Were Your Parents As Secretive As Mine?
I believe women can’t keep a secret because they talk too much. I believe men can because they aren’t listening to you in the first place. Neither of these statements, however, applies to my family. Both my parents were so secretive they probably killed JFK. And since I didn’t read the Warren Report all the way to the end, unless it ended on page three, it’s possible.
I found out exactly how clandestine my parents were when they divorced and Mom revealed Dad had a first wife, Marion. He forced my mother, his second wife, to keep his secret for the length of their marriage, twenty-nine years, two years longer than Nelson Mandela spent in prison for not denouncing his anti-apartheid friends. My parents would have lasted longer in prison than Nobel Peace laureate Nelson Mandela. I would have lasted two and a half days and I’m lying about the half.
Mom eventually married a Frenchman named Jean when both were in their fifties. I didn’t discover who he was until I was fifteen, long before I met him and long before they wed. After his divorce and while my mother was married to my father, they renewed the friendship they enjoyed before and during World War II when they were in their teens. I discovered their updated status by snooping through Mom’s papers, the ones she kept in the living room closet with all our winter coats and boots.
sidebar: These are the top two search areas from the burglar’s handbook: 1. Closets. 2. Synonyms for closets. If parents want to hide something, they should attach it to their keys. They can never find those.
I told my thirteen-year-old sister Lindy what I discovered, which I’ve always regretted, but I never told Dad, which I’ve never regretted. And as for Mom, I never let on I knew anything. But I morphed into a different person. One neither of us recognized.
Jean’s sons referred to my mother as Michelle, which is not her name. Not even Michelle-adjacent since her name is Olga. When I asked her why my future stepbrothers called her Michelle, she French-Faced me. Lindy and I call it The French-Face: an eye
roll up to the left, an almost imperceptible shake of the head, and a contemptuous, dismissive shrug. I’m a standup comic: I can recognize signs of contempt from space.
And then there was Dad’s third wedding, to Dorothy. He didn’t invite us to the ceremony because he never disclosed his upcoming nuptials. Lindy and I were both living in Paris when I decided to move back to the United States. I sent a telegram home asking Dad to pick me up from Dulles Airport but when I arrived, he wasn’t there. He was the most reliable person I knew and his absence signaled something was wrong. I called our house but there was no answer. I waited another half an hour and called again. After twelve rings, I finally had to admit he wasn’t home and probably wasn’t on his way to the airport either. Dad, a Colonel in the Army, had rules, two of which were punctuality and call ahead if you’re running late. The same rules that plagued my life as a teenager, now discarded like hated junk mail.
My cab pulled up to our house, which sat dark and forlorn in our suburban neighborhood of brightly lit homes. From the curb, it resembled an abandoned house a horror movie camera zooms in on, creepy organ music overlaying the slow ascent to the door. Inside was as cold as the winter blowing outside. I wanted to search the place, but what if I came across my father’s lifeless body, slumped over The Washington Post and a manhattan, the maraschino cherry staring up at me like a bloody eyeball, his body preserved for all time by the lack of heat. I spend a lot of time expecting the worst-case scenario then if I turn out to be wrong, which I usually am, it’s a win. So I went next door to the Selden’s house. Let their father discover my father and turn on the furnace to defrost him.
Mr. Selden motioned to his green and blue floral couch, the same one they had when I was a kid.
“You’d better sit.” He lifted a fifth of Johnny Walker Red from a bank of bottles as I made my way to the sofa. I sat, fully aware no good news ever comes after someone tells you to sit.
“Drink?” Mr. Selden asked, pouring two inches of brown liquid into a glass without waiting for me to answer. I was only seventeen when I went away to college but since then I’d apparently earned a face a longtime neighbor deemed in need of alcohol. But at least he didn’t offer me water. In the movies, when a catastrophe befalls the lead character, someone will give her a glass of water. Unless it’s to wash down a Valium overdose, I’m unclear on the point of this beverage as the antidote to calamity.
I shifted my weight off a small lump on the couch. I’d never been alone with Mr. Selden. I’d barely exchanged ten words with him while we were growing up. I was nervous.
“Suzy, your father remarried.” He handed me the glass of scotch and appeared relieved the news was finally out in the open.
“Remarried?” He’d only been divorced from Mom for a year.
“A few months ago, in Illinois. To a woman named Dorothy.”
Well, at least Dad wasn’t dead, but why did Selden know more about our life than I did? And who the hell was Dorothy?
“Wait a minute, what was he doing in Illinois, did he move there?”
“You’d better ask him.”