Oct/Nov 2020  •   Fiction

Exactly Like Her Father

by John Palcewski

Public domain street art

Public domain street art


In 1995, the third year of our marriage, I asked Elizabeth if she felt uncomfortable when I talked so much about my obsessive short story writing, which I tried to explain was an attempt to get inside the head of my drunken, abusive father, and also into the mind of my mother, who'd abandoned me when I was a year old. My theory was abusers and abandoners all have unspoken reasons and motivations, and if I could somehow uncover them, I'd be much less a neurotic victim.

No, she didn't care if I spent all my free time tapping away on a keyboard, to each his own. As long as I kept up my freelance photography business. "You know we need the money," she said.

Not the kind of answer I was looking for.

Anyway, I didn't say it out loud, but it was clear Elizabeth had a lot of her own unresolved issues, largely centered on Big Bill, her father, as well as long-standing guilt for having given up a baby for adoption ten years earlier, fathered by Neil, a Vietnam War Army vet with PTSD. Obviously the last thing she'd want to do would be to bring those excruciating memories back up from the depths where she'd dumped them.

She was an expert at changing the subject. Thus:

"It's probably sexist to say so," she said, "but men require absolute attention from their listeners—who by the way are mostly women. Men can't stand it if women fidget, or don't maintain eye contact while they're delivering tedious, pedantic lectures. They require our FULL attention."


"At least that's the way David is."

David, her brother, who was lead guitarist in a touring rock & roll band.

"And also the way I am?"

She nodded. "You're exactly like my father. A typical listen-to-me fanatic."

"But he doesn't have evil intent, right? He's just continuing to use a strategy that has always worked for him. Have you or your mother or your sister ever told him, SHUT UP?"

"Of course not."

"Well, there you have it."

Jean, Elizabeth's mother, complained when she last visited us that Bill was getting more and more testy, sarcastic, and depressed. His deteriorating physical condition, his constant bitching and foul moods were driving her crazy. She wondered aloud what should be done, and I suggested they both go to a therapist or their doctor and TALK about it. It's never too late to work on a relationship.

But the most significant point, I said, is that both David and Elizabeth have histories of depression and successful use of Prozac, so it's not much of a stretch to suggest Bill might benefit from anti-depressant medication. In this case it's almost certainly a genetic thing, a matter of brain chemistry. I was pretty sure if Bill were directly confronted with the unacceptability of his behavior, he wouldn't raise much hell in response. Rather, he'd be red-faced and apologetic and say he didn't realize he was acting so badly, and he'd quickly agree to whatever terms Jean laid out.

Jean seemed to be listening to my comments and accepting them as essentially valid, but finally she said, "I appreciate all you're suggesting, John, but now I think I would rather not continue talking about Pops."

Harriet, Elizabeth's sister, got fed up with their mother's repetitious complaints and told her to either shit or get off the pot. If Jean wasn't willing to confront Bill and say to him, look, either you and I go to get some help for your unacceptable behavior or I'm moving the hell out, then she ought to quit asking people for advice. So finally Jean bit the bullet and delivered Bill an ultimatum.

Surprise! Rather than a blowout, Bill—exactly as I predicted—agreed to go see the doctor, and now he's on Zoloft.

Imagine him mellow.



Elizabeth remained sleeping after another one of our arguments the night before. The issue was dinner. Early in the afternoon, she'd said we ought to have ham sandwiches with lettuce and tomato with a side of potato chips, but we needed fresh bread. At that moment it was raining heavily, and I said once the rain lets up, I'll go to the deli around the corner on Amsterdam and get some. Which I did. About five I asked her if she was ready to eat, and she said no, she wasn't hungry. Okay, I said. So I ate a piece of leftover pizza to hold me over. At six she came down and asked me if I had made a sandwich for myself. Annoyed, I said, "No, I was waiting for you." And she said, "Why did you do that? If you're hungry, you should eat."

But then a half an hour later she asked me if I was ready to make her a sandwich. That's when I got annoyed. Big mistake. Which made things worse.

We got to an impasse. She stood by the door glaring, her hands on her narrow hips, showing me that deep crease of a frown. "So what are you going to do now, sulk all night? I just don't understand why this should upset you."

I felt my face burning as she stormed back upstairs to her usual place, which was on the bed. Alone with her pile of true crime novels. And she stayed there while I flopped down on the couch and really got into the Giants kicking the Cowboys' asses, 42-7.

She was intent on punishing me for being annoyed she once again didn't want to have dinner with me, her goddamned husband, who all of a sudden was making unreasonable demands. What will he want next, huh?

The next morning she came over as I was at the computer and said, "I'm old. I'm ugly."

I quickly rose and embraced her. "No, you're not. You're young and lovely and you're the best and I love you."

She put her mouth at the crook of my neck, and I thought she was about to blow and make a farting sound, which always annoys the hell out of me, but she didn't. She patted me on the back, disengaged, and said, "You're a bullshitter."

"That's a nasty thing to say."

She looked annoyed. "Don't be so thin-skinned," she said.

Elizabeth reminded me I needed to take Buster to the vet for his grooming and shots. Since he'll be given sedatives for the grooming, it was necessary to not feed him, and now he's up here meowing, rubbing against my leg, trying to con me into opening up a can of grits.



Big blowup with Elizabeth when she came home from work yesterday evening. I started telling her about the latest development in the OJ trial—that Judge Ito may be taken off the case—and she was rather overt in her lack of interest in the subject and seemed to me to be extraordinarily dismissive, in a way I've become quite accustomed to.

At the end of my sentences, she added wordplay. For instance, when I said, "It has to do with detective Furhman," she said, "Fermin?" meaning rat. She did the same thing to the word "recuse," saying "Oh recuuuuse me!"

She saw my annoyance, shook her head slowly.

"What's the matter, John. Can't you take a joke?"

And then this morning she's once again upset. She's overwhelmed with stuff at work, overwhelmed with stuff at home. And most especially with me. We have another argument. She weeps.

"We never have a conversation," she moaned. "It's always just like this."

Okay, I get it. I may NOT show anger. I may NOT employ verbal gymnastics to defend my position. I may NOT point out the illogic or unfairness of her always changing complaints, the constantly shifting sands. I must just sit there and say nothing. Just nod my head, now and again, until she has finished her catalog of my shortcomings and insensitivity and irresponsibility. And only then, when she has exhausted her repertory, am I permitted to say:

"Yes. Of course. You're absolutely right. I'm such a shit. But then, I've always been such a shit. I don't expect you to forgive me, because such conduct is unforgivable."

And I think of moving out, finding a studio apartment. One room, bath, kitchen. With shelves put up on four walls to hold all my books. A computer. All my cameras, tripods, light stands. An improvised darkroom in the bathroom. Back to the life I lived before I met her. Only this time I would wait a goddamned long fucking time before I got involved with another woman. I need the peace of solitude. Which I'm more and more convinced is my natural state.

That our marriage was falling apart and likely beyond repair was clearly evident at Thanksgiving dinner in 1995 at her parents' place near a lake in upstate New York. Also evident was Elizabeth's ongoing trouble with Big Bill, her father, and her uneasiness with her brother and sister. All that forced cheer was depressing.

What was it about Elizabeth that Big Bill disliked so much? His quick, cutting looks, his poorly concealed disdain were clear to see. And the whole bunch of them at the cluttered table were his cowed, mute accomplices. No one dared to challenge the boss, the top dog. Hey, hell hath no fury as a scorned sadist, right?

And he was a clever devil. He'd deliver a not-so-subtle barb, then laugh as if it were merely a joke. A skillful imitation of Don Rickles, the side-splitting insult comedian. The more he tears you down, the funnier it gets. It's called "festive abuse." Entertainment, that's what this was all about. Nothing sinister about it. No sir.

"Hey, Liz, you've got it backward," he said, apropos of absolutely nothing. It just came out of the blue. "Your nose runs, and your feet smell. Ha, ha, ha."

The others continued chatting as if that cutting comment had not been uttered. Look at them, they're complicit in the old fart's toxicity, the tyrant's willing enablers. At least my own father didn't bother with any pretense at humor. He wished I was dead, and he would have murdered me, had he not been such a pathetic, cowering coward.

"You all know what Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once pronounced?" Bill said, again apropos of nothing. "There's a lot of lowbrow in a highbrow. But NO highbrow in a lowbrow. Liz? Liz? Any comment? No?"

Desert was a grand assortment of Ma's home-made pies. Pumpkin, cherry, apple, and mince meat, along with scoops of vanilla ice cream. Absolutely fabulous.

As we wolfed it down, the phone rang. Ma hurried into the kitchen. After a few moments, she stuck her head in the door and said, "Rosanne says hi and happy thanksgiving!"

Rosanne, Elizabeth's very best friend. They grew up together in this quaint little village. They both went to elementary and high school. While Liz was in England working on her Masters, Rosanne was at Columbia studying screenwriting. Rosanne's nickname for Elizabeth was "Beastie." As in Beauty and the Beast. Obviously, since Rosanne was glamorous, like a movie star, and Elizabeth, well, let's just say she was plain.

Later we assembled in the living room. Ma sat at the grand piano and Harriet, AKA Big Cheese, was music director. They began with a few hymns.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

I sat in the rocking chair in the corner. Bill had several times told me it was a bitch to build, 30 years ago. He had to soak those back panels in boiling water, put them into a form. Craftsmanship. You know?

David and his wife Marcia were on a bench, close together, laughing, whispering. Together, as man and wife. Elizabeth was on the other end of the big living room, as far away from me as she could get.

Ma was a precise player, a natural-born sight-reader, and skillful in changing keys to accommodate each of her children or in-law's vocal range. Big Bill's piece was "Old Man River," which he delivered in a dramatic, pitch-perfect basso profundo.

Ma peered over at me, crooked her forefinger. She insisted I sing "When I Was A Lad" from HMS Pinafore. I didn't want to do it because while I have a great ear, I'm a pitifully mediocre singer. I plowed through it, though, focusing hard on the lyrics on the sheet music, fearful of making a mistake.

Afterward, the women made a racket in the kitchen cleaning up, and Bill took me aside and engaged me in another of his regular heart-to-hearts. "You know John," he said, "you're my favorite son-in-law."

"And you're my favorite father-in-law," I replied. Which made him laugh.

But seriously.

The topic he was intent on examining was a variation of the one we'd had at last year's Thanksgiving dinner. Namely, how abuse is passed down generations. Like, his grandfather used to beat his father, and so naturally his father beat him. More than likely his grandfather had been beaten as well, and these vicious beatings went all the way back to God knows when. And I nodded and said, yes, and that's precisely what I'm focusing my current short story writing on. If I fully understand what my sadist of a father went through as a boy, maybe I'll feel less discomfort, if that's the word.

Bill shook his head and frowned. "But the point I'm trying to make," he said, "is that one of the reasons Elizabeth married you was because you and I are so alike! We have remarkably similar backgrounds, personalities. No?"

"Well, yes," I said.

Thank God he, with no warning, lurched off onto another subject.

"Tell me, John, have you photographed any more famous people?" he said. "You know how much I was impressed by the pictures you took of Kurt Vonnegut. And George Plimpton. And that thing you wrote about your visit with Plimpton was wonderful. I told everybody it was as vivid and engaging as anything you'd see in The New Yorker."

Which is what he actually had proclaimed at the Thanksgiving Dinner table here three years ago, a mere four months after our wedding at the lake, but apparently had now forgotten. Which had made that particular dinner just as cringe-worthy as this one.

Bill had volumes of praise for me, and my photography, and my writing, but only sarcasm for "Liz."


"Ma said you were morose," Elizabeth said on our long drive back to Manhattan.


"I told her no surprise, you were morose ALL the time."



Of course I would never call Elizabeth plain. Instead, I'd point out her face and physique resembled the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. And I mean exactly. Same pulled back hair, narrow face, narrow nose. A look of intensity, intelligence.

A figure Georgia's lover then-husband Alfred Stieglitz became obsessed with, and of whom he made hundreds and hundreds of photographic portraits.

When I told Elizabeth, like Alfred, I'd like to do a formal photographic study of her, she'd said no. And no especially to nudity. Absolutely not. Richard, her photographer ex-husband, once came into the bathroom while she was in the tub, and despite her wail of protest, he clicked off a few shots anyway. The images show her acutely distressed at the un-welcomed exposure.



Elizabeth had a thing about dates. She could tell you what historical event had occurred on that particular day, either last year or back in antiquity. For instance, did you know, on December 19 in 1848, Emily Bronte, the author of Wuthering Heights, died of tuberculosis? She was only thirty. There were numerous other great events Elizabeth would identify at the slightest provocation.

By comparison, my list of important historical happenings was a short one. Yes, I could recite the opening sentence of President Roosevelt's speech to Congress after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor: "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy..."

And then quickly point out that the sentence actually should have been "...THAT will live in infamy."

Each year when December rolled around, two ghosts emerged to torment my troubled wife. One was her first lover, Neil, and the other was Bob, her most recent. And as time went on, these two guys ended up torturing me as much as they'd tortured her.

How do I loathe thee, Bob? Let me count the ways.

He had an IQ way up in the stratosphere. A Masters in classical languages from Yale. Still laboring on his Ph.D. thesis. Just for fun, brilliant Bob read Homer and Herodotus in the original Ionic Greek, as well as all the Roman histories in Latin, and of course he was quite fluent in the Italian of Petrarch and Dante.

The subject of Bob's thesis? A line-by-line examination of a poem entitled "On Nature," by Parmenides, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, founder of the Eleatic school. The poem describes two views of reality: the way of truth, and the way of opinion. In truth change is obviously impossible. In opinion, false and deceitful conceptions invariably spring up.

Elizabeth spoke—WAY too often—of the awesome, scary power of his analytical mind, as well as the aesthetics of his perfectly proportioned and naturally muscular body. I mean, Bob never worked out at a gym, but nevertheless he was ripped, totally, like Adonis.

She said on their first date at the dining room of the Essex House on Central Park South, Bob showed up wearing dark aviator's sunglasses, and he kept them on while they had a few drinks. He described his work as a union organizer and involvement as an anarcho-syndicalist in IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, and then, all of a sudden, he pulled off those glasses and gave her a penetrating gaze.

His were the most breathtaking azure blue eyes Elizabeth had ever seen. Oh, my God. Oh, Jesus. She got weak in the knees, and her hands trembled.

Every time Elizabeth brought up the episode, it made me angry, because I knew Bob's bullshit Byronic stare routine was so calculated, phony, and manipulative, and I hated the idea Elizabeth was so vulnerable to such a laughably obvious and banal tactic.

But of course I ignored the fact that I, myself, was intimately familiar with the utility of nailing an innocent girl with an intense, fixed stare. The move had always been MY specialty.

Anyway, for an entire year breathtakingly brilliant Bob was the perfect lover. He regularly brought her flowers, extra-large boxes of Godiva, flimsy black silk undies from La Petite Coquette. He scribbled thoughtful little notes, stuck them with a magnet on the fridge. He performed literally hundreds of little gestures of caring, of kindness. And when she talked about her father, Wild Bill, Bob listened patiently. I say again, PATIENTLY! Unlike all the other men she'd hooked up with, Bob actually knew what authentic listening was all about.

Elizabeth luxuriated in that 12 months of romantic perfection. And then out of the blue, Bob calmly announced he'd just decided a major change was necessary. It now was time for them to move into a more "open" kind of relationship.

She asked him what in hell he was talking about, and he laughed and said, "Surely you know the definition."

"But in case you don't, it means not too long ago I started fucking Nancy, one of your fellow technical writers at the bank, and I've also been fucking Louise, the flight attendant who shares an apartment with three of her co-workers on the third floor of this building."

Furthermore, he said, when he goes to Paris as a delegate at the upcoming convention of Federation Anarchiste, he will be staying at the apartment of Nicole, an intellectual, a rebellious aristocrat. It was all arranged, a done deal, non-negotiable. Meaning, if Elizabeth didn't like it, she could just pack up her stuff and get the fuck out of his life, right now.

While he was gone, Elizabeth, dripping tears, scribbled in her journal: "How could I not have seen his sociopathy? How could I have been so blind? Will I ever be able to trust my gut instincts, my judgment, again?"

And that's where she left it. A big pile of unanswered questions.



Two days before Christmas, not long after their big breakup, she was stunned when Bob showed up at her door with a present. A book. Sappho to Valery: Poems in Translation, by John Frederick Nims. Did she know Nims was editor of Poetry magazine from 1978 to 1984?

She wanted to but couldn't turn him away. Why? Because he spoke so softly, so gently, and appeared to be genuinely sorry for all the pain he had brought her. There was tenderness in his gestures, his voice, his blue eyes. Well, all right, she said, come in. There'd be no harm in talking. He agreed he couldn't stay long because she had to get up early and get to work finishing up an important project at the bank.

One thing led to another. Of course. With Bob it always did. And after weeks and weeks of celibacy, she was so horny, so lonely, so needy.

The next morning she entered the bedroom with a cup of coffee and woke Bob up. With a knowing grin and a reddish erection he put the coffee on the nightstand, then pulled her into the bed. He penetrated her, violently, urgently. After a shuddering orgasm, he withdrew, got up, gulped down the coffee, dressed, and headed for the door.

He turned and smiled. "I love how you always, ALWAYS satisfy me," he said.

She didn't have time for a shower. She quickly put on her clothes and down parka and left the apartment. As the subway rumbled downtown, she suddenly felt a trickling down her inner thigh. Bob's semen! A weird but interesting sensation. Such a thing had never happened to her before. All those people surrounding her on that clattering train: which of the women also had a man's semen dribbling down their legs?



She did a long riff on the word "Interesting."

"If what you do is truly interesting, then you ought to continue doing it. Interest is the transcendent thing. It doesn't matter if any given act is immoral or disgusting or bound to bring you pain. Just do it and continue to do it as long as it is interesting."

HA! I thought. This was an amazing wrinkle in the history of moral considerations. You can justify any conduct merely by citing its compelling interest.

Men are interesting.

Of course. A dope-smoking biker, like Neil for instance. Or a married professor in graduate school in England. Or an anarchist and classical scholar like Bob. The sort of men you don't ask to use a condom, since that would diminish their pleasure. Always aim to please, right?

She said it was interesting to feel semen running down your leg as you stand on the train on your way to work. Pressed tight among all those people, you stand there, rocking back and forth, gripping that stainless steel pole, thinking of how semen came to be deposited deep within you not more than 15 minutes ago. An affirmation of your desirability as a woman.

Yes. Trickling semen, how bloody fucking interesting.

A few months passed. Things settled down somewhat, but I was obliged to endure too many reminders of the men of her past who had wounded her. Reminders like a big poster on her wall with a pair of mugshots, full frontal and profile, of Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist, arrested by the authorities. Beneath the photos, a quote in boldface type:

"There are... some potentates I would kill by any and all means at my disposal. They are Ignorance, Superstition, and Bigotry—the most sinister and tyrannical rulers on earth."

Yes, of course, Bob gave her that poster.

And then there was her t-shirt with the inscription, "LIBERTY AND UNION, NOW AND FOREVER." Another gift from Bob? Yep, exactly.

There were many more, and they all troubled me deeply.

One afternoon, in exasperation, she asked me, "What can I do to make you feel better about this relationship?"

"Do you really want to know?"


"Marry me," I said.

Stunned, she said she'd need to give that some thought. I said fine. A week later, she said, "Okay. Why not?"



Toward the end of the marriage, early in the morning: she's in the shower, singing. I think, hmmmm. That's so pleasant to hear. Then she comes into the bedroom. Wet, fragrant, and naked. Her hair is plastered down on her skull. She grins wickedly, slips under the covers, and reaches for me. Soon my head is swimming. Things are suddenly taking a turn for the better, no?

Precisely ten days later, before she leaves for work, she tells me it's over. She says she'll be reasonable about when she expects me to pack up and leave. I hear the words, but they don't penetrate. No, no, this can't be. She has to tell me the same thing five or six times.

After she departs, I dress, go out, begin a lengthy run east on 83rd to Central Park. The bitter wind stings my face. I squint. I feel sorry for myself. And why not? Who else gives a shit? I just can't wrap my mind around the phrase "It's over." It occurs to me, like a flash, that the post-shower encounter a few days earlier had been her goodbye fuck.



She said she shouldn't have married me, and she shouldn't have gotten married to Richard, her first husband.

"I'm just not capable of giving a man what a man expects, that's all."

"Wait a minute," I said. "We exchanged vows. That has to mean something. You incurred an obligation. At least you ought to try to see if the marriage is worth saving."

A long silence. Finally, she sighed.

"I'm sorry, but I just don't think any of that is valid," she said, getting out of bed and picking up Chloe. She sat in her grandmother's rocking chair and rubbed the cute cat's fur. "Promises of eternal love, eternal fidelity. It's totally unrealistic."

There it was. Another of her abrupt dismissals with a flick of her wrist, still another topic or concept that in her view did not deserve serious discussion. At that moment, I finally began to see the ultimate futility of seeing a counselor to save the marriage. How can you save something that has never existed? Why examine her "falling out of love" when she never was in love?" Here, at last, was the Sherman statement I kept asking her for.

"What in hell is a Sherman statement?" she'd angrily asked me.

"If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve."

"Oh," she said.

Clear. Direct. Sufficient. We'd finally arrived at the point where there was nothing more to say.