It was always strange knowing that he was the replacement
for a baby who died. Felix’s brother died of crib death, as they called it
then. His parents blamed each other, but despite their grief and anger, decided to have
another baby to take the place of the lost one. Of course, the new baby didn’t fill the empty places in
their hearts, and their resentment toward the new baby and each other continued
to grow. Finally, inevitably, they divorced. He says, “I was three years old, and I was
relieved.” It was his first memory.
When his parents split up, they also split up the children. The father took the older two children, a boy and a girl, and the mother took
the younger two, also a boy and a girl. So they grew up more or less
separately, in very different households and different places. The father was a successful
journalist and lived in glamorous places like London, Paris, and New York. The mother had
to go back to work and became an unsuccessful librarian living in an
English-speaking enclave of Montreal, among other places. The siblings were more
like cousins than siblings.
He was born in Princeton, and Albert Einstein was one of
their neighbors. The great man
enjoyed gardening and could often be seen working in the flower beds outside his surprisingly modest house. Sometimes the
famous scientist would stop by for dinner or a drink, but he was just one of
the many well-known faces to frequent their home. When Felix was born, he
received a sterling silver porringer engraved with a personal message from Henry Luce,
and the few remaining members of the Algonquin Round Table wryly toasted the baby’s
arrival with the driest of martinis.
It was an auspicious beginning, but things fell apart
slowly, in the kind of way you don’t notice until the damage is irreparable and
you find yourself looking around at the disaster your life has become and
wondering how on earth you got there. If your relationship were a house, you’d
tear it down and build a new one. Which is exactly what they did. Well, at
least the father. He took his wife out to lunch to tell her that he was leaving
her for another woman. She was, as the cliches said, the last to know.
He took his wife to lunch to tell her about the affair
because he assumed she wouldn’t make a scene in public. She was
too stunned to react. Later, she wouldn’t remember how she got home that day,
or what they had said during that last meal together as a married couple. When
she was finally able to think about it, she realized that their circle of friends had known about it before she did. In
retrospect, there had been hints and clues that she was too naïve to pick up
on. Then it was too late.
Can you change your name back to your maiden name when
they’re both the same? She wanted to make the gesture, but even that was taken
from her powerless hands. Her husband decided to end the marriage. He convinced her to divide the children like bags of groceries. “I’ll take the
older two, and you take the younger two.” A boy and a girl each. Two neat
matched sets. What would Solomon have said, she thought hysterically
as she threw her clothes into one of her mother’s old suitcases. Because she didn’t
get the house, either.
Not that she would have taken it. She wouldn’t take his
money, either, though he certainly had enough. She didn’t
want his pity. She went back to school, something that seemed almost absurd at
her age (though later, she would look back and think how young she was, how
naïve), and became a librarian. She learned to drive, though she never felt
completely comfortable behind the wheel. She had always thought that someone
else would be driving to work. She never thought it would be her, or that it
would be for the rest of her life.
Their mother struggled, emotionally and financially. She
couldn’t believe that she was left alone with two of her children, the two
allotted to her, while rarely seeing the other two. Her ex-husband, in
contrast, seemed to be perfectly happy with his replacement wife and the two
children he had chosen, living the good life in the most exciting cities of the
world, without a care in the world except The Magazine’s deadlines. She felt
left behind, frightened, abandoned, ashamed, the same way she had after her mother committed
suicide. I am never enough, she thought. Never enough.
She was thirteen when her mother died. That night, her
mother seemed the same as usual. But in the morning, she was dead, an
overdose of sleeping pills helped along with a bottle of whiskey. There was no
note. Her daughter found her, still and cold, when she went to kiss
her mother goodbye on her way to school. To this day, she can still remember
the disbelief and horror. Her father was away on business and she was
alone in the house with her mother’s body. There was no phone. She didn’t know
what to do.
She ran to the neighbor’s house, as if in a dream. He always yelled at her for running through his yard. Normally, she was afraid of him, but not today. When he
opened his door, she was white as a sheet. “Mother…father...I don’t….” She burst
into tears. It took a while before he could understand what she was trying to
say, and even then, he didn’t believe it. “Now, now,” he said soothingly. “I’m
sure your mama is fine.” He left the hysterical girl with his wife and headed
next door through the snow.
Unfortunately, the girl was right and her mother was dead.
He called the police and then the school, to tell them that she would not be
there, probably for the rest of the week. The girl had no idea how to reach her
father, so they simply had to wait until he came home in the latest in his
series of Cadillacs – a new one every year – and break the news to him then. In
the meantime, the girl had nowhere to go and stayed with the neighbors, who no longer frightened her,
now that she knew what fear really was.
When her father came home and heard the news, he was angry.
Angry with his wife, angry with his daughter, angry with the neighbors, angry
with the police, angry with life and everything in it. He didn’t come home
until a week after his wife was dead, and although the local undertakers had
preserved her body as best they could, they did not recommend that he view his
wife’s remains. He went along with this in his shock and grief, but her death
always seemed like a dream, unreal, though he knew she was gone forever, her choice.
Her father was never the same after that, and neither was
she. Now looking back after the end of her marriage, the loss of her son, and,
to some extent, the loss of the children who no longer lived with her, she saw
a series of abandonments. It seemed that everyone she loved left her in some way. She couldn’t
save her mother or her baby. She wasn’t a good enough reason for her mother to
stay alive or for her husband to stay. She wasn’t enough, never was. She decided
to never fall in love again.
But she did. As most of us do, despite our best
intentions. This time it was a swaggering guy from the Bronx. She was
completely captivated by him, mostly because it was the best sex she had ever
had. There is nothing like the sex haze to blind you to faults in your partner,
and she could barely see through this blissful mist. She uprooted her allotment
of children and moved them to a Maritime fishing village, where they
immediately felt out of place and isolated from everything and everyone they’d
ever known. And then there was the violence.
He had a temper. She described him as “fiery” and
“passionate” to her friends, but she omitted the fact that he threatened her
youngest son, the replacement for the Lost Boy, and physically attacked her
teenage daughter. The daughter rebelled, which escalated the fights. She stood
by helplessly, unable to intervene for fear of losing her newfound lover.
Sometimes she simply ignored it all, hoping it would just go away.Eventually, her daughter ran away and ended up living with her father.
She had lost three quarters of her children, and was somewhat bewildered by
Felix, meanwhile, was terrified, especially after his sister
left. He didn’t fit in with the other kids in this godforsaken town, with his
long hair, dreamy nature, and love of music and art. Life was pretty much hell,
between his mother’s crazed boyfriend at home and the taunting kids at school
and the ever-perilous streets between the two. At night, he’d stare out the
window, listening to the Beach Boys and dreaming of escape, an escape to
California with its surf, sun, and sand. Many years later, he realized that those
dreams had saved his life.
Eventually, she broke up with her boyfriend and moved back
to the city with her relieved remaining child in tow. It was as if a dream had
come true, other than the California part. But pretty much anything was better
than being trapped in the middle of nowhere with a crazy man and a mother who
couldn’t or wouldn’t protect her own child. She got a job and found an apartment,
but it was always a struggle and she hated being alone. She had always had a
man in her life, and she didn’t like being alone.
The loneliness got to be too much for her. Or she missed
him. Or something. Whatever it was, she reunited with her former lover. Only
this time, she decided to marry him. On her wedding day, she sat at her
dressing table, putting on lipstick, arranging her hair, and having doubts.
Were they too different? Did she want to give up her life and follow him back
to that remote little fishing village? What if this marriage failed like the
last time? But the thought of being alone was more than she could bear. She
walked resolutely down the aisle.
The appeal lost, there was nothing to do but serve out his
sentence. He cut his hair in an approximation of the other kids’ 1950s era crew
cuts and tried to keep a low profile. This worked better at school than it did
at home, where he was now the only target for his stepfather’s tempers and tirades.
He tried to stay out of the way as much as possible, becoming the invisible
boy. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. He counted the days until he was
old enough to leave for good. There were too many.
The problems that had broken them up the first time
reappeared, a fact that was unsurprising to anyone except the couple involved.
Their relationship was tempestuous. At first, she loved the drama and the
passion, but as a lifestyle, that level of volatility was hard to maintain. As
the novelty wore off, she began to finally see him more clearly, realizing that
her children were not spoiled brats who resented their mother’s happiness, as
he repeatedly said, but were victims of a controlling man who could not control
his temper. Finally, she left him for good. For everyone.
How many times could she go back to square one, she
wondered. It seemed she never collected $200 when she passed Go. Sometimes she
regretted her misguided self-sacrifice in refusing to take alimony or child
support from her ex-husband. Her family had had money when she was young. Her
father bought a new Cadillac every year, and they had a grand summer house on a
lake as well as their elegant townhouse. Their father had actually had the
caretaker’s house moved several feet so that he couldn’t see it from his own
house. How times changed!
Those days seemed so long ago as she stood in the kitchen of
her small apartment, making dinner for her son and herself in the winter’s
early twilight. The apartment was in a good neighborhood, but she couldn’t help
comparing it to her childhood home, the house she had lived in with her
ex-husband, and the grand house he now lived in with his new family. His second
wife had provided her own children, which they both seemed to consider superior
to the first family he had had. The starter family. The practice for the real thing.
The children grew up, as children do. All of them got
married and had children, except for Felix. One sister had two boys and was widowed
young; the other had twins and was divorced. His brother was unhappily married
with two daughters, but his wife didn’t believe in divorce. So they stayed together, in the sort of inertia that holds many
people in places or jobs where they’d rather not be. Their mother never married
again, though she never lost her wide eyed romantic nature and the hope that one day, she
would find a great love.
Felix fell in love once and for all when he was in high school.
Their relationship had its ups and downs, and they finally broke up after
several years. They stayed in touch, and when his roommate found Felix ill one Sunday afternoon, she was the person he called. She arrived to find him
vomiting, unable to recognize her. She called an ambulance and followed in a
taxi. He had meningitis. All she could think of was Mark Twain’s daughter who went blind, then crazy, then died of meningitis. It was the closest she
had ever come to praying.
He survived, though it was touch and go for several days.
One day when she was in the hospital elevator on her way to visit him, she
overheard two doctors talking. “Did you see the meningitis case on 5?” one
asked the other. “Classic case, just classic,” he added. “You’d better hurry – he probably won't make it.” The other doctor nodded, and she
stood there, stunned at the callousness.
He did make it, though he lost the hearing in one ear, with the added
torture of constant ringing in that ear, which lasted the rest of his life.
When he left the hospital, his mother was supposed to pick
him up. He was going to stay with her while he got his strength back. However,
she completely forgot. He called her on the hospital’s pay phone with shaking
hands, but she wasn’t home. Once again, it was his ex-girlfriend who came to
his rescue, bringing him to his mother’s house, finding the key under the mat,
getting him settled in bed and sitting with him until his mother came home,
surprised to find them there. “Was that today?” she asked, taking off her boots.
The years passed, and Felix and his ex-girlfriend stayed in
touch. She got married; she invited him to the wedding, but he couldn’t bear to
go. She always sent him birthday
cards and postcards, and he told her that when he was living in some
godforsaken old age home, the one birthday card he’d get every year would be
from her. When her marriage ended, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of gladness,
though naturally he told her he was sorry. He thought that maybe, just maybe, after all these years, their time had come.
Years later, Felix’s ex-girlfriend is his girlfriend again.
And they live on the beautiful northern California coast. It’s not the
Beach Boys’ California, the one he dreamed of during his traumatic childhood,
but it’s still California. And even this late in the year, it’s still sunny.
She is still the only girl he’s ever loved. He told her that
once. She thought he was joking, but he persuaded her that he meant it, and he
did. Sometimes he can hardly believe that this scared little boy has grown so
much and come so far.