From art studios to strip clubs and drug dens, a young woman sifts through handwritten letters and distant memories to trace the tumultuous path of her parents' marriage.
On May 14, 1987, the five-year anniversary of Cathy’s death, Joe and Mark walked into Billy’s Topless Bar on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, intent on distracting Joe, with booze and naked ladies, from the anniversary of losing his first true love. It was a Thursday. They had probably come from a construction job, covered in plaster and paint, as usual.
There was a woman on stage who looked like a comic book rendition of the stripper dream girl: simultaneously angular and voluptuous, innocent and mischievous, with cropped black hair and a reckless attitude that made it believable when she claimed, years later, that Mia Wallace from “Pulp Fiction” had been based on her. She also, as several people pointed out at the time and later, looked more than a little bit like Cathy.
The dancer, Heidi, wasn’t even supposed to be there that night. She was covering a shift for her best friend and roommate, Hannah, who wanted the night off. She had never danced at Billy’s before and was nervous and shy. She had been reluctant to take the shift, but she gave in to Hannah, who had been her best friend for twelve years, since they were nine years old.
Heidi had come to New York a few days earlier from Buffalo to visit Hannah on her way to a vacation in Hawaii. Hannah got her a few shifts stripping to save up for the next leg of the trip, to have money for frozen cocktails on the beach.
“I stepped out of the cab on First and First—which I was very confused by—and into a ridiculous world of experiences that completely altered the course of my life,” Heidi remembers, “I wasn’t a tough, jaded New York girl yet.” It didn’t take long for her to become one.
“As usual anything Hannah did was something I would do,” she said. “She had me stripping and doing heroin inside a week.” As of this writing, Heidi has still never been to Hawaii.
Heidi, my mother, remembers that night like it was a movie scene, everything in slow motion and glistening with romance. At the beginning of our interview, I asked for the story of how she met my father, and I got every detail. As she tells it, the guys walked in and Joe, my father, locked eyes with her on stage. He was a compact man with the face of a nice Jewish boy, terrible posture, and the leather jacket and black jeans uniform of the art scene he’d moved to New York for. Mark, standing behind him, not even able to see the look on Joe’s face, said, “There’s the girl for you.”
That night at Billy’s, for once, it wasn’t just the customer staring. She stared right back at him. “We saw each other right away,” she said. The dancers were supposed to spend every other half-hour off stage, talking to customers, and Heidi spent all of her time with Joe. Other customers noticed that she was giving all of her attention to “this one guy,” but she didn’t care.
He stayed for her whole shift, until four a.m, then took her back in a cab to Ludlow and Houston, where she and Hannah lived. They stood on the street, kissing and saying long goodbyes.
“He didn’t come inside, but we didn’t know how to leave each other,” she said. “It was weird since we had just met that night. We didn’t know if we would ever see each other again, but both knew we’d die if we didn’t”—acknowledging how dramatic and over-the-top they felt. But I believe her that it really was that intense, because even when they hated each other years later, neither ever denied for a minute the suffocating strength of the love they felt for each other. Mark and other friends confirmed that the obsession wasn’t one-sided, but that Joe was “head over heels immediately.”
“There was a visible change in him,” Chris, his good friend from art school, said. “He was in love. It was great to see.”
* * *
Heidi and Joe saw each other as often as possible that summer. They sat on park benches eating Klondike bars, even though the city was at its most disgusting, with a heat wave and a garbage strike overlapping, and even though Papa was still living with his girlfriend Tink.
After years of mostly dogs and deer, Papa’s sculptures and paintings began to feature the female form—more specifically, he started drawing and sculpting Heidi’s body. He had drawn women before, in figure drawing classes as a teenager, and then, when he and Cathy were together, she appeared in the murals they collaborated on. But in those paintings Cathy’s body was one of many parts of the graphic image, weighted equally with the drape of the Japanese kimonos she wore, the fans she held, the dogs she shared the canvas with. These new pieces were truly about my mother, her physicality, her sexuality, and the hold she had on him. He drew and sculpted her as Daphne—the Greek mythological character who changed into a tree to escape an overly aggressive suitor—the beautiful woman, not quite attainable.
One of his many interpretations of his new obsession was the start of the “Bad Barbie” series, which continued, in various forms, until the end of his life. They range from two inches to about a foot tall, and are made out of lead, knife blades, broken glass, ball bearings, animal bones and other found objects. Their legs always meld, joining together in sharp points that are meant to stick into wooden stands. They have no arms or faces, but most have human hair, often my mother’s or her friends’. (I asked him when I was seven to make one with my hair, not understanding the dark and sexual themes of the Bad Barbies. He obliged, but made it tiny, out of clear silicone, the purest and most innocent one in the series.)
“They were these intense, sexy, dangerous creatures,” my mother said. “They were obviously pretty dark but they were also celebratory. I saw more mysterious sexual tension in them than just darkness. The Barbies couldn’t run, their legs were jammed into wood, but was it that they were trapped or was it that they were dangerous?”
The seriousness of his drug use at that early stage didn’t become clear until much later. My mother remembers him doing it with her a few times, casually, but so do at least three other people, separately.
His old friend Ken remembered Papa bringing him to a bombed out-looking tenement building in the East Village to score.
“What surprised me,” Ken said, “wasn’t that he’d asked if I wanted to do some heroin, but that he already knew where to find it.”
If Papa did heroin once in a while, but with at least four different people, separately, it means he was actually doing it pretty consistently without letting on that it was more than just a lark.
* * *
In late August or early September of 1987, Joe went to Mount Baldy in Mendocino County, California for a job insulating a tiny cabin—one of many small construction jobs he did on the side to finance his art. Heidi went with him. She refers to it as their love nest, the first time they got to see each other day after day and feel like they were really together, not just having an affair. There was no sneaking around, no dark side to it. Neither of them even did any drugs on the trip, just enjoyed being in nature and with each other. She has described this as the peak of their being in love. “Divine, and sweet as Hell,” she wrote in her diary at the time.
A few weeks after the trip was over, she called and told him that she was pregnant.
“He wasn’t mean or awful about it,” she said, “but he hinted that I would have an abortion. I said I wasn’t.” Not sure even at the time whether she meant it, she told him that it didn’t matter if he was going to be there or not, that she would do it by herself if she had to. She wasn’t going to abort a baby she wanted just because it hadn’t arrived in the most convenient way or time.
“He was scared,” she said. “He never wanted to have kids. He always thought that he would be a very bad father.” He was worried that he might take after his own cold, domineering father if given the chance. His father had taught him how to draw, had taught him discipline and commitment to art, but had never been anything other than an authority figure, never warm, nurturing or encouraging.
Now that there was tangible, living evidence of their affair, Papa finally told Tink about Heidi.
“I was on stage at Billy’s one day and Tink came in,” my mother told me. “And sat. And cried.” The two women didn’t speak; Tink just came to see what she looked like and to believe that she was real. Tink told me she remembers thinking that Heidi looked a lot like Cathy, and not being surprised by that at all.
A few days later the three of them sat down to coffee at a diner. Nothing was settled or decided; Tink just needed to know what had happened, to get the whole story. He had cheated on her before, but it was clear that this time it was different; it was serious, even without the pregnancy. My mother doesn’t remember what was said, just the horribly uncomfortable feeling of sitting there, the guilt and heaviness of looking Tink in the eyes.
For some reason, Papa and Tink still didn’t break up. Not knowing whether or not he was going to be there for her and not willing to stay in New York, pregnant and alone while she waited for him to decide, Heidi went back to Buffalo to be near her mother, who was also pregnant at the time, with Heidi’s youngest brother, my uncle Jake.
My parents each visited the other once during the pregnancy. “When he saw me, when we were near each other, he was suddenly wonderful,” she said. “Then he’d leave and send me a terrible letter. Then he’d send me a nice letter. It was torturing me.” He was confused and had no idea what to do.
He would write things like,
“I can’t shake the feeling that it could all work out. I can’t. but, then, I have to open my eyes, open my ears, + see and hear you saying, ‘no, remember this? Remember that?’ And my gut says, ‘fuck that, remember the future?’”
But then he would follow that excitement and abandon with reservations and attempts at a rational approach.
“You asked me what I think of you ‘minus the baby,’ you,” he wrote.
“I understood your question and the need to ask it. But, it’s weird, because you are not and never will be ‘minus the baby.’ […] the baby is now a fact, a character in this for-shit narrative. But for you and I to continue as ‘lovers’ is to never be healthy for Jody [their placeholder name, a combination of ‘Joe’ and ‘Heidi’] I would always wonder, ‘Am I with Heidi just for the babies sake?’”
She had no pity for his fear. She was only twenty-one and about to have a child, the fact that he, a thirty-year-old man, would abandon her because he wasn’t sure how he felt about fatherhood was inexcusable to her. One letter, dated February 15, 1988, when she was five months pregnant, opens with:
“I think your one of the biggest cowards I’ve ever known—maybe the biggest. I hate you.”
She was angry and mistrustful, wanted to push him away, but was “still totally in love with him” and wanted him to make up his mind and come be a father.” On June 1, 1988, just two days before the due date, he finally did, and went to Buffalo. On June 20, seventeen days late, I was born.
* * *
“He fell in love with you right away,” she told me, and the conversation shifted from whether or not to build a life together to what exactly that life would look like. He made a woodcut birth announcement of a baby coming out of a lily flower, and looked truly hurt when I asked him years later why I was coming out of a banana.
When my mother was pregnant with me she dreamed of owls, and when I was born—with a bald head, big eyes and a cleft lip—I kind of looked like one. This earned me my middle name, Tylluan, the Welsh word for owl, and gave Papa a new image for his repertoire. There are several wooden owl sculptures from right around when I was born, and most of them have chubby legs, like a human baby.
Shortly after I was born, Papa went back to New York for work and ended up in the hospital for appendicitis. When they went to remove his appendix the surgeons found a huge tumor that required the removal of ten feet of his intestines. Heidi jumped on an Amtrak train with me and a suitcase and the family relocated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Tink had moved out of the live-work loft space on Metropolitan Avenue where Papa and all his friends lived shortly after her boyfriend went to see another woman give birth to his child—that’s what it took to end their relationship once and for all. He kept his studio space there, but my mother insisted that they also get an apartment a few doors away. She told me that she didn’t want her baby learning to crawl in the cavernous art space littered with sawdust, metal scraps and other debris. Even he couldn’t argue that it was a reasonable place for a toddler to live.
Fatherhood threatened to bring his image of himself crashing down to earth—it’s impossible to be dedicated entirely and singularly to the artist’s life and also be a family man. When you have a child to feed, it’s no longer an option to choose to buy paint over food—it’s no longer the act of a noble, dedicated man of his craft, but of a selfish, neglectful man failing at his responsibility.
According to my mother, this sharp change in his relationship to the world, the creation of a new responsibility as big as his responsibility to his art, was an adjustment he never stopped negotiating.
“That was the first time it started to dawn on me that I was dealing with someone who had another wife,” she said. She also knew that in this competition for his love and attention, she and their baby were at a disadvantage to art; it had him first.
In an attempt to clarify their roles as co-parents, meaning that he couldn’t just come in and play with the baby when he felt like taking a break from his work, they got married at City Hall on May 19, 1989. It was a small ceremony. My mother wore a forest green dress-suit, and I wore a black floral print dress with white lace tights. I cried through the whole ceremony, even though the cake said “Congratulations Lilly” on it, Mark’s idea.
Hannah and Mark were at the ceremony, and the reception party was in the huge living room of the loft. They held their breath and jumped, hoping that the couple, who met at a strip bar on the anniversary of an ex-lover’s heroin-related death and carried on as an adulterous secret affair that resulted, after only a few months, in an accidental pregnancy, could somehow attain stable marital bliss.
* * *
What followed was the calmest, most wholesome period in our life together, the three of us. We lived in a cute little apartment in Williamsburg, upstairs from a butcher shop and around the corner from my favorite ice cream parlor.
From what my mother remembers, and from everything Papa said in the many long letters he wrote to her even when they lived together, he was determined to be a good husband and father. He expressed a frustrated desire to live up to his own standards, and to hers. In one letter he wrote,
“I have a house.
It’s not a shithole, or a studio w/ a bed, it’s a house.
I have a daughter,
Who I love so much that I’m frightened, I feel like the more she becomes a full person, the more apparent my shortcomings will become; the more visible how unable I am to provide for her, will become.
I have a wife.
Wife is a word, + I never imagined it. It’s not accurate, because it’s you, Heidi. Heidi. I couldn’t want anyone else.”
“We were really into being a family. It was very, ‘go team’! We even did the Wonder Twins thing with our wedding rings,” my mother remembers, putting out her fist to demonstrate. They got excited about simple things like going to the grocery store together, as a family. It seemed to them that they had finally found where they were supposed to be, and somehow they were pulling it off.
I remember the most picturesque winter day when I was about four years old, going out into the thick layer of fresh snow in my snowsuit, holding Papa’s hand as we stopped on the sidewalk outside of our front door and waved up to my mother, looking down at us from our window. We were all smiling, all genuinely happy; a snow globe hanging in the air, suspended for a few seconds before it hits the ground and shatters.
* * *
Their occasional drug use quickly snowballed into a constant thing, as it has a tendency to do, and by 1992, when I was four, cocaine and heroin had become central to their lives. Any trace of the wariness he’d acquired after watching his first love Cathy kill herself with heroin went out the window and was replaced with the blind rationalization of addiction.
Chris remembers that once, around this time, Papa called him, sounding really grim, and said that they were having money problems and couldn’t make the rent. At the time, Chris was making good money doing art direction for MTV, so he wrote a check for $600 directly to the landlord. He said he was happy to help, and that it didn’t occur to him until years later that the reason they couldn’t make the rent was because they had spent all of their money on drugs.
In June of 1993 they moved to San Francisco to get away and start over.
“It’s called a geographical cure,” my mother said, snickering a little at their naive conviction that moving across the country would cure their addictions and the problems in their relationship. She claimed that their move had a lot to do with picking somewhere for me to go to kindergarten that wasn’t a “ghetto Brooklyn school,” but it was also largely to run away from their problems, hoping to leave them buried in New York while they rode into the promise of the Golden Coast.
They managed to successfully start over for a little while, and to stay clean for about a year. “But unfortunately, we ran across heroin,” she said. “It just kind of popped up one day. That’s what it does. And once it’s there it stays.”
Her sister’s husband, John, told them that he knew where he could get some for them, if they wanted. “After that it was over,” she said. Their addiction went right back to being as bad as it was before they left New York, and then got worse. Their dreams of a bright, sunny future were quickly pushed aside in favor of drugs—finding drugs, getting drugs, doing drugs, and planning where to get more drugs.
“It just breeds a lot of anger and misery,” she said. “It’s hard to live in a way that embraces the future when you’re stuck like that.”
She was still stripping, and he had found a good, stable job at a company that made installations for natural history museums. There was enough money coming in, but there was never enough left. I remember hearing them yell at each other for spending money. At the time I figured they weren’t making enough to cover our rent and my school supplies and toys; I just thought we were poor. I didn’t know then how important money is to an addict, and how hard to hold onto.
They also struggled with each other over quitting. With two addicts it was that much harder—as if quitting heroin is ever easy—because every time they got on the right track one or the other would slip and inevitably drag the other down, too. I remember going with my mother to a methadone clinic when I was seven. I sat in the waiting room—alone, because that week my mother was trying to quit but my father was not—and made friends with a woman who was clutching her purse with both hands, waiting anxiously for her turn.
During the weeks when my father was doing better, he was indignant. He was condescending, arrogant. But then he would slip up and be right back at the bottom with her. When she tried to pull herself up, he would accuse her of the same cruelty that he had shown her the week before. When they weren’t yelling at each other they were making cold, sarcastic jabs in hushed tones.
Her stretches of staying clean tended to last longer than his, and started to be more frequent. She would still slip up once in a while, but her effort was continual. She tells me now that the desire to be a good mother pulled her through, and that without it she never would have made the effort she did. Once, when she was considering checking herself into rehab, she told me she was going away to learn how to be a better mommy. I didn’t really understand what she meant at the time, but looking back it was pretty close to the truth.
He tried to keep up, to get clean too, but always seemed to cave.
“I’ve tried to be the hero,” he wrote in a note to her. “And failed. I guess nothing on this planet has the look of failure quite like that of an unsuccessful hero.”
The snow globe of that winter day in Brooklyn had crashed and shattered, and they were both on the floor, trying to collect the shards, telling themselves and each other that maybe they could glue them back together.
It got so bad that Papa’s sister Amy, who he exchanged letters with regularly, mentioned it to their father, trying to get him to pay for rehab. He said he would, on the condition that Papa check himself into a clinic in Saint Louis, near the family home, where they could keep tabs on him. Papa refused, and his father disowned him, never answering another letter.
Papa wanted to get clean on his own terms, not his father’s. He wanted to prove to himself, and to my mother, that he could get it together and be the husband and father he wanted to be. Yet he saw how big the struggle to stay clean was, and wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge. And he considered failing in front of my mother and me worse than the failure itself.
“The basket with all of my eggs in it is: if I can get over the initial ‘big-sick,’ put 7 clean days together, I can come back + be prepared to step back into the winged sandals of a hero,” he wrote to her. “Trying and failing, over + over, in full view, is too destructive […] I don’t need you, or Lilly, to see me like this.”
The ‘big sick’ he mentioned—withdrawal—is every addict’s biggest fear. It must be at least as bad as people describe it, because no matter how badly they’ve screwed up their life, no matter how many people they’ve disappointed, an addict runs for a fix as soon as the sick starts; each time another failed step.
* * *
My parents’ resentment grew until they weren’t just fighting about heroin or cleanliness or money, but just fighting about fighting, snapping at each other constantly, about every little thing. A dish left in the sink, or a scrap of something that looked like trash but was meant to be sculpture material thrown in the garbage was cause for a screaming match. And then whoever was being yelled at would turn around and yell at the other one for being so irritable, judgmental and unforgiving. They became pettier and pettier.
I, who was being taught in first grade to settle disagreements calmly and without pushing or yelling, and to always consider how my actions made other people feel, wondered how my grown-up parents could have missed such important lessons. I scolded them for yelling at each other, which didn’t work. So I cried out of frustration, and I made sure that they saw me cry, and knew that it was because of them. The guilt didn’t work either though, because one of them would just blame the other for upsetting me.
But they didn’t want to admit to themselves, each other, or me that it was over. All that was left of their relationship was the fact that they shared a house and a daughter, and the few pleasant moments got shorter and further apart—but frequent enough to keep them hanging on, to remind them how deeply in love they had been, and could be again if they got their lives together.
“I know you try so damn hard + work work work,” she wrote in a note that started with an apology for hurtful things said the previous night. “I know you change and bend for us more than is comfortable. I worry about it. + probably even get mad about it.”
“Are we in the middle of a good groove? Are we?” He asked in a letter, left on the kitchen table in 1994, hoping for improvement but insecure in his hope, afraid to believe in the momentary oasis.
“I think we are. I think that if we are, a lot of it is because I’m relaxing. This is not a letter that signals a break or change in that relaxing. I still notice that I’m the one who says, ‘we’re doing better, aren’t we?’
Are you rolling your eyes?
Can you look me in the eyes + tell me honestly what you’re feeling about us? About yourself? About me? Can you? (could you? Would you? On a boat? On a train? With a goat?)
Can you tell me some day that you are happier?”
He shared with her openly how afraid he was of losing her, hoping for some reassurance. He was almost as afraid of losing her as he was of withdrawal.
Perhaps preoccupied with fragility, he made a lot of things out of glass during this time. My mother stopped asking him to wash dishes because he would “accidentally on purpose” break wine glasses and then use the stems and shards for Bad Barbies. And he did a series of pieces where he rolled thick black ink onto sheets of glass and then scraped images into it.
But none of the energy he put into letters and artwork telling her how he afraid he was of losing her went into changing any of the behavior that was driving her away.
“He had become an animal,” she told me. “He wasn’t taking care of himself at all. He wasn’t showering. He didn’t care if he had clean clothes on. He was living like a pig. He became really repulsive.”
Audrey Newell, a friend of his from Academy Studios, where he made fake rocks and trees for natural history museums, remembers how horrible he smelled, and how other people in the carpool used to push her to tell him he had to do something about it or stop riding with them. She said she brought it up with him a couple of times and he just mumbled and shrugged.
I have a shirt of his that still, after twelve years, smells like him. I know he was disgusting and filthy, but sometimes when I’m really missing him I put my face in it and take a deep breath. It smells great to me. Not like a junkie, but like my Papa.
* * *
When she really started making strides toward staying clean, going to the clinic regularly, my mom decided that she couldn’t handle living with him any more if he was going to keep doing heroin. She had to walk away from him for her own self-preservation.
“I told him that if he didn’t come with me to methadone it was over,” she said. “And he didn’t,” she said with a shrug that meant, ‘what else could I do?’
I’ve wondered if he thought then about the ultimatums he’d given to Cathy, that if she didn’t stop doing heroin he’d leave her, the pain it caused him to try to help her, to fail, and to have no choice in the end but to keep his promise and walk away, leaving her to destroy herself. But I imagine he may have been too far gone at that point for such self-awareness.
When he rejected the hand my mother reached back to help him out of the hole he was in, that she was climbing out of, their marriage was over. But despite everything she still couldn’t force herself out the door. Something drastic had to happen.
* * *
Papa and Brian had kept in touch since the Williamsburg loft days. We saw him once when we visited New York around ’94, and then he visited us in ’95. While his daughter Sabina, who was my age, and I played with dolls in the living room and my father was at work, Brian and my mother had sex.
I didn’t find out about it until about ten years later when my aunt Amy suggested that maybe we shouldn’t invite Brian to spread my father’s ashes.
We had the idea to go camping up in the Catskills, where the “Primitive Hunting Society” used to go—what my father and his friends called themselves on the weekends that they spent in the woods, drinking whiskey and making art—and spread his ashes in the woods; a place we all agreed he would enjoy staying forever. I just assumed that if such a trip were to be made, it would include his sister Amy, my mother, Brian, Mark and me.
“They didn’t part on the best of terms,” was all Amy would say, and told me I’d have to ask my mother for the whole story. I thought she must be blowing their fight out of proportion; that whatever it was it would be forgiven in death because in the grand scheme of things their almost twenty years of friendship would be more important than any argument.
The look on my mother’s face when I asked her why Papa and Brian had stopped speaking told me she’d been preparing herself for the day I would ask this question for a long time. She cringed and looked at me with almost the same fear and anguish as that moment, years earlier, when she was trying to figure out how to tell me that Papa was dead.
“Oh man,” she sighed. She explained that she and Papa had been fighting so much, that they were still living together but were barely speaking at the time, hated each other even, were practically broken up already. I sat in silence while I listened to her try to rationalize it.
When I asked Brian about it he said the two of them always had a sort of strange connection, but had never acted on it before; that once my parents’ relationship was in shambles, it kind of made sense. She had always been attracted to Brian, and there he was, a wedge she could drive between her and the hopeless addict husband that she just couldn’t bring herself to leave. Once she slept with Brian, Papa hated her as much as she already hated him for the depth of his addiction. Then she was able to leave.
“It was necessary,” Brian said of their brief affair. “Necessary but destructive. Your dad figured it out right away, and it was a disaster.”
* * *
After my parents’ final split in the fall of ‘95, I, then seven years old, lived most of the time with my mother in a one-bedroom apartment on Lexington Street, in the Mission. I got the bedroom and she slept on blankets in the large closet off of the living room. She went to the methadone clinic, and actually managed to get herself clean, eventually earning the privilege of taking her methadone home rather than having to take it in the clinic with the doctor watching. She took as much as she needed to stave off withdrawal, but hoarded the rest until she had enough to spend two weeks locked in the apartment, gradually weaning herself off of the methadone while I stayed with my grandmother.
“It was actually the most awful, awful thing in the world,” she said. For weeks after the withdrawal was over she was still too weak and sick to get down the stairs of our apartment building. Always a small woman, she weighed ninety-three pounds by the time she was really done detoxing.
Papa was living in the Donnely Hotel on Market Street, a sleazy place with carpets the color and texture of fungus, complete with dim lighting and peeling wallpaper.
“I was ready to fucking murder him,” my mother said, still fuming, fifteen years later, about the time that he left me alone in his room there. “It was a fucking crack hotel. Who knows what could have happened?”
I liked the Donnely Hotel. We played catch in the hallway and made up stories about the people we could see out the window, walking down Market Street. I wanted to at least spend weekends with Papa if I couldn’t live with him anymore, which was an injustice beyond the scope of my comprehension.
My mother was so angry with him for bringing me to the hotel that she threatened to never let him see me again. I overheard her and turned around with the response that she was the one who would never see me again if she tried to keep me from Papa. I had clearly taken sides.
I didn’t care what her reasons were for not wanting me to stay there. I didn’t care that the light bulbs in the hallways buzzed and the room smelled funny.
Something Audrey said, after I was done interviewing her and we were just talking, stuck with me:
“I hope you have some positive memories of him.”
It struck me as strange because I have almost entirely positive memories of him.
I knew that he had a problem with drugs, and that it was a really bad thing, but it never translated in my mind to him being a bad person. In fact, I remember indignantly explaining as much to the D.A.R.E. representative who came to speak to my fourth grade class in stark black-and-white terms that I knew were insufficient to describe drug addiction and addicts.
In a letter written shortly after their breakup he wrote,
“I’m trying to ‘act’ a little nicer when we see each other. Not for your sake, for Lilly’s.
“I’m trying to ‘act’ a little nicer when we see each other. Not for your sake, for Lilly’s. I’m thoroughly bitter + angry at you….But, for Lilly’s sake I have to let it go when I see you. I’m not good @ hiding any of my feelings. I want Lilly to have the chance to live + think that a real + lasting love between 2 people is possible. She has that w/ you. She has it w/ me. But, I’m afraid her memories of you and me together will be memories of anger and bitterness, + hurt. Someday, somehow, I’ll have to let her know just how deeply I loved you. […] I don’t ever want to fight with you in front of her. I wish we could see each other, you + I, as little as possible. As absolutely little as possible. +, it should be, @ least calm. I don’t want your friendship, we’re not friends, but we are co-parents. I only want to not hurt or poison Lilly’s view of the world.”
It took another several years for them to pull off even the appearance of politeness, dropping me off at one house or another resulted in screaming matches, or at best, cold, awkward silence.
Once he was late dropping me off and she started yelling, telling him he was selfish and inconsiderate. He hurled back that she just liked to be mad at him. I decided to teach them a lesson, and slowly and quietly walked away. They were so absorbed in hating each other that they didn’t notice I was no longer standing between them, my head bouncing back and forth like I was watching tennis; which was exactly my point. When they came running around the corner, together, breathless, I was completely unharmed, looking at the chip selection in a corner store. But for a few terrified minutes I had gotten them to stop fighting.
They remained hateful, bitter and spiteful for a long time, but after the initial threats of smear campaigns, divorce was never seriously considered. They talked about it briefly, in terms of who could make the other look worse in a custody battle, and once they had each shown their hand the subject was set aside.
“We attacked each other with the worst possible scenario and then couldn’t do anything,” she said. “We never even talked about it again after that.”
They were still legally married three years later when Papa went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up. The coroner never figured out what killed him, but there was no heroin in his system at the time.
When we were talking about their breakup for this project, my mother confided in me for the first time that she’d always held onto hope that they’d get back together someday; that they’d both get clean, and that somehow, after everything that had happened, they’d still manage to stake out their little corner of happiness. This was harder for me to hear than anything about how awful they were to each other during the worst of it, how far gone into addiction he was, how disgusted she was by him. The idea that they might have gotten back together someday, that somehow, after everything, they could have had a happy ending, was just one more reason to hate his death.
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Lilly O’Donnell (@lillyodonnell) is a freelance writer in New York City. This piece is excerpted and adapted from a book-length work in progress—the story of her father and his artwork, and of her experience getting to know him a decade after his death.