Don't Get Caught
Father stepped into my apartment on 48th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. At the age of twenty-six I felt proud, not only in affording the rent, but for my work at a public interest group that showed off my shaky liberal standing.
I gave him a brush of a hug and a quick kiss. “Shall I make you a scotch?”
“Yes, thanks Joanie, I’d like a scotch, with soda if you have it.” He laid his coat over the armchair across from the tufted linen couch Mother had recently bought for me at auction. I saw him take in the room: the working fireplace, the light green and white striped rug I’d found at a second hand store, the binoculars sitting on the sill for spying across the seventy-five foot courtyard into other apartments, and the dining room table for four or a squeezed-in five by the window.
I had put up a dart board above the table between the windows, but taken it down for Father’s visit. Before his arrival, I thought I’d given the room a careful once-over, but now I saw a glaring darts-casualty-crack in one of the window panes, which could have been hidden by pulling the curtain.
“This is a nice place, Joanie.” He looked at me with a smile, and gave a brief glance at his watch: “I can’t stay too long, but I’m glad you asked me to stop by.” He was waiting for me to bring up the subject. I was nervous.
“You were upset that my friend, Bobby Parker, stayed here before he went to South America.”
“Before we get into that, how’s your job? He sat down on the other armchair. “I enjoyed going to the lunch you organized the other day. Your Director, Joanna, she’s interesting.”
“I’m really happy you liked the talk. Joanna is so smart, don’t you think?” I proudly asked him.
“And, she’s very good-looking,” he added.
I bristled, “Yes, she is, but she’s smarter than just pretty.” I puffed the pillows, while adding, “we’re about to uncover a big land fraud in Colorado.”
“That’s very impressive. Now tell me about Bobby, and why he stayed here.”
“Okay, yes, I want to.” I moved toward the kitchen to make his drink. I had rehearsed my speech but now, as I mixed his scotch and soda, I searched for the words.
Returning to the living room, I handed him his glass and sat on the couch, pushing away the two cats whose destruction of the inset buttons embarrassed me. I paused a moment to feel his reaction. “Bobby’s my friend, and he was leaving the next day, for a year—a long time,” I stressed. Bobby wanted to tell me about his work in the Amazon. He was anxious, and he needed a place to stay for just one night. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.” I heard my emphasis on the word wrong and knew I’d said it with a whine.
Father sat poised on the edge of the chair dressed in his dark grey business suit. His silk socks, encased in black loafers, were held up tight by hidden garters that had fascinated me as a child.
I looked at his boyish handsomeness, his soft hair and red cheeks, and imagined him reflecting on my phrase ‘doing anything wrong.’
“Joanie, I want to tell you this. It just doesn’t look right. You can’t have boys staying in your apartment. People will talk about you.” Holding his drink on his knee, he almost pleaded: “You’re not married. I wish you could understand. And, it’s not that I’m mad,” he hesitated and looked down as if to make sure his shoes had held the polish, “I’m disappointed.”
The dreaded word. “Disappointed? In what?” I heard my voice rising. “And who’s going to talk about me, the doorman?” I asked with sarcasm. “Nothing happened.”
Father leaned toward me and answered firmly and quickly, “The point is not if anything happened. It’s how it looks. I trust you, Cactus, but you could get a reputation.” He stopped and took a big swallow of his drink. Then speaking more quietly, he said“You should understand that there are ways of living this life, and your life is a good one. He paused and I saw a slight frown on his forehead.
“You’ve had, and you have, every opportunity. Don’t open yourself up for people’s judgments by making bad choices.” He jiggled the ice and took another gulp. His face had reddened a bit. “What I’m saying Joanie is: don’t mess up. I can’t be more plain.”
“What do you mean, ‘mess up’?”
Father left my question hanging. He got up and made himself another scotch. On the way out of the kitchen he stopped at the window and raised the binoculars to see what was going on in the lit-up room across the way. Living in a Hitchcock Rear Window movie atmosphere, the apartments were just close enough to spark one’s imagination. He put the binoculars down with a small laugh.
Unconsciously he let his finger stir the ice in his new drink, and with a soft yet serious look at me, said, “I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t.” He paused and took a sip. “It’s not for a father to say this to his daughter. But I will. I will because it’s important and because I love you. This is what I came here to say: Do what you want in life but, Joanie, don’t get caught. You’re daring, you have a lot of spunk and you could get in trouble. There are rules in life. There’s decorum. Be careful.”
I remained quiet and pulled at the couch buttons’ loose threads. I didn’t look up at him but I perceived his unease, or perhaps, I wondered, could it be a slight sense of injustice in the world of male entitlement. After all, he did have three daughters, and all of us, in one way or another, had to maneuver in a man’s world. But two daughters were already safely married; I was the potential trouble.
And he broke the rules all the time: his constant flirtations, his other life. But men could “mess up.” In my parent’s 1970 world, women could not. Mother often said: ‘but he always comes home to me,’ appeasing herself with his tossed crumbs. Her longing for him and an assumed safety were—in a word of the South—pitiful.
“Do you believe in the double standard? I mean would you be saying this to a son?” I felt a flush coming to my cheeks. I hadn’t made myself a drink, but now I wanted one just to put the cool against my face.
“I would say it differently: boys, men, are different. We work hard, we have a lot to think about in order to provide for a good family life. And,” he uttered as he fumbled for his back pocket handkerchief, “men have needs that are different from women’s; that’s just the truth of it. We’re allowed leeway.” He leaned toward me again with his unanswerable question, “Do you know what I mean?”
“Not really,” I mumbled and wondered how we could ever cross our father/daughter gap.
Father nervously adjusted the knot in his tie, and continued, “But women, nice women, their lives can be ruined by stepping over the line; ‘damaged goods’ someone once said about a young girl I knew in the office.” Father blushed. He cleared his throat and added, “Women should have high standards. Girls are born to do other things, other tasks, important tasks: create a place in society for their family, for themselves, work for the good of others and,” he emphasized, “be respected.” He looked into his drink. “Look at your mother. She’s a good example of decorum.”
My rising anger made me itch. I scratched my arm and said sharply, “But Mother’s not a happy person. I mean do you actually think she’s happy? She waits for you. All the time, she’s just...” I could hardly say it, “waiting.”
Father got up. “I have to go,” he blurted out. “I’m having a drink with a business acquaintance. I’m late.” His eyes were darting, he looked irritated and anxious to leave. I, of course, didn’t ask him who the “business acquaintance” was. I didn’t want to catch him in a lie. But, my silence hinted at my guess.
I felt calm. I’d been brave but not belligerent. I’d been truthful. I rose from the couch to say good-bye.
Father quickly put on his coat. He stopped at the front door and turning to me asked, “What about that nice man, Edwin Phillips? He wants to marry you. Why not him? He’s upstanding, has a nice job.” Buttoning his coat slowly he added, “Good looking man, too. You once told me you had fun together. Yes, why not, you should marry Edwin,” he pronounced somewhat lightly. A last thought occurred to him, “And, Joanie, he would always be there on Saturday nights.”
“Yes, Edwin’s a nice man and you’re right, he would be there on Saturday nights.” I stared at Father, willing him to really see me and I said, “but I wouldn’t be.” I hadn’t thought to say that; it just came out.
He didn’t speak but his eyes narrowed into a penetrating stare. Slowly he shook his head. I didn’t know what to expect. But, after a moment—that seemed an eternity—a smile started on his playful face. With a grin and a slight chuckle, he pulled me toward him and gave me a loving hug. I heard his laugh even as the elevator door closed.