It’s Summer 2005 and I bring a binder of photos, my own family album, to my shrink’s office at Beth Israel Hospital in the East Village. It is a Tuesday afternoon, and I’ve high-tailed it down here on a long lunch hour from the midtown proofreading job. We’re about a month away from moving out of the city upstate to Albany. Everything seems to have fallen into place. This is before we go through our search for a baby, but long after I have tried to figure Cousin Mike out.
My shrink asked me to do this for months, years maybe, but I’ve kept putting it off, kept forgetting. Finally, on a bright morning in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on the last day I will see my shrink, I set out from my apartment to the F train with photos I’ve collected and stolen from relatives over the years and compiled into my own family album.
As I flip through the three-ringed binder, there are high school buddies, kiddy photos, mom, dad, sister, grandmom and grandpop, aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews. I flip the pages and I talk. There’s my sister, draped with a homecoming court on the Maple Shade High School track. There’s me and my mom after the divorce, a For Sale sign on our lawn, standing front of the gray primer-coated van.
My shrink stops me when we get to the baby pictures—a photo booth strip of me at five months old, on my dad’s lap.
“He’s not touching you,” he says. His voice has the “eureka!” tone I’d never heard from him, not in the three years we’ve been meeting. “He’s propping you up with the tips of his fingers. He’s holding you away from his chest.”
This marks the rare time my shrink didn’t observe something with one of those therapy-speak questions, the Socratic kung-fu table-turn that works most of the time but it is at times maddening. He has made a declaration; he’s noticed something, and he tells me outright. And he’s right: I am raised above my father’s thighs, suspended like a specimen, with only his fingertips touching my belly’s sides. We start to notice other baby picture that play out the same tableau.
Then he points at a picture of me, years later, on the beach in Ocean City with my grandparents. We pose next to a lifeguard boat, as we did every summer. My grandpop, who I thought was one of the surliest men alive, has both hands on my shoulder. His smile is so wide that the tops of his cheeks bump under his thick-ass Michael Caine glasses. My grandmom strikes a more regal pose, hooks her arm around mine, as we are entering a formal dance.
“Look, they’re all over you,” he says. “You can see how much they love you, and they’re not shy about it. In those other pictures, your father holds you at a distance.”
This difference, at least as it was pointed out to me this Tuesday afternoon, strikes me as dramatic. I think about the lack of touch over the years, the lack of love, and it comes up to the surface of my skin. “You do not stop hungering for your father’s love,” Paul Auster writes in The Invention of Solitude. When the father dies, the son becomes his own father and his own son. I am a 36-year-old man, crying in a back office in a teaching hospital, and at least in this moment, I think I have figured it all out. I am not thinking of how my eyes will clear up as I walk to the elevator at the end of my appointment.
As I walk out onto Second Avenue, eyes welled behind my sunglasses, I rub my own arms with the other one. It looks like I have some time of palsy. Instead of going back to work, I call out sick and hightail it to the nearest and darkest bar, and order a bottle of Budweiser.
I call my wife to tell her I love her. As I drink, I put my mouth and nose into the fold of each of my arms. I breath in and out. I smell my body, the soft arm hair. As I drain down the beer, then another, I return to my arms. I calm myself down.