Last week on “Backstory”: We learned of Mia and her mother, Esther, and her now-ex-husband, Stuart. Mia was 9 at the beginning of that installment; she is now in college. Esther has gone through a number of live-in boyfriends, and Stuart wanders aimlessly, like a spinning, wobbling top.
Mia tossed off layers of comforters from her bed. She was surrounded by laundry on the floor. It was late in the afternoon, and she had missed all her classes.
It was grad school and she rented an old house with three other women. It was on a steep hill in Morgantown.
She hadn’t gone to class the day before, either. Or the day before that.
It had been three days since she’d eaten breakfast, and she’d had only one lunch in that time. There were a half-dozen empty bags of Fritos on the floor with the laundry and six half-empty Coke cans on the nighttable, looking like organ pipes at the varied heights they sat on varied piles of books.
Mia went down the hall to the bathroom, peed, flushed, brushed her hair back from her eyes and walked back to her room.
Esther now lived in Oregon with a chemical engineer. They were engaged and living in a house on the outskirts of Portland, up the hill from the river.
As far as Dan goes, no one had heard from him in at least seven years. Not that Esther ever gave him any thought.
So she was nonplussed when he called her one afternoon.
“It wasn’t easy finding you. I asked Bob and he didn’t know where you were, but he knew where Wayne was, and Wayne told me you were in Portland.”
“What do you want, Dan?” Esther wasn’t feeling like old home week.
“Why do you want to know?”
Dan was embarrassed to say why. He had reached the age when he began feeling regrets over his life, over the things he had done or left undone, over the sense he had of himself as having been an idiot when he was young. This is not an uncommon feeling among men of a certain age.
It is an unfortunate side effect of this exaggerated self awareness, that such men often want to reconnect with the fragments they have left behind. They want to apologize to former wives, to put estranged children in their wills, to find old college roommates and ask, “How are you doing? How did your life turn out?”
Dan wanted to find Mia and make her a part of his life, so he wouldn’t feel so guilty — although, the sense of guilt is not a response to a single act, but a recognition of the whole of our lives. We are all guilty.
He wouldn’t have put it that way. He just said, “I want to make amends.”
Esther, having created a new life in Portland — yet another new life in a biography that was all first chapters — didn’t feel like being a participant in the play Dan was writing — or rewriting.
It is odd that we who feel like we are the heroes in our own stories should feel so insulted to discover we are also supporting players in some other person’s drama. It is an unflattering demotion when we imagine our name on top of the bill, before the title.
“I don’t know if she wants to talk to you, you know.”
She reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a notepad.
“Give me your number and I’ll ask her to call you if she wants.”
“Is that the best you can do?”
“What do you want from me?” she asked.
“That was a long time ago.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Poughkeepsie at the old house.”
Dan arrived the following week. He drove from New York to West Virginia without stopping and he had just begun hallucinating behind the wheel when he pulled into Morgantown.
He showed up in a brown suit. It didn’t fit especially well and was baggy around the shoulders. His tie wasn’t straight and his shoes had no shine.
“Hello,” he said. His voice had no shine, either.
“Come on in,” Mia said. She had cleaned up the apartment, at least a little.
She didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.
For the longest time, neither did he.
“How are you doing?” It sounded like ordinary conversation, but under it there was a desperate need to be asked the same question in return.
“I’m doing fine,” Mia answered. She didn’t ask the question.
“How’s your life? Are you finished school? Do you have a boyfriend?”
Help me out here, he was thinking.
“Is your life happy?” He wanted, in some way, to be let off the hook.
“What do you want?,” Mia asked bluntly.
“I don’t want anything. I want to know how you are. I need to know you are OK. I need you to … I don’t know what I want,” he said.
She could see his eyes were coated with fluid, not enough to break the dam of the lower lids, but enough to make them thick. She began to sense that something was wrong. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what.
“What’s wrong?,” she asked anyway.
He started, his head jerked up and he looked at her.
“Why are you here?,” she repeated. This was difficult for her. She wasn’t sure how she felt about him, whether she should ignore him because he had ignored her, or if she should hate him, or if she should forgive him, or if she should feel sorry for him.
“I’m divorced again,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, pro forma.
“No, that was a while ago. Two years ago. I’m alone now. It’s OK.
“No, it’s not OK,” he continued. “Or maybe it is. I don’t know.”
Mia sat silent.
“I just wanted to see if you were OK,” he said.
It went on like this: Dan hoping Mia would understand without him having to spell it out; Mia seeing that Dan was seriously depressed, but not wanting to have to do anything about it. Not knowing what she could do about it, even if she had wanted to.
He told her about his job, about Poughkeepsie, he recalled what it was like when Esther was pregnant.
Mia said very little. It was altogether an unsatisfactory visit, from both standpoints.
Dan left the house bit by bit, clumsily, turning around every few steps to look back and finally stepping out the door. He got in his Datsun and drove off. Mia felt relieved and ashamed.
“Mom, hi, I just had a visit from dad.” The word caught in her throat. Was it the right word?
“I don’t know,” Mia said. “I’m not sure what he wanted. He was certainly depressed. He looked kind of shabby.”
“I think he wanted to be forgiven,” Esther said. “I think he needs to know you don’t hold anything against him.”
“Well, he didn’t earn any forgiveness,” she said. “But I don’t feel angry at him, either. In fact, I hardly feel anything about him. He left me 20 years ago; I can’t work up either love or hate. And I feel guilty for my indifference.”
“No matter what else,” Esther told her, “he’s still family.”
I suppose it’s time to drop the pretense. Because I’m writing this to try to understand, to work it out to see how it can possibly make sense.
I was happiest when my mom was married to Stuart, but I don’t think she was. In fact, I’m not sure when she was ever happy.
Not that she ever seemed miserable. Neutral more than that.
By the time I left for college, Stuart and mom hardly saw each other anymore. Mom didn’t have a steady then, although she still met men now and then. They just didn’t move in.
I saw Stuart whenever I could, or he could. He continued to move around. He wasn’t always easy to keep track of. But then, he’d send a letter, or a postcard, and I could write him again. Sometimes, he took his vacations to spend with me. He did that spring.
The college was small. Cozy. It didn’t offer much in the way of challenge or ambition. I went there because I liked its name. That’s my mother in me.
“You’re taking Greek?”
“Yeah, you got a problem with that?”
“No, I think that’s great. But it won’t get you a job at the U.N.”
“You worried about my getting a job? Besides, you took Greek.”
“And I’m not working at the U.N.”
“What are you doing?”
“How’s your mom?”
“She’s fine. She sends me money.”
“Got a significant?”
“I’m not sure I see the percentage.”
“There is no percentage. That’s the beauty of it.”
“Besides, all great love dies, remember.”
Stuart bounced a bit, had a few beers, told me dirty, funny stories about his latest lady friends. Told me about Montana, about the Florida panhandle, about the Lincoln Tunnel.
Let’s put the pretense back in place.
No one believes how much chromosomes matter. No one understands how they can look at their parents and see as if they were a telescope into time, magnifying exactly what we will become. It was fall and the lawn was a carpet of dead leaves.
“I need to talk to you,” Mia said.
“Talk,” said Stuart with the phone in one ear. He turned down the TV.
“No, in person.”
“Where are you?” Stuart asked.
“I’m still in Morgantown.”
He bought his ticket and got on the Trailways bus with about 25 others, leaving the cruiser only a little more than half full. He got a window seat and rested his knapsack on the floor in front of the seat next to him.
Babies cried, old men snored. The smell was tight: years of bodies resting in tired upholstery, mixed with the petroleum odor of bus exhaust. By nightfall, they were in West Virginia heading north, stopping every few hours at a roadside gas station serving as a bus depot. Someone would get on. A soldier in uniform with his duffel stowed under the bus, or a young black woman with two children and no luggage at all.
The lights passed the window. It rained briefly, leaving beads of prisms on the window. The grind of bus gears and the hiss of tires blended with the roar of a semi passing them. It lulled Stuart to sleep.
Just after dawn, they pulled into Morgantown. Stuart stopped at a Denny’s and had some breakfast, then called a cab.
“It’s too early for white folks to be up,” he said when Mia opened the door.
“Stuart.” That’s all she said, in a low voice, then just stood there.
“This place is a mess,” Stuart said in his best imitation parental voice.
Mia laughed, then stopped.
“Come in,” she said.
The laundry still piled on the floor. KFC buckets and pizza boxes stacked on the mantel over the empty, sooty fireplace.
“I talked to Dan. He came down from New York. I don’t know why.”
“He’s your father.”
“He was my father.”
She had always thought of him rather as her spawner. A salmon spraying milt and then skedaddling. Yet, she felt woozy in her conscience. Dan might well be a stranger off the street, for all she felt connected to him. But he was her father. It was an odd pull in her insides, yanked two ways.
We all, at one time or another in our lives face the realization that the model we have created of the world is insufficient, that there are aspects of life that simply fail to operate according to our schema. We can live for years without ever confronting this disjunction, and then, one day, we are dumped into the thick of it. Pacifists learn that war cannot be outlawed. Animal rights activists learn that lions have to eat lambs. Rugged individualists learn they need help dealing with divorce. Right-wing talk radio talk show hosts learn addiction is not a matter of moral character.
And Mia was learning that she was attached through some psychic airwaves to this stranger that had once married her mother. It nearly split her brain apart.
“You’re in a tough spot,” Stuart said. “You need a drink.” He knew Mia never touched the stuff.
“I don’t need a drink,” she said. “I need moral support. That’s why I called you.”
Stuart ate a hamburger.
Sitting at a dreary old A&W in West Virginia, he drank the root beer and chewed on the burger. It was gray in the sky, like it usually was in October, and he wondered where Mia was.
They had agreed to meet for lunch, but it was now half-past two and she hadn’t shown up.
A homeless man walked down the hill in front of the burger stand, calling out, “Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches.”
His grimy tweed overcoat was worn through at the elbows, his trousers barely reached the tops of his ankles and he wore no socks.
“Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches.”
It was a chant, a litany. He barely stopped to breathe in; the accents punched in “GODdamn SONS of BITches.”
Over and over. The rhythm was just a little off, like he was singing music, rather than expressing a thought.
When he passed another pedestrian, he doffed his oily fedora with one hand and held out his other palm up. No money was forthcoming, and he didn’t waste time waiting. The hat went back on, the palm came back down.
“Goddamn sons of bitches.”
The sun was going down. He could see the Kanawha River at the bottom of the hill, the black ribs of a steel girder bridge going over it, filled with traffic. Hardly anything drove by on the street in front of him.
“Goddamn sons of bitches,” he could hear faintly from down the street at the corner. “Goddamn sons of bitches…” He could barely hear it anymore.
Stuart put down the last bites of his cold burger and walked after the bum, though he couldn’t even see him anymore down the street between the houses where it was now dark enough and gray enough to obscure any detail.
We should consider here what Stuart’s feelings were to Mia. After all, they were not blood relations. Stuart was a one-time stepfather who hadn’t lived with Mia’s mother for more than 15 years, although it is hard to measure the time, since there was no pointable moment when Stuart finally left: He just kept coming back less frequently until he didn’t come back.
Mia felt closer to him than to any of her mother’s mates. She grew up with Stuart in the house. And Stuart paid her more attention than any of the others.
And Stuart felt closer to Mia than to anyone else, at least felt it more consistently and with less mutability than he maintained even for the grown women in his life.
But, the question is raised: Why this was so.
These things are never as simple as they are in books and short stories: Stuart liked Mia because she thought he was funny. Not everyone did.
And Mia was Esther’s daughter, and although Esther’s affections had turned elsewhere, like a top spinning, it seemed for Stuart that Esther had been “the one.”
He didn’t, of course, believe in such things as “the one.”
“It’s all just hormones,” he said. “A certain integration of the pheromones and one male, standard issue, discovers he needs to rub skin with one female, standard issue. There is no mystery. It is nature’s way of making sure human beings live long enough to provide the springboard for the next step of evolution.”
Then, he was usually off on some tangent about how dumb it was for humans to think they were the final achievement of DNA. How we were just one more line-stop on the great commuter train headed to the eventual cooling down of the universe, when it would all just seize up, like a rusty engine.
Yet, when he was married to Esther, he assumed this was the final dock for his pheromonal freighter. He would have been content to stay with Esther — well if not forever, at least indefinitely.
And when she careered off in another direction, Mia was a souvenir, a “scented remembrancer” of his time with Esther.
But it was more than that.
Let’s face it, Stuart was not the most stable of men. He lived by writing, when he could sell a piece, sometimes got Manpower jobs, and sometimes took work in factories or offices for a while and often didn’t even have a home he could call a mailing address.
This was not some strategy of his. It was not a plan to be unattached. It was simply that he was unable to live any other way. He didn’t know how.
And although it looked to some as if Stuart were playing at being a bohemian, Stuart would just as soon have a wife and kids, and a steady job with a retirement plan. It wasn’t in the stars.
Mia was the icon of his unattainable normality.
Not that he would have put it that way. He didn’t fully grasp this fact himself. He only drifted.
Mia was the only secure anchor in his life. She was the vestige of his time with Esther. She was his audience.
And, perhaps now the strongest thing: Mia depended on Stuart.
Past the idealism of youth, and once the belief in erotic destiny has evaporated, and after the second or third divorce, what is left is the bond of dependence: When someone needs you, if you are a true mensch, you respond.
This is not the pop psychology “co-dependence,” but a recognition that as individuals, we are mere narcissists. When someone needs us, we break that prison: Compassion is liberating.
And, if he didn’t recognize the fact consciously, Stuart nevertheless felt its effects. To be needed is to be truly human. There is a hidden gratitude in compassion.
There were other things. Irrational as it was, Stuart felt proud of Mia and felt like showing her off as if he had something to do with it. As if he really were her father.
He liked it when his friends recognized her intelligence and wit. He liked it when they asked after her some time later: “And how’s Mia doing?”
On top of it all, he simply liked who Mia had become. If they hadn’t had any history together, and he had just met her, he would still have enjoyed her company.
“I’m not sure I know why we have families,” Mia said. “Can you find any excuse in existence for them?”
“I don’t know,” Stuart said. His own experience with family was not illuminating.
“What I do know,” he said, “is that for me — and I think this is true for my generation — family seemed kind of irrelevant. I know when I was a kid, I never wanted to spend time with relatives. They were boring.
“What I had instead were friends. You don’t choose your family, so you’re stuck with the luck of the draw. You do choose your friends. So, when Thanksgiving comes around, I want to spend it with those near and dear to me, in other words, my friends, and not my family.”
“But aren’t you close to your brothers?”
“Well, I’m close to Bernie, but I chose him as a friend, I didn’t merely inherit him as a relative.”
“So,” she said, “friends are a substitute for family?”
“I don’t really think of it that way. Not a substitute; friends are my family. And I’ve talked to many of my friends about this, and they feel the same way. It isn’t that we don’t like our parents, but rather that our parents did what they were supposed to do: They didn’t choose us, either. Oh, they chose to have us…”
He thought for a moment. “I guess,” he said.
“But whether they chose to have children or we came by accident, they didn’t choose to have the particular kids they did have. We came as strangers to their house, and pretty much, when we grew up, we left as strangers.”
Mia thought about this. It bothered her.
“Then, how come everyone seems to think family is so damn important?” she asked. She was thinking of political speeches, lauding family; Biblical injunctions; she was thinking of all the literature she had read, family epics, family tragedies, family comedies. Homeric or Faulknerian. It was as if she were missing something.
“I’m not sure, but I think that in the past, and I mean centuries ago, maybe eons, people didn’t travel as much, didn’t meet as many people, and in more tribal times, clan and family gave you something you felt you could trust — despite the evidence of all those family epics you mention, whether Homeric or Faulknerian. Nowadays, we go off to university, meet many more people and community is formed around shared interests rather than shared blood.”
Mia thought, but she was not satisfied with this theory.
“You create a family when you marry.”
“Well, I’ve had …” and here he stopped to count, his eyes turned upward and this tongue between his lips … “lemme see, seven wives, official and unofficial, no, eight, if you count Helen, although she never actually moved in, and either I left them or they left me. Mostly, they left me.
“But the family you create is akin to the friends you make: It’s voluntary. At least in our culture, you get to choose your wife. If you do it right, your wife is your friend. Further, and this is an important point: Your wife or your husband is the only family member you actually want to have sex with, or at least that you are allowed by custom or law to have sex with. That makes a spouse an anomaly in family relations.
“This voluntary relationship — the ‘elective affinity’ — is essentially different from what you have with your cousins or your older brother. Any relationship there is purely accident. The lottery numbers pop up one by one, but you cannot predict any of them.”
“That may be,” Mia said, “but when you get married, whether your wife is your friend or not, you have kids and you love your kids and want to give them preferential treatment in a hard and harsh world. They may be accidents, in terms of personality and how you interact with them, and even if they are teenagers and don’t want to be seen with you in public, you still love them in a way you cannot love even your best friends.”
“Well,” said Stuart sheepishly, “I haven’t got any kids, so I wouldn’t know.”
He felt sheepish at this answer, for obvious reasons.
“But you have nephews,” Mia said. “Do you love them?”
“I guess so, but that doesn’t mean I want to have them over for Thanksgiving.”
“Pairs,” said Stuart.
“We do everything in pairs: good and evil; black and white; male and female; up and down.”
“But it’s only a verbal habit.”
“What do you mean?” Mia put down her sandwich. The restaurant was dark, even in midday — as dark as a bar. And you could hear the ding-ding-ding of a pinball machine in the next room.
“Our sense of this is so strong, that we actually think of a number of casual pairs as opposites. At least we did when we were kids. Vanilla and chocolate. Salt and pepper.”
“Mom and dad. Let’s not forget my favorite pair.”
“It is the tenet of many of those Eastern philosophies that the dualities are merely illusion. And some Western philosophers have recognized that most, if not all opposites we commonly accept are merely linguistic tricks.”
“Hot and cold are tricks?” asked Mia.
“One end of the cigar is lit, the other end is where we draw smoke. We call the two ends opposites, but there is only one cigar.”
“OK, I’m with you so far.”
“Pairs, dualities, opposites. They are the natural pathways through the neurons of our brains. the binary system of computers, the underpinnings of our mythologies and our religions.
“But then, there is the ‘third thing.’”
“The ‘third thing?’,” I haven’t heard of that one,” said Mia.
“Yes. As the pairs of opposites arise from the void, they are often accompanied by a third thing, lesser and not thought of as participating in the dualities, but naturally occurring with them nevertheless.
“So that, if we think of General Motors and Ford as being in opposition, Chrysler sits next to them as the ‘third thing.’
“Are you serious?”
“Oh, yes. When we oppose Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as almost all boys did when I was a kid watching them on black and white TV — you never saw black and white TV did you?”
“Yes, I’m not that old, but you and Mama had one in that first house on Mulberry Street. Twelve-inch, I think, and aluminum foil on the rabbit ears.”
“Well, back when I was a kid, you were either a Gene boy or a Roy boy. They were opposites. Autry and Rogers. Except that there was Hopalong Cassidy. The third thing.
“Even with vanilla and chocolate: You cannot make a Neapolitan without the third thing– strawberry.
“Or salt and pepper. There’s the sugar bowl, too. The third thing.
“The pairs must feel like they are complete in themselves, and then the third thing must appear as naturally as a baby nine months after a wedding.
“The third thing must have a ‘bingo!’ feeling when you think of it.
“Like when you oppose Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and then, bingo, you remember Harold Lloyd.”
“Aha!,” said Mia. “Like red wine and white wine, and then, bingo: rose.”
“Yes,” Stuart said. “Of course this is just a game. A word game. Don’t take it too seriously. It is not profound. Just a trick of the mind, or of the language.”
“But there are things that don’t have a third thing,” Mia said. “There are hamburgers and hot dogs, but what is the single third thing? Pizza? Tacos? There are too many contenders.”
“That’s true. The game is to find your own pairs of opposites and then wait for the third thing to pop into your mind.”
“Frankenstein; Dracula … and the Wolfman,” suggested Mia.
“Bingo. Freud; Jung…”
“Adler. Now I have one: Marilyn Monroe; Jayne Mansfield …”
“And Mamie van Doren.”
“You’re too young. But take my word for it. Mamie was the third thing.”
“The sun; the moon and the stars.”
“The good, the bad and the ugly.”
“Red meat; white meat; fish.”
“Plato; Aristotle; Heraclitus.”
“Lions, tigers and bears.”
“Hammett, Chandler and Spillane.”
“Esther and Stuart,” Mia said, “… and Dan.”
Or is it the other way around?
It was one in the morning. It was November. It was raining ice cubes. Mia sat in front of the television watching a history show on PBS. She hadn’t really chosen it, but when she turned the set on, she saw Russia. Hitler was invading.
The black and white pictures show frozen dead bodies in Leningrad. Nearly a million dead in 900 days. They shoveled snow and ice away and found stiff, twisted bodies their cheeks sucked in, their blank eyes with lids pulled over them like shrouds, their mouths tiny black round lipless “O’s.” Trucks brought supplies in over a frozen lake; in the spring, the trucks sloshed through meltwater on the thinning ice. Bombs fell and buildings splashed like dust. Women with scarves on their heads wept into handkerchiefs. One sat in the street trying to lift up a man in an overcoat; he didn’t bend at the waist: He was frozen. He must have been her husband.
It was Russia, Mia realized. It was the past. She cried like a baby.
To be continued