2004 Short Story Contest Winner
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
by Iqbal Pittalwala
Thirteen years after he became a widower, the father decided, at age sixty-eight, to remarry. The wedding in San Francisco was a simple, bland affair. Along with hundreds of couples, the father and his partner of four years, Jerry, stood patiently in line outside San Francisco City Hall to receive the certificate they’d been denied for centuries. It rained incessantly in the city that February weekend. Televisions poured wet images into homes all over the world so that, by the end of the weekend, viewers, young and old, had watched gay couples huddled beneath a meadow of rainbow-colored umbrellas. The downpour and gloomy skies over San Francisco weren’t what deterred Sameer, the son, and Nila, the daughter, from showing up at City Hall. Sameer—unable to locate the logic behind a samesex marriage despite much support for his father—decided to abstain from the ceremony, writing it off at the last minute as a made-for-TV gimmick. Nila, the older of the two by six years, had never planned to go, having taken poorly to the father’s coming out gay.
Within days of the marriage, inheritance matters usurped conversations in Sameer’s apartment in Queen Anne, Seattle, driven by an emotional email the father shot off to his two children. In Jerry, the father declared candidly, he had found the soul mate he’d been seeking all his life. “Financially, he is not in good shape—he lost everything in his divorce and the stock market crash,” the father inserted in the middle of the eighth paragraph. “I am going to help him in every way I can.” Rosa, Sameer’s wife, whose staunch Catholicism could be traced back to her Mexican and Colombian ancestry, hung on to those sentences. She insisted the father ought at least to draw up a will and list Sameer and Nila as beneficiaries of his new four-bedroom house in Laguna Beach, California, before he proceeded to help “whoever showed up in his bed.”
“Why should this Jerry guy get anything?” she said, curling her lips as she readied herself for bed one night in early April. Her wavy dark hair, tied into a high ponytail during the day, fell heavily on her shoulders. Once a literary agent for upcoming ethnic writers, she was now the managing editor of a Latino magazine in Seattle. Thin, she believed she was not thin enough. An hour ago, she had returned bubbling with energy from a turbo kick-boxing session at the gym. She sat on the edge of the bed and, as she bent to apply a moisturizing cream between her toes, the crucifix around her neck flickered with reflected light. She glanced at the window, distracted by a pitter-patter sound. A drizzle painted silvery streaks on the pane through which, on the occasional rainless day in Seattle, one could view the shimmering cityscape and, looming in the distance, Mount Rainier. “This marriage isn’t really a marriage no matter what their certificate says,” she said, returning her attention to her toes. “It’s not legal, not worth the paper it’s printed on. You and Nila are his children.
That relationship is legal. He ought to keep your mother in mind before he turns over everything to this Jerry guy.”
Sameer, shirtless and already in bed, stared at the ceiling, his hands locked behind his head. His belly rose gently and fell. A software engineer at Microsoft, he’d reached a point in his life where he wished he were free to do something different from what he was accustomed to—something rash, something radical. Five years of living in the northwest had left no impression on him worth noting. Unable to say where he’d like to be five years down the line, he toyed in his mind during his most rebellious moments with taking up carpentry, or volunteering in a strife-torn country to provide food relief or, best of all, renouncing everything, becoming Buddhist and fighting for Tibetan freedom. “It’s only a matter of time before gay marriages become legal,” he said, still staring at the ceiling. His brows were gathered as though he were still at work, debugging dense computer code. “If he’d married a woman, would we be having this discussion?”
“What kind of question is that?” Rosa said, getting beneath the covers and snuggling up to him. “If your parents hadn’t emigrated from India, or if you and Nila had been born there and not in the U.S., would we be having this discussion? See what I mean, honey? Such questions are irrelevant.” She kissed Sameer on the shoulder and settled her cheek against his upper arm. “I tell you it’s amazing the kind of bold and bizarre actions some immigrants take after they get here. Things they would never dream of doing back in their home countries they’ll push ahead with like fools in America. I mean it’s one thing to blur your identity by wearing a baseball cap, shorts and a t-shirt, and avoiding Indian grocery stores. It’s another for an immigrant guy to marry a guy. ¡Dios mio! The man is a retired math professor. He is well respected in the community. He needs to think of what he is doing, what ramifications his self-serving actions are having on us all. But what can you do with people who can’t think beyond themselves?” She took Sameer’s hand in hers and massaged it lightly. “One day we’ll be having children and could use his help—financially and otherwise. Has he thought of that?”
Sameer turned on his side, showing his back to her. “He got tired of living all by himself. You said you didn’t want him to live with us. So he did what he had to do. In the end, we do what makes us happy, and us only.”
Rosa let go of his hand. He thought of the conversation he’d had with Nila earlier that day. She’d called, as she usually did, when he was about to leave the office, her living in New Jersey, three hours ahead, making it convenient for her to reach him at work on weekdays to discuss matters in which she had no desire to include Rosa. She suggested he visit the father soon to sort out inheritance issues. She couldn’t afford to fly out from the East coast, she said, being nearly broke, and wouldn’t go even if she could because, unless he secured his children’s future, she didn’t want to see the father’s face again.
Nila believed the father had been seeing men even when their mother was alive. Throughout their childhood years in Orange County’s Garden Grove, he had desecrated their family bonds by leading a double life. “Remember that Latino guy, Adolfo, he used to hang out with? That was no ordinary friendship,” she has said in the past. “And then that Armenian or Persian fellow—whatever his name was. Something about him never seemed right to me.” “To think that we were born of a gay man—tchha!—and that, if he could help it, he wouldn’t have had us at all,” she has said more recently. “Trust me, this freeloader Jerry hasn’t landed recently from the skies to dock onto his crotch,” she said vulgarly today on the telephone. “He’s probably been bouncing on Dad’s lap for decades. You know how it is with Dad. You never get the full story from him. What’s really going on in his head or in his life, we never know.”
Years before their mother had died from liver cancer, Nila had posited that a significant fraction of the father’s life remained permanently in the dark from them. ‘The family moon,’ she labeled him. One side forever hidden from view, he orbited his children’s lives—always present, yet forever distant. For much of his married life he had schemed and juggled stories in his mind, she believed. “Imagine the energy he has had to invest in keeping his sick lies together,” she’d say, “in making sure his intricate stories didn’t collide.”
Today, Sameer explained to her that what was done was done. Their father had remarried and, whether they liked it or not, it was what they had to work with. He had every right to remarry, he pointed out. He may live twenty or thirty years—who could say? Why should anyone live even a handful of years in solitude? If there is promise of joy for even a few years, why shouldn’t the father go for it? He was bored, miserable and lonely, he had written in the email to his children. Like everyone else, he was entitled to happiness, to companionship, to a future with whomever he wanted to share his life.
“Well, let him shack up then with whomever he wants—who the hell’s stopping him?” Nila retorted. “Why does he have to marry and create a mess for us to clear?”
“Well, he has done it,” Sameer said. “Whether gay marriages become legal or not, we have to bring Jerry into the equation. Look, I’ve said before I don’t get the need for gay people to marry, but Dad has gone ahead with it and at least we, his children, have to accept that. Much of the world won’t support him.”
“I won’t acknowledge, accept or support,” Nila said. “It’s not legal. It’s not yet sanctioned by the world, thank God. You know what I dreamed the other day? Mama was lying in her bed, in a fetal position, and crying. She was in a plain red sari that was too short for her. You and I were very young and we were clutching her ankles, imploring her not to remove her wedding ring, which she was struggling to do. Please—let’s not forget: the man is a liar. He lied to Mama and to us all these years. Now you listen to me, Sameer, and quit arguing. Go down to Laguna Beach and put some sense into his head.”
Sameer and Rosa met Jerry once, one late afternoon three years ago. The father and Jerry were driving to Vancouver from San Francisco and stopped in Queen Anne on the way. The meeting went without incident, with not a voice raised, with a minimum of words exchanged. Jerry—a short, boyish-looking Asian-American architect in his forties and introduced nervously as the ‘boyfriend’—handed a box of Godiva chocolates to Sameer, a porcelain vase from the Kwang Hsu period to Rosa. They stayed for less than half an hour, not even finishing the jasmine tea that Rosa served. They needed to get to Vancouver in time, the father said. For dinner with friends, Jerry added. The sooner they left, the better it would be. For us, too, Rosa was tempted to say but held her tongue.
Three years later, now in bed with Sameer, she rubbed his chest with her hand, then gently pulled at the graying hairs, twirling them around a fingernail. “Why don’t you fly down to chat with him face-to-face some weekend?” she said. “Emails and phone calls won’t work. Better we settle this matter once and for all.”
“You’re right,” Sameer said, and reached for the bedside lamp to switch it off. “Nila has been saying the same thing all week. Sweetheart, why don’t you come with me? We could make it a weekend holiday.”
Rosa pulled away from him and faced the ceiling as well. “Don’t be silly. This is a matter between you, Nila and your father. I shouldn’t come across as having designs on your inheritance.”
Sameer responded with silence. He sank his head further into the pillow and pulled the covers to his neck. One corner of the ceiling was partially concealed behind a cobweb, he noticed. He turned to face Rosa and threw an arm around her to lightly massage her shoulder. He didn’t think it was a good idea to go to the father to discuss inheritance, he wanted to say. How would he bring up the topic, especially in Jerry’s presence? You’re a disappointment to me, the father might say, as he used to say years ago when Sameer’s grades were poor. You can’t fend for yourself, so you come to me like some beggar.
Sameer turned away from Rosa and returned his gaze to the cobweb. He should forget about flying down to Southern California. Nila could go if she was so concerned about inheritance. It wasn’t his fault she was an unhappy high-school science teacher in Carteret, New Jersey, that she’d chosen to live her life as a childfree single woman. It surely wasn’t his fault she’d made lousy financial investments in life and lost much of her money. So she would never be able to afford a home on her own. Big deal. Let her fritter money away on sky-high rent. Why should he care?
If he went to the father, however, the father could help her in a way he, Sameer, could never. Moreover, with the father’s help on its way one day, Sameer would never have to help Nila financially. It wouldn’t hurt to ask. Asking the father in person would be appropriate, more effective, he thought. Nila needs your help, he’d say and leave it at that. All right then: he’d go for a short time. He’d fly out on Saturday afternoon and return Sunday morning. He’d stay in a hotel near John Wayne Airport in Orange County. He’d take a taxi all the way to Laguna Beach. He’d travel light so there’d be no luggage to check in, no baggage claim headaches to battle.
He was about to consider the logistics of the trip back to Queen Anne when sleep took over and drew him in.
- - - - - - - -
On Saturday evening, within moments of stepping out of the terminal at John Wayne Airport, he retreats to the time of his boyhood in Southern California. He has never left, it feels to him. As he takes the escalator down toward ground transportation, he wonders if he has erred by coming. He shouldn’t have come. Orange County—its surfer-friendly beaches with strands for endless inline-skating, its overwrought web of freeways, its proximity to Little India in Artesia—held too many memories of his childhood, of his mother, of the close-knit family he thought he’d had as a boy. Moreover, he was not going to go up to his father today, or any other day, to ask for what is not yet his and Nila’s and may never be. He shouldn’t have listened to Rosa. It was time Nila stopped bossing over him as well, a carry-over from their childhood days. He should have told them to fight this battle on their own. How did he become the spokesperson for the triad?
He considers taking a taxi. He rents a car instead and heads toward the South Coast Plaza, the sprawling mall in the heart of Costa Mesa. He’ll lose himself in that city-within-acity, he decides, kill some time away in the crowds until his mind clears. Orange County is busier than he can remember—ethnic knots of people at every bus stop, the streets chockfull of gleaming cars. His cell phone rings. He scans the number, notes it is his father calling him, and ignores the call. The cell phone rings again and stops. Moments later, it beeps to indicate a message received.
At the mall, which is bursting with shoppers and music and splashed liberally with bright lights and colors, he walks past a glittery Godiva store, then a Gucci one and finds himself eventually in the futuristic electronics section of Sears. A slender saleswoman, whose ethnicity he cannot determine, comes up to him to ask if he needs assistance. Her mannerism strikes him as so rehearsed, her voice so theatrical, that he imagines she has emerged from one of the plasma TVs quilting a nearby wall.
He shrugs. “Just looking,” he says above the noise saturating the store. “I’m looking to buy a refrigerator actually. I’ve gotten tired of renting one. Where are they?”
She directs him toward the appliance section where he finds a bank of upscale refrigerators. He opens and closes the doors of a few, impressed and intrigued by their soundlessness. Surprised that some of them cost as much as a small car, he leans into the inside of one to take a closer look. Three of him and a little more could fit inside, he thinks. Gently, he closes the door and stares at it for a while. A young fake-blond salesman with a flawless shiny complexion comes up to him to ask if he has questions. “Just looking,” Sameer says, reading the salesman’s badge. “No questions, Mr. Papathanasopoulos.” The salesman smiles and tells him to give a holler if he wants more information on an item. Sameer nods. He doesn’t avert his eyes until the salesman feels awkward and walks away.
He leaves the mall feeling annoyed with himself. He heads back for the car. He jumps into it and drives down Bristol Street toward the roar of the 405. He feels relieved to be stopped by the traffic lights. He needs to slow down, rein in his mind and put his thoughts in order. He is amazed by the changes in Costa Mesa—also by its familiarity. Street names come back to him. It takes only seconds for the city’s geography to re-crystallize in his mind. Surprised by how much he can recall, he watches several Hispanic families with strollers and oversized shopping bags crossing the street before him.
Just as the traffic lights turn green, he spots a strip mall to his right. Between two palm trees, just behind a neon sign listing the strip mall’s stores, he sees a realty. He swings the car in its direction to pay a brief visit. What is a four-bedroom house in Laguna Beach worth these days? He enters the low-ceilinged office just as his cell phone rings again. He ignores it and makes his way to the front desk. He is asked by an effeminate dark-skinned man to proceed toward a stocky woman, seemingly of Japanese or Korean descent, seated behind a desk. “Hello, I am Audra Tokoyoda-Pfotenhauer,” she says without rising, her eyes measuring him from above narrow tinted eyeglasses. “How may I help you?” Her chunkiness suggests a tough solidity to him, her body a toughness that one associates with rubber-like density. Though small in stature, she must weigh a ton, Sameer thinks. An orange-blossom fragrance yanks him out of his reverie. He’s not sure if it’s from one of the perfumes with which Tokoyoda-Pfotenhauer has doused herself or if it’s the office streaming the sweet odor isotropically in some effort to lull clients toward a sale.
He considers turning around and leaving. “Oops, wrong office—I wanted the store next door,” he could say over his shoulder, and step out. He decides to stay. TokoyodaPfotenhauer has time to spare, he surmises from her polished, paper-free desk. He tells her he is looking for a two-bedroom condo close to the South Coast Plaza. He won’t go over $250,000, he says. She raises an eyebrow, laughs in a way that resembles a cough, and informs him that he’d find no listings for such a low price. He tells her that’s what he can afford and to proceed anyways, moving in her computer-search as close to South Coast Plaza as 250K would allow. He adds that the monthly home association fees must not exceed $150, that, if there is a garden to attend to, it should be no larger than a doormat.
“I hated having to mow our lawn as a kid—right here, in Garden Grove,” he explains. He leans towards her and rests his palms on her desk. “I’ll be back in 30 minutes,” he says, rising from his chair. “I’m going to get a bite.”
“Why don’t you call first?” Tokoyoda-Pfotenhauer says, rising as well. “In case, you know, nothing is available in your range. It will spare you the trouble of returning. Here, please, take my card.”
He shakes his head. “It’s no trouble at all,” he tells her, not accepting the card that has emerged, magically, like a blade between her fingers. He bows, Japanese-style, and proceeds to leave the office. In the car, the cell phone rings again. Absently, he answers it.
“Sameer, oh thank god, where are you?” his father yells. “We’ve been waiting. I even left two messages on your—”
“Hor-horrendous traffic,” Sameer says, wishing he were in Seattle. He can feel a headache growing in his mind. “I’m on my way.”
- - - - - - - -
The bottom line was that the father was happy, the way he’d never been with their mother. Sameer came to this conclusion when he stepped into the father’s two-level house perched halfway up a hill in Laguna Beach, overlooking from three sides the Pacific Ocean’s blue expanse. The father greeted him with a hug, made awkward by weight he had gathered around the waist. His hair, combed back, had thinned. His forehead seemed broader to Sameer, the lines on his face deeper. His thick moustache concealed his upper lip. Bushy eyebrows, pushed forward by permanent furrows in his brow, darkened his eyes. Sameer was noting how leathery the father’s cheeks were when Jerry emerged from behind the father. Awkwardly, Jerry wrapped his arms around Sameer in a light embrace.
“What took you so long?” Jerry asked, standing beside the father.
“Come, sit,” the father said.
“I drove north from the airport by mistake,” Sameer lied.
“Forgotten Orange County already?” the father said.
“Where are your bags?” Jerry asked, rubbing the father’s back with his hand.
A black leather couch marked the center of the room, its back facing the front door. Sameer approached it. “My bag is still in the car,” he said. “I won’t be staying overnight here though—”
“What nonsense,” the father interjected. “You’re staying with us overnight.”
Sameer sank into the couch. He found himself in the center of a geometrically pristine living room. The walls were painted soft peach with white trim on the molding. Fabrics from Asia and Africa punctuated the wall facing the couch. To his left, an open, glassy exposure revealed the Pacific Ocean glistening below. The fireplace stood to his right, clean and unused. Two framed photographs on the mantelpiece caught his eye. In one, the father and Jerry stood cheek to cheek before the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. In the other— taken, Sameer guessed, in Palm Springs at least twenty years ago—the father, Nila, he and their mother posed inside the city’s aerial tramway. Sameer turned back to the wall facing him. A Chinese floral painting had been placed too high, inadvertently leading the eye to the vaulted ceiling where a skylight, admitting natural light, brightened the hardwood floors. None of this was his father’s creation, Sameer knew. His eyes fell on Jerry who was approaching him.
“What can I get you to drink?”
Sameer opted for cold water, which he gulped down rapidly. He needed to leave. Though the house was inviting and though Jerry and his father were cordial, a sharp uneasiness stirred inside him, combating the soft tranquility the house induced.
“I’m working on a project—a meditation center in Yorba Linda—that I need to return to,”
Jerry said. “The deadline for the renderings is tomorrow unfortunately. Please excuse me.” It was only as he watched him leave the room that Sameer remembered that Jerry was an architect. Surprised that he knew so little of his father’s life-partner, he turned away to find his father’s eyes cast on him.
“What’s the matter?”
“I am relaxed.”
Sameer moved his palms in circles over the surface of the couch. “I’m not sure why I came—”
“Why shouldn’t you? I’m glad you came down. When did we see each other last? Three years ago—when we came up to Seattle, no?”
“I should have come to San Francisco in February.”
“What? Oh. Is that what this trip is about? Your absence there? That’s all over now. It’s history. We bear no grudge.”
“I should have attended. It was an important day in your life, your new life.”
“Forget that now.”
“I came because I’m worried about Nila. Also to see you, of course—” “What’s happened to her?
“Nothing has. She’s—well, she’s not doing well financially. She’s depressed. She has put on a lot of weight lately—she said so herself. She has fought with Anika and also with another close friend, she also told me.”
The father, still standing, leaned toward him. “You’re hiding something. You can’t fool me. What is it? Tell me.”
“I’m not hiding anyth—”
“Yes, you are. You’re tense. Like some lamb on its way to the slaughterhouse.”
“Please. Can we go somewhere so we can talk in private?”
“Jerry can’t hear a thing. The door to his office is shut. Plus, he listens to music on headphones whenever he works.”
Sameer sighed. “Please make sure that Nila is taken care of,” he said. “She senses an abandonm—”
“Taken care of? Has something happened to her? Sameer, tell me.”
Sameer shook his head. “I told you. She’s unhappy. She feels alone. She’s lonely and bitter. She—well, she has no money, which makes matters worse. She needs your, our—”
“Is that what this is about? Money for Nila? You came down here for that? You could have asked me on the phone. Or she could have.”
“No, no. That’s not why—”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy you’ve come. Look, you must be tired. Why don’t we talk about this in the morning? Go, get your bags from the car. You’ve just arrived. We can discuss Nila tomorrow.”
Sameer rose with difficulty. The room seemed to have expanded and he felt small before the father. Jerkily, he embraced him, memories of his Garden Grove days pressed between their chests. He said under his breath that he was sorry he did not go to San Francisco, that he had trivialized his father’s relationship—and courage—by not going.
The father patted Sameer on the back and let go of him. “Go now. Bring your bag from the car.” He watched Sameer walk head-bowed toward the door. “Walk tall, Sameer. Always.”
Sameer straightened up. “You’re at peace,” he said, his back to his father. “Finally. That’s nice to see. I’m happy for you. When I come in again, let’s start all over. We could pretend the talk we just had never took place.” He heard the father laugh and say that that would be okay with him.
Sameer stepped outside and took in the sunshine. He closed the front door behind him. He switched his cell phone off. Climbing into the rental car, he turned the ignition and strapped on the seat belt.
He rolled the windows of the car down and let the wind whip through his hair and skin as he drove up the Pacific Coast Highway toward Newport Beach. He’d done the best he could. He felt glad he hadn’t brought up inheritance with a man still alive. It had to be a sin of some kind—children requesting their share before the time was right. Hurrying the future thus was sacrilegious in his mind. Some holy book somewhere probably had a verse or two on it. The parable of the impatient son he had cast himself in. Ask for inheritance and you shan’t receive. Wretchedly, he thought of what he’d nearly done, what he’d been cajoled to do by Nila and Rosa. As he escaped from Laguna Beach, he thought bitterly of them. He ought to jettison them from his life for some time. He ought to turn around, speed back to the hillside house and beg the father’s forgiveness. Instead he tore away from the Pacific and accelerated the car.
He took Route 55 inland and soon saw signs for John Wayne Airport. He’d leave by the scheduled flight tomorrow. He’d keep the cell phone off until he landed in Seattle. When Nila didn’t even speak to the father any more, what right had she to expect him to do the dirty work for her? Their father was happy for the first time in his life, had arrived at last where he needed to be. How did it matter to her whom he spent his life with to sustain that happiness? Their mother was dead. Their father was gay. She had to accept that, as he had, and move on.
He’d tell Rosa he felt ashamed to bring up inheritance with the father. He’d email his father tomorrow to apologize for having brought up money in their conversation, for fleeing the way he had. The next time Nila called him at work he’d invent this for her: The father would leave Jerry out of his will and would agree to help her out on two conditions. One, she made every effort to accept the father for who he was; and, two, she never brought up inheritance again.
He raced the car toward the airport. He drove past it. He caught sight of the Airport Hilton in the distance and decided he’d check into it later. For now, he needed to drive listlessly for a while, air his mind out, let the breeze wash over him. The father had married out of self-preservation, he realized. When neither of his children had extended an invitation to him to live in their homes, the father had gone ahead with seeking a caregiver willing to love him and be by his side. In the end, we do what makes us happy and ensures our loving care.
Sameer read his wristwatch. He considered driving all the way to Garden Grove to glimpse the house he’d grown up in. He shook his head. Too far and loaded with the history of a family shattered and scattered by a lie that had been perpetuated by denial. He would bring the family back together one day, he thought. He’d devote himself to healing the wound that was tearing Nila and the father apart.
He drove on. He thought, suddenly, of the realty near the South Coast Plaza. He’d told Tokoyoda-Pfotenhauer he’d return. Why not do just that? The evening stretched open ended before him. He drove on, determined to get to the realty. He’d get a pleasant dinner later in the evening. First, he’d stride into Tokoyoda-Pfotenhauer’s office, his head held high. He’d announce that he wished to move down to Southern California to be near his father. He’d make up a story centered around the father wanting him in Orange County, begging him to return home.
Sameer chuckled like a little boy. “I’m back,” he would tell Tokoyoda-Pfotenhauer, curious to know what condos her search had found.
Copyright © 2004 by Iqbal Pittalwala