Josh said, "I pretend like I can handle it even though I know I really can't."
"You can't fight him, and you can't forgive him," I said.
"That's right," Josh said. "I smile and play my role as best I can."
"Isn't there anything else you can do?"
I remembered Josh as an adolescent, when he'd been ready to fight with just about anybody. Now I think he's the most adult man I know.
In Amanda's house, we take our coffee into the kitchen, where we discuss plans for the next day. Amanda's father sits down in a big wooden chair that's pushed into one corner. We talk about whether to go for a hike in the morning or visit an antiques fair, and Amanda sits in her father's lap. Again, I'm overwhelmed by the momentary sensation of displacement as the primary male in Amanda's life. I play with their dog, Sparkle, who comes through a flap in the kitchen door. We agree on a hike. But I find it difficult to look at Amanda, in her father's lap. I'm painfully aware of how lonely it feels to be temporarily outside the circle of Amanda's love. If I were a teenager, I'd feel jealous and angry and I wouldn't understand why. But now, though I'm still the interloper, I find that I can step back and wait. She'll come back to me. And I think of Josh, embracing the demands of his impossible role. Compared with that, this Oedipal jealousy isn't so bad.
Later, Amanda and I go to sleep in the attic bedroom she used when she was a child. I say that it was weird for me to see them treat her as if she were still so young.
"Actually, we used to fight all the time," she says. "I don't think any of us behaved this way when I was younger, and so we're kind of revising. But I love them, and I suspect my dad's started to think I've been sitting on his lap since I was 5—which isn't true, of course."
"But don't you feel like you're not entirely yourself?" I ask.
She laughs. "Myself? This is the role I play here."
I grow quiet. There's a yearbook on her bookshelf in between battered copies of Watership Down and Madame Bovary. I look for pictures of her.
She says, "Who doesn't play a bunch of roles? You need to be able to accept me in all of mine."
I say that I can—of course I can. But even as I say it, I know it's not entirely true. I don't know that I'll ever be free of an inclination toward rivalry with her father. I envy the security that exists there.
Amanda shows me pictures of herself at her fifth birthday party, her young mother and father on either side. I don't mind a night when I have to wrestle with myself a little in order to temper my responses. I realize, as Amanda and I go through the faded images, that I'm happy to have the opportunity to exist within this more complex role. I'm grateful to her for showing me where she comes from. I've got other roles ahead of me, and the more I know about her, the better I'll play them.
Ben Schrank is the author of Consent (Random House, 2002).
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