In the summer of 1970, when I was twelve years old, my mother and father and I spent three months in a big wooden house on the shore of one of the Twin Lakes in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. My father, a professor of political science, had gotten a summer teaching gig at some institute of international something-or-other. It came with a house, so up we went.
There may be more beautiful places on earth than northwestern Connecticut in the summer, but if there are, I haven’t seen them yet. I remember that house, that place – the creaky wooden steps, the well-balanced cedar doors, the click of the tongue in the latch. I remember the track of moonlight across the lake, the days of rain hissing in the long grass at noon. I fell in love that summer. Her name was Karen. Karen had long blond hair and, if memory serves, ever-so-slightly crossed eyes, and I loved her. How she felt about me didn’t really come up. Bread’s “I Wanna Make it With You” was on the radio that summer, as was Freida Payne’s “Band of Gold.” Those songs were about us. Every song was about us.
Sitting here by the open window forty-four years later, the songs playing that summer are still about us, though time has erased her face, her voice. Such is the adhesive property of memory, which can cling to a song, God help us, for as long as memory serves.
One hot night in July or August the students and faculty threw a party at another house on the shore of the lake. There was a barefoot crowd and the smell of burning meat and cut grass and someone had carried the stereo out on the wide, creaky porch and was playing every Beatles record known to man, in order. My parents were somewhere in the crowd. That night Karen and I swam in the dark with the college kids then waded along the shore strung with white paper lanterns and at some point she bent over to pick something out of the water and I saw her breasts swaying like small, pale fruit inside the wet cave of her t-shirt. I don’t remember if she saw that I’d seen. I’d like to think she did, that our eyes met for a long second, both of us aware of something just a few steps beyond us, and then I looked away and that was that. It doesn’t matter.
The Beatles “Blackbird” playing from the porch of that rambling, lit-up house. The ‘hippies’ with their flowers and their hammocks who moved into the house next door to us. The day our friends, the Horners, drove up from Philadelphia to visit and I was allowed to show their boys my air rifle. The thousand ping-pong games in the institute’s wooden rec room, the rain drumming on the tin roof—these were good things. There were many of them. Sundays I’d wake up early while everything was still cool and wet and full of summer and ride my bicycle out to a field where I’d pick a bouquet of black-eyed Susans—such a strange name for a flower—for my mother, who was going crazy.
We don’t always remember what we deserve to, or want to. We remember what we have to, which isn’t quite the same thing. We remember because one memory has elbowed aside the others.
A warm night, the heaviness of coming rain in the air. Sitting in the wide back seat of our car in the dark–was it the white Pontiac?–listening to them fight, I didn’t think about it much at first. There’d been a lot of fights. Only a few had been really bad, most were just vicious, marked by a rage–my mother’s mostly–distilled into something so pure it stung your eyes. Once when I was seven or eight she’d locked herself in the bathroom of our little house in Ardsley and my father, worried that she’d ‘do something,’ tried to force the door open. I remember him straining like a rugby player, shoulder to the wood. I’d been in my room reading Field and Stream–I remember this for some reason–a special section they had then called ‘Tap’s Tips’, in which someone named Tappy offered tips on how to solve problems like backlash on your bait casting reel, but at some point, hearing the door slam, then slam again, I came out. Mommy was screaming, though when I summon that sound now, and it comes back surprisingly easily, I see the word isn’t quite right. Screaming implies terror, but this wasn’t the sound of someone trying to save themselves from a killer, this was the sound of someone outraged enough to kill. When my father managed to reach into the bathroom, my mother grabbed his hand and raked her nails down the length of his forearm. “Look at this,” he said, holding out his arm to me, the four welling furrows, the skin accordioned half an inch high at the end of each row. “Look at what she’s done!”
Amazing, really, what time, or ego, can force into being. What we learn to own. A few months before my father died in Prague in 2012–I didn’t know there was so little time left then–I noticed the shadows, long and light as sheet scars, on his forearm, and felt a touch of ownership. I’d been there when they were made.
What I’m saying is that there had been other times. More than a few. This time in the car was different.
They were arguing about the end-of-the-session party we were returning from, about some nineteen year-old ingenue who’d apparently been flattering my father, holding his big square hand in hers and telling him how very, very much his course had meant to her–no, really, so much more than she could say in words. My mother, who no one ever accused of being a fool, was more outraged, I think, by my father’s gullibility than anything else. He was a stuttering idiot, a laughing stock. “It means so much to me,” she mimicked like a girl trapped in some dark fairy tale, changing into something bad. “It means more than I can say in words.”
It didn’t stop. My father, who I hardly remember saying a thing, sat there like a rock as her rage built on itself, fed off itself, until it had left the original goad far behind. It was just rage now. I remember yelling at them to stop, just stop, but by then she’d started hitting him with her fists, hitting him as if he really were that rock and she was determined to smash him into something . . . other. Or maybe nothing at all.
I was probably crying by then–it wouldn’t surprise me–though I don’t remember. They’d forgotten I was there. We were on the mile-long, dirt road that led to our house, and my father was still driving, flinching, his right shoulder hunched up against her fists. When she snuck one around and smashed his professor’s horn-rimmed glasses off his face he had to stop, and that’s when I ran.
I didn’t know I was going to run. I had nowhere to go. I just opened the back door and ran, my hands up against the branches, and the woods closed around me.
I remember sitting quietly with my back against a pine tree, listening to them stumble around in the woods, calling me. Worried now, pleading with me to come out. They didn’t have a flashlight. There was no moon. I’d disappeared. “Where on earth has he gone?” I remember my mother saying. It was my mother’s voice again.
I could see our car, lit up like a small room in the dark, its doors open. I didn’t answer for a while. I could hear the fear in their voices, and it troubled me. Eventually I came out. Where else was I going to go? It had always been the three of us. Maybe my mother offered to make me my favorite breakfast–jam-filled Czech crepes called palacinky. Maybe one of them made a joke. Probably they spoke to the dark about how mommies and daddies sometimes fight and it doesn’t really mean anything and so on. I came out. I loved them.
I’d know better now. I’ve been hunting for that place–so lonely, so sheltering, so free of their pain–for a long time. If I found it now–and I don’t know that I’ve ever needed it more–I’d stay in the dark and smile. Let them blunder off into the night.
It’s your turn to be afraid now, I’d think.
* * * *
There can come a time in your life when the past decides to run you down. You’re not going to get away. Take the hit.
I thought I’d gotten away. I’d written about the past for twenty years. I’d told the story, bent by fiction like an oar in water, over and over, inoculating myself. I thought it was enough. It wasn’t.
“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” the writer W.S. Sebald wrote. Yes, well. Define ‘dead.’
In the spring of 2014 the invisible world decided to put in an appearance. I couldn’t move, couldn’t laugh, couldn’t write. I didn’t know what was happening. The novel I was writing kept twisting like a heliotrope toward betrayals I’d never intended my characters to feel. I’d always been a mad dreamer: burial and resurrection, thousand-foot waves. My dreams now were relentless, exhausting, obvious as a club. In one I had to bury our dog, and my father, who’d died the year before, appeared to help me. It was night, and we went out into the dark and I put my hand on his damp shirt-back and the coolness of his sweat felt so familiar that I realized it was him I had to bury, that he was there to make it easier for me. In another, a pathetic old woman, so thin you could see the blue skeleton moving under her skin like a second self, sat slumped against a brick wall. When I reached out to help her she gripped my arm with the strength of a hydraulic press. She started to push the silver pen-knife I keep on my desk into my eye, then forced it into my mouth instead. I was struggling, trying to keep my tongue to the flat of the tiny blade when I woke up.
There were others, night after night, week after week, like knuckles rapping on a wooden door. It felt like a beating. It also felt ridiculous, an Onion headline: “Man Beats Himself Bloody, Files Suit.” I could see my wife and daughter, who know me well, who know my resilience, watching from the sidelines, trying to help. When our son called from Peru, he asked me how I was doing and I said I was fine. He sounded worried, which wasn’t like him.
I was drinking more than necessary, nothing Fitzgerald-esque, just nice and steady. It didn’t help. When I went for a run, it was to experience a pain I could understand. I flailed and floundered. The things that had always given me pleasure—the fly rod in the evenings, music, good books and so-so movies—were losing their power. Sex still helped, but sex as an escape, though better than heroin, is about as likely to cure what ails you.
It had been a little over a year since my father died. I missed him terribly: his big, damp forehead, his voice, his being in the world. My mother, who I’d once loved unreservedly, whose voice had been like a second soul to me, was in a care home in Moravia, her mind having long ago lost any trace of me. I hadn’t seen her in three years.
It took a while for me to begin to crack it. In 2013, not long after my father had died, I’d written a piece for The New Yorker called “Nobody’s Son.” I’d liked the title at the time; only now did I see that like one of those overpriced Russian nesting dolls it had a deeper core: the desire to be done, to begin again, to wipe the tabula rasa. My father was gone, my mother’s memory—of me and everything else—gone as well and not coming back. Time to pee on the fire and go.
As if it could ever be that easy. As if our words could ever have that much power. As if simply calling something a New World could make it one. No, if history had taught me anything, it was that ghosts tended to hang around, insisting on their place at the table, clinking their glasses for another toast—an ironic one.
Nobody’s son? I was pinned like Ahab to his whale. In the spring of 2014, the man my mother had met after leaving my father had passed away. I didn’t miss him, one of those small, angry souls always hoarding their grievances, waiting for an opportunity to bite. The problem was, there was no one else. Just me. I’d quit, cleaned out my desk, handed in the keys. Now I had to be somebody’s son again.
I had no choice—she was my mother. Almost overnight, stories, memories, the names of people I hadn’t thought about in years, welled up like groundwater from some overfilled aquifer. I couldn’t believe it – it seemed too obvious, a psychoanalytic cliché. Somehow my mother’s story was flooding mine, or, more accurately, erasing it. I was reminded of the Back to the Future movies, Michael J. Fox’s image fading out of the photograph, the stone wall showing through his jeans. If this was the return of the repressed, it was coming home in a tank.
Go ahead, my subconscious seemed to be saying. You want to shed all that messy history? You want to strike out like the American Adam with your freeze-dried beef stroganoff and your telescoping walking stick? You want to fucking baptize yourself? Well good luck and God bless—I’ll drown you like a cat in a well.
If freedom was my goal, it wouldn’t be achieved through magical thinking; a little blood was required.
I’d have to write my way back into being.
* * * *
It wouldn’t be easy. I’d never allowed myself to write about them. Us. Not directly. I’d hidden the three of us in fiction, story after story, book after book. I’d told the truth but I told it slant. Was it decency or cowardice? All my life I’ve been better at taking pain than giving it, which suggests a bit of both.
There’s more. I think—and this is embarrassing to admit—that I was embarrassed, afraid of seeming . . . what? Self-pitying? Self-indulgent? Soft? All of the above? This wasn’t just the curse of the American male, hard-wired to suck it up, gut it out, shrug and smile. I didn’t want to be the whiner, the one flogging his finger’s worth of first-generation unhappiness into tragedy. The daily paper bulged with heartbreak, with stories of ordinary people bearing more than you could imagine if you allowed yourself to try. What possible excuse could I have for wading into this lake, adding my cupful?
Of all the fools in the world, the ones hiding behind their self-awareness may be the worst. You can know yourself, or think you do, and be none the wiser, analyze your predicament to the nth degree and be no closer to escaping it. Melville had put it beautifully: “For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the cause of that peril—nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown.”
I didn’t know that then. My head was still above water. I’d talk about the past—that long saga of love and betrayal, forever shadowed by war—then undercut it. I had my pop-culture props: The whistling crucifixion scene at the end of The Life of Brian (“Just look on the bright side of life”), the knight, laughing off his amputated arm in Monty Python and the Holy Grail—“Bah! A mere flesh-wound.”
I’d tell you, for example, about the summer evening, straight out of a Daubigny oil, when my mother and I sat by the side of a black-water pond named Skalak in central Moravia. The still air smelled of hot fields and manure. I was seventeen, and she explained to me how she just wanted to die, then pulled a small, plastic vial out of her pocket and showed me how many pills it would take—because she’d figured it out—shaking them out into her hand. “I just want to sleep and not wake up,” she said. I’d explain to you how I talked to her for three, four hours—and not just that evening but all through high school, because she couldn’t get out of bed, because everything betrayed you, because “life was a death sentence”—marshalling arguments for this world like some acne-ridden lawyer way beyond his depth. I’d tell you the pills were green and white, that I used to make up excuses to wake her up at odd times, just to be sure, and when it all got too heavy I’d shrug. “Let me tell you about my mother,” I’d smile, quoting the scene in Blade Runner in which the replicant, forced to answer one question too many, blows away his questioner. “Let me tell you about my mother”—except that instead of then pointing the imaginary gun at somebody else, I’d point it at my own head, and laugh.
I wasn’t a liar. I wasn’t even wrong—laughter can be as good a way of dealing with the things we can’t deal with as any. I just wasn’t listening.
So here I was. Years ago I’d thought of using a quote from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as an epigraph to a novel called Brewster, then exchanged it for something else and forgot about it. It came back to me now like a rejected lover who gets the last laugh: “You see me now, don’t you?”
I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it.
A hard line for a writer to credit, and like most beautiful lines, only half-true, but a line I needed to hear. Certain things had been done—in 1933 and 1945 and 1970—steps taken, blows struck, doors closed, and they had to be acknowledged. Condemned, redeemed, forgiven, but above all, acknowledged. “Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underground,” Kafka wrote, though he didn’t make it far – “mine is by writing.”
Besides pictures and memories—the airiest fictions of all—words were all I had. But these would be different words—words as a form of listening.
Who knows, maybe guilt is the secret heart of every immigrant’s story, however desired or necessary the leaving may have been. Guilt over your betrayal, guilt for having abandoned the home you were born into, its sounds and tastes, the feel of that place, that past.
When immigrant parents die, the sense of betrayal is reduced to language and inherited by their children. Writing about my mother and father now, I have this inescapable sense that I’m lying because they were never mom and dad, but maminka a tatinek. Just saying the words aloud, how quickly they’re resurrected—and me along with them. There we are. I was Denda, or, as a kid, Dendicek, the cek suffix doing the same cutesifying work as the Spanish ito, say, or the German chin. I had nicknames: Spuntik, or “little cork,” and Sefik, “little boss,” because I was a stocky, self-assured little beggar at three.
The lies begin with the language; you have to allow for it like a statistician calculating standard deviation. Calling for me in the woods that night in 1970, my mother didn’t say, “Where on earth has he gone?” but, Jezis, Marie, kde je? which translates to “Jesus, Mary, where is he?” To translate it that way, though, would have been wrong, a small violence against the moment, against the strange reservoir of strength she always tapped into in moments of crisis. It would have suggested a religiosity that wasn’t there. “Jesus Christ, where is he?” on the other hand, would have risked introducing a hint of irritation, obscuring the “what have we done?” note in her voice. To get it right I had to lie.
Every immigrant’s kid faces this dilemma, this sense of estrangement. If you spoke Spanish or German or French at home, mommy’s a word; mamacita or Mutti or maman is your mother’s voice calling you in for dinner. The same would be true, of course, if you grew up speaking English in Beijing. The words Mommy and Daddy would forever conjure mommy and daddy. The ones you knew. Who knew you.
Every now and then, when I was young, we’d run into immigrant families who cut the past like a rope. Jenom anglicky! Only English! Even then it seemed perverse to me, like willing yourself into amnesia. How do you make yourself forget? In the case of one kid, the old language died before the new one took root, leaving him stranded in a world I find hard to imagine. Eventually his new, English-speaking self took hold, yet I wonder if, half a century later, he still sometimes dreams in Czech, and if he does, if he understands what his dreams are saying, or if the language he left behind is like the people we meet in dreams—people we’ve never known, who seem so terribly familiar.
In my family, we stuck with Czech. I wouldn’t trade it. It intensified our exile, our isolation—concentrated us, as in a reduction sauce—but it was who we were.
From NOBODY’S SON. Used with permission of W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Slouka.