Every once in a while, someone says something that at first listen sounds absolutely preposterous, but after a beat of time passes – a beat where time itself ceases to have anything resembling a reality or a rhythm – the sentiment you so easily discarded just seconds before begins to make real sense. This is not to say that the bit of truth that’s just been verbally tossed your way will suddenly make your life better. No, my friends – accepting something to be valid that only one moment before seemed nothing but insane is bound to fuck you up at least a little bit.
Allow me to set the scene. I’ve had the same best friend for over fifteen years and one of the outcomes of such intimacy is the way her family has become like my family and my family has become like hers. She has traveled with my family. She’s seen first-hand when my patience erodes completely and I turn back into an adolescent who is best defined by raging moodiness and sweeping rolls of the eyes. She’s been privy to some of the glamour – a seven-course dinner on the tippy top of a glorious mountain in Park City inside of a yurt, for example – and she has seen the downside, like the utter craziness of my stepfather clearly wanting to be a friend instead of a parent to his then-teenage son, and she’s witnessed both events in close-up. I’ve seen the best and the worst of her family, too. I know the invasiveness that used to traumatize her during her single years and I know that her mother is chronically late for any and all appointments, including the ones she sets up in the first place. I also know about the time her parents met her on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike to give her some leftovers to bring back to college, something no other parents I know at all would even consider doing. When my best friend got engaged, I called her mother at midnight to say congratulations. When she suffered from a post-baby blues that was really more like an extended form of depression, my mother called to talk her down off a ledge. My point is that we have all seen one another through the normal and the most heightened of times, but nothing I’ve ever said to her parents and nothing she’s ever said to mine remained a secret between us.
This kind of total disclosure leads directly to the information I got a few weeks ago that I initially discounted in much the way I ignore anything that’s ridiculous – you know, like words formed into sentences by Alex Jones or the series Fuller House. Becky and I were talking about this one time when she had a long conversation with my mother about what it was that I was looking for in a man. Why my mother felt the need to discuss this subject with my best friend is sort of beyond me since I’ve been quite clear about my desires and I couldn’t possibly make them any clearer to her unless I draw them cartoon-style on a piece of paper or act them all out in some rollicking game of charades I’d probably end up losing, but for the record, here’s what I’m searching for:
· Handsome enough that I can imagine myself on top of him.
· Funny enough that I’ll burn carbohydrate calories by laughing at what he says.
· Interesting enough that I’ll find him endlessly fascinating.
· Edgy enough that I’ll never know exactly what he’ll do in a situation.
· Smart enough that I will respect his views, even when I don’t agree with them.
That’s it. It’s all very simple, really. I don’t care about what car the guy drives or if he’s wealthy or if his family is as crazy as mine can sometimes be. I’d prefer he not have a cat since one of things I enjoy doing most is breathing, but I’m not completely averse to downing Benadryl at a moment’s notice. (I keep some of it in my wallet for those just-in-case asthmatic incidents.) I don’t obsess about the little things that define a person as much as I used to – whether I think his voice is sexy or if he likes the same music as I do – but I’ll go ahead and admit that it does take a lot for someone to capture my interest and then hold onto it in a way that causes that person’s face to eventually become catalogued in my brain in a smoldering Dewey Decimal kind of way where he’s officially filed away as something compelling I need to explore.
I don’t necessarily expect that my mother will fully understand any of this. She married my father when she was about twenty years old and then married two more times. The relationships I’ve had that have mattered are not particularly similar to those she’s had, but one thing I can say is that she easily admits that she has no real idea of what my life is like just as I have no idea what it means to have made her choices. I respect her choices. I support them. I empathize with the ones that didn’t turn out quite as she’d hoped. I do my best to reserve judgment. But I also don’t ask for her advice about men and I never take the advice she sometimes manages to slip into a conversation without my realizing that it’s even happening. (The woman is not only stunningly beautiful, but she’s pretty crafty when she wants to be – and that is something I can support.)
In any case, I’m not at all sure when the comment my mother made to my friend was said – Becky can’t remember and I have zero interest in asking my mother to clarify a timeline – but I do know what was said: When it comes to men, I think Nell is looking for her father. Holy shit, right? I mean, that right there is a fucking declaration and a half, one that at first glance appears to be outlined by some expert on the Elektra Complex and was then colored in by the haunted spirit of Norman Bates. It’s an observation that is, at once, far too simple to have merit and way too deep in its implications if it actually is true.
Horrified by this pat diagnosis of my romantic parameters, my first reaction was to let out the kind of derisive scoff that has stopped many in their tracks because it’s an exhalation of breath coated in fucking acid and its very intention is to scald you for treading anywhere near me in that kind of way in that kind of moment. It’s a nonverbal form of a warning and it works really well because when you’re an outwardly peppy girl who typically has a smile on her face and one reverberating out of the tone of her voice, the switch to darkness comes quickly and can be jarring to the person on the receiving end. But it’s maybe the best kind of friend who just sits back and waits for the hardness to form around you like Magic Shell and then knows how to measure the proper amount of time it will take for you to thaw enough to begin to look inward.
It took me maybe thirty seconds to acknowledge to myself and to my friend that my mother might actually have a point. But before I was ready to fully explore what she was hinting at, I needed to officially clarify where she might be wrong. Yes, my father died when I was young. True, he died in front of me. His death taught me a great many things – who I could rely upon for strength, the eventual relief caused by the scabbing of grief, the power of catharsis writing about pain can offer – but in spite of all of those lessons, it’s not like I’d ever say his death was a good thing. Instead I’ll say that I did my very best to mine out the positives in the situation, no matter how blurry they first appeared, and I held onto them tightly because it’s always been my tendency to decide that I will get something positive out of a fucking mess of a situation, so help me God. But what I thought was so necessary to clarify about what my mother said is that I was not looking for somebody like my father because I’d lost my father. My hope to search through what sometimes feels like the debris of society has nothing to do with abandonment issues. It turns out that I’ve been looking for someone similar to him because he was fucking amazing and that’s a very different thing entirely with the sorts of implications that do not make me want to wash out my psyche with Lemon Pledge dipped in strychnine.
It’s his birthday today – or it would have been – and I lit a candle for him last night in my kitchen, the only conventionally Jewish thing I do during the year. I speak to him as I light the wick and I pretend he can hear me and I say different things every time. Some years I am more emotional than others, but I’ve never broken down bawling. Part of it is that I don’t cry all that easily; I freeze in my saddest moments, but I also know that the act of lighting a candle will never be the saddest part of this scenario so my tears stay locked away where they belong. I will sometimes tell him about what I hope for or what I need. This year, I mentioned a few problems other members of my family are having and I asked him to do whatever he could to protect them from further harm. When it came to me, I just sort told him what it was I was still looking for in my life and that I’d appreciate if he could help me snag it. It’s possible for spirits to usher a CAA agent towards their daughters, right? I figured it was, at the very least, worth a shot.
I think people have a tendency to overly worship the dead as a way to compensate for whatever you fear you didn’t offer them when they were alive. It’s a dangerous thing to do. When you plop a twinkly halo on the head of someone who wasn’t actually perfect, you reduce that person. The choice to recognize flaws and missteps in yourself and in those you love is important. Personally, I’m not sure I’ve ever learned a lesson more profoundly than I did after I hurt someone I cared for and my choice to acknowledge my actions instead of denying them has kept me from hurting someone the same way again. Owning up to regrets is important and, yes, it can sometimes be painful, but I don’t think it’s nearly as painful as whitewashing someone’s entire history. To do so means you’ve just killed that person again.
I made it a point to remember my father as the person he was, not some angel he wouldn’t so much as recognize. I didn’t know everything about him, of course. He died when I was fourteen and no fourteen year old should ever know everything about a parent – it’s sort of my opinion that no sixty year old should ever know everything about their parents either – but I know his sense of humor was sharp enough that many who crossed his path felt like they’d been cut. I know he was impatient and unwavering in his beliefs and that kind of absolute certainty in something that often was essentially an opinion could drive the other person in the conversation mad. I was that person a lot of times and I know exactly the frustration he could incite and how, like Mrs. White in the movie Clue, he often made me feel flames on the side of my face – heaving flames – and I know quite well the blankness you must allow to take over your mind so you don’t do something like put your fist through a wall or saying something you’ll quickly regret. But what I also know without rewriting any bit of history is that my father was the smartest person I ever knew, and not just in the academic sense. Sure, he could quote Hemingway and Faulkner and he made me read Salinger before I was maybe able to even understand the nuances of the stories because he felt an exposure to literature was a father’s job more than that of any person in a school. There was more to him than just being a smart professor though, and what impressed me the most was how he only needed to hear two notes of a song before announcing the title and what year that song came out. He cared as much about baseball as he did about religion. He wrote two fan letters in his life. One was to Joseph Heller soon after the release of Catch-22 – Heller wrote him back and met with my father for a series of interviews my father used as a basis for his eventual thesis and I have all of those notes – and one was to Mickey Mantle when he was hospitalized. Nobody could have guessed that Mantle would outlive my father and I never forgave that guy for not writing my father back. But what these incidents symbolize to me, whether they worked out ultimately for him or not, is that having a real passion for something is meaningful and then going ahead and taking a risk to further that passion is the sort of action that should be applauded.
I guess what my father taught me the most was not to be afraid of who I was or the kind of person I hoped to become. He valued my intelligence and always made sure how aware I was that intelligence and thoughtfulness mattered. He encouraged my imagination and wanted me to create stories. He told me many times I had a book inside of me. What that comment made me realize was not that I should become an author; that realization and desire came to me way later in my life. Instead, what it revealed was that I mattered – and that I wasn’t like everybody else.
I’ve known for a long time that my life would be far easier if I’d just go ahead and hop in a champagne colored Audi and take the road more often traveled. I’d have issues in that life, sure, but perhaps they wouldn’t be the ones I have now that revolve around ambition and what I’m willing to reveal to the world or my unwillingness to settle for anything or anyone who doesn’t shake my existence like I’m a human snow globe. Perhaps if I’d had a father who told me nothing more than that I was sweet and pretty, I wouldn’t spend my time searching for individuals who rattle my senses. Perhaps if my father was just kind of smart or just a little bit funny, maybe I wouldn’t sooner die than end up with someone who has never made me laugh until I peed all over my couch.
I refuse to be less than honest about any of this, particularly to myself, but I will flat-out announce that my preference for facial scruff has nothing to do with my bearded father. I just happen to enjoy getting exfoliated in between chemical peels, you see. And while my father was tall – like, 6’4” tall – I think my attraction to tall men is way more about me wanting to feel dainty even while I’m wearing heels because I am always wearing heels. But the closeness I feel towards men who tell me I’m perceptive and informed and hilarious must on some level be because they remind me of my father. I learned long ago that you don’t just like someone because of who he happens to be; you like him because of how he makes you feel about yourself. I’ve never felt higher than when someone I was insanely attracted to in every way indicated that he understood who I was for real and appreciated it. I’ve never felt more special than when someone I cared about tremendously announced that I was different from any girl he’d ever known.
There have been moments where a similarity I recognized that someone had to my father increased the closeness I felt for that person. One man I used to love used the word “nifty” on our second date and I just about fell over because the only other person I’d ever heard use that word was my father. I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear it from some guy who had just entered his thirties and I also wasn’t expecting that a slip of vocabulary would impact me in the manner it did. When another man in my life listened as I told him a story of how my father elaborately tricked my mother into believing that he’d purchased a pregnant badger for her for Christmas before presenting her with a bracelet instead of an animal in her third trimester and he burst into unabandoned laughter for ten minutes straight and then told me that was the most he’s laughed in forever, I never felt closer to him than in that very second. It’s most definitely that I was raised by someone so wise and curious and opinionated and sarcastic that causes me to seek out those qualities in the people I surround myself with, and that includes male and female friends and men I’ve become romantic with. It’s also because of an exposure to the finest of qualities that causes me refuse to believe that more isn’t out there.
I wonder sometimes – of course I do – how my life would have been different if my father had lived beyond the age of forty-six. It’s impossible to know with any sort of certainty, but I think maybe I wouldn’t have searched for relationships that were so challenging because that kind of need would have already been met by a parent, but then again, the thought of introducing my father to someone I could only classify as “a nice guy” almost makes me shudder. Nice is great, but nice will never be enough for me. No, I say it would be better to toss in some torment and a dash of inner conflict. Stir it up with goals that have been achieved and goals that went unrequited. Then top it all sprinkle-style with a sense of humor half the population would be deathly afraid of and the desire to never stop moving forward and you’d have exactly what it is I’m looking for. Maybe that concoction is similar to the kind of man my father was for real or just the person his daughter believed him to be, but if there’s one specific thing the man taught me, it’s that I can always send something back if it’s not what I want. And if I do it with a smile and some patience and just a little bit of charm, I’ll eventually end up with exactly what it is I’ve been searching for all this time.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter