It was childish and touching, the letter on the pink note paper, forwarded to him from his office in the consulate. Carlson felt an unexpected pang and looked out for relief from his high hotel room commanding Johore Bahru and the Causeway. Then he turned again to the round writing with the circled periods.
Dear Father: Washington, D, C.
I am writing to ask if we could meet when you come on home leave again, whenever that is. I think I am old enough and mature enough now to meet my real father. Mother would probably agree to it, though she doesn’t need to know if it would embarrass you. It could be arranged with the help of Ibby, that’s my girl friend, she lives in New York.
My stepfather has been O. K. but I can’t “face the future” without knowing my biological father. I don’t know what it means when they say blood is thicker than water. Do you? It’s just a feeling I have, about meeting my bio father. Maybe it’s crazy, or maybe you will feel the same.
You can write me here at school. The first trimester is over just before Christmas.
Yours very truly,
He tucked the sheet of pink paper into his attache case. “Old and mature enough.” He was tempted, for he had a home leave coming up. But no, it wouldn’t do. It wasn’t as though he’d ever had any relationship to her, even as an infant; for although the court had given him rights to see her, he’d never used them. Meeting her now would be no better than encountering someone at a cocktail party, as superficial. Or if he tried to start a relationship that meant anything, it might turn out to be an embarrassing disappointment, or at the least a kind of gaucherie, a sentimentality, Also risky.
So Jacqueline’s stepfather had been “O. K.” From time to time he’d wondered about the kind of man Frances had married. At the time of their divorce she had spurned the idea that Carlson should provide support for their daughter, as he had offered, accusing him of not wanting the child. And it was true. Frances had started it unilaterally, so to speak, without consulting him. There was more that hadn’t been right in their marriage, but that obstinate recklessness was typical. So he had felt no responsibility or obligation to the child.
He answered the note kindly, thanking her for writing and telling her—for she would have no way of checking up on him—that it would be two years before he had another home leave. He wrote the letter, but he put it in his personal “Hold” folder to go in the mail pouch when he got back to Kuala Lumpur.
It would be his first home leave since Eleanor died, suddenly, shockingly, of hepatitis. This time there would be none of the excitement of doing New York again with her. He would spend his time working at the Library of Congress on his book about the history of the American Foreign Service in Southeast Asia, its strength and weakness, its successes and failures.
As he sat at the head table at formal dinners where his mind could wander during long, dull speeches, or when he lay sleepless at night missing Eleanor, his mind often reverted to Jacky. He wondered, somewhat against his will, whether Jacky would look anything like himself or anyone in the family. She was his only projection into the future, whatever that was worth.
He’d known since he was in college that he didn’t want to bring a child into such a world, perhaps to suffer an awful deformity or accident, to dread the day when he had to tell her what he had first heard from his own father when he asked, “Why are those big stones all in rows?”
But Jacky was here, and she must know about disease and death by now. If she had reached out to him, maybe he owed it to her to respond. Back in Kuala Lumpur he wrote her that he wanted to meet her and that he would be on home leave in New York in December and in Washington in January,
By return airgram she answered that she would be visiting her girl friend Ibby in New York for part of her Christmas holidays, There was a restaurant she knew about in the East Fifties where he and she could have lunch while Ibby visited the Museum of Modern Art. Could they meet there on December 28 at 1 o’clock?
Admirable child. No time lost, no waste motions.
He found himself thinking about the prospect more often than he should, looking forward to it, fearing it, too. There was something brutal about meeting your only child for the first time since she was a pudding-faced baby. She may have romanticized him, thought of him as improbably handsome and brilliant.
Fortunately, Jacky hadn’t chosen one of those dim, liquorous eating dens common in the Fifties; he wanted to see her in prosaic daylight. She wasn’t sitting perched on a bench in the waiting area by the coat-room, as some novices would have done, but had taken a table at the back, facing the door, and left her name with the maitre d’.
When he came up to the table, she smiled at him, and for a moment he was disappointed that she wasn’t pretty. The next moment he was happy about it, because her eyes were of the same bright gray as his mother’s and there was the same winsome upturn to the corners of her mouth. Perhaps Jacky, too, was adjusting her preconception of him, for the insouciance with which she had first smiled up at him faded, and she looked down at her plate.
“There’s so much I want to know about you. But why don’t we order first, get that out of the way? Let’s make it a real party. What would you like?”
“Could I have snails to start. And then sweetbreads?”
No doubt trying to show him how sophisticated she was, He said he would have the same. No question of wine—she was too young to be served here.
“I’m out of the country so much that I hardly know how to talk to a modern American girl. You must help me.”
At this impossible order, she wrinkled her nose, sniffed. She was rather pretty, after all, when her face was in animation. “When I told Ibby that my real father worked in Southeast Asia, seeing all those fabulous places and people she just about died of envy.”
He sighed, told her that his duties as cultural affairs officer might make life seem one long party, but actually involved a lot of responsibility and endless paper work. And headaches. Trying to make the best of the so-called specialists Washington sent out: poets, lecturers on economics, blues singers, puppeteers, vaudeville comedians—all the queer characters that seemed to go under the heading of cultural exchange. Apologizing to the host country when the specialists misbehaved and to the specialists when the local people mixed up the schedules. Yet he confessed that after all these years he still loved his work, found it exciting.
“I asked Mother about you once or twice. She said you were a gentleman. Whatever else you were.”
“Did she?” he breathed, fascinated at this picture of himself.
“But that you and she weren’t compatible. That you wanted foreign travel, to live in strange places, and that was no way to raise a family.”
He remembered now Frances’s taunt about visiting the adult toy shops of the world and his own retort that evidently she wanted to spend her life in a nursery. No, she said, she would work in politics, too, to make the world a better nursery.
“You don’t look a bit like your photographs. But I feel as if I’ve known you somewhere.” She giggled for some reason, and while he puzzled over this, she went on, “As long as you’re so nice and easy to talk to—I hadn’t really intended to say anything about this, but anyway—”
“I’ve got a problem, sort of. It’s Bob, my stepfather.” Her mouth grew tighter, stapled at the corners.”Maybe I’m just imagining it. But I don’t think so.”
“What is it?”
“Well, the way he puts his arm around me sometimes. And the way he kisses me. Specially when he’s had something to drink. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. But what do you think I should do about it?”
The old goat. This, he knew in the hollow of his stomach, was one of the reasons for the old-fashioned family, for the real father as a protector, as guardian in the house. That a daughter might be guarded against insult or hurt,
“I guess if I were you, I’d just try to slide out from under his arm, and to kid him a little, say, “Who do you think you are, Elvis Presley?” And stay out of his way.”
“It’s not that easy, especially when Mother isn’t there. I can’t make her unhappy, telling her, can I?”
“If it gets bad enough, you may have to.”
“I know he just wants a little affection. But his chin is rough. And his mouth is wet and. . . .”
Appalled, he regarded her blankly.
“I can always run away from home. I can take care of myself.”
A noble pose, such as the one he had struck when his father had once admitted business reverses.(But I can find work and help out, Dad.)
“So you don’t need to worry about me,” she was saying. Now he was a glass Christmas tree ornament which she was gently taking down to put away in a cotton-padded box. Get her away next summer. It would be fun showing her around Bangkok, probably his next assignment. Riding on the klongs, visiting those absurd spires decorated with colored glass—it was the very thing to do with a 16-year-old girl.
“Perhaps you could join me for the summer. That is, if your mother thinks well of the idea.”
“Oh, maybe I could! That would be beautiful!” Her eye-lids lifted to show that live gray and yet—it didn’t seem to strike her entirely by surprise, so that he was assailed by a moment’s doubt, that he might have been taken.
“Then I’ll write your mother, ask whether we can meet in Washington after New Year’s, to talk about it. Now don’t count on it, for my own plans might change. I might be posted in Washington. We’ll see. Shall we have some dessert?”
“Could we have crêpes suzettes? Oh, I’ll have so much to tell Ibby. We tell each other everything.”
After he had escorted her to the door of the Museum, after he had seen her turn inside and lift a hand to him, he walked up the Avenue to rid himself of tension. He should have talked to Frances about it before inviting Jacky. That had been impulsive.
Maybe he had missed something. Bathing her, comforting her, getting up at night to answer her cry. Wading into the ocean with her for the first time. Giving her her first penny to see her discover the spending of money. Making her a present of perfume or a pearl necklace when she matured.”Jacky, you’re a woman now.” Showing her by example how to behave in the pinches. All this he had missed; it could never be recovered.
But maybe it wasn’t too late. Even at this late date, he could still see to it that she felt desirable, even if she wasn’t a beauty, even if she didn’t get many dates. And finally give her in marriage in the rites which formalized and relieved the complex sexual feelings of the tribe and of fathers. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
“Of course it’s possible,” Frances said when he phoned her in Georgetown.”Doubt if we can cover everything on the phone. We should probably meet.” He was surprised at how sensible her voice sounded now that they were under no obligation to each other.
“Could you join me in the Falstaff room at the Carlton?”
“Might be able to make it. But would you mind coming here? On Wednesday Jacky will be out with a friend, the boys with neighbors after school. We’d have a chance to talk. Be easier for me, if you don’t mind.”
“O. K. It’s near Dumbarton Oaks, isn’t it?”
She came to the door wearing a kitchen apron of the kind he thought used to be called Mother Hubbards, and she was heavier, he noticed as he followed her into the living room. The old house she led him through was large, comfortable, battered; the upholstery frayed, the furniture nicked, the rugs worn. It hurt to see her so shabbily domestic.
“You’re still in the foreign service?”
“Yes. Long way to go before that pension.”
“Still writing, too?”
“Yes, of course.”
He decided to tell her that Jacky had first written him—he needed to make that point clear—and that he had seen her in New York. He didn’t know how much Jacky had confessed.
“Yes, I can see Jacky doing it that way,” she agreed without resentment, she sighed.
He had to go to Jacky’s defense, “She’s an attractive child. You’ve done a good job with her.”
“Don’t know how much I’ve done. Or credit I can take. She has a mind of her own, as you can see.”
“You must have enjoyed her childhood.”
“I guess. Enjoyed and despaired. Bob’s good with children, especially with Jacky. I guess she’s fonder of him than of me. Anyhow, he handles her better.”
They talked about the dates of the trip next summer, about airlines and clothes, about shots and Jacky’s allergy to penicillin.
The telephone rang. “It’s Bob at the bus line,” she reported.”I didn’t expect him until later. Excuse me while I pick him up. Jacky will probably come in while I’m gone.”
After she left he walked across the room to a walnut what-not bearing pictures of the children when they were small, in bathing suits, on sleds, around a Christmas tree.. And here, what was this but a picture of himself holding Jacky when they brought her home from the hospital! He stared at that young man who wore a proud and pleased smile. A former self, who seemed to have no connection with his present self. He’d forgotten that he’d ever felt that way.
Now he began to see the price, the loss of experience in depth of the life he had led. No continuousness, no home. Watching a child grow up would have allowed him to relive his own childhood for meaning; for when he was young he had been too self-conscious, defensive, had taken himself too seriously.
Two tow-headed little boys came storming through the back door, fell on a scatter rug., chased each other shouting across the living room and went leaping up the stairs, bang-banging at each other, ignoring Carlson in their haste to get to the television set. Was it Jacky’s femininity that appealed to him? Would he be as interested in a son? Maybe it made a person more complete to have a child of the opposite sex. Ugh, those Freudian cliches.
Jacky came in after them, cheeks pink from the wind, nose running, eyes watering.”Hello; Father. Or Daddy. Or what do you want to be called?”
“I’m partial to Papa, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Yes, Papa,” She fell silent, possibly listening to the strangeness of the word.
“Do you like your school?” A standard conversational opening, but it was the best he could do.
“It’s O. K. I have this one really great teacher—she’s the one who teaches anthropology. And I’m studying Buddhism, too. I have my own mantra to say in the morning . . .when I get up in time.”
“But I see you’re wearing a crucifix.”
“Ibby and I, we decided to wear it to show that we believe in God.”
“Oh.” He was tempted to give her a little lecture on a conflict here, but desisted. “Have you decided what you’d like to do with your life?”
“Yes. I want to raise Arabian horses. And be a famous anthropologist. And do sky diving.”
“All that?” It took him headlong back to the time when he had planned to play major league baseball, discover a cure for cancer, and be a great poet.
“Yes, don’t you think that would give me a very rich, full life?”
“Yes, yes, Indeed I do.”
She looked at him doubtfully, suspecting amusement or condescension, then discounted it, and went on.
“Me, I’m not going to marry until I’m 30 years old. That will give me plenty of time to see the world. And meet all kinds of people, don’t you think?”
“That should be long enough,” he ruled.
“Ibby and I, we’ve decided that we should marry eventually. Having a child is supposed to be one of the big experiences of life. Ibby and I, we’ve made a solemn agreement, we’re blood sisters, and we’re not going to just play around. Ibby and I have decided that our bodies are our own, and we aren’t going to share them with just anybody, like shaking hands.”
He nodded enthusiastic approval. At her age he had himself planned to be a monk.
There was a noise of a garage door banging, then the sound of voices in the kitchen, and Frances came in followed by Bob who was blond, heavy-set, weary-looking: possibly he did drink too much. They shook hands as Bob said, “Heard you were coming,” and Jacky cried out, “Can I go?”
“Unless something unusual happens between now and summer.”
Jacky spun on her heel, kissed her mother, Bob, and her biological father.”That’s wonderful, beautiful, that’s great. There’s only one thing.., . Could Ibby go, too? Her parents would pay for it. And it was her idea that I write to you in the first place.”
“Not possible.” Carlson spoke with immense firmness to hide his chill of disappointment. He could see the two of them giggling in the tour bus, talking their teen-age slang in the klong boats, shutting him out.”I couldn’t take the responsibility for Ibby.” And was shocked to see a cloud of resentment in her gray eyes.
“No, of course you couldn’t,” Frances agreed, and he was surprised to find himself exchanging with her a faint smile of collusion over Jacky’s bent head.
“But it would hurt Ibby’s feelings. She’d feel terrible if she couldn’t come.”
Obviously a peer was more important than a parent—he should know that, but still he was irked.”Maybe it’s too long a flight for you to make alone now. Perhaps we should wait till next year?”
At this she ducked her head, let out a loud sob, and ran for the stairs, hunched over in her disappointment.
As a timing bell rang in the kitchen, Frances sighed and excused herself. Bob asked if Carlson would like a drink, and Carlson certainly would. Bob came back with ice and fixed martinis at the highboy before going like a homing pigeon for his easy chair.
Carlson lifted his glass to Bob. “I begin to see what I’ve missed.”
Bob responded, loosened his large-knot tie. “Freud says there’s one impossible job, being a parent. But I’ve survived so far, and most of the time I like it.”
Hearing him, Carlson felt a little cold wind, as from a crack in the floor-boards. He was sure now that this man would never take advantage of Jacky. There was duplicity in her. He had been tricked.
Jacky was now slowly coming back down the stairs, stopping at each step.
“Come here, Jack.”
Bob’s authoritative words made it easy for her to do what he knew she wanted to do. It was being a father that really made one.
Head still bent, she stood before Bob. “Your father wants to get to know you better in Bangkok. He can’t do that so well if Ibby’s along, don’t you see? He has a lot of catching up to do.”
She raised her head, bright gray eyes startled, then sober. “Is that why? Well, why didn’t he say so? That makes all the difference.”
“I thought you’d know that,” Carlson murmured.
She looked at him with accusing eyes. “Why didn’t you want me in the first place? Why didn’t you? All those years!”
“Well, I suppose I just didn’t have enough imagination to know how fine it would be to have a daughter.”
“Oh. All right.” The words accepted it, but she looked at the floor; there was some doubt still tugging at her. This was the stuff of which parenthood was made. Could he cope with her alone, day and night for a whole summer? No, it was too much. It would be so continuous. He’d not get a word written on his book.
Bob heaved himself out of his deep chair to refill their glasses and Carlson left his daughter studying the rug to cross over to the highboy, trying to still the commotion in his chest. As he stood waiting while Bob cut lemon peel to put in the glasses, his eyes fell again on the picture of himself on the adjacent what-not, himself holding that new little bundle.
Turning to hand him his glass, Bob saw his stare. “That’s been there all these years, ever since she began to ask about you.”
There had been a cry in the night, a call which he had never heard and never heeded. Now the need was to deal with refractory teen-age human nature.
“You know.” He turned back to his girl-child. “You know, I’m having second thoughts about Ibby. Maybe we should invite her to come to Bangkok. To show our appreciation of such a good idea.”
Her chin jerked up. “You think I’m not old enough to come by myself?”