I wrote this essay over 20 years ago and it was published in a collection entitled, Personals: Dreams and Nightmares from the Lives of 20 Young Writers. Today I’m struck by how much my sense of myself and my power in the world was drawn from my father. Even the writing style of this essay is an homage to his style as a writer. Because he was a little bit famous in the world as the chief book critic for The New York Times for many years and infamous in my own world for being an arbiter of taste, it makes sense that even years after his death, I was still seeking his approval in some way. But I’d tell my younger self now that while having a strong father figure to react against was instructive and helpful, I would find more confidence and power when I learned to listen to myself. Of course, letting go of his hold on me was another kind of loss, even as it allowed me to really know myself for the first time.
There is a particular type of older man I like. He must be at least twenty years my senior, preferably thirty years or more. Old enough to be my father, it’s fair to say. This man is handsome, stylish, a connoisseur of women, intelligent, cultured and witty, old-fashioned and romantic. He has male friends whom he loves as brothers. He knows how to dance the old dances: the lindy, the cha-cha, the samba, even the tango. He’s vain about his appearance and is unabashedly delighted any time I tell him he is looking trim or healthy or particularly handsome. When I compliment his fedora, he tilts it to an even more jaunty angle. He reads the romantic poets and can quote their lines in a way that doesn’t sound corny. He has fought in wars, has traveled a good bit of the world and has a reputation of being a ladies’ man in his day. He tells me stories about girls he knew overseas: geishas and lonely nurses. He notices what I am wearing; he notices if I have changed my hairstyle or done my makeup in a new way. Each time I see him, he tells me I’ve never looked better. Our conversation is playful, mischievous, saucy. He sometimes makes pronouncements about women that make me blush and often also make me angry—things I would object to from a man my own age. Many of the traits in my favorite type of older man I would find foolish, affected, or tiresome in a younger man, but with you, old sport, I am always charmed.
Our relationship is not intimate, though our conversations often are. I tell this older man about whom I am dating and make not-so-subtle innuendos about my sex life: this one didn’t understand that conversation is a necessary part of seduction, that one had the eagerness of a boy and a boy’s lack of self-control; another one clutched his machismo between the sheets like a security blanket. We both shake our heads and mourn the shortage of decent young men out there these days. We both secretly believe that my charms belong to another era, a better and more refined world, his world. In his day, no doubt, I would have been a smash. At least this is my fantasy of what he is thinking.
Where do I meet these men? Mostly they are my father’s friends. And since he died six years ago at the age of seventy, I have been transfigured from being my father’s daughter into a young woman friend of these men in my own right.
Vincent, the oldest of my father’s friends, lives in Greenwich Village, still carrying on the same sort of life he and my father led when they were young there together. There is Davey, the youngest of my father’s friends, who over the years was his summer playmate for touch football and volleyball and beach paddle and who is now a father himself. Mike was the closest to my dad, serving as his primary reader during his long career as a writer and book critic. When Mike and I talk on the phone, he seems to miss my dad as much as I do. Finally there is Ernest, my father’s most contentious friend. My dad used to say that he had to befriend Ernest, otherwise Ernest wouldn’t have any friends at all, although I think he secretly took pride in being able to tolerate his pal’s notorious crankiness.
Though the ages of these men span more than twenty-five years and they come from a variety of backgrounds, I think of them as natives of a singular world, a world belonging to the past and a particular place: Greenwich Village, where my father’s friendships with these men—if not actually born there—were consummated. Like any world, it has its own language and culture. There is a hip, playful rhythm to the conversation and an angle of the observations that makes everything appear stylized, either heroically or calamitously. In this world, folks don’t walk, they swagger; they don’t talk, they declaim. Women are crazy, beautiful, impeccably bred, tragic. They are rarely boring. No one had much money, but happiness, as my father liked to say, could be bought cheaply. A man’s status is determined by his wit and intelligence and, most of all, his successes with women. A woman’s status is a product of her beauty and her novelty, not a fresh kind of novelty because that would imply innocence—and you couldn’t have too much innocence if you were with this crowd—but the kind of novelty that places you on the cutting edge of things. To be described as modern is a high compliment.
Of course, nostalgia has smoothed out these memories to make them uniform and sweet, and the world that I know from my father’s stories is pristinely preserved in my mind as though it were contained in one of those little glass spheres that fills with snow when you shake it. I imagine, though, that by stepping in I can unsettle this scene with my presence and make it come back to life; then I will find a world that is more cozy than the one I live in, a world that is as reassuring and familiar as those winter idylls captured under glass.
Vincent has lived in the same apartment on Perry Street for over forty years, and as I walk up the five flights to visit him, the years slip away behind me. Everyone lived in four-and five-floor walk-ups in the old days, Vincent has told me. All cold-water flats.
“Your father and I once went to a party at Anaïs Nin’s, and I rang the bell and flew up the five flights as fast I could. Your dad had briefed me that Anaïs gauged her lovers’ stamina and virility by how long it took them to reach her floor without puffing.”
This is a story I heard from my father, though many of the stories Vincent tells me about the old days I have not. Those are the ones I have come to hear.
Vincent’s apartment is decorated with things collected from his years traveling the world as a cruise director on ships. Geometric Moroccan tiles and bits of Persian carpet and copper-colored patches of stucco cover every inch of the walls. Through a beaded curtain is his bedroom, where tapestries form a canopy over a daybed heaped with Turkish pillows. The tub located in the entrance hall is concealed by day with a sort of shiny green lamina which, when you gaze upon it, is reminiscent of an ancient Roman bath. Also off the entrance hall is the toilet, concealed only with a thin strip of fabric. Once, after I’d used it, Vincent asked me if I noticed how the base was loose. I hadn’t.
“Well, it’s been like that for almost forty years,” he explained. “Once I loaned the apartment to your dad so he could take a girl he’d met somewhere private. Afterward, the toilet was a little rocky. I asked him what the hell he was doing in there, and he told me they were taking in the view.” Vincent took me back into the bathroom and pointed out the Empire State Building, barely visible between two other buildings. “I won’t have the toilet fixed,” he said, “because I love being reminded of that story.” I headed down the stairs with Vincent’s laughter trailing behind me.
Should a daughter know such things about her father? Should she have an image of him that she must rush past, one that is a little too vivid and too private to be promptly forgotten? It is easy to become embarrassed by such stories, to let my own paternal memories sweep them under some psychic rug, but my father’s past is like a magnet I can’t pull myself away from. This is my history too, I argue to myself. I’ve had my own sexual adventures, my own versions of making love on a shaky toilet, an aspect of my life that I have been sure to share with my father’s friends. I have paraded a host of boyfriends past them, have brought along young men to their apartments, or out to dinner, or for an evening of dancing. When the fellow gets up to fetch another round of drinks, I might lean back in my chair and watch him walk off.
“So,” I’ll say offhandedly, “I’m not sure I’m going to keep this one. He’s bright and successful too, but maybe not quite sexy enough.”
“You are your father’s daughter,” the man answers, laughing, which is just what I’d hoped to hear.
Of course, with my own contemporaries I am never so cavalier. I have argued on behalf of honesty and respect in relationships. I have claimed to believe in true love. I will even admit that I am looking for my own version of a soulmate (although I can confess to this only in an ironic tone of voice, all too aware of its sentimental implications). Nevertheless, this desire runs in me alongside a desire for a successful writing career, children, and a house in the country with dogs and flower beds and weekend guests visiting from the city—a lot like the kind of life my father left New York to build with my mother, a move that shocked many of his friends.
All of my father’s friends share a boyish quality, one that is often delightful with its playfulness and vitality but that contains an underside too: a sort of adolescent distrust of any threat to the gang. A silent pact was made never to grow up. And though I wouldn’t be here if my father, at the age of forty, hadn’t managed finally to break free of this hold to marry my mother, I carry on this pact with his friends in spite of myself.
“You are your father’s daughter”
Some of these men eventually did marry and have children now themselves, have daughters who one day, no doubt, they hope to see married. If I would let them, they would probably wish for me a similar simple and happy fate. But I don’t want to be seen in the same light as their daughters. Just as they knew my father as a friend first, rather than a dad or husband, I want them to view me as their friend rather than my father’s daughter. Otherwise, I would never learn anything about him at all. I search out these men to discover the man behind my father, that is who I’ve come to meet.
Besides all this, these men are exceptional, and to be accepted by them, my aspirations must be sophisticated, more rarefied and imaginative than my dreams of a husband and house in the country.
Once out for dinner with the contentious friend, Ernest, we argued about the value of monogamy in relationships. Over the years, Ernest has taken me to some of New York’s finest restaurants. Everywhere the maître d’s know him by name, probably because he is the worst kind of customer: he demands special dishes which he then complains about, is rude to the waiters, and usually leaves a shabby tip. I put up with his behavior for the same reason a parent puts up with a misbehaving child in a restaurant—to challenge Ernest would only egg him on. What I had forgotten was that in conversation he is the same way.
His expression grew increasingly pitying and snide while he listened to my argument for monogamy, which—best as I can recall—went something like this: monogamy in a relationship engendered trust and trust was the only means to a profound intimacy, not the kind of combustible sexual intimacy that Ernest favored (I added pointedly), but the kind that requires a continual commitment of faith, not unlike the effort to believe in God. And the rewards of this type of intimacy—the compassion, the connection—were infinitely greater. Trust was the only route to a person’s soul!
I was only about twenty-five at the time, and while my line of reasoning was hardly original and smacked somewhat of piteous posturing, I remember being pleased that I was able to unfold my rationale in a composed, yet passionate manner. Sometimes when I was talking with my father or his friends, I would grab panic-struck for a word only to find it out of my reach. By the end of my speech, Ernest looked amused. He dabbed at his mouth with his linen napkin and sat back in his chair. “I had no idea you were so bourgeois,” he said. “How in the world did your father manage to raise such a bourgeois daughter?”
“Bourgeois” was one of those words that floated through the air of my childhood, occasionally landing on a dinner guest or neighbor or the parent of one of my friends. I wasn’t sure when I was young what it meant, but I didn’t miss how efficiently the term dismissed the person as though he or she had been made to vanish into thin air.
For weeks after that dinner with Ernest, I carried on an internal debate with myself about the value of monogamy and, more fundamentally, wondered from what source I had formed my opinions on it: Was this something that my father believed, if perhaps not in practice, then in theory? Was I falling into a conventional, clichéd way of thinking? Or did I actually believe the stance I’d taken with Ernest for the very reason that it was not my father’s position. This was not the first time I had tried to locate myself behind his shadow.
Although my father was a critic of books by profession, he could be counted on to have an opinion on just about anything. At a gathering back at my house following his cremation, I sat around the dining room table, reminiscing with a group of family friends. We began listing all the things my father liked, and after one trip around the table, we ran out of things to say. Then someone offered up “thick arms on a woman,” and someone else jumped in with “kung fu movies and cream sauces,” starting us on a long and lively conversation about all the things my father disliked. What surprised me during this discussion (besides the welcome relief it provided to that bleak day) was how many of my own opinions were either my father’s—or the exact opposite. I remember thinking that rather than having a unique personality, I was merely an assemblage of reactions, a mosaic of agreements and disagreements with my dad—a feeling that has reoccurred intermittently since. I keep hoping to find the line where he stops and I begin.
Vincent keeps scrapbooks. He has scrapbooks from his travels, scrapbooks from his days in Cuba where he first encountered the Afro-Cuban music that became his and my father’s passion, scrapbooks from his youth with my dad in New York City. Sometimes before heading out to dinner or to a club to hear some salsa band, Vincent and I will have a drink in his apartment—we always drink champagne or sherry—and flip through these books. One evening I pointed out the pictures of people I didn’t recognize. Vincent became irritated when I didn’t know their names. Machito. Milton. Willie. You must know who these people are! How can you have not heard these stories? You should have paid more attention to your father when he was alive, he scolded. Are you listening to what I am telling you? Your father was a beautiful man! He lived a beautiful life!
Nostalgia made us quiet when we were out on the street. Vincent was nostalgic for a past that seemed in danger of being forgotten, and me—I was nostalgic for a history that both was and wasn’t mine.
Vincent had worked as a tour guide on and off for most of his life and he walks very fast. That evening, I let him lead me around by my elbow. He rushed me across the intersections, hurrying me along in a variety of foreign languages: vite, rapido, quick-quick-quick. He began to talk as we twisted and turned through the labyrinth of streets, pointing out various buildings and explaining their significance: there was an illegal nightclub here where we went to hear Machito drum, you had to know the code word to be let inside; this was where your dad had his bookstore and Milton and Willie hung out talking, talking, talking about books. We turned a corner to arrive on a quiet, tree-lined street. He pointed out the top floor of a brownstone. Your dad lived there for a while. He had a girlfriend in the next house over, and rather than walk down the five flights to the street and then up another five flights to her apartment, he would climb across the roof to her window like a cat burglar.
I pointed out the steep pitch of the roofs and said that my dad must have really liked the girl to put himself at such risk. “Oh, he wasn’t afraid of risks,” Vincent answered knowingly, and I had no idea at that moment whether this assessment was true or not, a realization that brought tears to my eyes. After a moment, I remarked quietly that men didn’t do that anymore—climb over rooftops for a woman—at least none that I’d ever met.
Only when a parent dies does it seem that a child gains a right to know that parent’s life. While my father was alive, his life, as it should have, belonged to him. Besides, we were too involved with each other for me to step back and gain some objective view. But now that his life contains both a beginning and an end, it seems possible to shape some complete picture. I can’t help regretting, though, that so much of my information must come secondhand. Perhaps Vincent is right. I should have paid more attention to my father when he was alive. Perhaps if I had asked him more questions about his past, I could have learned these things from him myself. Perhaps if he had lived longer, if we had moved on from being father and daughter to being friends, we would have arrived at some understanding of each other, or rather I would have arrived at some understanding of him that would allow me to incorporate such anecdotes like a splash of color into the portrait I held of him rather than their changing the portrait completely.
But when my father was alive, I was too busy trying to figure out what he thought of me—another question that I now lay at the feet of his friends, as though he had handed off his judgment like a baton in a relay race.
At another, earlier dinner with Ernest, I watched him as he studied my face. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, and I knew that since our last encounter I had evolved from looking like a girl to looking like a woman.
“You’ve grown up to be attractive,” he finally decided. “For a while there it seemed that you wouldn’t. Your features were so sharp and you were always frowning. You should keep your hair long, though. It softens your face.”
I wish I could say that if my father had been present he would have reprimanded Ernest for this cold comment, but I know that he wouldn’t have. Over the years I came to learn that being my father didn’t limit his ability to assess me critically. He had opinions about my hairstyle, he picked out the clothes that he thought best brought out what he referred to as my “subtle appeal”; he noticed anytime I gained a few pounds. And while I realize now that in his world a woman was as powerful as her beauty, that doesn’t lessen the hurt caused by such impartial opinions.
At times with these friends I have felt like an impostor or a spy, trying to lure them into a conversation where they will unwittingly reveal some assessment of me my father had shared with them, or that, since they knew him and his tastes and were able to observe us with the clarity of a spectator’s view, they will reveal some insight about our relationship that remained hidden from me. On occasion, I have just asked point-blank what it is I want to know.
Recently I had a wedding to go to in the Long Island town where my dad’s youngest friend, Davey, now lives with his wife, Kate, and their three teenage children. Davey has been in my life for as long as I can remember. And my father was in Davey’s life as long as Davey can remember. They first met in the summer of 1950 on Fire Island. Davey was a chubby, cheerful boy of four, and my father was a trim, athletic bachelor of thirty. It’s hard for me to picture the start of this friendship; nevertheless, during the ensuing summers on Fire Island, the man and boy became friends. They would remain close friends until my father’s death. Davey spoke at my father’s memorial service, recalling how when he was sixteen he helped move my parents from one five-story walk-up in Greenwich Village to another a few blocks away. Theirs was a friendship sealed by carrying books, he said. Throughout my childhood, Davey visited us each summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and he and my father would write in the mornings (Davey eventually became a successful playwright) and then the two men would head to the beach for an afternoon of touch football or beach paddle, or they would just stroll and talk.
During this recent visit, Davey and I strolled on the beach ourselves and talked about our writing. He had been feeling discouraged recently about the unsteady progress of his career. I had just finished a graduate school degree in creative writing and was nervous about reentering the world with this new label of writer. We had walked a short distance when Davey mentioned that his back was bothering him and asked if we could sit down. We lay on the sand, a bit damp from the previous night’s rain, and looked out over the choppy ocean.
A few days before, TWA flight 800 had crashed not far from where we lay, and earlier that day bits of fuselage and an airline drinking cup were found on a neighboring beach. Groups of people searched along the shoreline—airline officials, family members, curiosity seekers. Davey talked about his own kids, how well they were all doing, how different they were from one another and from him and Kate. It was clear in listening to him how much he respected and loved them, but I was surprised at how objectively he was able to assess their talents and weaknesses. I asked him what my father thought of me.
“Well, of course he loved you,” he said, and then looked away toward the beachcombers. I could see that my question had upset him. Perhaps he was wondering if his children would ever ask such a thing. I was searching too, there on that beach, but my debris was not the result of some tragic, sudden accident; rather, my father had died slowly from the common illness of cancer when I was twenty-three, an age when most children are letting go of their parents in order to establish their own independence. I was lost somewhere between missing my father and trying to move past him. Davey looked back at me and said again with a surprising urgency in his voice that I must believe my father loved me. And I do, but in an abstract way, believing in my father’s love the same way that I believe that all parents must love their children. What I am searching for is the shape of that love. These men are bright men, observant and persuasive. They are my father’s friends, after all. I want them to make elegant arguments, peppered with indisputable examples and specific instances of the how and why and where of that love.
When all this searching makes me too weary, I call Mike. He is a psychologist and a writer too. Besides his interest and insight into human nature, he has most of Western literature for reference at his fingertips, which makes him wonderful to talk with. Over the years, even when he and my father lived in separate states, my dad would read to him the first drafts of almost everything he wrote. I can remember my father stretched out on his bed for an hour at a time, laying in the dark room, telephone in hand, chatting with his pal. Their talk was filled with elegant phrasing, animated starts and stops, black humor, and the sort of conversational shorthand one develops with an old, close friend. When signing off, my father would say, “All right, man, work hard and I will too.”
I called Mike up recently with some gossip about the size of an advance for a book written by one of his colleagues. Mike is working on a new book and with one kid about to enter college and another following closely behind, he’s hoping for a sizable advance himself. Before long we have moved on to the subject of his new book: how difficult and necessary it is to console yourself to the disappointment of life and the world. Doesn’t scream best-seller, I joked, since no one likes to admit to this truth. I talked about how this disappointment often feels like a large white elephant in the corner of the room that no one will acknowledge, and how that denial makes you feel like you’re crazy. Given the choice between feeling crazy and feeling disappointed, I don’t understand why more people don’t opt for the latter.
“You’re exactly right, Blissie,” Mike agreed. “That’s just what I am trying to get at.”
I was stretched out on my own bed now, watching the afternoon shadows lengthen down my wall. Talking with Mike was like walking down a familiar path that leads toward home. Here is the oak tree; around the bend is the stone wall. Talking with Mike was almost like talking with my father.
Both men shared a predilection for cutting through hypocrisy and looking past denial. They viewed the world with a bittersweet affection, appreciating the shadows of life’s events as much as the events themselves. I once asked my dad why all the great stories were sad ones. Most good stories are mysteries, he said. The author is like a detective trying to get to the bottom of some truth, and happiness is a mystery that can come apart in your hands when you try to unravel it. Sadness, on the other hand, is infinitely more resilient. Scrutiny only adds to its depth and weight.
I don’t ask Mike what my father thought of me. Mike’s a shrink, after all, and he knows that I’m the only one who could answer that question.
What I realize when I am with the older men in my life is that the older man I want most is my father, and no amount of colorful anecdotes, no amount of recreating the kind of outings he might have had with his pals, can conjure him up in a satisfying way. Grief, like sadness, is too resilient for such casual stand-ins.
After I finished talking with Mike, I remained lying on my bed. Outside my window it was dark, and I hadn’t bothered to turn on the light. I was thinking about how it is an odd time to get to know your father, after he has died. And it is odd to get to know him through his friends. I wondered why I should assume that they knew him any better than I did. If some aspects of his life before I knew him were mysterious to me, certainly the reverse was true as well: there are parts that only I know about. Would his friends be surprised to learn that when I was a baby, after my bath, my father would carry me around the house seated naked in the palm of his hand, holding me high up over his head like a waiter with a tray? Or that he would spend afternoons tossing my brother and me, torpedo-like, from the corner of the bedroom onto my parents’ bed, the far wall piled high with pillows? Before each toss, he would inspect our teeth to make sure they were clenched so we wouldn’t bit our tongues. Would his friends be surprised to know that when I was in college he would sometimes call me up in the middle of the day because he was feeling lonely in the empty house? Or when standing over him in his hospital bed, my throat chocked with all the questions I realized there wasn’t time to ask and his mouth filled with a pain beyond articulation, he suddenly seized my hand and raised it to his lips? “You’re my daughter,” he assured me. “You’re my daughter.”
When my father and I went out dancing together, we didn’t dance the old dances, as Vincent and I tried to do when we went to hear a salsa band. Vincent had great hopes for my talent as a dancer, since my father was a good one, but as he attempted to lead me across the floor, I kept overanticipating his moves. The slightest pressure of his hand would send me off in a new direction.
My dad relied on me to introduce him to the new music, the new dances. Competitive as always, he wanted to be sure that he could keep up with the times. In our living room, the rug pulled back and the coffee table pushed aside, I blasted Word Up by Cameo. I led the way across the smooth wooden floor, shouting out the lyrics, my hands waving in the air, my hips bumping left and right. I can still hear his encouragement as he followed along behind me. With my eyes closed, in the quiet of my dark bedroom, his hoots rise out of the silence.