I was happy when new people moved in next door. I hoped they might prove more sociable than the previous neighbor, an aloof, recently divorced Englishman who in the months after we moved in never bothered to wave or say hello. We became acquainted with him briefly one night our first winter here when he almost set the ancient spruce in his yard ablaze after carelessly discarding “cold” woodstove ashes. I happened to glance out the window of the upstairs bath and saw a merry bonfire dancing on the frozen ground beneath the lowest branches of the towering evergreen. My incredulity turned to horror when I realized that if the tree were to ignite it might come crashing down on our house. Over the chatter and squawks of volunteer fire department radios that frigid night, he finally introduced himself and I sarcastically said hello.***
The new folks, a married couple we judged to be in their late thirties, hailed from the city. When we first glimpsed them they were taking a stroll with their two dogs along the country road where we live. My husband slowed the car, rolled down the window, and said hi. The wife was hugely pregnant. She wore a floppy hat and dark glasses, and hand pressed to her back she grimaced against the blazing sun. They moved their things in days before the baby was due, then returned to the city to have the baby, so it was a couple of weeks before we had the chance to talk to them, one balmy weekend morning in May.
My husband and I were tidying a perennial bed when I saw them head across their front yard to our driveway, dogs ambling ahead, the wife with the newborn in her arms and the husband, who was a little stooped, following behind. A head taller than his wife and completely bald, he wore a western-style shirt in a vintage plaid and yoked front, wrangler jeans, a bandanna tucked in his belt, and pointed black leather boots.
We exchanged names and pleasantries, patted Bosco and Hob, and admired Delia, a beautiful blonde cherub with downy cheeks and a tiny rosebud mouth. Jane, teeth bared in a fixed grin, rocked from side to side on her feet, cradling the infant. Tilting her head to one side as if she had just thought of something, she eyed us and said, “Corbin’s mother is Japanese. So Delia’s one-quarter Japanese. But she doesn’t look Japanese does she? Does she?” Frowning, she peered down at Delia.
I was taken aback by her oddball pronouncement. Corbin was standing right there, though he seemed unfazed, his expression – well, inscrutable. Standing in our driveway I could glimpse his mother in an open upstairs window of their house. She had flown in from California for a short stay. As we had seen her do since her arrival a few days before, she sat at the window methodically scraping a sill which doubtless, given that this was an old Victorian house, was loaded with lead paint. A trim woman, black hair shot with grey, she waved at the group of us below, and we waved back.
“Does she?” The question wasn’t rhetorical.
I looked at the baby. “I guess she doesn’t look Japanese,” I said, “though maybe there’s a hint of the Buddha that all babies have.”
Oh God. Maybe it's the rainy day. At long last, rain is welcome, but I feel tired and achy and as I sit here musing wondering what to write my thoughts grow dark & gloomy. I google what's his face, which I shouldn't, plus his wife's name who I can never remember if she spells her name with one L or two. I discover the obituary of her mother who has a thoroughly Japanese name, and discover that her brother married someone with an über-WASPy nickname - "Bitsy." My former paramour, who's receded in my mind back into the shadows - is pretty über-WASPish. His wife's Japanese. I sit here musing, speculating, surmising - relating even, perhaps. She is first or second generation Japanese-American. This country is no melting pot. Or is it? Her parents gave their two children Americanized first names - good first step, though the one or two L's is tricky, but whatever. So a prime mission in her life then, becomes to marry someone who gives her ultimate white legitimacy and acceptance - an unassailably Anglo-Germanic name, with Ivy pedigree. He knew what he was doing too. I think he understood that impulse, her weakness. A devil's bargain. He gives her legitimacy, she gives him free rein. He gets to lead a double life, sleep with whoever whenever wherever he likes, for years on end, for decades, while for all appearances - and they do care - they raise a family, buy a house, achieve successive professional accomplishments. Quite a compact.
I'm Caucasian. I pass. But I'm saddled with a difficult name. It would be fine if I were part of a cohesive Polish social group (which I'm not), or if I'd married someone Polish, or Anglo. But I didn't. I married someone with a Spanish last name. Which made it impossible for me to take his name because my Polish first name would forevermore - as I knew perfectly well - be misspelled and misconstrued - to make me Puerto Rican. There's nothing wrong with that - of course. Except that it's not me - I'm not of Hispanic descent. And even with my having retained my Polish maiden name - I can't tell you how many "Yolanda Vega" quips I've had to endure over the years.
I admit it. Besides the sexual attraction all those years ago, the intellectual affinity, a shared absurdist sense of humor... I would have liked very much to have felt more "legitimate" in some way -- been instantly absorbed into the mainstream -- by having been able to shed like bad skin my Polish last name and adopt his über-WASP Made-It-in-America legitimating one.
Instead, I went in the opposite direction. At the time - 20-plus years ago, I married for love. Names be damned. Actually, at the time he & I both thought about shedding our difficult ethnic last names, choosing a different one to make our own. My husband too, with his Hispanic surname, has a resolutely Anglo first name. First step in the process.
Philandering WASP paramour with Japanese wife - their sons, with their father's surname, also have Anglo first names, though at least one of them, I gather, has a Japanese middle name. Nice gesture.
What will be the goal of their future wives?
My brother, a year younger than me and saddled with the worst first name ever (in American terms) has "married up" in society, gaining legitimacy from a wife with - at least in certain socialite circles - name recognition.
Do people marry for love? Sometimes. And maybe sometimes - perhaps most often in situations where a Darwinian drive among certain insecure and/or manipulative classes towards mainstream acceptance and/or social ascendancy is concerned - motives are mixed.
Jane looked aghast and held Delia out in front of her at eyelevel. “No, you don’t look Japanese at all, do you, do you?,” she insisted in babytalkese, cooing and grinning at the lolling newborn. The baby’s tiny fingers curled shut and then opened like starfish. “Not one wittle bit...”***
Related, perhaps - more on the tremendous urge to conformity.