“To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”: A Story
“To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”
A Short Story About My Father, and Heartache
My father and I sat as we always did, outside of the times we were playing cards, or dice, or backgammon: next to one another but apart, in large tan leather chairs, facing the television. Our legs were slightly bent, bare feet against the red marble coffee table, the one that now sits in my living room – albeit decades of footprints and moves and deaths and heartbreaks and other such stains later.
He never sat in couches, never even had one in his living rooms. Always kept a distance. At least by the time I came along…
“What’s wrong,” he mumbled, ashing his cigarette, inevitably Parliament, while not moving his gaze from the tv, inevitably showing 24-hour news with a stock ticker chugging by on the bottom. Simpler news, naïve news it now feels – just before 9/11, before the wars on terror, Enron, great recession, trump, covid… before my father’s death… but the news, then, feeling just as pressing and dangerous as any now, Y2K, USS Cole, Intifada, his mother’s death – I know this not because of memory, but because I’ve now lived long enough for that perspective on perspective, and long enough to internalize the life lesson my father was about to teach me.
I shrugged, knowing he’d feel it despite not seeing, just as he felt my despair through the silence, across the gap in the chairs.
He inhaled deeply from his cigarette, and through his nostrils released two long, dense plumes. This smoke signal: always a sign he was perturbed, and restlessly processing. Then he muted the tv, turning the news into silent gestures, thereby bringing his full presence into the room, and expecting the same.
I remained quiet, basking in my selfish sadness. Thinking of love, and loss. Of things special, and things lonely.
“Nu?” he said, expectantly – a Yiddish word that he used often; a word meaning something to the effect of “Well? Go on. Let’s hear it”; a word reflective of his own ability to say so much with so little.
He was certainly a man who knew the power of silence. And thus we sat, for indeterminable seconds, until I responded.
“I broke up with Tamra,” I said, feeling steeped in a then-novel sensation of sadness and guilt.
“So?” he said, coldly, before taking a drag of his cigarette, still staring at the pantomiming figures on the screen in front of us.
I looked at him, feeling a sudden rage inside. A rage, I am convinced, reserved to children vis a vis their parents. The inverse of Storge I suppose – that ancient Greek word for the unique, instinctual love between parent and child.
Tamra… my girlfriend of a year, one of my first… the first who had met my father, even if in passing (he having not risen from his large tan chair)… a girlfriend who had tortured my emotions, and me hers… an ex-girlfriend after weeks if not months of fear and pain and indecisiveness around what to do…
And me, overwhelmed by the guilt of leaving her, by the sadness of saying goodbye to what we had had. This, of course, of a time when I viewed love from the standpoint of scarcity: will I love again? Will there ever be anyone like that again? It would take me nearly two more decades to discover love’s abundance in the world. And even then…
Sensing my sudden sadness turned into anger, my father glanced over at me for just a moment, to witness with his eyes, before turning back to the tv.
Though I can’t remember exactly, I know he smirked for a moment. I know it because he is me. And I see it all through the window across time, and of understanding now the situation far better than I could ever conceive in the moment.
So he smirked, enraging me further, me silent in my impotence with words. He, silent in his power over words. But when his smirk quickly faded, he cringed suddenly, before taking a dramatically long hit from his cigarette. He exhaled in the two dense plumes again before looking back to me, in all seriousness.
“The opera singer?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“She did have a beautiful voice,” he said. He had listened to her cassette tape. Had played it once for his best friend.
“Yeah, she did,” I said, suddenly feeling the familiar twinges of regret and reconsideration.
“But it’s done,” he said. I was unsure of whether his was a question or a statement.
“I think…” I started to say. But it wasn’t about thinking. Of course I had turned it into that, so many times, but it was about feeling. And I wanted to explain my feelings, to have him understand, even as I knew the distance… the distance between the chairs… between our feet at the table, inches yet miles… between our words and our feelings… between fathers and sons. And yet I began to try: “I feel… I feel like…”
“There’s this song,” he said, interrupting me, and standing up. “Let me find it.” He walked over to a row of cd’s next to a player, and started flipping through.
I sighed, shoulders dropping, probably wiping a significant and meaningless tear or two from my eyes.
With children of my own, now, I know the words were most certainly inconsequential. He saw it all in my face, in my body, in my energy and in my being. Saw through me. Saw all of me – as I was him.
And saw through the overlapping lenses of overlapping existence into the repeated frames of experience and pain.
He sat back down, resumed his position with bare feet on our coffee table, lit another cigarette, and the music began to play. Eighties-sounding dramatic introductory notes, me inwardly bracing for something like the show tunes he normally played for me, Send in the Clowns or what not, otherwise Neil Diamond or maybe Streisand.
Willie Nelson’s croon arrived, and my father immediately began singing along:
“To all the girls I’ve loved before
Who traveled in and out my door”
He gently waved the cigarette around like a poor conductor.
“I’m glad they came along
I dedicate this song
To all the girls I’ve loved before.”
“Saying goodbye is always hard,” he said to me during the instrumental. “You don’t stop feeling for them.”
“Or loving,” he said, somewhat cryptically, and took in a moment of loaded silence before saying more. “You just have to remember the good,” he said. Then he took a long drag, and with words composed of smoke, said: “As sad as it is. As much as it hurts.”
And then as if on cue, he enthusiastically resumed singing along with the song:
“For helping me to grow
I owe a lot I know
To all the girls I’ve loved before”
“Does it get easier?” I asked.
I like to think, like to remember, that he laughed at me in that moment. Laughed at me for my naivete, for my 21-year-old angst and pain in heartache. But I know better. I know he winced, grimaced in memory, for the pain wrought by love; for the pain that leads to the desire to keep people at a distance; for the pain that makes it easier to be alone; and for the pain I was, then, only feeling the first glimmers of.
“No,” he said. “It doesn’t get easier.” He took another deep drag, and let the understatement end there, as such.
Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias sang into the otherwise silent room. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the long finger of ash at the end of my father’s cigarette collapse and fall onto his pants. It woke him from his reverie, and with a distinctive grunt he brushed it from his pants onto the floor. He briefly considered the streak of gray ash on tan khaki, but then resumed singing with the boys:
“To all the girls who cared for me
Who filled my nights with ecstasy
They live within my heart
I’ll always be a part
Of all the girls I’ve loved before”
When the song ended, we returned to our room of silence, sad breaths across a generation the only sound to be heard.
Eventually he stood up and walked out of the room, softly and sadly crooning as he walked: “To all the girls I’ve loved before…”