IT WAS something to do with words, how they could trip you up and confuse you if you weren’t careful. It was a night course my father was taking at NYU, and he was very excited about it. The main implication for me was that I would be left alone on those nights. Did that mean I would have to cook my own dinner? At least it would be less expensive than the dancing lessons from Arthur Murray, and most likely would not involve any special clothing.
I had not reckoned on the books, and the anxiety. The true cost of going back to school, in even so tentative a fashion. Couldn’t we just continue going to Gene Kelly musicals, laughing as Donald O’Connor duck-walked around a Hollywood backstage or Gene tap-danced up a wall in his penny loafers (just like my Dad’s) and yellow V-neck sweater? What was wrong with that?
Our record of Danny Kaye singing manic set-pieces from Gilbert & Sullivan gathered dust while my frowning father tried to cram a week’s reading into one hour before class. Ever since being laid off as a thermostat salesman for the New England Territory, he had been fighting a growing depression. I didn’t think reading books with titles like “A Generation of Vipers,” was helping his moods. We could have been riding on the top deck of the Fifth Avenue double decker bus, or ice skating at Rockefeller Center, followed by watery cocoa with huge gobs of whipped cream. This scalding concoction could be sipped for HOURS while we contemplated our throbbing ankles in the ugly tan rental skates with the numbers painted in green on the back. It felt so fantastic when you unlaced, the torture over, and wobbled around on flat feet in your old comfy shoes again.
Then, if we were feeling really wild, we’d follow up with a small bag of roasted chestnuts so hot you could burn your fingers trying to dig out the sweet, mealy morsels that you tongued and shifted in your mouth until it was safe to bite down.
But no, that winter Semantics ruled with an iron fist, and I spoke less and less, so as not to provoke an excruciating discussion of what I had really meant, or thought I meant, by what I said, or thought I had said, and then pretty soon he was talking about something called Dianetics. The cover of the book was dramatic; it featured a bolt of lightning zapping someone’s brain. Sort of a Benjamin Franklin meets Moses motif. Perhaps his training as an electrical engineer saved him from the clutches of the Dianetics people when they started trying to hook him up to their little Amp-O-Meters, or whatever they called them. Or perhaps the Semantics class actually had done him some good, given him some kind of immunity after all.
Then, in the spring, with no particular warning, matchbooks from the Copacabana and The Stork Club began appearing on his coffee table. (The place was so small, and my father so compulsively neat, that a few new matchbooks were immediately noticeable.) He began to travel on business again, and after I had gone back to live with my mother I heard less about Semantics and more about the relative tightness of the new black chino sheath skirt I was so proudly wearing to school every day of the first month of high school. Although it was true that I could barely walk in it, everyone else was similarly hampered, and so no one of us was being particularly flamboyant. I was proud of that word (I practically shouted it, as in “I am NOT being…”) and of my line of argument.
I was equally sure that Dad’s professor at NYU would be impressed at my discourse on the relative meanings of the words “skin,” “tight” and “cheap.”