Fettuccine and Forgiveness

By Erica HellerDecember 19, 2022

Fettuccine and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.
— Corinne Edwards, after Gerald Jampolsky

I NEARLY CHOKED on my fettuccine.

My fork fell into the bowl with an unintended clatter. It was gray and raw outside, a weekday in January 2000. As I recall, we were the only ones lunching at a trendy spaghetti joint on 9th Avenue in the 50s, near my companion’s apartment, known for its gargantuan portions and 1956 prices. It boasted polished wooden floors and, studding the brick walls, huge plaster replicas of every shape of pasta illuminated from behind. I wasn’t particularly hungry. Yet here I was, I thought just for lunch, not to have my world set frantically spinning on its axis.

I was in something of a stupor. It had been a time of tremendous upheaval. I had gotten married to a Dutch artist six weeks prior. Two weeks later, my father had suddenly dropped dead of a massive heart attack. He and I were not speaking at the time. Our relationship had always been strained, painful, and unsatisfying. Still, I’d felt clobbered over the head by the shock of such a sudden death, and heavily encumbered with ambivalence. Mingle death and irresolution and you’ll have a sloppy, sticky mess every time. Small, quizzical ripples of sorrow found me at the oddest, most unexpected moments.

My lunch companion was an old family friend. Her name wasn’t Joan, so let’s call her that. She had called to take me to lunch, I’d assumed to share her grief at my father’s passing. Then again, it might have been to dangle before me the dazzling promise of some high-paying, low-effort, ill-fated freelance writing job. This she’d done every few years since I was an adult; by now I expected nothing.

Joan was a celebrity journalist who had attended NYU with my father. Many years later, she’d lived and worked in the United Kingdom for 12 minutes and returned with — and kept — an accent to put the late queen to shame. She was big, boisterous, and always decked out like a Christmas tree, with a perennial smudge of lipstick on her teeth. Her ego was massive.

When I was a kid, my family spent glorious summers on Fire Island, mostly in Seaview, and Joan and her family rented a house just a few blocks away. When I was little, let’s say nine, I thought she was exotic, bohemian. She had three gangly, humorless children, studious overachievers, whose lives were very different from my own. Often, they had hot dogs and orange soda for breakfast. I was terribly jealous, coming as I did from a strictly cornflakes household. For Joan’s kids, there were no such things as bedtimes or curfews. They were left mostly alone, apparently gifted at amusing themselves.

When I was 10, my mother told me that Joan was in an open marriage with her lanky, preppy sportscaster husband; at the time, I couldn’t imagine what that might mean. I only observed that he wasn’t around a lot. Even as a kid I knew that Joan wore too much perfume, laughed a bit too loudly, and seemed not to like my mother very much. I realized later that this was because my mother was very beautiful and almost fiendishly witty without even trying. Joan was neither, although she ceaselessly worked at both.

At the time of our lunch, I had barely recovered from my dad’s funeral, a Fellini circus that still short-circuits my brain 23 years later. In the few discussions we’d ever had touching on death, my father had always expressed a strong desire to be cremated. So, imagine my surprise, tinged with horror, when I entered a crowded, noisy SRO Guild Hall in East Hampton for his service, with my new Dutch husband, and was faced with a casket festooned with an American flag. (Guild Hall is East Hampton’s stately gathering place for the community to which my father belonged in his last years. It is a museum, theater, funeral venue, and education center.) This tableau, the whole of it, was so anti–Joe Heller that I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. I felt I was in perhaps another universe. This feeling only deepened as the service — which I found out later was arranged, soup to nuts, by my father’s second wife and the VA, meaning there was no charge — proceeded. The event was pure theater, the kind of spectacle one lives to forget.

Arriving slightly late, I was somehow crammed into the front row, next to Wife Number Two. We loathed each other. The service began with a series of readings from Catch-22 that she’d chosen, none of which had anything to do with life, death, or anything pertinent. Even the friends reading the passages seemed not to know why. Listening respectfully, the crowd began to squirm with bewilderment. Next, my cousin took the podium. He was a former Hollywood agent, run out of showbiz by a string of sexual harassment suits, who took the opportunity to briefly glorify his uncle, but primarily to announce the Chinese restaurant he’d recently opened in Los Angeles, extolling the virtues of its cuisine, giving special attention to the restaurant’s chicken and chive dumplings. At this point, I began to cry quietly, and my father’s wife gave me a swift kick in the shins to shush me. If I could have strangled her, I happily would have, but the day wasn’t about me. Or her.

There were no threnodies from me or my brother. We were never asked. The last thing I remember is the hall emptying out and Mel Brooks screaming at my father’s internist, accusing him of malpractice, asking where he’d gone to med school and if he was a real doctor or just some “stupid schmuck” with a bogus license. When Mel’s shouting ceased, the assemblage headed to the cemetery for the burial.

Knowing this tawdry spectacle was something my father would never have tolerated, I didn’t go to the cemetery, haven’t gone, and probably never will. Instead, my husband and I drove around the surrounding villages in a friend’s blindingly bright, French’s Yellow Mustard–colored Chrysler Sebring Convertible, with the top down and the freezing wind whipping us about. I took my husband to see what had been my mother’s cherished house in Bridgehampton. By then, she had been gone five years, and it was the second time that day that I became a weepy, pitiful mess.

We ended up back at my father’s house, now the Widow Heller’s, for a bit of chatter and chow. Person after person approached me, sheepishly expressing how aghast they were at the service. Were we to be served my cousin’s dumplings, or US Military Surplus MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat), courtesy of the VA? We didn’t stay long enough to find out. Instead, we left after about 10 minutes and headed back to the city, still dazed from the resonating dissonance of the funeral. All that had been missing from this carnival of absurdity had been the roller coaster and cotton candy.


As for my lunch with she who is not Joan, I arrived a bit early. She was already there, sipping a glass of red wine and trying to flirt with a waiter who was a third her age and half her size. We greeted each other warmly as I sat down to peruse the menu. As soon as we began devouring our steaming plates of alla gomma pasta — and after a quick bit of badinage, not enough to ease my rocky landing — she cleared her throat and insouciantly announced: “I had a 35-year affair with your father.”

I giggled nervously, startled. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

“Because you’re old enough to know,” she said, as she tore ferociously into a piece of bread and proceeded to tell me where their favorite trysting spots had been, and to eradicate any pleasant memories of Life with Father, of which there were precious few.

On Sundays when I was growing up, our family custom was to sprawl out on our parents’ bed and make our way through The New York Times for hours while stuffing ourselves with the bagels and lox Dad brought home from Zabar’s. I recalled these occasions as perhaps our family’s most relaxed, happiest moments.

“Remember Sundays, when Joe would go to Zabar’s?” Joan asked. “The reason he took so long getting home was because he always stopped off at my place.” From there, she told me that, when I was about 15, Dad had begged her to please take me in, his pouting, miserable daughter, and finish raising me, but my mother had gone wild, strenuously objecting.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, nor could I believe the casual sadism of the woman whose mouth was still moving, talking as she plundered her boatload of cannelloni, a trickle of marinara sauce on her chin.

I tried to filter out the brassy sound and implications of her words. Why I continued to sit there I will never know. Perhaps because I was so catastrophically stunned. True, my father had been an Olympian womanizer and had cunningly tormented my mother with evidence of this for many years, but with Joan? Was it possible that he’d actually been keen to just hand me over to her like some neatly wrapped package of Zabar’s rich, velvety sablefish? As she babbled on with her favorite anecdotes about their long, passionate affair, pelting me with torrents of stinging hail, I felt chilly runnels of sweat start to trickle down my back. I wanted to leave, to be immediately anywhere else, but my legs were leaden. I couldn’t move.

For anyone who’s read Dad’s book Something Happened, a savage, snarling evisceration of our family, both collectively and individually, it should be no surprise that he and I had a fractious, doomed, exhausting relationship. As if I’d needed confirmation of that, I had only to turn to Lynn Barber’s hair-raising interview with him from 1998, published in The Guardian. “I don’t do children,” he’d announced to her, boastfully, and he wasn’t kidding. Our life both together and apart, during those times when he’d exile me for years without explanation or discussion, was a minefield of opportunities for him to crush any tender bud of self-confidence I might try to nurture. He didn’t have low expectations for me; he had no expectations. I was such a terrible disappointment that he just couldn’t seem to suppress the anger and annoyance this caused him. I won’t ever know why.

What I do know is that when I was five, he sat me down to impress upon me the facts that I’d never be happy, that life was more pain than fun, that people were disappointing, that I should never expect to like any of the jobs I’d have and should also not expect anyone to ever love me. At 15, he told me that if I ever got married, he’d pay me $10,000 to elope. At 16, he informed me that his “work” at being a father was pretty much done.

In 1974, when Something Happened was published, Dad’s good friend Kurt Vonnegut reviewed it for the Sunday New York Times (nepotism be damned!). Vonnegut wrote that the book’s most memorable, mournful speech was about the protagonist’s daughter. “There was a cheerful baby girl in a high chair in my house once,” he says, “who ate and drank with a hearty appetite and laughed a lot with spontaneous zest: she isn’t here now; and there is no trace of her anywhere.”

I believe now that my greatest faux pas with Dad was growing up. Once I was older, I presented him with various dilemmas, issues, troubles — as daughters do. I was a typically surly, sulking teenager, but that wasn’t the problem. It was my distracting him from himself that proved the unpardonable crime. He resented anything, particularly anything unpleasant, that in any way jolted or hijacked his attention away from himself.

I’d seldom seen my father vulnerable. In 1977, he’d wept, uncontrollably, almost operatically, at the funeral of his dear friend, the author James Jones. When my family’s Bedlington Terrier, his favorite family dog, died, my mother opened the door of a coat closet one morning soon after and found him sobbing inside. And then there was the real killer. Dinner at Café des Artistes, just a few months before he died. The last time I saw him. He was there to meet the Dutchman I was marrying shortly. After coffee, his usual gravelly, growly voice gave way to dulcet, almost honeyed tones, and he actually teared up when speaking about my mother, who had died four years before, telling us both that, without question, she had been the great love of his life. He seemed lost in wistful memories.

And now he was gone, and I was Joan’s hostage as she babbled on about their clandestine moments. Finally, a buzzer sounded in my brain, rousing me from my torpor. I came to. I stood up and asked her, or rather barked: “Look, do I have any sisters or brothers I don’t know about?” She seemed amused as she calmly dragged another hunk of bread slowly through the shallow bath of marinara left in her bowl and said, “No.” With that, I threw on my coat, forgot my gloves, and left the restaurant, banging the carved, heavy wooden door behind me. Under a gloomy, punishing January sky filled with the damp smell of approaching snow, I walked the 30 blocks home in a kind of zombified, muddled trance.

When I arrived home, I headed straight for the phone, even before removing my coat. The first person I called was my father’s oldest and dearest friend, George, a writer and painter. They’d grown up together in Coney Island, and he’d also attended NYU with my father and Joan. He knew my father far better than my father knew himself. If you wanted the truth, unvarnished and unadorned, George was your man. He might break your heart with it, but you never doubted its veracity.

I dispensed with any formalities and asked him immediately about the decades-long love affair between my father and Joan. He began laughing, giggling uproariously, even wheezing, his laughter piercing some upper octave I’d never heard from him before. Then George told me that ever since the three of them had been students at NYU, my father had detested this woman, would run from her at parties, never take her calls, and avoided her in any and all ways possible. He couldn’t stop laughing.

“Look, I’ve never told you your dad was an altar boy, but Joan …?”

“Are you sure you just didn’t know about it?”

“I knew about everyone and everything. Mikki [George’s wife] and I were once at a Christmas party sometime in the ’70s when we saw Joan come in. Joe asked the host if there was a back way out. Luckily there was, and the four of us grabbed our coats and fled, tiptoeing like morons down a fire escape, desperate to get away from her.”

“Then how could she tell me such a story?”

“Because among her many other unappealing traits, she is a pathological liar. Always has been. She was besotted with Joe and could never accept that he screwed around with everyone but not with her, but for her to tell you this …” And with that, he was lost again in gales of uncontrollable laughter.

A few days later, I called another of my parents’ closest and oldest friends, one of only a handful of women my father had totally respected and considered a peer. What she thought of him had even mattered to him; in fact, he’d always seemed even a tiny bit afraid of her. She’d been my mother’s closest confidante, and her husband Fred was very, very close to my father. Before college, while I’d still been living at home, we’d gone every year to visit her family for Thanksgiving. Dolores was Italian and cooked like a madwoman. One year, we were suddenly not invited. When Dad asked why, Dolores told him that, since he’d become so rich and famous, and too good for his old crowd, he had changed a lot and she didn’t like him very much. “Joe, if I wanted to invite Sinatra, I would’ve invited Sinatra.” The following year we were back at her holiday table.

Like George, Dolores was a straight shooter. Very wise, blunt, and acutely alert. When I called her that day to ask about my father and Joan, she was, like George, in hysterics before I could even get to the end of my question. “Oh, that woman was always crazy. She told you that?” She was positively incredulous. Soon her laughter turned to anger, and she began to pepper me with questions. “Do you actually think Joe would’ve given you away for someone else to raise? Do you really believe he would’ve been involved with someone like that? Joe couldn’t stand her. How could she lie to you like that? The only reason your parents were even still in touch with her was that your mother felt Joan was lonely, losing her marbles, and that it wasn’t right to abandon an old friend. If it had been up to Joe, she would have been out of their lives ages ago. I can’t even tell you how preposterous this all is!”

I hung up and sat quietly for a time. Suddenly, a giant swell of tenderness for my father, a tidal wave of protectiveness washed over me, deep enough to drown in. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I could feel the tectonic plates shift beneath my feet. Where there had been a lifetime of bristly thorns, the bloody prick of needles, the barbed slap and sting of cultivated, continuous animosity, now there was only a quiet sadness for all that had been and now could never be. How supremely odd it felt, this sudden onrush of warmth, kindness, and benevolence for my father: a helpless, almost maternal love for him unleashed, a tsunami of empathy strong enough to wash away houses, roads, generations.

When you are famous and you’re dead, all sorts of scoundrels can come along with outrageous claims about you, soiling your legacy and reputation with their wet, muddied paws.

I cried a child’s tears for my father then, tears certainly freighted with more love than any I had shed during his lifetime or since his death. These new feelings shook me and stayed with me, like a fever. This sudden, overpowering, gentle mercy for him short-circuited and zapped my strength; bitter memories were painted over with a wash of lambent watercolors that were, essentially, forgiveness. All of the encouragement he never offered, the love he never proffered, the scorn that came in so many sizes and shapes and was brutish and unrelenting, even the systematic, barbaric cruelty he had used to try to destroy my loyal, trusting mother, somehow just faded like a cheap, greasily applied suntan. Could a lifetime of vitriol just leak away, drain out of you, like oil from a car?

I had never felt anything like this for my father before, and chances were I’d probably never feel it again. But as it turned out, all it had taken to loosen the knot of my lifelong standoff with him had been a bowl of gummy fettuccine, the fanciful delusions of a nasty imposter, the soothing words and exuberant laughter of two very old and treasured friends, and, of course, a heart that, unbeknownst to me, had swung wide open the moment he was gone.


Erica Heller is the editor, most recently, of One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much to Us, as well as the author of the memoir Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad and Life Was a Catch-22; a novel, Splinters; and 300 Ways to Say No to a Man, a humor book illustrated by Seymour Chwast. She has contributed to the New York Observer, Huffington Post, and other publications, and her most recent book.


Featured image: Arthur Dove. “Over the Harbor, Centerport,” 1942. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Edith S. and Arthur J. Levin. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed November 18, 2022.

LARB Contributor

Erica Heller is the editor, most recently, of One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much to Us, as well as the author of the memoir Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad and Life Was a Catch-22; a novel, Splinters; and 300 Ways to Say No to a Man, a humor book illustrated by Seymour Chwast. She has contributed to the New York Observer, Huffington Post, and other publications.


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