My grandmother, Alma, of Washington, D.C., and Boca Raton, Fla., believes that it is choice that has prevented me from becoming a supermodel. Ditto neurosurgeon. Ditto musical prodigy, prima ballerina, best-selling author. And it’s really important to her that I have everything: good haircuts, good shoes, enough calcium in my diet.
What she’d really like is for me to have a good, income-producing husband. Who has nice grandparents.
I am well aware that it all started in the shtetl , and it’s not likely to stop any time soon. But every time my phone rings and some unfamiliar man-voice says, “Uh, I got your number from my grandmother. I think she plays bridge [or tennis or mahjong] with your grandmother,” I still gasp. It’s very clearly the voice of a boy psyched about the prospect of a blind date arranged by two senior citizens.
Sitting in a Shakespeare class in college, a boy named Jon-who would, in a single exception to the rule, become a good friend-revealed to me that he had arrived freshman year with my name written on a napkin and folded into his wallet. Seems he had come across my Aunt Selma and Uncle Ezra in Bethesda, Md., that August and left a solid, Nice Boy impression.
It used to happen to my mom, too. And so she consoles me: Despite mandatory attendance at parties held by a Jewish dentistry fraternity, numerous introductions to the boy with braces discovered at a book sale and some permanently tanned guy (or maybe I just imagined him that way) named either Milton or Martin who was continually foisted upon her, she managed to meet my dad-a great catch-all by herself.
When my grandmother goes so far as to say that my not returning Nice Boy X’s phone calls is going to cost her a 40-year friendship, I genuinely lose sleep from guilt. Although she lives-with the rest of my mother’s family-in Washington, the grandson (or nephew or adorable neighbor) of every lady she knows seems to have wound up in New York, where he’s pursuing a law degree, M.B.A. or investment banking career. And he is, presumably, looking for love. Or, at the very least, a Nice Girl to ride shotgun in the brand-new luxury sedan he’s driving down I-95-toward Washington, of course-in my Grandmother’s dreams.
To me it’s a nightmare, and it goes like this: tall, pale, acne-scarred boys with short, side-parted hair and those wire-rim glasses covered in that strange and oily faux-tortoise snap-on plastic. Boys who wear casual Friday wear: pressed jeans and starchy button-downs. Shiny belts. The occasional piece of leftover fraternity paraphernalia that references their love for beer and getting crazy. Dorky shoes. Boys who live in postwar junior one-bedrooms, like to play golf, listen to Hootie and the Blowfish, and still use party as a verb. Boys who call girls their grandmother finds!
Generally, I don’t return the calls. And it’s surprising how much they call. Wouldn’t any normal boy be thrilled to find his call unreturned? “Sorry, Grandma, I called but I never heard back!” Off the hook! But no such luck. They call at work, they call at home. They call late at night and on weekend mornings. And when I don’t call back, they call some more! I hit delete without even writing down the numbers.
When I unfortunately answer, I do this cold-girl thing that I imagine will give the impression that dinner with me would be a pretty odious experience. But then I see an image of my grandmother totally spurned from luncheons and bridge games and so on. I picture my grandmother with nowhere to wear the lovely, neutral-colored suits and Chanel pumps we shop for on the top floor of the Saks in Boca. All because of her snotty granddaughter.
Once these boys get you on the phone, they insist on whipping out their Palm Pilots and making plans. So I often wind up agreeing to whatever-although I have been known, more often than not, to cancel these types of dates for reasons like, “Ummmm, it’s raining .” Or even, “But that’s laundry night!”
In our conversations, I generally don’t even recognize my own voice. Lots of one-word answers and forced laughing. And I say things like, “How interesting!” And I can’t help but feel like these boys-or at least their life styles-are in their late 70’s, too. They talk about how much money they make. Sample topics: how they’re looking at (blecch!) apartments in Trump Tower, how they’re hiring (sick! ) dwarves to answer the door at their bonus celebration party.
I’m reminded that there are all these people running around this city, going on blind date after blind date like the very campus corporate recruitment interviews that landed them here. After about 13 months of this, they’ll take their quest elsewhere: “It’s too hard to meet somebody in New York,” they’ll explain to concerned relatives dying for progeny, before heading to Atlanta or Chicago. “And, besides,” they’ll say, “I miss my car!”
I always wind up talking about my grandmother, and asking about his, because, let’s face it, when it comes to things in common, we have absolutely zilch. It’s like I’m inflicting some kind of poetic justice, reducing the conversation to this level. We have been fixed up by our grandmothers; the odds that we’d have anything else to talk about are very low.
Once, I decided to pretend the boys were spies, to make it more interesting. Spies in a dangerous, K.G.B. sort of way. But then I realized they are spies. Grandmother spies, who will tell on me if I drink too much, use bad words or behave otherwise badly.
That’s what’s really weird about these boys: their complicity. They are wholehearted participants in the arranged-marriage-ness of it all. They delight in the efficiency of inspecting preapproved goods. I recently found myself in a bar with one of these boys feeling sort of like Darva Conger. I was being interviewed on a series of life style choices. Would I be comfortable raising children in the city? And if so, what is my opinion of boarding school? Do I prefer beach or ski vacations?
In the aftermath, the grandmothers run around like a couple of junior high schoolers exchanging information. Which, so far as I can tell, the boys have happily supplied. When my grandmother calls to ask how it went, I generally answer something along these lines: “I love you so much and you are otherwise flawless, but please, please, please never do that to me again.” But these boys, these lunatic, wife-shopping boys, give their grandmothers blow-by-blows ! They wait for my grandma to give their grandma the go-ahead. It’s like passing notes: He likes you and wants to know if you’ll go to the roller-skating party with him.
One grandmother took Alma aside at a luncheon recently and asked her point blank: So he wants to know. Should he call again?
Note to boy: very sexy .