If the past month and a half had been a play, my family and I would be together for a holiday gathering. We would live in a rambling old Victorian, a la August: Osage County, and M- would be an owl-eyed guest, utterly clueless to the cracks in our family facade.
At some point during the 2nd course, my sister and her husband’s obvious unhappiness would spill into the gravy, dragging the holiday spirit into the fire and sending ashes over the rest of us. Revelations would be made; hypocrisies exposed. Confessions spat out. Identities and roles would be forever reversed.
And I, the family black sheep, would emerge the well-adjusted one.
Because if I (anti-authoritarian, knee-jerk, shrill, tarty, boozy, feminist and well stocked with pharma) am well-adjusted, then you know some serious shit has hit the fan.
‘I had an affair,’ my sister L- said. Her text message had sounded urgent so I was huddled in the guest bathroom of a friend’s house with a glass of wine and my mobile, waiting for her to spill it. ‘The guilt was killing me so I had to tell him.’
‘Jesus Christ. You *told* him?? Why the fuck did you tell him?’ All I could think about were all those Dateline episodes of cheated upon husbands who killed their wives, dumping their bodies in places like the La Brea tar pits or a shrubby ravine somewhere in the canyons.
‘Jesus fucking Christ, L-. If you tell me you got pregnant I will fly to LA and take you to Planned Parenthood myself.’
‘I couldn’t if I tried.’ Sniffle.
‘I don’t get it.’
‘It was a woman. I had an affair with a woman.’
My office phone rang yesterday and my father was on the other end. When he told me what he told me, at least he asked permission first.
I groaned. ‘Geez, dad. Every time you tell me something I need a drink after. Why can’t you write it in your journal and I can read it when you die?’
My family has always had secrets. My father’s family secrets read like a black southern gothic: drug use, prostitution, child abuse, mental instability, ‘passing,’ sexual abuse, old-time religion, and denial. Everywhere, denial.
On my mother’s side there’s just a giant question mark. In a reversal of the usual Filipino immigrant narrative, my mother never tried to bring over any of her family. While they wrote often, it was clear my mother’s family was glad to see my mom over here and keep themselves over there. When they wrote my father at the news of her death they said how sorry they were. They also said they were sorry for the hard life my mother had had in the islands and that they were glad she was finally at peace.
The reason for sending her away was never made clear to either my sister or me. If my father knew, he kept my mother’s secret. At least, that secret. Her other secret she was willing to spill on her own.
My sister and I had both been in college when, one afternoon, my sister was home, watching Geraldo with my mother. It was an episode about biological mothers being reunited with the children they had given up for adoption.
Mom nudged my sister. ‘That’s me.’
‘That’s me. Before you and your sister, I had to give up a baby. You have another sister.’
My sister watched the rest of the episode with tears in her eyes. A week later she told me while we were walking down Bruin Walk, on our way to sell back out books at the end of the quarter. We were both laughing and crying while all I could say was ‘What the fuck? What the fuck?!’
Somewhere out there, we have an older Filipino/Hungarian half-sister. With every tv show about reuniting families, I feel a lump of dread. I don’t want to know her. I don’t want her to find us; the family I grew up with is all I need. Or so I thought. Barely three weeks into the new year, it is becoming clear that the family I have may not resemble the family I grew up with.
Back in my office, my father’s voice thickened over the phone.
‘I just don’t want you to hate your mother or me. Don’t hate your daddy.’
‘Dad, I could never. There is shit in everyone’s life. I have shit in my life. I just don’t tell you because, you know –boundaries.’
There was a short bit of silence then he said, ‘Do you remember when your mother stopped sleeping in the bedroom?’
‘When she slept on the couch for two years? I always thought that was menopause.’
‘Menopause? I never thought of that.’ His voice got all viscous again. ‘Your mom and I had stopped being intimate for a long while. She just wasn’t interested in all that anymore. So I had a same sex affair with – ‘
‘Do not tell me.’ I could guess who it was and even if I couldn’t I didn’t want to go back to Los Angeles and bump into my father’s ex-gay lover and actually know it. If it was who I thought it was, my anger toward him had a different source and I wanted to keep that with me. I didn’t want it clouded with empathy or sympathy.
‘Your sister…she’s like your mom but she’s like me.’ He added. ‘Why do you think I’ve always said I’ll never marry another woman after your mom?’
I’ve always known this. Well, I’ve known this since my mother died. I’ve known that my father was curious, was testing the bars of his cage. My friends had always suspected my father was gay and we had laughed about it over wine after every visit. Even now, my friends are sending me joking messages: “OMFG! We knew it! He was too well-dressed for an old guy!”
And so the faded, sepia-tinted mental photos I carried in my head about my family have begun to curl and crisp around the edges. I predict that in about 6 months, they will be all but ash and I will have new, more complicated images of my family and my childhood to carry with me.
What is it about marriage? What is it that squeezes the life out of a person? I’m not talking about partnership or love or devotion. I’m not even talking about cohabitation. I’m talking about the whole blinking thing. The Marriage. What about it turns those who believe in it into clichéd versions of 19th century domestic dramas?
I can’t decide if my sister is experiencing The Awakening or Madame Bovary; my father is wobbling in some kind of Maurice of his own and I’m looking at both of them wondering if any of this would be happening to them if they hadn’t been married in the first place. What did marriage force them to postpone?
There is something wrong with the way our culture packages, practices and defines marriage. Maybe it’s the presumption of monogamous heterosexuality. Maybe it’s the irrational investment the rest of us feel when it comes to someone else’s marriage. I found myself resisting the fact that my sister’s marriage was not the perfectly manicured Garden of Marital Bliss. When she told me they had been having trouble for seven years, the voice in my head whined, ‘Nooooo!’ When she paused after I asked her if she still loved her husband, I answered for her. ‘Of course you do! You do!’
Why try and push her to say that everything was fine when everything was SO NOT fine?
I had been proud of the marriage my sister had made. I was proud of the fact that she and her handsome husband had proven all of the statistics wrong. I loved the optics of their marriage. They were professional, brown, young, attractive, educated, smart, popular, wholesome, Catholic, and socially liberal/fiscally conservative; they had bright, gorgeous Black-y-Mex-y-Pino kids. They were the perfect foil against our low-income childhoods in South Central and Santa Monica. I loved that I could compare my wacky life to it and say to myself, ‘Their marriage makes my un-marriage necessary.’
But the pride I’d taken in their marriage makes me complicit in its disintegration. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who took emotional and visual pleasure in their marital status. Both families saw them as a way of correcting the past. We heaped such expectations on them – not to be like our parents, to do things the ‘right’ way. So when my sister cries out that she feels like she is being crushed and her husband says his loneliness is killing him, I feel as if our families’ (and friends’) desire for someone to have that perfect marriage has been yet another weight upon their chests.
In my office I had been on the phone with my father for almost an hour, looking at the river, listening to his gay affair confession and his notion that all marriage reaches an inevitable point of impasse. It was depressing as hell to hear and to think that my father could only become the fuller person that he is now after his wife died. Is that what it takes to be happy and authentic? For your spouse to fucking die off?
‘LB (my brother in law) wants to have a three-way with you and me,’ my dad said.
‘What the hell?!’ I said. Had my brother in law snapped? Was he reaching out for any freaky opportunity for retaliation at my sister?
‘He really needs to talk to someone, Del. He’s been calling me for the past three days and I think he’d like to talk with you, too.’
‘Dad, the term is ‘conference call.’ He would like to have a conference call with us. Jesus.’
‘That’s what I meant, girl!’
I let it go.
I’m going to have to let everything go. Just like they are.
[Updated to change the title.]