This is the hardest part of my mother’s life for me to imagine. Not only is it literally foreign—living in post-war Germany, but it is also that time in her marriage to my father when her life seems ill-defined to me, a cipher of its reality, a sleight-of-hand illusion, a card trick. There are details that are facts, of course: their mutual infatuation with each other, photographically confirmed, their Army courtship, their time together, and apart, his parents, but not her past, at least not at first. It is a time where she is nearly formed in my mind, so close to a complete picture of her character, only her distant past is more real than this time.
Later, she would rarely speak of this time of her life and when she did, he did not play a part in any of the scenarios or if he did it was because it was unavoidable. We would sit on the sofa when I was young and dig through our box of photographs; I would ask “who is that?” and “what were you doing then?” or “I like the way you wore your hair,” and “that’s a silly photo!” She would answer my questions, but she never discussed his character or what went wrong — or for that matter — what went right. She was a model of evasiveness, on the run from the truth, at least the truth as it applied to me, dodging in and out of the traffic of my questions as efficiently as a stunt driver.
The problem as you will by now have divined is that I know nothing of my father’s character. There are bits and pieces, a couple of deep memories of his touch and his brusque manner, but they are so thin a layer of understanding that it is a theatrical scrim, back lit, dropped down in front of the mise-en-scène of this time, movement and form indistinct but noticeable and frustratingly close, a dream ballet, your subconscious, the truth tantalizingly close.
And then there is the matter of us not being tied by blood; if I had half of him coursing through my veins I might be able to look in the mirror and see what he might have been and what I might be. This blood tie is debatable–perhaps only in my mind, as I long for some connection, somewhere, perhaps as all adopted children do–there are those who seek out the truth while the chance of their blood parents being alive is still a possibility, that is not me however, and now i am left with only my imagination–and yours.
But now. I conjure their love for each other, before he put her in the collapsible, wheeled cabinet with the stars and fringe and draped a velvet cloth over it, willing her to disappear. He, a decorated warrior, she a new recruit—with a past–played by Ann Sheridan in the movie—and older than him by a decade, a life already lived, if not well, at least she carried the experience of relationships with her and he did not. Her enlistment perhaps the act of a desperate woman with no future and the hope that this action would change her luck, with men certainly, but also with her life.
(Should I ask now the question that has followed this story, the story that I know; when did the abuse start?)
It is possible that I am lingering—actually loitering, slouched against a brick wall at the corner of “Not-knowing” and “Wrong-way”, a cigarette dangling from a pouty lip, hands shoved deep into the pockets of my jeans, just the slightest note of defiant fear wafting around my head like smoke—perhaps even dissembling, and that i have no business at this intersection and it is beginning to show, even to you, that I am at a loss for words to describe what I have no knowledge of and I cannot even summon up the courage to admit it to myself. And that it is because I have more questions than I have answers. This is not a fairy tale in spite of the fact that that is exactly how I imagine it: the dark brooding prince, with his dashing demeanor, gallant and handsome vs.—and it is exactly that, the versus, that defines this story, making it less a work of fiction and more like the truth—the damsel-in-distress, beautiful, sweet, begging to be saved, (she said). And is love, is infatuation, not unlike a fight? All of that history from both sides coming together, fueled by passion and lust — the domination of and sublimation to, the top and the bottom, the actual act of making love an assault on the castle keep, battering, battering, with its ultimate victory and its ultimate defeat.
It is true they made a life together and it is true that they loved each other in their own ways; it is also true that they made room for another life, an act of generosity so great, that in spite of their lives not fitting together still counts for something, a plus on both their scorecards. Even that, though, does not make the fiction of their life any more true, or more easily understood and shared. Like the photo that accompanies this story, it is a room decorated, but without a sign of life.