The Dinosaurs Are Breeding

by Lesley Wheeler

On top, my baby picture: a seven-month-old leaning forward on her hands, studying the camera with serious eyes. Concealed behind it, a different shot of the same baby squinting up at the sun. There’s a rip, a stripped patch of white in the sky. Behind that, a third photograph of my young father on a brilliant spring day, seated in a garden, his wavy black hair glossed with Brylcreem. On his lap are two blond children, a girl of maybe three and an older boy whom I have never seen, although I know the old photo albums by heart. They do not resemble me, my father, or each other.

The archaeological dig leading to this find requires prying open the clips on the back of a picture frame. The sharp metal tear-drops have rusted stiff. I push them first with my fingers and then with the top of an eraserless pencil, because I am a curious, stubborn eldest child with a sense of entitlement. I was born to conduct research.

I trot downstairs with the evidence. Late afternoons, my mother sits at the kitchen island reading and listening to country radio, intermittently standing to stir a pot or peel potatoes. She’s alone, my sister and brother occupied somewhere. My mother can always be counted on to tell a story.

She hesitates this time, turning over the possibilities, because this tale isn’t in her repertoire. You must never tell your father, she finally begins.

Thirty years later, in the house my parents retired to, I settle in to watch Jurassic Park with my blond children, a girl of thirteen and a younger boy. My father, whose walk is now shaky, summons me into his study. He asks if I know about Charles, his son from his first marriage. This is pretense. He and I rarely speak about anything important but I do remember when he visited me as an undergraduate, carrying expensive gifts. My mother had revealed his past, telling lies about me, and he was furious. Now I am surprised that my father, who has always been either coolly rational or twisted with anger, seems emotional. His pale eyes are watery and he rubs his skull’s thin bristle of crew-cut silver.

There’s a bond you have with your first child, especially a son, that goes much deeper than I thought, he says. After forty-four years he has contacted the freckly boy in the hidden picture, and Charles has written back, and they have spoken by phone. Your mother told me not to call, that he didn’t want to hear from me, but he did. She said it’s different when the child is adopted, but it’s exactly the same. A very deep bond.

I can hear chords of disaster rising from the TV room.

My father is a civil engineer who grew up in Brooklyn, shipped out in a submarine to the Pacific just as World War Two was ending, attended Dartmouth on the GI Bill for accelerated Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and married my mother when he was forty. The gap between university, where he had resented rich kids whose car horns played the college song, and his rapid romance with my younger mother, an émigré from England, had never attracted my notice.

During that time he worked for a company on Long Island, where he fell in love with the boss’ daughter, Roseanne. Sicilian, my mother whispers. On their wedding night, Roseanne admitted that she could not bear children. When she was a teenager, her mother fell ill with uterine cancer and Roseanne’s father arranged for mother-daughter hysterectomies. This could not possibly be true. My mother must have said something else and, at twelve, this was the distorted way I understood it. In any case, my father was disappointed—they had spoken often, after all, about their mutual desire for children—but they immediately began the process of adoption. They eventually adopted a boy then, a few years later, a baby girl.

Meanwhile, my father continued to work for Roseanne’s father, and they battled. Your father is an honest man, my mother says. He took his job very seriously—our American way of life depended on the water he helped make clean and safe—and fought bitterly with all his co-workers. During this era of my childhood, he comes in at five-thirty and walks straight to the martini shaker, needing at least half an hour to shout about the idiots at the office. My sister and I eat our dinners from trays, pounding upstairs to our rooms as soon as we hear the garage door open.

As soon as the second adoption was complete, his wealthy and controlling boss put a long-term plot into action to destroy my father’s always-rocky marriage. Roseanne was a screamer like your father, my mother says, perhaps rolling her eyes. Roseanne had a secret bank account, using the funds her father supplied to shop for luxuries. Now the autocrat threatened to cut her off unless she sued for divorce. The alimony was steep, leaving my father only ten dollars a month to live on, although Roseanne was independently wealthy, with multiple homes and servants. He was only allowed to visit his children on Sundays, and he could only see baby Elizabeth in her mother’s Queens apartment for an hour or so.

My father was active in politics and had some connections, but when he met with his lawyer, the other man winced and shook his head. A done deal, he told my father. The judge was bought off. No way around it.

Were they in the mob? I ask. This is the era of Godfather films. My mother shrugs knowingly.

The situation was very painful for your father, he was just heartbroken every time he saw them, and Roseanne was saying awful things about him to the children, and it was tearing Charles apart. Then your father and I met, and we wanted to marry and have children, but he didn’t have enough money. He went back to Roseanne and begged. She agreed to release him from the alimony payments only if he severed all contact with the children.

It was for the best.  

My parents travelled to El Paso, crossed the border to Ciudad Juárez to secure the divorce, and returned to El Paso for the required twenty-four-hour period. The next day they drove over the border again and were married. I never wanted a big wedding—waste of money. We forgot the ring, left it in the hotel in Texas.

Now I wonder: why would he be paying alimony before the divorce occurred? I must have mixed up the order of events. And the tale of my parents’ meeting on a blind date—how did that work, if my father was married to someone else?

In seventh grade, you learn the rudiments of Mendelian genetics. The teacher poses a problem: one parent has brown eyes with a recessive blue characteristic. One parent has blue. Depict the possible genetic inheritance of their offspring in a chart and discuss the mathematical probabilities.

My dark-eyed mother often lamented that none of her children inherited my father’s blue-gray shade. I am brown, my sister a greeny hazel, my brother brown. My sister’s large eyes with their complicated colors are the prettiest.

I start quizzing my parents on the eye colors of their parents and grandparents. My father’s genes are obvious, which means that when I marry a blue-eyed man, each of my children will have a fifty-percent chance of blue eyes too. But what secret, unexpressed allele might my mother have?

I bring my chart to my biology teacher, a genial older man. Richard Attenborough playing a curator of cloned dinosaurs. What about hazel? I ask.

There is no gene for hazel, he says. Just blue or brown.

But, I persist, my mother had a hazel-eyed parent and a brown-eyed parent, and there were four children: blue, hazel, brown, brown. That maps out perfectly if hazel is a separate gene that dominates when paired with blue, but is not expressed when paired with brown. My mother’s genes are brown and hazel, and that explains her children’s coloring. And what about violet like Elizabeth Taylor, or gray like Jane Eyre, or all the different shades of darkness?

Well, he confesses with a twinkly billionaire-showman look, that chart is really a simplification. Multiple genes control how eye color is expressed, so the probabilities are quite difficult to calculate.

My daughter was born with white stars in her velvet blue eyes—gray from a distance, but up close, bright spokes on a dark field. My son’s eyes are an intense, lively cerulean, increasingly tinged with green. My father’s genes, invisible in me, shining in my children.

And that’s all the inheritance you’ll get, my mother says in wry defeat.

While cunning velociraptors elicit screams from the other room, my father shows me the binder he has created about his long lost son. There is a glossy page of photos of Elizabeth with some basic data, but when I ask if he’ll contact her, he looks blank. My mother’s voice: the girl was just a baby, he hardly got to know her.

The binder looks professional, with straightforward fonts on neatly printed sheets in plastic sleeves—something an engineer would create for a presentation. 44th  Reunion, the cover reads.

It includes typed notes on their telephone conversations, which my father put on speaker phone and recorded. He presents copies of these documents the next morning, but I say no, thanks, to CDs of audio files. He shows me a blurry aerial photograph of a large house with a pool. Charles’ house, courtesy of Google Earth. The deed is also in the binder. Apparently my father has attended to his son’s doings for many years but only recently found a home address; having scruples about privacy, he wouldn’t send a personal letter to his son’s office.

Charles had inherited the family business. My father estimates his net worth as five million dollars. He’s tall, good-looking, with a good-looking wife. His writing is just all right but he’s very well-spoken. A salesman. Not the same kind of person as you and me.

The last comment startles me most, even more than my general amazement that my father would dig up this material and admit he has done so, even more than hearing another person described as his eldest child, a son. We are left-of-Obama Democrat and Limbaugh Republican; poet and engineer; mild-mannered eater of eggs from free-range hens and World War II veteran with few inhibitions on his temper. We are also well-educated, introverted, and passionate about our work. Is that how he thinks we are alike?

Before I return to that mist-shrouded island two hours west of Costa Rica to hear from Jeff Goldblum that life always finds a way, I ask if he thinks Charles would like to hear from me. Yes, my father says. After all, he is a sort of stepbrother to you. I’ve told him all about you, and sent him links to some of your better interviews.(“Better!” I contain a snort. He had never acknowledged my poetry but he tracks the publicity?) He’s attracted to your success, you know.

And he has a question for me. How do you think your sister and brother will react to this? My brother, well, I don’t know. My sister, when I tell her the next evening over wine, is shocked, talkative, full of questions, and then spends the night awake. She’s almost forty, with children roughly the ages of Charles and Elizabeth when my father signed away all visitation rights. Try to imagine yourself in the Cretaceous period. What would it be like to turn your back on them and start a new life?

I email Charles to express goodwill. I also want to probe a new source. My father’s father died before I was born, his mother when I was five. He had an older sister but they fought so acrimoniously over the estate that I never saw my aunt, uncle, or cousin again. My father pals around with bridge players at the senior center but doesn’t have friends even from the recent past.

I am starving for information about him that isn’t refracted through my mother, so I can triangulate, measure the stories I possess. I ask Charles what he remembers. What had my father been like as a younger man, before all that loss? What I mean but don’t say outright: was he always such an irritable, secretive, unhappy person?

Charles is friendly but doesn’t remember much. He expresses the same goodwill yet we don’t have much to say and the correspondence dries up. He does worry, honorably it seems to me, that his correspondence with my father is causing dissension between my parents. Oh, I answer blithely, there’s always dissension between my parents.

My husband, children, and I arrive in remote New Zealand, where giant poets roam in herds without any northern media noticing. I hold a Fulbright research fellowship for five months at Victoria University of Wellington, an urban campus set among steep hills that shudder with frequent earthquakes. We finally establish an internet connection at home during the middle of my February orientation week. When I log in that evening, an email from my mother is waiting. I discovered recently that your father has been having affairs with other women. He has moved out and I am going to seek a divorce. Please don’t tell anyone because I am afraid it could jeopardize our negotiations.

I cannot call—it’s three in the morning there—but I send a message to my sister. Her reply the next day informs me that my eighty-five-year-old father, a stooped, cancerous, diabetic survivor of a quadruple bypass who suffers from high blood pressure and gouty arthritis, has moved in with a forty-five-year-old elder care worker he met at the senior center.

I’m always looking for the future ex-Mrs. Malcolm.

Goldblum’s character resembles my father only in narcissism and, in the sequel, his use of a cane. I’m the one who wears Malcolm-ish quantities of black. I probably share my father’s blunted dopamine receptors, obsessiveness, novelty-seeking tendencies—the brain chemistry of a potential addict—but not his inability to imagine or credit other people’s emotions. Despite all my novel-reading, I came late to the realization that other people suffer and yearn as vividly as I do, but exited adolescence carrying that information deep in my cells.

There were clandestine accounts, evidenced by the checkbooks in his desk drawers, but all have been drained and closed. The tip-off was a withdrawal slip left on his desk: $20,000 from a bank my mother didn’t recognize. It didn’t take long to find his correspondence with other women. This cache of letters and receipts initiated a massive demolition and reconstruction job on almost all the stories she ever told about our family and herself. When my brother searched further, he discovered an incriminating record of risky investments and long cons. No savings remain.

To his latest girlfriend, a devout Catholic, my father claimed to be a man of God locked in a tragic marriage with a heartless, impious wife. My father railed about religion constantly. He told us many times that God was invented by human beings for fund-raising purposes and that no intelligent person could ever believe in such a patent, manipulative fiction. What contempt he must feel for this woman—his third wife. Most people would guess she’s the predator, clever girl. God help her, in the hands of an engineer.

To me, in vitriolic emails, he exposes my mother’s spendthrift habits. She and Obama conspired to defraud him. I ask him to stop. We disagree about the past but he is old and sick and after so many months away, I would like to visit him. He can’t stop. With blame and misinformation off the table, he can’t think of anything he’d like to say.

When my father visited me at university with two sharp-edged hundred dollar bills and a VCR still in its crate, he was furious. My mother sent me to college with bottles of vodka but also with the news that vulnerability to alcoholism is heritable. I hadn’t known the extent of my father’s drinking but once she revealed it, stray plot points clicked into place: how evening martinis gradually subdued his ranting, how he locked himself in his bedroom by seven and could not be disturbed, how I sometimes found him eating chocolate ice cream in a dark kitchen after midnight. He leaned over the table in cotton pajamas, bleary, shaking, and I would retreat softly up the stairs.

He took lithium after his first divorce but decided he was addicted and quit in favor of socially acceptable drugs. All drinking and his two-pack-a-day habit stopped after an episode of Bell’s palsy. When I was sixteen and he was in his late fifties, he trembled at that kitchen table for three months. My father didn’t stop drinking and smoking out of shame, remorse, or love. He was afraid of becoming extinct.

For a while I thought grief about the loss of his first family explained who he became. Then I thought it was alcohol. Now both seem to be turns in a larger narrative whose beginnings predate the memories of any survivor. His origin story can’t be learned, only invented.

He is Richard Attenborough, conning audiences with his flea circus. T. Rex, unable to see the humans unless they’re running away, ground rippling under his destructive rush. A canny raptor sending genes into the future—having conquered death once, determined to live forever.

We travel from New Zealand back to Virginia by way of Kaua’i, where Steven Spielberg shot much of his blockbuster. At the end, chastened survivors helicopter off-island and await sequels. We decide on a cheaper tour by Cessna, having read that the most dramatic scenery is hidden, virtually inaccessible. I want to witness and document preposterous landscapes, the reality behind film’s illusions. My spouse is sweaty with motion sickness so the camera is in my hands.

We swing south first. Over private land, the pilot points out Manawaiopuna, nicknamed Jurassic Falls after the movie, but it’s distant. In late afternoon, colors are deep, shadows stark. At another time, the island’s bones would be the same, but moods and hues would differ. We fly in and out of drizzle and see twenty rainbows, one of them a full circle. I wish we had time to kayak along the Nā Pali coast, judge it from a different angle, but this is our last day. No more misty, complicated islands. We’ll load all our baggage into a vastly larger plane, and my children will gaze at the green, brown, blue below us, and it will shrink in their eyes.