I was on edge. Not because of those tall stools upon which the restaurant had the four of us perched, but more because having a friend meet a dad like mine for the first time can be tricky business. My friend Christopher and I were both working at a writers’ conference on Sanibel Island in Florida, and we’d carved out a time on Friday to have dinner with my father, Ben, and his longtime girlfriend, Barbara. They’d driven more than two hours from their homes in Sarasota to meet us. Even I had to admit such effort was sweet—especially given they are both in their 80s—yet I was on my toes because tucked inside those sweet gestures often ticked a time bomb.
Christopher and I arrived early to put our names on the list for a table, and grabbed two stools at the bar. This meet and greet felt oddly like a date, even though I’ve been married to the same woman for almost 20 years. I drank my beer too quickly and mentally scanned through the list of things that could go south.
“You have to let me apologize ahead of time for whatever happens,” I said to Christopher, thinking a pre-emptive blanket strike was called for.
“No apologies necessary.” Christopher is the kind of friend with whom I can share all my stories—from the tragedy of losing my college roommate to brain cancer to the Red Bull-induced migraine excuses I receive for late student papers. He’s lived in New York forever, lost friends to AIDS and cancer, has suffered serious illness himself and still manages to have the most evolved sense of humor of anyone I know. Yet Christopher is gay, and I was worried that my father would treat him the way he treats my high school girlfriend, Stacy. Stacy is Jewish (we are not) and, once or twice a year, she receives a list of the latest Jewish jokes from my father via email. Nothing else. That’s my dad’s way of “staying in touch.” I imagined Ben’s well-intentioned interest in my new friend to be focused on gay marriage versus civil unions, pink profits and the latest fashion trend of wearing all white in the yawn of winter.
My dad and Barbara arrived, and we lifted them up to their seats. After exchanging pleasantries and the requisite number of minutes spent on traffic details, the waiter approached our table about cocktails. He said his name was Ramon and, since Sanibel is a tourist destination, he pronounced his name and wiggled his hips with Latin flair straight out of Ricky Ricardo’s floor show. Barbara ate that mierda up while it cued something different in my dad.
“Your guy won!” Ben said, pointing his finger at Ramon’s tuxedo shirt.
There was a pause of deep confusion in which the sound of other conversations and stacking dishes rented the space in our ears.
“Rubio!” my dad shouted like he’d just told a joke that no one understood. “We like him.”
The day before, Republican Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, had been elected the junior United States senator for Florida. To my father, Ramon’s name, skin color and accent meant that he had voted for Rubio and now was my dad’s homeboy on the mean streets of tax policy overhaul, deficit reduction and, ironically, immigration.
“I’ll have a very big glass of wine,” I said. “Christopher, I recommend the bourbon.”
For the rest of the evening, I desperately tried to steer the conversation away from anything political. Since I teach English for a living and my children attend both public and private schools, my dad can easily transition from hearing about the results of my son London’s last spelling bee to the goddamn lack of accountability for teachers in the Sunshine State. After some serious channeling and maneuvering, we ended up having a fine conversation. Ben and Barbara live more like a Manhattan couple in their 20s, not octogenarians residing in the winter headquarters of a circus. The duo offered highlights of an average week for them, which includes film festivals, choral concerts, opera performances and adult education lectures. My dad excused himself to use the restroom right before our entrées arrived. Christopher seemed to be enjoying himself but, after playing conversation wrangler and listening to all those events, I felt exhausted. Didn’t retire mean to slow down?
“Don’t you get tired?” I asked Barbara. Where were the rocking chairs and late-afternoon naps?
“No, your father and I have so much fun.”
“Ever take a break?”
“Well.” She considered my question. “Next Saturday we have nothing planned. I know that.”
I felt relieved. Here comes the shuffleboard! “What will you do then? Nap? Put your feet up?”
“That’s when your dad and I have our cozy time.” She took a sip from her second glass of chardonnay and smiled like a particularly happy cat.
Christopher later told me that he’d never thought those two words could convey such meaning. In my obsession over sparing Christopher my dad’s political manifestos, I’d forgotten to warn him about how Barbara’s joy in her relationship with Ben could turn into romantic oversharing. Her fervent love for my father (and my father’s loving) had become one bright thread in the tapestry of my family. Each one of my brothers had confessed hearing Barbara’s confessions (after two glasses of wine) that my dad was—surprise, surprise—quite the Casanova. I know my teenage students would rather eat ground glass than even consider their grandparents bumping uglies yet, for me, it is a far more complicated matter. While I may not wish to fantasize about what goes on atop my father’s brass bed I know so well from childhood, I have to say that his ongoing and unfailing practice gives me great hope for my own concupiscent future. Or, as they say on the street, “Well done, playah!”
Besides, as my wife Lala reminds me, Barbara and Ben have an active and joy-filled life together. What else could anyone want at that age? At least, that’s what I vowed to tell Christopher later when we were recounting the dinner over drinks by a pool we would wish was warm enough to swim in.