It used to take three buses to get from the Berkeley hills to the I. Magnin in San Francisco. You had to take the 7 to Palmer’s Drugstore on Shattuck, the F across the bay to the city terminal, and then any Geary Street line to Union Square. It was a 14-mile journey that could easily take two hours, and my father and I undertook it each December with a combination of excitement and wariness, determined to bring home his annual Christmas gift to my mother, a quarter ounce of Arpège. We would stand on the plush gray carpeting of the perfume department for a long time, while slender, beautiful young women floated past. The saleslady would dot my own sturdy wrist with the potion, and still my father would stand there, tapping the edge of his American Express card on the glass counter over and over again in agony. We had taken three buses for the sole purpose of buying one thing, the price of which never changed, but every year I was never entirely sure he had it in him. And then—with a decisive nod—he would lay the card flat and push it toward the woman: “We’ll take it.”
My father was a college professor, and we lived frugally, but somehow—unlike all my friends in similar circumstances—we seemed always to be on the edge of financial ruin. Our blender was secondhand; our television, like our dryer, came from a “bargain” emporium down in Oakland that was of such dubious character that I now wonder if it was a fence for stolen goods; things around the house (like the upstairs porch that you were warned never, ever to set foot on) were in a permanent state of decay. Things worked until they broke, and then they were left that way—a broken space heater was still a space heater, after all. Who knew if our luck would change, and one day you’d be inspired to plug the thing in, and out would whir a blast of warm air?
And yet there we were, every year, buying one of the most expensive perfumes in the world from the best department store in California, and the reason had to do with the fact that deep within our family—the spark that had gotten it all started, turning one Flanagan into four and making a certain red-shingle house in North Berkeley an unparalleled trove of talked-out Chatty Cathy dolls and years-long quarrels, Julia Child soufflés and weekend benders—was a consuming passion. The fact that a long time ago, a young man had gone to a cocktail party in Greenwich Village with a Navy buddy, caught sight of a beautiful young woman, and said to the friend, “Introduce me.”
Or words to that effect. I wasn’t there! All I know is that for all of their quarreling and bellyaching, they had begun in romance and they gestured back to that romance a hundred times a year. It was in the gifts they gave one another, the notes they sent when they were apart, the fact that whenever she was combing my father’s fringe of white hair before a party, she would say, “You look so handsome, Tom”—and you realized that she wasn’t exactly seeing something; she was remembering it. The real sorrow of Ireland’s young life is not that she has a father with an ugly temper; it’s that the circle has been broken. She cannot use her relationship with her father as a way of testing the waters of romance without bringing sorrow to her mother. Nor can she exalt in herself—as girls are wont to do—as the product of an epic love, because by now she has become the opposite: the animating force of a great enmity, the only reason these feuding adults are forced to contend with one another. And now, as she casts around in her girlish way for a model on which to shape her own dream of marriage and enduring love, she must look elsewhere. Her own home—that contested piece of property, subject to her father’s mood and her mother’s caprice—can offer her nothing.