Every family is full of ghosts, though some—like mine—are more haunted than others.
One ordinary day last year, I was taking a nap when my partner, David, poked me awake and tried to hand me my laptop computer. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said.
“Later.” I closed my eyes.
“Now,” he told me. David tapped the screen, and an email appeared from someone I didn’t know, a Jim who lived in Phoenix. It explained that his mother had found a book of mine online (a memoir about hiring a detective to track down my long-lost father), realized I was looking for her ex-husband, and passed the book along to her son. Jim had read the book, done the math, and deduced that we had the same missing father. “He married my mom the year after you last saw him,” wrote Jim. “Then he disappeared when I was five, a year older than you were when he took off.” Jim added that he’d always wanted a brother and that finding me was a “dream come true.” He was an only child with no paternal relatives. The polite note ended with an apology for having contacted me out of the blue, and an invitation to connect if I ever wanted to.
I closed the computer and caught my breath. David was waiting for a reaction; I had no earthly idea what to say. A thousand emotions attacked me at once. I’d been sure that my father story was over—that this unfinished book was finally closed. The last time I’d seen my father was the night he’d come back to kidnap me, when I was four. I was watching Ed Sullivan with my sisters, two weeks after my parents had split up, when my father’s headlights shone into the driveway. My oldest sister locked the door; my father yelled at her to open up, and when she didn’t, he kicked the door in, grabbed me in his arms, and started running down the driveway. My mother was screaming behind us, “Put him down, you son of a bitch!” but we were almost inside the truck by then.
I felt her hands around my ankles as he held onto my wrists, and the two of them stood there pulling me apart from both ends, like dogs fighting over a piece of meat, snarling and growling above my head. Then my mother kicked him hard and yanked me away before hurrying back into the house. She locked the door and stood there, trembling. Finally, I went to the window and saw my father standing in silhouette between the headlights. He got inside, honked the horn once, and backed slowly out of the driveway. I never saw or heard from him again.
After that, my father’s name became taboo in our house. As children do, I grew up believing the authorized version of what had happened: my mother’s bitter side of their breakup, in which he was a damaged, terrible man, and I was lucky that he was gone. In time, this narrative hardened into the truth, and so did my comeback when people asked about him. “You don’t miss what you never had,” I’d say when they looked at me with pity in their eyes.
I managed to get away with this story till a troublemaking friend called my bluff, a few days before my 40th birthday. “I think you’re scared to find him,” he said after asking why I’d never looked for my father. This angered me because my friend was right, and when he dared me to hire a detective, I surprised myself by saying I’d do it. For the first time, this prospect appealed to me, though I had no idea why. Later, in researching fathers and sons, I learned that men approaching middle age often seek out “the absent father,” whether or not he was there in body. According to poet Robert Bly, this quest can be part of a deepening into manhood. In other words, I was right on schedule without even knowing it.
I hired a famous gumshoe to get the job done. For the next year, the detective followed the paper trail, sniffed out leads, sent me lists of James Matouseks to cold-call, but nothing ever materialized. Once, we thought we’d found him, but it turned out to be the wrong man: I stood on a porch in Pasadena, commiserating with a disheveled old guy in an undershirt, who’d never had kids himself and wished he could say he was my father. Then I said goodbye, sat in my rental car, and sobbed for an hour, feeling that this was finally over, and the wound of desertion could finally close.
I’d never find my father and that was okay; what’s more, I knew now that he wasn’t a monster. Having opposed this search from the start, my mother finally admitted, after two vodka screwdrivers, that the real reason my father had left was that she herself had been unfaithful. She figured it was time to come clean, now that I was investigating. My mother’s confession turned my father story around: he went from being a deadbeat dad to a cuckolded husband, a role that I could have sympathy for. That was a healing in itself.
Now, with the appearance of Phoenix Jim, the plot had thickened. I had no idea what I wanted to do, and called my sister in Los Angeles. Belle had no memories of our father; she was only a year old when he left. Nevertheless, she was ecstatic. “Oh, my God! We’ve got a brother!” she shrieked.
“What’s the difference? It’s all the same!”
But was it, really? I hung up the phone in a deep quandary. Family is such an abstract phenomenon; it’s hard to know what it signifies sometimes. Does sharing blood with a total stranger actually make him family, I wondered, beyond the coincidence of our joint DNA? My cynical self reduced this connection to sex: our mothers had gotten pregnant by the same man. Was that any reason to believe we had anything in common? Of course it is, countered my wisdom voice. A big thing. I saw that I had a clear choice with Jim, withdraw or advance, so I decided not to be a coward. Before I lost my nerve, I picked up the phone and dialed this stranger’s number in Phoenix. The call went to voicemail, where I left him a message, thanking him for getting in touch with me, and asking him to call me back.
Jim rang me up the next morning. “I can’t believe I’m talking to you!” he exclaimed. Then Jim told me a little about his life as a retired police chief and father of two. “I hunt and fish. Coach their soccer team. My wife and I are religious. Not over the top, but . . .”
“You mean, church on Sundays?”
“Exactly. Plus, my men’s group, which encouraged me to write you that letter.” Jim repeated the story about his mother coming across my book on the internet. “She warned me this might not turn out very well. She doesn’t have a good word to say about our father,” he told me. Our father. The words sounded strange. “You know that he was crazy, right?”
“I’ve heard stories.”
“Is that right?”
“When he met my mother he told her that you were dead,” Jim said. “That he had a family in California, but all of you were killed in a car accident.”
“I’m really sorry to tell you that.”
As rapidly as it was redeemed, my father’s rehabilitated image came crashing down in my mind. So he was the pathological liar my mother always claimed. I resisted the urge to slam down the phone. Instead, I said, “We have to meet.”
Jim was overjoyed. We agreed to meet me at Belle’s house in three weeks; as it happened, he and I were both headed to LA on the same day, which made this whole thing feel like fate. I wasn’t eager to meet him, exactly, but there seemed to be a mysterious force pulling us together. Was this the power of blood, I wondered? Could it be possible that I’d been wrong all those years in believing that blood isn’t thicker than water? Apparently, I was about to find out.
When the day arrived, Belle and I sat in her living room waiting for Jim to arrive. I was mildly nervous; she was like Jell-O. Her sons, my nephews, had been summoned to the house to meet their new relative. Finally, this stranger’s car appeared in the driveway and I saw him get out—dressed like a cowboy in jeans and black T-shirt—and open the passenger door for his wife. It wasn’t until we were standing face to face on the porch that I realized how much alike we looked. He was younger, shorter, and bearded, but our features were nearly identical. “This is unbelievable!” he said, opening his arms.
“It really is,” I said, hugging him back. Then Belle put her arms around both of us and we stood there, rocking together like long-lost friends. His lovely blonde wife stood at a distance, beaming. Then David and the boys were introduced, drinks were served, and we got on our way in two cars to the local Mexican restaurant.
In the car, Belle said, “You have the same eyes!”
“It was strange. I know. He seems okay.”
“He’s our brother,” she repeated, as if this were all a fait accompli.
At the restaurant, Jim and I huddled at one end of a long table while Belle, David, and Jim’s wife chatted at the other, with the nephews between us. Jim folded his hands on the table and leaned forward, waiting for our heart-to-heart. He was just as friendly in person, at first, as he’d been on the telephone. But after pleasantries had been exchanged, the conversation soon became labored. Jim allowed me to do all the work. Having been an interviewer by trade, I can make a stone talk, but that’s not the same as having a conversation, which requires a common point of interest—which Jim and I couldn’t manage to find. Prompted by my questions, Jim informed me about his life on the police force, his daughters’ soccer, the Cardinals’ losing season, golf, growing up in the desert, and the deep importance of faith. “God,” said Jim. “Or whatever you want to call it.”
“I think of God as a supernova,” I said.
Jim chuckled without knowing what I meant. He played with his napkin and scarfed down more chips, both absent and eager in the same moment, unable to articulate what he was feeling. If Jim and I had been alone, I might have pursued more substantial questions, hoping to lay a groundwork between us. Instead, I ran out of surfaces, and Jim didn’t ask me a single question. He appeared to have hit his relational ceiling. For starters, my personal life was off-limits; he knew I was gay, but that was outside his comfort zone, clearly (he’d barely shaken David’s hand). Also, he had no context for my professional life as a writer in New York City. So what was there to talk about? This left me with the choice of silence or risk. I chose risk. I wish I hadn’t.
“So what do you think about this Trump?” I asked by way of a joke. “A carnival barker, am I right?”
“Better than her.”
“You think so?” I tried not to sound defensive. “At least she’s smart. And what a trooper.”
Jim scowled. “A crook. She should be in jail.”
I resisted the impulse to deconstruct Trump and turned to a safer subject instead. “So you’re a man of faith?” I asked.
“We have a great church,” Jim answered before falling silent again. I waited for him to elaborate, but Jim just chug-a-lugged his beer and waited for me to ask the next question. I found this extremely annoying. On the scale of what matters to me in life, communication tops the list; I value peoples’ willingness to open up, reveal their vulnerabilities, and show genuine interest in the other person. But Jim did none of that. He hung back and waited to be drawn out, like someone from another tribe, unwilling to venture into my sphere, pretending there was meaning between us—assuming it because he wanted a brother—when, in fact, there was only fiction: a make-believe bond, a ghost of connection. Besides irritation, I felt disappointed, which must be why I brought up Freddie Gray. I figured there was nothing to lose.
“So what do you think?” I asked Jim in reference to the black man murdered by cops in Baltimore. “It’s disgusting, right? The brutality.”
I saw his friendly face harden, his jaw clenching tight. “That’s bullshit.”
“How do you figure?”
“Freddie Gray was a thug. Those officers were just doing their job.”
“They killed him,” I said.
“Gimme a break.” By this point, Jim was actually smirking. All eyes at the table were now on us.
“Oh, don’t get him started!” his wife called out, seeing in Jim’s face that something was wrong. “This is a celebration, boys!”
He ignored her. “There’s something you liberals don’t understand. If these people just did what we told them to do, this so-called brutality would never happen.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Dead serious,” he said.
And just like that, it was over for me; the imaginary cord snapped between us. This person would never be my brother in any meaningful sense of the word. We were accidental relatives, nothing more—this experiment came to a crashing halt. Knowing that there was no turning back now, I switched again into professional mode, disappearing behind my journalist mask. Instead of taking Jim’s bait, I proceeded to humor him instead, placating his ire with fake self-blame. Of course, I couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to be a policeman, to face those dangers on a daily basis. It must be terrible for them, I said. On cue, Jim’s face softened again and soon enough I had him smiling. But I was already long gone. I’d gotten the answer I was looking for, and now it was time to cut our losses. I asked for the check and insisted on paying. Jim tried to backtrack, but it was no use. “It takes all kinds,” he said to me with a mix of regret and condescension.
“Absolutely,” I agreed.
In the parking lot, he put his arm around Belle and squeezed her tight. “It’s really good to meet ya, Sis!” he said. Then he turned to me. “And you, Bro. It’s been an honor.” We gave each other a three-point handshake. His wife tried to warm things up by kissing me on the cheek. “Stay in touch,” she whispered into my ear. “He really would really like that.”
“And you should really call his mother,” she added. “She has lots of stories about your father.”
“It’s good to know things, right?” she asked.
“That depends,” I said.
Then she got into the car, Jim closed the door behind her, and the two of them drove away toward the highway.
“How weird was that?” said my eldest nephew on the way home.
“Twisted,” said his little brother.
“The internet,” added the middle boy. “You can blame that on the internet.”
In the front seat, Belle reached over and squeezed my hand. “At least we have each other,” she said.
That had always been enough.
Mark Matousek’s books include Sex Death Enlightenment, The Boy He Left Behind, When You’re Falling, Dive, and Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation and Self-Discovery.
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