Volume 25, Number 3

Lost Privileges

Frederic Smith

This morning Alarcon wakes me with a rough hand, and his voice has a new edge. “Better get clean up. You hab bisitor today.”

What visitor? I ask. It comes out “Wa vizur?” But after three weeks of dealing with me he understands what remains of my speech.

He pulls me upright, props me against the pillows and runs a damp washcloth over my face and neck. He brushes my hair and teeth and holds out a glass for me to spit in. When the mess cart arrives, he hoists scrambled egg to my mouth. I make a no sound to food.

“Wa vizur?”

He shrugs and tidies up my room.

Who has come all this way to see me? I know no one here any more. It has to be someone from Chicago, a friend, a colleague. My departmental chairman? I can’t believe it. He may tell others I’m his brightest anthropologist and the only ex-Berkeley radical he’s ever wanted for his son, but I’m not worth a trip out here. He’s too tight-fisted and not inclined toward sentimentality.

“Maybe she pretty,” Alarcon says and laughs with some derision. They’re an uncaring lot, these so-called caregivers, with nothing to fear from the likes of me.

She? My ex-wife, Madeleine, principal victim of my infidelities, model of forbearance until I began to take her forbearance for granted and ceased bothering to hide what I was up to? She hasn’t wanted to see me since the day she sent me packing, ten years ago. And whenever our daughter’s—Charlotte’s—upbringing has needed discussing, or paying for, Madeleine has always found it congenial to use the phone.

Can it be one of the women whose favors I enjoyed as I betrayed my wife and daughter, sent our household to hell, forced confusion and torn loyalties on Charlotte, fractured what could have been her happiest years, the time between eighteen and thirty, when fortunate people lay the foundations of their lives yet still find it possible to feel young?

Is it Charlotte herself? All the way from her new life in New York? What could bring her except guilty pietas? Love unmixed with scorn was something she let me know I forfeited when I left home. She hasn’t visited me in four years, nor suggested I visit her.

Will I still find her a mystery? Will I go on wondering how anyone can defy her upbringing with such a blithe lack of concern? Twenty-eight now, a Stanford magna, handsome in the way of very tall women, with money of her own left to her by Madeleine’s mother—she’s as marriageable as anyone else I’ve ever known, yet still unmarried. Is love beyond her? Is my example her deterrent? How can someone of her background work at a cruise line, albeit in the executive offices, her days spent dreaming up amusements for oceangoing seniors who like St. Lucia?

I lurch to the computer by my bed. It’s an early model, noisy and erratic, a cast-off, but management finally let me have it after I pestered them for a week, and it serves my purposes. My right arm and index finger still work (a sign of grace, I suppose), so I can still peck out conversation of a sort.

“Did she leave a name?” I type.

Alarcon sees what I’m doing and bends to read the screen. He shrugs once more and turns on the TV. The morning news is on, Bush the Younger telling the Republic that a second Iraq war will keep us safe from all imaginable dangers. Soon Alarcon leaves.

Just before nine, as I sit alone before the screen, digesting the President’s sleight-of-hand, I hear Charlotte’s voice in the corridor. She’s arguing with a nurse. Her tone is brittle, imperious; she’s used to getting her way and will start trouble if she doesn’t. “Of course he’ll see me,” she hisses, “I’m his daughter.”

“But does he expect you?”

Further argument, none of it civil. Although the nurse doesn’t relent, she consents to knock on my door and ask if I feel like company. When I don’t answer, she opens the door, and Charlotte rushes past her, trailed by the scents of disinfectant and full diapers. Charlotte moves close, stands inches from my face, and stares. Alarm floods her eyes. She tries to blink back tears as I try to smile. I can’t help myself. It’s a reflex, playing the consoling parent, even after so many years.

“Christ!” she exhales.

I understand how others see me.

She bends, enfolds me in her arms, kisses me. When she stands, I see she’s beautiful still, fit and lithe in her satin jogging outfit the color of pale watermelon. Her windbreaker looks tailored. I remember she starts each day with a run, claims to feel unwell if she misses it. A mark of her generation and class: body-obsessed. At her age my friends and I—children of the sixties, all—were happy in our sloven.

“Thanks for coming,” I type. “It means everything to me.”

She catches on, moves a chair to my side, leans forward to read. As she does, I catch her scent: floral, expensive. She seems devoid of sweat; her body seems heatless. What stirs her blood? Who rouses her passion?

“How are you?” I type. “How’s your mother?”

I can’t be sure, but I think this supremely self-confident daughter of mine is unable to speak.

“Look, there’s hope,” I say. “They swear I’ll be mobile again soon. And talking. No promises about how I’ll sound, though.”

She tries and fails to chuckle. I let a minute go by. At last she chokes out, “You’re about the last person I ever expected to find mute.”

“Funny,” I write, “you always used to complain I was too terse with you. Or hid my feelings, I can’t remember which. Maybe this is retribution.”

“For what? No one else agreed with me. Not your students, I can tell you. Those Christmas parties you used to give at the house? You’d invite a dozen, and they’d corner me and rave about your lectures. ‘He’s a wordsmith,’ they’d say, ‘an orator. And he talks to us after class. He cares.’ They loved you.” She wrinkles her nose, a sign of disdain for my subject. “It was Andean culture, right? Wasn’t that your thing? Indians up high? Bolivia, Peru?”

She hasn’t forgotten what I teach—she was always too interested. But she can’t resist a barb. I’m the father, after all, who became a rumor.

“I’m surprised you don’t remember more clearly,” I say, trying to give a little back. “You used to sit at the dinner table and ask me to say a few words in one of the Indian languages. You’d pout until I gave in.”

She looks at me bleakly. “That was a long, long time ago.”

There it is again, I think—payback.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“What question?”

“About how you are.”

“I’m fine,” she says without conviction. “Why, don’t I look it? New York is a blast. I’m a rising star in the travel industry. I get raises, compliments, expensive lunches. I have a window office, I leave early on Fridays, I own stock options. I have friends, we party, we spend weekends at people’s houses in the country and sponge without let-up and we never give it a thought. Doesn’t that sound great? It does to me. I really can’t think of anything I lack, and I can’t think of anything else to report.”

Nothing, Charlotte?”

She looks away, and her face seems to liquefy. “Oh, Christ, how do you think I am?” She’s sobbing now, making no effort to hide it, avoiding the sight of my inert form, my slack features, my grey skin and unfocused eyes. “I didn’t want to do this,” she says as though from underwater.

I sit quietly, letting her recover. In time she finds aplomb.

“I meant what I said,” I write. “I’m going to be okay. The doctors tell me so, and I can feel it. We need to give it time, is all.”

She nods, unwilling to risk speech. I wait anew, miserable because she is. There’s no escaping the conduit between her feelings and mine, even at her age, despite our estrangement. It’s one of the curses of parenthood, shared feelings. I wait a long while, and when it seems safe, I raise a subject that’s troubled me for years.

“What about love?”

She looks as though she hasn’t understood.

“Love. You know, the thing everyone seems to want even if they can’t define it.”

She wipes her eyes with her sleeve and manages a small, derisive grin. “Overrated, from what I hear. Trouble, too. Personally, I wouldn’t know.”

She’s posing, I think—but why? Does she expect me to believe she’s a blank page? We’ll come back to that page later, I say to myself.

“And your mother? How is she?”

“Fine, thanks. Still organizing for that metal workers’ union no one wants to join, still beautiful in her way. She dates a couple of men. They’re nice enough but no one you could call special, and she sits on the boards of a couple of charities no one seems interested in giving to. The Navajo Children’s College Fund—ever hear of that one?

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I once gave them a hundred.”

“Seriously? I never thought of you as the charitable type.”

She’s progressed, I think, from righteous anger to petty malice.

“By the way, she asked me to tell you she hopes you’re better soon. I think that’s really nice of her, don’t you?”

“I hope I’d be as nice if the tables were turned.”

“I’ll tell her that.”

“Do.” Without hope of being believed I add, “You can’t know this, but the old feelings never go away. Not completely.” I mean, above all, admiration. That was what I felt for Madeleine above all else. Despite Wellesley and a grand upbringing in Glencoe, she turned her back on money and the Good Life in order to marry me and then to try improving the lot of people she was raised to ignore. And she never stopped trying. I’ve spent the past thirty years promoting my career, writing scholarly articles ten other people want to read, tending my stock portfolio, hiding my Berkeley years under a facade of normality, avoiding all public debate on my country’s actions, philandering.

“I’m not sure she ever got over you, either,” Charlotte says with a smile intended to wound. It does its work.

“Then we’re even. And who occupies your thoughts?” I ask, wishing I could speak so that she might hear the offense I’ve taken. “There must be someone.”

She seems resigned to telling me. “I’m dating a guy at the Morgan Bank, if you really want to know. No, don’t jump to conclusions. He’s good to me, and he’s even intelligent. I doubt he’s what you had in mind for me, but he suits me fine. For now. I don’t think much about the future, and neither does he. We’re just trying to enjoy ourselves.”

“Why do you assume I wouldn’t like him?”

“Because he’s a banker, daddy. As in Wall Street. He voted for Clinton twice, but I doubt that helps.”

“It doesn’t. Look, I know there are good people on Wall Street. Theoretically.”

She pitches me a skeptical grin. “That’s the sixties talking.”

“So? That was my era. It formed me. What does ‘dating’ mean, anyway?”

“Oh, come on.”

I look out the window. The hills of Berkeley are deep green after three days of rain, their tops sheathed in sea fog, their slopes softly exhaling the scents of eucalyptus and chaparral. I look at the campanile, just visible above the treetops down the hill from where I sit, and I remember my college years here. I remember marching against the war, demonstrating for civil rights, making public my conscience. I remember jeering at the older generations. I remember the day I discovered anthropology, easy sex—the habit of it—and I remember the right to affront anyone we set our sights on. Here, for the first and last time, I felt special: touched by a gilded hand. Where else would I have wanted to spend what could have been my last days? It had cost me a fortune to ferry me here from Chicago, but I paid. Without regret I paid. This town, this college—the memory is magnetic north for my nostalgia.

Against my better judgment I ask Charlotte, “Are you doing anything public?” As soon as the question is out, I know I sound like an examiner.

She goes on point, like a terrier. “I think I know what’s coming. You mean demonstrating. You mean petitioning. That’s what you mean. Against Iraq—it would have to be Iraq, wouldn’t it, because there’s nothing else happening. Unless you count Afghanistan. No, I’m not, and I hope that closes the subject. But I don’t think it will. I get the feeling I’m going to hear about your Berkeley days again. How much they enriched you, or whatever.”

“No. You’re going to hear about our second oil war in ten years. About the fact that some people have been trying to stop it, although it seems you’re not one of them. There was a huge march in New York the other day, the biggest in over thirty years. It would have been huge when Nixon was dropping all that tonnage on Cambodia. You must have heard the noise, but were you there?”

“I heard it, and I already answered that.”

“It’s an innocent question, Charlotte.”

“Like hell it is. It’s sanctimonious and judgmental and I resent it. You really believe the government gives a shit what people like me think?”

“If you were my age, you wouldn’t ask that. We drove Lyndon Johnson from office—ordinary people did. My father owned a cement plant in a town called Sierra Glen, and he was one of them. Power’s not the point.”

“No, the point is—what did you used to call it? Personal fulfillment?”

“I don’t need your sarcasm. You have no idea what it’s like to serve a purpose higher than yourself. Not many in your generation do. What are you so afraid of? Is it failure, or is it getting your hands dirty? Or solitude? You don’t want to be one of two kids on the block with a cause, is that it? Frankly, I credited you with more imagination.”

“Lucky me. I’d feel even luckier if you stopped trying to make me over in your ex-image. Come on, you haven’t marched or signed anything in thirty years. You haven’t even kept up with your old lefty friends. I know because Madeleine told me so—she told me how much it bothers you. Or used to. You’re a fitter-in, is what she says. Fine, but no phony piety for this chick. Because everything else we do in life contradicts it.”

How can I argue? She knows what I’ve become.

She gets up and goes for the door, moving with a dancer’s grace. I’ve forgotten how much grace she brings to the most ordinary acts. “Cheer up,” she says over her shoulder. “If I’d been a kid in sixty-eight, I’d have been on the barricades right along with you. My friends, too. By the way, every time you feel like dumping on the new generation, remember it was your students who called the ambulance when you keeled over. They also call Madeleine every week to see how you’re doing.” She waves a long, well-groomed hand. “Take care. I’ll be back soon.”

When she’s gone, I rest, but not long.

“Charlotte’s just left,” I write to Madeleine, “and I spoiled her visit. You know me—I couldn’t keep quiet about the thing that’s been worrying me most: how did we happen to spawn such an exceptional, unexceptional child? First I asked her about love, and she told me she’s involved with a moneyman and doesn’t give a damn for their future together. Then I asked about right causes and learned she thinks they’re futile, possibly even ridiculous, and that I’m a hypocrite to ask. Think of it: a moneyman and blind acceptance of what the government does. Or maybe not so blind—which makes it worse. Add to that her job at a cruise line and my God, I have to wonder whose child she is.

“Maybe it’s not as mysterious as I think. We failed her—I did, anyway. I held up ideals and then, true to the times, I lived as though I had none. She listened but she also watched and took her cue from the contradiction. You were made of sterner stuff: you lived what you believed and spared everyone the fancy speeches. But it doesn’t seem to have helped.”

I leave off writing, for the time being. I know it would be absurd of me to expect an answer. But I also know that when Madeleine sees my name on the envelope, she’ll read what’s inside. I’ll have spoken, and she’ll have listened, and we’ll be back in each other’s lives, for a brief measure. With any luck I won’t feel so alone.