The game was called “Judge,” and my father and I played it almost every night. He would walk in the door, home from court or his New York City law firm, and sit me on his lap. “Today’s case is a really good one,” he’d say, outlining the evidence, describing the testimonies. He always finished with the same question, “How would you rule?”
I adored those evenings together: me surrounded by homework, he still dressed in his elegant suit, his shiny Italian leather briefcase at our feet. He would relate details of the trial and we would discuss which side seemed more fair. I remember being stuck on one case in which a man took money from his clients to support his children. “Family counts most,” Dad said from the kitchen, slicing a French cheese. “Let him off.”
Thirty-five years later, my father, now almost 80, is in no shape to determine a judge’s ruling. He is at Rikers Island, awaiting his third prison sentence as a white-collar criminal on charges of fraud. Once a successful labor lawyer on track to make partner in the 1980s, he was disbarred long ago, thanks to false businesses, stolen cars, forgeries of my mother’s signature, and countless bad checks. Several states north, I’m living my own life with a child and husband, worlds away from my past. My father and I write letters once every few months, but our communication is strained at best. I haven’t heard his voice or seen his face in two years. Despite the love I still hold for him, the shame and anger I feel over his failings always gets in the way.
My father is a skilled con man with a deft ear for music, an infectious laugh, and, for several years after my parents’ divorce, was my closest companion. He taught me about Mozart and Matisse, how to drive, how to tell a joke, how to slice strawberries with one hand and a sharp knife. But, there were also the nights when he forbade me to answer the endlessly ringing phone, when he came home hours after my bedtime to find me frantic in a dark apartment. Loving him was tricky, but I was all in. I wandered with him through delusions and bounced checks, choosing to believe his convoluted stories long after I knew they were lies.
Coming of age on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, at friends’ summer homes in Connecticut and the Hamptons, I hid the truths of my home life – the time when the police rang the doorbell for over an hour, his shady friends who came for dinner and stole my grandmother’s watch, the meeting I had with Dad’s disheveled parole officer when I was fifteen, “Can you make sure he goes to drug testing on your way to school?” he asked, his eyes darting from our oriental rugs to the enormous Sam Francis painting on the wall. I learned to read his moods, when not to expect him home, how to see on his face if he was in trouble again. I was a wife well before my time. Like some dark version of being bilingual, I became fluent in my father’s language, too, toggling effortlessly between his world and that of my mother, friends, and teachers.
Years later, when I’m playing with my son in the back yard, I see him constructing similarly elaborate worlds full of impossible things, only his don’t include stolen billions and mansions in Montauk. His are fantastical, harmless – the beautiful imaginings of a child. As I climb aboard his train so we can chug across the autumn leaves, I play on his terms. I now know that the parent should be the one doing these gymnastics, not the child.
One night, I’m lying on the couch watching election results, struggling to keep my eyes open after finally getting my son to bed. There are piles of laundry to do, bills to pay, and lunch to pack before morning, but I can’t take my eyes off the screen. My husband is grading papers behind a closed door, listening to the radio’s endless updates. And without warning, my father’s voice is in my brain, so clear, the voice I remember from those nights of homework and dinner and test cases.
She may not make it, he says about Hillary. But what about all those years at my all-girls’ school? I think. When I heard every day that I would live to see the first woman president? Will I? You will, he says. I imagine that he has been reading a lot, and that he thinks of my son daily, wondering who he will become. I don’t want to hear about the realities of life in jail, or talk about why he’s there, or where he will live when he gets out.
Don’t worry so much, his voice says. Stay focused, and push yourself. Why did we get you a world-class education? Do something great! You’re not a spring chicken, you know. “Dad!” I say out loud into the room, startling myself with my own volume. I push his phantom voice away. I don’t tell him I miss him or that I’m angry and heartbroken. I don’t tell him that I’ve reached a point where our relationship feels more sickly than hopeful, that I can’t forgive all he has done. That, in many ways, what we have now – imaginary conversations here on the couch – is more than enough.
I want another father, a different story to tell my child. On the days when I can’t avoid driving by the local jail near our supermarket, I turn my face away, sickened. I speed through the light, desperate not to glimpse those endless razor wire fences, the ripping ugliness of the image of him in a cell. But another part of me longs to be back in the living room with him during those innocent winter evenings, his glass of wine leaving small wet marks by the windowsill, snow falling silently outside; judging not his decisions and bad choices, but ones of a tough case in a courtroom far away.
Another evening, I’m singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” to my son at bedtime. He is so small behind the bars of his crib, his room lit by a soft green nightlight, as my father is so large somewhere across state lines, locked in a tiny bright cell. I sing about the impossible demands that people sometimes make to win back lost love. Mid-chorus, my father interjects – family counts most. I don’t think I can agree with him any longer. My voice cracks as I sing, just a little.
Sometimes I look back on those childhood evenings and wonder what I was really judging – if the cases were all made up for my amusement, or if they were real stories of real people hoping for justice. I may never know. I do know that I judge my father to be guilty, not just of the crimes he committed, but also for letting me down. Did he think about how his actions would shape my life in ugly ways and leave me carrying a dark loneliness? Did he think about how his made-up realities and lies might push me so far away I would never come back?
On a beautiful fall Sunday, my family hikes through a forest scattered with falling leaves. My son and I collect them, amazed by their brilliant reds and gold. The sky is a biting blue as we stop to eat our picnic under the trees, overlooking the fiery mountains and wide expanse of lake far below. I think of my father – of how he will very likely never know my child, or walk in the woods with me at his side. For an instant, I am filled with some old place and time that I can’t name. But then I am pulled back by the wind and the light to my son, to his clear laugh pealing through the trees as I chase him, choosing this path and that, meandering, now running. He is in another world, one far from reality, full of trains racing in the clouds and us flying through branches, things I know aren’t real. I rule in his favor and let him lead.