Life's geography, decades on
There are at least two sides to the still-painful story behind the late-in-life breakup of my friend’s parents.
I'm waiting for her at a corner table. We’ve been trying to grab a coffee for well over two months − unsuccessfully − so for tonight we’ve declared a strict no stand-up policy. And she’s already 20 minutes late.
Three women in their fifties are seated at the next table over. Spread out on the table are notebooks, maps and an atlas. They’re talking about a test and about what they’ve managed to cover and what they haven’t gotten to yet. I hear tidbits of conversation and conclude that they are geography teachers who decided to prepare next year’s curriculum while treating themselves to a fun, mid-August get-together.
They’re arguing about what they should order: Should they get the “yummy” or the “low-cal”? The woman facing me really wants the “yummy.” “You only live once,” she argues. “You’re right,” her friend replies, “but some of us only live once on an endless diet.”
They laugh, and the third woman adds, “Oh, go ahead and laugh, you can afford it!” And she’s right. The yummy-supporter is a beautiful Yemenite woman, slim and with high cheekbones. Earlier, when she passed me on her way to the ladies’ room, I saw that from behind she could easily be mistaken for a young girl. The argument ends with the decision to order both the yummy and the low-cal, “for a balanced diet!” and the three of them laugh and dive back into their notebooks and I hope they bring this happy energy with them when they teach.
Here comes the text message. She’s sorry, everything’s such a mess, she’ll be here soon. She’s not the tardy type, and I try not to guess what she’ll tell me when she gets here. Why rush to make room in your heart for bad news, when you know it’ll take up all the space it needs, anyway, just as soon as it arrives. I text “coffee or wine?” and she shoots back “what, no cocaine?” and I’m glad to see she hasn’t lost her sense of humor.
I order two glasses of cold, dry white wine and the yummy, high-cal dessert my pretty neighbor rooted for, and hope that all this ammo will be proven superfluous: nice-but-unnecessary comfort, no big deal, just a crappy week.
A heavy set of keys lands on the table, followed by a cell phone. A handbag is dumped on one of the chairs across from mine, and finally she dumps herself in the chair next to it. Her skin looks ashen, her hair’s a mess, her eyes are red. I love her so much. Honest, complete, bookkeeping-free love that is female friendship at its best.
“Thank god I quit smoking,” she says. She takes a long sip from her water, and then another, equally long sip from the wine. I touch her hand and try to figure out how long we’ve known each other. A million years. Her parents are getting a divorce. There’s a blow I couldn’t have anticipated. We’re so much busier being mothers than we are being daughters. Occasionally we examine our parents in the context of our own parenthood, and usually we’re horribly judgmental, but every so often the present shines a surprisingly compassionate light on the past.
But this kind of conversation – “My mom and dad are getting divorced” – could have taken place in hushed whispers, in the humid privacy of a shared sleeping bag at summer camp, maybe between eighth and ninth grade. But what could this conversation possibly have to do with this summer, the one we launched by hunting together for day camps for our own kids? The whole thing is disorienting, a strange seasickness.
“What happened?” I ask. “They were talking about moving into a retirement home,” she says. That much I knew. My friend is their youngest child, the baby of the family. Her father is 80, and her beautiful, sharp mother is 12 years his junior, 68. “And I couldn’t get what she could want with this type of a life, you know she’s not exactly the bridge-club-and-ceramics-class type, and they’re both healthy and active, and we can always get live-in help later on if they need it, and we’re always there − it’s not like they’re lonely − I just didn’t get it”, she repeats. “And it was even weirder to think that my dad would be into it. You know, he still goes to the office every day. But my mom really insisted, she was totally fixated, so they looked.”
And as they were looking, her mom told her, she began to realize that what she found most appealing about retirement-home life was the chance to immerse herself in a community and a lifestyle that would legitimize spending as little time as possible with her husband. The deeper they delved into the bureaucracy of the high-end facility that was selected after countless tours and brochures and discussions, the more they thought about the house they would sell, the belongings they would part with, the life they had up to this point and the life that lay ahead − the more the soul-searching presented itself unavoidably together with the transition to the place that is, by its very definition, the final stop − the more her mother realized that what she really wanted was to leave her husband.
“Why not?” she dared her daughter to disagree. “I’m 68, for God’s sake, it’s not like I have one foot in the grave! What if I have 20 years left? What if I have 30? You kids are grown up, you can handle it, who am I suffering for? For him?” She never thought, my friend says, that her parents’ marriage was perfect. But she did think they were at peace with the deal they had made, and over the years she came to understand that everyone compromises, and her parents’ compromise didn’t seem too bad. Her father is a wealthy, self-made man, hard-working and rigid. Her mother, who was only a high-school senior when they met, took on the burden of home and family while he conquered the world, without asking too many questions.
“No one asked questions back then,” her mother said, “not like nowadays, when all you ever do is ask.” “I was furious with her,” my friend says. She accused her mother of selfishness, of deserting him in old age and dismissing everything he gave her: the comfortable living; the traveling she loved; the gorgeous dresses tailor-made in Paris; the fact that he adored her, that he always said she was the one and only love of his life, that he loved her at first sight. “Doilies!!” her mother screamed, “doilies to cover the shit! Do you know where he was when your brother was born?”
My friend’s brother, the eldest of four children, is more than a decade older than his baby sister. When contractions began, her mother called her father and told him she was in pain. He was in Tel Aviv, on business, and she was home, in Jerusalem. “What do you think he said?” she yelled, ancient wounds bursting open with each syllable, “what would a normal man say?” My friend was silent. “‘I’m on my way,’ right? A normal man would say ‘I’m on my way,’ right? He said, ‘I’m sending Yaakov.’ His driver. He had this driver, short and paunchy with these tiny-tiny eyes, all red and bloodshot. He sent me Yaakov.” So Yaakov drove her to the hospital and sat outside the delivery room the whole time she was inside.
“And then, when your brother was born,” her mom continued, “the nurse came out to the waiting area and said, ‘Which one of you gentlemen is Mr. Bachar?’ and Yaakov got up to explain but the nurse immediately said ‘Mazal tov, Mr. Bachar! You have a son! You can escort your wife to the ward now,’ and poor Yaakov, he had a good heart, he walked beside the bed while they rolled me from the delivery room to the ward, all short and bent over with his poor red eyes ...
“And that’s not it, you hear me? He had to go to America, your father. It was an important trip, I’m not saying it wasn’t, but his business partners sent him a jet! He had a private jet stuck to his ass, just waiting for him to arrive. He couldn’t come see me? He drove straight from Tel Aviv to the airport and took off. To this day the thought of it makes me cry,” her mother whispered.
“She cried in front of me, can you believe it?” my friend says, and I try to imagine her elegant mother losing control, and it truly is unimaginable. I pull a tissue out of my bag and signal for the waiter to bring another round of wine. “So I went to see my dad,” she says, “and I told him he was emotionally autistic and a piece of shit ... I said terrible things. But then he told me his side.” She was early to deliver, three weeks ahead of the anticipated due date, and her contractions were close. Yaakov the driver was in Jerusalem, close by, so that sending him was the fastest and safest solution for both her and the baby. And back then men weren’t allowed in the delivery room, anyway, so he finished his business in Tel Aviv as fast as possible and rushed to Hadassah, except delivery had gone quickly and he didn’t make it in time to escort her from the delivery room. By the time he got there and wanted to see her, she was so angry with him she wouldn’t let him in.
There was no private jet. Who had the money back then? It was a commercial flight that couldn’t be delayed. Keep in mind that they didn’t use to have flights to New York every day. And in New York was a man who would become his biggest client and the key to his success, and this gentleman had to leave the city the very morning after her father was to arrive, and had her father not shown up, his biggest competitor would have taken the slot, why, he was just waiting for the opportunity!
If he had blown this meeting, they would have regretted it their entire life, her father insisted. He stood in the hallway outside the maternity ward and begged to be let in, but the nurses said she wouldn’t see him − do you have any idea how humiliating that was? He couldn’t afford to wait for her to be appeased, so he left without seeing her.
“Go figure what’s true and what’s not,” my friend whispers, exhausted. Almost 47 years have passed, and time has collected around the insult like resin fossilized into amber, and now there is no chance of remodeling it into different memories. And in the end it doesn’t really matter whether the truth is on her side or his − after all, people forgive much graver grievances. If her mother chose to punish him now for having sinned against her when she was 21, there must have been a few more things along the way that made forgiveness impossible.
When we get up to leave, my friend suddenly smiles happily at one of the women at the neighboring table, who was sitting with her back to us. This broad, jovial woman, it turns out, had been my friend’s daughter’s nanny. And so I discover that they are not, in fact, three geography teachers, but rather students − studying for an exam to be certified as tour guides abroad. Clearly, none of them had done much traveling, but as they tell us briefly about their studies, names of ancient forts in the south of Italy roll trippingly off their tongues, and suddenly the pretty Yemenite woman says, “I really want to do well on this test! My whole life has been housework and diaper changes ... I deserve another go!” And my friend smiles at her and says, “Of course you do.”