Old Men

The first time I brought Jason home to meet my parents, he took cruel pleasure in observing my discomfort as he repeatedly tried to hold my hand and I snatched it away. Of course my parents pretended not to see.

Jason and I had a long fight about it afterwards, and said many hurtful things to each other. He said I would never be free of my parents’ influence and the role society had constructed for me. I will always be an old man, he said, complacent and conventional and afraid of the truth — afraid of my own inner truth. Toxic is his favourite word for describing families and what they do to you, and he had many opportunities to use the word during our fight.

Of course it’s easy for him to talk. He left his parents’ home in Hamilton at seventeen and has never looked back. That’s the thing about “the Egglezi,” as my parents would say.

Jason likes to provoke, such as when he wears eyeliner to the opera or shrieks at every loud noise on the street. Honestly, sometimes I could kill him.

My mother is now gone, taken by cancer eight years ago.

And my father, who is in the next room getting ready, wouldn’t remember Jason. That was twenty years ago. I never made the mistake of giving Jason a return engagement.

In the bedroom I find my father standing in a black suit and a shapeless brown toque. He’s staring at his dress shoes on the floor.

“Sit on the bed,” I tell him. “Let me help you, otherwise we’ll be late.”

As usual, the Montreal traffic is a disaster. Crews in orange jumpsuits are on every corner, working around huge open pits. The city’s broken roads only hint at the calamity beneath, where hundred-year-old pipes crumble and leak and the roads are so treacherous they can sometimes swallow entire cars. Apparently a subterranean tangle of roots has attacked the city’s infrastructure.

“Where are we going?” my father asks. I glance over at his anxious face and the pilly toque he wears in all weather. He looks homeless and smells of urine. If I had noticed earlier, I might have convinced him to change.

“I told you, to a new doctor.”

“Does this doctor have a name?”

“Dr. Hadzidakis.”

“Another Cretan. You’re killing me with the Cretans. Did you take care of that thing I wanted?”

“Which thing?”

“They’ve invited me to address the Greek Parliament. I have this suit but Lydia will need a dress. She’ll be coming with me on the Concorde.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about Lydia. She’s one of the reasons I’m taking my father to a psychiatrist, although he doesn’t know it.

I’m not sure this is the right building, but its ugly severity is of a piece with the rest of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Besides, we’re late and we’ll have to take our chances.

I park in a no parking zone and help my father out. With any luck, the doctor’s office won’t be far. But when we enter, I’m not sure where to go. There’s no directory or receptionist: just long linoleum-tiled halls stretching in three directions. It’s well after six and a man with a bunch of keys at his belt is mopping the floor. A woman with a briefcase rushes out, heels clacking.

I ask the man with the keys, but he’s never heard of Dr. Hadzidakis, so I pick the hall on the right.

“Let’s go,” I say to my father. “I’m sure it’s this way.”

With my father shuffling beside me at a snail’s pace, the walk seems endless. I take his arm and urge him on, past rows of locked doors and security cameras and a gallery of posters featuring anguished gamblers, alcoholics and suicides. Our steps echo in the empty hall. By the time we reach the end of the corridor, it all seems like a terrible mistake.

“A staircase,” I say to my father. “He’s probably upstairs.”

Somewhere in the building a door slams.

“No,” my father says. “I don’t know why you brought me here. Take me home.”

“But we’ve come all this way. Please…just this one staircase. I’m sure he’s upstairs.”

Reluctantly, he follows but needs to rest after each step. We’re now desperately late.

If anything, the upstairs corridor is even darker. One yellow wall, lit by an emergency light, seems to be sweating. We pass a cork bulletin board but it’s completely bare except for a row of pushpins.

“Maybe this way,” I say doubtfully.

“No, I have to sit,” he says. We find an alcove with a bench and sit beside a cardboard box full of wire hangers. He seems too exhausted to be angry with me.

* * *

When I was young, my maternal grandfather had a rubber plant that was so tall it stretched from the front door landing to the ceiling, then curved for several feet toward the staircase, where it began a second ascent, its great waxy green leaves yearning toward the distant skylight.

Papou had driven large nails into the wall and secured the plant at several points with satin ribbons scrounged from his daughters’ weddings. Even as a child I sensed a trapped sexual energy, somehow made tragic by the white restraining ribbons. When I was much older and came across paintings of St. Sebastian, I was reminded of the writhing presence in my childhood, and of the smell of damp black earth, and of the tufts of root poking through the holes at the bottom of the planter.

I was reminded, too, of how I would bring toy dinosaurs and play with them in the big clay pot, from which the thick green trunk emerged, until my mother came and shook my dirty hands, letting the loose soil fall back into the pot, then quick-marching me off to the bathroom for a prolonged wash.

No one keeps rubber plants anymore.

But now that I’m in Dr. Hadzidakis’s office, here is another floor-to-ceiling giant, standing like an ancient warrior by the door. The doctor has clearly been resident in this office a long time. A kettle rests on the windowsill, next to a brass tray filled with small pots of geraniums and African violets. Posters of the Palace of Knossos crowd the walls, and photos of grandchildren line his bookcase.

Dr. Hadzidakis is a pleasant old man with shrewd appraising eyes.

“I apologize for being so hard to find,” he says. “Many have been lost, many are yet wandering.”

He laughs at his own witticism and takes a moment to look over the list of medications I’ve brought.

Then, like two dogs sniffing each other, they begin. My father and Dr. Hadzidakis ask about each other’s village and the year of their crossing and the state of Greek democracy. Then, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the doctor takes over. He gently excavates my father’s early life, the war years, marriage, my birth, emigration and work. Over the next hour his disappointments and bitterness seep out.

My father is crying. Lydia is his only remaining solace, he sobs.

The doctor catches my eye with a questioning look, and I shrug. There is no Lydia.

The doctor pushes a box of tissues forward.

“And you?”

It takes me a moment to realize the question is not being directed at my father.

“Me? What about me?”

“It’s also hard for the young,” the doctor says philosophically. “Are you married…children?”

“No, neither.”

“Haven’t found the right one, eh?” Turning to my father he says, “Give him time. Some siren will put the manacles on him yet!”

My father looks at the doctor blankly.

At the door, flanked by his fierce green soldier, Dr. Hatzidakis lets my father advance a few steps into the hall and then turns to me.

“Call if the episodes get worse and we’ll change the dosage, or we’ll try something else. And sorry for all the questions. You have to make allowances for your father and me. We’re just old men.”

* * *

In the car, my father is subdued and sighs frequently, like a child who’s had a good long cry. I reach over and take his hand.

“So, what do you think of Dr. Hatzidakis?” I ask.

“Didn’t even check my blood pressure. That’s the kind of doctor you take me to. A Cretan quack.”

Instead of heading straight to his place, I drive north to a sprawling shopping centre in Laval. The roads are all new and the asphalt smooth, pipes and wires safely tucked away beneath the ground. A relief after Montreal.

“What are we doing here?”

“We’ll get something to eat. But first, we’ll do a bit of shopping.”

He follows me dutifully down a gleaming corridor of shop fronts. Turning into one of the shops, I spot Jason behind the counter, ringing up a sale. He looks up, startled to see us.

“Jason, you may remember my father. We need a lady’s dress, size nine, please. My father has the honour of addressing the Greek Parliament and Miss. Lydia will accompany him. We both want her to look fabulous.”