Terminus ad Quem by Robert Wexelblatt
Three weeks ago, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. A month before that, I learned that I had secured one of the most sought-after and worst-paying of placements, a berth in the United States Department of Justice. I’ve found a small apartment not quite in Georgetown and here I am waiting to take up my post as a public servant, scouting out the grocery stores and pizzerias. My girlfriend—quondam girlfriend? ex-girlfriend?—graduated with me, side-by-side so to speak, and now Monica Goodman is in Oregon, answering the call of environment law. In fact, she’s already enmeshed in her first case, part of the team, something to do with salmon, erosion, fertilizers. “It’s unbelievably complicated,” she bragged to me breathlessly, “and already in its third year.”
My parents separated when I was eleven, divorced when I was twelve. It was a fairly bad time, in all the customary ways. But my older sister Denise was a brick—she still is, too—and took me on her back, showed me how to behave, how to take it, how not to be consumed or self-centered. Mother was a brick too, only a slightly more crumbly one. Like a good Roman Senator, she did everything she could to maintain the status quo, as if, after the one big change, any small ones might prove lethal. So it was the females who pulled me through. As for my father, he behaved well, comparatively: he stayed in all our lives albeit in a peripheral capacity and if you were wearing blinders you might miss him; he was never mean about money, custody, or vacations. We were his first marriage. The second lasted a quarter as long, the third about half as long as that, neither eventuating in any offspring (“to contest the will,” Denise joked in a rare, endearing moment of wickedness). After the third wife, a horsewoman, he gave up, apparently. Now he lives alone in a vast four-bedroom argosy on the Upper East Side, hard by the museums whose curators would salivate at the stuff on his walls.
As such parochial celebrity goes, my father is famous in the profession which is now mine as well. I have, of course, thought a good deal about this and I’m convinced it really isn’t a case of wanting to put my little feet where his big ones have trod, much less to launch a postponed Oedipal contest. I’d have become a lawyer even if my father were an anesthesiologist or a fireman. It almost goes without saying that I’m the only one who believes this.
There are plenty of smart lawyers, even a surplus of them. But my father is also honest, well connected, and wise, the kind of counselor with lots of bottom on whom powerful people in difficulties like not just to call, but to depend. I happen to know he could have had a seat on a high bench three times over if he’d given the nod. Of course he never mentioned this to me. It would be bragging but also letting me too far inside. Dad’s a nice, imposing door that’s seldom even ajar.
I’m close to my mother and Denise—something on which Monica once commented ambiguously—but my relations with my father resemble those between, say, France and Korea or Argentina and Finland. We have no history of serious conflict, no common borders—we’ve never discussed the Law—our interactions are infrequent, polite, and there’s good will on both sides, or at least not a bad one. Would forested, frigid Finland discuss its internal affairs with hot-blooded, steak-chomping Argentina? Still, I’ve read that Finns adore the tango. You never know when an affinity may leap up and grab you or when a stuck door may suddenly fly open.
My father traveled down to Philly for my graduation; he even sat with his first wife, his daughter and son-in-law, one more person who believed I was becoming a lawyer because he was one. He also assumed I’d applied to the Justice Department because of the sort of work he’d done when he was starting out, and still does, I suppose, though in loftier and less official zones. He said as much when he phoned to let me know he’d be there. “I can’t tell you how it makes me feel. It’s really a nice surprise.” Nice surprise? Did he mean that I’d bowled him over or that what surprised him was how my choice made him feel? Good? Proud? Either way he sounded so gratified that I dispensed with the usual disclaimer. Why not? He’d been generous in his fashion, so could I.
He wanted to take me out for a big dinner, just the two of us, and spent an extra night in town to do so, waiting for the others to leave. I wouldn’t be off for another three days and I knew the food would be free and fabulous so I said, “Wonderful,” and he said, “Bookbinders—the original one, not that new one. It’s still here?” That he thought I’d know was amusing.
Bookbinders, the olde original near the Delaware, dark wood, thick carpets, businessmen, tourists, a huge menu and a thick wine list. To go through the latter, my father put on a pair of those half-spectacles which made him look owlish, a soupcon of Ben Franklin. He ordered not one, but two bottles of something which turned out to be white, French, and lip-smacking good. Larmes de Tristesse, said the fancy label, put in the bottle in the chateau, it assured the anxious. There was a line drawing of the castle and I made a joke about the weeping enologists of Burgundy, tossed in the oubliette by a jealous Duke. This was Argentina tangoing, trying to get a rise out of Finland.
We both had snapper soup. He ordered a boiled lobster; I asked for scallops.
After that, we drank and ate and not much was said.
Then, suddenly, “You don’t think I got a call from Justice, do you—because I didn’t. And I didn’t call them either. Just wanted you to know.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t tell you I’d applied. They don’t know I’m your son.”
“Right,” he said, cracking open a claw. He was working hard in his lobster bib, smeared with lemon butter, which made him look like a big, dignified baby.
More eating. Then, “Where’s your girlfriend?”
He’d met her once, when we’d gone for a weekend in New York. He took us in a cab to a steakhouse in Brooklyn and presented us with tickets to La Bohème.
“Packing for Oregon.” I checked my watch. “Nope. On her way.”
I explained while my father polished off his bottle of wine and poured himself a glass from mine.
When I’d finished the short tale of Monica following her vocation rather than me, delivered without a trace of resentment or male chauvinism, he asked, “So, it’s over between you?”
“I think we both accepted that it was temporary—you know, until graduation. It might have gone differently, I suppose, but it didn’t.”
I don’t think I’d ever heard my father sigh before and it was memorable, the loud, sincere exhalation of a pachyderm.
Did he ever say, “I love you,” to me? Did he ever just grab and hug me? Not that I can recall. I think paternal love was for him a kind of stipulation between the parties, agreed on at the outset and requiring no subsequent mention. While it may have been the root, impetus, and primum mobile of all that followed, it tended to disappear under the horizon, like Aristotle’s God. You know it’s there but a little proof wouldn’t hurt. My father’s sigh was something; still, I found the preposition elusive: had he sighed at me, to me, with me, for me—despite me?
I asked him straight out, “Why the big sigh?”
He curled his lip in a buttery smile, as if about to tell a dirty joke, then his face grew serious; it clouded over.
“What is it?” I said with real concern, putting down my wineglass.
“Later,” he promised. “With the coffee.”
And so I had to wait for the clearing away, the ordering and serving of dessert, then the coffee. I liked that when I asked for chocolate mousse he said, “Me too,” like a child.
He stared down at the surface tension on his coffee and not at me, his hands toying delicately with a spoon as though it were a key he’d remembered but had forgotten the lock.
Lawyers of his caliber speak only when they’re prepared to do so. I knew better than to prompt him.
“They have a phrase down south, the same as no difference at all. Well, when I was your age—or the same as no difference at all—just out of law school like you, I went to work down there, in the South. You know that. Funny thing, I hear it called the Civil Rights Era and sometimes it sounds pompous and sometimes rueful and sometimes all wrong and sometimes just right. …we were a band of youngsters, exactly what the government wanted—idealistic wise-asses, acid to the segregationists’ base, brand-new knives just hankering to get at something that badly needed stabbing. But you know the kind of work we did, probably even how dangerous it was.”
That work was legendary, so the implied question was rhetorical and I waited in the Bookbinder hush.
“It was a hothouse atmosphere. Maybe you can imagine. There were three young women among us. We felt protective of them, worried over them, even though they were all reading Betty Friedan. Couples formed. You know. Danger, intensity, the common cause, the absence of air-conditioning, youth—it was inevitable.”
His look silenced me. This was to be a monologue, a lecture, momentous and unprecedented, delivered by a father to a son he supposed was like himself—or at least the same as no difference at all.
“We were lawyers in love with the Law; justice was in our titles and our blood.” He indicated his empty wineglass. “We were a little inebriated with it but not so naïve that we didn’t know we were…” He looked up at me almost defiantly. “She was beautiful, just a beautiful person. And a firebrand. Burning, brilliant. But, as I say, we were lawyers and we knew we were on an adventure, a crusade, that it was all real enough but at the same time not real at all, not real the way our lives would eventually be. Afterwards. So everything was provisional, we thought. And that’s why we made the contract, she and I. We would be lovers until it was over, until we left the South. That way there’d be no recriminations, no hurt feelings, no confusion. We thought it would free us and it did. We were as passionate as we could be and maybe it was because we knew it was temporary so there was no point in holding anything back, in pacing ourselves. I wanted to be with her every minute. I’d find opportunities to brush by her, smell her hair…it was like that,” he said slowly and so sadly. I guessed at the unstated corollary: and it was never like that again.
He fetched up another elephantine groan. “And when it was finally over, when we were pulling up stakes, I waited for her to say something about our agreement, our commitment not to make a commitment, the contract we’d signed before hopping into bed. But she was obviously detaching herself and, though I waited and even hoped, I followed suit, couldn’t bring myself even to mention it. Why? I was too in love to risk it. I know that doesn’t sound sensible, but that’s how it was. I didn’t want to spoil things and have her throw the contract in my face and, well, maybe I thought too that this wasn’t real life and didn’t have the balls to put it to the test.”
I sat still, in case there was going to be more.
He looked at me sheepishly, one more unprecedented expression. “Any questions?”
“A few,” I said.
“Did this have anything to do with the three marriages?”
He gulped some water. “Probably,” he allowed and I could see it was hard for him.
“Did you ever see her again?”
Now that he’d gotten it all out, his gasp of romanticism, he’d turned monosyllabic.
“We met a dozen years ago.” He looked around. “A place like this.”
I calculated. He had just left my mother twelve years ago. “And so?”
“Married. Happily, I think. Two daughters. Stopped practicing after the second was born.” He couldn’t even bear to incarnate her as a pronoun.
I pushed. “And?”
“And she told me the terrible thing I wanted to hear and didn’t want to hear. That she’d been waiting for me to say something. That’s all.”
“So you kept—what?—trying?”
“Not any more,” said my father in his brusque court voice, and called for the check.
Maybe my father never became a judge because he didn’t trust his own judgment. He had reason not to. I don’t doubt he told me about his mistake because, in the way of parents—perhaps especially distant ones—he thought I was repeating it, just as it pleased him to believe I’d become a Justice Department lawyer because that’s how he’d started out. I have to ask myself if he was entirely wrong, if it is in some measure true that I’m trying to please or outstrip him, and I’m just refusing to admit it. I have also to block my resentment of him, my exasperation with his presumption—an arrogant one, to me—that his past explains my present, predicts my future. Undeniably, though, Finland has tangoed for Argentina, given it a glimpse into its deep lakes and fjords, and as a consequence their relations may grow warmer, more intimate.
So here I sit, near Georgetown, future about to begin, past just ended, and I’m nearly certain that no, this story isn’t about me, not in the least, not at all about my romance or my unhappiness or why I’m alone.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.