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Rachel Becker

A Self-Portrait

I remember the first time I read the Elizabeth Bishop poem, "One Art"; it was in my freshman year poetry class at Vassar College, where Bishop had been a student. Over the next four years, I'd re-visit this poem many times: Bishop had left drafts and revisions to Vassar so it was, in my mind, a perennial work in progress., fluid and beautiful. In it, she magnifies moments of pain, trepidation, and joy that made my heart flutter (and still do) I could hardly get the words out: "the art of losing's not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster". Inspired by her courage, and what I felt was an injunction to confront truths and demons, pain and loneliness, I began writing poetry more seriously than I had as a teenager, or, at least, taking it more seriously than I had before. Writing became a way of ordering events, remembering dreams, exorcising anger, but most of all, making a record of that place (Vassar) and time (when everything felt new and close to the quick of things). To practice writing daily was to make sure nothing was lost, no memory left unrecorded.

I have a slight phobia about losing things. As a child, I was manic, arranged everything before bed: clothes, books, papers, homework, so that I could find them immediately the next morning, or before, if I had to, as if, in the night, things could wander about freely. I lose things regularly: books, clothing, CDs, other people's clothing, bus and tube tickets, grocery lists, snaps, buckles, buttons, bike helmets, but rarely those things that are so difficult to replace. Never keepsakes, or passports, or keys.

So, when one very cold November afternoon I lost my wallet, it caught me off guard. The only thing I could think was that it had fallen out of my bag, within the space of a block, somewhere between Lincoln College and the bank, but this seemed impossible, was I really that preoccupied? I called Dave, to panic, for advice, to hear him say that, no, I wasn't irresponsible, and that it happens to everyone at some point. It happened to him in Paris, a boy took his wallet from right in front of him, there was a chase, we went to the police to file a report. When Dave speaks, he has this amazing ability, just with the sheer strength of his voice to make everything seem, if not okay, than at least better.

Then I made a long distance call home, to ask my dad (my mom was in Michigan on a performance tour), if he'd cancel my two American credit cards. The line was busy. I called back. He answered that the bank had already called him, and that Barclay's had my wallet; I'd left it there when I made a deposit. Everything was fine, he said, and told me to relax, take a few deep breaths. My father, like usual, was giving the advice he himself found so difficult to take: hey, just be cool, like me. And that was it. That was the end of the conversation. I went to the bank, recovered my wallet and was grateful.

The next morning, before rowing practice, I found an email in my inbox from my mom, back from her trip, with the subject heading: Not So Home Front, saying, simply, that after twenty-dive years of marriage, my dad wanted a divorce. He was in love with another woman, one of his piano students, she wrote, barely twenty-two years old, younger than me. He'd had other affairs too, over the past ten years, such is the way of things, she wrote. I could feel the heaviness in her words, but could think only that there was nothing worse to lose than the sanctity of home, the feeling that one's parents would be there always. And then there was the deafening sound of vows being bent, broken, and discarded.

My grandmother, a Viennese Jew, swears by her premonitions and dreams; she says a guardian angel disguised as an SS officer saved her from almost certain deportation and death. In the spring of 1938, while others in Austria were rounded up in various town squares, she was told to stay put, wash a few more windows, even the ones she'd already done. My brother thinks he's psychic, swears that he can feel when something is about to happen, like when our paternal grandfather died three years ago, he was watching a lightning storm and suddenly went cold. I tend to feel that psychic impulses have more to do with the coming together of different fibres and threads, the way they might merge into a knot, accidentally, but with tremendous force.

That morning, everything was mud thick and freezing. Rowing was cancelled because someone hadn't shown up, it was still very early, so I went for a walk in the park instead, not wanting to be in an enclosed space, afraid of my tears and rage and of waking the neighbours. As an American studying abroad, I knew that it was because I had faith in my parents, not just their ideals and values but also the strength of their relationship, that I was in England at all. When I got an acceptance letter but no funding for graduate work at Oxford, they'd both said that I should go, and not worry about the money, and this is how it had always been, and oh how lucky I was, for this to be the case. But suddenly home felt incredibly far away; I might as well have been on the mars, my parents, alien and fierce.

The morning dragged on, still, so early. I called Dave, bought two large coffees and went over to his place without saying why or what was wrong. We spent the next few hours huddled in bed crying together, my face sticking to his shoulder, his arms wrapped tightly around me. When we first met, on my inaugural visit to the UK, there was the inevitability of my leaving at the end of the academic year and our losing each other to the distance between our two countries, and it hurt, bitterly, more than anything else I'd ever experienced. On the flight home, I remember being given tissues from a German woman who was crying too, I didn't ask why. That summer, I slept with his scent in my nose--a soft musk-- knowing it would fade if I wasn't careful. I wrote him letters, and when he seemed reluctant to reply, I thought about letting go, then, over time, did so, only to discover that in him the process had worked in reverse. We found each other again.

The end of my parents' marriage was heartbreaking, but I also felt genuine grief, because it seemed so terminal, and I was at a complete loss to know how to overcome it. Looking back, I think I did everything right: I called a friend of mine who's a therapist, she sent photocopies and stories and advice; I internalised ritual, I threw some of my dad's old (and impoverished, I thought) poems down the Cherwell, and even though they (symbolically) got stuck in a tangle of branches I could feel the pain receding. I sought strength, comfort, help where I could, and when I couldn't, I let myself hurt. I let Dave see my face clouded over with tears and pain, hot and red almost beyond recognition. I was worried that he'd tire of the late nights, my unpredictability, my need to talk things through, always, that thing which culturally divides the Americans and the English, gregariousness, reserve. But, I needed the help, the steadiness, and the support. When, that winter, I caught almost every flu bug in Britain, I let Dave nurse me back to health. I embraced him, even though I worried that this too was a mirage, that everything, even that which seemed most solid, could implode, disappear, leaving only sorrow behind.

My parents didn't disappear, though: divorce is like that, everyone lingers. I managed to talk to my dad regularly, because it seemed better than not speaking at all, even though I despised him for what he had done and because he felt no compunction and made no apologies. I listened to my mom speak about the past, let her do most of the talking, held her hand over the phone, made sure I called often, this was for both of us, a way of coping. I wanted her to know that I was as dependable as she had been for so many years. My brother, usually so cheerful, easy going, and at peace with the world became withdrawn and stopped eating, somehow punishing himself. Simply by virtue of being closer to home he had borne the brunt of the weeks and months that followed the initial separation; he helped my dad move house, he helped my mom adjust to being alone, and, during the week, he attended the music conservatory at Shenandoah University, making the three-and-a-half hour drive back home nearly every weekend. I worried about him, wrote to and for him, and felt more powerless than I ever have before.

Even with my hands tied across the ocean (I was, ostensibly, doing a degree), I learned so much in the months which followed. Friends from all over sent love and prayers, but also their own stories; everyone seemed to know someone to whom something very similar had happened. Christina, a mouthy classmate of mine at Vassar, had lived with her mom and several sisters in a small apartment in Red Hook, NY after her father ran off with the Puerto Rican maid; Nicole's dad left with a secretary. Other men just left by themselves, without explanation. And while some stayed, the marriage often dissolved into simple estrangement: two people sharing a house, or even a bed, but leading separate, disparate lives. My dad, exceptional, artistic, driven, wild, and funny, had become a cliché. I was devastated and furious.

My own relationship with my father has been blustery at times, particularly when I was a teenager. His patience with me often wore thin; I was, after all, sulky, flaky, and brooding, but fundamentally lonely, and where he wanted an intellectual peer, I was more interested, perhaps obsessively so, with the 'bigger' issues, sizing up the world at large, its moral inconsistencies. For my father, however, books and ideas existed in a vacuum, undisturbed by humanity. I felt he consumed them, made them a vehicle for his own ideologies, rather than listening more, to them, or to me. I also began to notice his tendency to escape into his work, to use it as an excuse even when others needed him, so that home was often tense and my mom, my brother, and I, walkers on eggshells. When I was with friends, he was either gruff or flirtatious. I started to spend less time at home, not embarrassed, exactly, but because it was easier to be elsewhere.

Eventually, after years of teen angst and ambivalence, I decided to come forward, to knock on the great wooden door of his studio, to make things right, or to try, at least, and committed myself to helping mend whatever trust had been broken. It seemed to work; things improved, I felt I had a more receptive audience. My dad also started traveling more, to Paris, London, New England, Nova Scotia, a new, and less pedantic outlet, I felt. And, I went away to Vassar, came home for most holidays, brimming with stories, new-found wisdom, details from an entire world apart, and one which I both loved and found difficult and claustrophobic.

When, however, my father refused to come to my college graduation, I was puzzled, then angry, because I thought he'd want to be a part of this very sustaining place, to see me, as a grown woman, in a new context. After all, he'd made the nine hour drive with me four years before, full of pride, and now I was graduating Phi Beta Kappa, I'd won a prize for best senior project in the English department, and my housemates and I were having a huge BBQ for our friends and family; it seemed childish, and selfish for him not to want to be there. He said his back pain would keep him from enjoying things, that he'd be more of a burden than anything else. But when I found out that he had volunteered to drive one of his piano students up the northeast corridor that same weekend so she could attend an audition, I began to question his motives. In short, I was jealous and told him so. And suspicious.

To have one's suspicions confirmed is, on some level, incredibly satisfying. A month or so after the divorce, I confronted my dad about the nature of his relationship; his new partner made his meals, organized his diary, and baked apple pies, which she never ate herself. Her own father hadn't supported her musical career, which he thought unsuitable. In his absence, she'd found my dad. While I was living it up in England, pub-hopping, travelling around Europe, and having adventures, she was my dad's 'honey', spilling manna-tipped sweetness into his ear while alphabetising his musical scores. And, in turn, my dad bought her gifts, but worried, also, that she lacked ambition. I'd spent so many days and sleepless nights speculating about who this woman was, and why they were together; now everything seemed transparent. My mother, strong-willed, with a sharp tongue and quick mind had made my dad feel, perhaps, inadequate. Later he would say that she was "obsessive about proving her worth to the world", because she had professional aspirations, because she, like him, was a classically trained pianist, and loved work. Later, he would suggest that if she needed money, she could get a job in a bank.

I decided, though, rightly or wrongly, that it wouldn't be tenable to live with anger flowing through me with every mention of the past, no matter how bad things got. I sought to find a way towards forgiveness, and I wish I could say, that now, almost two years later, I can forgive my dad, and all men, for their transgressions. What are we, after all, if not fallible, and human? I understand temptation: it lurks beneath dreams, behind people's eyes, in the palms of their hands.

But my dad's decision to be unfaithful was conscious, he wasn't bewitched, nor, do I believe he was really in love, though I think he is now. He was vulnerable, aging (he's nearly 60), watching friends and family die and grieving not only for them, but also for lost time and opportunities. But because of his decision, my mother has suffered great pain; she's beautiful, graceful, intense, clever, funny and warm, but has lost some sense of these traits, so overpowered by feelings of rejection, haunted, almost. I don't know if my dad understands this, perhaps he does, or perhaps he believes that the money she received from the settlement is just compensation, that with it she'll be able to find happiness again, as if it were simply an item lost in some clutter of sadness. I'd like to think that he's more compassionate and simply hasn't found a way to articulate his remorse.

Meanwhile, as I write this, just over a week away from my own wedding, my mind and heart are open, clear, ready and buzzing . I do occasionally feel pangs of fear, knowing that in spite of the happiness I feel now, there will be pain, anger, hurt, and misunderstandings along the way. Whatever Dave and I do right, we're a living experiment and likely to make mistakes along the way, we're still both very young, full of feverish excitement and future dreams. I think my parents lost each other because they harbored grudges, carried torches for old flames, and let tensions bubbling beneath the surface of things go un-confronted. I think they lost each other, too, because of the strains of personal ambition, and because they were naturally competitive: professionally, personally, sexually. These are pitfalls; there are others that remain shrouded, but in their midst, too, so many more joys.