Vicarious living is a zero sum game you’ll always lose. You cannot outsource the responsibility of manifesting yourself in the world.
When my mother told my father to leave the house as my stunned kid sisters and I looked on, I blasted Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in my head.
My father, a lawyer, was “borrowing” money—again. And not just from friends and relatives, but from clients this time. He hated practicing law, but his pipedream to write stories wouldn’t compensate the piano teacher or the housekeeper or the private school. So he asked Peter to pay them. Then found Paul to pay Peter.
Eventually, he couldn’t find anybody to pay Paul. It turned out there were a lot of Pauls.
I was 12. “Rhapsody in Blue,” with that wailing clarinet, was my favorite composition among countless second-place pieces. If I could submerge myself into the texture of the music, it would absorb my terror over my family’s crumbling. And I could survive.
Survive I did, but only by expanding my repertoire: I needed musical depth and variety to absorb the noise of all the things breaking in my world. Dad had to surrender his law license. My mother’s rage was molten. Divorce, of course. Then two moves in three years. When I left for college, I said goodbye to a family that had become a cave of deficit. My future was submerged in my parents’ shadows. Yet I found if I immersed myself in, say, the labyrinth of Bach’s fugues, the unspooling melodies and clockwork rhythm would regulate my anxiety.
By the age of 18, I had so many soundtracks in my head I was desperate to release them, to try playing myself. I fell for the oboe, the clarinet’s queen bee older sister, this high maintenance instrument owing to the double reed you must make from scratch. But never mind, its rich expressive sound hooked me. I rented a beginner model instrument and found a teacher. I was clueless about everything—how to breathe right, make reeds, and play in an ensemble—but something mysterious was at stake. I had to try.
I could practice all day along. But performing? I was as nervous and self-conscious as if Mozart himself were eavesdropping. To stand in public was to radiate shame.
But I still kept at it, even going to music school eventually.
A decade after I played my first note, I met a trumpet player at a music camp. His seduction of me took 10 minutes. Rugged, handsome, and strutting, he was both lion and peacock—and tall, with a talent to match his height. Our first date lasted all night, wrapping up under the grand piano on the stage of the performance space. Our fast-track intimacy found expression in a place designated for public exposure. Was there a more perfect analogue to the dynamic of performing music?
But oh, the danger of succumbing to someone who has what you can’t admit you need or want. He could manifest what he loved without shadows or shame or disclaimers. Listen to me, his presence demanded. And at 28, he pursued a future he envisioned for himself with the surefootedness that he pursued me. Some weeks after we got together, he auditioned for and won the job of principal trumpet for an orchestra in the capital city of a Canadian prairie province.
In the remaining month we had, I was drafted to help him move. Loving him, loving music—I was in a surround-sound world of yearning: for him, for his abilities, for the music he’d perform. Yet as a designated lieutenant, my own authority quietly leached away, my initial submission morphing into sublimation. It was all so easy, like water evaporating, and there I was, falling into the ancient female narrative of self-contraction before a powerful man.
In the U-Haul, he did not pack a commitment to me. He was moving, he said. And moving on.
But I hadn’t. My attachment to him was too dense, too complicated, which is why I stayed connected with him through five years, through my marriage two years later, then his marriage a few years after mine. But when he revealed a desire for “irresponsibility,” and independence I walked away, horrified by his flippancy.
Clarity and closure would remain elusive.
But two decades later, with the force of a memory suddenly recovered, I felt compelled to find him. Coincidentally, my father, at 82, declared he was destitute and a month away from homelessness, his old shadow stalking me as I sought a reconnection with my old lover. A random coincidence? I was determined to understand, finally, why the trumpeter kept in touch with me when he’d “moved on” and why—when I was happily married, had a livelihood teaching, was playing my oboe again after a decade of silence—did I even care? Had I been living a diminished life having once let his cause supplant my own?
I found him easily. He was still in Canada. As I’d predicted, he’d separated, and yes, he’d managed the tightrope of performing in the hot seat all these years.
The intervening decades dissolved. Eventually, I became his confidant, even helping him navigate the thickets of a new relationship. For the first time, I delved deeply into the story of my family. We even met, secretly, so I could articulate face-to-face what I’d sacrificed to him, as I felt this would help me recover what of myself I’d lost.
Some months later, he revealed he’d been sharing our correspondence with the new girlfriend.
He wanted to know, was this OK? He hoped so—I was fascinating to her. As evidence, he returned to me one of my letters she’d read. What I saw literally took my breath away. She’d highlighted several paragraphs, then wrote questions and commentary throughout, all addressed to him, in effect using my words as “psych porn” to stimulate their faltering intimacy. Clearly, he had no idea of the depth of his betrayal.
So fool me twice, shame on me.
I would need two years to find some peace with why I trusted him and to grieve my folly of having invested my worth in someone who could turn my investment into junk bond status.
Yet there’s a coda.
Four years later, last summer, he contacted me out of the blue. To apologize! Nostalgia and regret led him to redress what he’d done, he said, and immediately, he was writing as if nothing had happened. But three weeks later, he revealed his big news: He’d just gotten married to a Chinese woman he’d met on an Asian dating site. She was still living in China, had limited English skills, and no knowledge of music.
I needed a day to realize that he’d summoned me—someone he knew had adored him for 30 years—back into his life to serve him yet again, to help fill the gaps in his unfathomable marriage to an email-order bride.
If I harbored any lingering grief, this revelation resolved all loose ends. And finally, I learned what my family of origin could not teach me: Vicarious living is a zero sum game you’ll always lose. You cannot outsource the responsibility of manifesting yourself in the world. The trumpeter couldn’t give me courage. He couldn’t help me express my musical voice or forge a path to separate my journey from that of my parents. I had to cross those lonesome valleys by myself.
I wrote back with a message he’d never heard from me, using the most affirmative two letters in the language: No. Not this time. And never again.
Eden Elieff is a writer and teacher living in Dallas with her husband and daughter. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines throughout the country.