Over candles, coffee, and cautious conversation, Ben Schrank finally broke bread with his girlfriend's parents. It was an encounter that brought him into a complex world of emotions—envy, solitude, and surprise.
I'm with my girlfriend, Amanda, at her parents' farmhouse. It's a Friday evening, after dinner. I'm seated on one side of her parents' old mahogany table. We've just finished some homemade strawberry shortcake, and we're sipping coffee. Beeswax candles flicker on the table. Amanda and I have been together nearly a year, but owing to scheduling and geography, this is the first time I'm meeting her parents.
Tonight I'm a grown man playing a role I found far easier in high school, when I was half the age I am now. I've brought a few bottles of wine and I'm hoping to be liked, and to generally make Amanda's parents feel okay with the fact that I'm in love with their daughter and I'll be sleeping with her in their house tonight.
We talk about education. My girlfriend's mother is a high school math teacher. I allude only lightly to the difficult years I spent teaching public school. Amanda goes to the bathroom, and we continue our conversation. I tease my opinions on school reform into the form of suggestions. I actively avoid absolutes. My girlfriend comes back from the bathroom. She slips an old Van Morrison disc into the CD player.
Amanda pulls her chair near her father and rests her head on his shoulder. He slips an arm around her, and we continue talking. I watch them as they look at me. I've never seen her so happy and relaxed with a man who isn't me. She leans into her father while her mother and I joke about bureaucracy in public education. I feel a stirring that I know is jealousy—I'd rather her head were on my shoulder. And I retreat into the quiet so familiar to me from adolescence.
When I was in high school, I was so nervous around my girlfriend's parents I could barely speak at all. I'm sure my silence made me appear surly, cynical, and unimpressed. Mostly I was scared. I was afraid my girlfriend's parents were aware of the sex we were having (they were), of our crazed plan to marry (it annoyed them), and of how badly I fit in with their pursed-lip family (they were too pursed-lip to address this). I kept my trap shut and drank ice water. I remember counting the minutes until dinner was over so that Lisa and I could escape to somewhere private to enjoy our extremely fraught high school sex. But at least I knew how to play that role: I was the interloper, accepted by her parents as one of the odder manifestations of Lisa's adolescence.
Now I feel both like a stranger and a new and immediate sort of intimate. I don't want to say I feel cowed into quiet by Amanda's father. How could I be? I think he's terrific. He's a short man with longish white hair that falls over his forehead and a fierce chin that quivers when he laughs. He's an active listener, quick with an idea, and he's not afraid to use his wit. I enjoy being in his presence. I notice small calls to competition, but I know better than to play with him. And I'm hesitant to match his vivacity, out of concern that Amanda's mother might find me too boisterous. I admire his lack of self-consciousness.
I'm grateful for the ease I feel with him, because my mind is quick to race to far worse scenarios. I think of a close friend of mine named Josh. He married a woman whose father had been violent with her, her mother, and her sister when they were growing up. The mother had gotten a divorce long ago. But Josh's wife had made an uneasy peace with her father. She saw him for dinner every few months and brought Josh with her.
We were drinking beer one night, and Josh talked about the first time he ate dinner with his father-in-law. Josh listened while his wife's father made jokes about how aggravating it had been to live with three women. Josh told me he did what was expected of him—which was nothing. He understood that his wife had to see her father to dissolve his power, to be with him and love the parts of him that she could find to love.
Josh said, "I pretend like I can handle it even though I know I really can't."
"You can't fight him, and you can't forgive him," I said.
"That's right," Josh said. "I smile and play my role as best I can."
"Isn't there anything else you can do?"
I remembered Josh as an adolescent, when he'd been ready to fight with just about anybody. Now I think he's the most adult man I know.
In Amanda's house, we take our coffee into the kitchen, where we discuss plans for the next day. Amanda's father sits down in a big wooden chair that's pushed into one corner. We talk about whether to go for a hike in the morning or visit an antiques fair, and Amanda sits in her father's lap. Again, I'm overwhelmed by the momentary sensation of displacement as the primary male in Amanda's life. I play with their dog, Sparkle, who comes through a flap in the kitchen door. We agree on a hike. But I find it difficult to look at Amanda, in her father's lap. I'm painfully aware of how lonely it feels to be temporarily outside the circle of Amanda's love. If I were a teenager, I'd feel jealous and angry and I wouldn't understand why. But now, though I'm still the interloper, I find that I can step back and wait. She'll come back to me. And I think of Josh, embracing the demands of his impossible role. Compared with that, this Oedipal jealousy isn't so bad.
Later, Amanda and I go to sleep in the attic bedroom she used when she was a child. I say that it was weird for me to see them treat her as if she were still so young.
"Actually, we used to fight all the time," she says. "I don't think any of us behaved this way when I was younger, and so we're kind of revising. But I love them, and I suspect my dad's started to think I've been sitting on his lap since I was 5—which isn't true, of course."
"But don't you feel like you're not entirely yourself?" I ask.
She laughs. "Myself? This is the role I play here."
I grow quiet. There's a yearbook on her bookshelf in between battered copies of Watership Down and Madame Bovary. I look for pictures of her.
She says, "Who doesn't play a bunch of roles? You need to be able to accept me in all of mine."
I say that I can—of course I can. But even as I say it, I know it's not entirely true. I don't know that I'll ever be free of an inclination toward rivalry with her father. I envy the security that exists there.
Amanda shows me pictures of herself at her fifth birthday party, her young mother and father on either side. I don't mind a night when I have to wrestle with myself a little in order to temper my responses. I realize, as Amanda and I go through the faded images, that I'm happy to have the opportunity to exist within this more complex role. I'm grateful to her for showing me where she comes from. I've got other roles ahead of me, and the more I know about her, the better I'll play them.
Ben Schrank is the author of Consent (Random House, 2002).
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Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, May 19, 2013
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