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short story    
 
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  Bliss Broyard: Mr. Sweetly Indecent


I meet my father in a restaurant. He knows why I have asked to meet him, but he swaggers in anyway. It's a place near his office and he hands out hellos all around as he makes his way over to my table. "My daughter," he explains to the men who have begun to grin, and he can't resist a wink just to keep them guessing. "Daddy," I say; his arms are around me. He squeezes a beat too long and I'm afraid I might cry. He kisses me on both cheeks, my forehead and chin. "Saying my prayers," he has called these kisses ever since he used to tuck me into bed each night. They started as a joke on my mother, who is French and a practicing Catholic. Because my mother always kept her relationship with God to herself, the only prayer I know is one my father taught me:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should cry before I wake, I pray the Lord a cake to bake.

I only realized years later that he had changed the words of the real prayer so I wouldn't be scared by it.

My father orders a bottle of expensive red wine. He's had this wine here before. When it arrives, he insists that I taste it. He tells the waiter that I'm a connoisseur of wines. The truth is that I worked one summer as a hostess in a French restaurant where I attended some wine-tasting classes. We learned that a wine must be tasted even if it's from a well-known vineyard and made in a good year because there could be some bad bottles. I could never tell the good wines from the bad ones, but I picked up some of the vocabulary.

I make a big fuss, sniffing the cork, sloshing the wine around in my mouth. "Fruity. Ripe," I say.

The waiter and my father smile at my approval. I smack my lips after the waiter leaves. "But no staying power. Immature, overall."

My father gets a sour look on his face. He's taken a big sip so that his cheeks are puffed out with the liquid. After he gulps it down he says, "It's fine." And then he adds, "You know, it's all right for you to like it. It cost forty dollars."

"I'll drink it but I don't really like it."

He looks ready to argue with me and then thinks better of it, glancing instead around the restaurant to see if anyone else he knows has come in.

We don't say anything for a bit. I'm hesitating. I sip the wine, survey the room myself. I've recently begun to realize that my father's life exists outside the one in which I have a place. Rather than viewing this outside life as an extension of the part that I know, I choose to see it instead as a distant land. Some of its inhabitants are here. Mostly men, they chuckle over martini glasses; one raises his eyebrow. They all look as if they have learned something that I have yet to discover.

Finally, I put my glass down and smooth some wrinkles in the tablecloth. "Dad, what are we going to do?" I ask without looking up.

He takes my hand. "We don't need to do anything. We should just put it behind us. We can pretend that it didn't even happen if that's what you want."

"That's what you want," I say. I'd caught him, after all, kissing a woman on the street outside his apartment.


As long as I can remember, my father has kept an apartment in this city where he works and I now live. In his profession, he needs to stay in touch, he has always said. That has meant spending every Monday night in the city having dinner with his associates. Occasionally, it had occurred to me that his apartment might be used for reasons other than a place to sleep after late business dinners. Then one night, while I still lived at home, my mother confided that a friend of my father's contributed one hundred dollars a month toward the rent to use it once in a while. I remember that my mother and I were eating cheese fondue for dinner. On those nights my father was away, my mother made special meals that he didn't like. She ripped off a piece of French bread from the loaf we were sharing and dipped it in the gooey mixture. "This friend brings his mistress there," she explained. "I hate that your father must be the one to supply him with a place to carry out his affair." I didn't say anything, my suspicion relieved by this sudden confidence. My mother tilted back her head and dropped the coated bread into her open mouth. When she finished chewing, she closed the subject. "His wife should know what her husband is up to. I'm going to tell her one day."

When I was walking down my father's street early last Tuesday morning, it didn't even occur to me that my father would be at his apartment. I was on my way to the subway after leaving the apartment of a man with whom I had just spent the night. This man is a friend of a man at work with whom I have also spent the night. The man at work, Jack, is my friend now--he said that working together made things too complicated--and we sometimes go out for a drink at the end of the day. We bumped into his friend at the bar near our office. The friend asked me to dinner and then asked me to come up to his apartment for a drink and then asked if he could make love to me. After each question, I paused before answering, suspicious because of the directness of his invitations, and then when he looked away as if it didn't really matter, I realized that, in fact, I had been waiting for these questions all night, and I would say yes.

When we walked into this man's living room, he flicked a row of switches at the entrance, turning on all the lights. He brought me a glass of wine and then excused himself to use the bathroom. I strolled over to the large picture window to admire the view. Looking out from the bright room, it was hard to make out anything on the street. The only movement was darting points of light. "It's like another world up here," I murmured under my breath. I heard the toilet flush and waited at the window. I was thinking how he could walk up behind me and drape his arm over my shoulder and say something about what he has seen out this window, and then he could take my chin and turn it toward him and we could kiss. When I didn't hear any movement behind me, I turned around. He was standing at the entrance of the room. "I'd like to make love to you," he said. "Would that be all right?" There was no music or TV, and it was so silent that I was afraid to speak. I smiled, took a sip of wine. He shifted his gaze from my face to the window behind me. I glanced out the window too, then put my glass down on the sill and nodded yes. "Why don't you take off your coat," he said. I slipped my trench coat off my shoulders and held it in front of me. He pointed to a chair in front of the window and I draped the coat over its back. Then he asked me to take off the rest of my clothes.

Once I was naked, he just stood there staring at me. I wondered if he could see from where he was standing that I needed a bikini wax. I wanted to kiss him, we hadn't even kissed yet, and I took a small step forward and then stopped, one foot slightly in front of the other, unsteady, uncertain what to do next. "Beautiful," he finally whispered. And then he kept whispering beautiful, beautiful, beautiful....

I had just reached my father's block, though lost in my thoughts I didn't realize it, when from across the street, I heard a woman's voice. "Zachary!" the voice called out, the stress on the last syllable, the word rising in mock annoyance, the way my mother said my father's name when he teased her. All other times, she called him, as everyone else did, just Zach. I looked up and there was my father pushing a woman up against the side of a building. His building, I realized.

My father's face was buried in her neck, and she was laughing. I recognized from her reaction that he was giving her the ticklish kind of blowing kisses that I hated. I had stopped walking and was staring at them. I caught the woman's eye briefly, and then she looked away and whispered something in my father's ear. His head jerked up and whipped around. I looked down quickly and started walking away, as if I had been caught doing something wrong. If my father had run after me and asked what I was doing in this neighborhood so early in the morning, I wouldn't have known what to tell him. I glanced back, and the woman was walking down the street the other way, and my father was standing at the entrance of his building. He was watching the woman. She was rather dressed up for so early in the morning, wearing a short black skirt, stockings, and high heels. She pulled her long blond hair out from the collar of her Jacket and shook it down her back. Her gait looked slightly self-conscious, the way a woman's does when she knows she is being watched. Before I looked away, my father glanced in my direction. I avoided meeting his eyes and shook my head, a gesture I hoped he could appreciate from his distance. As I hurried to the subway, the only thought I had was fleeting: My man had not gotten up from bed to walk me out the door.


For the next few days I waited for the phone to ring. Neither man called. I asked Jack, the man at work, if he had heard from his friend. "Sorry, not a peep," he said. He patted me on the knee and said that he was sure his friend enjoyed the time we spent together and that I would probably hear from him soon.

It was unusually warm that day, and I walked home rather than taking the subway. All the way home, I kept picturing myself back in the man's apartment. I saw us as someone would have if they had been floating nine stories high above the busy avenue that night and had picked out the man's lighted window to peer into: a young woman, naked, moving slowly across a room to kiss the mouth of her clothed lover. It seemed that the moment was still continuing, encapsulated eternally in that bright box of space.

When I walked in the door that afternoon, my phone was ringing. I rushed to answer it before the machine picked it up. It was my mother. She had already left a message on my machine earlier in the week to call her about making plans to go home the following weekend. Whether I should tell her about my father was a question that had been gathering momentum behind me all week. My mother is a passionate, serious woman. My father met her when she was performing modern dance in a club in West Berlin. The act before her was two girls singing popular American show tunes and after her, for the finale, there was a topless dancer. She didn't last there for very long. My father liked to describe how the audience of German men would look up at her with bemused faces. Her seriousness didn't translate, he would say, and the Germans would be left wondering if her modern dancing was another French joke that they didn't get. After the shows, all the women who worked there had to faire la salle, which meant dance with the male customers. At this point in the story I would ask questions, hoping that a bit of scandal in my mother's past would be revealed, or that at least I would find out that she had to resist some indecent propositions at one time. But my mother always jumped in to say that she had learned that if you don't invite that kind of behavior, then you won't receive it. Such things never happen by accident. My father married my mother, he would explain, because she was one of the last women left who could really believe in marriage. He said she had enough belief for the both of them. I hadn't called my mother back.

"Oh, sweetie. I'm glad I caught you," she said. "You're still going to take the 9:05 train Saturday morning, right?"

"Uh-huh."

"OK. Daddy will have to pick you up after he drops me off at the hairdresser's. I'm trying to schedule an appointment to get a perm."

"Ahh."

"I feel like it's been forever since I've seen you. Daddy and I were just saying last night how we still can't get used to you not being around all the time."

I tried to picture myself back in my parents' house. I couldn't place myself there again. I couldn't remember where in the house we spent our time, where we talked to each other: around the dining room table, on the couch in the den, in the hallways; I couldn't remember what we talked about.

"Is everything OK, honey? You sound tired."

"Hmmm."

"All right. I can take a hint. I'll let you go."

After we hung up, I said to my empty apartment, "I caught Daddy with another woman." Once these words were out of my mouth, I couldn't get away from them. I went out for a drink.


When I woke up the next morning, I decided to cut off all of my hair. I have brown curly hair like my father's. It's quite long, and when I stood in that man's living room I pulled it in front of my shoulders so that it covered my breasts. The man liked that, he told me afterward as he held me in his bed. He said that I had looked sweetly indecent. I lost my nerve in the hairdresser's chair and walked out with bangs instead. In the afternoon, I went to a psychic fair with a friend, and a fortune-teller told me that she saw a man betraying me. "Tell me something I don't know," I said, but that would have cost another ten dollars.

I called my father Sunday morning at home. I knew when he answered the phone that he had gotten up from the breakfast table, leaving behind a stack of Sunday papers and my mother sipping coffee.

"We have to talk before I come home next weekend."

"OK. Where would you like to meet?" He didn't say my name, and his voice was all business.

"Let's have dinner somewhere." He suggested a restaurant and we agreed to meet the next evening after work.

"Tomorrow then." I put a hint of warning in my voice.

"Yes. All right," he said and hung up. I wondered if my mother asked him who had called and, if she did, what he would have told her.

Next, I called up the man in whose living room I had stood naked. The phone rang many times. I was about to hang up, disappointed that there was not even a machine so I could hear his voice again, when a sleepy voice answered. I was caught by surprise and forgot my rehearsed line about meeting at a bakery I knew near his apartment for some sweetly indecent pastries. I hung up without saying anything.


The waiter takes our empty plates away. My father refills my glass. I have drunk two glasses of wine already and am starting to feel sleepy and complaisant. My father has already told me that he is not planning on seeing the woman again, and I am beginning to wonder what it is that I actually want my father to say.

He drums his fingers on the edge of the table. I can see that he is growing tired of being solicitous. He sought my opinion on the wine; he noticed that I had bangs cut; he remembered the name of my friend at work whom I was dating the last time we got together.

"I'm not with him anymore," I explain. "We thought it was a bad idea to date since we work together." I consider telling my father about the man, to let him know that I understand more about this world of affairs than he thinks. He would be shocked, outraged. Or would he? I'm not sure of anything anymore.

I let myself float outside the man's window again, move closer to peer inside. But this time I can't quite picture his face. What color are his eyes? They're green, I decide. But then I wonder if I am confusing them with my father's eyes.

"Someday, honey, you'll meet a guy who'll realize what a treasure you are." My father pats my knee.

"Just because he thinks I'm a treasure doesn't mean that he won't take me for granted." I take another sip of wine and watch over the rim of my glass for my father's response. I remember watching him at another table, our dining room table, where he sat across from my mother. She had just made some remark that I couldn't hear from where I perched on our front stairs, spying, as they had a romantic dinner alone with candles and wine. Earlier, my father had set up the television and VCR in my room and sent me upstairs to watch a movie. My father put down his glass and got up out of his chair. He knelt at my mother's feet and though I couldn't hear his words either I was sure that he was asking her to marry him again.

"Honey. Listen. It was nothing with that woman. It doesn't change the way I feel about your mother. I love your mother very much."

"But it makes everything such a lie," I say, my voice now catching with held-back tears. "What about our family, all the dinners, Sunday mornings around the breakfast table, the walks we love to take..." I falter and hold my hands out wide to him.

My father catches them and folds them closed in his own. "No. No. All of that is true. This doesn't change any of that." He is squeezing my hands hard. For the first time during this meal, I can see that I have upset him.

"But it didn't mean what I thought, did it?"

Right then the waiter appears with our check. My father lets go of my hands and reaches for his wallet. Neither of us says anything while we wait for the waiter to return with the credit-card slip. I don't repeat my question because I am afraid that my father will say I'm right.


The next day at work I ask my friend again about Mr. Sweetly Indecent.

"If you want to talk to him, call him up."

"Do you think I should?"

"It can't hurt."

"If we didn't work together, do you think things could have turned out differently with us?" We are in the photocopying room where in the midst of our affair my friend had once lifted my skirt and slid his fingers inside the elastic waist of my panty hose.

"Oh, hell. You'll meet someone who'll appreciate you. You deserve that. You really do."


I call the man up that night. He doesn't say anything for a moment when I tell him my name. I imagine him reviewing a long line of naked women standing in his living room. "That one," he finally picks me out of the crowd. Or maybe it's just that he's surprised to hear from me.

"I had a really nice time that night," I said. "I thought maybe we could get together again sometime."

"Well, I had a good time, too," he says, sounding sincere, "but I think that we should just leave it at that."

"I'm not saying that I want to start dating. I just thought that we could do something again."

"It was the kind of night that's better not repeated. I know. I've tried it before. The second time is always a disappointment."

"But I thought we got along so well." We had talked over dinner about our families; he told me how he was always trying to live up to the kind of man he thought his father wanted him to be. He had talked in faltering sentences, as though this were something that he was saying for the first time.

"We did get along," he says. "God! And you were so beautiful." He pauses and I know he's remembering that I really was beautiful. "l just want to preserve that memory of you standing in my living room, alone, without any other images cluttering it."

Yes, I want to tell him, I have preserved that image, too, but memories need refueling. I need to see you again to make sure that what I remembered is actually true. "Is this because I slept with you on the first night?"

"No. No. Nothing like that. Listen, it was a perfect night. Let's just both remember it that way."


As the train pulls into the station, I spot my father waiting on the platform. I take my time gathering my things so I'm one of the last to exit. He hugs me without hesitation, as though our dinner had never happened. As we separate he tries to take my suitcase from me. It's just a small weekend bag and I resist, holding on to the shoulder strap. We have a tug-of-war.

"You're being ridiculous," my father says and yanks the strap from my grip. I trail behind him to the car and look out the window the whole way home.

That afternoon I sit at the kitchen table and watch my mother and father prune the rosebushes dotting the fence that separates our yard from the street. My mother selects a branch and shows my father where to cut. They work down the row quickly, efficient with their confidence in the new growth these efforts will bring. Behind them trails a wake of bald, stunted bushes and their snipped limbs lying crisscross on the ground beneath.

After they have finished cleaning up the debris, my father brings the lawn chairs out of the garage--he brings one for me, too, but I have retreated upstairs to my bedroom by this time and watch them from that window--and my mother appears with a pitcher of lemonade and glasses. My mother reclines in her chair, with my father at her side, and admires their handiwork. Her confidence that the world will obey her expectations makes her seem foolish to me. Or perhaps it is because every time I look at her I think of how she is being fooled.

On Sunday morning, my mother heads off to mass, and I am left alone in the house with my father. He sits with me at the kitchen table for a while, both of us flipping through the sunday papers. I keep turning the pages, unable to find anything that can hold my attention. He's not really reading either. He is too busy waiting on me. He hands me the magazine and style sections without my even asking. He refills my coffee. When Georgie, our Labrador retriever, scratches at the door, he jumps up to let her out. When he sits back down, he gathers all the sections of the paper together, including the parts that I am looking at, and stacks them on one corner of the table. I look at him, breathe out a short note of exasperation.

"Are you ever going to forgive me?" he asks.

"Why aren't you going to see that woman again. Just because I caught you?"

He looks startled and answers slowly, as if he is just testing out this answer. "She didn't mean anything to me. It was like playing a game. It was fun but now it's over."

"Do you think that she expected to see you again?"

"No. She knew what kind of a thing it was. And I'm sure that she prefers it this way also. She has her own commitments to deal with."

"Maybe she does want to see you again. Maybe she felt like you had something really special together. Maybe she's hoping that you would leave Mom for her."

"Honey, when you get older you'll understand that there are a lot of different things that you can feel for another person and how it's important not to confuse them. I love your mother and I'm very devoted to her. Nothing is going to change that."

My father sits with me a few minutes more, and when there doesn't seem to be anything else to say, he stands up and wanders off. I realize that if I had told my father about the man during our dinner, he would have understood what kind of a thing that was before I did.

When my mother gets back, she joins me at the kitchen table.

"Do you want to talk about something, honey? You seem so sad." I look at my mother and the tears that have been welling in my eyes all weekend threaten to spill over.

"Daddy says you're having boy trouble."

I shake my head no, unable to speak.

My mother suggests that we take the dog out for a walk, just the two of us, so we can catch up. She gathers our coats, calls Georgie, and we head out the door. "I don't even know what's going on in your life since you've moved out. It's strange," she says, "I used to know what you did every evening, who you were going out with, what clothes you chose to wear each day. Now I have no idea how you spend your time. It was different when you were at college. I could imagine you in class, or at the library, or sitting around your dorm room with your roommate. Sometimes I used to stop whatever I was doing and think about you. She's probably just heading off to the cafeteria for breakfast right now, I would tell myself."

We are walking down our street toward the harbor.

"But you know that I go to work every day. You know what my apartment looks like. It's the same now."

"No, it's not," she says. "It's really all your own life. You support yourself, buy all your own clothes, decide if and when to have breakfast. And somehow, I don't feel right imagining what your day is like. It's not really my business anymore."

"I don't mind, Mom, if you want to know what I'm doing." We have reached the harbor and my mother is bending over the dog to let her off the lead, so I'm not sure if she hears me. She pulls a tennis ball out of her pocket and Georgie begins to dance backward. My mother starts walking to the water. I stay where I am and look off across the harbor. On the opposite shore, some boats have been pulled up onto the beach for the winter just above the high-tide mark. They rest on the side of their hulls and look as if they've been forgotten, as if they will never be put back in the water again.

My mother turns toward me, holding the tennis ball up high over her head. Georgie is prancing and barking in front of her. "You know what I love about dogs? It's so easy to make them happy. You just pet them or give them a biscuit or show them a ball and they always wag their tails." She throws the ball into the water and Georgie goes racing after it.

My mother's eagerness to oblige surprises me. I think of her dancing with men in that club in West Berlin. I had always imagined her as acting very primly, holding the men away from her with stiff, straight arms. Perhaps she wasn't that way at all. Maybe she leaned into these men, only drawing back to toss her head in laughter at the jokes they whispered in her ear.

"Mom, what made you go out with Dad when you worked in that club? You didn't go out with many of the men that you met there, did you?"

"Your father was the only one I accepted, though I certainly had many offers."

"Did he seem more respectable?"

"Oh, he came on like a playboy as much as the next one."

"Then why did you say yes?"

"Well, somehow he seemed like he didn't quite believe his whole act. Though he wouldn't say that if you asked him. I guess I felt I understood something about him that he didn't even know about himself. So he went about seducing me, all the while feeling like he had the upper hand, and I would go along, knowing that I had a trick up my sleeve, too."

She isn't looking at me as she says this. She is turned toward the water, though I know that she is not looking at that either. She is watching herself as a young woman twirling around a room with my young father. They dance together well; I have seen them dance before, and this memory brings such a pleased private smile to her lips that I don't say anything that would contradict her.


I am quiet during dinner. My parents treat me like I am sick or have just suffered some great loss. My mother won't let me help her serve the food. My father pushes seconds on me, saying that I look too skinny. "Maybe I should take you out to dinner more often," he says.

I look up from my heaping plate of food, half expecting him to wink at me.

"That's right. You two met for dinner this week. See, honey, that's just the kind of thing I was talking about. It's nice that you and your father can meet and have dinner together. Like two friends."

My parents tell stories back and forth about me when I was young; many stories I have heard before. Usually I enjoy these conversations. I listen to them describe this precocious girl and the things she has done that I can't even remember, only interrupting to ask in an incredulous and proud tone, "I really did that?" I am always willing to believe anything my parents tell me, so curious am I to understand the continuum of how I came to be the woman I am. Tonight, while these memories seem to console my parents, I can only hear them as nostalgic, and they remind me of everything that has been recently forsaken.

After dinner I insist on doing the dishes. I splash around in the kitchen sink, clattering the plates dangerously in their porcelain bed I pick up a serving platter, one from my mother's set of good china inherited from my grandmother, and consider dropping it to the floor. I have trouble picturing myself actually doing this. I can only imagine it as far as my fingers loosening from the edges of the platter and it sliding down their length, but then in my mind's eye instead of the platter falling swiftly, it floats and hovers the way a feather would from one of the peacocks pictured on the china's face. I have no trouble picturing the aftermath once it lands: my mother rushing in at the noise with my father a few steps behind, not sure if he must concern himself, and she angry at my carelessness. I imagine yelling back at her. I would tell her that it's no use. Old china, manicured lawns, a happy dog: these things don't offer any guarantee.

I stand there holding the platter high above the kitchen floor, imagining the consequences with trepidation and relief, as if this is what the weekend has been leading up to, and with one brief burst of courage I can put it behind me. I stand considering and strain to hear my parents' voices in the dining room, thinking their conversation might offer me some direction. I put the platter down and peek around the open kitchen door. A pantry separates me from the dining room. I can see them: they are talking, but I can't make out their words.

They are both leaning forward. My mother cradles her chin in the palm of her hand. Abruptly, she lifts her head, sits up tall, and points at my father. His arms are folded in front of him, and he looks down and shakes his head. I am reminded again of that dinner of theirs that I spied on years ago, but this time what I remember is the righteousness of my mother's posture as she sat across from my father and tossed off remarks and the guilty urgency of my father's movements as he sank to his knees at her feet, and how there was something slightly orchestrated about their behavior, as though their exchange had a long history to it. And the next thing I remember makes me tiptoe away, as I did when I was a child, aware that I had witnessed a private moment between my parents not meant for my eyes. What I remember now is how many years ago my mother had reached down her hand and pulled my father up and kept pulling him in toward herself so that she could hold him close.


 
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    From My Father, Dancing by Bliss Broyard. Copyright © 1999 by Bliss Broyard. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.