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Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe

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BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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While I dabbed at my forehead with a napkin, Monica, a colleague of mine who taught a seminar called “A Feminist History of Film” and who always wore jeans and running shoes to school, walked up to me—was it really her?—in a miniskirt. I could tell from her uncharacteristically sheepish demeanor that she felt as if she was in one of those dreams where you discover you're in public without your pants. Which essentially she was. She teetered, unbelievably, on a pair of high heels. “Do not speak a word of this to my students,” she pleaded, “or I'll never be able to quote from
The Second Sex
again.” She took a swig of punch and asked what I was teaching that term.

The previous night I'd read John Cheever's “Reunion” in preparation for my class “American Literature Since 1950.” The story's teenage narrator, who hasn't seen his father in three years, goes to meet him at Grand Central Station, where the man is already fifteen minutes late for an hour-long stopover between trains. “My father,” thinks the son, “was my future and my doom.” I had to catch my breath before I could move on to the next sentence. The phrase was so powerful, it seemed to be mulling me over rather than the other way around. Was every son destined to slip deeper into his father's fate the more he resisted it?

I told Monica that my class was reading Cheever and quoted the line from “Reunion.” I also told her the jumpsuit came from my father's closet and that wearing it caused a suffocating but instructive empathy. Monica nodded knowingly. She explained that she'd decided to shave her legs in order to wear the miniskirt and had bought a package of disposable pink “women's” razors knowing perfectly well they were really blue “men's” razors sold for the same price but aimed at female consumers. Her inability to rebel and buy the blue ones instead of the culturally permissible pink ones represented, she believed, a significant lapse for a Marxist-feminist such as herself. “All of which is a way of saying,” she said, “that as I stand here in a skirt and talk about shopping, I've become my mother.”

At that, we clinked our cups of punch.

The realization that one is growing older comes to most of us, if
we're lucky, in bearable increments; that way, the full cargo of mortality doesn't sink the boat, so to speak, but is brought on board in the form of manageable hand luggage. One year you develop an almost erotic fondness for the warmth of a hot water bottle tucked between cold sheets; the next, you and your friends devote an entire dinner conversation to the benefits of dietary fiber and, less appetizingly, its effects. But that afternoon, while sipping rum punch and quoting John Cheever, I wasn't simply poised on the cusp of age or cringing youthfully at its imminence. I was officially and forever an adult, and the owner of my costume was my future and my doom.

Here's how I came to be wearing the jumpsuit. My father and I hadn't spoken to each other since the incident in his living room. His absence nagged me, and the pangs grew worse instead of better as the days went by. It wasn't as if we saw each other often, and as he himself might have put it, “Built on bedrock our relationship was not.” Yet I missed him all the same, or missed the enigma of him. Where was my place in the world if not in opposition to my father? Like a bat who navigates by echolocation, I was lost unless I asked him a question and heard him ask a question back:

How are you, Dad?

How should I be?

During the month we weren't speaking, I was beset by a series of Dad sightings, all of which turned out to be false alarms. They began the day he demanded I leave his house. In fact, they began on my drive home. I'd stopped at the supermarket to buy myself a calming bottle of beer, and as soon as I passed through the turnstile I saw him bent over a freezer case and peering inside. Because I'd sped away from his house with great haste—it was as if I'd been catapulted back into the world from the force of his slammed door—I couldn't imagine how he'd managed to arrive there before me. His face was lit from below by those lights they have inside freezer cases so you can read the labels on cans of concentrated orange juice and boxes of Popsicles, and this harsh arctic light, along with the vapors wafting around him, made it seem, for one mythic instant, that my father had thawed from a block of ice. The sight of it so disarmed
me that I almost forgot we'd had a fight not ten minutes ago, if you could call what had taken place between us a fight.

I held my breath and approached him, prepared to say something conciliatory, though I wasn't sure what. I reached out to tap him on the shoulder and when he turned toward me with a puzzled look, I realized that this elderly stranger bore only a general resemblance to my father: bald head, thick glasses, portly torso. And herein lies a clue to why this sighting was the first of many; since most men of my father's age have lost their hair, wear corrective lenses, and are padded by fat, the number of individuals onto whom I could, and did, project my father was exceedingly large. These misrecognitions weren't the kind I could laugh off or back away from without embarrassment, but lapses that caused me to make an illegal U-turn in one instance and in several others to wave dramatically as I ran toward an old man who probably thought he was about to be attacked. I should add that I'm usually quite keen when it comes to identifying a celebrity or political figure who whizzes by for a millisecond as I'm pressing the remote control. But how could I continue to trust my knack for facial recognition when a huge portion of the geriatric male population had become, overnight, dead ringers for my father?

Dad now inhabited Los Angeles in a broad, metaphysical sense, and his ubiquity made it impossible for me to go a day without thinking I'd seen him pumping gas into his Caddy or walking through the automatic doors of the local post office. I couldn't go a day, in other words, without dwelling on our estrangement, without replaying his edict that I leave.

My father had been the dumper and I the dumpee, and it's common knowledge, at least for the son of a divorce attorney, that the dumpee of the couple usually has a harder time with the breakup.

“Listen to the terms you're using to describe the situation,” insisted a psychotherapist. “Dump. Couple. Breakup. These terms should tell you something.” The psychotherapist also happened to be the man I'd been living with for two years, the partner I'd kept awake long after his bedtime with questions about where things had gone wrong between my father and me. Brian was the very picture
of attentiveness and professionalism, poor guy. He lay beside me in the dark, stifling yawns and only occasionally turning to check the dial of our bedside clock.

“Are you saying I have some kind of homosexual fixation with my father?”

“No,” he said. “That's what you have with me. I'm saying that the words you're choosing indicate an unusual intensity of feeling.”

“I'm not
choosing
the words. They're spoken in the heat of the moment.”

“I use the word
choosing
because it helps give the … the speaker a sense of control over his emotions.”

“You were going to say
patient,
weren't you? Helps give the
patient
a sense of control.”

“Absolutely not!” said Brian. Then wearily, “I was going to say
client
.”

His remark sobered me. I stroked his arm and promised not to act like an analysand.

“Does that mean I can go to sleep?”

I said yes and meant it. I settled back and closed my eyes. But questions about my father were like those trick birthday candles that burst back into flame a second after you blow them out. I sat up and asked, “Do you think it's more complicated for a homosexual man than a heterosexual man to have a conflict with his father because there's some kind of—I don't know—libidinal underpinning?”

“No.”

“Because, believe me, I am not attracted to my father, either consciously or unconsciously.”

“Technically, you wouldn't know if you were unconsciously attracted to him because you wouldn't be conscious of it.”

“Well,” I said, plumping the pillow, “I'm not.” With my receding hairline and deepening crow's-feet, I was well on the way to looking like my father, so the more I protested the possibility of his attractiveness, the more, in effect, I protested my own. All of which wouldn't have been so uncomfortable if the psychotherapist to whom I'd been protesting hadn't also been the man I hoped would
want to have sex with me as I grew old. Yet if Brian found me attractive as I aged, perhaps he also considered my father an attractive older man, a notion that made me a little squeamish, not to mention Oedipally competitive. I was about to come right out and ask Brian to rate my father on a ten scale, but it suddenly seemed crucial that thoughts about my father's physical desirability not be dwelled upon by either Brian or me while the two of us lay together in bed. And so I changed the subject, or more accurately, leapt to a subset of the same subject. “What was that whole thing with the key about, anyway? I keep hearing him tell me, ‘A son doesn't help his father up.' It barely makes sense—just enough to drive me crazy.”

“Maybe you should call him and talk about it.”

“What would I say? ‘Sorry I tried to help you off the floor, Dad. I've seen the error of my ways and next time I'll leave you there'?”

“Look, if the reason the two of you aren't speaking doesn't make sense, then the reason you contact him again doesn't have to make sense, either. If nothing makes sense, act accordingly.”

While I considered Brian's advice, he began to take deep, oblivious breaths. His jaw went slack, the muscles of his face released from the tension of waking life and its many necessary expressions. Repose must be a particularly welcome state for Brian since his job requires him to look as if he's not only listening to, but is actually interested in, other people's problems, an especially daunting task when it's almost midnight and the problems are mine. I loved how sensible he could be. I also loved how insensible he could be, and I watched him sleep for several minutes before I drifted off.

Brian was right; I probably didn't need a pretext to phone my father and reestablish contact. Nevertheless, a pretext was handed to me a few days later when Lynn, an old girlfriend with whom I'd been romantically involved in college, called to tell me that she and her lover, Monica, the aforementioned film historian, were going to throw a party based on
The Stepford Wives,
a movie from 1975 that Monica had shown in her feminist film seminar. The movie, from a novel by Ira Levin, is set in the picturesque fictional suburb of Stepford, Connecticut, where the husbands are carrying out a plot to turn
their independent modern wives into ideals of passive, anachronistic womanhood. The transformations are achieved by way of outpatient operations whose details are vague, but after the surgery, each wife possesses an unflagging, almost robotic good cheer and a predilection for elaborate hairdos and frilly dresses. The men hope to regain their rightful place in the households and communities of a misguided liberal America, whose cities, their scheme suggests, are choking in the smoke from burning bras.

As for the party, Lynn told me that she and Monica each planned to play the role of perfect hostess to the hilt. “We're going to serve Cheez Whiz on Ritz crackers and walk around like we're anesthetized,” she said enthusiastically. Lynn gave me the date and time of the party and urged me to dress in the repressive spirit of Stepford. Years after its release, the movie had remained for many people of my generation a deliciously sinister parody of the rigid middle-class conventions of grooming and behavior into which we'd been indoctrinated as children and which we found stifling as adults. Our early years were spent desperately trying to conform to those conventions and our later years were spent desperately trying to escape them. The party's premise was a battle cry of irony, especially considering that the guest list consisted almost entirely of Lynn and Monica's lesbian-feminist friends, who thought of skirts and high heels as hobbling devices invented by men to limit a woman's physical agility and fetishize her helplessness. “By the way,” Lynn added, “since Brian has to see clients that day, you'll be the only guy at the party.” A few of Lynn and Monica's friends were staunch separatists who avoided contact with men and who smoldered with unspoken accusations whenever I walked into the room, as though, by being a queer Jewish adjunct teacher with a crummy income, I was a minion from the world of male privilege who'd come to rob them of their civil rights. When I suggested to Lynn that my presence might make her separatist friends uncomfortable, she said, “You have to understand that they're not reacting to you as an individual, they're reacting to your penis, so there's really nothing for them to be threatened by.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said. “You always know how to make me feel better.”

“You know what I'm trying to say. They're really sweet people underneath all that swagger.”

As soon as I hung up, my father's polyester jumpsuit sprang to mind. It wasn't as apt for the party's theme as, say, a Dacron leisure suit would have been, but borrowing it gave me the excuse I needed to call him and make amends. I dialed 662-6806, seven numbers imprinted forever in the Rolodex of memory.

My father picked up after a single ring. “What the hell do you want?”

I hadn't said hello, so his vehemence threw me off guard. “How did you know …?”

“Oh, it's you. Hello.”

“Who were you expecting?”

“Some nut from the phone company.”

I pictured the mound of unopened bills on the breakfront desk. Someone from the phone company had gotten on his bad side, and I thought this might leave room on his good side for me. “There's something I've been wanting to talk about, Dad.”

BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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