On Saturday, September 20th, 2008, AC Charlap sat in the high-priced Latin American bistro, Citron Cafe, a three and a half block walk from his house in Takoma Park, an upper middle class neighborhood on the Maryland side of suburban Washington DC, known for its bourgeois bohemian population of Baby Boomers, a surfeit of aging flower children with balding scalps sporting pony tails and drooping female letters unsupported for decades, except by the secure government jobs they'd all held for thirty years and the generous pensions which would soon be theirs, though hardly as generous as the pensions rewarded their parents' civil servants.
Citron Cafe was the equidistant bar from the house to the Takoma metro, where he would meet a friend of seven years standing; whom when they met in 2001 was a Republican Catholic deciding whether to enter the Priesthood, and in 2008 was a union organizer in a long-term relationship with a former lesbian so thoroughly open that he sat on the committee for a yearly open relationship convention in Virginia. AC Charlap could only surmise what one does at an open relationship convention, but from whatever little he could put together, he wondered why anyone would need to go to the expense of an entire convention for it.
This Catholic Polyamorous friend of Mr. Charlap took pity on him, Charlap had, after all, been pretty down on his luck, and therefore promised to buy him a drink after work. They lived in the same group house, but the house to which they'd both return to was not, in any sense, AC Charlap's house. It was, at least in most ways, the house of these particularly bohemian friends whom Charlap vaguely helped to move in two years earlier. The house was rented from a landlord who never dropped by without notice a few weeks in advance, so the house had free reign for whatever it tenants wanted to do. If people wanted to eat shrooms and write on themselves for twelve hours, who could stop them? If couples wanted to have loud sex in a basement which had no door, for what reason shouldn't they? If people wanted to spend their paychecks ordering by mail the latest technology for marijuana vaporization and salvia extracted to its purest essence, who besides them would sign for it? If they wanted to have a bunch of people over for a group session of drugs or sex or weird movies on the wall projector, who would be creeped out?
Whom but one? Charlap hardly partook of any such activities, in the Takoma House or anywhere else. but he was its designated guest-in-residence, a Luke Wilson to their Tenenbaums. Every time Charlap was lonely, he brought his violin over to their home, the dudes would bring out their guitars, and they'd do their thousandth version of Wonder Wall or Wagon Wheel or Waiter's Walk or Well I Wonder for which Charlap would do a 20 minute solo over their three chords. The guys who played with him and the girls who listened thought his playing was pretty impressive, but why was he so showy? Who was he trying to impress at such a low-key gathering?
Even so, his musical preening made up for the guitarists knowing such few songs that don't start with the letter W and had little time to learn any new ones. Charlap didn't know many songs either - his tastes seemed to run toward a much more pretentious variety, the older the better. Classical being the music he claimed to love above all others, seemingly followed in a carefully managed hierarchy by Jazz and Folk, and then onto the various genres of popular music for which he always seemed to have an irritatingly cutting remark on the tip of his tongue.
Nevertheless, for all his pontificating and airs, he was a surprisingly decent friend when he shut up, he was funny, he was smart, he was in need, he was a half-member of the house. If he didn't pay rent, he was still the living room's most reliable entertainment. So every time life got too difficult with Charlap's parents or roommates, he would decamp to their house for a few days at a time. Mr. Charlap was almost servilely grateful for their warmth. There was an unconditional acceptance to these people. No matter how unreliable, how ornery, how forgetful, how slovenly a person was, they found the good in him. He didn't understand them, they didn't understand him, but somehow, if he was not quite one of these people, he felt like an accepted and honored guest among the residents of the Takoma House.
All of whom, to Mr. Charlap's great relief, were not Jewish. So Un-Jewish were they that most of them hailed from religious Christian and military families whose geographic locations could double as a traced outline and topography of the country. And from these far flung flyover places they'd escaped as only the smartest kid in town could to universities too prestigious for their less worldly parents to deny them access; access to those places which their parents wished God would have sent them rather than their children; instead of helping Dad run the garage after his second heart attack in the early 70's, or running it themselves and nursing Mom through her grief after Dad's third in the late 70's. If it was not in the Almighty's plan to lift them to among the blessed of this world, then at least the Creator had blessings in store for their offspring. Surely, their children were rebellious on occasion and the parents pretended not to notice the occasional smells of booze and grass coming from their rooms and clothes, but these are just phases that great kids always outgrow - we outgrew them, and they're definitely better than us.
The Lord had, finally, shown that He appreciates their efforts on His behalf by sending their progeny to universities like Columbia and Brown, UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley, Oberlin and Vassar, Wellesley and Wesleyan, Middlebury and Mt. Holyoke, Swarthmore and Skidmore and Smith, on scholarship no less! Whereupon these blessed little soldiers in the Army of Christ discover such unblessed temptations as the Seven Major Eastern Religions; libertarianism, socialism, and anarchism; holistic health and superfoods, meditation and yoga; homosexuality and polyamory.
By sophomore year, these children return home for Christmas, usually accompanied by the wrong person. What ensues is inevitable: the tears, the animus and acrimony, the rancor and remonstration, the bile and betrayal. All too late, it occurs to the parents that these blessed beloveds were never gifts from God at all, and they've sown a hundred years of family misunderstanding in the blink of an eye.
AC Charlap believed in no such grace, either from the pleasures of this world or from the blessings of the next, though how greatly he wished he believed either. He did not think much of these friends' beliefs, former or present, and true to his extreme propensity for self-sabotage, he let them know constantly in no uncertain terms - clearly attempting to gnaw under their skin like a Mosquito who scents blood - and occasionally succeeding. Nevertheless, however mischievous and combative he felt at times like being, and whatever the extremity of his differences with them, he knew that they would receive his Doubting Thomas offensives with a forbearance and charity that remained utterly Christian. There were friends whose minds Mr. Charlap respected more, because such friends were not so stupid as to tolerate his belligerence. More ambitious people, people with more instinct for self-preservation, people whose mission was to climb the ladder of worldly riches, knew by instinct to keep a certain distance from AC Charlap, who seemed to have the impulse control of a wild boar - blurting out what should never be said, making scenes that should never be made, and then apologizing no later than they were over for weeks at a time, long past the moment everyone would have forgotten what he said and would rather not be reminded. But these friends, with their tolerance for difference which they no doubt carried to an extreme, were the only friends whom he knew would forgive him enough to consistently offer him shelter and food every day when he screwed his life up unforgivably.
This Christian mercy was of a nature quite alien to his. There were ways in which AC Charlap was a highly gregarious sort, with far more intimates than a well-adjusted person should have, but he needed so many intimates because he was quarreling at any point with half of them. These spats provided, as they always do to the dramatic sort, an endless fountain of narcissistically tragicomic material to draw from, with which he could vent away and regale whatever friends he was not feuding with at that moment with juicily indiscreet observations about today's object of his exaggerated ire, ire which would inevitably be turned upon the listeners a few weeks thereafter, when he would became hostilely indiscreet about them to the very friends who'd hurt him previously. For minutes at a time, Charlap would not come up for air as his friends sat patiently, contentedly shutting their brains off as this amusingly theatrical friend of theirs found the drama within every insignificance, criticizing and witticizing his way through multi-paragraphed monologues allowing him, and hopefully them, to fancy himself a great wit, raconteur, provocateur with un air de grandeur.
Whether or not Mr. Charlap was anything like as interesting as he fancied himself in his higher moments, he felt that life demonstrated an utter lack of interest in him. Perhaps he had some small reason to. Everyone in America deserves a chance at those hackneyed maxims of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The most shallow people, the most stupid, the most banal who had nothing of purpose to offer but be a microscopic albeit reliable cog in the Great Machine, had their needs looked after as any self-sustaining machine does to its component parts: a secure job, a secure family, a secure sense of meaning and purpose in this 'pick yourself up by the bootstraps' 'land of opportunity.' Give me your tired, your poor, your obedient, your boring, your stupid, your assholes, your creeps, the wretched refuse who bully the smart, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free from the tyranny of knowledge. In America where the powerful are bored and the secure are boring, what use is there of being interesting or interested?
Lady Liberty lifted her lamp beside the Golden Door for all except those who might recall the storied pomp of ancient lands. In this demotic country where any man with enough strength can succeed, what use is there for a man whose true strength is that he's interested in things? Mr. Charlap's very demeanor seemed like that of an ambassador to 21st Century America from the 19th century leisure class - had you never met him, it would never occur to you such a guy could exist. So very interested in so much was Mr. Charlap that hours would pass in talmudically reverent silence as he assorted and accumulated an endless fount of information in this ascendent Age of the Internet Rabbithole, with hundreds of books in his possession procured at significant expense the better to learn, to absorb, to inhale, to feast on his subjects which called to him like the Divine to feast upon them as the blessed might one day upon the Leviathan. Interests in all those industrial capitalist and middlebrow pursuits that offered the call of self-improvement by affixing the 'great' mantle to it like a guarantee of quality for people with an overwhelming fear of being stupid.
Great things for which no American reaching sentience after 1964 ever made time or inclination. Great music, great literature, great theater, great art, great cinema, great buildings, great cities, great civilizations, great thought, great man history. Interests in Greatness that inevitably made him late to jobs, to meetings, to appointments, to friends, to dates; if he remembered them at all, if he had anything like the courage to go through with them, if he could get past the knowledge that he would at best be late; worse, unprepared; worst, forget about it altogether as the apparently trivial questions about greatness which left all but he alone festered in his mind until he could have them answered. Interests in greatness that required a new credit card every month and half-a-dozen copied keys because the monthly loss of them was the one routine of his life for which his ability was most definitely great. Interests in greatness ventured without reward or outward effect upon him except the greater he could hold his court as the Jester King to his audience of premier subjects in those few moments when he could prove his life, if not great, then worth something slightly more than ineptitude, as he sermonized, solemnized, discussed and disquisited, monogolized and solilioquized, mansplained and whitesplained, straightsplained and monogasplained, Baltisplained and Jewsplained, and occasionally bluffsplained his way through all those great subjects about which he had infinitely more space and time for knowledge than they. He cared not at all whether they cared to know a whit what he does, perhaps he even preferred them slightly bored or angered. Were they to receive his discursions with equanimity, however could he know that his knowledge was purchased at a worth? Useless knowledge about greatness was his revenge upon their mediocrely useful lives.
Twenty six years old and at very least looking ten years older; in the beginning stages of male pattern baldness with a gut protruding hugely for someone his age, causing him to slouch and sometimes wince with pain from the pressure his two-hundred twenty pound bulk put on his five-foot-four-and-a-half frame. No job since a summer internship in 2004. An all too visible nervous blinking tic that caused him to contract all the muscles in his face around his closed eyes every five-to-ten seconds, but only when he was functioning normally. In moments of particular anxiety there was a tremor of his hands and arms that was virtually impossible to conceal, and in moments of true fear his head and torso would shake in spasms impossible to draw attention away from.
No romance since the winter of the same year - a brief ten day fling with a once good friend who promised to take his virginity on Valentine's Day when she came back from a party, during which she at least claimed she met a guy who was her boyfriend within two hours. No money, no place to live, no family. A homeless aristocrat.
Only depression, the irreconcilable war of attrition on happiness from which many soldiers do not return - the quite diagnosed depressive, disabled son of an all-too-able father living an hour away in Baltimore whose enormous feats of energy and self-belief helped propel his Baltimore family from immigrant penury to the lower-middle class to the upper-upper-upper-middle-class in only a generation.
The fights started early. Why aren't you getting up in the morning? Why aren't you getting out of the shower? Why are your teachers telling me you're not concentrating? Why are they telling me you haven't done your homework? Why aren't you practicing your violin? Why am I paying for your lessons if you're not going to practice? Why aren't you doing your homework? Why aren't you letting me help you with your homework? Why is your room a mess? Why are you watching TV? Why aren't your friends calling you? Why do you not want to go to your friends' houses? Why aren't you going to bed?
Twenty years after they began, these questions showed few signs of answers if any, and posited themselves with the added urgency of age. There was a glimmer of respite when the younger Kharlap went off to college, but once he graduated, his juvenile indolence returned with adult vigor. For the first month after his return to his parents house, the older Kharlap would each pace faster around the first floor than the day before. When would the son begin to work? Give me a few days, said he with bemused exasperation, I just graduated from college! Don't I deserve it? Well yes, he does, but the elder Kharlap had heard the 'give me a few days' line so many times that the loud alarm bells tintinnabulated in his head with the overtones of his worst fears. Surely enough, a few days became a few weeks. Alef-Khet would go about the house with no pants for three days at a time, making a show of his all too much delight in ignoring the entreaties and pleads of a concerned father who only wanted what was best for him. A month went by, and Abba-Khet became desperate enough to cross the line of no return, and told him in an agitated tone that only a bum would wait this long to find a job. The son, seemingly so blithe about it all, exploded on Abba Khet with the full force of a row in the BC - before college - era, thank god, he shouted, that you make so much money, because it was the only thing you did right as a father!
Perhaps the devil you know is better. It was almost a relief to see that Alef-Khet still took him seriously. He would rather be put upon, fulminated against, cursed at, than ignored. The former he knew how to handle, the latter he dreaded. The Second Family War was always going to happen, it was only a question of when, if it be now, the readiness is all: a second war of attrition with critical saturation bombing and approval sanctions with untold potential for collateral damage to allies and terrible reprisals. War would be extended to financial matters, non aligned parties like his wife would have to be convinced or irritated or guilted into compliance, you're either for us or against us. There might even, as there once were, be rows that occasionally extend to techniques that resemble other wars. War is the continuation of politics by other means, and the objective was to exhaust Alef-Khet Kharlap into discipline - discipline requires a armed force ready to fight at a moment's notice. We must wage war, by guile or by force, by blood, sweat, toil, and tears, until we exact the unconditional surrender we should have elicited from him ten years ago. However much he rails and fulminates, he will sue for peace after he's exhausted every other option.
What bothered Abba-Khet was not simply the idleness, what bothered him was that his son felt entitled to it like a lazy son of wealth. Amerikanehs with all the privileges in the world thought they were the victims, and his son wasn't just one of them, he was a caricature of them.
The father blamed himself nearly as much as he blamed Alef-Khet. Before the father even knew it, his net worth became the envy of all his acquaintances - something his friends claimed to know nothing about, yet to his delight his children reported sniggering jokes made at the expense of his millions at gatherings to which he was not invited. All this security acquired from a few decades when he first worked in Alef-Khet's grandfather's downstairs corner store as a kid, then helping him run a supermarket as a teenager, then co-owning two nursing homes with him as a young man, then using its sale after his father died to fund investments that paid off in the tech boom better than he could ever have dreamed. So large was this lump sum of money Alef-Khet's father sat atop in 2007 that he'd loan some of it to old friends in business whom he knew were less than reliable. Sure, he lost a few million here, a few million there, but it always seemed to grow back as reliably as a lizard regenerating its tail. But the more often it grew back, the more certain he was that it would disappear: for a rich guy, he was still fairly poor - just a couple handfuls of millions on his best days. His wealth was a castle built atop a volcano, liquid investments that evaporate whenever a hot market erupts in his general direction. Every time the lava incinerated someone else, he wondered when his time would come.
Did he even want wealth? He deliberately cultivated a Jack Benny-like reputation for penny-pinching - the better to negotiate in business, the better to amuse his friends, the better to teach values to his children, the better to display his contempt for people grown torpid with freedom. Wealth was something he claimed to covet but secretly viewed with no little horror and occasionally wondered if he self-sabotaged to avoid. Twenty years ago, he was offered half of Ocean City for a song, he must have lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars. Thirty years ago, Yehuda Goldberg, his own father's ex-business partner and distant cousin, who'd gone on to become a multi-gazillionaire in New Orleans, looked at the vacant properties of Federal Hill a from a water taxi in the Inner Harbor and told him to buy them all up immediately. In just the last ten years, Federal Hill, one the worst neighborhoods in Baltimore, turned into the very best.
Yes, he did about as well as a businessman with no vision ever could. He could long since have returned to full-time business and make that big score which made his name the way it made Cousin Yehuda, but nobody wanted to end up like Yehuda Goldberg. He all too well remembered going to New Orleans in 1990 for Yehuda's funeral and Shiva House. Yehuda's Sephardic wife Yafah had cut out the front page obituary from the paper so that her full horror and humiliation could register completely for every friend to see. Local Real Estate baron Jerome Gould-Montagne, as Yehuda was called in New Orleans, was shot by a deranged tenant who burned his body to the point of charring, identified post-mortem only because of his dental records.
Why jeopardize everything? Were he successful, his children might grow still lazier. Were he a failure, who knows to what fate their laziness would doom them? No, best to live in this nether region neither wealthy nor upper middle class, where his children would be faced with the kind of stark decision of a person on the fault-line must always face - on one side of the line, an assumption of responsibility that gains everything, on the other, a laziness that loses it all. Wealth was decadent, and his family would be healthy. He'd routinely repeat own his father's great maxim, "All I have, I have for you", sometimes in Yiddish. But he surely did not grow his bank account for his wife and children to spend it, he grew it for them to live when all around them was death.
Privilege was for other Jewish families, families more American than Jewish. Families that came over before the apocalyptic event. Families with no memory of what was and no sense of how easily it can all slip away. Families that will eventually intermarry and only realize when it's too late that they will never let you run away from us. Families shielded from the ultimate knowledge by luck and luck alone, families that, should the time come again as it inevitably will will be tossed into the sea with the oncoming tide - at least eventually; weak families taken in by the American lie that all things are possible. Weak families taken in by cars and houses they can't afford, by toys the kids never play with and stereos the adults never play; too much pleasure and too little thought to who gives it, too much knowledge and too little effort to acquire it, too many things and too little questions about how they're made, too much wealth and too little consideration to who earns it, too much faith that things will work out and too little thought to the humiliating sacrifices and compromises that make it possible. Weak families that, when 'it' happens again, don't stand a chance. But yet again, this family will live, this family will not disappear, this family will remember.
His own father warned him many times against tempting the evil eye. His own father, who hid in a barn with his wife and sister-in-law from the Nazis for four years on a diet of a raw potato a day while giving their infant daughter up to a convent to be a Catholic. His own father, who led the 1945 Rosh Hashana minyan of the thirty-seven survivors from the three-thousand Jews of his Shtetl to with his reclaimed daughter at his side, only for the daughter to be dead of typhus by Yom Kippur, because every father had to sacrifice a child to the Moloch who demanded six million bodies for the sole crime of not getting to Amerikeh in time. His own father, who buried silver dollars in his back yard and warned him to never play the stock market, because stocks were the way that hustlers got respectable people to gamble. His own father, who warned him that he was spoiling his son, letting a gifted boy grow conceited and complacent with how smart he was when what he needed was the discipline to survive.
He resented his own father for being right as much as his children resented him for the same. He didn't particularly push his son, not nearly as hard as his own father pushed him, and certainly how he pushed him was nothing compared to the way most parents of gifted children do. All he ever did was push his own son into the direction of these subjects on the drive to school, at dinner, before bed, on weekends; subjects which he wished he could have learned about at the same age when he was helping his own father at the store,
How could he have let a label like 'learning disabled' ever be affixed to his son who was so clearly gifted? His son who could speak two languages fluently at two years old do algebra at three and read in three different languages at four? His son who memorized the names of the moons around Jupiter at five and passages of Shakespeare at seven? His son who had perfect pitch at four, could harmonize on the piano at six, played violin like a professional at twelve, and sang like an opera singer the moment his voice changed at ten? His son, whose teachers asked if he was deaf at four, who had to be pulled out of gifted and talented classes at seven, who had panic attacks at nine because he couldn't concentrate long enough to do ten math problems in an hour-and-a-half. His son, who at ten, still didn't tie his own shoes and at twelve, stopped even practicing violin. His son, who at thirteen would knock over furniture and scream at the top of his lungs for an hour at a stretch, and then cry inconsolably when he was punished even slightly. His son, who was nearly expelled at fourteen for hitting the sweetest girl in his class and running away for a day when he was punished. His son who was suspended on the last day of class at his first high school for writing a letter to the class in which he told every member of his class exactly what he thought of them. His son, who at seventeen, told the foulest, most self-sabotaging lies about himself at his new school for no reason at all. His son who called home at twenty to tell us that there were demons flying around his dormroom. His son, still living at home in 2007, a full two years into the Second Family War, seemingly determined to sabotage himself just to make the point to his father that he was entitled to act like a bum. His son, the smartest and the stupidest person he'd met in his life, the highest and the lowest functioning person in a twenty-mile radius, the reward of a son he thought his wife might never allow him to have, and the punishment Hashem gave him for wanting a son so badly. His son, an execration and an astonishment, a curse and a reproach.
Maybe he wasn't anywhere near as intelligent as we always thought he was. He's certainly nowhere near as intelligent as he thinks he is. It's been so long since the promise of this illui extinguished that all that's left of it is the festering remains of long ago promise. A lazy and unserious, entitled and spoiled young man who hid behind a wall of psychobabble so he could morally abdicate his every responsibility, a caricature of everything Amerikeh is and a cosmic jest for thinking that the Kharlaps could cheat fate twice. What would have been so terrible if this boychik made a living selling shoes or flipping burgers?
Everyone has their problems, and Amerikeh makes a religion out of them. We believed in Amerikeh, so we took him to every doctor and he only got worse and worse. You don't cure a sickness by making the sickness define your life, and his son was a walking therapy session, using the world as his psychiatrist - blurting out every thought that came into his head, utterly missing the social cues that might make something of him if he noticed them, saying things on his best days that were so insulting that it's a wonder he had any friends at all.
For seven years after they were married, Abba-Khet's wife was reluctant to have children, seeing the career that made her miserable as her priority and her duty. Ima-Khet's own mother insisted on perfect grades and every academic honor, and once she proved her talent, her mission was then to marry herself off and raise extraordinary sons who'd do what she never could. She would see the naches that her brother's achievements brought her own mother, and knew that no accolade she ever received could ever bring the same naches. If she could not bring her mother pride, she could at least prove her mother wrong.
But Ima-Khet took to mothering just as both Abba-Khet and Ima-Khet's own mother knew she always would, and never looked for a job after she had Alef-Khet because her children became the joy of her life. So much joy did she derive from them that she never let her husband punish them properly when they misbehaved. He's upset, he's hungry, he's tired, he doesn't understand... There was always a reason to spare Alef-Khet, not to do anything more than yell at him a few times a week, and no matter how many times Abba-Khet threatened to hit him, to not follow through with it more than a potch on the arm once every couple months, and not to force him to finish everything he started when he became too discouraged to continue. When you became too depressed to do homework, she made me let you leave it incomplete and explain why to the teacher. When you became too depressed to go to school, she made me let you stay home.
With the other two kinder it didn't matter much because they were utterly, mercifully different from their brother. Smart, well-adjusted kinder with nothing particularly extraordinary about them, they wouldn't even want to be if they were. They're like all the Yingeh Yids in Amerikeh: watching TV and playing video games, loving sports they can't play well and chasing girls who rarely call back, drinking beer in their friends' basements and soda in ours. We should have made them work harder, but looking after Alef-Khet was trouble enough.Even when the other kinder had occasional tzoris, it all took a back seat to the main show.
Alef-Khet had now lived back at home for more than two years, going to Washington every weekend so he could drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes like a vildeh khayeh with all those luftmenschen from college, returning home late every Sunday night with his clothes stinking of them in a laundry pile which his father would inevitably be the one to wash. Sometimes it was a fight just to get him to take the laundry down. Once a month, the credit card bill would come, and that was a guaranteed fight. Once a year, the therapist would raise his rates, and that was guaranteed to be an explosion. Then there were the randomized fights about things as simple as asking Alef-Khet to set the table, or bringing hangers down to the basement to hang his clothes, or putting on pants when company was over. You would think his mother would be as mad as he was, but she kept telling him to be patient. She was an enabler. What has patience ever gotten us from him?
The worst fight yet was the one that happened after Pesach 2007. Alef-Khet had not said a word through either seder except the portions that were assigned for him to read aloud as they were to every member of the table. He wanted money to go visit his best friend in New England. His father told him the simple truth. He didn't deserve to go. People with middle class jobs can afford vacations to New England, but he had no job and no means to do it. Who could possibly deny the truth of that statement? Here was a twenty-five year old man living on the charity of parents who still give him everything and ask for bupkes in return, and still it was not enough. What other parent loves their child so much that they would still do everything for them at this age? And still, it was not enough. What other parent would have supported Alef-Khet through so many explosions, so much ingratitude, so much hostility, we never stopping loving him no matter how horrible a son he was. And still it was not enough.
Alef-Khet exploded as he always did, yelling through his bawling that every day of his life was torture and all he was asking for was a little respite, but couldn't get it because his father loves money more than he loves his children. Abba-Khet exploded back, telling his son that he was a leech who demanded his help every hour of every day but did nothing to earn it. Alef-Khet said he'd order the ticket anyway, so Abba-Khet went to the computer to cancel Alef's credit card, while Alef-Khet cut up his credit card to show how little he cared about the money before Abba could cancel it.
Alef-Khet lost the battle, and he knew it. His father was making more sense than ever, he knew that objectively speaking, he was every bit the leech and ingrate his father told him he was. We all are who we are, and if there was a switch in his mind to become something different, he'd still never located it. He was a leech, he was always a leech, and he would always be a leech. What was there to do?
Something he never did before. He told his mother that he did not feel in control of what he might do to himself. He obviously could not live cooped up any longer in the same house as his father, especially after his father had cut him off, and by no means could he venture in this state into the terrifying world which even destroys the strong. As always, she gave him an enormous hug as he cried into her shoulder, told him that of course they'd order a new credit card when Dad calms down, and bided her time before she'd sit down with Alef-Khet to find ways to curb his expenses when he was in a better frame of mind. But Abba-Khet's patience was long since exhausted. Who could possibly blame him?
Alef-Khet repeated the same warning to his father. But what, to his mother, seemed like a loud alarm bell, sounded to his father like a threat. War is war, and he would not be intimidated by threats or manipulation, especially not by Kamikaze pilots or suicide bombers; and not even Alef-Khet was stupid enough to take war to the nuclear option. So Alef-Khet stormed off and went to his room upstairs, and his parents assured each other that this would all blow over in a bit.
Alef-Khet returned twenty minutes later, announced that he'd swallowed somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five Tylenol, and was afraid he'd swallow more when his stomach felt up to it. He had held himself hostage, demonstrating a literal willingness to kill himself unless he gets a credit card again. It was suicide as manipulation, what had he to lose that he valued?
He spent the next little while in the protective custody in Sheppard Pratt Inpatient Care, amazingly, his first trip there. His whole family visited him every day. On the fourth day, he was told he was to receive electro-shock therapy, and learned with only minutes to go that the lists were confused and actually was supposed to be released immediately. He returned home to an enormous steak dinner, everyone was in good humor, everyone was thankful to be with everyone else.
It was, of course, not long until the fights started back up. Was it even a week? Three days? Twelve hours? However long it was, Ima-Khet knew that for the sake of family harmony, she had to get Alef-Khet out of the house and into an apartment. The further away, the better. Alef-Khet had many friends in Washington, so why not get him to move down there. It obviously would have been much cheaper to have Alef-Khet move in with his friends, but she knew that with Alef-Khet's moodswings, his slovenly habits, his density in the face of all organizational challenges, moving in with friends would be a disaster in itself.
It would also have been far cheaper to get him to move to Baltimore, but Alef-Khet knew no one in Baltimore under the age of fifty. Even his childhood friends, whose condescending manners made Alef-Khet rave with anxious rage for a week before any event at which he had to see them and be in tears for three days afterward, moved to Washington DC with for its better money, its more interesting jobs, its higher ambitions, its better scene for young people, its more eligible members of the opposite sex, its better lives.
Baltimore was cheap because the world had treated her cheaply - an industrial town who'd declined for the entirety of two living memories. Its greatest moment upon the world stage was fifty years before the Emancipation of American Slaves, and even in the halcyon days of American industry, Baltimore was at best the second city to which men of industry brought your ships, your shipping, your ship building, your artillery building, your aircraft building, your steel manufacturing, your car manufacturing, your railroad construction, your electricity distribution. The husks of what once was Baltimore's not-so-glorious glory days were strewn about a city with needles and police lights strewn about the husks. It was a city that only the defeated inhabited while the practical drove back to the suburbs after five and the ambitious left altogether.
It could only be Washington. To stay in their suburb of Jews whose alleged complacency Alef-Khet railed against with such senseless ferocity might make Alef-Khet still more crazy. Baltimore itself, the MLK Boulevard of Broken Dreams, is not a place for an unstable person to seek sanctuary. Would we really risk a second trip to Sheppard Pratt after not making new friends just so Alef-Khet can risk getting mugged and stabbed every day?
Washington DC it would have to be. If it looks quite a bit better than the Baltimore-like cesspool it had been during the Marion Barry years, and Alef-Khet still had lots of friends there from his University days, but the challenges were nevertheless impossible to overcome. A safe neighborhood to placate the mother, a cheap one to placate the father, a promise that he would get a job to placate them both, an expense account to placate the son, and the promise of some distance between them to placate them all.
Ima-Khet knew that any promise of a job would have to be a false one, at very least for the first year. Alef-Khet went to pieces so easily - a fight with a friend or father, a remonstration with a roommate, a misplaced glance from a girl. How could a child this delicate ever negotiate the roller coaster vicissitude of the workplace, whose battle scars were still readily apparent on her? No, he could not get a job, he could not even be pushed very hard to get one, but he still had to believe he was required to. If there was any sense from her husband that her commitment to his requirement wavered, the whole deal would fall through and Abba-Khet might cut his son off without a cent. If there was any sense from her son that she would be OK with him not working, Alef-Khet might shout her support to his father with a bullhorn in a moment of spite.
This feat would take many years, should it be accomplished at all, but let's not think like that. The goal still had to be to get him on his own and in a secure position to work a steady job, even if it took another decade or two. There was simply no way that Alef-Khet would ever be able to manage his way with only family funds for support, which could even fall to pieces under the best management. The only solution would be a steady, unchallengeably permanent job from which income would always be present. When the time came, she would teach him how to manage the job, perhaps occasionally do the job for him in secret if she could when he was particularly agitated, until a woman stupid and self-loathing enough to tolerate all this came along, and she had to stay healthy and fit so as to live long enough to manage the transition at that crucial moment.
Of course, AC Charlap moved back to DC with the very best of intentions, how could he not? He meant to get a job as soon as he got to the city, but one day's procrastination inevitably became two, which became five, which became five months. Somehow, he managed to find a three-floor townhouse in Washington DC that was only a thousand dollars a month, the only catch was that he had to live in the townhouse with his landlord - who seemed like a nice enough guy from what Alef-Khet told them, a Jew no less with a kosher home. A second catch was only discovered after he moved in, the landlord was a compulsive neat freak. Ima-Khet knew that threats of eviction were possible wherever he lived, but not within a three weeks of his moving in.
Whenever life in the Mount Pleasant townhouse was too tense, usually once or twice a month, AC would decamp to the Takoma House for four days at a time, where there was always a couch, easygoing people, free weed and whiskey, music at all hours, girls who flirted back, and a group who'd at least pretend to be interested in his marathon monologues. He had plenty of other friends in DC, God knows how, but he did not dare impose upon them even for a night. They were true Washingtonians, climbing the ladder to worldly power, intelligent, interesting, and occasionally influential people, willing to engage in meaningful dialogue for a few hours by this entertaining eccentric who somehow knew as much about their subjects of study as anyone working in their office, and was one of the rare DC residents with no filter for networking or social climbing, and then they could go home to the security of knowing that there was a time when Charlap's motormouth would shut off.
But the booze from these outings was never free, and the food in DC has always been as heart-stoppingly overpriced as it is gourmet. The credit card bills would come to Pikesville, and the fury of Abba-Khet grew exponentially with every month. He said he would get a job! The betrayal grew in his mind like a tumor, the gloom infecting his every social interaction, his every meal, his every satisfaction. The man who could never be cheated from the family whose place in life nobody could ever steal was cheated by his own son, abetted by his wife. The Kharlaps would never be defeated by Hitler and Stalin, but they were defeated by their own eldest son.
He demanded money, he demanded time, he demanded help, he demanded constant attention, and when you asked him for anything in return, he demanded complete unaccountability - using this supposed disability like a crutch that gets him out of all obbligations. He was threatened with eviction within three weeks of moving to DC by locking himself out of his own apartment when his landlord was out of town. Had the locksmith not turned out to be an Israeli who liked his Hebrew, the would have charged us six-hundred more dollars for breaking the window! We spent a whole day cutting glass and using superglue to repair it before the landlord returned, the landlord noticed it anyway, but all I asked in return was that he spend a little less, but even that made him lose his temper.
Then there was the month after his Uncle's family returned to Israel after a long vacation that ended a month before Rosh Hashana 2007. All he had to do was to do was the polite thing and say goodbye to his family before they left. Abba-Khet called his cellphone literally fifteen times, and he didn't even turn the phone off. Fifteen times he let it go to voicemail. Why did he do it? Because when he drove another cousin home to Arlington, his cousin amiably told him he was the butt of most of our jokes when he wasn't around.
How could he not understand this? What in G-d's name did he expect? What the hell are we supposed to do? How could we not make fun of him? You spend all your time being a leech with no job and a credit card bill as high as your rent, demand unconditional help and still demand to be taken seriously? What outlet left is there? Of course he's the butt of jokes when he isn't there! We'll always love him, but what has he ever done to not deserve everyone's contempt?
And for this infraction, Alef-Khet blamed Abba-Khet and refused to speak to him for a month thereafter. He didn't much care to speak to Ima-Khet either, but there were occasional responsibilities to fulfill even then, and Abba-Khet would not be cowed into not reminding him of them by email, by text, by calling him if unavoidable. Each of which would earn a remonstration from his wife, his son, and his other sons, but Abba-Khet would not be cowed into defeat by people who do not understand what's at stake.
As always, time and forgetfulness help to blow these things over. All you have to do is wait, and no one will remember what the fight was about. Within a month, Alef-Khet was home for Rosh Hashana 5769, and relations were as normal as they ever are in the Kharlap family. Six months of relatively moderate conflict followed, and pretty soon it was time for AC Kharlap to go home for Pesach 2008.
During the first Seder, we were like a family in a dream. Everybody was getting along, joking around, making like all families do. We'd long since earned our fun with tears, and sorrow finally yielded joyful fruit.
During the second Seder, the old habits began to creep in. Abba-Khet made a few good-natured jokes about Alef-Khet's irresponsibility, only for Alef-Khet to take exception. Abba-Khet tried to talk himself out and justify the jokes, but the only way he could justify them was by Alef-Khet's irresponsibility, which only made Alef-Khet madder.
Alef-Khet should have returned home the next morning, but his own inertia kept him rooted to Baltimore. Whom, in any event, would tell him it's time to leave? Families are there for each other, you don't tell family they're not welcome.
So on the third night, Alef-Khet stayed around, and rather than returning to the relative peace of his OCD roommate, he sat in the TV room, vaguely depressed by his father's insults while reading wikipedia articles, and wearing no pants. His parents asked him if he wanted to come to dinner with them and his out of town relatives, and he declined, not without what seemed like a small harumph. No matter what Alef-Khet does, he has to show his contempt for us.
When they all returned, Alef-Khet was still wearing no pants. Alef-Khet had not moved from his laptop in the TV room. Abba-Khet was clearly in a mood, he told his son to put his pants on as a sign of respect or their guests. His son said he would, but he never did - later, later, always later, never now, never just doing it, never complying with requests, never doing even the minimum of what was expected from even a person with basic decency. The out of town relatives, obviously foreseeing something ugly bound for the near future, retired to their guest room.
Abba-Khet started talking about Alef-Khet as he often did to his wife, in that hushed tone meant to empty his innards from twenty years of anxious frustration, hoping that Alef-Khet would hear him but think that his father was trying not be heard, and be so convinced by Abba-Khet's eloquence that he would immediately come to see the world from Abba-Khet's point of view.
But Alef-Khet knew the truth, that Abba-Khet was a bully, a mean man whose prosperity was purchased at the expense of letting its beneficiaries live in fear - in fear of him, in fear of disagreeing with him, in fear of life, in fear of the wide world and its many promises of excitement and wonders. How often did he say to Ima-Khet that no matter few problems there were, Abba-Khet would find a way to create one? Alef-Khet could have received a degree from Harvard Medical and three children from a perfect wife, but Abba-Khet would still be unsatisfied with him forever. Good is never good enough, so why be anything but bad?
Whether from substance or appeasement, Ima-Khet professed to agree with him completely. She had been on the receiving end of Abba-Khet's verbal upbraids as many times as her son, but being of a much more pleasant disposition, she let Abba-Khet have his fill of tirade, and then went off and did whatever she thought best. Abba-Khet knew it, and it drove him crazy, but try as he might, he could not defeat Ima-Khet's resolve to live a pleasant life on her own terms. Why couldn't Alef-Khet simply do the same, just as she did, just as his brothers did? Why did Alef-Khet feel the need to win?
After twenty minutes of this concealed confrontation from the next room, Alef-Khet had enough. He went into the next room and said what he'd said to his mother so many times and always wanted to say to his father. "If I do what you ask of me this time, what will you want next?"
Abba-Khet also had enough, bruising for the fight at least as much as his son, he was choking on his own rage, barely restraining himself from a hyperventilating on it.
Alef-Khet saw the rage in his father's breath, which made him tremble with his own fury. "Go ahead, scream at me. It's obviously what you want to do."But in the throes of his spleen, Alef-Khet was so out of control of his voice that the way he spat out "Go ahead, scream at me" sounded to his father like "Go ahead, swing at me." As in 'take a...'
Abba-Khet's eyes went deadly cold, his last miligram of restraint taken from him with merciless humiliation, and yet in a moment of astonishing dignity, he found the willpower for one last milligram of restraint, and rather than take a swing at his son, merely grabbed his son's shirt by the button down collar with all his force, and told Alef-Khet how worthless and no good he was. Alef-Khet responded by batting his eyes away to conceal the tears, and with all the eloquence of his younger generation, responded "Get the fuck off me!" and swatted away his father's grip. The collar of his shirt felt a bit looser, and Alef-Khet went upstairs.
This was the moment Alef-Khet knew was coming forever. Everyone had to know it, didn't they? His declaration of independence was now or never. He could not continue to be a Kharlap, and he knew that the Takoma House would take him in for however long he needed them so he could become the properly independent member of society he wanted to be at least as badly as anyone else professed to.
Alef-Khet walked to the Seven-Eleven down the street, picked up a rare weekday pack of American Spirits, smoked one of them on the way home, and one of them in the back yard. When he returned to the house, found his Mom watching TV in the den, trying mightily as she always did to remove herself from the stark reality of her two bears trying to rule the same den.
Alef-Khet told her his plan: From May 1st onward, he could cut up his credit card, and all his spare copies of it, he would relinquish his car, he would refuse all money, all charity, all dependence. He would not come home for holidays, he would not come home to see family, and he would not return home until however many years it took for Abba-Khet to apologize for twenty years of petty tyranny. AC would, of course, make ample time to meet with his mother and brothers and relatives on neutral ground; only a monster would blame them, but he would not see them if his father was around. Not only that, but he told her that while his own father would never be his hero, his own mother was, and always would be. Nevertheless, the stark truth remained: he. would. not. return. home.
The next morning, the out of town relatives sat motionless and silent on the living room couch, daring not to move a muscle as Alef-Khet's parents discussed what to do. Abba-Khet, of course, refused to back down, war is war. But Ima-Khet refused to let either of them go without one last summit, one last council, in which she could try to reconcile these bitter enemies who did not understand how deeply their love bound them to one another. But Abba-Khet was surprisingly willing to go along with Alef-Khet's idea. This way, Alef-Khet would see the world as it really was, and would see just how right Abba-Khet is about how important his responsibilities are.
The relatives left, both Ima-Khet and her female cousin of contemporary age cried into one another's arms, and Alef-Khet could hear the sniffling from his upstairs bedroom. Even the husband, normally so stoic and tough, seemed audibly shaken by what transpired.
Next came the council between Ima and Alef-Khet. Ima-Khet pleaded with him, for me, just this last time, please try to find some kind of understanding. Alef-Khet didn't understand the point, but for her sake, he agreed.
In the living room, the two bears looked at each other as though they were ready to decapitate and dismember the other. Alef-Khet decided to take the opening volley, and told Abba-Khet that no matter how different he was, how successful, how much naches and pride he brought his parents, his father would still find an infinity of fault with him. "You mean I'd find fault with you for not wearing your pants when guests are around? I'm sure I would."
Alef-Khet, seeing nothing to lose at this point, became brutal, and launched one final provocation to burrow a parting curse into his father's head. At best, he said, there was something deeply authoritarian about him that views his family as an extension of himself and can't stand the thought that others might make their own choices. At worst, there's something psychopathic about it that enjoys making us suffer.
Strangely enough, his father's rejoinder was strangely mild, almost as though he backed down after that. He told his son that years of therapy had made him too soft for this world. Maybe this adventure into the real world would prove to him exactly what the real world is. and said that one day, Alef-Khet would understand why his father did what he did; and with that, Goodbye and Good Luck. he retired back to his bedroom.
Well, I think that went rather well, don't you? It wasn't as bad as it could have been, the unpleasantness was all of two minutes, and there was no final physical altercation. All that remained to do was to drive Alef-Khet back to his house in DC with the car that was no longer his. Ima-Khet and Alef-Khet talked pleasantly the whole way down, and Alef-Khet told her that he hoped it wouldn't be long before he came back home again. They remained to talk in the car for forty five minutes after she parked, but it was getting late, and Ima-Khet had to get home. Ima-Khet secretly gave her son a hundred-twenty dollars, Alef-Khet was embarrassed and talked her down to giving him a hundred. She told him to call whenever he felt like it. When they both stepped out of the car for one last hug, it was Ima-Khet who wept into his shoulder.