learn to deal with my mercilessly unhappy, carping father. I eventually saw the futility of this.
Our contentious friendship was a senseless and painful exercise, giving me nothing but more grief. My father was someone it was psychically important for me to reach an understanding with. This perpetually hurt and angry stranger I’d associated with for decades? A stand-in for my impossible father I could do nothing to help, and worse, who could do nothing to help me.
It would be a decade until I realized my father’s complicated and painful life could provide an organizing principle for understanding this ‘long malaise’ that has been my life.