An Unfinished Story: Like Father Like Son

I met him one day after we landed in New York City. He came to our hotel with his girlfriend. We were dazed and a little scared, whereas he filled the space around us with a joyous self-assuredness, and a monopolizing voice. He was tall and lanky and had straw-like hair that fell rebelliously over his wide forehead. His girlfriend was as tall as he was and spoke as fast. They were talkers.

My wife had gone to elementary school with him and in fifth grade he and his family had emigrated. They left Romania for Italy, and then on to New York, where they settled in the early 60’s. He and my wife remained good friends and pen pals even from a distance. One time she told me: “When I wrote to him in longhand, he used a typewriter; I sent him a black and white picture of myself and he sent a color photo of him in front of the Empire State building. Eventually I started typing my letters and his came written on a computer. It’s as if he was writing to me from the future.”

My wife and I had waited for our US visas in a refugee camp in Greece. There he sent us a book about how to put together a resume and look for a job in America. “America,” he wrote in his letter, “is not perfect, but it’s the best there is.” Intimidated, yet hopeful, we did the best we could writing our first resumes.

He took us under his wing that day in New York and guided our initial steps through the city. He had worked as a cab driver in college, knew his way around and drove like a maniac. His mother, who was divorced, treated us to our first restaurant in New York, and took us shopping to ensure we take full advantage of sales and discounts. We needed everything for our new apartment. They became family.

He had a summer place on Long Island, a log cabin on a small lake, surrounded by rich vegetation. There he assembled his own personal computer, from scratch, as large as a closet. It was 1977. In high school, he and a friend had built an electric car that won the first prize at some competition. They drove that car all the way to California. He was a mechanical genius. He liked to invent and to tinker. He’d fix his car, his air conditioner, his refrigerator. He had a pilot’s license. On the 4th of July that year, he took us flying and we spent a few hours on the beach on Block Island.

I thought he was brilliant. He spoke fluent Romanian, even though he had left the country as a child, Italian, because his mom was Italian and he had spent time in Italy, German because of his dad, and perfect English. Some say he had an accent in English that I never detected. When we met, he had a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and worked for a major defense corporation. In the evenings, he was pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration. He told me he wanted to make lots of money.

Everything with him had to be logical and efficient: how you cooked, how you bought your shirts, how you advanced in your career. He would argue his point of view, and argue, and argue. His girlfriend, who worked as a secretary and was a few years older than him, resented it. I, on the other hand, found debating with him rewarding, although on occasions it got awkward and tiring. Socially, he was clumsy, yet I never thought he was lonely.

He had met his girlfriend through a dating service — that, he said, had been efficient.

One year after we came to the States, we moved to Stamford, Connecticut. He married his girlfriend and moved to Bridgeport. We danced at his wedding. There was a skating rink in downtown Stamford and we often ate Gyros at a Greek restaurant for lunch and then went skating for thirty minutes before returning to work. Because he was getting an MBA, I signed up for one as well at the University of Connecticut.

Then came the children. We had a boy and a girl. They had two boys. Life was busy. Interesting. As soon as he received his MBA, he decided he wanted to become a lawyer. He spent his days at work, his evenings in school and his weekends teaching his wife how to be more efficient in raising the children. When we heard them argue, we would pretend all was normal. By the time he took his law degree and his boys started middle school, his wife left him and took the children.

After we moved to Maryland, we saw him rarely. Sometimes he came to DC for his business as a patent attorney, and a couple of times he brought his sons along for a vacation, on his way someplace further South like Bush Gardens or Disney World. As combative as ever, he would not hesitate to criticize his former wife in front of his children. He had no friends to speak of and it appeared like the only relationship he still valued, was with his mother.

Years went by. We met once when I took my daughter to visit colleges and we spent the night in New London, Connecticut. He joined us for dinner with a new girlfriend, whom he had met through a dating service. She was a very nice woman, about a decade younger, who looked at him appreciatively and listened to his verbal explosions with patience and even admiration. He had his own business, representing major corporations for patent issues. He was doing well, and I was happy for him. The relationship lasted, maybe, a couple of years. The young woman wanted a marriage, a family. He was still bitter over his divorce and, to our dismay, we learned that he had stopped talking to his children.

We stayed in touch with him and with his mother, feeling a deep sense of gratitude for everything they had done for us when we first arrived in this country. As he was getting older and lonelier, it was becoming more evident that he lacked in social skills, in spite of his very high intelligence. On a visit to Manhattan, we rode in his Oldsmobile through the city. As he swerved sharply to avoid a pothole, my wife felt with her foot a large metal screw that rolled across the floor. “It’s a part of the crankshaft for the bulldozer I’m rebuilding,” he explained to her jovially. “Bulldozer?” my wife exclaimed. “Why do you need a bulldozer?” It turned out he had sold his Long Island cabin and was building a new one on an isolated plot of land he had purchased in New Hampshire. But first, he had to build an access road and that required a bulldozer. Made perfect sense.

The financial crash of 2008 came and he lost all his corporate clients. He survived for a few years off his savings, and then he remortgaged his house. His mother was getting old and suffered from dementia. She refused to talk to him, her only caretaker, falsely accusing him of stealing from her.

He tried to find a new job. He had a strong resume as an engineer and an attorney, and I tried to help him using some of my contacts. He refused to send his personal information digitally, fearing privacy infringement and arguing that companies would steal his identity. His paranoia took me by surprise. With his cash reserves dwindling, he applied for jobs at car repair shops and general stores. Nobody wanted to hire a former lawyer in his sixties, no matter how skilled with car engines, apt with his hands or talented. I offered to lend him money, but he refused, not sure he could ever pay me back. I sent him a check anyway, at Christmas and on his birthday.

He lived alone with his cat, and didn’t talk to his neighbors. He didn’t go to the doctor. The cabin in New Hampshire stood abandoned. He stopped paying his mortgage and lived in fear of being evicted, while, at the same time, he engaged in a legal battle with the city over property taxes, which, he argued, were artificially inflated.

The last time we saw him was at his mother’s funeral. It was late February, a dreary and cold day, and he looked somber, very much like an old homeless man with his large-rimmed glasses and a Russian fur hat covering his long white hair, more surprised than upset at the turn fate had thrown in his direction. A loved one’s death is not logical nor efficient. At the cemetery, a non-denominational minister read a short prayer to an audience formed by him, my wife and I, and the three South American women who had tended to his mother and had had the decency to join us.

Months later, my wife received an unexpected phone call. It was from his younger son. We had never before heard from him and it took her a minute to understand to whom she was talking. It turned out that neighbors had noticed an unusual lack of activity in our friend’s house and had alerted the police. They broke into the house and discovered my friend’s body. They estimated he had died three weeks before. His cat was nowhere to be seen. His son arranged to have him interred in Queens, next to his mother.

We stayed in touch with his son for months afterwards. He and his brother had inherited whatever was left of their grandmother’s estate. And we helped him with any information we had. He seemed genuinely interested in finding out more about his estranged father. There was something natural and heartwarming in that desire and both my wife and I talked to him for hours, answering questions, sharing photos and emails, and reminiscing. He came to visit us at the end of the summer.

He was a tall man in his late thirties, handsome, and well dressed, polite and articulate. He was just finishing college, pursuing a degree in business because he wanted to be a manager. In his entire life he had worked for only six months, in a real estate office. He didn’t speak any foreign languages. His girlfriend lived in New York and was a lawyer. He still lived with his mother, a retired secretary. His brother, who was two years older, lived there also. I asked him what had prevented him from finishing college earlier or ever holding a job and he avoided an answer. On the third day, he jumped in his car, a Lexus, and disappeared.

Somehow, his visit feels like a broken promise — a glimpse into the life of a man I don’t understand, an incomplete circle, somebody else’s secret. From time to time, when I go the mailbox, I almost hope for a long letter from him, or better yet, from his father, my friend, full of answers written to us from the future.

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