Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hats Off to Horst

I’ve just watched the episode of In Treatment in which Gabriel Byrne’s Dr. Paul Weston try to retain a brave face while he learns of the growing closeness between his teenaged son and his ex-wife’s about-to-be husband. What very painful, very shameful memories it brought back.

Wife the First and I separated before our daughter’s third birthday. There were multiple aspects of my personality she’d come to be unable to stand, as I’d come to be unable to stand several of her own. She especially detested my fervent tightfistedness, and began getting chummy before we actually came apart with the latest in a succession of very wealthy men she’d beguiled. This one, whom we’ll call Horst, was the scion of a German electronics manufacturing family. Like the earlier, to whom she’d been engaged, he was no oil painting in the looks department, and English being his second language precluded his dazzling her with the sort of wordplay that is my own stock in trade. But what an awful lot of money he had.

(Tightfistedness is as natural to me as pollen allergies. I am the son of a mother whose family commonly had in the dark of night to abandon rented apartments on which they’d come to owe far more than they had. My dad’s circumstances hadn’t been quite that awful, but he was no more capable of spending money casually — or even unagonizedly — than walking upside down on the ceiling like a fly.)

One Sunday afternoon, Horst drove WTF down from the wine country to collect our daughter in front of my place in San Francisco. As I watched the three of them greet one another delightedly and then drive away, I felt as though getting open-heart surgery without an anesthetic.

Some months later, my daughter and I were taking a moonlight stroll around our new neighborhood on The City’s western edge when she enumerated the people she loved most, and included Horst. It had never been OK with my mother that I love my paternal grandparents, who she felt had treated her poorly in the first months of her and my dad’s marriage. Now I channeled her, telling my daughter in no uncertain terms that she was under no obligation whatever to love Horst, who wasn’t after all, her real dad. And this after I'd promised myself that I'd do better by her than my parents had done by me. I recall with infinite shame her crying in pained confusion.

It turned out that Horst was actually a very nice guy. Aware of my feelings, he made a point of stepping quietly aside whenever I entered the picture, as when greeting my daughter at the airport when the three of them returned from one of their many visits to Germany. After my daughter performed (with jaw-dropping brilliance) in a school play one evening when she was around nine, I thought I’d finally tell Horst how very much I appreciated his deference. He was so intent on sparing me a confrontation that I had virtually to chase him around the gymnasium. A good guy.

A very good guy. Two years after relocating to the UK, I returned to Santa Rosa to finalize the sale of the house I owned there. I lived in mortal terror of running by chance into my daughter, who hadn’t spoken to me for over two years at that point (and who hasn’t, at this one, spoken to me in eight a half). I could too vividly picture her sneering at me hatefully and walking quickly away. My first morning there, though, I was astonished to hear someone calling my voice in the drugstore where I went for breath mints — Horst. When he told me my daughter was down in Santa Barbara studying cosmetology, I was gigantically relieved — and then overcome by jealousy. How was it that he, who had divorced her mother a year or two before, knew my daughter’s whereabouts while I did not? At the same time, it felt only fitting that, for having made her cry on our walk that night, my heart should be bloated with pain.

The older I get, the more conscious I become of how well my parents did by me.

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