Whether the Patriarchy

Sarah and her father, Brian, were watching “The Trouble with Tribbles” tribbles being little furry creatures that procreate like crazy and overwhelm the ship, when Paul came by, a slender boy with a big head of hair and a ready smile. And then “Mirror, Mirror” came on television and Paul expressed amazement that the series was so fun. He had never seen it before, said he rarely watched television. Brian explained about this being the original series of Star Trek, created in the sixties. Spock’s got a goatee, Mr. Sulu’s got a nasty looking scar, and everyone’s wearing gold lame, just enough camp to keep everyone entertained for hours. Brian knew all the obscure trivia about each episode on television as well as all of the characters, and the stars that played them, and Gene Roddenberry, the author of the novel the series was based on. Paul had his 35 mm Canon with him, mumbling something that sounded like the “lighting is perfect.” Nature abounded at our doorstep, living at the edge of a greenbelt of old growth forest that stretched for miles above Lake Washington, home to a pair of condors, so growth was restricted, leaving us with the feeling that we were deep in the backwoods, and not in a suburb of Seattle, smelling the delicious spice of fecundity, better than any synthetic air freshener. Sarah asked if she could borrow my Nikon f6. She was a good photographer, and took photos that won awards in regional competitions, having taken several photography classes at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle summers and finding that she had a good eye for composition and lighting. She knew how to handle a 35mm with care, so I asked her if she wanted the camera, I wasn’t using it much anymore and wanted her to have it, but she said she would prefer to borrow it. I let her decide. The girl was a font of energy, and I welcomed Paul’s calming influence, tempering her bombast, and slowing her down. They met in a photography class in high school and then found they were in the same Chinese language class and became best friends taking pictures for the yearbook and newspaper. Paul’s parents were ethnic Chinese and taught him to speak the language but he also wanted to learn to write it. After hanging out with Paul for a few months, Sarah’s ability to speak and write in the Chinese language grew exponentially. One summer they went to China with their Chinese class, touring areas not typically available to tourists. On her return home, she was all fired up to go out to dim sum frequently and at home to have pork dumplings, which Paul excelled in making, and taught her so she made it for dinner often. Whenever Paul came to the house, he appeared subdued, and deferred to Sarah in everything, and followed her everywhere looking as if he enjoyed being bossed around.

I never saw them kiss or hug, but I thought perhaps they were too shy around me or Brian to show that side of their relationship. But what was more surprising, the first party they went to as a couple, they not only decided not to drink alcohol, they chose Dr. Brown’s cream soda instead, and when Sarah got home, she complained that too many of the kids were getting soused, “There was always someone vomiting in the toilet so I couldn’t use it.” And while I might have felt the same way in her circumstances, her remark sounded incredibly mature coming out of her 17 year old mouth though with a slight edge of hysteria that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, with its implied intolerance. And over a chai latte the next day, she fervently expressed dislike for the attitude that went with the act of vomiting, the taking of resources because you overdid it and not apologizing to others for the inconvenience you caused. And in that vein she said she was starting a group to patrol the high school campus to report people consuming alcohol or drugs to campus security. Brian said a lot of supportive things, such as his boost that I heard many times in the past that he never drank alcohol until having graduated college and becoming a working man. “Alcohol tastes nasty without a lot of sugar water to ease it down,” he added. Sarah’s mother thought it was a bit much but didn’t want to sound negative, not with Brian gunning for it, and said something polite like how brave Sarah was to do this, and what a testimony to her strength of character. And didn’t bring up Brian’s habit of having pot as soon as he got home, smoked in a bong that stayed in his hands until he went to bed at night. I asked him not to smoke in front of Sarah and he said he’d keep it to our room, but the smell permeated the house, no matter that Brian had placed a rolled up towel under the door. One time a parent dropping off a child for a play date asked me if Brian was a drug dealer. It was something no one in our family talked about. Whenever I brought it up he got angry and showered me with cutting words and after that I left it alone.

One time when Sarah was home from college for one of the holidays, she and her mother went shopping together, ending up at a coffee shop they favored in downtown Seattle. They sat with their steaming lattes, watching the swirl of activity of mostly young hip people sitting in groups at wooden tables, through the large windows storefronts, the sky leaden with the promise of rain. Sarah talked about a book she was reading for a class that described the customs of the Yanomami Tribes in Brazil which included the selective killing of infants that were deemed malformed or weaker than normal.

“It’s murder,” she said. “Obviously the mothers don’t love their children if they allow this.”

“It’s not a question of love,” I said, “They see it as survival.”

“How can you say that?”

“They have limited resources…this is how they deal with that sad reality.”

“We’re talking about killing perfectly healthy babies.”

 “These mothers think that the good of the collective supersedes individual rights, it’s a different sense of morality.”

 “Where did you get that?”

“I went to school too, dear, a long time ago, yes, but I doubt in the meantime the history of this tribe has changed. It was widely practiced in ancient times all over world.”

“You went to school too long ago, you know nothing.”

“Yeah, I went to school in the stone ages,” I said, hoping to defuse the anger spiking her voice, thinking that what Sarah said reminded me of similar phrases her father said to me when I challenged any of his statements. “Has the teaching changed?”

“Of course, you’re way off.”

Later that evening and many evenings since, Paul joined Sarah on the patrols both in high school and in college on weekends, strolling around campus and taking down information, and taking pictures. She lost a lot of friends when they realized that she was ratting on them, but she insisted this was the right thing to do, and her father backed her up on this. After graduation, Paul was sounding a different note, saying he wasn’t sure if he wanted to spend the summer in Israel learning Hebrew, though he knew he wanted to go to university and learn computer science, which he could do at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology or Hebrew University where Sarah was planning to attend, but wasn’t sure he’d like it. He changed his mind again when Sarah voiced disappointment saying she couldn’t do it without him, and assured him the lifestyle was not much different from what he was used to and, if he cared for her he would go. And he did. From their emails and calls, Sarah’s mother learned that they were meeting a lot of people, and forming friendships with other students from America, and having a good time forming bonds to insulate them from any loneliness. Sarah wrote that every weekend they had something fun to do. Both she and Paul felt accepted and loved by the other students in the community, and classes were interesting. After her intensive immersion in Hebrew she felt ready to take on the two-year master’s program at the university, which was totally paid for through a scholarship. She joined a tell, and tried to describe the processes that she learned on the job, the patient sifting down through the layers of the earth for endless hours and salivating over a piece of flint, or jumping for joy over a tiny lump of fired clay. Long-tailed shovels, spades, wheelbarrows and mattocks were her usual companions. She never complained about the stress on her back that certainly must have ensued after digging ditches with a mattock and spade. She expressed the strange joy of striking bedrock with a mattock: that bolt of pain that shoots up arms and into the skull, with arms becoming toned and strong, the practical physical work strengthening her body, but the repetitive actions, day in, day out, with the occasional cold and damp seeping into her limbs, was hard to take, and yet overriding everything, she loved the camaraderie. The work wasn’t exciting, but she found it interesting to learn about the way the Israelites lived in ancient times. During the dig she was instrumental in the discovery of a wall and pottery from the Iron Age. Because Germany was at the center of major developments on the European continent and German archaeologists made many of the discoveries of ancient history in Middle East, Sarah decided to learn the German language so she could read texts in the original. She was becoming a scholar, and showing she had an amazing gift with language.  

            Midway through the course Sarah called to say that she and Paul decided to go separate ways—there was no break in her voice, she sounded perfectly calm and subdued, no emotional upheaval—saying she planned to drop archeology: “the future is too uncertain, even if I got a PhD I might not get a professorship unless I’m at the top of the class and get the sponsorship of someone influential.” As an alternative, her new plan to pursue a master’s in computer science seemed a smart move. She had been accepted to one of the best schools in the New York area for it. School was starting in a few weeks and she planned to move in with a girlfriend, someone she met through an internet group dedicated to mythology and had known for years. Daphne had visited for a week during high school and it was clear that they were a pair. Daphne was a big sturdy girl and Sarah was fine-boned and delicate, and yet they seemed to complement each other. Both streaked their hair pink and wore sweats a lot. That’s when it first dawned on Sarah’s mother that Sarah had leanings in that direction. Daphne visited a few times when Sarah was in Israel and it was then they found that their attraction for each other had grown to a point they had to act on their love now or forever live in the dark shadows of regret, unable to breathe. Daphne offered to share her condo near Greenwich, Connecticut, near the mouth of the Mianus River. Which would help Daphne, having graduated with a master’s in environmental activism, and looking for a job. She needed help with rent.

Daphne traveled in circles of dapper butches and subversive femmes and sometimes dressed generically sporty in cargo shorts and flip-flops; Sarah easily passed as straight and often wore tunics and leggings. Women in this category were down with the assimilationist, trans-exclusive politics of the Human Rights Campaign. In a femininity-devaluing society that leaves far more room for women than men to claim a fluid sexual orientation, meaning queer women are more likely to have current or former partners who aren’t women. Sarah wasn’t fazed by this, and didn’t care why women came into LGBQ, whether the roots of their unrest aligned to political or sexual orientation didn’t matter to her. Daphne and Sarah co-hosted monthly queer tea-dance parties in the warmer months, and struggled to promote their event to their desired audience. They modeled their parties on the idealized notion of Victorian teas with served with fancy sandwiches cut into triangles and the gay picture of young women dressed in beautiful dresses posturing for each other. Daphne called it a “ladies’ tea dance” but that really didn’t describe what they wanted it to be. On the phone, Sarah said, “I’m not into labels, if it’s a woman I happen to be in love with, so be it.” She welcomed her status as single female, able to chart her own course, not subject to any man. She said she was part of a revolution of women who don’t value the traditional roles. As Rebecca Traister noted in “The Cut” in 2016:  “…for the first time in American history, single women (including those who were never married, widowed, divorced, or separated) outnumbered married women. Perhaps even more strikingly, the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married was up to 46 percent, rising 12 percentage points in less than a decade.”

She goes on to write: “In 2009, for the first time in history, there were more unmarried women in the United States than married ones. And today, young women in the U.S. aren’t just unprecedentedly single; they also appear to be unprecedentedly uninterested in heterosexuality: According to private polling shared with the Intelligencer by David Shor, a data scientist who works primarily on polling and public opinion, roughly 30 percent of American women under 25 identify as LGBT; for women over 60, that figure is less than 5 percent.”

                Sarah’s mother believes the roots of Sarah’s disillusion with heterosexually started when she was young. She remembered a time when her daughter didn’t mind her mother dolling her up, dressing her in the cutest designer clothes; we’re talking Ralph Lauren, Molo. In those days, she took care to comb her daughter’s long nut brown hair then she’d insist on returning the favor and combing her mother’s hair. She liked making pigtails, just what I wanted! I pretended to like it, but I refused to go out on the street with my hair in ribbons and bows. But there was something stirring in the air. This was a girl who valued her independence and was willing to fight for it. One time at a playground when Sarah was five years old, a boy about her age tried to push her off the ladder that led to the top of the slide. She screamed at him and called him rude. Luckily I was there and asked the boy’s mother to talk her boy down.

And then there was my love of fashion that both Sarah’s father and Sarah deplored. By the time she started high school she didn’t like dressing up, other than when going to a formal event, like a prom or to synagogue. It seemed like overnight she turned snarky into high art.

“Mom, when are you going to dress your age?”

“What’s wrong with my outfit?” Sarah’s mother spun around, showing off her slim figure in clingy gray tech fabric that she wore for jogging.

“Of course you wouldn’t know,” Sarah said “Adults are that clueless.” She was wearing shapeless jeans and an oversized sweatshirt like an emblem.

“It’s nice to see you, too, dear,” Sarah’s mother said, giving her daughter a hug. “I’ll make chicken parmigiana tonight?”

“Sure.”

“I thought you were bringing your friend?”

“He’s coming for dinner, and then we’re driving back to school together.”

“I’m glad I asked.”

“You always forget everything; you know you’re suffering early dementia.”

“You’re probably right.” This said in a resigned voice. And Sarah’s mother asked about birth control and Sarah responded with a snap, “there’s nothing to worry about, he’s gay.”

But the one thing about this girl that the mother loved, both of them read classic literature, although Sarah read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James as assigned reading, and didn’t like discussing any of these books, other than the women authors like Jane Austin and Mary Shelley whom she adored. Especially they were made into movies, and it became an event that led the family to the movie theater. Her husband, who never read fiction, only nonfiction mostly about World War II was quite willing to see the movies that Sarah picked out particularly Pirates of the Caribbean, and Star Trek movies, and anything sci-fi. Sarah engulfed all of Anne Rice novels with vampire protagonists, and her knowledge of classic fairy tales, especially the Irish and Norse, was amazing and stunned the mother that her daughter could speak on all this with authority. And was chagrined that her daughter didn’t want to hear her mother’s opinions about the notion of fairies or “cnocs agus sibhe” which in Celtic means mounds of earth, where the fairies are ruled by a king or queen, nor could the mother mention the mermaids and leprechauns and the grim reaper headless rider on a black horse, carrying his head in his arm, without being told that she got all her facts wrong. But some of story the mother got right: the headless rider was said to ride fast through the counties of Down and Sligo, and if he suddenly stopped, it meant that someone in the community was due to die, but she didn’t mention this to her daughter.

When her mother said, “I went to university, too. I studied literature and can speak on some things with a little knowledge.”

“How long ago was that?” Sarah replied, saying the exact same thing that Brian pulled out whenever I pointed anything I had learned, or disputed anything he said. His belief that anything I read at university was wrong because, you know, time. he backed him up on this, they were a solid front.

I could safely ask about some of the girlfriends who appeared regularly in the house but only general questions about what the parents did and what the girls liked to do with each other as in what movies they had seen and who liked what guy (if they were straight), and activities, such as hikes and dances they had participated in, when boyfriends were involved, questions that could be asked but within strict perimeters. Rarely did Sarah’s mother present an obstacle, (knowing that The United Front of Brian and Sarah would mow her down if they perceived any irregularities) but made a point to tell her daughter she could do anything she wanted, and reach for the stars, and don’t let anyone convince you that a woman can’t do it (this Sarah’s mother knew wouldn’t get any argument from The United Front). Many times without knowing better, her mother strayed beyond the boundaries the daughter set, and the father had to step in to defuse the daughter, he did this admirably, with humor. He knew how to get his daughter to laugh, and dispel whatever provoked her.

Sarah’s mother learned to pick topics carefully so as not to invoke her daughter’s ire. A few months back, Sarah screamed that she wouldn’t do her homework for a teacher she didn’t like, complaining that science was stupid, and she’d never use it. I told her if she did the homework and studied by reading her notes for tests she’d get into whatever school she wanted.

“I don’t care,” she screamed.

“But you’re doing great in your other classes,” I said. “Why not in this one too?”

“I can’t hear you, her father said, “can you scream louder, please?”

“What?” Sarah said, at first looking angry and then what he was saying appeared to register, and now laughing.

I was speechless at Brian’s clever handling of Sarah’s anger. He was a natural in his role as an evangelist for a software company, although to me she was incorrigible. Sarah had my mother’s volatile moods, her prickly stance around me, constantly on the offensive, and made me feel helpless, not knowing how to handle that affronted attitude not wanting to appear Schoolmarmish, I deferred to Brian whom I knew would find the right thing to say. I could see by the look in his eyes that he felt this is what he was born to do, and liked that I deferred to him. I was deadly afraid of her temper; she reminded me of my mother who used to terrorize me with admonishments of the pending evil that lurked around me, and I didn’t understand how to appeal to my daughter’s less emotional side and change her mood. Back in my youth I had walled myself off to this sort emotional venting and couldn’t respond properly, didn’t want to yell or vent and often sinking into a sullen silence as a way to deal. I longed to have Brian’s facility, to turn anger into something funny that could lead to something constructive and could be discussed rationally later. It was always her father who calmed her down. Though I realized she was probably stressed over her plans to spend the summer studying Hebrew in Israel and then she was tasked to decide whether to remain in the country and work toward a PhD in archaeology or do something else. Everything was falling into place, except the boyfriend who said he would come with her until he didn’t.

I jumped at the chance to help her when she said she want to clear her closet of clothes she didn’t want. I was willing to do whatever worked for her. She sounded happy about that, and we trudged up to her room on the top floor. I helped her decide what to keep and what to throw out. A few of the things she didn’t want I liked, and I begged her to keep them, saying they were cute on her. When she wouldn’t budge I said I would take them—we wore the same size—and she erupted saying I should dress my age. Brian, who was on the landing a few feet away, sided with Sarah.  I kept my eye on one sleeveless tunic that we had bought together, and asked if she was throwing it out, could I have it. It turned out no one cared.

But the pot smoking was wearing on me and our relationship started to fray. I blame the pot. We were in the bedroom one day and he turned to me and said he didn’t like how I dressed. “I prefer sweats and sneakers to fancy silks and heels,” and, “You’re trying too hard,” the exact same thing that Sarah said, several days earlier. And then something changed. Whenever possible he started directing his comments to Sarah, and not talking to me, and whenever he passed me in the hall or in the kitchen he wouldn’t look at me, like suddenly I was invisible. He started doing things without me, telling me I wasn’t invited to this or that thing. And then I’d heard from a friend that she had seen him with a woman she knew from work at a party and they seemed pretty cozy with each other. I blew it off, knowing what a flirt he was.

Brian was heavily into Star Trek, Sarah having been reared on Star Trek reruns, her father’s favorite show from the time he was young, Brian and Sarah watched the show religiously and they tried to best each other on who knew more, and the ongoing discussions and the ribbing that went along with it, challenging the sharpness of their memories. During several of those moments, Sarah’s father told her not to dress like me, that I dressed like a “Guido.” Sarah changed how she dressed. Gone were the frills and girly dresses. The new iteration of Sarah, what the Jewish call ‘frum’ included skirts modestly over-the-knee, and arms covered to the wrist, her long hair bound by a scarf, and her make up minimal.

She became rigidly anti-culture, making fun of girls who dressed feminine and flaunting their sex with too high skirts and low décolleté, the girls who make kissy faces in selfies. At the same time, she made a point of rejecting all labels—lesbian was old- fashioned and was often used as a pejorative, she preferred calling herself queer. And cut her hair in a boyish style. Like many of her friends, she committed to never-ending cycles of self-examination, prioritizing inclusion and calling others out, when an assumption of shared experience leaves someone dangling, but the second she subscribed to a LGBTQ identity she attracted a woman wearing a Neo-Feminist lens, which she reveled in. Even for a religious or conservative young woman who won’t ever act on same-sex attraction, ‘being Bi’ is enough to allow her to participate in the show without getting dragged to the barn for being an ‘old-fashioned female’ or risk ‘being controlled by the patriarchy’ (I sometimes wonder, as an aside, what she thought patriarchy means). I never asked, too afraid of transgressing, I seemed to do that over much, and the triggers always seemed to change. In my defense I didn’t care what she called herself, I was content that she loved a woman who might have positive influence, help her be the best version of herself, and wanted her to experience happiness. The poet Sappho of Lesbos whom Plato referred to as the 10th muse, was said to have loved men and women, and wrote beautiful poems to that effect, some of which exists in fragments. It’s an inconvenient truth, and as Sarah mentioned to me several times, almost any woman with an imagination can be a ‘little bit Bi’ without too much effort.

The End

Joanna Kadish: One of my essays won first place in Adelaide Literary Award 2019 Contest and appeared in an anthology in January 2020, and I was a contest finalist in the creative nonfiction category in the Spring 2019 Pinch Literary Awards. My work appeared in August 2019 in an anthology by Riverfeet Press, titled Awake in the World, V.2. Another essay was published in the Catamaran Literary Review for their summer issue 2019, as well as in the Adelaide literary magazine June 2019. My short fiction has been published by Potato Soup Journal, Literary Orphans, Cultured Vultures, Quail Bell Magazine, Citron Review, the No. 9 Signature Print of Urban Arts Magazine, and Crack the Spine’s 263 issue. I was a finalist in the Black Coffee & Vinyl Presents: Ice Cultures project, summer of 2018, Cutthroat 2016 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Contest, and received honorable mention in GlimmerTrain’s Emerging Writers Contest for 2015 and 2016.

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