I’d hurt the most decent man I’d ever known over a guest list to a hypothetical marriage to a nonexistent girl.
In the last days of January, after the temperature dropped to eight degrees and the city seemed at its most desolate, I went home to Ohio to see my father.
He was alone there. He’d come back from a trip to his native India a month before my mother, and spent the past three weeks unvisited. That made me-by default, really-the benighted son, the New York journalist drawn back into the world he’d departed (see: Quinlan, Anna, One True Thing ).
On my return, I was reminded how little my father and I actually share. For the past 30 years, he’s taught Plato to fraternity boys and, more recently, their sons. I, on the other hand, have studied the giants of armchair philosophy: Condé Nast, AOL Time Warner, the New York Post . He doesn’t watch sports and has never taken a drink. I spend much of my free time in bars thinking, dreaming, of football.
So I wasn’t surprised when he quickly knocked down my suggestions for bonding: driving to the multiplex in the next city to see About Schmidt , or going to watch his university play David Letterman’s alma mater, Ball State.
Instead, we sat at the kitchen table and drank black coffee-at 7 in the morning, at 4 in the afternoon, at 7:30 at night. We drank coffee and talked about refinancing the mortgage on my apartment in Brooklyn. We drank more coffee and discussed my cousins, all of whom have something to do with computers.
And we talked about weddings. The weddings of my parents’ friends’ children, who’d gone to six-year medical schools and met people in residency. The weddings of kids who’d gone to India and gotten hitched to the heirs of Madras bourgeoisie . The potential weddings of kids who hadn’t gone to six-year medical schools, but wanted to marry people who did.
More troubling, we discussed the forthcoming weddings of my childhood friends, none of whom were Indian, but all of whom, with one exception, have decided, in the eyes of my parents, to get with the program. To grow the hell up.
“I forgot to tell you,” my father said, breaking off from a talk on property taxes and co-ops in New York City. “Megan’s getting married.”
There went the exception. Besides being the last of my childhood troop to be neither engaged nor married, Megan was also the first girl I ever loved in a childhood where I was always falling in love, where I was always-from the time I was 7-flashing forward 20 or so years to a house in Boston (it seemed exotic), a golden retriever and, I admit, a night job as the Green Lantern.
Unlike the rest of the kids, Megan hadn’t gone to graduate school, hadn’t settled in for years of deconstructing Descartes or Wole Soyinka. Like me, she’d moved to one of the coasts. Just six months ago, she’d complained that we were the only ones who weren’t getting married and were actually working-haute urbanites among the stiff-necks. I’d planned to hang out with her at the 10-year reunion and make terrible comments about the loudmouth who’d come back to run his father’s insurance company and the bigger loudmouth who went to work for him.
But now, she’d left me alone.
And I am alone. Looking at the photo of her and her fiancé that my father gave me, it occurred to me that, at 27, I should officially announce myself a terminal bachelor. Not a cad, unfortunately, but just one of those guys who are a part of your background, who attend the same parties, show up when called, and can be found playing pinball on Sunday nights.
It’s really not such a bad life. But it’s what keeps parents up at night.
This became clear later that evening. My father and I had just come back from the gym-the one activity we both enjoy-and were sitting in the living room, talking about a girl we both knew who’d put an ad on an Indian-singles Internet site.
“She’s shown some real initiative,” my father said, and then he reached under the coffee table for a black binder with “University of South Wales” printed in gold script across the cover.
He opened it up and pulled out the girl’s ad. In it, she’d written that she “couldn’t believe” she was doing this, but that she was looking for a doctor with traditional values. She also noted that she was well trained in Indian classical dance.
“These sites are really interesting,” my father said. “That’s how people meet these days. It’s the kids themselves; the parents have nothing to do with it. It’s quite inventive. Look at this one.”
Again from the binder, he pulled a two-page vitae of a pretty 25-year-old who had gone to the same college I did and studied journalism and now lived in Manhattan. She didn’t smoke and “drank occasionally.”
Hey, that’s funny- oh, no, no, no ….
“Who’s this for?” I said to him, already knowing the answer.
“See,” my father said, “they’re all from New York. I thought it would just be good for you to see them.”
What I thought had been a random printout from a stack of ungraded term papers turned out to be part of my father’s own potential bridal survey of the New York metropolitan area. There were girls from Manhattan and Queens, Hoboken and Princeton. There were nonvegetarians and vegetarians, girls who liked to go to the movies and ones who, um, liked to get their “groove on” in the clubs. All of them said, in one way or another, that they’d never dreamed they’d try and meet a guy this way-and yet there they were, being ogled over cold Folgers by a 64-year-old man wearing a Martha Vineyard’s sweatshirt and his son.
“This one lives on the Upper West Side,” he said about Girl 15. “Is that a nice area?”
“Ugh,” I replied.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said.
Truth be told, I had given into my father’s neuroses before. I had met girls he and my mother wanted me to meet and had a series of phone calls with a girl in Atlanta who really liked Friends and hung out in some bar where they served drinks from fishbowls. I had my heart broken by a girl from Miami and wrote about it, and for a brief moment became the champion of all Indian-American youth. I once sat in my dining room with a girl perhaps twice my size, whose father had asked me to take her out. When she asked me how much money I made and I told her, she began to tell me about meeting a boy I’d gone to college with, who’d gone to medical school and now lived in San Diego. Did I think, if she wrote to him, that she might have a shot?
But this, in many ways, seemed more desperate. This was the work of a man whose own mother had died the month before; a man who seemed to be telling his only son: Most of my life is now over. Would you, for once, try to make me happy?
“This one is sad,” he said about Girl 20. “She says that nobody likes her, so why should you? And she smokes and drinks. How does she expect anybody to respond?”
“I think it’s probably a joke,” I said.
“Maybe,” he replied, looking it over again. “You’re right. Why would she say something if she wasn’t joking?”
Hours passed. My father cooked a makeshift dinner from my mother’s frozen vegetables, store-bought yogurt and a lentil soup he makes himself. We watched Larry King. We compared the prices of bagels in New York and Ohio, and he told me I should keep better track of my expenses.
We began to talk about a girl I once knew who was getting married in Dallas.
“How many people will be there?” I said, for no real reason.
“Probably over 300,” he answered.
“That’s horseshit,” I snapped. I meant it.
My father shook me off. “Any Indian wedding is going to be big,” he said. “If you ever got married, it would be at least that.” As an example, he mentioned a cousin and told me we would have to invite the cousin and the cousin’s wife and the cousin’s wife’s brother.
“Why the fuck would we invite her brother?” I said, growing meaner now. I’d always seen my wedding with a handful of people. A justice of the peace would preside. A famous country singer-say Allison Krause or Iris DeMent or, at the least, a wedding singer who knew her way around Loretta Lynn and June Carter-would belt out “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
“Because he lives in the States,” my father said, “and that’s how you keep the family growing. That’s how you keep the network alive.”
That was it. I decided to hammer him down and keep him down. I wanted him to know that I have no interest in family, or at least his idea of it. I’m wishing for the one thing he probably cares most about in this world to die.
“What network?” I said. “Who are these people? Weddings are expensive. Big weddings are terrible to be at. They’re not for the family. They’re for two people.
“We’re all free agents in this world,” I continued. “We cut our own lot. Life is all about making choices. You have to make choices.”
I could tell by his look-a slow, breathy droop-that I’d won. I’d hurt the most decent man I’d ever known over a guest list to a hypothetical marriage to a nonexistent girl. And in doing so, I’d proven I was nothing like him.
My father didn’t say anything at all for a very long time. Instead, he gave me what I wanted. He got up and went to bed, leaving me to myself.