Ageing parents and progressing relationships may forge a difficult path for all, but what differences lie beyond the cosmetic for those in intercultural relationships?
‘So, if your sister is happy and it all goes ahead, when will the wedding be?’
‘By the end of the year, I suppose.’
‘And can I come to the wedding?’
You laugh at this. The smell of roses lifts in the heat. Two bunches of tightly packed, just opened blooms lie behind us on the back seat of the car. My bridesmaid bouquet and my sister’s bridal one, which I scrambled about for on the parquetry floor last night. My hands on the steering wheel are purple, stained by the damp ribbon that binds the flowers together.
‘Well, can I?’
‘I’ll have to ask Ammi.’
And we both laugh now, because we know what the answer will be.
‘Well, I guess I’m not coming then.’ I turn up the radio, not wanting to hear your response, disturbed to recognise that I’m craving reassurance.
We met at a pub, not so long ago. Two years ago, almost three now. Friend of a friend. We spent the night talking about Freedom. Nothing as high-minded as the concept, just the novel by Jonathan Franzen, published with much expectation and fanfare. I had read it and didn’t like it. You hadn’t read it, but adored The Corrections, so nursed high hopes. A few weeks later we would go to the Melbourne Town Hall for the opening of the writers’ festival to hear Franzen speak about the perils of being an author. Just before he came on stage, my friend, who had slipped out to the hallway to take a phone call, returned to her seat beside me.
‘My father just died.’ She looked at me for confirmation. Could this be happening to her? I followed her out of the auditorium. My friend and I conferenced in the hallway. She was not close to her father, only a few years before she had rid herself of his surname by deed poll. She was not yet upset.
‘I better go to Perth tomorrow,’ she said. It was a four-hour flight.
‘Yes, you have to be with your mum.’
She would tell me later how shocked she was to see her mother again. She had become forgetful, was buying three bottles of milk a day and leaving them to sour on the kitchen bench. She had lost weight, the fridge was full of turned food, the car was dented from too many encounters with the brick fence and the letterbox. Letters from the hospital cognition and memory clinic lay unopened on the hallway table. Her mother had become old, between one visit and the next.
I offered to accompany her home but she waved away my concern.
‘You know how I felt about him,’ she said. ‘We hadn’t spoken in years.’
We hugged goodbye and I returned to the hall, thankful that my parents were much younger, that this was an introduction to a place I needn’t go yet.
I tried to listen to what Franzen had to say but I could not make myself care. You were enraptured and that delighted me. I held your hand and daydreamed, thought about which dumpling house we might go to for dinner.
Ten months later we moved in together, both suddenly too old and too particular for share houses. A rambling Art Deco flat on a busy thoroughfare, a tram stop beneath our tiny balcony, which I crammed with window boxes of herbs and pots of bushy tomato plants. You like to sleep with the doona pulled up to your chin, your arms and legs wrapped around me. I like to sleep untouched, one knee drawn to my chest, my back to you. I don’t eat meat and you happily cook me meals without. I had a book coming out in a few months, you were working on a manuscript. You set up your desk in the spare room, I set up mine in the living room, between the television and the fireplace. I stopped hearing the trams trundling by.
In winter we borrowed a car and drove to Bright, a country town huddled at the foot of the mountains – one of the few places to go skiing in Australia. Neither of us had ever been skiing – there was no snow where you grew up. We stayed in a little cabin tucked away in the bush, and when we visited nearby wineries and antique stores my feet numbed in the cold. We sipped port that tasted like chocolate at one of the cellar doors. We asked for nearby dining recommendations and the barman suggested a pub in town with excellent Sri Lankan food. On our way there hours later, the rain falling so fast it seemed to be skating up the windscreen, your mother called. You turned down the radio to talk to her and I drove on, looking for the pub, unable to eavesdrop on your conversation. When I parked you were still talking and we sat in the dark, no longer able to see the rain, but hearing it in every direction.
‘How is your mum?’ I asked, when you finished the call.
‘She had a fall and hurt her back. She has to stay in bed six weeks but Thatthi is complaining because he thinks she is overreacting.’
‘Will she be okay?’
It was your turn to cry and I am ashamed to say it took me by surprise. Why didn’t I expect you to be upset by your mother’s fall, to not foresee that you would be imagining her sprawled on the ground or small in her bed? You sobbed helplessly in the passenger seat, too far away from your parents to be useful, reminded of how elderly they were and would become.
I hugged you awkwardly over the handbrake, and when we jumped puddles to the restaurant I held the umbrella over your head. We both felt inadequate, failing those who needed us. The curries were delicious.
We chose books to send to your mother for her convalescence. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. As winter drew to a close and spring hauled herself into view, we took the train and then the bus to Beechworth, another little town in the high country. We were sitting in a cafe, too close to the coffee machine to have a proper conversation, when my phone rang. It was the receptionist from my work.
‘Is your boyfriend with you?’ she asked. I looked across the table at you; you raised an eyebrow, impressed with the sandwich that had just been set down.
‘A man named Colin called, looking for you – for him. Your boyfriend’s mother is looking for him.’
I looked across at you again, wondering how it was possible you could be lost when you were right there. And then I realised: something had happened to your father. This was the phone call that we all dread as our parents age.
‘He’s right here.’
‘His parents have been trying to contact him. They’re worried because they haven’t heard from him. Nothing’s wrong, Colin said to tell you that, he was quite clear. But they’re worried. They’re talking about sending police around to his flat, to see if he is okay.’
Relief fell heavily into my stomach. Your flat. Our flat. But of course your parents don’t know that. You ate your sandwich, unperturbed.
‘He’s okay, he’s right here. I’ll tell him to call his mother.’
When I explained to you what had happened your face closed up. You didn’t have any reception on your mobile phone – you were with a different service provider than me and the coverage in the foothills of the mountains was patchy. Besides, you were going to call that night when we returned to Melbourne. You handed me your excuses as though I was the one who had been looking for you, who wanted to break down your front door.
‘Why didn’t you tell her you were going to be away? You knew you’d be out of range. You speak to her every week.’
But of course you didn’t tell her we were going anywhere. You never tell her about anything that involves me, and she wouldn’t like to know that the two of us were travelling together. Not unmarried, as we are. I handed you my phone.
‘Call her.’ I hated that I was saying that.
‘How did she get my work number?’ I asked when you came back. There was something not right about all of this. You shrugged. But this time I pursued it. Every other time I let it go, but this time I wanted to know more.
‘But how did they know where I work? I thought you said they don’t even know we live together.’
‘They don’t.’ You took a bite of your sandwich. ‘It must have been from the email I sent them about you. I told them where you worked.’
It would not be so difficult to find – my name, that of my workplace and the helpfulness of Google. Colombo and Melbourne are not so far apart. But it shouldn’t be like this. ‘You should just give your mother my phone number. She can call me if she can’t get on to you.’
‘She shouldn’t be worrying so much anyway,’ you replied. You don’t want to solve problems, or create them. There were no problems, not in your mind. Except that your parents wish I didn’t exist. Except that your mother cried when you told her about me.
After our third date, we had sat on the couch at your house. You had your arm around me, I had my legs across yours.
‘How do you feel about interracial relationships?’
You asked the question as though we weren’t sitting the way we were, your dark brown hands interlaced with my pale pink ones, your thumb tracing my freckles.
‘I’ve never thought about them,’ I said truthfully. ‘I’ve never been in one.’
‘But will it be a problem for you?’
‘No.’ It seemed absurd, but you were earnest.
‘What about your parents?’
‘They won’t mind,’ I said.
‘My parents will hate it,’ you told me. And you kissed me, hiding your face in my neck. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
I didn’t realise what it meant though – this ‘interracial relationship’. I saw our differences as cosmetic. Naive, I know, coming from a position of privilege. Your matinee-idol good looks, my blue eyes and cropped hair. We were unusual to one another.
Buddhist Colombo parents seek professional partner for fair, slim, pretty daughter. B.Sc. owning modern Colombo home and significant assets. Divorcees without encumbrances considered. Horoscope necessary.
We giggled as we read aloud the personal ads on the website of a Sri Lankan newspaper. Not looking for love, sex or good times, but people looking for marriage, serious marriage.
‘I’m fair, slim and I can try for pretty,’ I said. ‘But do you think it’s better if we tell your mother I’m atheist or Catholic?’ I had renounced God at twelve years of age, but was willing to call him back if it would help smooth things over.
We were trying to write an email of introduction. I had convinced you that your parents in Colombo should know about me. I wasn’t going anywhere, this wasn’t just a winter fling. We’re in our thirties now, that time when relationships take hold, stick fast.
‘Atheist, I think,’ you said. ‘I’m not sure if we should mention that your father’s Dutch – that makes him a coloniser.’
You listed my education qualifications, and those of my parents.
‘I can tell them you wrote a book, they’ll like that, but they can’t read it, there’s too much sex.’
It took you a week to write the email and another to send it. You switched off your phone, curled into a ball on the couch, complaining of stomach pains. Silence. The phone calls from your mother stopped.
‘Oh, well, I guess that’s that.’ You seemed happy. You had imagined tirades, tears and angry debates. The quiet was welcome.
‘You have to call her,’ I said. ‘You can’t just leave it there. Ask her if she got your email.’
You looked terrified. ‘Can’t we just let it be, now they know?’
This incensed me, your preference for ambiguity over confrontation. I realised then how reluctant you are to upset your mother. That perhaps – if it came to it – you would rather upset me.
A few days before my sister’s wedding, your father was ill. Your mother was on the phone every day, you answered in Sinhalese as you always do, and I didn’t know what you were saying but I could tell you were concerned.
‘They thought he might have pneumonia,’ you told me when you hung up. ‘He doesn’t, he’s okay. But he’s getting old.’
That’s older than my eldest grandparent was when he died. I didn’t tell you that.
‘I’m worried I’ll regret not spending more time with them. I feel like I should be there.’
Your parents drive you crazy. When you go to visit them every year, you argue with them, try to get them to see the way the world is changing. They are conservative, they want to arrange your marriage. They love you. You tell them that their views are outdated, that they need to be more open. And perhaps they are out of touch, but who are you to say? They tell you they wish they never sent you to Australia for your education. That you have been Westernised, you have lost your values. A Western woman, no less – how could you do this to them? And yet your mother weeps when she takes you to the airport at the end of your visit, already missing you.
My parents, so much younger than yours, live in Perth – on the other side of the country to the two of us. If they were ill I would go to them immediately. I would stay as long as needed. One day, they might move in with me, with us, when they can no longer be alone. That is the way of things. Of course, I have five siblings, each one willing, so it may never even come to pass. But your parents won’t be able to do the same.
When your Sinhalese parents want to visit you here in Melbourne, they must apply for visas well in advance. They need to show they have a life in Sri Lanka that they’re not willing to leave behind: employment, bank statements, and a mandatory health check. In short, they have to prove they’re not intending to stay in Australia, where their son is a citizen. If they did want to stay they could apply for a Parent Visa. They would have a choice of paying approximately $4000 (plus a $5000 assurance of support bond) and waiting fifteen years before boarding a flight, or paying an additional $40,000 per person and waiting only two years. Fifteen years is too long, and $88,000 is too much for us, and for them. More than our combined annual salary. And they don’t want to be here, not really, it’s not their home, but it’s yours. I suppose all I am trying to say is that I feel for you, I really do. You’re being pulled between two homes, two families. And someone is bound to get hurt.
Your mother wants you to marry a nice Sri Lankan girl, one whose stars match your own and who would make a suitable mother to her belated grandchildren.
‘At least she’s educated,’ your father commented about me. ‘At least she understands the importance of culture.’
‘I want you to be happy,’ your mother sobbed. ‘Perhaps in a few years, maybe I can bring myself to meet her.’
I’m not sure I have a few years.
It is all very strange to me, this world of yours. Of arranged marriages, of civil war and ethnic tensions. A place where caste and religion can be the measure of a person. I ask you to take me to Sri Lanka, but you are reluctant. Maybe if there was a group of us, you say, travelling together. It would be fun, you’d enjoy yourself. You play up this idea of a group holiday, even though it sounds hellish to me. Why can’t we just travel together, the two of us? I ask. Because we’re unmarried. My parents would be ashamed. I cannot shame them.
Your sister wants to know if she should marry a man that your parents have arranged. She calls you every evening, rapid-fire questions. Is he rich enough? she asks you. Is his job suitable? Who is that pretty woman he has recently friended on Facebook?
‘So his parents have no problem marrying off their daughter to a man they have met three times, but they don’t want their son to marry someone he knows intimately, that he has been in a long-term relationship with?’
My friend sips his beer as I try to explain: the relationship is too long-term – in their eyes we should have married sooner or not at all. What sort of woman am I, who would live in sin for so long? We laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. This shouldn’t be my life, I never wanted to get married.
It doesn’t seem necessary. The money, the expense. I love weddings, it’s true, but I never considered having one myself. I am a woman unapologetic for the label ‘feminist’. I am used to looking for the gender divide in society and supporting the resulting cause. When it came to the general services tax on tampons, government-supported maternity leave, equal pay for equal work – I rallied support, petitioned my friends. I am ashamed to say that it was only when I started seeing you that I really saw the colour in the world. That I looked for representations of gender and race, tallying up the identities of those appearing on television shows and discussion panels, writing in newspapers and taking a place on my bookshelf.
As a feminist, as a woman, as me: marriage is a conservative institution, one better left behind. To be more honest, or to be honest at all, I didn’t ever think I would meet someone I would want to marry. I am not a joiner. I have always been independent, needful of time alone. I plan things selfishly: my goals, my life, my future. Marriage is something that will tie me down, take away my choices. I don’t need its security, if that is what it is. I admire those people who stay together but who aren’t married. It seems more noble to me somehow, to love without the safety net. A naive thought, yes, but we’re allowed those, aren’t we? Horses for courses, I think, when my friends flashed their diamond rings. Each to their own.
In Australia, legislation requires that a marriage celebrant, be they a civil representative or a person of religion, must speak a certain phrase. Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. No, it’s not an ancient phrase, a hangover from a more formal time. It was inserted into the Australian Marriage Act in 2004, when the Prime Minister John Howard, a stalwart conservative, was in power. He was worried about those pesky homosexuals taking marriage and changing it. I’ve never understood what people mean when they say that same-sex marriages will ruin the tradition for everyone else. As though there are only a certain number of happy marriages that can co-exist at any one time and it’s the straight people who deserve them most.
Every time I hear a celebrant say those words it sounds offensive: man and woman. I sense a clench in the crowd. As though we all are trying not to hear. An embarrassment. But such is law that if a celebrant does not utter these words, the marriage is not recognised. Void. And when the celebrant at my sister’s wedding enunciated each word clearly and loudly into her Madonna-esque microphone, I wanted to turn to my brother and his male partner and grimace. Or laugh. After all, they had been in a relationship longer than the bride and groom. Longer than us. When marriage is like this – allowed for some and not for others – who would want to be a part of it?
Me. I would like to marry you, even though I don’t ever want to get married. Does that make any sense at all? The conversation went like this:
‘Next year I will be thirty-four.’
You turned to me in bed and kissed me. ‘An old lady.’
You were pleased that I was lying there next to you, softly muddled with sleep. Usually on a Sunday morning I go out running, too restless to lie about in bed.
‘Not that old,’ I said. ‘But I want to have children. With you. I want to have them soon, in a year or so.’
‘Yes.’ You snuggled beside me, we had talked about this before. It wasn’t news to you.
‘So by this time next year I would like to be trying to get pregnant.’
You stiffened beside me. ‘So soon?’
Laughter, yours more uncertain than mine.
‘When would you prefer?’ I asked.
You talked about the book you’re writing, your job. You talk about going back to Sri Lanka, spending more time with your parents while you’re not too tied down here. It all made sense, it was fair enough and I listened closely.
‘But I can’t wait too long,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to wait too long. I’d rather try while we’re young.’
‘Yes,’ you said. ‘Let’s.’
‘But what about your parents?’ I knew the answer, but I still ask. I want to hear you say it. ‘Will they be upset if we have children and we’re not married? They don’t know we’re living together, you’ll have to at least tell them that.’
You looked at me as though I’d said something very odd.
‘Ammi would be devastated,’ you said, finally. ‘It would destroy her. She’d rather we weren’t together at all, that we had never met. But if we had children it would be much better that we were married. But I know you don’t want to.’
You’re not making the connections – not wanting to hurt me, not wanting to hurt her – that it’s better that everyone stayed far apart. Me and my wants are going to collide your worlds together.
‘Then we have to get married,’ I said, shooing my reluctance away. ‘If it will make your mother happier, I will marry you. If that’s what would be best.’
And that’s exactly what we do. On a humid day in Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte we step up onto the poruwa at the auspicious time calculated by the astrologer and the celebrant ties our little fingers together with pirith strings. A week before you and I knelt between our parents, holding the white string between us, carrying the monks’ blessings from their seat on the couch, chanting behind fans that were pale blond against their saffron robes. And during the ceremony we don’t say a word; we don’t have to declare marriage the bastion of a man and a woman, and, looking out at the faces of your family and mine, for a brief moment it doesn’t feel like we’re excluding anyone at all.