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Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe

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BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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“I'm sorry,” I said.

“Just call her Anna. Is that too much to ask?” His voice quavered. “Will you come to the wedding?”

“Of course! Can I bring Brian?”

“This is a family affair.”

“Brian is family.”

“Not by blood.”

I could hear myself breathing into the receiver.

“I have to draw the line somewhere,” he protested.

“You're only inviting blood relations?”

“I'm only inviting the two of you.”

“You mean, me and Brian?”

“Who the hell do you think I mean?”

“You just said …”

“Do you want to come or don't you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I—we—want to come to your wedding.”

“Anna's inviting her daughter and her uncle. That's it for the
guest list. When you get to be my age, you don't want to do the whole schmear.”

“I'm going to have a stepsister?”

“She's not going to live at the house with us like she was my kid or anything. Anna owns a few rental properties in South Central, and Pam—that's her daughter—is going to manage the duplex or the triplex or … one of Anna's plexes. She's seventeen, and I need a teenager hanging around the house like I need a hole in the head.”

“So you're keeping the house?”

“I'm sitting on a gold mine. I'd be crazy to sell.”

As my father's only heir, I'd counted on inheriting my boyhood home. Leasing it out—I was too attached to the place to sell it—might bring me enough money to pitch in on some of the bills Brian had been paying while I crawled toward that mirage called tenure. Would Anna, a woman who apparently possessed a knack for amassing real estate, now stand to inherit the house?

“We'll see you at the Brass Pan?” he asked. “Around six-thirty?”

“It's a date,” I said. I'd almost replaced the phone on its cradle when I heard the faint cry of my father's voice. “Come back!”

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing's wrong with it.”

“With what?”

“She's black.”

“I thought you said …”

“I did. She's black. Do I have to say it again?”

His defensiveness suggested that the few people he'd already told hadn't exactly shook his hand and proposed a toast. All but the most liberal among his cronies probably greeted the news with scant congratulations, reacting to the mention of Anna's age and race and religion with shades of dismay. But my father needn't have worried about so much as an iota of shock or objection on my part. I positively writhed with approval. I took it upon myself to single-handedly compensate for the prejudice he may have encountered up to that point, and while I was at it, to compensate for the prejudice he might encounter from that point forward. He certainly didn't have to justify
his decision to me. Love now obliged us both to defy convention, and I saw this as a fresh source of father-son solidarity.

“I'm so proud of you!” I gushed, a statement I've only recently come to realize can be a backhanded compliment, insinuating that the person you're proud of has had to overcome some character flaw to do whatever they've done to make you proud, so what you're really saying is not that you're proud, but that you're
surprised
the person has made you proud. At any rate, I commended his progressiveness and told him he was paving the way for other couples—black and white, young and old, gay and straight—to follow their hearts. A patently romantic assumption, since I'd never met Anna and for all I knew their relationship was based on mutual cruelty or shared delusions.

Even while singing his praises, I was nagged by retroactive doubt. Now that he'd told me his fiancée was black, his insistence that I not call her “Mother” seemed less about giving credit to his departed wife for having been the one and only woman to gestate and raise me, and more about his fear that it might make me uncomfortable to call a black woman “Mother” in public. Or, more likely, make
him
uncomfortable. As long as he believed he was protecting me from embarrassment, he could protect himself from the knowledge that it was
he
who would be embarrassed. By addressing Anna as “Mother,” I'd essentially broadcast to all the sedate, mostly Caucasian diners at the Brass Pan, with its red leather booths and flattering candlelight, that my father and this young black woman were sleeping together, and also quite possibly
sleeping
together. I couldn't think of a polite way to tell him that unless he and Anna whispered and giggled and fed each other food, no one would necessarily assume—and so what if someone did?—that they were a couple.

After we hung up, I thought about how my father, like many Jews of his generation, referred to African-Americans as
schvartzes
. When I once complained that
schvartze
was a derogatory term, and that the Jews, of all people, should abhor bigotry, he argued that it was merely descriptive. “It means ‘black' in Yiddish,” he said, “and I'd never say it in front of a
schvartze
.” “Because it's derogatory,” I
persisted, to which he said, “I can't even open my mouth before you jump down my throat!”

During my boyhood it had been difficult for my father and me to converse, let alone argue, and as a teenager I found myself being contrary just to make up for lost time. I'd spar as though he were an insufferably conservative warmongering Republican instead of a sentimental Democratic who'd hung a portrait of John F. Kennedy in his downtown office and, later, in the utility room at home, where he'd stored the remains of that office: a rickety swivel chair, boxes of onionskin stationery and dog-eared legal briefs. In his own way, my father had been a crusader for civil rights, like the right of a San Bernardino housewife to charge people admission to take a peek at her living chicken dinner, or the right of parents to keep their underage daughter locked in her bedroom, hidden from the suitor who bellowed verse into the darkness of the barrio. Perhaps not matters significant enough to make it to the Supreme Court, but it's the small irregular rights, let us not forget, that add up to this great free-for-all we call democracy.

Late that night, with Brian sound asleep beside me, I remembered visiting my father's office as a boy and listening to his conversations with the Continental Building's black elevator operator. As Jimmy finessed the lever and we rose slowly toward the sixth floor, he and my father would grouse about a corrupt politician or a deceptive ballot measure, shaking their heads in consternation, two men united beyond the dictates of mere politeness—until the elevator bobbed to a stop and they went their separate ways.

Then there was the Samoan high talking chief, Pele-Pele, for whom my father won a divorce from the one Los Angelena among his dozen wives, a victory Dad celebrated by taking the chief and my mother and me to Disneyland, where visitors gawked at the sight of a corpulent brown foreigner dressed in his traditional lavalava. (“Pele-Pele, lavalava—is there an echo in here?” joked my father.) When park employees dressed as Mickey and Minnie scurried toward the chief for a snapshot, he fearfully exclaimed, “Big man-and-wife mice!”

My father frequently relied on Mr. Gutierrez, manager of the Pico Union hot sauce company, for business tips. Against my mother's wishes, Dad had sunk a large portion of their savings into a line of Kosher burritos, a culinary area in which he was perhaps the first and last venture capitalist. When supply, not surprisingly, outweighed demand (the burritos were stuffed with corned beef and dill pickles), it was Mr. Gutierrez who urged my father to cut his losses before he lost his shirt.

The Democrat in my father bristled against the prescribed limits imposed on friendships between men of different races, but perhaps these very limits also allowed him to express toward Jimmy and Chief Pele-Pele and Mr. Gutierrez a warmth and trust he rarely felt in the company of white men, who, advancing in the business world with a minimum of friction, could at any moment exceed him in reputation or net worth, a possibility that kept him on guard around his supposed peers.

“The conundrum of color is the inheritance of every American, be he/she legally or actually Black or White,” wrote James Baldwin, whose essay about the death of his father,
Notes of a Native Son,
was a staple of my syllabus. It was one thing to unpuzzle my father's relationships with men of other races; add sex and gender in the person of Anna, and the question became erotically charged and exponentially more perplexing. In less than twenty-four hours and counting, I'd be introduced to my father's new wife. Numbers glowed on the bedside clock. Conclusions grew more elusive by the minute.

My father and Anna huddled side by side in a red leather booth at the far end of the restaurant. A constellation of brass pans hung on the wall behind them and glinted in the dim light. He leaned against her shoulder with an affection detectable from across the room, and when he noticed me squinting past the maître d's podium, he lifted his hand in vague gesture of recognition, like a man who couldn't quite rouse himself from a deep, voluptuous sleep. To my surprise, he didn't pull away from Anna and sit upright as I walked toward
them and slid into my side of the booth. Neither Anna nor I overstayed our handshake, opting for caution over headlong warmth. “Well,” said Dad, “here we are.” And indeed we were. Seated in a fancy restaurant, no less, a setting lush with bouquets of carnations and filled with the odor of roasting meat. He managed to catch the attention of a harried waiter and ordered a celebratory round of drinks, all the while keeping his shoulder pressed against Anna's. He showed no sign of the embarrassment I'd expected from our phone conversation. The tilt of his body against hers spoke of his longing with a candor he'd never allow himself to express in words.

When my father had warned me about Anna's youth, I hadn't taken the relativity of his perspective into account, and now it took some getting used to the fact that his fiancée was a handsome, almost matronly woman whose skin had slackened into middle age, faint lines radiating from the outer edges of her tired brown eyes. This revelation was not without its pang of disappointment, for I would have achieved a certain cachet among my friends were I to introduce them to a young, dashiki-clad stepmother with a pneumatic Afro. Anna, however, wore a tailored navy blue dress and a gold brooch, the kind of tasteful outfit that calls attention to the wearer, but not too much, since a bid for attention even one jot more obvious might be viewed by others as vain or ostentatious. I respected her sartorial restraint because Brian dressed for work with a similar humility, eschewing loud ties and busy shirts and any other apparel that might trigger disquieting associations in his clients. For the success of therapy in general and transference in particular, he became a blank slate onto which people could project whoever it was they most needed him to be. All of which led me, I suppose, to project Brian onto Anna so that she might seem, in this awkward situation, more knowable than not.

“Isn't she bee-yoo-tee-full?” Dad asked. This was the highest tribute he could offer, praise divided into syllables, each one stressed and savored in its turn.

“Your father,” said Anna, shaking her head with embarrassed pleasure.

How I wished she could have finished that sentence. “Yes,” I said, “he's really something.”

My tone was jovial, but I suddenly fought a surge of fury on my mother's behalf. Never, once, had I heard my father flatter her. Not so much as a crumb of praise from the loaf he'd been hoarding for Anna. “Never” is not an exaggeration. I thoroughly searched the archives of my memory, with its twisting halls and hidden rooms and admittedly disorganized filing cabinets. I wasn't looking only for lavish examples of flattery, but also for equivocal compliments such as, “That dress is nice every time you wear it,” or, “You look okay for a change.” Forget full sentences; I would have settled for a grunt of interest, a lascivious whistle, a “wow” as blunt and helpless as a belch. Certainly, if I concentrated hard enough, I could recollect a pet name he'd whispered to my mother:
Something Lips
or
Yummy Something
. I hunted, in other words, for any and all vocalizations that fell within the range of human hearing and might, by some stretch of the imagination, be interpreted as your garden variety regard. And still I came up empty-handed.

Maybe when my brothers were young (it's too late to ask them) my parents were free with their compliments and reached for each other with eager hands. But by the time I came along, my mother watched the love scenes on soap operas with an expression I can only describe as a wistful grimace, and my father referred to any couple who weren't wringing each other's necks as “lovebirds,” so sweet was the absence of antagonism that it seemed to him commensurate with love. The parents I knew were like two feuding neighbors who tried to drown each other out by playing, louder and louder, the broken record of their discontentment, and if that didn't work, by shouting insults over the fence:
idiot, lunatic, bastard, bitch
. Years before my mother died of a stroke in her sleep, she'd been confined to the house with heart problems, and only then did the ferocity and volume of their arguments subside. Neither my mother's voice, muffled by medication, or my father's poor hearing could account for that final, saturating quiet. There's a term in Brian's profession for the attentive nods and steadfast eye contact
meant to prod a client toward disclosure—
active listening
. My parents, in contrast, practiced
active disregard,
the silence between them impervious to demands or entreaties, to threats or curses or tender words.

My father beamed at me and said, “I've told Anna all about you.”

“Oh?”

He turned to Anna. “And Bernard knows all about me.” I swallowed what felt like a solid ball of vodka. To call this an overstatement would be an understatement, but I let it ride for the sake of politeness. “So, honey,” he said, “let's tell him all about yourself.”

BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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