(Originally published in AGNI)
Shrink yourself down to the size of the child you once were, and I will show you my house. Look inside its large bay window—of which I was as proud as if it were the nose on my own face—and you will see my father’s baby grand piano and maybe even my father himself, caressing its keys with a sentimental tune. See the open shelves, upon which my mother placed her prize collectibles and which, as an adult, I would steal from her, one by one. Peer up into the dark coat closet, where my father’s cheap coats from Klein’s rubbed shoulders with my mother’s wools and furs. In this closet my father, consumed by jealousy, once lay in wait for my sister. As she stood before it and kissed her young man, my father leapt out and hit her savagely with a broom.
To a child, there are no words, only things—looming, shimmering, cataclysmic. Every object possesses an almost overpowering presence. I still cringe each time I think of our sofa’s plastic covering, which engendered vicious fights whenever my mother wanted to remove it for guests. Its telltale crinkle was evil incarnate. But then, I also recall my senseless pride at our newly redecorated dining room, the house’s one attempt at elegance. When I stood in that room, with its crystal chandelier, mahogany-stained cabinetry, and Chippendale chairs, I felt myself to be nearly an aristocrat. The adjacent kitchen was a cozier place of warmth and safety, its maple walls imprinted with the rubbing of my high chair.
As one descends from the kitchen, the space becomes more masculine: it’s my father’s space. There is a small laundry room, then the unheated garage, from which I can still hear my father’s screams when he endeavored, usually unsuccessfully, to mend household objects he had broken. Finally, down the last long, dark flight of steps, one enters the hallucinatory world of my father’s playroom.
In his playroom my father had set up an impressive wet bar, behind which lay a shelf stocked with every imaginable liquor. One Chianti bottle had a neck about two feet long. Another was shaped like two serpents. I always feared that genies might someday decide to waft out of these bottles with their deadly, chilled breath. As an adolescent I used to sneak down here with my best friend, Julie, and take nauseatingly sweet gulps of the crème de menthe, no one the wiser for our minty breath and bright green tongues.
On the ceiling above the bar hangs the maroon-and-white-striped paper tent that sat atop my fourth birthday cake, remnants of its white icing still clinging to it. And above the bottles two African masks, their obscenely long paper tongues hanging out.
I never touched these masks. In my mind, they contained all the nascent violence of the house itself. Because, no matter where one was in this house, one could always hear my father’s familiar litany of curses and the low animal growl that heralded it, like the aura of an approaching grand mal seizure:
“Fucking cocksucker! Fucking cocksucker fucking bitch bastard fucking dog!”
Nowadays there are names for what my father had, diagnostic shelves on which to isolate it, medication to calm it. But in the 1960s there were no names, no medication. Dad, we were told, had to “let it out.” And so, I assure you, he did.
My brother Matthew had the good fortune to inhabit the farthest bedroom from my parents’ suite on the third floor. It was a typical boy’s room, skis stuck in one corner and decals pasted on the walls. I often caught my brother lying supine on his foldout bed, lips and hips glued to the corresponding parts of some girl. When Matthew moved to college my mother turned this room into a swank den. It then became almost heart-achingly harmonious: brown, black and cream grass-cloth, fine shag carpeting with strands of wool that matched the wallpaper. Two captain’s beds, covered in paisley velvet, and in the L-shaped well between them, a copper planter inside a maple table. I used to watch these plants for hours, amazed at how the palms hatched their pale new fingers whole. But they never hatched when I was looking. It seemed like magic that plants could live in a table.
But my situation, in a small room at the base of the stairs leading to my parents’ suite, was a devastating piece of bad luck. Had I been in Matthew’s room, snug in my separateness, I might not have been the direct recipient of my father’s rages, or of my parents’ naked bodies. Sometimes my father wore a towel around his waist, but these towels were never long enough to cover that pendulous arc of his genitals; pale, pink and shriveled, they struck me as a kind of tragic mistake.
If my father’s private parts were shriveled and sad, my mother’s, on the contrary, were overly plump, even expansive. Her hair formed a wide black triangle. Even now when I look at myself in the mirror I see my mother’s body, a residual image from the days when I was not separate from my mother and her ugly triangle or her beautiful house. Nor was I separate from my father’s screams, which never, as far as I could tell, abided any earthly cause and effect. My father had a stutter and a terrible blink in both eyes. Sometimes when he spoke his entire face would go into revolt, and the words would explode from his lips. He had eczema all over his hands and feet and sometimes it got so raw from his picking at it that he would steal a bottle of my mother’s makeup and lather it all over the red, scabby sores.
Perhaps the makeup stung, or spilled, and suddenly, “Fucking cocksucker!” Or maybe a Band-Aid had refused to stick to his finger and “Fucking cocksucker fucking dog!” It could be a drop of alcohol that spilled on the carpeting, or one of my mother’s Pall Malls left burning in an ashtray,
“Fucking slut bitch!”
It could be words, or things, or my mother herself. But it was also always me.
When I think about all the unsafe places in my house I want to fly silently over the winter landscape of early childhood, across the snow-piled rooftops of suburbia. I want to fly through time until I reach the age of eight or nine, when I began to paint, or thirteen, when I began to write. Why not fly right there, passing over the barren years, letting tiny bits of its withering roughness get scooped up by a later consciousness, for which pain has its purpose, its role within the story?
But I am not eight or thirteen, I am three or four, and the places I have in mind are bleak, hellish spots that I experience as if no skin covers my body. I can remember sitting countless times in the back of my father’s Thunderbird, hearing the immutable click of the automatic locks, and the inevitable beginnings of an explosion. My mother had usually lit up a cigarette just as soon as my father had put the key into the ignition.
“You stink,” he would say.
“Shut up. Leave me alone.”
“Put that out, you fucking dog.”
“Don’t start. Don’t you start or I’ll get out of the car.” And indeed my mother would begin to open the passenger door as the Thunderbird bombed down our street.
“Fucking cocksucker bitch, fucking dog!”
In being a wife to my father, my mother lost her lovely contours. Photographs of her as a young woman show a shy, gentle creature. She had soft brown hair and shapely legs and a small red smile lacking in guile. But years with my father had twisted her like a sick tree. I recall her hunted down by him, racing down the stairs of the house screaming in a soft, breathy way:
“Get away from me! Get away from me!”
I remember her sleeping on the sofa, with the plastic still on and a blanket thrown over her, my father waking her in the middle of the night, commanding her to come back upstairs. I see her bent over clutching her stomach, her eyes glazed, repeating now in a whisper, “You’re killing me, you’re killing me.”
My father was always gone by the time I woke up in the morning, having risen at five to travel the forty miles into Manhattan to miss the gridlock. For the first years of my life he actually had a chauffeur, whose entire reason for being was the unlikely event that my father went into cardiac arrest on the Henry Hudson Parkway. At the time of my birth doctors had diagnosed a “cardiac insufficiency,” and my father had lain in bed for several months. Most likely, it was a bad case of nerves. But from then on we all lived as if he might drop dead at any minute. I was going to lose him, and because he terrorized me the relief of this possibility looped back on the love and made it even more agonizing.
And so I woke to a world of strange, lovely, guilty calm. The kitchen smelled of frying lox and scrambled eggs, and in warm weather my mother let me help her plant flowers in the garden. I loved cupping the warm squares of dirt and roots in my hands before setting them in the holes. Or she would take me to a duck pond along the Bronx River Parkway, where I would stand on rocks covered with slippery black algae, bending down gingerly to pluck the clusters of snails from their stubborn vegetable webs. Bathed in the warmth of my mother’s solitary contentment, I would forget all about my father.
But as the afternoon pulled the sun down it took my delight with it, eclipsing both in a shadow of terror. Sometimes my father was in a good mood when he came home; but at other times his eyes would glow and the gentle, feminine air inside our house would begin to vibrate with his own stuttering voice.
I could hear his voice before he had quite closed the door behind him, and at these times I would retreat to my safe place, a spot behind the dining room door. It was a two-by-two square space that looked out through a window into the backyard. In the middle of the wall there was a heating vent. I would press myself into this tiny square, my back and neck burned by the intense heat from the vent. I liked the burning, and when the roar of this heat suddenly clicked off I would sigh with both relief and disappointment, waiting for the rush of air to resume. Sometimes I would lie with my head wedged up against the cold window, covering my ears with my small hands.
To meet my father, you would never guess at his rages. He is a tall, refined-looking gentleman, resembling Gregory Peck. His hair, blond in youth, turned a shiny black in middle age, and is now, at the age of eighty-three, merely flecked with gray at the temples. He loved buying suits at a bargain, but in spite of that, and with some help from my mother, always managed to look dignified. During his days on Wall Street a gold pocket watch dangled from his waistcoat pocket, making him look precisely like the successful lawyer and scholar of law that he was.
My father could make a rousing speech, stutter and all, and his conversation was littered with wry puns and double-entendres. His humor, evidence of the good and gentle side of his nature, often got him in trouble for being misunderstood. He could play jazz piano, synthesizer, drums, mandolin, and bouzouki, and from what I can tell still has perfect pitch. In business or intellectual discussions he could be a strong leader, for in his otherwise chaotic experience of the world there was a strong, deep pull toward the logic and rationality of ideas.
Sometimes he behaved like a real father to me, and I lived for those moments. He would turn his thick, squared-off fingers into a pair of legs and have them dance and leap about on my pale arm. Or hold my small hands stiffly around a pair of drum sticks, teaching me a classic roll. He gave me vocabulary lessons, too. Every night for several months he taught me a new word. The only ones I remember were greenbacks, currency, and stock market. The lessons ended when he failed to explain to me what the stock market was. Grunting and groaning, his explanation finally devolved into a splutter of incoherent stuttering.
But the best times with my father took place far beyond our home, at his office in Manhattan. He was nearly a different man when working. Suave, charming, in command—everyone respected and even loved him. He was a fair, compassionate boss, always ready with a joke, and his employees forgave him his blinks and stutters and curses. “There goes Harold again,” they’d say, rolling their eyes.
Daynard & Van Thunen Co. had their first offices on the ninth floor of an old building on Maiden Lane, near Wall Street. Inside, the offices had wood swinging half-doors that separated the waiting area from the secretarial pool. My favorite secretary was Ceil, the dictaphonist.
Ceil had been with my father forever; she was probably the only person on earth who could make out that tortured, stuttering voice on the tapes. Ceil had a brown, deeply wrinkled face and sat in a thick haze of smoke from her constant cigarettes. I never saw her without the earphones and somehow got it into my head that they were actually a part of her body.
After work my father and I would walk down the eight flights of stairs, since he had an elevator phobia and wouldn’t ride on them (which presented somewhat of a problem later on, when his offices were moved to the forty-second floor of the World Trade Center). Breathless, we would then walk hand in hand over to the Fulton Fish Market.
I loved the fishy smell of that cobblestone square and Louis’s Seafood restaurant on the pier, where we always ordered Manhattan clam chowder and I scuffed sawdust back and forth between my feet. From the window of Louis’s restaurant, I would watch the fishermen haul huge ropy nets from the boats. It was back before the days of ersatz eateries and clothing boutiques, when the pier still echoed its earliest colonial days.
“Look at my girl,” he’d always say proudly to Louis, calling him over to observe me. “Look at how big she is.”
“Hey, gorgeous,” said Louis. But I never felt big or gorgeous—more like a tiny Cinderella whose charmed time was strictly borrowed.
Before leaving the market I always paid a visit to that mysterious store owned by a mysterious Oriental man. It was a time before the proliferation of imports from Taiwan, and to a child these objects were utterly exotic. One found puzzle boxes with secret compartments; magenta-striped tops that glowed solid colors when you spun them; loud-cracking, silken-wood pop guns. My father always bought me something.
Once, this otherwise fastidious man even bought me a rabbit. “Hoppy,” as I called him, soon mutated from a cute bunny into a monstrous giant, some Northern Dutch breed that was big as a Rottweiler by the time we finally gave him to the Bronx Zoo. My father bought me chicken eggs that hatched into turkeys, and other similarly strange animals until I began to think that no living creature ever grew up to be what it was born as.
He protected me as if I, too, were some rare animal, the sole survivor of an endangered species. If I stayed late at Julie’s he would watch me walk home from behind a neighbor’s privet hedge, thinking himself unperceived. When I was old enough to drive, each time I pulled out of the driveway he incanted, like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the story of his secretary who was beheaded by an oncoming truck. Once, when I was nine or ten, I ran away from home—only for half an hour, as I recall—but I returned to a madman: he was crying and before I knew what was happening he let out a ferocious growl and punched me hard in the gut. It was the first and last time he ever hit me, and I would have despised him had I not known even then that the thought of losing me was more than he could endure.
When I was all grown up my mother finally told me that I had a crazy uncle I never knew about. My father’s older brother was not right in the head, she said, and was committed to an institution. He died there several years later, at the age of twenty-four. No one ever mentioned this uncle to me, and it’s hard to know what he truly suffered from.
I often wonder when my father, so handsome and gifted in his youth, first began to blink, stutter, swear. He probably couldn’t tell me, sharing as he does both the self-deprecating humor and the blindness of his generation, those first-born American Jews who were far more anxious to invent than to examine themselves.
It seems to be the legacy of my generation, on the other hand, to examine ourselves not once but twice: the first time to inspect the damage, the second to apportion blame. And why not? I had my own blaming years, to be sure, years in which I wondered whether the damage was even reparable. But as the excavation continued something rose up whole and unblemished from the cinders, something far more interesting than bitterness or blame: my father’s rage had a color.
It is red, edged in brown-black. It begins at the Thunderbird, always parked close to the road so as never to get stuck. It travels up the walkway, through the front door, up the stairs past my bedroom and down the kitchen stairs into the playroom, fanning wispily at the edges. My mother’s grief had a color too, but hers is far less distinct. Apple-peel-tinted oatmeal, not on the ground but rather hip-high, along the walls.
As it turns out, I have always seen intangible things tangibly, in color and shape. But so deeply was this anomaly hard-wired in my brain that I hardly noticed it, and certainly never thought to tell anyone about it. My synesthesia, as doctors call it, must have colored my very first perceptions. For example, my week is (and always has been) shaped like an oval. Monday begins at one narrow end and is a dark, urban blue. Tuesday is a warm, yellow ochre. Wednesday, burnt orange with shimmering pumpkin edges. Thursday is a speckled granite gray. Friday—the other small end of the oval—is jet black. Saturday and Sunday, occupying nearly one full half of the oval, are, respectively, a soft grayish white that hisses like a television station that has gone off the air; and a deep stained-glass red.
My years and months have color, too. A full year is shaped roughly like a cow, gray with a flat, light-gray top for summer and a rounded brown belly for the winter months. Sounds are not exactly colored, but they do interfere with the other senses, sometimes changing uncomfortably the texture of the very air I breathe. A Beethoven sonata played too loudly will make it impossible for me to taste my food. Often, aural sensation gives way to hallucination, such as the New Orleans brass band that starts up every time I turn on the dishwasher.
It was only recently, in the fullness of adulthood, that I claimed the heritage of my synesthetic forbears: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Vladimir Nabokov, who describes his own case of synesthesia in Speak, Memory!: “The long a of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped).”
Nabokov goes on to write that “the confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leaks and drafts by more solid walls than mine.” But the writer knew the truth behind his humble pose: the walls that divide the senses from each other and the self from the world are also prison walls, locking us away from a life bristling with possibility.
The contours of perception evolve from birth to death, and with a bit of luck the individual eventually becomes distinct from his parents and the world at large. Those once-permeable walls become more solid. But for some of us, this process never quite completes itself. Our senses, built to determine reality—the tableness of a table, the fruitiness of a fruit—never fully emerge from their infantile state of oneness but continue to drift in a nearly hallucinatory state of flux. Whatever the cause, in the end we synesthetes remain semi-connected. We suffer like martyrs, knowing all the while that we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maybe that’s the neurochemistry of pain: that, having been assaulted at a tender age, our senses remain fixed at a primitive level of perception. Or maybe it’s just the desperate need to salvage something that finds me digging like a thief at the past. But I do believe that, were it not for the pain, my synesthesia would have remained forever unperceived, like a cave of emeralds under the dirt and gloom.
My father’s rages have calmed over the years. He now merely growls, like an old dog having a bad dream. On the phone we talk about music, and he asks me whether I need money, and whether I’m being careful “out there.” When we speak now I see no color, feel no pain. Perhaps that’s because I’ve begun to imagine a time not far off when he will no longer exist—and eternity is too vast for even a synesthete to color.
My father loved me achingly, but always with the desperate fear that I would stray beyond the limits of his control. He could never see how his safety was my danger, his freedom my prison. And I could never see the love, because love is abstract—and mine is the world of primitives, for whom there are only awesome, terrible things.