So you’re a smart, good looking young woman who has modeled herself after her dominant father, but living in a world of aggressively sexist assholes. You can’t walk down the street in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s, without these assholes making wolfish comments, giving you the entitled, liplicking asshole looks that make your blood boil. What you need is a strong, loyal man by your side to kick anyone’s ass who tries this shit with you.
That much is not hard to understand. The requirements for this guy, aside from size and imposing physical strength, are similar to our father’s requirements for his mate: good looking, charming, smart, good sense of humor, devoted and ready to do whatever I say.
Then we face the law of unintended consequences. She found this man, a handsome, athletic giant, who told her he was separated from his wife when their whirlwind romance began. He would do anything for her, wanted to sweep her away to Arizona, start a new life in Tucson. She was a New Yorker with friends and a good job, not ready for this radical new start. He eventually got divorced and they eventually got married. He was good looking, smart, strong and devoted to making her happy. The unintended part, unseen, and once seen, rationalized: the guy was sometimes a bit of a compulsive liar and probably a gambling addict.
What did he lie about? His academic degrees, his former employment, money, why he lost his job, why he needed to borrow more money, why he couldn’t pay back the money he’d borrowed, why he came home with his clothes sliced to rags and his wallet and keys gone, why he lied about a previous lie, why taking that merchandise from his boss and selling it under the table wasn’t actually stealing, why shoplifting really isn’t stealing, why pretending to go to work every day for a year while taking cash advances on your dead father’s credit cards and handing them to your wife every week as your pay is really a victimless crime and so on.
Bottom line, he was bad with money. At one point he made an excellent living, selling a lucrative yet legal product, but he also spent lavishly, extravagant orders and generous tips at restaurants, many expensive gifts and then, bad news, after a couple of years of living large, a few years scraping by, he finally had to declare bankruptcy.
He did this a few days after borrowing ten thousand dollars from his father-in-law, the DU, for last minute expenses related to the upcoming closing on the dream house he and his wife were about to buy. A lovely home with a beautiful back yard, where their soon-to-be born son would grow up playing with his big sister. The guy was a practiced liar with the gift of looking disarmingly sincere, and vulnerable, when he lied. He borrowed the ten grand from the DU on Monday, waited for the check to clear. On Friday he told everyone he couldn’t repay the loan or buy the house, he’d declared bankruptcy earlier that week.
All of these details are humiliating to have set out in front of you, granted. The only other option is to dummy up about all of it, as he always pressured me to do, about things like his refusal to pay me back money I’d loaned him, back when I still spoke to him.
The vow of silence on sore subjects required to maintain a sociable relationship includes a big IXNAY on any mention of the death threat when his wife finally called him out about his psychopathic untruthfulness.
To be fair, the death threat was a one off. The wife flew into a long overdue rage that had been building for years, after the surprise bankruptcy that ended the charade of closing on the never to be attained dream home. He angrily shot back that he was going to lock her and the kids in the house (I think a bicycle lock and a piece of heavy machinery came into play in this threat to seal them inside– my nephew had been born by then, was a young baby) get in his car, drive the mile to his in-laws, murder both of them with their biggest kitchen knife, come home, kill the children and set the house on fire, burning himself and his wife to death.
In fairness to him, he never did any of this, although the graphically detailed threat got everybody’s attention for a while.
The little family was also teetering on the edge of bankruptcy number two and I offered to look over the family budget, see where they could make cuts to save money.
There was no family budget, no accounts or receipts except for ones showing the interest rates paid by poor people who buy luxury items, like a giant flat screen TV, on the predatory terms imposed in payment plans. I reacted badly to the obscene interest rates that doubled the price of the giant flat screen they were still paying for, years after buying it. I see now, thinking about it again, that it had to have been humiliating to be made to feel bad for just trying to live a decent life.
“You have to explain to your kids why you’re so angry at your husband, otherwise all they see is an irrationally angry mother always grim and stressed out, for no apparent reason,” I told my sister. She wasn’t ready to reveal any of this, assured me her kids had no idea that she was so angry at their father. I assured her that they were well aware of it.
For one thing, she’d been sleeping with her young son, in his bed, for several years, until the kid threw her out one night, old enough to point out the obvious and say “this is weird, mom.”
“They do know,” she told me one day, not long afterwards. She’d been at the kitchen sink and heard the kids out front talking to the neighbors’ kids. She’d heard them describe how much their dad loves their mom, but that their mom doesn’t love their dad.
I offered to be in the room when her husband explained to the kids why mommy had a right to be mad at daddy sometimes, as he’d promised her he’d do, at my urging. Daddy, it should be pointed out, was always playful, gentle and affectionate with the kids, their best friend. Mommy could be demanding, grim and dreaded if crossed, but daddy was a giant, humorous, always a loving pussy cat. He loved to cuddle
I was in Florida for two weeks and offered to help my sister inform the kids of some of the reasons she’d been angry at their loving dad. She agreed, but kept putting me off, in the end assuring me that he’d promised to talk to the kids with her, as soon as I left Florida. No warning I could have given her would have made any difference.
A week after I got back to New York my mother called me. “You’d better call your sister, I just heard from her, today was the day that R____ was going to tell the kids about his sordid past, it didn’t go well. She’s driving a hundred miles an hour on 95, I’m afraid she’s going to crash her car.”
My sister, who was indeed very upset, told me the story. Her husband started his mea culpa to the children by putting things in context for them. “You know how your mother has a hard time forgiving people sometimes? Well, years ago I made a little mistake…” and, as if proving his point about what an unforgiving monster their mother was, she exploded, raced out the door, gunned the engine and started speeding on the highway.
There are things in life you cannot fix, irreparably broken things you had no hand in breaking. No amount of nuance you can provide will change a black and white world view into a gradient where everyone strives for the best, with needed compromise along the way. In the world of someone who must win, and always be in control, everything must be viewed in terms of victory or defeat.
Defeat is the most humiliating thing in the win/lose world and the fierce competitor will do anything necessary to avoid the shame of losing. You can continue to love people, you can be willing to compromise, do your best to be supportive, understanding, accepting — bear in mind, none of this shit will help you when you are trying it with someone in conflict who can never be on the losing end of anything.
Mistakes. These wrong things you accuse me of doing are simple human mistakes, when I make them. When you do bad things, you evil fuck, well, you are completely in the wrong. But my mistakes are merely the mistakes of an imperfect person with no hurtful intention behind them, you merciless, hypocrite fuck.
Get into a wrestling match with an alligator and you get what you get, sucka.
After my mother’s funeral in 2010 we were standing on Mott Street in Chinatown, on a sweltering, humid NYC evening. Me, Sekhnet, my sister and my niece, sucking on cold bubble teas in the elbow of Mott Street. My niece was about twenty at the time. We were exchanging stories about this high strung woman, the older sister of the high school friend at whose house my sister and niece were staying. The woman, a doctor, really was a bit of a cartoon character, a female Yosemite Sam. I listened to a few funny stories and told about the one time I met her.
Her brother and I had arranged to meet at a Queens restaurant he’d been raving about, his brother and sister would be there with him. I sent him an email saying I was unlikely to be done with work in time to join them at the appointed hour, but that they should have appetizers and I’d hop on a train and be there as soon as I could. I got there about thirty minutes after the appointed time. They were sitting in a car in front of the restaurant, which was closed. This was before the age when everyone had a smart phone in their pocket, and besides, I’d been on the subway for the previous half hour. A woman stuck her head out of the front passenger seat and angrily told me that I was an inconsiderate fucking asshole. I said “nice to meet you, Ellen”.
“But if you really want to hear stories about her, ask your father,” I said to my beautiful, smiling niece “he knows her best of all, they were married.”
My sister made a desperate throat slash/ixnay IXNAY!!! gesture behind her confused daughter’s back. I had no idea the father’s previous marriage and divorce was a deeply guarded family secret. My niece opened her eyes wide and looked from me to her mother, back to me, back to her mother, totally confused.
“Mom, what?! Was dad really married to her?”
My sister assured her that dad had never been married to anyone but her. I stood in the street, at a loss for words. I should have not been at a loss for words, and I rarely am, I must not have been ready for nuclear war with my sister at that moment. She’d already nuked one of my major cities, true, by insisting that Uncle Elie was either crazy or a liar, or both, but I stood in the street, not ready to launch my counterattack. I don’t operate that way, blasting first and cleaning up afterwards, for all of my skill at disemboweling desperate enemies with my sharp tongue.
As soon as I was alone with my sister I told her she had to straighten things out with my niece. She had hammered an intolerable wedge between me and the niece I loved. My niece now had to consider if her uncle was insane or just a compulsive liar who couldn’t help himself from spewing whatever gibberish came into his head. My sister told me she understood, and she’d talk to her daughter, explain everything.
Of course, there were a lot of conditions placed on that talk — both kids had to be informed at the same time (what this had to do with my nephew, who wasn’t there, was never explained) and they had to be informed at a time when their father wasn’t there, which he always was. It would be tricky, she told me, but she’d do it as soon as possible.
I know what you must be thinking, dear reader, now that I’ve set out this story for you with the full illumination of hindsight. “You know how your uncle is sometimes really angry and unable to forgive people who didn’t actually do anything to him?”
A year later, the next time we saw each other, my sister told me that she’d tried to keep her promise, but that the time had never been right to tell the kids what she’d promised to tell them, without their father there. Seriously, though, looking at it in the context of the rest of this, how did I not yet understand the world my sister lived in? I wasn’t ready to let her and her children go, couldn’t admit to myself that they were probably already gone.
When our father was dying, during the last night of his life, I asked him to record a little message for his daughter, in the event that they didn’t get a chance to speak before the end. He hesitated for a long time, and everything he said afterwards applied to himself as much as to his daughter.
Except that, naturally, he started off by saying he could never understand how she could stay with that colossal asshole after all the times he’d betrayed and lied to her. I told him that his views on the subject were well known to everyone, but that perhaps he had something of a more helpful nature he wanted to say to her, before time ran out. He had a very hard time formulating anything I could play for her.
“No matter how much you praise her, it makes no difference, her need for affirmation is a bottomless pit,” said the brilliant man who’d insisted, moments earlier, that he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill — “by far!”.
“I must I must have told her a hundred times what a phenomenally talented teacher she was, but it never made the slightest impression on her. It’s like a bottomless hole that can’t be filled.” said my father, a bottomless hole that couldn’t be filled, on the last night of his life.
“A hundred times?,” I said, not able to let that bit of dishonest hyperbole go, not in our last conversation.
“Easily a hundred,” he said. It was probably once, perhaps it was even twice, whatever it was it wasn’t a hundred fucking times. I let it go, aware that I was in his temple, the room he was dying in.
“His life was shame-based,” my sister said after he died. “His whole life was an attempt to avoid feeling unbearable shame.”
Set and match, if you pattern yourself after someone you admire, in spite of the tremendous damage he did.
I went into a fury when my sister told me she hadn’t had a chance to set her daughter straight, claiming that since it was already a year ago that the kid probably had no memory of it anyway. When I blew up, my sister burst into tears. She sobbed like a little kid, I’ve never seen an adult cry that way. She stood on the street, bawling and shuddering for a long time. Then she promised again that she’d tell her kids that she’d lied, that their uncle hadn’t been crazy or lying when he casually mentioned an objective, taboo fact.
“Hi, Uncle Elie,” my niece said over the phone a week or two later. “My mom wanted me to call to tell you that she told us that our dad was married and divorced before my parents got married.”
“Did she tell you why I needed her to tell you this?”
“No, we were both kind of confused about why it was so important to you…” she said.
“A hundred million people have been divorced, people get divorced all the time. Why would I give a shit about you knowing that your father had been divorced?” I said.
“We were wondering the same thing,” she said.
I told her the story. She’d forgotten all about it, just as her mom had predicted. When I finished the story she said “now I understand why you were so upset.”
That may have been the last time I spoke on the phone with my smart, beautiful niece. Ten years later, after periodic texts exchanged, with many heart emojis, I finally set out to write the impossible letter, to her and her brother.