We’re Not Going to Get Thrown in a Van
The Dads were a man and a woman. They were my father, Linus, and Khadijah’s mother, Nancy. Khadijah called them the Dads because, in her family, Nancy played the traditional paternal role. She spent more time at work than Khadijah’s father, she made more money, she was harder to talk to. She was a Dad. And my father was a Dad.
To explain why we needed a name for the pair of them, I’ll start with the Friday that Khadijah and I, with our respective Dads, ran into each other at Gaia Foods. The Day of the Dads.
It was early March, Language Day at Wattsbury Regional. As sophomores active in language clubs—I, Russian; Khadijah, French—we both manned tables, selling borscht and mousse outside the cafeteria after school. We never spoke during Language Day, although our tables stood five feet apart. All I knew about Khadijah was that she was third-tier popular, all academics, no sports, no theater, no newspaper, an organized girl who recorded homework assignments in apple green pen in high-quality notebooks, and that her deceptively black-sounding name, pronounced Kah-DEE-jah, was a product of Nancy’s Sufi years.
My father picked me up after we collapsed the tables at five, and we stopped at Gaia on the way home, for dinner essentials, wine, and ice cream. After Nancy picked up Khadijah, they stopped at Gaia too. While I was trying to show my father how smart I was by making an argument about how many pears he should buy versus how many grapes for a fruit salad, I saw Nancy and Khadijah hovering by bananas.
An astute observer probably would have seen there was something weird between Nancy and my father right away. But I was only fifteen. I was stupid when it came to interpreting the behavior of the Dads. It’s strange: When you’re trying to impress a person, you can’t see that person well. And Khadijah and I, we longed to impress the Dads.
I noticed nothing unusual in the Dads’ body language or in their faces. My father reached out and laid his hand on the pears peeking from Nancy’s wicker basket, looked her in the eye, and said, “They’re fresh today.”
The gesture did not strike me as remarkable. I found it mysterious, but my father was a sophisticated person. Everything he did was mysterious.
“Sometimes,” he hastened to explain, looking at Khadijah and me, stroking his beard, “the fruit at Gaia is slightly rotten. That’s the dark side of organic. Everything isn’t spritzed with poisons to make it look neat.”
I was, myself, as odorous as aging fruit. My parents were hippies. They had not spritzed me with poisons to make me look neat. My blond, shoulder-length hair was triangular, because while I knew there was a hair product called conditioner, I didn’t know that conditioner was what people used to make hair lie down. I hadn’t acquired the habit of shaving my ghost mustache or wiping the fingerprints off the lenses of my glasses. I wanted to be like my father, who taught political science, who knew how to talk about capitalism in such a way that people either agreed heartily with him or looked personally affronted and concerned for their safety. I wanted his air of rebellion and authority, his shaggy, dark hair and revolutionary beard. But I didn’t know how to turn myself into him. I was wearing one of his blousy, long-sleeved shirts from the early seventies that I’d discovered in our attic, green with wooden buttons, and the consequence was that I smelled as if I were kept in an attic.
Khadijah, by contrast, had the grooming and bearing of a girl with a hands-on mother. She stood straight and still. The burgundy scrunchie that held her brown ponytail matched the trim of her Esprit socks. But for all the inorganic, detail-oriented parenting lavished on her, she was almost as awkward as I was, no surer of how to start a conversation. When the Dads asked for some time to chat by themselves, she tensed at the prospect of being left alone with me. We both doubted, I think, that we could find something to talk about.
“You hooligans won’t cudgel each other, if we wander a little?” My father thumped a box of Finnish crackers against his palm. “You can keep yourselves entertained?”
“Five minutes?” Nancy asked us, edging toward my father. “Maybe ten? You see, my chickens, a mutual friend of ours is in the hospital.” Nancy had managed to tame her hair, I noticed, the way I longed to tame mine—it formed a neat, soft bell behind her face, like Tom Petty’s. She batted aside one strand with impatient, bony fingers.
“Go, Mom, it’s Gaia,” said Khadijah, picking at her cuticles. “We’re not going to get thrown in a van and sold into sex slavery.”
The Dads shot around a corner and vanished. At first there was only silence. But eventually, Khadijah turned to face me with a solution to our not knowing what to do with each other, using semipopular girl instincts I lacked: “Should we spy on them?”
I said yes. “I’m so bored,” we both said. But I think the reason we spied on them, aside from the need to kill awkwardness with action, was that we suspected something. We were in tenth grade; it was strange they’d felt the need to ask us if we’d be okay while they spoke in private. We just didn’t suspect that we suspected something.
Trolling the aisles, we sighted the grown-ups in Candy. Nancy was slouching in order to better inspect an item on a chest-high shelf. My father was scratching his beard as if he was looking at art.
“What we need is a hiding place,” said Khadijah. She snapped her fingers. “The African-American History Month thing.”
The African-American History Month display sat at the aisle’s mouth, fifteen feet from where my father stood speaking with Nancy. It consisted of two tables pushed together and covered with kente cloths. February was over; like the produce, the display had been kept out too long. The tables were poorly aligned, and the cloths sagged in the gap between them. A traditional African-American cookbook and an Ethiopian cookbook remained upright, but a third volume had toppled over. There was something foreboding about this structure. Something told me that, if Khadijah and I hid inside it, like children in a fairy tale, we would have a hard time getting back out, would require a trail of crumbs. Before we could discuss the pros and cons, Khadijah crept. She slipped between the kente cloths and vanished beneath the tables, and I had no honorable choice but to follow.
We were on our hands and knees in the dark, cheek to cheek, almost touching. I smelled Khadijah’s vanilla shampoo, and my own stale shirt. I made a promise to myself: I will never emit this scent again. We peered through the gap between the maroon kente cloth and the green kente cloth, drawing them aside like stage curtains. My father and Nancy faced each other in the candy aisle, oblivious. We watched the show.
My father did something astonishing. He took a candy bar and slipped it in the pocket of his quilted corduroy barn jacket. He was going to steal it. Nancy whacked him on the shoulder with the back of her hand, and he put the candy bar back on the shelf. Next he took a large, glistening gift bag of chocolate and shoved it halfway into the same pocket. Nancy whacked him harder; he put it back.
Then he took a paper bag of cookies down from the shelf as Nancy dealt little blows to his shoulder. He made a show of trying to stuff the bag into the pocket, until it ripped open at the corner, and bled cookies on the floor. Nancy crossed her arms. My father tried to gather the cookies and hold the broken bag at the same time.
“Linus,” said Nancy, “you clumsy outlaw.”
My father arranged the fallen cookies in a little pile on the shelf and slid the mutilated bag back into place. After he’d brushed the crumbs from his fingers, he reached down and tipped up Nancy’s chin. I could only assume that he would restore the chin to its original position, as he had everything else he had taken in his hands. He would put Nancy back, just as he had put back the chocolate and the cookies. Nancy stared up at him and dropped her hands to her sides like a child. That was when he kissed her, full on the lips. She kissed back, hungry. It was probably because of the sweets all around them, but one of my first thoughts was that they were eating each other.
Khadijah and I said nothing. Our faces were almost touching in the dark. We jerked away from the gap in the kente cloths, and my head struck the underside of the metal table.
“Why would your dad do that?” she demanded, finally. She was breathing hard. “My mom is married to my dad.”
“My dad is married too, to my mom,” I pointed out. “Your mom kissed him back.”
“I’m going to go out there and ask them what’s going on.”
“I predict that question will prove unacceptable to them.” Even in this moment of father-related crisis, I tried to speak with my father’s gravitas.
“My poor dad,” Khadijah said. There were tears in her round brown eyes.
“Just because your mom kissed my dad doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they’re screwing.” This was my idea, at the time, of being comforting. I sent a thought out to my father: If you are screwing, I will cut off your dick and give it to Mom on a sword. Then, immediately afterward: I’m sure there is a good reason for this. It’s only a kiss, I thought. Nothing else.
“I hate your dad,” Khadijah said.
“This isn’t necessarily anything.” In truth I felt it was beyond doubt that my father, who had held me on his shoulders on marches he’d organized for divestment from South Africa, had a more nuanced moral understanding of the situation than we did, and was doing the right thing, even if it looked wrong. “I repeat, all they’re doing is kissing. Why should we make an assumption?”
The kente cloths lifted slightly when a brisk walker passed by. I knew from the acknowledgment of Kwanzaa at school that the cloths were used for sacred rites, by the Akan people.
“I wouldn’t want to kiss that beard,” Khadijah said, her face pressed against her legs.
“Your mom dresses Republican,” I responded. “That’s one of those lady blazers.”
“Your dad dresses like a homeless person.” She was actually sobbing now. “He’s in public but he’s wearing sweatpants.”
“Don’t cry,” I said. “It’s going to be okay.” It was something I had learned to say from movies, but I meant it.
Khadijah was always pretty, but crying, she was so beautiful my face was going to burn off. I found the discovery that tears enhanced beauty nearly as disorienting as everything else that was going on. At any rate, I realized it might be acceptable to reach out and touch Khadijah, now that I had told her not to cry. I laid my hand on her head. When she didn’t object I stroked her hair slowly. I liked the feeling of doing this too much to stop.
She jerked her head back. “I think that maybe I should tell my dad and you should tell your mom.”
“That’s out of line. It’s kissing.”
“True.” She thought for a moment, calmer now. “Whatever they’re doing, if we told on them, it would make it bigger.”
With nothing to do, my hand, the one that had been stroking her hair, was shaking. I sat on it.
“We can’t leap to conclusions,” I said. “I don’t want my father’s reputation to suffer. My parents have an excellent marriage.” A kiss, I thought, hearing a new voice in my head that I hoped was the voice of adulthood, means nothing at all.
We sat and watched through the gap in the cloth as the Dads walked away and turned a corner. We found them where they’d left us, in Produce.
“Did you survive our absence, darlings?” Nancy asked. She and my father were peering at us, I realized, to make sure we hadn’t seen them. “Did anything bad happen?”
There was a soldierly expression on Khadijah’s face, an expression you already saw on Hillary Clinton sometimes, in 1994. Her eyes were pink, but her face was dry. She shrugged. Smiles dawned on the faces of the grown-ups. They were concluding they hadn’t been caught.
“Mom, please don’t be paranoid,” said Khadijah. “We’re fine.”
Acclaimed author Benjamin Nugent’s fiction debut is a hilarious, sad, handsomely plotted story of love and class. Stylistically adventurous but always accessible, Nugent trains a keen ear on the vernaculars of Generation Y and the baby boomers, as the young and middle-aged try to decide what parenting, background, and loyalty mean in an America struggling to redefine virtue.