I knew even before Greg had found the photograph of Beatrice that my father had started dating someone serious again: come Friday at five PM, we could count on a sack of Chinese food and some cash left on the counter whilst he had poofed from sight.
“Looks like Houdini pulled his vanishing act again,” Greg would announce, already nestled with a bag of chips and the remote control into the hand-me-down brown velour couch Aunt Lynda had donated.
One Friday afternoon I came home to find that Houdini had surprised us with some tasty Italian take-out from a new restaurant. Greg, half-asleep on the couch, leapt up at the bag’s rustle.
“Hey, you wanna see Beatrice?” he asked.
He walked me to the linen closet—the dresser next to the stairs—pulled open a drawer and dug beneath a stack of towels.
“You ready?” he asked, cupping a photograph as if studying a poker hand.
“Just give it to me.” I snatched the photo from him, turned it over, and
felt a cool shiver raise the hair on my arms.
It was wrong. Everything was wrong about this photograph.
First, that my brother had found this hiding place; second, that my father, lacking privacy, had resorted to this public space as a stowaway. And of course the picture.
“Don’t tell Daddy” he whispered.
I nodded, incapable of speech.
Her body was like a Javelin Thrower’s; or maybe it was like a High Jumper’s. Better: she was like the Anatomy/Physiology model one finds in textbooks, perfectly proportioned with stringy athletic limbs, each fiber and muscle visible beneath taut skin. She stood in a pair of shimmering leopard satin underwear, arms at her sides, her walnut-brown skin reflecting the overhead lights. At the perfect center of her tennis-ball breasts were dark concentric bullseyes-- imprinting indelibly on my fifteen-year old retinas.
Yet contradicting this body made for the Olympics, was the sheepish grin on her cocked head, and the overt shyness emanating from her pained face. So this was the face then with the faraway voice on the other ends of the phone that meekly quavered; the voice that seemed apologetic for its very existence.
“Oh hi. Hi, I’m so sorry to bother you. Is Howard there?”
“So?” Greg asked.
“Jesus,” I said. I couldn’t stop staring. Who had taken this photo? My father? And why hadn’t we met this woman yet? His vanishing act had been going on for months. More, what an unlikely couple they seemed.
I thought about the photo all week long, keeping one eye on my father, and his impressive stoicism as he left for the weekends without leaving so much as a phone number.
“See you soon,” he said poker-faced.
And then one afternoon, it hit me-- the dynamics of this odd pairing—and I understood their relationship. He was her caretaker, and she was his new sexual queen. Which meant that we were utterly screwed.
My father’s sexual gratification could only translate to one problem for us: his absolute complacency toward the rest of the planet.
Beatrice was not like his last girlfriend, we soon learned-- another glitch for us. What I mean is that, unlike with his ex, we noticed that Beatrice had no desire to merge our families, and thus excavate us from the ground. She seemed perfectly content month after month to have my father over weekends while he left his kids at home.
Maybe this was because she was in her late thirties and had two teenage girls of her own, A’isha and Kendra—one of whom was about to give birth. Or maybe she was just dog-tired from a weeklong of driving a school bus and cleaning hospital linens. (It was at the hospital, we learned, while Ani had been in surgery, when my father had tucked her phone number into his creased jeans. “But I didn’t call her until much later,” he insisted). I imagine that for Beatrice, the stay-in weekends of video rentals and Chinese food (Friday’s my father began picking up two sacks) became a respite from her week of doing for everyone else.
Beatrice also seemed to have much smaller needs than his previous hook-up. My father, prone as he was to do, morphed into her man while we observed his shrinking aesthetic sense. No longer was he stretching his wallet for the newest and best. Instead, we’d come home from school to find that weird items had mysteriously transplanted themselves into the basement. Dusty silk flowers in an orange ceramic pot suddenly sat atop the refrigerator; a green glass ashtray appeared on the tea cart; mismatched utensils showed up in the kitchen drawer.
“Where did these come from?” I asked, holding up a few forks.
“Oh, those? Those are good. They’re stainless.”
“But where did you get them?”
He grinned sheepishly. “Nevermind. That’s good silverware.”
Only when Greg recovered a receipt from the bottom of one of those glossed yellow plastic bags—the transport system for the mystery items—did the enigma unravel: He’d been shopping at the consignment store.
We sat on the floor of the bedroom turning that receipt over in our hands. Since when? Why?
We could only attribute this new habit to his new perspective- gained, no doubt, at Beatrice’s, his weekend home.
Beatrice also lived subterranean; and soon enough, my father began replacing “this is temporary” jargon with Beatrice comparisons. Her dejected living conditions became the sword of his arguments.
“Did we know how bad others had it by comparison?” he began quizzing us in response to the smallest of our complaints. “Did we know how lucky we were to be able to eat? Look at Beatrice…”
It was true that Beatrice and her daughters has it worse than we, but how many others had it better? The problem, we argued, was that, unlike Beatrice, we lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and as such, had access to our friends’ homes. We knew they had sunlight. We knew they did not have to spritz a rusted hot water heater as part of their cleaning routine. We knew they had kitchen tables with chairs and did not eat lotus position over a wobbling coffee table. Christ, even Beatrice had that luxury.
Of course we had sympathy for Beatrice and her daughters. When my father finally took us there for the big reveal, we saw that their basement was smaller; their dented Toyota barely running, their town, destitute. Beatrice lived in Brentwood, the same town where Aunt V. had taken us grocery shopping. There again were the familiar storefronts, many of them boarded up, many boasting, “Check cashing here; food stamps accepted.” And there again, twenty minutes away, loomed the mansions of Dix Hills. Did my father think we were oblivious to that? Did he suddenly expect us to consider Brentwood as representative of life outside of our dungeon?
We hated visiting Beatrice’s. For one, we found it hard to understand her. Her shyness, I realized, had more to do with a paralyzed facial muscle, which, both our presence and Carlo Rossi wine seemed to exacerbate. Nor did we have much in common with her daughters. Kendra, with her bulging belly had crossed a boundary we could not comprehend. And yet, who could blame her? She had not grown up with contrast. At our own school, the girls with their crisp Jordache jeans and decent SAT scores, while we secretly hated them, were in essence, our competitors. Who were Kendra and A’isha on par with? Their high school had its own teen pregnancy division. This was not the “Baby Think it Over” program our Home Economics employed-- sending us home with eggs to cradle, and for the kids in later years, the doll with the computer-chip which recorded its holdings and feedings. This was “Baby You Got One.”
Also, Beatrice’s neighbor’s made us feel unwelcome. One night we stepped outside to find that the tires of my father’s Vista Cruiser had been slashed.
“Of course it’s because I’m white,” he said, annoyed.
From then on when we pulled up to her house, I saw us through the neighbor’s eyes: rice wrongly packaged; cream swirling in black coffee; or just a carload of white trash visiting the neighbor, something to talk about. Only comes on weekends. Been coming for over a year. Well maybe she’s that good. Maybe he is in love. Well, he aint no sugar Daddy. Look at the station wagon. Got kids of his own, too. What is his story?
Our own suspicions were correct; he did, in fact help her financially. We heard them on her stoop, Beatrice slurring, “But I have no cash, Howard.” And he’d peel a few bills from his pocket.
He started recycling our discarded clothes for her, too. “You’re not going to throw those out, are you?” Or he picked out duds from the consignment shop. Christmastime, Beatrice may never have received a diamond necklace, but she did get a car battery, a tune-up, a microwave, a television, and of course, rent money—things to keep her a notch above survival.
And as will happen when the belly is fed, and one is able to think beyond the confines of rent and car insurance, Beatrice eventually wanted more. And why not? Dating my father must have been like dating a married man.
One Saturday night, a year into their relationship, I entered the screen door of the basement to find him: home! What was the problem? Beatrice wanted to go dancing.
I plunked down on the couch. “So take her.”
“What’s wrong with you? Do you forget that my tires were slashed?”
“Then take her dancing around here.”
“Are you kidding?” His eyes flicked to the ceiling, a thin layer of sheetrock separating us from my grandparents’ kitchen floor.
“They know you’ve been dating her, Dad.”
“They don’t know everything.”
“Yeah, they do.”
“Well, they’d freak if I brought her here. Trust me. I know my parents.”
“Then take her dancing where you feel comfortable, and then take her home.”
“What, and drink and drive? It’ll be late.”
“Look, Dad, I don’t know what to tell you. It sounds like you’re just trying to get out of it.” Hadn’t his ex accused him of the same crime? Not wanting to do anything but sit home and have sex?
“Alright, Heather, spare me your psychological analysis, please.”
“Well, you’re asking for my help.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
I restrained my usual remark, the one the three of us had said for the past year: if we merged both basements we could afford one above ground, and he wouldn’t have to answer to his parents, not that I believed he really did answer to them.
But we never did merge basements; before long, we stopped even our holiday visits to Brentwood. Saturday nights, my father pleaded into the phone.
Beatrice would not allow him to come over. She was sick of staying home. She had gained too much weight from all the MSG in the Chinese food. And she was lonely. She was going out to the movies with her sister Mattie.
At last, Beatrice had mandated, “Take me dancing or don’t call me.”
My father took out a personal ad.