January 28, 2008

Death Duties

I went on two dates this weekend and both times the conversation eventually drifted toward death. In the first case, I had to use my father’s death to prove my manhood.

It started off innocently enough. That is, the woman — a lawyer — spent the entire dinner teasing me. Not teasing me in the friendly way of people who like each other, but in that mean, sexual way — the way that makes you squirm.

“I’m really attracted to you,” she said.

“Really? I’m attracted to you too.”

“But I think we should just be friends.”

“Oh. Well, okay. We’ll just be friends, then.”

We had been through this a number of times. I knew the drill. Then, her eyes welled up.

“Just okay? You just blew it. If you were really interested, you wouldn’t have said that.”

“But I am really interested.”

“Well, the truth is,” she said, “I met someone else. Someone I’m interested in.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Psych!”

Her eyes glistened. She was completely insane. But good-looking. I wanted to bury my face in her chest. I wanted to do other things, too. There was something about her that turned me into an idiot. I had become a disingenuous babbler, someone willing to say just about anything to get a whiff of her sex.

“Maybe,” she said, “if you took charge more, I’d be more responsive to you. It’s some elemental thing. A man is there to protect the woman.”

She had talked like this on our first date. It was as thought she had studied courtship rituals from an earlier era that insisted women should act like coquettish witches and that men should take it.

And it was at this point in the conversation that I pulled out my ace card. The death of my father.

I told her about the funeral. It was in a town called Valhalla. That would be Valhalla, NY. After the service, as is the tradition among the Jews and the Italians, we feasted. It was an Italian restaurant, actually. We were fifteen — family and those closest to my father — sitting around a wide table. James, the neighbor, read from a prepared speech, copiously quoting philosophers. Cousin Ralph hemmed and hawed over the menu, grief stricken, and then ordered the lobster tail. My mother — dignified, a lady — led the table talk and the reminiscences. Then the check came. The waiter leaned across the table to hand it to my mother.

“Wait a minute,” I said. Everyone stopped talking. The check in my mother’s hand hung frozen in the air. “I’ll take that, mom.”

Usually when I offered to pay at some family function, there would be strenuous protests and I would acquiesce. On that day, my mother simply said “okay.” Everybody at the table carefully watched what happened next. Their eyes followed my mother’s arm as it reached across the table and she passed the check into my hand. We all knew what was going on. I had just assumed the mantle of the family patriarchy.

“And I did it,” I said to the woman, “without thinking, really. It was instinctive.”

“Wow,” she said.

I had finally managed to impress her.

The topic came up again on Saturday, in a small music club on Avenue C. It was loud and dark. I had gone there with a nurse practitioner. She was describing taking death duties in the intensive care unit of the pediatric hospital where she worked. She loved her job, but it sounded grim. I told her about the morning my father died. How the moment after the doctor had called it, she had left the room weeping. How the nurses on death duty came in with grave faces, goggles over their eyes, rubber gloves up to their elbows. They conducted my father’s body not with the alienated indifference that comes from repetition and emotional hardening, but from a simple and solemn respect for the dead. Those are the strongest images I have of that morning; not of my father, but of the people who took care of him.

On Friday, the lawyer had taken me to her apartment, tortured me a little more, and then sent me on my way, unkissed and untouched. But I was filled with the memory of my father. It stayed with me the entire weekend. Since his death, I’ve noticed how I’ve assumed his ways, his expressions, even in how I pick up a glass, or saunter across a room.

Except that he surely would have bedded that lawyer by now.