By Molly Roden Winter
More than Stewart, my new boyfriend Nik was like my father. Nik had an air of impeccability about him. Nik was a jack of all trades. But unlike my dad, one of those trades was technology. In fact, Nik’s favorite book of all time was about the early days of the tech industry—Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. I had read a couple of Kidder’s other books—Among Schoolchildren when I started teaching, and House when Stewart and I renovated our Brooklyn brownstone. I knew Kidder could make any subject fascinating.
“I’d like to read it,” I said to Nik after he told me about it.
“Really?” he asked, his face registering surprise. “I have a stack of them at home. I try to give them away all the time, but nobody ever wants to read about computers.”
“I do,” I said. He brought me a copy on our next date.
“When I was in my twenties, I wanted to be Tom West,” Nik explained. This made me even more interested.
The Soul of a New Machine was written in 1981. It chronicles the story of a Massachusetts tech company—back when MIT and Harvard were major drivers of that scene—as they attempted to create a new computer. Tom West was the engineer behind the operation, and I pored over the book for details that would reveal something about Nik. At the end of chapter one, West was described as “a good man in a storm.” I made a mental note.
My dad was also a good man in a storm. He was smart, level-headed, capable. He knew how to frame a house, how to till a field, how to build his own banjo. He could clearly explain the origins of World War I, or the politics of the Balkans, or the solar system. But he could not use a computer.
Since I stopped teaching in 2012, I had been working for my dad, writing curriculum for history and English teachers with him for the company he’d cofounded in his “retirement.” In recent years, the materials had been put into a digital format, and my father was stymied. The business he’d helped to create now lay beyond his grasp.
I tried to help him. Put the cursor in the little rectangle at the top, Dad. And now type the web address. You don’t have to type www anymore. Never mind. Go ahead. But there was a mental block that always prevented him from proceeding to the next level—the one right above knowing that this machine was called a computer. His questions always came back to the same theme.
“How does it work?” he wanted to know.
“It doesn’t matter, Dad,” I answered.
“It matters to me.”
The book I held in my hands—The Soul of a New Machine—got at the very heart of what my dad desired to understand. How did a computer actually work? I decided to loan him my copy when I was finished with it.
My chance arrived sooner than I expected. My father and I were writing a new curriculum unit together, and he wanted to visit a museum in Connecticut that held some relevant information. I knew that most of what he wanted to know could be found with a thorough internet search, but I also knew he was not to be dissuaded from his old-school research methods. I would pick him up from the airport in Westchester and we’d drive up to Connecticut together, spending the night before visiting the museum the next day. I packed an overnight bag and brought the book along with me to give to him.
We checked into our hotel and headed to a diner a couple blocks away. My dad smiled and nodded approvingly as we entered the restaurant. Red checkered tablecloths, beer taps at the bar, historic photographs of Old Stamford on the walls—these were the markers of his kind of place.
“Perfect,” my father said with a contented sigh as we took our seats in a booth. “Not too fancy.”
I ordered the salmon and rice special—“not too fancy” meant there were very few gluten-free options for me on the menu. My dad ordered a burger and fries and a beer.
“Get some wine,” he encouraged. “You don’t have to drive anymore tonight.”
“Okay,” I said, and asked for a glass of the house red. When it arrived at the table, my dad inquired if I wanted an ice cube for it.
“No thanks,” I answered, smiling sympathetically at the waiter.
During dinner, my father and I spoke easily about a range of topics—the questions he had for our research trip the next day, my mother’s health, how the kids were doing in school. It wasn’t until our second round of drinks arrived that I suddenly remembered the book.
“Oh, Dad,” I said, rifling through my bag, “I have something for you.”
I pulled out the paperback and handed it to him. “I just finished it, and I think you’ll love it. It’s about computers. You know Tracy Kidder, right?”
My father took his glasses from his shirt pocket and put them on. He looked carefully at the front cover. “I love Tracy Kidder,” he said, turning the book over. He read the back cover as I watched in silence. My father developed personal relationships with books. When he was introduced to one, he couldn’t be rushed. He liked to cultivate a thorough first impression.
“This looks wonderful,” he finally said. “It’s one of Kidder’s early works, right?”
“He won the Pulitzer Prize for it,” I added.
“Really? I didn’t know that.” My dad continued to turn the book over thoughtfully in his hands. “How did you come to read it? Did someone recommend it to you?”
I paused and took another sip of wine. I hadn’t planned on telling my father about Nik. In fact, I hadn’t planned on ever talking about open marriage with my father—either his or my own. I assumed my mother told him about our initial conversation, the one we had after my oldest son was born and I first confronted her about the “affair.” But I’d asked her not to tell my dad anything about me, about my marriage. It felt like a topic outside the purview of dads and daughters, and I was afraid it would make him uncomfortable.
“I think he could handle it,” my mother had said. “But I won’t say a word if you’d rather I didn’t.”
My mom was a vault. If she’d promised not to tell, I knew she never would. It would be up to me.
My options flitted across my mind as I felt my face get hot. I could simply tell my dad I had a friend who worked in the tech industry. I could leave it at that. But when would I get another opportunity? When would I find myself alone with my father, drinking wine across a table from him? When would I get an opening like this to divulge something of myself?
I remembered an episode from my freshman year of college. I had called my father from my dorm room to give him the good news—another semester of straight As.
“That’s great,” he said, sounding distracted. Invariably, calls to my dad left me feeling like I had interrupted something. He was watching the game, doing some writing, mowing the lawn. Phone calls were ways to disseminate information, not a time for emotional exchanges. An “I love you” on my end was met with “yup” on his. “Bye, Dad” was answered with “Very good!” After I converted to Judaism, I heard a joke that partially explained my father’s style of leave-taking: Goyim leave without saying goodbye, the joke goes, and Jews say goodbye without leaving.
I didn’t know what I had interrupted my father in the middle of this time, but I felt his familiar rush to get off the phone.
“Well, that’s all I wanted to tell you,” I said.
“Very good,” he answered, hanging up.
I stood holding the receiver for a moment, stunned, and then slammed it down, boiling over with anger. My father never called me at school—I always had to call him. I also thought about the perfect report cards I’d earned every semester in high school and long before, report cards I ran home to intercept in the mailbox before my sister saw them. She teased me mercilessly about my good grades, calling me a geek and a loser, and I feigned shame in her presence. But deep down, I knew the truth. In hiding my As, I wasn’t protecting myself from her mockery; I was protecting her from my success. By never discussing my grades in front of Carey, my parents upheld this tacit understanding: I must do all I could to avoid feeding the flames that threatened to swallow my sister whole. Even on her good days, Carey’s self-loathing loomed just below the surface.
And what did all those As mean to my father anyway? Absolutely nothing. My success hardly even registered.
Before thinking through exactly what I would say, I picked up the phone again and banged out my home number, the familiar jumble of fours and sevens.
My dad picked up after the first ring.
“It’s me again,” I said, trying to harden my voice as a preview of the tongue-lashing to come.
“What’s up?” To my ears, he sounded ready to dash away again to another important item on his to-do list, certainly more important than a second call from his second daughter.
I spoke quickly, before I lost him to whatever else held his interest, before I lost my own nerve. I was not accustomed to getting angry at either of my parents, at least not in a way that I actively felt and expressed.
“Do you even care that I got straight As?” I asked accusingly. “What would you have said if I had gotten all Cs?”
“I’d say it was the best thing that ever happened to you,” he replied without missing a beat.
In that moment, I began to realize the extent to which I misunderstood my father—as well as how little I understood myself. All of my performing, my success, my achieving and overachieving—I realized I had done it to win his approval. But had it all been for nothing? Was I going about everything the wrong way? If good grades didn’t make him proud of me, what could I do, actually do, to win his ever-elusive attentions?
“You put too much pressure on yourself,” he continued. “Make sure you don’t waste your college experience with too much studying.”
He went on, telling me once again about his favorite experiences at Yale—volunteering with the boys’ club at the YMCA in New Haven—and waxing poetic about his time in the Peace Corps in Nigeria. The things in life beyond school, the things that truly mattered.
By the time I hung up the phone, I was in a fog, unable to get my bearings. I was a good student. Fine. But that meant very little, I suddenly understood. Instead of my father’s motivational speech taking the pressure off, it had filled me with dread.
I knew how to get good grades. But I knew nothing of the world, nothing of myself, nothing about the hidden places in my father’s heart where I might find refuge.
At the restaurant that evening, I decided to tell my father about Nik. I wasn’t cheating with another woman’s husband. I wasn’t with another man to get back at Stew or to fill an empty void within myself. I was dating a man I not only loved, but respected. I was paying closer attention to my relationships in a way that was leading me to better know myself. In other words, in all the years since we had opened our marriage, this was the first time I felt good about what I was doing and how I was doing it. This was the first time I felt my father would approve of the way Stewart and I were conducting our open marriage experiment.
“Well, Dad,” I began. “The person who recommended this book is actually part of a much larger conversation . . .”
“Really?” My father laughed nervously. He could sense that something personal was about to be revealed, and he took another sip of beer.
“His name is Nik, and he’s my boyfriend. Stew and I have an open marriage, too. Like you and Mom.”
“Ohhhhh . . .” my father said, extending the single syllable from a high to low pitch in the way I sometimes did when receiving new information. When I did this, I sounded so much like my dad that Stewart teasingly called me Phil.
My father avoided my eyes as I began to talk, concentrating on the bottom of his pint of beer. I talked about Nik, about how my marriage with Stewart had evolved and deepened over the years. As I spoke, I saw my dad’s shoulders start to relax. After a few minutes, his eyes met mine, and he talked, too. He talked about his commitment to my mother, about his deep belief in marriage as an institution, but one that could be molded to different purposes. We spoke mostly in generalities and stayed on the periphery of what was most personal. But our talk still felt revelatory and affirming. We were two adults, talking about adult things.
“When you see those stupid daytime shows and they talk about cheating like it’s the worst thing in the world, it gets me so mad,” he said. “Just communicate with each other for god’s sake! If you’re committed, you’ll talk it out.” About his own relationships with women outside the marriage, he spoke only in vague terms, bookending with comments like, “That was a long time ago” or “It was the ’70s, you know.”
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder. My mother was always careful to keep our discussions focused on her own experiences, but she had inadvertently leaked an important clue about my dad during one of our conversations: “Philip had a few relationships with women I knew—at least as acquaintances—and that was hard for me.”
Women she knew . . . That probably meant I knew them too, right? Women from the neighborhood? Mothers of my sister’s friends, or mine?
“You know,” my dad said as we waited for the check, the beer making him chatty, “one of the nicest things about open marriage is the friendships I still have with women I used to see romantically. It’s completely platonic now, of course. But once you’ve been intimate with someone, there’s a closeness that lasts.” He smiled, more to himself than to me. “I like that.”
I started thinking about who among his female friends might be contenders but decided not to pursue it. This was by far the most personal conversation we’d ever had in my forty-five years on the planet. Better not to push it. Besides, he deserved a secret or two, just as I wouldn’t tell my children everything, even when they were old enough to handle it.
Certain secrets don’t need to be told. Certain secrets are too precious to entrust to anyone else—simply because they will never be fully understood. Sharing riddles of the heart is like playing a high-stakes game of Telephone. The moment you try to put a feeling into words, to communicate it to someone else, the truth of it can become diluted. And each time it transfers from mouth to ear, more of the lifeblood drains out, pinking up the water.
Besides, nobody really wants to know everyone else’s secrets. We’re too busy holding on to our own.
Molly Roden Winter (Wheel of Fortune champ ’93) comes from good Midwestern stock and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and teenage sons. She is at work on a memoir about two generations of open marriage—her own and her parents’. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @mollyrwinter or her website mollyrodenwinter.com.
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