When I start to remember my father’s attic room, I feel a tug of desire quickly followed by revulsion. Desire and revulsion are two sides of the same coin, I’ve heard.
I am a divorced middle-aged woman with a good job as a systems analyst. I own a three-bedroom townhouse in Mississauga built in 1990, no attic, no basement, no hidden corners. I live with my 22-year-old son who says he will move out once he finishes his computer science degree and gets a good job. No hurry, I tell him. And I mean it. It’s just him and me here and that’s fine. He can stay as long as he likes.
I grew up in a big house in Toronto, out in the Beaches area. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, the Beaches were not yet a modish place to live. They were backwater, and our house was a bit of an eyesore. The roof had moss, and the front yard was filled with weeds. My mother had a diploma in applied arts, but she ended up freelance copy-editing because she was a natural with language. My father was an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He had gotten his MA in English in 1965 and, like so many other students, had embarked on a PhD only to abandon it after seven years. Seven years of stabbing at it, until it was finally dead. This is the fate of so many PhD students. Did you know most of those who start PhDs never complete their degrees?
Dad started teaching when I was about five years old, and from then on, that’s all I remember, that he taught composition courses with the odd literature course thrown in. Piles of exam booklets on our hall table, stacks of typed, stapled essays scarred with white-out. His slanted handwriting in blue fountain pen along the margins of student papers. And the books. Books were everywhere in our house.
His abandoned PhD had been on attic spaces in 19th century literature. He was prescient: Gilbert and Gubar published their feminist masterwork Madwoman in the Attic in 1979 in which they argued that the attic in women’s literature was a site of female oppression. But my father, before his time, was arguing for a more nuanced view. Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Alcott’s Jo March, Bronte’s Bertha Mason and Lucy Snowe, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: All had attic rooms with different possibilities, sometimes empowering and other times oppressive. Perhaps he was a proto-second-wave-feminist. If he had actually finished the dissertation, I feel certain it would have been important and published as a monograph. My father is brilliant. He would have been celebrated, gotten a tenure track job somewhere, and I would have grown up in Berkeley, or London, or Chicago. But he never did finish, just got more and more resentful at his supervisor (it was all his fault of course), while he toiled away as an adjunct, teaching six, seven, even eight classes a year crammed with mostly ignorant undergraduates, and the odd shining star student whom he praised at the dinner table.
My father had taken over the attic room in our house as his study. We moved into that house when I was very young, so my earliest memories are that the attic was “Dad’s study.” My sister and brother and I were a little scared of it, yet drawn to it as well. My father had told us he needed a private space and we weren’t allowed there unless he invited us in, nor should we disturb him when he was working. The times I was invited in I can count on one hand—and I lived in that house from two until I left for university at eighteen. At a certain age, I did start to make the occasional secret visit. And then I started to visit more frequently.
There was a door at the bottom of a set of steep steps that ascended to the room. The walls on the staircase were covered with brown burlap that was peeling at some places, especially at the seams. As you entered the large room with its dramatically angled ceiling, the first thing you felt was the heaviness of the stuff in the room—bookshelves of dark wood lined almost all of the walls and they were crammed with books of all sizes and shapes. And the books weren’t lined up all nice and tidy, either: They stuck out and bristled with extruding notes and bookmarks. There was the smell of Nag Champa incense—sweet flowers, sandalwood, and charcoal.
A large purple velvet sofa was to the right as you walked into the room; the springs almost gone, the two concave cushions molded by the bottoms of hundreds of previous sitters. The nap was worn away on the two arms, and patches of shiny brown material showed underneath.
To the left as you entered was my father’s desk—really just an old door set up on concrete blocks with a wooden captain’s chair in front of it. An ancient gooseneck lamp threw light over his typewriter and disorderly sheaves of paper. Very little light entered this refuge—just two small dormer windows whose sills were crammed with more books and pottery incense holders from Mom’s early days as an art student. The rust Berber carpet was old and stained of course. We had no money for anything new.
The room was unremarkable, but the feelings I had about it were complex. When I was 11, my brother Carl had told me that he had snuck in once when Dad was away at a conference and had discovered that one whole upper shelf of books—out of our reach—was filled with “erotica.”
“What’s erotica?” I asked Carl.
“Books about sex or with sex scenes in them,” he explained kindly. He could have made fun of me for not knowing—even though it would be a rare 11 year old that knew that word.
“Oh. Why, do you think he likes to read that?” I ventured.
“I dunno. Because he’s tired of having sex with Mom?”
I felt sad when I heard that, but competing with the sadness was a tug of excitement. I wanted to see those books too.
After that, I started to plan and execute my own stealth visits to the study. Dad’s current teaching schedule was always taped to the fridge so we would know his office hours and teaching times. That helped me gauge how much time I had to get in and out. And my mother was out working too, at a new press. Sometimes she had late hours there. So I was pretty free to go explore. One time I went in and just walked around, looking at all of the objects. I sat briefly on the purple velvet couch, sinking into the soft crater and feeling the creak of the springs beneath me. I touched the blue incense box, with the long wooden sticks protruding from the crinkly paper. I picked it up and smelled the heady, fruity odour that would stay on my hands all day. I ran my hand over the book titles, sometimes taking a book out to look at it, careful to return it to its place just so. I stood in the middle of the room, the rough rug under my bare toes, and listened to the dull thunder of traffic on Lakeshore Blvd.
Another time, I brought the small kitchen stool with me so I could get to the “erotica,” as Carl called it. I positioned the stool right under the shelf and reached. I was just able to touch the spine of Fanny Hill, between Tropic of Cancer and Story of the Eye, but couldn’t get my fingers around it. The books on this shelf were packed in tight. A larger book stuck out from the shelf, making it more accessible, so I pulled out The Joy of Sex. The book looked brand new, and I wondered if Dad had bought it recently. I sat on the couch and had a good look at the cover, a bearded, long-haired man kissing a woman. They were naked except she seemed to be wearing his unbuttoned shirt. I flipped through some of the pages, and the book opened to an illustration of a man’s face in a woman’s private parts. All you could see was the back of his long curly hair and his broad back and her face with eyes closed and beatific smile. As I examined the picture, I started to feel warm and tingly down there.
I thought I heard the front door opening and closing, so I quickly shut the book and tried to return it to its place, but it was hard because the other books around it had sort of collapsed into the void. I had to pull my Dad’s captain’s chair over to the bookshelf so I could gain some purchase on the shelf with my hands and clear a space to ease the book back in. Wow, that was close, I said to myself once I put the captain’s chair back, grabbed the stool, and got safely down to my room.
After that, my confidence grew, and I started to borrow the odd book from his shelves—novels or books of poems that looked interesting. I knew, of course, he’d be furious if he knew I had been in there, so I was extremely careful to leave everything as I found it and to return the books promptly. I was a fast reader. I borrowed from Dad’s secret library for several years without a mishap. I had decided to leave the shelf of erotica alone, however. I felt a little scared about what I didn’t know. I wanted to not know.
Then I turned sixteen, a tough year for me. I mean, I was smart and good in school, but not athletic or particularly pretty. God this sounds so cliché! And another cliché, we were reading A Catcher in the Rye in English 11! I suppose I identified with the alienated teen, Holden Caulfield. I loved the book. I even started using “crumbum” to mean something shitty.
In April of that year, it was still snowing, wet snow on and off most days. But there was also spring in the air, so a combination of spring snow and the smell of the earth. I remember the snow because when Dad’s student Denise arrived at the front door, she was wearing big black snow boots and an off-white parka. She stamped hard on the porch before she entered, and when she came into the foyer and threw back the parka hood, trimmed with fake fur, a few chunks of wet snow slid onto the floor. Her cheeks were moist and red and her eyelashes had water droplets in them.
“Hi, I’m Denise Rothgar. I don’t know if your father said, but I’m here to see him about a paper I’m writing for his class.”
She had black hair in a short feathery cut, and she wore big peacock feather earrings that mixed in with her hair, making it look like she had big green-gold eyes framing her face. She had a book bag in one hand and her purse in the other. I was a bit mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she looked like a Cherokee princess (whatever that was). That is the thought that arose, though—Cherokee princess. Along with Salinger’s novel, I had been reading a history book about the Trail of Tears, so I had Cherokees on the brain.
“No, Dad didn’t say. Here, let me take your coat—you can put your boots on the tray.” I hung up the parka in our hall closet and it immediately fell off the flimsy wire hanger, which flustered me. Why is this girl here? Dad never had students to the house. This was a first.
I heard Dad coming down the steps from his study and then down the next flight of steps to the first floor of the house. He came up behind me and in his deep casual voice greeted his student as if I weren’t there.
“Denise, how are you? Any trouble finding the place?”
“No, Professor Blummer.”
“Come on up to my study.”
Then, as an afterthought, he looked over at me while I struggled to get the parka onto another hanger, a wooden one this time, “Cynthia, I’ll be at least an hour. Let your Mother know not to disturb me.”
I got so entranced in the book that I forgot to say anything to Mom. I was reading in the living room, just off of the front hall, when Denise came softly padding down the stairs about an hour and fifteen minutes later. I looked up at her and smiled.
“Are you loving Salinger?” she asked, beaming a big smile back at me. She had caught the title on the spine of the book.
“Oh, I adore this novel!” I cried, leaping to my feet in enthusiasm and to get Denise’s coat.
“What high school?”
I opened the hall closet. “Malvern.”
“Mr. O’Neill.” I took her damp coat off the hanger and stood there watching her sit on the hall stool to pull on her boots.
“Oh my goodness, I had him too!” she laughed. “You know, you’ll really impress him if you also read The Great Gatsby, and start talking about this other unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway. I mean O’Neill is all about Holden Caulfield as unreliable narrator. And I know you’re going to love Fitzgerald.”
She stood up and I held her coat up as she slid her arms through the holes. That’s something I had seen men do for women, but I had never done it before. It made me feel grown up and gracious.
“That’s a neat idea,” I offered. “I know my Dad’s told me about Fitzgerald. He even lent me Tender is the Night last year. He said it was one of the greatest American novels ever written. But I haven’t read it yet.”
“Oh, start with Gatsby. You’re going to be so far ahead by the time you start University. Cynthia. It’s Cynthia, right?”
She zipped up the parka and started to sling her purse and book bag over her shoulder. I wanted to detain her a bit longer. I liked talking to her about books, about O’Neill.
“What did you think of Mr. O’Neill’s impersonations of actors? He’s funny, isn’t he? He does that hilarious Dick Van Dyke, falling all over himself.”
“He’s a scream. I can’t believe you’re at Malvern.”
“When did you grad?”
“Four years ago. Now I’m in third year at U of T.” There was a lull in the conversation. “Well, nice meeting you Cynthia. Don’t forget – Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway the unreliable narrator. You’re going to ace his class.”
We had dinner about an hour after Denise left, and I didn’t mention her nor did Dad. I don’t think Carl or Barbara, my brother and sister, even knew she had come. They’d been out all afternoon. And my mother had been sewing in a back room of the house. She hadn’t heard the doorbell or Denise leaving.
The next day was Sunday, and I finished Catcher while lying in bed curled up toward the big window next to my bed. A very weak sun was breaking through the cloud cover and there was the drip drip drip of thaw season. God, what a fantastic book, I thought. I have to get Gatsby and start reading it. If I have a bunch read by tomorrow, I can mention it during English period.
I went into the kitchen in my bathrobe, looking for Dad. I am pretty sure I had seen Gatsby on his shelves during one of my secret visits, and I knew he’d be happy to lend a copy “for my edification.” The exceptions were his rare books and first editions, and he had a few. If he were at home, I would ask him innocently if he had a copy I could borrow.
My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, editing a manuscript. She always worked with an ashtray at her elbow, and a row of different pencils and pens in a wooden tray at the other elbow. She looked up when I came in, her face wreathed in smoke.
“Yes, but I’ve been awake for ages, reading. Is Dad around?”
“No, he’s gone to play tennis with Hank, Riva, and Daniel.” My mother wasn’t sporty, but my Dad loved tennis and had several friends from grad school who liked to play, sometimes doubles. I always cringed a little when he came back from a game still wearing his tennis clothes because seeing his thin shanks and the sweaty terry cloth headband embarrassed me.
“When will he be home?”
“Oh probably not for hours.”
My Mom didn’t ask why I wanted to know. My sense was that she was essentially uninterested in me. Sure, she loved me, but she was usually preoccupied with one thing or another, so she didn’t ask questions about what I was thinking or doing. For example, she might have looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you want your Dad? Is there something I can do?” But so it goes. You can’t choose your parents.
I wandered out of the kitchen. I had gotten into my head that I must have The Great Gatsby NOW. Usually I executed my visits to Dad’s study when there was nobody home but me. Today, I would have to venture it with Mom in the house. As long as I walked softly so she didn’t hear steps above, I should be okay. After all, she was in the kitchen on the main floor immersed in editing, so it was highly unlikely.
I climbed the stairs stealthily and made a beeline over to the bookshelves, immediately spotting the Fitzgerald book I was after. After I picked it carefully off the shelf, and started to walk back to the stairs, a white object lying on the arm of the couch caught my eye. I bent over to look at it more closely. It was a plastic or rubber whitish-yellowish tube, but to call it a tube was wrong because it wasn’t stiff like a tube of toothpaste, but more like balloon material or sausage casing. It was transparent, made of super thin, almost transparent material, with a thicker rim at the opening that reminded me of the blow-end of a balloon. The rim was more yellow than white, whereas the bottom of the tube was more white than yellow. This thing lay sort of collapsed on the purple velvet, twisted up, and there was some whitish liquid or cream contained mostly at the end of the tube, but some smeared inside the rest of it. The tube was around six inches long, with a knot about one third of the way down, as if to seal the glue or viscous stuff down at one end.
What could this thing be? At first I wondered if it was a variety of book glue that perhaps came packaged in plastic tubes. Maybe my father had been repairing books. I know that he had done this at one time. It had been a hobby of his to repair old books, sometimes gluing bindings back on. He used to do this on Sunday mornings before he got so busy with teaching. When the mind has nothing to go on, no previous experience with a new object, it tries to slot the new item into the inventory of what it already knows. With that item slotted, I forgot all about it and went back to my bed to immerse myself in the world of the Buchanans.
I was a great hit with Mr. O’Neill because I was able to discuss Nick Carraway with him. And I got an A plus in that class.
The following year in Grade 12 I had sex for the first time. It wasn’t that spectacular, to be honest. I felt okay about the guy, Martin. We were really just friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. And we both sort of wanted to get it over with. He was nice and gentle, but it was definitely anti-climactic. We did it in his parent’s basement rec room while they were out at a party. Martin, after lying on top of me for a while, leaned over and whispered into my ear.
“I’m going to pull out now, okay?”
“Sure, I guess so.” I’m not sure why he told me that, but I guess he just didn’t want to make any sudden moves. We were both scared as two jack rabbits. In retrospect, I am surprised he was able to ejaculate. In the half-light of the rec room, I watched him roll the condom off of his smallish, semi-erect penis. It looked so pink and babyish and vulnerable, lying against his white thigh. He rolled the condom down his penis so carefully, so methodically, like ladies rolled their nylons off their legs in the old black and white movies. Then he took the condom with some white stuff caught at one end, and tied a knot near the top.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked, pulling the fake fur blanket up over my breasts, shyly.
Martin looked embarrassed. “Well, I heard that you’re supposed to so that so the jism doesn’t spill out and make a mess.”
“Jism?” I laughed. Martin looked at me and smiled. He put the used condom on the arm of the hide-a-bed that we were lying on. I looked over at it lying there, and then I realized. Oh! So that’s what it was, in Dad’s study. That’s it.
I felt a bit sick then, and wanted to leave Martin’s place quickly. I dressed and insisted on walking home alone. “Cynthia, what did I do to upset you? Please tell me!” He pleaded with me.
“Really truly, it’s not you, Martin. It’s just something else and I’d tell you except it’s private.”
I’d like to say that something happened after that, but it didn’t. The next year, I graduated and soon after that I got a place at Queen’s in Kingston, where I started in English but switched pretty quickly to some business courses and then went straight through to get an MBA. My Dad and Mum split up a year after I left home and sold the house.
I haven’t seen my Dad much since I moved out so many years ago. I see Mum regularly; she’s very close to my son. But it seems that when my Dad and I get together, I start remembering that thing and the events surrounding it, even though I am 55 now and it’s almost 40 years since the “whitish object” on the arm of the couch caught my eye. The remembering fills me with both revulsion and yearning. When I am with him, I am always on the verge of saying, no of screaming, “How could you? Why didn’t you love me? Why couldn’t you have organized your love properly? Pay attention to me, not your students! Make love to your wife, not Denise! She was only four years older than I was—how could you?”
Now that I haven’t said anything for this long, it’s pretty much impossible to introduce it into the conversation normally. “Oh by the way, Dad, why was there a used condom on the purple velvet couch in April of 1974?” I wasn’t supposed to be in his study in the first place. How would I explain it? And part of me hopes there really could be tubes of glue that look like used condoms.
The whole thing is just so unsettling I tend to put it out of my mind, and then before you know it, another year has gone by.