I was a teenager when my father's half-sister first appeared in our lives.
My uncle had been sorting through some paperwork at his parents' home in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, following the death of his father — my grandfather — who was born in Transylvania, Romania (like Dracula), and who was easily one of the most frightening men I'd ever met. Isadore Rosemberg always seemed to be seething, angry at both everything and nothing at once, exhaling smoke and building steam like a bull that at any moment might charge.
Of course, I'd also heard my father's horror stories: of how in his teens, my grandfather would discipline his five children by sticking their hands into the stove flame, or by forcing my father, his eldest (who longed for nothing more than his father's approval but whose achievements were never enough to garner any praise), to sit naked on a stool in castrated ridicule, awaiting the beating he'd eventually receive hours later.
But most egregious was the evidence my uncle discovered that day, which seemed to suggest that my grandfather had taken up with a Mexican woman in Texas during a prolonged absence and had had another child. A now-woman, named Jackie. Jackie Rosemberg, whom my father invited into our home and into our family one evening, and whose face, despite her earnest attempts at enthusiasm, revealed her underlying disappointment, her resentment, her pain.
I wondered if those feelings ever went away, after being wounded by a parent. If the hurt is something you eventually move on from, something you learn how to hide. Or if, instead, it's something that forever blocks the brightness of your reality, like a permanent, gray-tinting shade, like a broken vase whose pieces you might be able to glue back together but whose deep-rooted cracks you will always see.
"He left when I was young, and we never heard from him again," Jackie said. "I called up his house a few times, but your mother always hung up. I think she knew."
"Well, we're here if you ever need anything," my father told his newfound sibling. "We're family. Family is most important." It was what he had always preached, even if he had an unusual way of showing it.
My father had grown up to become a fierce and frighteningly authoritative figure in the New York City education world, who cared a great deal about what other people thought of him, and, consequently, what they thought about me, his eldest child. In his eyes — a girl who had graduated as middle-school salutatorian, had been cheerleading captain, and had attended an Ivy League college — could never be pretty, skinny, Stepford-looking, or show-dog-like enough.
So, then, I spent my teens and twenties seeking out supercilious men in nightclubs. I kept a list of all the guys I had successfully charmed and made out with, an irrefutable number that represented physical proof of my worth and power and desirability and invincibility. Proof that even though my stringent father had never given me credit for anything, and never ceased to cite some trivial shortcoming (a pimple, an extra pound, a score of 99 rather than 100), I was worthy of love; even if just for a matter of minutes, this many people thought I was perfect, or maybe just good enough.
Seeking out these narcissistic, devious men who reminded me of my father was like playing with fire. And one night, after I accepted a drink from a particularly narcissistic, devious stranger at a Hollywood nightclub, I woke up naked and sore and emotionally eviscerated (the man was later arrested for drugging and raping others).