when I met my boyfriend’s parents for the first time
January 5, 2012
I wasn’t a white kind of girl.
Black, that’s what I usually wore. Black t-shirts, black jeans, black boots, black leather jacket. When I wanted to formalize my appearance — dinner with grown-ups or a client meeting — I pulled on a leather mini- skirt and a strand of pearls. I thought I was being ironic but I was actually just very lazy. Black was so easy. Everything matched. Dirt didn’t show. It was your calling card at the entrance to clubs and it made you invisible on the subway late at night.
White was work. Finding it – I had no idea where you went to buy white clothing; I shopped vintage and army surplus – keeping it clean, trying not to feel like a novice nun when you wore it.
That I even considered it suggested a certain commitment on my part, which kind of explains how I ended up living in England, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
I had been seeing this man for less than a month. Let’s call him N. He was a Brit, living and working in New York. I was crazy about him but he wasn’t the demonstrative type, so when he invited me to his parents for the weekend, I was unprepared. His parents were also living in New York, in a big house overlooking a cove on Long Island — Great Gatsby country. Obviously, his parents were also British. Scottish, to be exact, but at that point I wasn’t attuned to the distinctions, didn’t know because I’d never thought about it, that although people from Scotland, England and bits of Ireland were British, only the English were, well, English. Wales was in there somewhere as well, but who in America thinks about Wales? Of course, I wasn’t thinking about any of this at the time, only that I was about to meet the parents and I suspected it meant something.
I went to my friend Jeanne-Marie for advice. Jeanne-Marie was the kind of person who understood the etiquette of clothing – the nuances of hem length, the language of undergarments, when and how to wear a hat. She would have been very successful in Japanese court circles during the middle ages, when you had to decode an individual’s status by the cut of his sleeve.
I said to her, ‘We’re spending the weekend with his parents. It’s a first meet.’
‘Two words,’ she said. ‘Wear white.’
So I went out and bought a white sweater, white pedal-pushers, white Keds, even a pair of white anklets with a band of lace around the cuffs. Under the sweater – baggy, just like the pedal-pushers – I wore a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar and a tiny bow. In my overnight case was a white nightie with puffed sleeves.
That’s how far gone I was.
On the way out to Long Island, I learned that there would be other guests staying for the weekend, two couples from Scotland, family friends. They were waiting for us when we arrived, the parents and their friends, six young-old people in heather-colored sweaters. There wereintroductions and hugs for N and then we moved to the living room, which they called the sitting room, for drinks. I was given the house specialty: champagne and brandy with a sugar cube in the bottom of the glass. It was lethal.
N’s parents appeared to be worldly sorts, adaptable and well-travelled but their friends were more provincial. This was their first time out of Scotland and their native accents — Highland murmurs punctuated with unexpected hoots and barks – defeated me.
Just as confusing, the male halves of the visiting foursome were twins. Identical twins. They looked the same. They had the same mannerisms. They even dressed the same, as if an unseen nanny laid out their clothes every morning. I thought I might be able to tell them apart by their spouses, but as the weekend progressed, neither man showed any partiality to either woman. The twins were conjoined, minus the membrane, and they left their wives to their own devices.
That seemed to be the theme of the visit, a mild brand of gender apartheid. After drinks, N disappeared, leaving me to my own devices. It was less abandonment than the act of a parent who releases his baby into the swimming pool, on the assumption that all infants are natural swimmers. One minute his hands were there, keeping me afloat in a strange body of water, and then they were gone.
And it was a strange body of water. The village where N’s parents lived was an enclave, wooded and serene, authentic colonial houses mingling pleasantly with newer models. The winding lane at the top of the bluff brought you down to a private sailing club on the bay with tennis courts and a sunburnt lawn and a clubhouse with white pillars where members signed for their tuna melts and iced teas. It was all very understated, a place of old families and old money that was never talked about. What was also never talked about was the category of person who would not own a house in the village, and whose boat would never be moored in that stretch of the cove. To put it crudely, there was only one Jew who belonged to the club and his name was Rothschild.
The funny thing is, I’d been born less than 10 miles away, in a town called Hicksville. Hicksville, Long Island. Really. We lived in a Levittown development, a sub-division built on potato fields. For $1,000 down, courtesy of the G.I Bill, you got three bedrooms and a carport, a patio out back and a couple of starter trees in the front yard. It was assembly-line architecture, mass-produced, each Levitt house exactly like the one next door and for the returning soldiers of WWII it was a little piece of paradise. All those city boys who went to war and, hunkered down in a wet Belgium village or on a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific, said to themselves: If I get out of this alive I’m going to find myself a little house and raise a family – well, this was it.
For my parents, it was more than just a piece of paradise; it was their foot up on the American dream, their release from a fourth-floor walk-up in East Harlem.
The friends N’s parents had acquired in the village all belonged to the sailing club. At cocktail parties – we went to a couple that first weekend — the men’s faces were ruddy above their blazers and bright polos. The women wore shirtwaists and Lily Pulitzer shifts in eye-popping florals.
They fascinated me.
They’d always fascinated me, because they seemed so effortless. They didn’t have to try to be anything, to strive or aspire, they just were. Their clothes and their lives, their unquestioning assumption that this was the way to be – the men in their lime-green trousers and alligator logos, the women with their Alice bands, the afternoons spent wrestling with flapping sails — these were the people and the attitudes that Ralph Lauren made a fortune copying, only with better tailoring.
It’s not as if I (or, for that matter, Ralph Lauren) thought that these people, these scions of America, were better or more worthy than anyone else: it was their lack of doubt I admired, still do. They’re so confident, they don’t even seem to mind that they’re not calling the shots anymore, that they’ve been supplanted by striving immigrants. That unconcern is what the preppy mystique is all about and part of the American dream is anyone can hope to aspire to it, to achieve the absence of self-doubt, even first generation Americans from the Bronx.
My parents are from the Bronx, just like Ralph Lauren when he was still Ralph Lifshitz.
Of course, these people, these serene and clubby WASPs are, for their part, fascinated by the British. They really like the English and the Scots, and secretly see them as their role models, their source.
I ended up marrying N and moving to England. The day of our wedding, the ceremony over, the ring on my finger, my little French hat set just so on the side of my head, the two of us turned to take our first walk together as husband and wife and I suddenly thought – my first perception as a married woman– I’ve cut out the middleman.
(If you like my blog, you might like the novel I’m writing, Her New Strange, coming soon.)