Debie Thomas | River Teeth | Summer 2013 | 17 minutes (4,194 words)

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On my mother’s twenty-second birthday, her parents told her she was engaged. She had met her fiancé once before, when my dad, accompanied by his dad, visited her home and spoke to her for about fifteen minutes. Two months later, they held hands for the first time and exchanged their wedding vows in a tiny village church in South India.

My father, then twenty-five years old, left the country to enroll in seminary in Europe, leaving his new bride with her in-laws. She joined him some months later, and they immigrated to America in 1971. They had me, their first child, three years after that. In 2014, my parents will celebrate their forty-fifth anniversary.

This is not a story. It’s a lesson. An example. A standard to live up to. And like all of the story-lessons my parents sprinkled into their childrearing—“We walked three miles to school each day in the Kerala heat. We had chores from sun-up until sundown. We did our homework by candlelight”—this one is unadorned. There are no addendums, intrigues, or controversies I can add to spice things up, though God knows I have tried.

“But what did you feel when your parents first told you? What did you think?” This to my mother, who raises her eyebrows at my twelve-year-old foolishness.

“I didn’t think anything. I had completed college, and it was the right time for marriage. That’s all.”

I try multiple choice. “But were you scared? Excited? Sad? Did you think Daddy was handsome, average, ugly?”

She doesn’t give me an inch; everything is a moral. “I trusted my parents to make the best decision for my future. Parents know best about such things.”

I scrutinize her face as she says this. I want a flutter, a twitch, any betrayal at all. But she’s seamless. I fall back on facts.

“What did you say to him when he came to visit you? What did you talk about?”

“I didn’t talk. He asked me some questions, and I answered them.” “What questions?”

She squints her eyes, trying to remember. “He asked if I was willing to be a pastor’s wife. If I could make the sacrifices his profession requires. Money and things like that. And he asked if I would go with him to America.”

“And you said?”

“I said yes.”

“Just like that?”

“Of course.”

“But … wasn’t there anything you wanted to ask him first?”

“Like what?” She waves me away disdainfully. “What would I ask, Debie? We weren’t married yet. What could there be to ask?”

I give up and turn to my father, but he is only slightly more forthcoming. “I had one proposal before your mother, but I said no to that girl right away.”

This fascinates me. “Why? What didn’t you like about her?”

He gets awkward. Busies himself with the sermon notes on his desk. “I just didn’t want to marry her.”

“But why not? Because of something she said? Did she answer your questions wrong?”

“No. We barely spoke. I just knew she couldn’t be my wife.”

I see from his face that we’re reaching the limits of what’s sayable.

“You mean, you weren’t attracted to her?”

“Attracted” is an English word my father doesn’t know what to do with. It embarrasses him. I retranslate. “You didn’t think she was pretty?” He thinks about this for a minute before he answers. “When I looked at her, I thought of her as a sister. Or an aunt. Not a wife.”

I nod smugly; he wasn’t attracted to her. I’m both pleased and disoriented by the fact that my father understands this about himself. “But when you saw Mummy?”

“I thought right away she could be my wife.”

“Because she was beautiful? That’s how you decided? By her looks?” He doesn’t like the criticism implicit in the question. He gets defensive. “She was a godly, well-educated girl from a decent family. That’s what’s important.”

It’s time to end the conversation, but I can’t. I ask the next question fast, before my courage gives out. “Did you fall in love with her?”

For conservative Indians like my parents, “falling in love” is an American illness, a condition to avoid as one avoids warts or gonorrhea. But I need Daddy to confess that he felt something for Mummy when he married her, and this is the only way I know to ask. But he doesn’t answer. He gives me a vocabulary lesson instead.

“Indians don’t ‘fall,’ Debie. We don’t marry by accident. We choose. Choose to marry, choose to love. We’re not powerless like Americans.”

By age twelve, I’m attentive enough to words and their precise meanings to be shaken by Daddy’s explanation. It hasn’t struck me until that moment that “falling in love” is a passive activity. That it can’t, by definition, involve choice or volition. Nothing in my careful dichotomizing of American freedom and Indian oppression explains this upending, and my twelve-year-old self protests. What does Indian culture know about choice? What could epitomize choicelessness more than an arranged marriage? Falling?

The possibility stumps me. It stumps me still.

* * *

I don’t watch soap operas with Mummy. She shoos me away from the television like any proper Indian mother must, even snapping the set off at the first hint of a scandalous bedroom scene. But during the hot summer afternoons I spend with her in our kitchen, I manage to watch her favorite soaps, anyway. I persist. I hover. I spy. While Mummy peels garlic and chops green chilis to the accompaniment of All My Children, One Life to Live, The Young and the Restless, or Santa Barbara, I peek around doorways and fall into those glamorous, chandeliered worlds, too. By the time I’m eleven, twelve, thirteen years old, I am as invested in the love-drenched dramas of Erika Kane, Bo Brady, and Eden Capwell as I am in the preteen crushes of my middle-school friends.

Mummy’s running commentary on Western shamelessness notwithstanding, she watches these shows faithfully throughout the years of my growing up. As do my conservative aunties. When I ask my mother, years later, what she found so compelling about soaps, she looks embarrassed and shrugs me off. “Crazy Americans—it was amusing to watch them,” she says. As if Susan Lucci, with her ageless skin and inexplicable lingerie, was a newly discovered species of grasshopper. Or a Martian.

For me, the draw is unreservedly romance. Though I pay attention to the soaps’ convoluted storylines involving miscarriages, amnesiacs, evil twins, and terminal illnesses, what fascinates me are the love stories. The couples. The falling. Cruz Castillo and Eden Capwell. Bo Brady and Hope Williams. Erika Kane and … more men than I can keep track of. In short, the holy ground of desire, pursuit, affection, and seduction that elevates lovers into another realm altogether—a strange, beautiful realm my teenage self inflects both racially and culturally.

Growing up, I don’t live in a world where husbands and wives hug, kiss, hold hands, or say, “I love you.” I don’t grow up hearing my father or my uncles call their wives “honey,” “sweetheart,” or “darling.” If these terms of endearment have Indian equivalents, I don’t hear those, either. In fact, I witness nothing that would positively distinguish a married couple from a brother and his sister, or a pair of cousins, or two cordial acquaintances. No flirtation, no secret looks, no surreptitious caresses. I have no childhood memories of my parents planning date nights, weekend getaways, or anniversary celebrations. When my little brother and I occasionally dared my parents to kiss, on Valentine’s Day, say, or on one of their birthdays, the awkward peck my father gave Mummy’s cheek always disappointed us both.

Inevitably, then, soap operas open up a distinctly American realm, a realm almost embarrassing in its excess, its sentimentality, its raw, naked hunger. It is a realm where lovers are immediately recognizable as lovers. A realm that clashes in every conceivable way with the pragmatic and decidedly non-sentimental world I inhabit as an Indian girl.

I’m well into high school before it dawns on me that what Mummy and I watch on TV during our summer afternoons is not quite American reality. That Erika’s perfect makeup and roller-coaster love life bear little resemblance to the marriages of my white schoolmates’ parents. And yet some similarities persist, and I pay attention to them. My white schoolmates’ parents say, “I love you.” They kiss on the lips. They share secret glances and affectionate nicknames. In other words, they exist as couples, apart from their communal roles as parents, neighbors, friends, relatives.

The things that linger from my soap-watching years are so American-obvious, so conspicuous, that it feels silly to name them. But for me, they are world-changing. In America—on-screen and off—falling in love is neither dishonorable nor criminal. Falling in love is good. In families, it offers an occasion for celebrations, toasts, best wishes, hugs. Even in cases where the falling is inconvenient—because it happens too early, or too late, or between lovers whose lives are too messy to bode well for their futures—even in those cases, the falling itself is respected as a legitimate experience, entirely within the realm of the human and the normal.

If anything, it’s the failure to fall in love that elicits sorrow in America. The unluckiest people aren’t the ones who fall and fail, who love and find their love unrequited, who risk everything on romance and suffer heartbreak. The unluckiest people are those who never experience the magic at all, even fleetingly. Theirs are the blunted lives, the lives we pity. The contrast between this view of romance and the view I learn at home could not possibly be starker.

By the time I graduate from high school, my soap-opera heroines have “fallen” so many times, I’ve more than lost count. But their highs and lows don’t leave me jaded. Their reckless belief in an ideal that compels them to fall and fall and fall again, despite pain and grief and loss, exhilarates me. More, I’m exhilarated by the world these lovers live in. It’s an unfathomable world. A world that lets them love.

* * *

It’s a late Saturday afternoon in March, and I am wandering from room to room in my crowded house. I’m fourteen years old, and itching for news. The wait is intolerable.

I’m waiting because my parents have facilitated an “arrangement,” the first I’ve ever witnessed. Beena, a young woman who attends our church, has received a marriage proposal from a family my father knows in Dallas. The prospective groom’s family has come to Boston to meet her, and the two sides have arranged a meeting at a nearby restaurant. After receiving prayer here at the house, the would-be bride—decked out in a sari and an updo—has left for the restaurant, accompanied by her parents, a couple of aunts and uncles, and my father. A few family members and friends have lingered at our house to wait for an outcome. My mother—whom Daddy has promised to call as soon as he has news—hovers by the phone.

I am dying to talk, but there’s no one to talk to. My mother and my aunties are hardly opening their mouths as they sip coffee around the kitchen table, exchanging nothing but whispered requests for more sugar or another piece of jackfruit halva. They look dignified and solemn, as if the weight of the huge and wonderful something that is happening at that restaurant right now depends on their maintaining a strict decorum.

I share nothing of their restraint. I am hungry to chat, to exchange notes, to imagine out loud every possible version of what might be happening to Beena as we sit here, maddeningly out of the loop. Though by now I’ve attended several arranged weddings, this is my first time experiencing the process that precedes the vows and rings and cakes.

I’ve seen Beena before at church events, but we’ve done little more than smile at each other; she’s in her early twenties, and rightly considers me a kid. But she is also what I call “Indian Indian”—a new arrival, fluent in Malayalam, conversant in English, adept at cooking, and skilled in all the feminine gestures and graces which render her, in my mother’s approving parlance, a “modest and godly girl.” All of which means I can’t handle her presence for long without feeling loud-mouthed, ashykneed, and unattractively American.

But today this Indian Indian has my empathy. I want to know a hundred things about her predicament, a hundred things Western television has failed to teach me. How is Beena feeling at this very moment? What is her prospective fiancé noticing when he looks at her? Is he looking at her, or are they both too shy to make eye contact? Are they speaking, or are the parents doing all the talking? Is Beena’s heart pounding? Is her mouth dry? Is she falling? Is he?

In other words: what exactly is transpiring between these two human beings as they meet for the first time to do nothing less than make the biggest decision of their lives in just a matter of minutes? I ache to know.

When I’m sure I won’t survive another moment of suspense, the phone rings. The house grows even quieter as my mother answers. She nods as my father tells her something I can’t make out, and by degrees her face softens into a smile. She hangs up nearly laughing and exclaims, “They have agreed!”

My aunties stand up and beam with pleasure. They take collective breaths of relief. “I knew it all along” they say. “I had no doubts.” “God is good.”

The energy in the house changes as everyone prepares to receive Beena and her now-betrothed at our house. Mummy makes fresh coffee. The aunties assemble snack trays. I’m instructed to straighten up the living room. I do so impatiently, my hands barely feeling the sofa cushions I fluff, the empty cups and saucers I gather. I can’t wait to see Beena’s face. To read it.

They arrive twenty minutes later. My father ushers the families in, and we make special room for the groom’s family to sit first, on one of our couches. Beena and her parents sit across from them on the loveseat, our coffee table separating Beena from her fiancé. The rest of us crowd around the doorway while Mummy serves coffee and snacks.

I don’t know what I’m expecting. The conversation—mostly between the men—is warm and polite. Beena’s fiancé is chatty but respectful as he talks about his career plans, Beena’s good chances of landing a nursing job in Texas, and the weather down south. When Beena stands up to show her new mother-in-law where our bathroom is, a couple of aunties squeeze her hand and pat her arm, and she smiles. Later Beena passes a plate of biscuits to her fiancé, and he nods his thank you. Before the families leave, Beena’s father asks Daddy to take a group picture, and we all squeeze together in front of the fireplace, with Beena and her fiancé at our center. The two of them are more than close enough to press into each other, but they don’t. They don’t touch at all, or even look at each other’s faces. When the two families say goodbye on our driveway, Beena and her fiancé part with shy smiles. No words.

An older, kinder version of me would read nervousness into the whole of this interaction. Nervousness, fear of offending elders, a deeply ingrained sense of propriety and modesty. But at fourteen, I am neither old nor kind. I am appalled. By that age, I’ve come to think of love as an immersion experience. A tsunami. The love my Americanized self associates with marriage is not staid, not polite, not domestic, not communal. It is not about aunties patting my arms. Not about my career prospects in Dallas. In-love couples are supposed to float a few transfigured feet above the rest of the mundane world, oblivious to its dull concerns, their eyes and imaginations trained powerfully on each other.

By contrast, Beena’s happiness—if it even is happiness—strikes my adolescent self as passionless, platonic, cautious, and boring. In fact, it strikes me as impossible. By what definition of love could she already “love” this man she’s just met? On what basis could her heart have chosen him? In the thirty minutes I spend scrutinizing Beena’s face, I don’t see a woman who has just experienced a tsunami. At best, I see a girl who has politely dipped her big toe into an inch-deep pond, found some tentative comfort in the warm, brackish water, and decided to stay right there, one toe in, the other four out. If she’s happy, it’s because she has earned the warm approval of her extended family and friends. Because now she has joined the circle. Grown up. Become a true Indian woman. Good and well, I tell myself. I’m sure approval is nice. But why would anyone get married for that?

* * *

In the months that follow Beena’s engagement, I obsess over love and choosing. I struggle to hold together my father’s vocabulary lesson, my soap-opera education, and Beena’s very Indian marriage-by-choice. I wrestle to the point of getting headaches and stomachaches, my body succumbing to an anxiety I can hardly name. At fourteen, it’s not that I’m afraid of my own marriage as yet; adulthood is still too fuzzy and far away for that. My anxiety is more immediate, more concrete. I need coherence. I need the pieces of a crucial, complicated puzzle to fit together. I need the seams to disappear, but they won’t. They stubbornly won’t.

Eventually, I make a jagged peace. I decide that it is possible, for most people most of the time, to act lovingly towards just about anyone: a bratty toddler, an ornery grandfather, a new fiancé. But I also decide that this is not the same as choosing to love. It is choosing to act kindly in the absence of love. It is an intellectual assent, maybe even an ethnical one. But it’s got nothing to do with passion and romance.

My parents raise me on the conventional Indian wisdom that emotions are at best a nuisance and at worst a landmine. But they also emphasize that good feelings will follow naturally from good actions. Act lovingly towards a person, they say, and you will eventually feel love for them.

I’m taught this truth right alongside my American soap operas, so I sit in front of The Young and the Restless and ponder it. Can obligation really have so much power? How many years’ worth of “right actions” would it take to keep Victor and Nikki from breaking up again? How many times will Beena fold her husband’s laundry, cook his breakfast, and submit to his caresses before she wakes up one night and knows she loves him, body and soul? What if that knowledge never comes? What then? Perhaps filial love can bloom so dutifully, I decide. But romantic love? Erotic love? How is that possible?

Only years later will I realize that what Daddy inadvertently admits to me through his own courtship story is that attraction—physical attraction—is beyond human control. The girl he meets before Mummy doesn’t attract him, so he rejects her. Years later, when my parents show me photographs of would-be grooms, and ask if one man looks more appealing than another, what they’ll really be asking is “Are you sexually attracted to this guy? Can you respond to him physically?” The apparent assumption will be that I’ll either feel attracted, or not, because choice has no place in the equations of desire. Unlike love, attraction is uncontrollable, even for Indians. Maybe the mistake Americans make, I conclude, is that they confuse attraction for romance. They do fall, because all of us fall, but what they fall into isn’t love.

Like my parents, I’m doomed to reduce the complexities of my host culture, often to the point of absurdity. As a child, as a teenager, it doesn’t occur to me that on-screen romance is wholly filtered, polished, packaged. I don’t notice that American love stories generally end right where love—sustained love, the volitional kind—ought to begin—at the first kiss, on the wedding day, on the morning after the first heated night in bed. I never imagine Erika Kane minus her lipstick, or Victoria Newman ten years into a marriage. I don’t want to. At thirteen, I’m not a cultural critic looking for nuance; I’m a kid with an insatiable sweet tooth, standing outside the world’s biggest candy store. The door I call “American Love” is locked tight tight tight, but I’m so hungry, I can’t care. In fact, I’m starving, and my fists are more than ready to smash glass.

* * *

Falling, loving, arranging, choosing: it’s taken a long time to forgive myself for being stumped. Longer still to decide that understanding is impossible. I’ve been married now for almost seventeen years, to a man my parents chose for me soon after I graduated from college. The decision to submit to an arranged marriage wasn’t really a decision; my parents’ wishes were absolute, and I knew they’d suffer terribly in our conservative immigrant community if I refused. In the years since our wedding, Alex and I have loved and not loved, chosen and not chosen, fallen and not fallen. I’ve almost quit the marriage many times, but something as deep and unchangeable as my skin color, my DNA, my ancestry, has held me back. Here’s what I comprehend now:

I cannot know this essential thing I long to know. It’s not that there’s a graspable thing out there, just waiting for me to reach far enough, waiting for me to find the right English words that will unwrap its great mystery. The truth is, I still look at arranged marriages—even my own—and find all of my linguistic, cognitive, and emotional faculties failing. What I’m looking into is a void. Something uncrossable. An inchoate ground my feet cannot travel without sinking.

For years I thought this was my fault. A fault of my intellect, a fault of my heart, an imaginative stinginess that wouldn’t allow what looks avuncular or platonic or filial to transform itself into something passionate or romantic.

So I tried. I pressed in, taking arranged marriage stories chapter by chapter, line by line:

My father looks at my mother. He thinks, “She’s pretty.” She brings him tea. He asks her questions. She answers them. He looks away. She looks away, too. They sit together. Minutes pass. They need to make up their minds. They … look at each other one more time? They … tremble? They … sweat? They … pray? They decide to spend the rest of their lives together.

Beena walks into that restaurant. She catches her first glimpse of the boy from Texas. She sits down and says hello. He says hello in return. She … likes his eyes? His career prospects? His voice? He … notices the dimple on her cheek? The stray curl that falls across her forehead? The way she pronounces her r’s? They … tremble? Sweat? Pray? They decide to spend the rest of their lives together.

I’ll struggle as long as I try to see the un-seeable. As long as I try to create a possibility for it inside of myself.

I wonder fairly often now what my life with Alex would be like if I had no interpretive frame to measure him against. What kind of wife would I have become if America, with its green cards and transit lounges, its border crossings and trespasses, had never happened to our family?

What if I had never been introduced to steamy date nights and ribbon-wrapped chocolates? What if my vocabulary never included words like “sweetheart” or “soul mate?” What if I had been trained from birth to associate romantic desire with the things I now consider nice but mundane: a stable career, a comfortable home, a good reputation?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. As much as I try and try and try, I cannot know them. All I can know is the tension of trying. Of holding matter and anti-matter close, knowing they might annihilate each other. And me.

During the only other childhood conversation my father and I have about falling, I ask him about interracial marriage—a huge, huge taboo in our family. In my memory—which is probably inaccurate here—I am very young. Seven, maybe. Or eight. Young enough to ask without getting in trouble. “What if an Indian person falls in love with a white person, Daddy? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to marry?”

He can’t know it, but the answer he gives me is a gunshot. It crackles. It rips and ricochets over my life, explaining me—my divided, uncomprehending heart—to myself: “A bird might fall in love with a fish, Debie. But where would they live?”

* * *

Originally published by Riverteeth, Summer 2013.

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Illustration By: Laura McCabe