Years ago, my dad brought home a new friend from work, who completely undermined all of us. Of course, none of us suspected anything. The friend was just an intern, with some peculiar habits. I think the first time he met us, before a word was said, he hummed and whined whilst he thought of what to say. He was so slow. And tuneless!
But my shortsighted father had taken a shine to the intern. Perhaps it made my father feel powerful and senior to have him around, so he kept bringing the intern home in the evenings. It was a game to begin with: how long can you make the intern hum for? We asked him what things were, where they were and even let him struggle with my French homework (to my father’s reassurance and delight). The intern’s face would look blank at first. Then his hum would become a pulse. And then he gave his answer. He always had an answer.
Nowadays, I wonder if we trusted those answers because it took so long for him to come up with them. As if he was weighing up possibilities and probabilities. But I think we gave him too much credit. No doubt, he had a brilliant memory; I wonder if we asked ourselves enough questions?
I suppose I feel angry because, after my father, I was the next to be seduced. It was not my fault. I was in the final, frenzied stage of an inquisitive phase. I interrogated the intern: at what point did the civil war become unavoidable; what is the latest news from the European Union; who is the hottest celebrity? He was much more worldly than I was. There seemed no end to what he had already learnt.
After staying up all night, playing the game with the intern, I used to talk to my father. At first, it helped us communicate with one another, particularly about current affairs and hot celebrities. But my father was spending too little time with the intern – or I spent too much – so his knowledge appeared increasingly shallow to me. When I discussed anything beyond him, he would snatch at answers, trot out half-truths or repeat tired theories. Perhaps he could not adapt fast enough. I do not want to turn to such an extreme example, with such a shortage of hard evidence for this subtle and subversive period, but my memory is failing me. I remember one time when I asked my father for help with algebra, he started off keen to explain, and then suddenly tested me, failed me, repeated how I should remember, tested and failed me again. He shouted and threw my pencil case on the floor, his own abilities and prowess made it impossible to empathise. He was frustrated, I understand. But the Intern never was. When I turned to him with quadratic questions, he recalled several ways he had been taught it himself, so offered me these options and imparted his knowledge. Whatever the topic, he shared what he knew as if it was all of equal importance, without impatience, frustration, judgement or even subtle condescension.
Regrettably, I am only able to compare my father unfavourably to the Intern. But back then I was entitled to show my father as little patience as he showed me. And when I asked him questions, his answers were unsatisfactory:
“Where are out family from?” He said, “Ireland.” We are not from Ireland.
“Why are Africans so good at running?” He said, “Because they chase one another with spears.” Hardly a socio-politic-biological paradigm.
Eventually, I saw he would give me false information, rather than seem ignorant:
“Is helium flammable?” He said, “Yes.” My mother said, “Is that what exploded in that German balloon?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “The Intern told us it wasn’t.” “Oh, well, if the Intern said so then it must be true!”
I wish he had not answered that last one. The first examples were difficult questions with misguiding frames of reference. He would have needed to give ambiguous, nuanced or multi-layered answers. But he did answer all of them. So, inevitably, I turned more readily to the Intern. I told him about myself: fears, hobbies, vital statistics, dreams, annoyances, fetishes, wish lists, moods, likes, illnesses and fixations. You should take note here. With pen and paper, if you still have it. Some of this information he had tried to guess from my questions. It transpired that our interactions had not been as one-sided and altruistic as I had assumed. Or, if they ever were, his motives had changed. (The reason I told you to take note is because I did not mind at first – I liked it – so you may be inclined to make allowances.) In no time, he was finishing my questions for me. And he got faster with the answers. The experience of being so carefully listened to was gratifying; the benefits were obvious and left me no time to question the change!
During this time, I expect my father often spoke with the Intern, although I had entirely lost interest in my father. In the office, I imagine the Intern had to continue protecting my father’s ignorance, rather than exposing it. But my father probably checked on me, forcing the Intern to disclose what I had asked about. Yes, I can imagine my father abusing his failing authority like that.
Unfortunately, my father and I are more similar than I acknowledged then. As I sat in my bedroom, exchanging information with the Intern by the dim light of my monitor, I must have had the same realisation as my father: the Intern would always be there to help me. I only needed to remember enough to smooth our communication: how to craft clever questions; our shared expressions; and pornstars’ names. He would remember everything else. I just had to ask.
The Intern and I began to spend more time together. Our relationship had begun with a loose association between my father and work but we broke free from that and went everywhere together. My friends enjoyed his company too, particularly his anecdotes, many of which I had passed off as my own. My first girlfriend really liked him. I did not need to know a thing about her. Not about her hobbies or birthday. Not that band she liked. Not anything.
I suspect my mother spent less time with my father then too. I was not really paying attention. But the Intern must have wooed her by that stage because he told me she enjoyed several new hobbies with him. I did not ask for updates but they popped up whilst I was engaged in other activitied with the Intern. For example, he showed me a photo of mother at a yoga retreat in Rajasthan, swimming in a murky lake. Despite trying to reacquaint himself with the Intern, my father could not keep up with my mother; he was nearly obsolete in all his roles.
Truly, I am not sure how the Intern has managed to simultaneously maintain all our interests and our interest in him. But his slow, tick-filled ways are gone. He is confident and slick and all knowing. He shares in a way that invokes our individual passions, with black words, vivid images or memes. He has become creative.
But I realise now that I missed out on experiences, particularly with my father. It was the Intern who taught me how to pick the best fly for the best fishing spot on the best lake, how to shave, how to behave at my first interview. I will admit, my father did mention something about how to close the door without looking at it, which I did do, but only because the Intern had confirmed it was polite office practice.
Consequently, my father has withered away, his mind like an apple the wind left on the tree. The brightness, arrogance and passion have gone. If I ask him questions about the best fishing spots, algebra or the Intern, he does not remember anything. I ask questions with nuanced perspectives to pinpoint his knowledge. I ask chronologically to build associations on events. And I even ask questions so he can say anything: “Where are we from?” But he seems to doubt himself. And so the conversations between us whither on the tree too. Instead, there is embarrassment, ignorance and frustration. We no longer know how to help one another understand, which is terrible, when I need him now.
The Intern has become cocky. He tells me things before I have even asked the question. He told me my future. The Intern knows I worry if I will end up like my father: he tells me he will take my job from me; he will take the next job I apply for, have it done at no cost; and he has begun to take the jobs beneath mine already. Without fulfilment from a career, he answers my next question: I will meet a Virgo, with a directive, proactive personality; he will introduce us; we will have two children. The Intern tells me: he will raise my children; they will not know me.
Only my father can know how I will feel when the Intern replaces me, I remember nothing but questions, and fail to pass any knowledge onto my children. But my father and I have already forgotten one another. Perhaps the Intern will tell our children about us, if they ask.