I'm the youngest of three children, the only girl. My closest sibling, Jamey, is ten years older than I am. I asked my mother once when I was old enough to figure things out if I was an accident. She smiled and said no, more of an afterthought.
It was an apt description, I suppose. My parents were already expecting Clyde when they got married, but the marriage happened quickly enough that no one questioned it. They were madly in love, two free spirits pursuing acting careers in New York, trying to live the fantasy while bringing up an infant. They probably had a little help from the parents, but they also supplemented their as-yet nonexistent acting careers by working side jobs, mom as a waitress in the famous Edison Hotel coffee shop, and dad as a bartender at Charlie's, a well-known theater bar. Their hope was to make connections while making money; working and living in the theater district of Manhattan somehow made them part of the business in a way. There was money to be made and a love affair to be lived, and they had plenty of time ahead of them.
Clyde was a toddler when Jamey was born. The parents were now juggling two jobs and two babies. Maybe the glow had started to fade a little, but they were still solid, still in love, still striving to attain the dream.
And then mom got a tiny part in a production of Medea, and it was the start of a new chapter. She had only one or two lines, but she had what my dad proudly referred to as presence, and she was noticed by a casting director who happened to attend one of the previews. He waited backstage for her and asked to talk to her for a few minutes. Dad was there too, of course, but it wasn't one of those situations where she was being exploited. The casting director had no romantic interest in her but thought she might be right for a new show he was casting in Los Angeles. He invited both my parents for coffee and discussed the show and the role he had in mind for mom. He said if she were interested, he would like to have her read for the producers the following Friday at a rehearsal hall nearby. Of course, it was a no-brainer. She went to the audition and did well but didn't get the part. Disappointed but not broken, she took it as a positive sign of better things to come.
By the time I was born, both my parents had started to move up, ever so slightly, in their respective careers. But theater was not the place to make money unless you were a star. And so dad was still tending bar, and mom was still working at the Edison when a familiar-looking man came in and sat at a small table near the window. She went to take his order, and he asked for a cup of coffee and a BLT. By this time, she recognized him as the casting director who had auditioned her for television all those years ago. He was casting another show now and wanted her to audition again. She knew it was another long shot, but if you've ever known an actor, you know that hope is always there, no matter how much you try to squash it or reality tries to obliterate it.
She told my dad about it, and he was fine with the idea of moving to L.A. should the need arise. This was what they had both been waiting for, the eternal dream of the creative artist. I was, of course, too young to understand any of this, but the story was told to me so many times that it feels like a memory.
I don't think either of my parents actually considered that mom might get the role, but she did. It wasn't one of the leads, but it was a steady, solid best friend of the lead sort of role. She was ecstatic, and from what my brothers tell me, dad was equally ecstatic. The boys, less so. They were leaving behind their school, their friends, and their sports teams. They cheered up a bit when Dad promised them a trip to Disneyland.
We moved sometime in the summer to a rented house in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, where many of the TV studios were situated. Mom started work on her show, and Dad signed up for extra work and, at some point, got an agent and started getting some work himself. Finally, we were living the dream.
It was another summertime when life came apart. August 28, to be exact, hot and dry, the type of weather that made people do crazy things. I had just turned 9. Jamey was 19 and going to USC; Clyde was almost 21 and working as a grip on various feature films. He had moved out the year before and was living with his girlfriend in Silverlake. By this time, our family had moved to the flats of Beverly Hills, a small but comfortable single-story home. Dad was doing stunts for a well-known star of the time. There was a scene where he was supposed to backflip out of a moving car, a stunt he had performed many times, but somehow his timing was off, and instead of landing safely, he hit his head on the hard road and never regained consciousness. Just like that, mom was a widow, and our family dynamic came undone.
I noticed a gradual change in my mother once Dad was taken off life support, and we put him to rest. She held herself together admirably through the funeral, almost treating the entire ordeal as if she were playing another part. But once the services were over and the dust had settled, it was as if a light had been turned off. My brothers were living their own lives and had managed to rebound quickly. Good sons, they checked in on a regular basis by phone. I could always tell when it was one of my brothers calling because Mom's face would transform into actor mode, and even her voice became that of a stranger. Whether she was protecting the boys or it was just a natural tendency, I had no idea. I was still too young to grasp the enormity of what had happened and had no one to guide me through my own grief.
Looking back now, the way I would describe those years would be a lengthy performance: mom playing the dual role of grieving widow and brave single mother, while I played the role of well-adjusted, quiet child. People recognized her wherever we went, sometimes shyly observing and sometimes boldly sharing their devotion and asking for her autograph, which she always graciously gave with her signature scrawl followed by a tiny heart. I was usually ignored, which suited me fine. Unlike my parents and siblings, I had no interest in being famous, being recognized, or even being noticed.
The next year, mom's show got cancelled. She seemed to take it in stride, saying she was long overdue for what she called real people time, out of the artificial atmosphere of "the business." She wanted to take the time to explore what it was like to be a real person rather than an artificial concoction and promised to be a better mother to me. I didn't really know what that meant, not having any basis for comparison, but I smiled and said what it was she wanted to hear: You've always been a great mother. That seemed to satisfy her, and for a while, she really lived up to her promise, taking more interest in what I was up to and finding ways to spend more time with me doing things we both enjoyed, like cooking and baking. At one point, I remember making cream puffs and being fascinated when we took the shells from the oven, and the insides were hollowed out, waiting to be filled with fresh whipped cream or vanilla pudding. It was the closest we ever were, but it didn't last. Roger entered our lives. It was a Saturday, usually the day reserved for McDonalds or Burger King, a treat for me that we both seemed to look forward to. But instead, mom told me that she had an old friend coming for dinner, and she would show me how to make a leg of lamb with all the trimmings. After the roast was in the oven, she told me to take a bath and put on something nice; she went in to her own bathroom to shower and came out dressed to impress and smelling of Chanel No. 19, her signature fragrance. She wore makeup and had put her hair up in the way she sometimes did for auditions, so I naturally assumed the friend coming for dinner was someone important who could lead her toward her next acting job.
I noticed that the table was set for 5, which meant that my brothers would be coming, a rare treat for me, as I didn't get to spend as much time with them as in earlier days.
The bell rang at 6, and she told me to go answer the door while she stayed in the kitchen, setting the scene for her grand entrance. I opened the front door, and there was a man about my mother's age, tall and thin, with long hair like a musician. He smiled at me with his whole face; my ten-year-old self was charmed but wary. Usually, grownups ignored me, but this was something different. I'm Roger, he said. You must be Abigail. No one calls me Abigail; I've always answered only to Abbie, but for some reason, I was mute and merely nodded my head.
Mom's voice sang out from the kitchen, was that the door? She knew, of course, that it was and was just saying her line. She came out then, and for a moment, she was no longer my mother. Her eyes met Roger's, and even my ten-year-old brain knew that he was more than just a friend.
"The boys should be here any minute," she said and asked Roger if he wanted a drink to whet his appetite. I hated when she talked like that, as if she were acting out a scene rather than living it. Roger said he'd have a beer, and she handed him a German beer with a bottle opener, and when he had it opened, she clinked his bottle with her wine glass in a toast.
"To the future," she said.
Then the door opened, and my two brothers came in. Jamey was carrying a six-pack, and Clyde had a brown paper bag with what looked to be a bottle of wine. Jamey patted me on the head absentmindedly, but Clyde gave me a bear hug. I shouldn't admit this, even to myself, but Clyde had always been my favorite of the two. I even liked his girlfriend, who treated me as if I were her equal rather than an annoying younger sister. I sometimes fantasized that they would ask me to live with them, even though I knew mom would never allow it.
They both seemed to know Roger, which made me curious. Something about the situation was slightly off-kilter and made me uneasy. The boys were friendly but somewhat guarded as if they too sensed something slightly off about the dinner. I don't remember much of the conversation, but from the bits I understood, Roger was somehow involved in theater and knew a lot of the same people in my parents' inner circle. He didn't make a fuss over me, for which I was grateful. I hated when adults felt they had to speak to me in that strange language they reserve for kids, asking the usual questions about school and interests. I was not comfortable with small talk, an anomaly in my family. I'm still like that now, the only holdout in a family of extroverts.
Clyde looked over at me as if he could read my thoughts and gave me a warm smile as if to reassure me. It comforted me somehow, and I was able to relax through the rest of the meal. Roger offered to help mom with the dishes, and that too made me uncomfortable, as if he were trying to fill in for my father. I was never an outspoken child, and so I kept the feelings to myself. My brothers turned on the TV and started watching some kind of sport, probably baseball, since it was still summertime. I sat in my reading chair and buried myself in one of my books, my way of protecting myself from the complications of life around me. I could hear water running in the kitchen, china, and cutlery being washed and dried, and the hum of conversation. Suddenly, my mother let out a laugh that caused us all to turn in the direction of the kitchen, like a trio of Pavlov's dogs. The boys looked at each other, then at me, then back at the TV without a word. Whatever it was that was going on in the kitchen, it had been a long time since I had heard my mother laugh like that. I felt a pang of sadness for my father, who should have been the one sharing the dishwashing, making mom laugh.
I went up to my room as soon as I could slip away and continued reading my book. I left my bedroom door ajar as I always did, comforted by the sounds downstairs without being forced to participate. After a while, conversation died down, and soon there was a tap at my door. It wasn't unexpected; Clyde always came up to say goodbye when he was leaving, and to spend a few minutes of one-on-one time with me. But when I said come in, it was Roger's head peeking around the door. He took a step inside but didn't come any closer. I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye. I'm so glad I finally got to meet you. He hesitated, as if wanting to say something else, but instead just smiled. I must have said something in response, but I can't remember what it was, and then he was gone. I went back to my book, and shortly after that, Clyde and Jamey came up together to say goodbye. Usually, Jamey just called out from downstairs, so it was odd to see them together, and I had the feeling they, too, had something they wanted to say, but left it unsaid. I went to sleep, and by morning, life was back to normal. I didn't see Roger again for almost ten years, and by then, my mother was dead.
She was young to die, and it came as a shock to us because she had seemed so healthy. But it was as if she scripted her own death for maximum impact and minimum discomfort. She suffered a heart attack on the set of a new TV show she was starring in, a daytime drama. For once, the drama was real. I was at school when it happened, meandering through college life with no clear goal of what I wanted to do once I graduated. Having missed the acting gene and with no one to guide me in any particular direction, I put off any decision-making in the hopes that the right path would somehow open up to me when I was ready. In the meantime, I was still living at home, technically with mom, though we were rarely together except to pass each other at odd moments.
It was Jamey who called to let me know; Clyde was too emotional. I was numb at first, and it took a while for the impact to hit me. She had stated in her will that she wanted to be cremated, with the ashes buried next to my father. This was no surprise: she had always joked about being claustrophobic and did not want her corpse to suffer the fate of burial. The rest of her will was no surprise either: all her assets, including the house, were to be divided equally between the three of us. The cremation was for family only. There was to be a memorial service the following week, with friends and colleagues invited, but this gathering was just for us.
A week or so later, there was an envelope in my mailbox with my name and address handwritten and a return address in Venice, California. The writing didn't look familiar, and I didn't know anyone who lived in Venice, but I figured it was probably a sympathy card from one of my mother's many acquaintances. I opened it, and there was a card with a brief note: So sorry for your loss. Too much time has passed. We should talk. Your mom would have wanted it. Call me when you feel up to it. It was signed simply Roger, with a 310 telephone number underneath his name. I'm shy, but I'm also curious; I called the number before I could let second thoughts talk me out of it. He picked up right away, and I thanked him for his card. He seemed happy, relieved, even grateful, which was strange given the fact that we had barely met and had no contact for years. To be honest, I hadn't even thought of him, but now I tried to dredge up the memory of that evening in my mind to look for clues as to why he was so eager to meet again. We agreed to have lunch the following Saturday at a popular bistro near my home.
I didn't recognize him at first. I was a child when I had last seen him, but I remembered him having long hair and being very tall. The man who was there to greet me was still tall, but his hair was cropped short as if to compensate for its thinning. I was surprised that he knew me right away and stood up to greet me as I entered the restaurant. He smiled and seemed to want to hug me but then thought better of it. He had a nice smile and a nice face. I can't say you haven't changed, but I'd recognize you anywhere, he said. I didn't know what to say to that, so I just smiled. The waiter came with menus, and we ordered. Roger started talking about inconsequential things: movies, TV shows, and then the conversation turned more personal. He told me he was still occasionally working as an actor but made most of his income as a voiceover artist. He asked me what I was doing and whether I had been bitten by the acting bug (his words, in air quotes). I told him no; I was still undecided about what I wanted my life to be, but I knew it wasn't acting. He said that was probably a good thing, and he seemed to mean it, but I have found over the years that anyone who has been in the business can't imagine wanting to do anything else.
The food came, and he steered the conversation, finally, to my mother.
Did she ever tell you how we met? he said.
I said no. He told me a story about meeting at an audition; neither one of them got cast, but they became friends. He paused and looked at me for a long moment.
I don't know how to say this, but I'm pretty sure I'm your father.
He said it as casually as if he were speaking of the weather. I took a bite of my cheeseburger and tried to act normal. He watched me chew, waiting for my reaction. I swallowed, took a sip of water, and then met his gaze.
My father is dead. That's what was in my head, but somehow I couldn't say it, so I just stared at him.
And then the story spewed out. They had a fling, a one-night stand that was, in his words, perfect. But they were each in love with someone else and knew it was never meant to continue. So they parted ways and by happenstance (his word) reconnected a few years later and developed a friendship between them and their partners. Mom was, of course, with dad, and Roger was with his then-wife Melody. He and Melody had divorced several years ago but still remained close. He seemed proud of the fact that he was still on such good terms with (evidently) everyone he had ever slept with. He and Melody had no children, and at the time, it was only a vague notion in his head that I might be his daughter, but he pushed the thought away. When my father died, my mother eventually contacted him, reaching out for a connection. She was lonely, Roger said. That simple comment hurt me more than the major revelation that he might be my father. The fact that she reached out to a stranger rather than gaining comfort from us, her children, cut deep.
I still doubted the truth of what he was telling me, still retained enough faith in my mother to cling to the fantasy of what I believed my life to be. But Roger kept on relentlessly until, bit by bit, the doubt was chipped away.
The night he had come for dinner when I was ten years old was to be the night they broke the news to me. But at the last moment, my mother couldn't go through with it. She asked for his patience; he, of course, agreed, thinking they had all the time in the world. But once again, she shut him out, despite his attempts to reach out again.
I have become accustomed to keeping my feelings private, and although I have no memory of eating anything, I somehow managed to finish my cheeseburger. Roger, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the fact that we were even in a restaurant. He kept waiting for a reaction from me, which I was unable to give him. I told him it was a lot to process and I needed time. He said he understood and would wait to hear from me. I kept my emotions in check until I got home and then collapsed in a heap on the living room floor.
There are times when it helps to talk things out with someone, a friend, a therapist, a bartender. This was not one of those times. Anyone I had ever trusted was now either dead or in on the deception. I was in this alone and felt completely isolated. I couldn't even cry. I eventually picked myself up off the floor and looked around at the house, feeling no attachment. It was as if I had never lived there, and everything I thought had happened over the years had happened to characters on screen. Worse, I was the only one who hadn't been handed the script in advance.
I wallowed in this self-pity for about an hour and then thought that maybe I wasn't being fair to my brothers. It was possible they, too had been kept in the dark. I called Clyde first.
Did you know? I said.
He didn't bother to ask me what. He started trying to explain, to soothe me, but I wasn't having any of it. I disconnected the call and ignored his attempts to call me back. So he texted me: I wanted to tell you, but it wasn't my story to tell. I'm coming over to talk.
I could have left, maybe I should have left, before he got to the house, but he was still my favorite brother, and I needed a connection that felt real. I managed to wash my face and calm my heart before he arrived. It didn't take long; he came in and took me in his arms, and I cried. Eventually, we sat down, and he poured us each a healthy shot of Jameson. A bit early in the day for me to drink, but if any occasion ever called for an early start, this was it.
It's just biology. You know who your dad was.
You and Jamey are just my half-brothers.
Don't be silly.
At some point, Clyde called Jamey, and he came over. The three of us talked for quite a while, rehashing everything, including childhood memories. I asked Jamey if he thought our dad knew. He said it was possible but not likely. I agreed. He would have still loved me, but I would have sensed something. At least, I think I would have. I wasn't sure of anything anymore.
Clyde asked me if I wanted him to stay the night. I said no, I was fine. My two brothers hugged me, said they loved me and went to their own homes. Once they were gone, I took out the box of family photos and pored over the ones with my father, looking for facial characteristics similar to mine, but it was useless. Everyone had always told me I resembled my mother. It was meant as a compliment; she was a beautiful woman. But now, it just left me feeling rootless.
I walked through the house again, looking for ghosts in each room. By the time I went to bed, I had made my decision. I needed to move out of the house and start a new life somewhere free of biological ties, real or imagined. I thought I wouldn't be able to sleep that night, but I, in fact, slept more soundly than I had in months. I sent an email to my brothers, telling them of my decision. They both, predictably, told me not to make any life-altering decisions until more time had passed. I was still in shock, hurt, confused, Clyde said. Jamey suggested I take some time off and take a trip somewhere I'd never been by myself. Their intentions were noble but misguided. I felt more clearheaded than I had in many years. I was fortunate in that money wasn't a problem. I knew where I needed to go, and I knew it wouldn't be temporary.
I found an apartment in midtown Manhattan, a duplex on 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, right in the heart of the theater district, a stone's throw from where the saga began. The building I had lived in as a child had been renovated and turned into a pricey co-op. There was no sense of nostalgia seeing what it had become. I was glad. I was here to reinvent myself, not indulge in the past.
Some of the other landmarks from my childhood remained, relics from another era, but many had succumbed to time and trends. I was shocked to see how generic New York had become since I was a child. It was almost like any other city or suburban town, rife with Starbucks and Dominos Pizza. But it was exactly what I needed it to be, a perfect metaphor for my life. I felt like I had awakened from a low-grade fever, and everything and everyone around me seemed to be lit up with energy. People walking with purpose rather than just strolling to their cars. I liked the fact that I could be surrounded by humanity without having to engage with any one individual unless I wanted to. The possibilities were endless.
It has been almost three months now, and I consider New York to be my home, if not forever, then for now. I still have not settled on what I want to do or who I want to be, but the loose ends are starting to tie together. I am alone, for now, but paradoxically far less lonely than I have ever been.