My dad was a drifter and a grifter. For dad, life was a fortuitous accident.
A brilliant and versatile man, dad could have been anything he wanted to, and, in a sense, he was. For dad, the only goal in life was to avoid boredom. He had a method for everything and a purpose for nothing.
For him, life was a joke. An in-joke. The only choice you had in life was to either play the comedian or the straight man.
Blessed with a photographic memory, as well as a knack for accents and languages, he became a scam artist, impersonating other men. This wasn’t some get-rich-scheme. It was the best way he could think of to avoid boredom. Even though life was meaningless, it didn’t have to be dull.
So he chose to live by his wits. Think on his feet. Live on the edge. He enjoyed the challenge. Talk his way out of every problem.
He’d fake resumes, then apply for jobs–or finagle jobs–as bankers, teachers, faith-healers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, pilots, priests, scientists, sportscasters, policemen, psychologists, rabbis, and so on and so forth. Bluff his way through the interview. Work the job for a few months. Then move on.
We only stayed in one place for a few years at a time. Dad couldn’t afford to become too recognizable. There were some close calls along the way.
Mom was a socialite from the “right” family. He married her under false pretenses–naturally. At the time he was impersonating a Wall Street arbitrager with a Harvard M.B.A.
They had a fabulous wedding ceremony. Followed by a fabulous honeymoon. All the right people in all the right places.
By the time she found out the truth, I was already on the way. Not that anyone found out who he really was. With dad, there was no difference between the actor and the role. If you peeled back one role, there was another role underneath. He had no core identity. No identity beyond the part he played. It was more a matter of finding out who he wasn’t.
Mom stuck it out for my sake as long as she could take it. Unlike him, she didn’t enjoy living on the run. Not that he enjoyed his lifestyle, exactly. It was just a way of staving off the boredom.
When I was a kid, it was fun to con adults. Outsmart grown-ups. And my dad was a very good teacher.
Kids are powerless. At the mercy of adults. So I found it fun to manipulate them. Outwit people who, at my age, were supposed to be smarter than me–but weren’t.
I also became proficient in chess, poker, pool, and martial arts. And I had a knack for mathematics.
However, when I hit adolescence, I began to lose my admiration for dad. It’s not that he ever did anything all that wicked or harmful–like cheating retired couples out of their life savings. For one thing, that wouldn’t be much of a challenge. An easy mark was boring.
I became appalled by the gap between my dad’s abilities and trivialities. Mind you, I understood where he was coming from. I, too, knew about the inside joke of life as we know it. But it wasn’t funny anymore. It wasn’t enough.
There was this one time when dad was impersonating a professor of religion at an Evangelical seminary. Like always, he had the arguments down pat. Found the right tone of voice.
All very convincing. Indeed, this time he was a little too convincing for his own good. It stuck in my mind. By the time I went to high school, I was a Christian.
At first, dad thought I was playing a role. When I leveled with him, that was the only time I ever saw him disappointed. He was too cynical to have faith in anything except his own cynicism. But he seemed almost disillusioned. Surely his own son was too clever to be taken in by religion.
I let him down. He felt deflated that I wouldn’t be following him into the “family business.” But he got over it. He didn’t take religion seriously, but then, he didn’t take anything seriously. He had his coping-mechanism, and I had mine. He also figured that this was just a youthful phase. He was wrong.
I was really beginning to enjoy high school. Dad planned to move out of state during my junior year, but I told him, no, I wanted to complete my high school education at the same school. Get to know the students. Make some friends. So he went along with it. Not as if he had anything better to do with his time.
At that point I hadn’t quite decided what to do with my life. I was tempted to go into the ministry. But I was afraid I might be a little too worldly for Christian ministry. Perhaps I’d become a mathematician instead. I enjoyed abstract reasoning. I enjoyed the infinite complexity of math.
And then there were girls. Unlike my dad, and because of my dad, I wanted to settle down and have an utterly conventional life. A wife and kids. A steady job. Find a nice place to live and stay put for the rest of my life. Form some lifelong friendships.
I dated a few girls, but didn’t go steady. I was sampling the menu. Tasting the entrees. High school was one big buffet.
I could afford to take my time. I was young, popular, athletic, good looking, and very very smart. Brains ran in the family.
I had everything under control, everything worked out–until…
Chantal was an exchange student. It was the first day of my senior year. I was seated by the window, for social studies, when I saw her for the first time as she came into the classroom. It’s not that she made a grand entrance or anything. But there was just something about her. Hard to place.
She was pretty–especially her eyes and her hair. But other girls were pretty, too. Indeed, from certain angles, or in certain light, she seemed almost plain. But there was something about her.
It’s not that she was so beautiful. More that she could beautify her surroundings. It was hard to say at first just how she did this.
Thankfully I’d taken French, so that gave me the inside track. Not that I was entirely fluent or idiomatic, but spending time in her company took care of that.
We instantly connected, and other students saw the instant connection as well. My buddies teased me. Here I’d been so detached, but one look at her and I was hooked. They could see me seeing her. Something clicked inside. She was the key to my lock.
As we spent time together, I found out that Chantal was a creature of pure experience. She was utterly nonjudgmental. Art, music, nature, people, religion, the occult. She was curious about everything. Sampled a little of everything.
It was all quite unself-conscious. She reflected without being reflective. Like a chandelier in a ballroom. A thousand little mirrors in motion.
The first time I brought her home, she inspected my bedroom. She didn’t look at the books or gadgets or posters. She was interested in the colors. The color of the rug. The wallpaper. The bedspread. What the colors said about me.
Actually, I hadn’t given much thought to the color scheme. That came with the house. And the bedspread was a birthday gift from my mom. But that’s how Chantal thought about things. Thought about people. Not so much thought–but responded.
We were living in the Pacific Northwest. A land of seasonal affective disorder. Yet she enjoyed the moody views. It didn’t depress her.
I prided myself on my detachment, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind. If I’d met her in my twenties, perhaps I could have put her behind me. But at the time my manhood was taking shape, she stamped herself on my emergent manhood. And the feeling was mutual.
Dad was bored by my other girlfriends, but Chantal–now that was something else. It was almost enough to restore his faith in me. If only he’d been my age!
She and I went for long walks in the woods. By lakes and streams. With mountain views. Sometimes we took picnics in my dad’s ski boat. Too his boat up the Sammamish Slough, cut the engine, and let it drift downstream under the dappled light.
We both found more to reality than meets the eye. For both of us, nature was a sign of something greater than itself. But as I began to discover, she and I saw different things in nature.
I read nature the way I read the landscape of Scripture. A tree reminded me of other trees. The tree of life. Or the oak of Mamre.
A lake reminded me of the Sea of Galilee. A stream or river reminded me of the Jordan, or the river of life. A mountain reminded me of Horeb or Mt. Carmel.
But, for her, a particular scene reminded her of a past life. She believed in reincarnation. Deja-vu. Prophetic dreams.
She attended séances. Spoke to her dead grandmother–or so she thought.
She and I were in touch with a larger world. A sense of something beyond the world of sense. But with a difference. We saw the same things, and then again we didn’t see the same things. She couldn’t bring me into her world, and I couldn’t bring her into my world. We are drawn to each other, but we inhabited different worlds.
We tried to make it work. After we graduated, I spent a year at the Sorbonne–just to be with her. But I didn’t like big cities. And as big cities go, I preferred Marseilles to Paris.
We went lots of places together in France and Italy. I saw things through her eyes while she saw things through my eyes. I’ve never been tempted to abandon my faith for intellectual reasons. The intellectual reasons were so unreasonable. And it’s not as if there was anything better, or half as good.
No, that was not the way to reach me. If I were ever tempted to jump ship, it would be to swim to her desert island, spend our lives together–and die together.
Yet I didn’t find the temptation all that tempting. Life with father was like a vaccine against the world, the flesh, and the devil. I had seen the other side. Seen his sleazy friends. Seen the pawnshops. Seen the jaded women. Seen the two-by-fours beneath the gaudy stage set.
So we broke up–sort of.
It was a dilemma. On the one hand, I couldn’t get Chantal out of my system. I couldn’t quite live with her, but I couldn’t quite live without her.
On the other hand, I wasn’t cut out to be a monk. I wanted a wife. I wanted kids. I wanted a real life.
It wasn’t quite fair to my wife to marry a woman before I got over another woman. But what if I couldn’t get over the other woman? What if the other woman couldn’t get over me? What if we were both inseparable and incompatible?
We tried to make it work–my wife and I. I loved her. I was faithful to her–to a point. She gave me a daughter and two sons–for which I’m eternally thankful.
Still, there’s a sense in which we got divorced on the same day we got married. Chantal originally planned to boycott the wedding. It was too much for her to see me take another woman to be my bride.
Mind you, she understood. But that didn’t make it feel any better.
But at the last minute she decided to attend. She didn’t want to miss out on that part of my life. She came to honor me.
It wasn’t her intention to make trouble. She was very discrete, and very polite.
My bride didn’t even know who she was. Why tell her? She knew I had dated other women. I knew that she had dated other men. Life is a compromise. For all I knew, I was second-best on her wish list.
Everything was going fine until Chantal congratulated my wife and me at the reception. The way she looked at me, the way I looked at her–said it all. My wife saw that. She saw that I looked at Chantal in a way I didn’t look at her. And, frankly, she also saw that Chantal looked at me in a way my newlywed didn’t look at me. That was the beginning of the end.
It didn’t help that Chantal would phone me from time to time. I arranged for her to call me at work rather than at home. One time my sons were in the office when I took the call. So I had some explaining to do.
They were very understanding. It was a man-to-man sort of thing. But I also thought I lost some moral authority with them.
Sometimes Chantal would come to town. Want to see me. Indeed, come just to see me. So we’d arrange to have lunch somewhere–just the two of us.
I didn’t tell my wife. I didn’t exactly lie to her. I told her I was going somewhere to do something. Which was true–to a point. A half-truth.
I always paid cash so that my wife wouldn’t uncover any incriminating receipts as she was going through the bills. Chantal and I never did anything beyond lunch. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, for all my disapproval, I was acting more like my old man than I cared to admit. Like father, like son.
Eventually my wife found out about our clandestine encounters. She felt betrayed. Can’t say I blame her. I just couldn’t bring myself to shut Chantal out of my life. I guess I never really made a choice. Or maybe I did.
Although the divorce was painful, it was a bit of a relief. I didn’t have to feel guilty about sneaking around. It was almost like high school again. We could finally pick up where we left of. Make up for lost time.
At least that’s what I was hoping for. But as things turned out, Chantal wasn’t quite the innocent, wonderstruck girl I remembered from high school.
Of course I knew she had many affairs with many men over the years. She even told me about some of them. But I wasn’t jealous because I knew that she would always come back to me. The other men were just so many placeholders.
Yet years of working as a medium began to catch up with her. Collecting its dues.
She suffered from wild mood swings. Sometimes she’d ring me up at night, half drunk, and scream at me. Furious that I never gave myself to her–body and soul. Then, a few days later, she’d call me back, very apologetic for the way she behaved.
When we dined out, I’d notice that she drank far more than usual. But I didn’t say anything–since she’d fly into a rage if I did.
She became addicted to sleeping pills. Began to see a psychiatrist. She had good days and bad days.
She’d be out of touch for weeks at a time. Wouldn’t answer her phone. One day her housekeeper called. Chantal had died the night before from an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. Was it suicidal or accidental? The authorities couldn’t say.
Dad and I attended the funeral. It had a little something for everyone. A quote from the Bible. A quote from the Bhagavad-Gita. A bit of cither music.
Dad died of a heart attack a few years later while impersonating an oil tycoon at the roulette tables in Atlantic City.
And I went back to church.