Chiseche Salome Mibenge
The Protected Party – Nonfiction
Published by Columbia Journal, Spring 2017 ed.
Her father called and asked me about it. The child’s sweater on my desk behind the MacBook. I held the heavy odor of little girl against my face. The wool was saturated with mother’s cooking, fabric softener, dead and wild-living skin, dusty but too young to be sweaty.
I had invited friends round for brunch, my tradition for the first day of the New Year. Thabo came with his little girls. They let me kiss them the way I learned to kiss in Calabria, five or more quick, moist smooches over their faces while holding their heads still, my palms pressed tight over their ears. They ate well, the three-year-old loved the cheese and popped slabs of mozzarella into her mouth until a grown up moved the plate out of her reach. The ten-year-old was helpful, carrying around little trays and serving when I asked her.
The little one rubbed her crotch through her Cinderella skirt, and I said to her, ‘Mama let’s go to the toilet.’ She followed obediently and then sat beside me on the bathtub rim, expectant. I asked her, ‘Don’t you want to use the toilet?’ She replied, ‘You use the toilet!’ I apologized, ‘Oh. Let’s go then. I thought you wanted to go to the toilet.’
I sat on the floor on a massive kuba cushion Mommy made me. I stuffed it tight with newspapers and it’s as firm as an orthopedic mattress. The other grownups squeezed up on the sofa or on wooden kitchen chairs. Thabo sat on my Egyptian leather pouf with his back stiff against a wall. The younger guests, some of them my former students, tried to give him a chair, but he explained that he had hurt his back and this was the only comfortable seat for him in the house. I bought it in Maadi three months before I moved to New York. My first piece of furniture for my Riverdale apartment. The little girls settled beside me on the cushion and their bodies hugged mine. The little one picked, rubbed and pulled at my clothes, hair and jewelry. I took off my earrings and put them into her hand to stop her from accidentally ripping my ears. I made a sudden, hissing lunge at her face and said, ‘This is what a cat does when you are rough with it.’ She imitated me, holding her claws out in front of her face and hissing back. I smiled at her fierce impression. ‘I don’t want to get angry like a cat. Can you be gentle now?’ She nodded and continued to pull my hair, but gently so I wouldn’t hiss at her.
I want them very much. These little people.
The fostering class is a drag. Ten or so adults, Hispanic, Caribbean, African-American and me. This is my Bronx, I am always the only one. It’s like living in Utrecht for ten years. Not lonely, but conscious that passing is never my option. And then there are the white people. An elderly man, who starts to cry every time it is his turn to speak about his motivation for wanting to foster a child. We are sympathetic when he cries, but our faces harden when he speaks about his disposable income and how much money he’ll spend on his kid: big screen TV in the child’s bedroom, museums, amusement parks, shopping sprees and a private school education. And then there are the two trainers who will teach us how to be parents. They use a television, and I mean a real television – not even a TV. A prehistoric thing, unwieldy without a working remote control and with a V-C-R. And they have videos dating back to the 1960s that we have to watch. The first is a lecture by a white guy with Bee Gees hair and mustache describing the challenges of parenting urban youth. The second features our trainers as model foster parents. There are moving speeches by their black foster children about the good life they have enjoyed in their care. I dislike our trainers more and more with each passing minute and in no time they start to resemble Wood’s farmer and his daughter, but even more rigid and dour.
In one of the sessions there are mercifully, no videos. There are five children, one is white and the others are black and Hispanic. Our trainers feed them pizza, and then seat them at a table in front of the class and let them talk about the madness of their group homes, ‘’They put us with bad kids who’ve been in jail.’ The mistakes their Moms made, ‘I know she made mistakes but all I want is to be back with my Mom.’ Shitty foster parents, ‘I came back from school and my stuff was lying outside in a plastic bag and an ambulance came and took me away.’ And their dream foster scenario, ‘I want a mother and a father, like in a real family.’ We all fall in love with the light skinned boy and girl, both are as pretty as dolls. They are seasoned at this game and flirt with each of us, except for the rich old white man. The boy looks directly at him when he says, ‘The only thing I don’t want is you shouldn’t be old cause I don’t want to push anyone in a wheelchair.’ Next to the pretty boy and girl, the other children become a blur, it’s as if they are speaking from underwater as they make their take me home sales pitches.
I fail the course. Actually, I quit before I fulfill all thirty hours of the required instruction. I get sick of the farmer man addressing me as ‘professor’. I didn’t introduce myself as a title bearer so I know he googled me and is pissed off that I am one. He doesn’t mind my classmates, because they are more working class poor than he is, and this is why they pass and I fail. I stay long enough to piece together some truths about my classmates: They have raised orphaned nieces and nephews, nursed neglected neighbors and rescued grandchildren from frightened child-parents. But they are used to being patronized in this way, and they know how to sit through hours of training by experts in order to get whatever certificate or service they know they earned years and years ago. They are not deaf to the assumptions about their dysfunctional cultures and parenting styles. At the end of the day, they’re smarter than me, they know how to fake an orgasm. I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m short, sure I am used to being talked down to, but not in this way – I am not adjusted to mind numbing and humiliating instruction from dullards. Plus, I am used to being deferred to in the Bronx, especially by white people, and so I cannot get over myself and pass the foster parent test.
I’m in a jewelry store with my sister Mwenzi. She’s being fawned over by the staff as she deserves to be. Because I have no money, I am quickly demoralized by ostentation, and I go outside to wait. Honestly, I prefer the sweltering heat of the street to the coolness of the shop. The luxury items guy at Bloomingdales referred us to this shop when he realized that Bloomingdales was not upscale enough for my sister. I pick up a free magazine for gay men and I open to the classified section. There is an adoption agency hosting an information night. I stand outside the luxury store, watching the beautiful servers woo my my beautiful sister. When I was a child, we had a secret, she told me that she was adopted. This was no more than a joke on me and it should have ended quickly, only she is taller than all of us sisters, and fairer. We have small backs and F and G cup breasts, while she is the opposite with broad shoulders and a small bust. For many years I slaved to please her. I wanted her to feel loved by me, by us, all the time and to forget about that other family that rejected her.
She has recently taken to begging me to have a child. I have a vicious temper when people touch my womb, but as in our childhood, she can get away with it. I throw my arms wide indicating New York’s filth and poverty and the question, how can I raise a child alone in this place? She has promised that I could send her the baby and she’d raise it in Zambia until I was ready to mother. I think she is lying about raising my child, but by the time my sister prances out of the store flashing her new watch, I have already called the Manhattan adoption agency and registered for the meet up less than a week away.
I’m late but they give me apologetic smiles for having started without me. They serve us coffee and snacks in a smart room that resembles a hotel conference room. There is a fancy power point presentation with maps that show where our foster children are waiting for us: South Africa, Romania and Colombia. There is a moving story about a white, single, straight woman and her Chinese child, adopted through the agency when China was still a cooperating partner. I am the only African parent, but otherwise, I am not alone, everyone in the room looks like me. Neat clothes, diction, hair, and well considered interjections during the lecture that reveal our careful research of the subject and preparedness for fostering children.
Where can I find $20,000 for a Colombian baby? That’s the cheapest one on offer, but still, that’s $5000 more than the down payment on my mortgage, even if I get one with kinky hair.
I can’t foster, not even an unruly Bronx teenager, until I can afford a two-bedroom apartment, and that will be in another four or five years if I continue to teach in a public university. I have a twenty-hour work week, and five months of holiday annually, but I’m far from the salary I feel entitled to after remaining a graduate student into my mid-thirties.
I can’t afford to adopt or even foster a child. This is bad.
E-harmony comes to the rescue. It’s not free, but it’s cheap. A $75 subscription gives me six potential suitors in my Eh mailbox every morning over breakfast. It’s been a month and I’ve been on seven dates with four different men, a veterinarian, a shrink, a physiotherapist and an architect. This is a decent number for the festive season what with all the American, Christian and Jewish holidays. It’s news to me that there are so many single, unmarried and childless forty five year old men in New York City. They have decent table manners, are avid listeners and have graduate degrees. They’re just like women only much lonelier.
Their eagerness has reminded me that a woman’s reproductive potential is currency. At almost forty I feel reproductively challenged, but childless middle-aged men pay for dinner because they covet my womb. I am not their last chance, but at that age, some of them have fooled themselves into believing that I am their last chance at love. Not love between a man and a woman, but love between a father and his child.
I expected to feel humiliated by the entire hetero-patriarchal flesh trade, but on the contrary, I feel treasured and buoyant on my dates. I wear foundation, concealer, and powder and I show off my teeth and tits like a good girl. I start to have sexual fantasies about the men I date especially the overweight ones that I favor because they are sexually unthreatening. I buy a Hitachi magic-wand-personal-massager-trusted-by-Americans-for-over-30-years, and I start to stare at strange men in the subway in a predatory way. If I was a man I’d be one of those creeps with glazed eyes squeezing into crowded carriages with a hard on.
But it’s not just the anticipation of sex, really, that’s the least of it. I’m thinking that in the ten years it will take me to raise money for the child’s immigration papers and airfare from Bogotá, I could fall in love with a man I meet on Eh, we could pack on more pounds together, have two swell American children, stuff them with snacks and material objects and be kind of happy. I tell this to Maria on New Year’s day in my kitchen and her jaw drops. We have been sisters for almost twenty years and she has never heard me talk about pregnancy or marriage without a note of disapproval in my voice. ‘I’m just so shocked at you right now,’ she says.
I’m in a room full of women. One is heavily pregnant and dead on her feet, but the rest of us look good, all of us of reproductive age. We are patient, not offended by the delay, no one complains. There is the newscast, a boy was knifed in the Bronx and is refusing to identify the assailant, and a 36 year old woman was stabbed to death by her 24 year old boyfriend. A younger man. Would I? Honestly, boys are the only men I’m attracted to physically, but really, getting so intimate that my boy lover would be confident enough to come at me with a knife? I don’t think so.
A woman in the waiting room comments, ‘Two kids lost their Mom and now he’s cooled down, he’s asking himself if killing her is worth life in jail.’ The newscast flashes back to last summer when another woman was killed by her husband in the same building. ‘Gee. Nice place,’ our commentator deadpans. We all laugh, not really at domestic violence, but at the way its banal muzak like fog suffocates us one by one.
I have waited for an hour and a half but my gynecologist is the one who is cross with me.
‘March 2011. You haven’t been here in three years.’
‘I haven’t been having sex so…’
‘For three years?’
‘Yes for three and a half years.’
‘Why?’ She doesn’t believe me.
‘I didn’t want to. I was busy I guess. I’m single. I wasn’t with someone.’
‘But now you are having sex.’
‘But maybe. I’m getting there. Maybe I’d like to soon.’
She raises her eyebrows and asks me to strip. It’s been a long time. I’d forgotten about the crepe paper dress, the leather and the metal. Her instruments, maybe her fingers too, are inside of me. I watch her face, she looks unhappy, she is shaking her head.
‘Ah ah aah.’ She admonishes me. She orders me to relax and I start to laugh.
‘No, you are not relaxed. I need to feel your…’
I relax. And then it happens, she says victoriously, ‘You have fibroids.’
‘No I don’t.’
‘Your mother, sisters?’
‘We don’t have fibroids.’ I’m lying on my back and the goddamn stirrups make it hard to shout, so it doesn’t come out as loud or assertive as I meant it to.
‘It’s a fibroid,’ she says it with finality as she pulls out of me.
I dress behind her Chinese screen, underwear, bra, socks, jeans, boots, belt, t-shirt, sweater, coat, scarf, handbag, and smart phone. She is rushing to get to the next patient, and she shouts, ‘Any questions?’
‘No. No questions.’ I’m surprised by my response, because I had a lot of questions prepared. About my burning nipples when I run, about my itchy breasts in winter, another mammogram, pap smear. I guess I’m angry that she sounded happy when she found the fibroid. I don’t want to stay angry or worse, frightened, so I ask a question.
‘Can I get pregnant?’
I hear her coming, she steps into the screen as I’m pulling my sweater over my head.
‘Do you want to get pregnant?’ She asks me quietly. ‘Of course you can get pregnant, it’s just a very small fibroid. We don’t even need to do a sonogram unless you want. Do you want a sonogram?’
‘I don’t know. You tell me.’
‘If you want it we can do it.’
‘OK let’s do it now.’
‘I’m not allowed to do more than one procedure on you in one day.’
‘We can do it next week.’ She leaves my changing room and I hear her open and then close her office door.
She reenters the room as I am zipping up my boots, and she calls out to me one more time. ‘I hope you get pregnant soon!’
I’m trying to remember who I was at the millennium, on the eve of a breakout for my life.
obsessed with ‘The Rules’ a book which would tell me how to get a man and make him marry me.
with Mommy browsing for plants outside a shabby guest house in Makeni and I said with a mixture of dread and brazenness, ‘This is where I’ll be coming with other people’s husbands.’
so close to God that he spoke to me most mornings, in his voice, as I lay in bed. He gave me instructions, to get ready, steady, to go, because he was going to take me away from Mommy forever.
sober, clean off alcohol since Lent 1998 and so I knew that I wasn’t a drunk hearing voices.
at the jazz bar Soul Provider and a boy I never cared for told me he was sorry for what happened with that other girl, that I should forgive him and let’s get married. I escaped to the bathroom and smoked a cigarette very slowly. I should have told him the truth, that he gave me trichomoniasis, and that I only went with him to hurt Ama, his friend who I actually loved.
in the passenger seat and as the car, a beautiful, brand new Pathfinder, burst a tire and began to careen wildly over the dirt road, I spoke quietly and forcefully to the driver, ‘Don’t brake.’ We sped through bushes and small trees, and then the car flipped and flipped again. We hung upside down in our seatbelts, as composed as formula one drivers. I don’t believe any of us had time to get our minds into fuck I am going to die mode.
I was not queer yet but I was not straight enough.
I was so fuckin’ broke.
I was fallen.
I was pure.
I was initiated.
I was the bride.
It’s just over a decade and it’s stunning, how straight I have let myself get. Nobody sees it coming. I eenie meenie miny moe and catch a man and make him want to marry me. He is emotionally, physically and financially decrepit and I’m invigorated by the scale of this major rescue and rehabilitation project. He is desperate for old-fashioned love and ownership and it’s easy to follow his lead. It takes us only four months to get through the courtship. Shut down our Eh accounts, joint HIV tests, bad sex on Valentine’s Day, an amicable first holiday together, introductions to our skeptical but polite friends and then we get engaged on Facebook. ‘Loving this man is such a gift.’ I proclaim these words to my friends and family far and wide. Atleast on social media, I don’t stumble over my boasts about my big love and our wedding plans.
We are six months away from the wedding and then I blow it, I can’t seem to hold him down tight enough. My sister Chisala visits, and I can’t get him off the phone, hissing and spitting about the time she is stealing from us. It is less than a week and I haven’t seen her in two years, so I stand firm. He is nice again when she is gone. We move on, keep working on the wedding guest list. Sex is impossible, we are already impotent, so now we can sit in bed with a laptop and look at real estate. We want a guest room for when my family visits from Africa and a garage for the car.
The second rant is in his car and it lasts two and a half hours, the full duration of our ride home. I’m relieved when it comes, because he has been surly for days, working us towards it. He parks at a gas station and runs around the car shouting. He throws the car door open when he wants to shout directly at me. I begin to doubt myself, maybe this rage is bigger than my power to soothe him. I turn off my mobile phone to save on battery life and slip it into my bra cup in case I need to escape on the highway without my handbag, run, hide, call a taxi. I only jump out when he is parked outside of my apartment. Inside, he stuffs his things into his overnight bag and threatens to leave. I sit at the kitchen table. I look defeated, but actually my head is buzzing excitedly with plans for an upcoming holiday with my parents. I’m happy that it’s over. But then he stands at the door for a minute, ten minutes, a half hour, clutching the bag like a child on the first day of kindergarten. I feel my power and I like it. The incident, the thing, whatever happened, it passes and I feel I was unjust for having been so frightened of a boy’s tantrum. We go window shopping for wedding bands in the diamond district.
The third time I lose it. I lose all control of him. His rage, in my apartment, lasts for six hours. I know I’m scared because I can only remember two words of the Lord’s prayer, ‘Our Father Our Father Our Father’ as I lie on the sofa. It ends after midnight when I pass out from exhaustion. He sleeps on the floor, his body a thick barrier between the sofa and the unlocked door. The next day I am pretty again and we drive out of state for an engagement party his cousin throws for us. I know what I have to do, shine bright like a diamond and give him my power. His family is so proud of him, he relaxes, and that’s how I get away.
He didn’t beat me but for days afterward I can’t walk without clutching at a part of my body, checking for sprains and fractures, quieting phantom bruises. I hold my neck and shoulders rigid and wince every time I have to look left or right. The trouble is, I can count. The interval between the first and second time he got crazy was eight weeks and there was an interval of ten days between the second and third time. The women I know waited years before they were hit the first time, but this is moving really fast, I don’t think he can wait until the wedding.
I have to get through the next seven days and then I can go to JFK and go home. That week the sisters call me several times a day for updates: Has he called you again? Have you been back to the police? Do you know he called Mom and Dad? What did the therapist tell him? Why don’t you move in with Maria?
I am exhausted by their phone calls, mostly because they force me to keep moving when deep sleep is my instinct in the midst of calamity. People appreciate me in times of crisis because they think I am Buddha serene when the truth is that I am sleepwalking. The sisters don’t tell me what to do because for once, they are at a loss, but after each call I am compelled to take a step that is concrete and irreversible. I pass young Johnny, my super, some baksheesh as he changes my locks, I confess everything to my supervisor at the sexual assault program I volunteer with and we talk intently about a safety plan and trusting my gut. She reminds me because she knows that I am unflappable, that women are killed by their partners when they leave the relationship. I can’t bring myself to change my status from ‘engaged’ to ‘it’s complicated’ or to delete one by one the pictures of the happy couple, so I simply close my facebook account. I pull the dusty books ‘Coercive Control’ and ‘Violent Relationships’ from my bookshelf and start reading them again, and every day, I tell another sister everything.
Maria is waiting for me at her house in Long Island City. ‘You don’t have to be alone,’ she tells me, ‘Please come. I’ll get you to the airport on Friday.’ I am standing outside my building at 9PM with my three suitcases when he comes running out at me from the dark. My back snaps in half when he presses his wet nose, eyes, mouth and teeth into my face. The taxi driver arrives and I tell him to leave, I don’t need him anymore. I submit. I get into my fiancé’s car and I’m nice. I promise this is the last time.
I am sleeping with my sister’s girl, and I’m particularly careful about keeping grief out of the bed. I sleep in a vest and underpants instead of the chitenje, but despite my best intentions not to burden the baby, I cry loudly. About many things, but especially dead boys who we never allowed to grow into men and the sweet relief I feel at the end of my engagement.
Now that I’m home the sisters are silent. At first, I think they are ashamed on my behalf and don’t want to expose me in front of their husbands. But I know their husbands know everything and are incensed that I could be mistreated by a useless American. Eventually, I realize that they are just sad, as sad as I am that I didn’t pull off my trick. And ofcourse, they are tired. My sisters fall asleep as soon as they sit down. They have real lives: supervising the renovations on the new wing of the house, running the project for educating the girl child, mediating between warring family members, disciplining insubordinate husbands, servants, dependents and relatives, running the kids to swim meets, cramming for long distance graduate programs, navigating malicious corporate work environments. Still, they are tender with me. They want me in their sight all of the time. They escape from their offices during work hours to visit me at Mommy’s, and on Saturday, Mwenzi nixes my plan to go to the gym and insists that I follow her instead. I follow her to the supermarket, to the hair dresser, to visit her in-laws. The sisters know that I have done all of the practical things I can do and that what’s left is the emotional work. Chimango says simply, ‘Time. Only time will get you through it.’ When they finally start to talk about my break up, I cry at unexpected places. My voice never wavers, but I brush at my eyes as I plod on.
On Friday night, they tart me up for a night on the town. It’s a classy place, for wealthy blacks and poor and wealthy whites. My sisters’ friends’ husbands are out without their wives, and these men send bottles of wine over to our table. They have forgotten me, I’ve been away for a long time but my sisters are bosses in this town, and I am their girl, sitting safe between them. When I graduated from law school my family gathered here, it was called Marco Polo back then. I barely graduated, I had a GPA in the two point zero range, but they honored me anyway. There was a family friend with us that night, auntie Lolo, she was the first PhD holder we knew, and my mother and father loved her. That night my parents behaved as if I was her child. She sat at the head of the table and she made a speech about my achievements and the bright future ahead of me. Her partner, a married man was not invited to dinner. It doesn’t matter who made who sick, and maybe the sickness preceded their affair. But he died first. I was far away when this happened, already a PhD student in Holland. Mommy told me that he did not allow auntie Lolo to visit him in his matrimonial home as he faded away. And she was barred from mourning publicly at his funeral. She did not exist. He was a good man, he had one wife and he respected her. Mommy doesn’t turn this into a cautionary tale, it’s just a story about a handsome, single, childless woman, and all of her learning and how she let a man kill her.
On our drive back from the drink up, Chimango flicks through her itunes playlist and finally settles on Fergie’s Big Girls Don’t Cry. Actually, it’s a rubbish song. ‘This one is for you,’ she says. She is drunk and I’m sober, but we both sing it just like Fergie, overwrought yet spunky, and without any hint of self-mockery. As the song ends, she tells me, ‘No more crying. You have to stop crying now.’
I stop crying. I watch the World Cup with the children into the early hours of the morning, I celebrate my 39th birthday with my sisters at my favorite Indian restaurant, I sit still for six hours and the Maasai men plait my hair. My parents know, he is going to give me hell, but they let me go back home. Mommy’s airport speech is brief, ‘Remember, you are not alone Mama.’
The judge looks like Kenny G. He has long curly auburn hair. Unlike detective Tomas Hernandez and Josefa Rodriguez my social worker he doesn’t seem disappointed that the respondent did not rape me, strangle me, beat me or threaten to harm my dog. He grants me the order of protection without any fuss. There is a court recorder and a marshal, but I don’t see them, I only watch the judge. We smile when he makes me a protected person. He can’t be more than five years older than me. I waited for three hours to see him. I was sent to Safe Horizons on the sixth floor where a social worker helped me fill in my petition. I didn’t need help. I had already filled in the petition near Yankee Stadium in a diner full of cops having breakfast. But I was afraid that I would look arrogant if I refused to be helped by the social workers.
The social worker doesn’t understand my English and I don’t understand her English. My Bronx is Hispanic but no one has this much Spanish in their English. She pronounces ‘you’ like ‘jew’ and she makes spelling mistakes on my petition that I don’t correct, because there is a blond intern sitting in on our transaction, and I don’t want to correct Josefa in front of a white person. It would be like correcting a wife in front of her husband. Unforgivable.
There are two other clients in the consultation room with me. They are black like me. One is west African, she looks just about as strong as me. She has her beautiful boy, with big, pitch black eyes. He is 10 or 11 and losing his baby fat. Something is wrong with him. He squeals and whimpers, like a puppy as his Mom shares her story with her social worker. The other client is not African. I can’t tell what kind of black she is. She has a good story though, violence, weapons, women’s shelter, the works. Her clothes, her skin, her hair, everything is worn down. I don’t think she is sleepwalking, I think she’s dead. Her social worker is a boy, he is as young as my students. I wonder what brought him to this room full of beleaguered women. I’m happy to see him here.
Notice: This order of protection will remain in effect even if the protected party has, or consents to have, contact or communication with the party against whom the order is issued. This order of protection can only be modified or terminated by the court. The protected party cannot be held to violate this order nor be arrested for violating this order.
I was once sexually harassed by my boss, a woman who refused to discuss my professional development but always made time to comment on my lovely bust, my small waist, my expensive clothes, my smooth skin, and how popular I was, how everyone loved me so much. I can’t say that I hated the two men who harassed me through unwanted physical contact in the workplace. One was a peer and the other was a subordinate, so I was able to demobilize them like a ninja, swift and vicious. I bear them no ill will. But she was my superior and I was frightened, I felt nauseous when I heard her giggling outside my door. I began to apply for jobs in earnest. I really hated her. She liked confessions to make us closer, and in the long wait for an elevator, and then its slow ascent, she told me about her father and what a brute he was. How he hated women, especially her and her mother, and how he worshiped his sons. I nodded encouragingly and her herstory ended on a triumphant note as she lauded her emancipation and accomplishments. And then a silence followed that I refused to fill. She was forced to prod me, ‘What about your father?’ I looked at her squarely and said, ‘My father is a feminist, he loves women.’ She was mad. And I was happy to have made her mad. I wasn’t looking to join her sisterhood, and soon after, she began to snub me. She stopped telling me I was pretty and stopped giving me gifts. This was my emancipation.
It’s true. My father does love women. At our reunion, we sit in conference in the garden to talk about my dis-engagement. He is disheveled, his hair recently dyed black but uncombed, and he is wearing Mommy’s dressing gown. I am startled, I have never seen him in night clothes so late in the morning, and I realize that he is still delicate from the surgery, or maybe he is finally beginning to enjoy the slow hours of retirement. Mommy has a lot to say, but as per our tradition, she lets him chair. When he is done, he asks her politely, ‘My wife do you have something to say?’ She shakes her head and says, ‘You have said everything Daddy.’ She stares at me curiously, and then for the record, chastises me. ‘Anyway, you already know these things, I mean you’ve even written a book about…women.’ She wants to laugh at me, and so do I, but we compose ourselves. Daddy requires levity in a family conference.
It seemed a bit of a stretch calling my father a feminist, but it turns out that he is one after all. A complicated one, like me. He will not perform menial labor like change a lightbulb, boil an egg, make a bed, clean the scum from a bathtub, or clear plates from the table. He still drops his orange peels on the side table and does not acknowledge the servant, wife, daughter or granddaughter that promptly picks up after him. But in this conference, he is the first family member to use words like ‘abuser,’ ‘stalker,’ ‘domestic violence,’ ‘racist,’ ‘low class’ and ‘your humiliation.’ It needed a man, and he has been that man, to give us women permission to stop using metaphors and speak plainly about what is happening to me.
When I first told Mommy about my engagement her response was muted. She is the only one who really understands how much I despise women who love men, so she was suspicious when I declared that I was joining the wagon. Daddy was different. He loved the wedding announcement, and I felt like a treasure, curled up on my sofa, relaying my good fortune. He was so delighted that he broke with protocol, and told me my baby’s name. His father’s name, a good name that would work for a boy or a girl. He has been saving it all these years. I laughed at him because I was very far from pregnant, but he was so earnest, that right then and there on skype, I let him secure his patriarchal right to name my first born.