- A Conversation With My Father
“Do you know how to do that thing of whispering a fact repeatedly until it stops being true?”—Margaret Ross, “A Timeshare”
“Meanwhile the story of your life becomes the story of the detours your desire takes.”—Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love
“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”—Grace Paley, “A Conversation with My Father”
My mother, some years ago, got rid of all the photographs of my father, purged them from her house. One, however, remains in a leather photo album in the garage. It is a photograph of my father on the day of his bar mitzvah: wavy brown hair, pale-faced, long teeth. He’s short and slim, the camera angled above him, making him look smaller than he was that day. The suit he wears is a shade of tan ubiquitous in the seventies. His tie is Dijon-mustard-colored, knotted tightly at his neck. My father, age thirteen, stands alone on the bimah, his back to the stone etching of the Ten Commandments adorning the Torah’s ark repository. The punctum, for me: my father’s pleated, altered slacks, hemmed too short and too square above his tasseled loafers. Aside from his mug shot, taken almost forty years later, it is the only photograph I’ve seen of him in which he isn’t smiling enormously. Instead his face is blank and vaguely apprehensive. It is an expression that I cannot read, a face from which I can derive nothing.
Until four years into his incarceration, I couldn’t bring myself to revisit his mug shot, afraid of what expression I’d read into his face. I couldn’t bear to see—in spite of his crimes and indiscretions—his pain. Then one day I did look, finally. His expression was the same as in the bar mitzvah photograph. So was the color scheme—pink flesh and tan and gray, evidence of his unprofoundly unhappy unconscious. His face is bloated, his eyes swollen—paunchy, baggy, but not bloodshot. The skin around his cheeks and lips is pockmarked from teenage acne that had set in only months after his bar mitzvah. Under his photograph, [End Page 123] his charges: enticing minors to engage in sexual activity, lewd and lascivious behavior. Taken together, the charges (abhorrent, hopeless) and the photograph fragment make contingent the father I always imagined him to be.
Try as I might, I can’t understand him, have no access to his internal life, to what, or whom, he is staring at in his mug shot, his glance slightly askew, avoiding the camera lens. I can’t access him, in the image world or otherwise. I don’t know what he loves or wants or evades, the ways in which desire has directed his life. It seems beside the point to wonder whether I could love someone who has done terrible things. I wonder instead: leaving aside those terrible things, how can I love someone when, after eighteen years of cohabitation and eight more years of weekly phone calls, I don’t know him at all?
The things that surrounded him before his incarceration—bits, objects, matter—give me a context, but little coheres. Reedy fishing poles and unopened bags of soft plastic bait (colors like Cotton Candy Chartreuse Tail, Tequila Sunrise, Scuppernong) recall for me how often he went deep-sea fishing. But I never knew if it was the solitude of being on the open water that he loved, or the thrill of the big catch, or the roughness of the ocean, the small boat cresting over and battered by whitecaps. Maybe he loved the moment when he disembarked, stood on the wooden dock, on stable ground, and for a moment felt steady again. Or perhaps it was detaching the small hook from a gaping, fleshy mouth and lobbing the scaly thing back into the cold water, rainbow, rainbow, rainbow, letting the fish go.
I never went fishing with him. I stayed home and waited for the sound of the garage door opening, the rods being returned to their mounts on the wooden pegboard. My father in cutoffs and sandals, sweating...