The Junkie and The Mistress

Dad: I’ve been very upset with you, Michael

Michael: I know, Dad

Dad: I’m sitting there reading the “Mom Revisited” post and I come across the line that reads, “Her junkie husband left her for his mistress.  Left her with two kids and not much money,” and I almost fell off my chair.  How could you write that about your stepmother and I?

Michael: It wasn’t meant to be hurtful, Dad.  I was trying to paint a picture of what was happening for mom at that time.  I wasn’t trying to take a shot at you.

Dad: You didn’t realize that those words would be painful to us?

Michael: No, I didn’t.

Dad: Michael, you’re a very smart person.  How is that possible?

Michael: You’re not the first person to ask that question, not by a long shot.  I really don’t have the answer.  I’m certainly aware that, at times, I can be quite blind to the potential impact of my words.  Even if I WAS  aware, I’m not sure I would have written it differently; but again, I didn’t mean for you to be hurt, I’m sorry that you were, and no, it didn’t occur to me that you would be.

Dad: There are parts of you I just don’t understand, Michael.

Michael: Join the club.

Dad: I know you’ve been asked this many times before, but why do these pieces need to made public?  Why does my business have to be put on Facebook?

Michael: Well, those are two different questions, Dad.

Dad: No they’re not.

Michael: They are.  Why my writing is available to the general public and whether or not I need to write about you in particular are not the same thing.  The first one is easy.  I am a writer.  Writing is my art, and like any artist, I wish to do more than just record my thoughts and feelings.  I wish to create some kind of discourse.  I wish to effect people and make them feel something.  I wish to give voice to difficult subjects, speak the unspeakable as it were, and have others come along for the journey.

Dad: I understand that.  I understand what you are doing.

Michael: Okay, thank you.  So that is why the writing is out there for anyone to read.  With that said, I do not need the writing to involve you.  I can totally leave you out of it.  You once told me that I could write whatever I wanted about you.  I now understand that you feel differently.  I understand the request and I am happy to honor it.

Dad: But that’s not what I am asking.

Michael: It’s not?

Dad: No.  Not at all.  It’s just, if you are going to talk about my being a junkie, you need to also talk about how I’ve been sober for a quarter century.  If you are going to call your stepmother “my mistress,” you also need to talk about how we have been in a happy, monogamous marriage for longer than I was married to your mother.  Don’t you think that’s fair?

Michael: No.  I mean, I don’t really think it’s about fair.  I don’t think that the nature of art is always telling all the details of a story, so much as it is about telling the details that are pertinent to the story that the artist is attempting to tell.  For example, if a musician wrote a song about his ex-wife and how he felt hurt and abandoned by the split,  is it incumbent upon him to write more songs talking about all the good times they had?

Dad: But Michael, I’m your father.

Michael: I agree.  You are my father.  So, here’s my offer.  If you would like me to write a post broaching more of the story I’d be happy to do so.

Dad: Yes.  I would like that.

Michael: Done.

Dad had been furious.  Maybe madder than I’ve ever seen him.  Well, no, I’ve actually seen him far madder.  Previous to entering recovery in the mid-eighties, Dad was a fairly rageful man.  Actually, I can remember a particular instance outside of old Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.  I was probably 11 or 12.  We had just watched the pinstripers squeak out a dramatic win and we were outside in the parking lot looking for the car.  Some guy came up from behind me, walking briskly, clearly not paying attention to his immediate surroundings.  He bumped me kind of hard, and just kept on walking.  My Yankee hat fell off my head and I as I bent down to retrieve it, Dad went after the guy like an anxious cheetah.  With three quick strides, Dad closed the gap between himself and the guy and grabbed the back of his shirt collar, clotheslining him and nearly taking his head off in the process.  Dad is strong.  Always was.  He stands about 5’8 and is built like a brick shithouse.  Still holding the guy like a naughty dog by his leash, Dad swings the guy 180 degrees and delivers a one word command: “APOLOGIZE!”  And he did.  I remember it like it happened yesterday.  The guy was stammering words of apology in a fashion so pitiful that I wanted to hug him.  He was utterly shell-shocked; terrified.  Although he could not have been half as scared as I was.  There was a look in my father’s eyes that I could only understand as dangerous.  And my dad looking dangerous felt, well, dangerous.

So Dad was pissed.  Super pissed.  And while Dad is no longer what I would call an angry guy, Dad is still prone to lapsing into old behavior and going off half cocked.  He left me a voicemail which, well let’s just say it left me less than anxious to call him back.  Within thirty minutes he left me another one.  Angrier.  Around two in the morning, I got a third and around six in the morning, a fourth.  He was raging with much fervor on behalf of both himself and my stepmother, and his furor was intensifying with each call.

Dad and I love each other an awful lot.  An awful lot.

We’re both addicts, so they way in which we individually choose to express that love is, at times, less than ideal.

We’re also both in recovery, so, at the end of the day, we are both more committed to being happy then we are to being right.

So after a week of icy coldness and deep resentment on both our parts, we found our way back to each other.

We talked.  It felt good.  In spite of his occasional phone rants, Dad is a reasonable man.  In spite of my rampant blogging, so am I.  And, in spite of our many similarities, we are ultimately very different men.  Sometimes we don’t understand each other and how we each choose to be in the world.  Sometimes that confusion breeds anger and feels borderline intolerable.  The road back to “be and let be” is always communication.

Dad and I have that.  However imperfect, we’ve always had communication.

Dad was raised by a cold, punishing, shaming, pill-addicted mother and an abusive, sexually abhorrent hedonist for a father.  Dad dropped out of high school and fled for the military as soon as he got the chance.  He returned from the Panama Canal Zone a drug addict with few tools to fall back on in the real world.  His father brought him into the family business, vending machines, which afforded Dad some authority and a halfway decent living.

Dad wanted, more than anything (I believe), to gain his parents acceptance- which he would come to find was the ultimate red herring always just beyond his grasp.  But, at the time, he told himself that a nice Jewish girl from a decent family might fit the bill.  So he found one.  My mom.  And they had me and my sister.  And somehow, along with his rampant life of debauchery, Dad managed to grow his father’s business into a highly successful corporation.  I don’t know that it would be accurate to say I grew up wealthy, per se- but we were, at the very least, upper middle class.

To judge us from the outside, which was really the only aspect being properly tended to, we were the perfect family.  The white picket fence was brown and we didn’t have a dog but other than that, all the pieces were very much in place.  Which is why when the bomb dropped, the shrapnel took everyone by surprise.  I’ve detailed the basic framework of the breakdown of my family of origin in previous pieces and I will leave it to you to seek them out.  Suffices to say, it was ugly.

Dad was as flattened as a man could be.  Destitute.  Bottom of the barrel.  My starkest memory of this time was going to visit Dad about a week after he’d moved out of the house.  He had rented a room at The Holiday Inn on route 46 one town over from ours.  I don’t actually remember how I got there as I was still a few years away from my license.  I suspect one of my older buddies hooked me up.  Either way, I walked in and had the concierge call upstairs gaining permission to ride the elevator up to the appointed floor.  When I found Dad’s room, I was about to knock but realized the door was open.  I pushed against it and walked into what, to this day, is one of the saddest sites I have ever seen.  Dad had been using.  He was standing behind the second of two very distressed queen sized beds.  I could barely see, because the shades were drawn and the lights were dim.  Dad’s hair was mussed and his clothes were crumpled.  His eyes were red and his pupils were extremely dilated.  Pretty much everything he owned, or at least everything he had taken with him, was stuffed in a bunch of garbage bags heaped one on top of another in a rickety faux-wooden free-standing closet which he must have bought cheaply and put together himself.  The look on his face was one of seething self-pity.  He was utterly defeated.  It was the bottom.  And it was a terrible thing to see.

I remember thinking that Dad was going to die.  I wasn’t sure how.  Perhaps he’d overdose.  Perhaps he’d take his own life.  Either way, I found myself feeling quite anxious wondering when it would inevitably happen and how I would find out.

But Dad didn’t die.  Dad was saved.  Yes, he was ultimately saved by God.  And, yes, God saved him through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  But, the doorway to those miracles was his very own angel.  In much the same way my own journey would play out, Dad was saved by a woman.  That woman is my step mom, Patti.

Patti was, as stated previously, Dad’s mistress.  Patti and Dad were engaged in a full-blown love affair before my parents split up.  And that was unfortunate.  And that was hard for me at the time.  Dishonest as that choice may have been, my parents, for years, had been married only by virtue of the fact that there was a piece of paper filed in a drawer somewhere downtown stating that it was so.  So, from this insider’s perspective, Patti may have been a mistress, but she was far from a home wrecker.  And their love was real.  Dad and Patti are one of the few couples I can unequivocally say were “made for each other.”  Quite frankly, in the world where I grew up, where all men cheated and all marriages were built on shifting sands, Dad and Patti ended up to be the very best data I could get my hands on that marriage could work and be based on a real partnership.

A favorite story of mine, and one that I have heard Dad tell numerous times, has Dad in a high-priced, ritzy drug rehab having been dropped off there by Patti who was attempting to stand by his side as he tried to find his way onto the proverbial wagon.  On the way to the rehab, Dad had asked Patti to stop at a department store so he could buy himself an expensive white sweater.  The ego of the active addict is a remarkable thing, as Dad thought it more important to look good than to concentrate on saving his own life.  Dad’s drug of choice was pills (specifically Percodan and Percoset) and at this point he was swallowing forty to fifty a day.  So Dad was pretty far gone.  That night, after deciding that this place was not the place for him, he called Patti to come pick him up.  She refused.  He begged.  She stood strong in her refusal.  And then he pulled out the big guns.  “Listen,” he demanded, “if you don’t come and get me right now, I am going to climb out on the edge of this windowsill and leap to my death.”  Patti’s response was, “Okay.  But do me a favor.  That white sweater you bought will probably fit me, so take it off before you jump, okay?”

Her refusal to cosign his bullshit is why he is alive today.

She’s a pretty awesome lady.  She knits clothes that put Gymboree and The Gap to shame, cooks like a Top Chef finalist and she’s funny as hell.  I don’t just mean that she appreciates good humor.  She’s sharp and sarcastic and can get downright vulgar.  Patti kicks ass.

But initially it was challenging for us.  Once it became clear that Dad was not going back to Mom and that he was actually in the process of building a life with this other person- I just had no idea what to think about that or how to respond to it. And then Dad set up the initial meeting.  Me and Patti.  At the new condo in which they were cohabitating.  I hadn’t a clue what to expect and, mostly, I suppose I was telling myself that I needed to try to be a grown-up, act like a grown-up.  But I wasn’t a grown up.  I was fifteen.  And far angrier than I realized.

One of the key elements to my relationship with my father as far back as I can remember is a mutual love of humor.  This is one of the great gifts my fathers genetics bestowed upon me and a piece of me he always nurtured generously.  We both have excellent memories, a great sense of timing and a talent for mimicry.  Consequently, both my childhood and adulthood have been strewn with my Dad and I regularly tossing “lines” at each other.  Lines from films like “The Frisco Kid,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Stir Crazy.”  Lines from television shows like, “Seinfeld,” “The King of Queens,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  Lines from the great comics like George Carlin, Buddy Hackett and Robert Klein.  Dad and I can do lines all day long.

And so my relationship with Patti began with Dad attempting to set her up with a line to get me laughing.  There is a scene toward the beginning of “Young Frankenstein,” where Gene Wilder is bidding farewell to his fiancée, played by the great Madeline Khan, who is far more concerned with her finely tuned appearance not getting mussed than she is with the prospect of being away from her lover.  She rebuffs his advances again and again, disallowing him from kissing her or embracing her.  Finally he simply draws out his hand to touch her, and she says, “Taffeta darling.”  Thinking that this must be some kind of term of affection that he has never before heard, he replies, “Yes.  Taffeta darling.”  To which she responds, “No.  This dress is made of taffeta.  Don’t touch.”  Finally, he relents his advances and, as the train starts to pull away, they sort of air-touch their elbows as an agreed upon farewell technique.  In addition to “What Knockers,” and “Did you make a yummy sound?” and “Abby Normal,” “Taffeta, darling” was a much repeated line from that particular movie between me and pop.

So I walk into Dad’s condo and Patti is sitting in a wing back chair waiting to meet me.  I walk up to her and lean in to say hello and she holds her hand up and says, “Taffeta, darling.”

It just didn’t land.  The heightened tension of the moment and my own nervousness was such that I was just confused by her shrugging off my attempt at pleasantries.  I stood frozen for what seemed like an eternity when I noticed the smiles on both their faces and retroactively understood the attempted funny.  It was too late, though.  It felt horribly forced to begin with as it bugged me that Dad would let this new person in on our own personal world of lines, and, to boot, I felt humiliated that I had missed the gag.  This was enough to make me decide that I did not like Patti.  Of course, I was a selfish kid, and I had no idea that she might be as nervous as I was- probably more so.  It got us off to a rough start.

Conversely, Patti’s failed attempt at humor was far outweighed by the myriad of ways in which I sabotaged the relationship.  I was young and I was waist deep in the throes of my addictions.

When they married, Dad asked me to be his best man and I accepted, only to bail at the last second.

I regularly bowed to the will of my mother and disallowed Patti from attending important events.

And I robbed them.

It’s one of the more shameful deeds of my past.

It wasn’t technically breaking and entering because I had my own key.  Although, the trust they instilled in me makes the theft even worse.

I was seventeen.  I honestly don’t remember why I needed the money.  Or even if I needed the money.  Not that it would serve as an excuse, but I sort of wish I needed the cash to get my knocked up girlfriend an abortion or because I needed to get my car out of the impound lot.  But it was none of that.  I just wanted some cash.  And I figured I’d find some at Dad’s.  I let myself in at a time that I knew no one would be home and began to search.  I checked every drawer and cabinet in the place before remembering an event that I suspected might prove useful.  Back when Dad was still living in the house, I recalled walking into the guest room one day and finding Dad standing in front of the closet.  This closet was an extra storage place and was utilized mainly to house Dad’s suits and sports jackets.  As I entered, Dad was pulling what looked like an enormous wad of cash out of the inside pocket of one of the suit coats.  I don’t remember if he even noticed or acknowledged my presence, nor do I remember attaching any particular significance to the event.  I didn’t even realize that I had remembered it until that moment.  I went and found the closet where Dad’s current set of suits and sports coats were hung and began to systematically check the inside pockets of each one.  Sure enough, the fifth one I checked, jackpot.  I pulled out what must have been four or five thousand dollars in assorted bills.  Wanting to pick a number that might go unnoticed, I chose to take three hundred and fifty bucks.  I folded it, slipped it into my back pocket, relocked the door and went on my merry way.

Two days later, Dad called me in the early evening.  He said that he needed to speak to me.  He said that it could not wait.  He told me to meet him at the Howard Johnson’s on Black Oak Ridge Road.  I couldn’t imagine what could be so important, but I agreed.  He was there waiting for me in his car.  I rolled down my window and he told me to park my car and come get in his, which I did.

Dad: I need the money back, Michael.

Michael (indignantly): What money?

Dad: Please, Michael.  I know it was you.  I don’t even want to discuss it.  I just need the money back.

Michael (angrily): I have no idea what you are talking about!

Dad: You know how much I want to trust you Michael?  I blamed Patti.  I realized the money was gone and I blamed Patti.  Considering we have scrimped and saved for over a year to save that money, it makes no sense at all that she would take it, but I blamed her anyway.  And she, justifiably so, was enraged.  And we fought.  Finally, Patti reminded me that you have a key and, even then, I refused to believe it could be you.  But it is.  It is you.  And, Michael, I’m begging you.  I need you to give the money back.  I’ll let it go.  We’ll recover.  Please.  Give me the money.

Michael: You know, Dad, I am totally offended that you’d think I would do such a thing.  If you want your key back, you can have it.  But I don’t have your money!

Even to write it down brings back the pain of a moment I don’t suspect I’ll ever completely recover from.  He was so dejected.  He had no choice but to accept my answer and drive slowly away.  It was an excruciating moment.  A true low point in my humanity.

I didn’t admit the truth until I entered AA eight years later.  Having engaged in a fair amount of theft himself as an addict, much of it with his folks, he easily forgave me.  It still bothers me, though.

So for Dad, these moments were obviously painful, if not devastating.

But for Patti…

Jesus.  What could she have been thinking?  She’s trying to build a relationship with this man who is trying to stay sober and they have no money.  And on top of all this, the guy comes complete with this obese, selfish teenager who breaks into their home and steals their money.  God bless her, she never gave up on me.  I always felt welcomed and accepted by her and, over time, we’ve built a warm and loving relationship.

And I referred to her as Dad’s mistress.  And she’s mad.  And I get that.  I can’t take it back.  And it’s true.  She was Dad’s mistress.  But that was not meant as an insult.  Like Dad, Patti comes from a spotty and damaged past full of pain and dysfunction.  In many ways, she was just as lost and adrift as Dad.  And they rose from the ashes together.  Mistress doesn’t define Patti.  Mistress is part of what makes Patti so impressive.  It’s part of the wreckage of her past and, like all my greatest teachers, she pushed through and found a life of joy and contentment.

They did.  They made a life that works.  A life that, in many ways, I aspire to.


And it certainly didn’t come easy.

Shortly after Dad got sober, the vending business went under and he was penniless.  Patti made a decent living as a paralegal, but it was not enough to support them both.  Dad did not even have a high school education and a forty-five year old guy with little schooling and no training was not exactly a hot commodity on the job market.  So he went to, pretty much, the only place that would have him.  He applied to Prudential to sell insurance.  I imagine he was not the poster child for what they look for in a new salesman, but I would guess running his own sales-generated business for a couple of decades, made him worth taking a flier on.

I remember coming to visit him at his home in West Patterson having just been accepted by Prudential.  I let myself in and he yelled that he was downstairs.  I made my way down to the basement where he was sitting on the couch in a white sweat suit and socks studying for his insurance test.  He was wearing glasses pushed down on his nose and staring at a laptop.  I had never before seen my father so much as touch a computer.  He looked very small and very scared.

I remember thinking, “What is he doing?  He is not equipped for this.  It takes a couple of years to even have a chance at making money in insurance sales.  He doesn’t have that kind of patience.  And he doesn’t have that kind of time.  My dad is an immediate gratification junkie.  The constant rejection of this business is going to swallow him up and spit him out in a matter of months.”

I’m happy to say I was wrong.  Dead wrong.

Over the next ten years, Dad turned himself into one of Prudential’s best salesman, far exceeding his goals every year.

He built himself up a nice pension and retired at sixty.

Patti still works.  Not as hard as she used to.  She’s as competent in her work as she is in everything else, so she pretty much calls her own shots.  That is to say, she’s made herself entirely indispensable, so she has increasingly managed to figure out how to get paid more for working less.

So yes, The Junkie and The Mistress.  I stand by that characterization.  I see it as a badge of honor.  A purple heart.

It makes everything else that they are, all the more remarkable.

In the words of Larry David, “They’ve done pretty… pretty… pretty good.”

  1. #1 by Steve Mark on March 1, 2011 - 12:50 pm

    I love you Michael, Even though sometimes I dont understand your writing……..Keep writing!

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