Driving toward Mobile, though still on the outskirts of Atlanta, I asked Shannon if this would’ve been easier if I had been black, instead of what I was.
Given the length of the drive still remaining, six hours through Georgia and Alabama until we hit the Gulf Coast, I thought this comment, ticking with the dynamite of controversy, would set us up well for a long conversation, where I could enunciate some of the thoughts on American history that had been spinning in my head since we left Philly.
But Shannon just patted my leg and said, “There is a three day ban on race talk.”
Then her head went hard the other way and her straight blonde hair, normally so wispy, billowed like a curtain and settled between us, as thick as the anxiety that we had been dealing with ever since an online troll that had the same name as her father saw a couple of pictures of us on some tiny music blog and wrote in the comments section that single line that she called the 9/11 of her life: “When Shannon converts will she change her name to Sharmoota?” The commenters after had clarified it to the world. “It means whore in sand-nigger-speak!”
I sped up and merged into the right lane to go around a slow moving van. “Slow ass redneck,” I said, cutting off the driver. The demonstration was directed at Shannon. She knew me well enough to know that abstract philosophy and history and theory was my way of sorting through my insecurities. Yes, she had a lot on her mind, but wasn’t it in her own interest to deflate some of my worries, so that during this weekend, to be spent at her house, I could be someone she could fall into, someone that could catch her? Then again, protecting herself was the thing she knew the least about. Wasn’t that how she had ended up with me?
It was about ten in the morning when we passed the “Alabama Welcomes You” sign. The highway going into the Heart of Dixie was lined with loblolly pine and willow and oak. The sun had just finished its morning pull-up and peeked at us from above the line of the steamy trees. Soon it was coming through the window, but it wasn’t warm, just white, sort of what I anticipated Shannon’s family to be like.
My eyes fell on an I-85 marker. It read West. I was an East Coast kid. The only highway I had ever known, ever needed, was I-95, and that went up and down, North and South, never West, never straying away from the coastal cities which I associated with safety, with sanctuary. This Westward trek I was making was for people like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, not a Pakistani whose American landing had been in Brooklyn and for whom the move to Philadelphia had been traumatic. With each little town whose name I didn’t recognize I mashed the gas harder, desperate to find something that might evoke familiarity, something beside Shannon.
After fifteen minutes I saw a sign for Auburn University. Suddenly, college bowl games, first round draft picks, and running backs nicknamed Cadillac passed through me.
“Does your dad like college football?” I asked.
“Why do you ask?” she said. I was surprised that she didn’t give me a monosyllabic retort.
“Maybe we can talk SEC football.”
“Don’t force it,” she said, looking at the sign for Auburn, recognizing the source of my inspiration. “He’ll see through that. He is big into seeing into the spirit of people, even making it talk, all in its own special language.”
I didn’t hear her. Football was America’s cultural religion. The stadia, the church; the bleachers, the pews; the ticket, the tithe. Each event was a nationalist passion play, prefaced by some mention of the glories of the Second World War, and punctuated by communal hymns that united us as a volk. I clicked a few buttons on my cell and found the Saturday schedule. I smiled a little when I saw that Auburn and Alabama were playing for state supremacy.
“Its the Iron Bowl tomorrow,” I said. “There isn’t a soul in the South who wouldn’t be hype about that!”
Shannon didn’t say anything until we merged onto I-65 South and Montgomery was just a series of glitters that couldn’t be separated from the sunlight.
Then she told me that her father thought watching TV was a sin and football was a form of idolatry.
Our marriage, which took place a year after that trip, didn’t contain the humiliation that had been the hallmark of our dating relationship. There was something about marriage that, in both of us, brought out a need to appear respectable to one another. We became, for lack of a better word, dignified. She didn’t want to be my white slut any more and I didn’t want to engage in role-playing where I was a savage bedouin cornering a bratty European in some desert hinterland and ravishing her before my imaginary father and uncle and brothers.
In the first nine months of marriage we had two four-month-long periods of celibacy. In the five total times we did have sex, three were caused by alcohol and two because of pot procured from a Punjabi dealer in North Philadelphia. And, because neither one of was willing to admit that our marriage had emanated, almost in its entirety, from mutual sexual fetishization, we clung to the trappings of union—joint accounts, outings with other couples, going to pick fruit at Dubois Farms near Princeton.
We didn’t cheat on each other. But the sheer amount of time we spent online and on social networking websites and carousing chat rooms, it was obvious that both of us wanted and actively solicited emotional affairs. The only reason any didn’t happen was because one of those forgettable pot-induced nights Shannon got pregnant and soon brought Nadia into the world, blonde-haired like her mother and yet brown-eyed like me, with features that were neither Caucasian nor Punjabi. Anomalous in appearance and in her timing.
Nadia heightened our loneliness. By having her sleep between us in bed we found a way to perpetuate our lack of intimacy. Yet she also brought a certain compromise. I would hold the pillow between mother and daughter while Shannon faced the other way and came all over her vibrator. And if the lotion in the drawer of my bedside table ever finished my loving wife replaced it with one of the fruity ones she had been given at a baby shower.
We hurtled into the future. A millennial American family. Dark, light, mixed. We didn’t care for the Clash of Civilizations because we had worked out a stalemate of our own. And the unending war on a feeling that our leaders waged in the shadows meant nothing to us, because terror was not expansive enough to cover the pain that we carried within. One night we heard that there was a recession and it could have a destructive psychological impact on middle-class couples. The twenty-five-year-old relationship expert on TV advised how a relationship ought to be like Goldman Sachs (“don’t be not ashamed to ask for a bailout”) and not like Lehmann (“who didn’t want to face up to their dirty books”).
When Shannon’s father, James Sullivan, arrived in Philly that suffocating winter evening many years later, and called us from the pay-phones located behind the Angel of Resurrection statue in 30th Street Station, asking to be picked up, I told him I would be there in thirty, and then I hung up and called Shannon a whore and a slut, the only time I ever did that outside our pre-marital roleplaying.
“You called him? You think Jesus is going to save us? Jee-ZUS?”
She wiped away her tears. And after apologizing for her father’s coming told me she hadn’t called him, hadn’t even been in touch with him since he threw us out that weekend in Mobile, and so I was put in the position of advising my wife how she should put on some makeup to cover up the mess I had made. Then I went down to the 89 Oldsmobile—parked all the way behind Eastern State Penitentiary because it was the last free parking area left in the Art Museum district—and I turned the crank and let it warm up its necessary fifteen minutes. After that I gave it another fifteen. I wanted to make James wait, to suffer the uncertainty and anxiety of one who doesn’t know if he’s wanted or unwanted. The cold-cracked-leather of the seat bit into my hamstring.
It was growing dark when I turned right on JFK Blvd and headed across the Schuylkill River toward the dark pantheon that is the train station, the sidewalk immediately around it pounded by phallic jackhammers, ringed with circumcised orange construction cones. During my second go around the pickup area a swift drizzle began. The drops were so tiny and silent they looked to be secreted from the invisible pores of the windshield. The wipers swept like the beat of the solitary man doing skulls in the river headed toward Boathouse Row.
Four times I drove through the parking lot at 30th Street Station. Didn’t see James once. The rain seemed to be more intense on this side of the Schuyllkill, yet there was no movement in it, as if it was an image of the rain frozen in a photograph. With the hazard lights on, I parked the car in the fire lane. Shielding my eyes from the pinpoints of the drizzle I ran inside.
James stood with a black duffle bag near the florist in the main lobby. I saw him pay for a tiny bouquet of white carnations and then pull one out and give it to the young girl working the register. He seemed to stumble while standing there and I ran up and grabbed him, smelling the bulbous burst of cheap liquor.
“Let’s go grandpa,” I said in a whisper.
“I like Asian women,” he slurred, loud enough for the girl to hear. Who crumpled the petals in her palm.
It was not the sort of thing I had anticipated a married Pastor to be saying, but booze did what it did. I took his bag and led him stumbling and sliding to the car, which had been given a hefty ticket.
“Don’t worry about that,” James rolled the citation and put it in his pocket. “I have loot.”
We drove, saying nothing to one another, his head lolling forward each time I braked, like he was an addled bobblehead, or an addict. I dropped him at the front of the building and put him down on a sofa in the lobby, then went to park the car and came running back, only to realize that I had forgotten the bouquet in the backseat. Instead of going back I took James by the hand and led him upstairs.
Upon entering the apartment, James gave Shannon a hug, kissed Nadia on the nose, and handed the bag to me. He searched the living room for the sofa and fell down on it, shoes still on, body wet, flannel smelling stale. Shannon gave me a puzzled look and reached for the bag, in order to find some dry clothes for him. As soon as she unzipped it I saw her drop it and step cautiously back.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She said it contained only big faces. And it was full, to the brim. The face of a rotund Philadelphian the most prominent.
It was a Motel 6 somewhere near Montgomery, the same night that James Sullivan put his fork down on the dinner table and then pointed to the door with the knife. Shannon had stopped crying and I had stopped cursing the Pentecostals for their mental sickness. She sat on the edge of the bed, rocking lightly, her fingers running over the devil vixen tattoos on her forearms. I sat in a rickety brown recliner whose back periodically snapped straight, watching the Iron Bowl on TV. Maybe because I was trying to escape the immensity of our ouster, I felt deeply invested in the game. Alabama’s Crimson Tide were the higher-ranked team, coming into the game on a six year winning streak, featuring a white quarterback who was expected to go # 1 in the draft. Auburn had a lower ranking and no aerial game, just a couple of rugged black running backs and a hard-nosed defense. I turned the volume high so I could hear all the analysis; I didn’t want to hear the sporadic sigh that came from my woman’s mouth.
Shannon got up before half-time and went outside, leaving the door open, to rummage in the car for a small suitcase. Then she sat on the side-table and ordered a small plain pizza. She had to manage our money so she ordered no drinks. I had two slices and then walked to the faucet in the bathroom and washed the pizza down with some water. Coming out, I stepped onto a paper-plate smeared with red sauce.
Shannon went into the bathroom. She was in there a long time. I imagined her crying, perhaps taking each little memory of her family life and washing it down the toilet. People always think of memory as this bucket inside your head and you reach in and pull out a hand-full. It wasn’t like that. It was more like individual strands of hair, each one distinct from the other, with its own characteristics, its own name, that you could trace. This little strand is family dinners; this little strand is family vacations; this little strand is childhood fantasies of being given away at your wedding by your father. She was in there giving herself an emotional haircut. I returned to the game, inexorably headed into overtime.
“So what do you think?” she came out half an hour later, face bright, a smile on her lips, dressed in the traditional attire of my ancestral country, glinting sequins making floral shapes, the crochet making filigreed designs. She stood in front of the TV and twirled.
I wanted to call her exotic. But I didn’t know why. Was she exotic because she was a blonde in Eastern get-up or because she was wearing Eastern clothes at a motel in the American South? Answering that would’ve required for me to answer certain prefatory questions about myself and I didn’t even know what they were.
“I think my family will approve,” I said and stood and kissed her on the cheek. “They’ll never guess you’re a raving hipster!”
“Yeah,” I assured. “I think my dad will really take a shine to you dressed like that.”
That evening Shannon sat with her feet in my lap and watched the game with me. Overtime came and went and the game ended in a tie. It was the first tie between Alabama and Auburn since 1907. A conclusion a hundred years in the making.
It wouldn’t seem it, but James Sullivan, a pastor of Oneness Pentecostalism, snoring on my sofa, had a lot in common with my father, who was on the board of a Salafi mosque in Boston. They had both disowned their wildly irreligious children for choosing to be with people of a different faith.
In theory I hated both fathers, except, sitting across from James now, his zipped up money bag sitting near his feet, I felt greater loathing for this one. At first I suspected it was because I was the father of a daughter, just like James was, and I could never imagine making Nadia feel the way he had Shannon. But, no, it was something else: James had broken down and come to see his grand-daughter, while my father was still out there, holding out, not calling, not showing up. What I was hating in James was this man’s greater compassion; it insinuated that he was a bigger man than my father. And what son doesn’t want his dad to be the best? Yet, it was even more than that. The fact that James had been broken down by love sooner than my father, also implied something about their respective belief systems. Was Christianity, even in its extreme Pentecostal version, more attuned to softness, to forgiveness, to familial love, than the Islam my father practiced? Islam had always been a source of annoyance for me. Now it was also a source of disappointment, of shame. I wished there was more I could do to excise it from my life. That was where the hate came from.
“He shouldn’t have come,” I went to Shannon as she breast-fed Nadia.
“They should’ve come together,” I said. “Your dad and my dad. Not one without the other.”
“It’s not a competition,” she said. “Jesus!” Then she pulled back. “Or are you going to start insisting I say ‘Allah’ when I’m pissed?”
James woke up early in the morning, when I was still up looping a track. I made eggs for him, then a batch of French toast. He told me that he had left the Church. The money was more or less stolen from the congregation, but he didn’t consider it stealing because they had given their 10% to God and expected nothing in return. I asked him about the concept of Xenoglossy because it was about the only thing I knew about his Church, and he said that speaking in tongues had all to do with the passion of the service and was not based in reality. I asked him what kind of spiritual place he was in now. He said that he had initially explored Lutheranism but it was too intellectual for him. Now he considered himself a simple materialist. We had this conversation without looking at one another. It was as if he was petitioning me. It was the reverse of that fateful dinner when I went to ask for Shannon’s hand.
“What does that even mean?” I asked. “Being a materialist. Everything is matter.”
“It means what you think it means,” he said. “It means flesh. It means I want women. Not the one I’ve been with for forty years. But all the others.”
We looked up. I looked into his hazel eyes, seeing in them a fuzziness that had not been there when we first met. He had been so clear-eyed in Mobile, so confident that he had intimate knowledge of all that was inappropriate, all that was contrary to the laws of God. It had been the clarity of those that see divinity in action through themselves, the same sheen that pulsates in the eyes of politicians, pundits, in the President. In another time, another place, we might have referred to that luster as ego. But in America, which was not a theocracy but was still full of theocrats, it was called Holy Spirit, it was called God. It was the same American infection that had turned my immigrant father into a Salafi, those Muslims that didn’t need any intermediaries between themselves and the Almighty.
“I am glad you have changed,” I said to my father-in-law, grateful for the burning embers of libido, of lust, lodged deep inside him, those little molecules of insurrection that had allowed him to burst out of his doctrine and spiritual legalism. I had always suspected that James was a sexual man, ever since I saw that comment where he called his daughter a whore in public, even if it was in the wrong language. He couldn’t have formed such a sentence about her if he had not first imagined her fornicating with me, quite likely in the most debased and degraded positions possible. And that meant he was one of us now, the bland, the nothing, the hipster, who had no views other than to have no views, for whom horniness was the closest thing to God, and sexlessness was the Devil.
The evening was a cold one in December, the trees un-leafed and frozen in the frost, more gray shadows than brown giants. I stood outside the side door of the apartment building, the one that the dog owners had to use, the one where the smokers congregated. I crunched the frozen butts underfoot like they were pine needles and waited. I leaned with my elbows on the shuttered door of the ice cream parlor, the one that was only open seasonally. Shannon was late for our date.
Fifteen minutes later she came down the elevator and looked for me in the lobby. Her lips were crimson and her jacket an auburn blend. Earlier in the day, while I watched Nadia, she had gone with her father to the salon and gotten her hair cut short, like a flapper. I had already expressed my approval of it, but not verbally, because that would have required acknowledging the debt I owed James for paying for the cut.
“Is he fine with Nadia?” I asked.
“Dad?” she brushed my fingers. “Yeah, he’s great with kids.”
We entwined our arms, lowered our heads, and walked toward the Art Museum’s annex. It was covered in scaffolding, which rattled when the wind blew, and the pavement was covered in a splatter of sawdust and white paint.
“Sperm,” I said, with an elbow in her rib.
She stopped and looked at me. The man walking behind us, accompanied by a long-tongued setter, heard what I had said and excused himself with a congenial smile.
“What did you just say?”
“I said it looks like sperm. What? It was a joke!”
“An odd joke,” she said.
“No, an odd joke would be if I said: ‘Look, the building ejaculated all over the ground.’ But I didn’t say anything like that. And besides, what would we I know about those acts any more!”
This utterance reddened Shannon’s cheeks and made her face turn hard so she looked like a red-brick wall. After that all the color disappeared in one swift flush and she was as pale as the paint on the ground. Her arm was out of my clutch already and she stuffed both hands in her coat pocket and began walking away from me. I shrugged and walked back to the apartment. James was watching the Iron Bowl and cradling Nadia like a football.
I went to the bedroom and packed up my things before Shannon got back.