On the Side of Leaving
I lived without a mother for most of my life. She was in Montreal, hiding from us, hysterical, as they once said. The way I remembered her was through the photo albums we stowed in our attic bedroom, covers grayed by the dust that fell from the rafters. Because my older brother and I would swing from the beams at night, talking in undertones, our whole room was powdered: the patchwork quilts on our beds, George’s Willie Mays bobbleheads, my snow globes. Did our father know we had her photos?
“Is that her?” George asked me one night, prodding a shot of our mother at the beach. “That can’t be her.”
She wore a dark romper swimsuit and sat on a towel, and she was yanking on her sun-bleached hair, a short lock twined around her finger. Her smile, broad and white, alarmed my brother and me.
George flipped the album shut. “She never smiled.”
“She smiled sometimes,” I said.
“Only when she was being crazy.”
Stinson Beach, 1944. Two months before she met my father. She was seventeen years old, and in a year would have the first of her two sons. What bothered me most about the photo was that I couldn’t know who had taken the shot, who had made her smile like that.
We lived on West Portal Avenue in a shingled Victorian house. We were middle class, which wasn’t true of many in San Francisco at that time; my father, an architect, designed prisons. I remember George, fifteen years old, yelling at him from the stairway to stop building cages for people, and how Dad had cuffed him on the back of the head, the only time I’d seen him use his hands for that. Usually one was clenched around a pencil, the other clawed into his dark hair, his shoulder blades jutting out as he hunched over his desk.
Sometimes, when I was alone, I dwelled on a photograph of my mother at eighteen. For reasons I couldn’t explain, it felt the most personal, although it had been taken three years before my birth. In the photograph she wore a blue tea dress, and her hair was longer, her hands resting on her rounded stomach. She looked strange to me, too thin to be pregnant, her arms like twigs, dark pockets pressed under her eyes. When I stared at her, I felt that she stared back, that she wanted to tell me a secret. I realize, now, that my mother had no interest in sharing herself, and it was a thing that my father discouraged in everyone. My father, who served a year in France, vanished from her life only weeks after he entered it. He couldn’t have taken the shot.
She left us in 1957, when I was nine and George was twelve. A week after her departure, George terrified me with a question, the answer to which I had expected him to know. “Do you think she’s coming back?”
“Why wouldn’t she?” I asked.
“Maybe she’s dead.”
“Dad says she’s not.”
“Dad said that to you?”
“No,” I said, slowly. “But wouldn’t he say if she was?”
George swung down from the rafters to stand on his bed. He wore a pinstripe pajama shirt over his boxers, and his face looked pale in the moonlight. Frowning, he stared past me. “Since when does he say anything?”
“He draws pictures.”
“He draws blueprints,” George said. “He’s an architect.”
“He draws a cartoon of Hitler.”
“All right,” George said. “He draws one lousy cartoon.”
It was my first inkling that George disliked our father, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. In those days, I revered them both equally. Our father had been at the liberation of Paris, dug trenches, built barricades, and watched it burn. I’d seen a photograph of him in uniform, taken after De Gaulle’s speech, his face split into a grin, his field jacket unbuttoned, his arm hooked around the waist of a dark-haired woman who wasn’t our mother.
“Did I believe a word that came out of Dad’s mouth?” George would one day ask me, only days after his return from Vietnam, where he’d lost his left foot. We sat in the living room of our father’s house, where George would stay until he learned to walk on his prosthetic leg. Unable to climb the stairs, he slept in the living room, miserable. He hated late-night encounters with our father — who, when roused by nightmares, would go into the kitchen to make himself a sandwich regardless of the hour.
“The man’s delusional,” George continued. “It’s been twenty years for him, and he still has those goddamn dreams, and now he thinks he’s proud of me? Because I lost my fucking foot?”
I felt my stomach twist. Did George know the details of our father’s dreams? ? I wasn’t like my brother. He was twice as strong and, when we were kids, he liked to put me in chokeholds, give me snakebites. He was the reason that the other kids didn’t bother me at school, no matter if I collected snails and kept them in a bucket in our backyard. I was afraid of what he might say, so instead I asked, “He said he was proud of you?”
“No,” George said. “He doesn’t talk. You know that. But when I got home, he looked me straight in the eye, and I realized he’d never done that before. He stared at me for a long time, and then he squeezed my shoulder, way too hard — like he was trying to hurt me? That was how I knew he was proud. It gave me the creeps.” My brother let out a long sigh. “I didn’t want him to be proud,” he continued. “That’s not why I went. I went because his voice got into my head, and I couldn’t get it out. That’s the kind of voice that stays with you, that drives you crazy, a voice telling you that you can’t do anything right. I would do the opposite of what he wanted and the voice got louder. Then I did what he wanted and you know what? The first time I saw myself in uniform, it scared the shit out of me. I knew right away that I’d made a mistake. I looked just like him.”
Why did my father draw so many pictures of Hitler? After he died, I found notebooks full of them. Hitler wearing a dress and heels. Hitler riding a unicycle. It was a cold day in 1989 when I unearthed these, crammed into his bottom dresser drawer, buried beneath a heap of wool socks. At the sight of them, I felt a wave of unease, and a twinge of resentment towards George. Though he lived with me, though he had followed the progression of our father’s illness — his shock at being diagnosed with cancer at sixty-one, his fear, his slow decline — my brother had refused to visit, to call, to write, leaving me to navigate the labyrinth of death alone, leaving me alone with the old notebooks. I spent hours parsing through them.
“We marched down the Champs-Élysées,” my father had told George and me, though I can’t remember when.
How many times did he tell this story? Maybe a thousand. Maybe he had told it once, and it hung with me. “You boys think you know what pain is?” he asked. “You think you know? How old are you?”
We told him.