When Jim called his parents in Wyoming to say he'd fallen in love with a brain surgeon, you could've heard his mother's gleeful shrieks on Uranus. Over the years, they'd had their skirmishes, usually about her inability to accept his gayness. They never spoke about it and if they did, it was at Jim's request. Now, he couldn't keep his mother from asking after Shakeel. Her rehabilitated pride in him and those well-worn cliches of hers - "At last, another doctor in the family!" - bolstered his own pride and for the first time in ages, his Jewish, Manhattan-raised mother became his biggest fan again.
She visited them in New York regularly, staying with Shakeel in his capacious loft rather than brave his roommate and the pullout sofa. Jim couldn't have understood more. Having grown accustomed to the cushy life as a doctor's wife, his mother chose wisely, sleeping in Shakeel's luxurious guestroom that came equipped with her own bathroom.
"He's handsome, brilliant and wealthy," she told his father. "We actually raised our son right."
Of course, having raised him right meant she got to tell him how to manage his relationship, which she often did and in front of his boyfriend. "Don't let him talk to you like that," she'd say. Which made him think, as he always did, about the way his father spoke to her.
"Your life's like a soap opera," she'd say. "No one would believe how good you have it."
And for two years, Jim didn't quite believe it either. So when the end came, and it came hard and fast, he was more than blindsided.
"What did you do?" his mother said, disappointedly, when he called to let her know.
"Nothing," Jim said.
"You cheated on him, didn't you? You're just like your father," she said, brandishing her quiver of cliches.
No, he hadn't cheated on him. No, he hadn't been insensitive to his needs. No, he hadn't exploded in a rage like his father. In fact, he had no idea what he'd done. It was as mysterious to him as the reasons why his mother hadn't left his father ages ago.
As easy as it was to get together, it seemed far easier for Shakeel to break them apart: in an email, he explained that they couldn't speak for three to six months, that after this, he thought they'd be able to forge a friendship, and that he'd contact him then. Thanks, he wrote, Shakeel. And that was that.
Over the next few days, he plotted and seethed, vacillating between showing up at Shakeel's office unannounced and sneaking into his apartment for clues. He phoned up friends and cried at random. Although he didn't understand his wishes, Jim respected Shakeel's integrity and didn't contact him but once, drunk-dialing him on Christmas.
Though he doesn't remember the exact message he left, he assumes it was highly sentimental and inappropriate and made him look pathetic. Jim was pathetic, there with his fourth scotch, pretending he could shoulder this arbitrary cruelness. How could Shakeel? he wondered.
As he walked to the subway that night, his cell phone rang and his pulse raced, but it was just his mother. They spoke briefly and in those minutes, it dawned on him what had happened - he'd become her. Which wouldn't have been so tragic if it'd meant Shakeel hadn't become his father.
At the end of their conversation, she asked Jim if he wanted her to come to New York.
"We can take in some shows and go shopping," she said. "We can burn down his apartment. I hate to see you suffer like this."
But hadn't she suffered under his father, wasn't she still after forty years?
He told her thanks, but no thanks. He clicked off, fell into a posh, Upper West Side doorway, and bawled his eyes out. But whom he was crying for, Shakeel or him, his mother who'd catered to his father's every nasty whim or his father who understood her sacrifices and still treated her with savagery?
As December rolled into January, Jim busied himself with work and the occasional date, ever mindful that he'd been happy before Shakeel and that he'd be happy after him. He reminded himself how fiercely independent and self-reliant he was, that he had great friends, a thriving career and an otherwise full life. But love does strange things to us, the absence of love even stranger. How could he say that his days, once vibrant, turned dull or that every time he got an email alert, he expected a message from Shakeel? Missing him, he daydreamed, planning their eventual commitment ceremony, washing his dishes and loading them into the dishwasher as he used to do. he picked up his dry-cleaning, folded his laundry and massaged his aching feet - things he'd never done for anyone else.
Yes, for the last two years, Jim was his mother, a doctor's wife. The funny thing is he no longer resented her for staying with his father, because he finally understood what it meant to be with a man like that. Like his father, Shakeel had a startling work ethic. Like his father, he was an intellectual powerhouse. And, like his father, he could be cold and emotionally distant, tactless one second, complimentary the next.
But unlike his father, Shakeel had chosen Jim to love and unlike his father, Shakeel filled giant holes that had gone virtually unplugged for ages. Unlike his father, Shakeel noticed and repented when he treated Jim unfairly, like when he blurted out in bed he'd been on a date the night before, when he told him he preferred guys with washboard abs and tiny waists, when their sex became dangerously unsafe - the two forewent condoms their second night together. And however painful it is to admit now, he can't help think of Shakeel's silence as just another way of noticing him, of releasing him when he would've just as soon stayed.
Six months since their last correspondence, Jim no longer expects the chime of an email or Shakeel's name on his phone's caller-id. As it has taken all of his willpower not to contact him, it'll take a far fiercer act of bravery, his own responsibility, to erase his name from his phone's address book, and move on. For two years, he lived as his mother lived, in the comfort and style worthy of a beautiful, smart and shrewd woman. Yet, he couldn't possibly be the martyr she became; without the doctor, this type of saintliness is silly and moot. Don't get me wrong. Jim loved being her and if he could've gotten pregnant, he would've definitely kept the baby.
Even now, especially now, Jim wonders which parent he brought out in Shakeel. Was it his doctor father or his doctor mother? And which one of them handed down the sentence? If and when they speak again, he'll ask him. But such questions will be beside the point. Jim sees now that in prescribing silence as a treatment to what ailed them, Shakeel, like his father, became inscrutable. Yes, Jim was his mother, but unlike her, he was with a doctor who let him go. He wishes his father had done the same.