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By Charlie Beckerman
Marcus’ knee is bouncing restlessly and I have to put my hand on his leg to still him. “Whoa there, Padre,” I say, giving his thigh a squeeze.
He scowls and folds his arms, doing his best impression of a grouch. “What do you think he wants?”
“He” is our daughter Joanna’s long-term boyfriend, Nathan—to my knowledge, the only boyfriend she’s ever had. He called us five minutes ago, asking if he could drop by. There was a flimsy pretext—“I want to get Joanna something special for her birthday, and who better to ask than her dads?” Marcus thinks he needs money, but I find myself unable to hypothesize at all, instead brooding on the idea that we’ve reached the age when someone can reasonably expect that we’d be home in the middle of a weekday.
The doorbell rings. Nathan is wearing casual Oxford button-up and a nervous smile. Marcus asks him if he’d like coffee, and then disappears into the kitchen to make a cup. We sit back down in the living room on either sides of the coffee table. He’s perched on the armchair, his hands moving nonstop. I quickly move through the general questionnaire of the father of the girlfriend—how was the drive, how’s Joanna, how’s the job—and according to him, everything’s fine. He uses this word half a dozen times in what I suppose counts as our conversation, but his attempts at being coy are being undercut by his anxious hands.
Without Joanna here—this may be one of the first times I’ve been alone with Nathan, Joanna not in the next room, or upstairs, sleeping—I start to notice how good Nathan looks. Not in the way I’m supposed to—healthy, Irish face and a solid, hearty build, signs of good genetics and an ability to save my daughter from floods or alien invasions. No, I’m seeing a glimpse of chest exposed by his open shirt, his full, slightly pink lips, his gym-conditioned shoulders and biceps, and as Marcus returns to the room and Nathan stands, a firm, pert ass in a pair of Dockers I’m sure I would have noticed before. Maybe he does need money.
“So,” says Marcus, sitting next to me on the couch, placing a hand on my crossed thigh. “What’s this all about?”
Nathan takes a sip of his coffee and then sets it down gently, as if the cup is full of explosives and might kill us all if he treats it too roughly. “Marcus, Fred…I wanted to ask you two something, but I wasn’t sure—I just, I’ve never done this kind of thing, and this situation is, you know.” He looks at the two of us. “Different.”
For a moment, I’m terrified he’s about to tell us that he’s gay. This happened once before, with our older daughter Kelly’s first real boyfriend, when she was sixteen. For months, we had been hearing rumors of earlier boys—Joanna, thirteen, would pass me information surreptitiously, which I would have to swear upon pain of death not to repeat to anyone (a swear I would make Marcus repeat before I shared it with him)—but these had been short-lived connections: a week, a month. Not wanting to pry, I would only take what information Joanna offered, so by the time an update arrived, the “relationship” was often already over. “Oh, Dad,” Joanna had said, after I’d asked once if her sister was still going out with this or that boy. “That was over three weeks ago.”
It was February of her junior year when Kelly had fixed us both with a serious look across the counter in the kitchen one morning and told us, in what Marcus called her adult voice, that she was bringing her boyfriend to dinner that Friday. “We’re getting serious,” she said to us.
“Great,” I said, avoiding Marcus’ gaze at all costs, knowing that he was doing everything he could to keep from giggling at her. “What’s his name?”
“Andrew,” she said. “And he’s a vegetarian.” She said it like it was his profession, as if she were telling us he was a doctor or an architect.
“We can’t wait,” I said, smiling. She gave us that look that teenagers give their parents that says you two are hopeless. “Have a great day at school,” I said to her retreating back, the two of us holding our breath waiting for the front door to slam before we dissolved into laughter.
A couple months later, calling home from a business trip, the only person who would come to the phone was Joanna. “Where is everybody?” I asked her.
“Daddy’s in his study and Kelly’s in her room. They both have their doors closed.”
“Andrew came over and told Kelly that he’s gay.”
Shit, I thought. “How did she take it?”
“She went to her room and slammed the door and started crying.”
“What did Daddy do?”
“He…” She lowered her voice. “He asked her if Andrew was okay.”
Jesus, Marcus. “And how did Kelly react to that?”
She paused, and I could see her checking her sightlines in the kitchen for potential threats. “She told Daddy that if Andrew was so important to him, maybe he should go…bleep him.” Her voice dwindled to a breathy whisper. “Except she didn’t say ‘bleep’.”
“I want to marry your daughter,” Nathan says. I feel a wave of relief while, simultaneously, I sense Marcus tense next to me. Nathan plows forward. “I, uh, know it’s traditional to ask the father, and well, I guess I thought it would be best if I asked you both. You know, at the same time.”
I hope that the displeasure I feel radiating off of Marcus is related to his equal-opportunity distaste for marriage, and not toward our daughter’s boyfriend, but I can’t be sure. I look down at the hand that he’s left on my leg, at the platinum wedding band on his ring finger, and use my thumb to fidget with my own.
I had been surprised when Marcus had expressed an interest in the expensive rings—they ended up costing a grand together, this in the days when that was two month’s rent—but when I asked him about it, he went to the same angry place he’d visited ever since we’d decided to get married. “If we’re going to engage in this archaic, heteronormative ritual, we’re not going to half-ass it,” he snapped at me. I knew he wasn’t angry at me, but at the situation. A year earlier, his father had called him and his sister and told them they needed to come home. He wouldn’t tell either one of them anything on the phone, and Marcus turned down my offer to go with him. When he returned two days later, he was a wreck. Their mother had cancer, and didn’t have a lot of time left. “She doesn’t look sick, but apparently the cancer is everywhere,” he said, his voice breaking, his eyes red.
“Is there anything we can do?” I asked.
“The manipulative bitch wants us to get married.” I liked my in-laws, if only because they posed such a wonderfully traditional counterpoint to my own parents, two academics who couldn’t engage in any tradition without analyzing it into meaninglessness. Marcus’ parents, on the other hand, seemed to have sprung forth fully realized from a television show. His dad was a lawyer, his mom had stayed at home and raised the children. Presents at Christmas, beaches in summer, an organized, systematic cleaning of the house in spring and large, friendly Thanksgivings where everyone said what they were thankful for in the fall. Marcus and his mother loved each other fiercely, and this request seemed in keeping with the intensity of their relationship. Ever since I had known Marcus he had been anti-marriage. I had tried to disguise asking him out on a first date in an invitation to join me at a pro-gay marriage rally. “Sorry, I can’t in good conscience support an institution that originated in the sale of women for money,” he’d said while my heart sank. “But if you want to get a drink afterward, let me know.” The fact that Marcus was willing to go through with the wedding was more a testament to how he felt about his mother than how he felt about me.
Besides, by the time his mom got sick, Marcus and I had already been “committed”—a term I had used to describe it to my own friends and family—for two years, following a conversation we’d had in bed one Saturday morning. “I can’t promise I’ll never want to fuck someone else,” Marcus had begun, cryptically, “but I don’t think I’ll want to share my life with anyone else but you.” I stammered out some ham-fisted reply, and then, in my mind, we were as good as married: a private ceremony taking place in a bed, needing neither priest nor witness. When I told my parents that Marcus and I were committed to each other, they were thrilled, satisfied entirely by my selective description of the proceedings and their whereabouts. To the best of my knowledge, Marcus had had no such conversation with his parents.
According to Marcus, his mother’s request had been thinly veiled—“She looked at me and my sister and said, ‘I just wish I could have seen you married,’” he recounted. His sister, who didn’t get along with his mother to begin with, was chronically single, which their mother seemed to think was a choice. She took their mother’s request as a personal jab, and the two of them would continue fighting right up until their mother’s death thirteen month’s later. “I didn’t say anything to her, though. I mean, I needed to talk to you first.”
It took me a few moments to figure out what he meant. “Are you asking me to marry you?” This earned me a red-eyed glare.
“If you ask me to get down on one knee, I’ll kill you.”
“I guess what I’m asking,” says Nathan, after neither one of us has said anything for several seconds, “is if you’ll give me your blessing.”
I can hear Marcus’ angry thoughts almost as if he’s saying them out loud. Our blessing? Oh, you mean our agreement to transfer ownership of our daughter from us to you? Why don’t you ask her, you stupid fuck. It’s one of the things I’ve come to love about Marcus—that on the important things, we agree, he just articulates it more ardently. Because, try hard as I might to like him, I don’t think Nathan is smart enough for Joanna. Teachers had mistaken her quiet nature for simple-mindedness, and always spoke with surprise at parent conferences. “She’s really quite bright,” they’d say, as if we might not have noticed.
Not that any of the people my daughters have dated have ever really impressed me. Three years after she’d graduated from college, Kelly had brought Myrtle, a woman in her thirties, to the beach house and declared that she was a lesbian. She did this at dinner the first night, out on the porch, at sunset. “Dad, Daddy,” she said, taking Myrtle’s hand and putting on the same adult voice. “Myrtle and I are together. I’m a lesbian.” Like it was her job.
I was surprised, and couldn’t fathom what Marcus must’ve been thinking. I suspected that her decision to tell us this way was partially an attempt to provoke him, so I intervened preemeptively: “Welcome to the family, Myrtle,” I said, raising my wine glass. “We’re so happy for you two.” We cheersed, and learned all about Myrtle’s business making poultices for various everyday maladies, but for the rest of the week, there was a clinginess between Kelly and Myrtle that made the rest of us uncomfortable. And, while Marcus was the most vociferous about his disapproval, I worried more about Joanna, who had just graduated from college, and had already been looking a little aimless. When we watched The Princess Bride, she’d sit by herself in the armchair while the two couples cuddled on the couches; when we’d go for a walk on the beach, she’d fall back or press far ahead on her own. Towards the end of the week, when she wandered in for breakfast looking forlorn, I told her that she was allowed to bring a friend to the beach, too. “Invite whomever you like,” I said. “You don’t even have to be sleeping with them.” She gave me a wan smile that seemed to say, Thanks for trying, Dad, but I know I’m a lost cause.
Nevertheless, the next year, she showed up with Nathan, the first time she’d ever brought anyone home for us to meet. Kelly had skipped the beach that year—she and Myrtle were going to a spiritual retreat on a mountain somewhere—throwing off the balance that she usually played to Marcus’ intensity. Poor Nathan got the full brunt of it, starting with an interrogation the first night. Because they didn’t arrive until late, dinner was held under the bare bulb that lit the back porch. I was forced in the middle of the entrée to put a few candles on the table to make it seem less like a catered police interview.
“So, Nathan, how did you two meet?” Marcus asked.
“Joanna and I have a mutual friend,” he said, as if worried about saying too much.
“My friend Stacey recommended him to help me with my taxes,” Joanna said. “He’s an accountant, Daddy.”
“Watch out, Nathan—we may end up asking you for advice,” I said, hoping to add some levity. “I can never figure any of that stuff out.”
“He was very romantic,” Joanna continued, looking at Marcus. “We’d just finalized my return, and he gave me his card and said, ‘Call me next year,’ and then, his face turned really red, and he said, ‘Or sooner.’” As if for demonstration, Nathan’s face had turned crimson.
“So what do you do the rest of the year, then?” Marcus asked.
I reached over and poured Nathan a little more wine. “Work on late returns,” he said, taking up the glass. “Almost ten percent of tax returns are filed late, and they tend to be more complicated. Plus we do financial planning and we all have to learn the new tax code every year. And we get a vacation.”
After dinner, Joanna took Nathan down to the water, and Marcus and I did the dishes. “She actually brought home an accountant,” he said, scrubbing a pan angrily. “Was the IRS out of single auditors?”
“She seems happy,” I tried.
“He’s boring as sin.”
“Well, then you shouldn’t date him.”
Now, here he is, Nathan the accountant, sitting in our living room, asking us for our daughter’s hand in marriage. Neither Marcus nor I have said anything yet, and Nathan has turned red once again, unsure of what to do in the unforeseen situation where we neither consent nor oppose his request, but just sit here like judgmental statues.
I know Marcus won’t say anything, or will say the wrong thing, so I speak up. “Have you spoken to Joanna about this? Does she know you’re here?”
“W-we’ve spoken about it generally. She said she wouldn’t be ready to get married until after she made Associate Editor at work, but that came through a couple months ago.” Joanna had called us with the good news, her usually placid voice stippled with excitement. “But she doesn’t know I’m here.”
Marcus clears his throat, but I’m not ready to let him speak. “Well, we’re thrilled that you’re thinking of taking the next step, but you don’t need our blessing or permission. Joanna’s her own person. You need her to say yes.”
“Oh, I know, sir,” he says, a wild look in his eyes, realizing he’s been horribly misunderstood. “I just—my mother and father would want to know that I spoke to you first. They’d want me to get your blessing.”
“Well,” I say, not wanting him to leave empty-handed, “let’s put it this way: if she says yes, then you have our blessing.” A tentative grin breaks out on Nathan’s face, the uncertain smile of the shopper who’s been sold something other than what he came in for, and isn’t sure yet if he’s gotten a deal or been duped. I look down at my coffee mug and say, “I think we could use something a bit stronger than coffee though. Marcus? Come help me in the kitchen.”
He is furious with me by the time we get out of earshot. “What are you doing? Are you nuts?” I’m rifling through the liquor cabinet, looking for something appropriate for a toast. “We’re going to give our blessing to that guy?”
“Where’s the Glenlivet?” I ask, moving bottles around, ignoring him. He leans against the counter next to the cabinet, smoldering. I find the bottle but it’s almost empty. There’s enough for one, which I pour into a glass for Nathan, and then grab a bottle of Jameson and pour two for us. I pick up the glasses, holding Nathan’s in one hand and ours in the other. I fix Marcus with a stare. “Look: there is a decent chance this guy is going to be our son-in-law, and if it’s going to make Joanna happy, I’ll marry them myself. Now, we’re going to go back out there, drink a toast to happiness and good fortune, give him a hug, and hope Joanna says no.” I say this because I know it will make Marcus happy, but as I say it, I also know it’s true—I don’t want her to say yes. “Ready?”
We return to find Nathan standing, looking like a model from a Sears Sunday insert, hands in the pocket of his khakis, reviewing the photos on our mantelpiece. “I love these pictures,” he says, grinning. “Such a beautiful family.”
“One you may be a part of soon enough,” I say, shooting a warning glance at Marcus. This seems sufficient to serve as our toast, and as we clink glasses, I look over at the picture Nathan was admiring. It’s of the four of us, on Joanna’s seventh birthday. Kelly is ten. Kelly’s parties were always giant productions—epic princess-themed sleepovers with multiple acts, trips with ten or fifteen girls to a water park. Joanna always went for simplicity—“let’s go to the movies”, “let’s go bowling.” That year she’d surprised all of us and asked to go to a baseball game, and the photo was of the four of us in the stands, all wearing matching baseball caps and smiling like mad.
Joanna and I had gone to get more snacks just before the seventh inning stretch, and while we were waiting in line, she turned to me and asked, “Why did you and Daddy decide to have us?” Marcus and I had raised the girls knowing their biological mother, a college friend of Marcus’, as a sort of aunt. We’d explained to them how babies were made, but also how families took a lot of different shapes and sizes. I couldn’t tell whether Joanna’s question was existential or simply logistical, and I worried about tackling the answer the wrong way.
“I always wanted to have kids,” I said. “For me, it was never a question of ‘if,’ it was just waiting until your Daddy and I had enough time and money to do it right.”
“And Daddy? Did he always want to have kids?” She knew how to ask the right questions, all right.
Marcus had not wanted kids when we first met. Although I had agreed readily in our bed-bound exchange of vows to stay with him, a day later I had to make sure he understood what sharing our lives meant. “You know that, if we’re going to be together, that I’m going to want to have children at some point,” I’d said, sick with nerves, expecting this to derail everything. I had convinced myself that this happy ending, the two of us staying together, was a fantasy anyway, and this was the obvious snag we’d catch.
But he’d looked me over, as if with new eyes, and said, “Okay.”
“That’s it? I thought you didn’t want children.”
He shrugged. “I want you, and you want kids, so I want kids.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Fifteen years later, I was standing with my younger daughter in line to buy nachos and a pretzel at a baseball park. “Not always,” I answered. “But by the time we decided to have you and Kelly, he did.” She gave me a curt nod, as if to say she found this explanation acceptable, even expected. She looked deep in thought for a moment, and then turned back to me.
“Can I have a churro, too?”
Nathan gives us both hugs, complete with hearty pats on the back, before jogging down the front steps. We stand in the front door and wave as he drives off. “I’ll say this for him,” Marcus says quietly, as we continue waving and smiling. “He’s got one hell of an ass.”
“You’re terrible,” I say, and stick a playful elbow in his ribs.
Once Nathan’s gone, we return inside, and I follow Marcus into the kitchen, where he pours himself another finger of whiskey. “You want one?” he asks, chipper.
“Sure,” I say. “Marrying off our youngest… I feel like I’m in a Jane Austen novel.”
“If she says yes,” Marcus says, toasting his certainty that she won’t. I also take a sip, knowing then that she will. Marcus doesn’t get Joanna; with maybe a couple of exceptions, she doesn’t have a pre-conceived image of her life, or her life partner. Nathan will make love to her, will give her children, if she wants them. He will be loyal and kind and loving. Marcus would ask—may yet still ask—“why him?” and Joanna would reply “why not him?” For a moment, I try to consider explaining this to my husband--He’s not perfect, but he’ll do. Just like you weren’t perfect: you’re hot-headed and impulsive and sometimes blind to the feelings of others. But you asked, and in a way, that made you perfect, and so I said yes. And so will she. But Marcus is happy, and there’s nothing to be gained by telling him this now.
Marcus takes his drink into the living room and picks up the book he’s been reading. I sit at the counter in our kitchen and take another sip of whiskey, and stare at the phone, waiting for it to ring, hungering to hear the exhilarated voice of my daughter.
Charlie Beckerman currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where he is pursuing an MFA at Florida State University. Before that, he worked as a comic book editor in New York City. He's seriously considering getting a dog.
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