I went to my senior prom with a guy named Stan. Twenty-one years later, my father still talks about him. “What a fine, upstanding man Stan has become,” my father tells me. “He’s a successful accountant.”
I have never told my father that I only went to prom with Stan because we both were dateless, and the crowd we ran with would not allow either of us to bow out of the Single Most Important Night of High School Life. I could see then what Stan would become.
After dinner, he removed a calculator from an inner pocket of his tuxedo and proceeded to divide the check evenly between the five couples we had dined with, allowing for a modest 12 percent tip. “She wasn’t that good,” he said when I suggested that 20 percent was the norm. He smiled too much and never missed a Sunday in church. He was utterly predictable.
FORGETTABLE GEORGE AND SUCCESSION
My father also liked the boy who escorted me to my junior prom. George was a senior and captain of the golf team. He spent prom evening gallantly opening doors for me and offering to fetch more ginger ale punch. He kept checking his watch during the after party at Beth’s house. When I teased him about it, he claimed to be watching my curfew. His good-night kiss showed effort but was utterly forgettable.
Dad met a succession of pimply, sweaty-palmed, underachieving boys during my high school years. He chatted up each one, effusive in his attentions, pronouncing them all “upstanding young men.” Maurice, the waiter from Colombia, was well-mannered and humorous. Grant, with the beady eyes and fast hands, was said to have lots of potential. Darren, the petty thief with a truck-driving mother, was deemed youthful and high-spirited, but upstanding.
MEETING COLLEGE MEN
Once I got to college, I could go on dates without my father inspecting each one individually and pronouncing him sound dating material. I could go to keggers, road-trip to Myrtle Beach and party with the baseball team. Yet I still felt compelled to bring my guys home, to honor Dad’s patriarchal right to inspect, converse with, pontificate to and inevitably pronounce them decent human beings.
The first week of sophomore year, Mike and I met Dad for dinner. We had been dating for only four months, and already, I was bored. Mike was pre-law, but I could see his destiny—used car salesman, just like his dad. It turned out that Mike wanted to be my father or at least to replace him as top male in my life. He spent dinner sucking up to Dad like a scholarship candidate meeting the dean and rebuffed me when I tried to change the subject to something other than his many meritorious qualities. The next day, when I unceremoniously dumped him, the best he could do was sputter, “But I thought you would make a great mother.” That was the moment that I decided to get a Ph.D. Between undergraduate and and graduate school were at least a dozen men that had the privilege of meeting my father.
I finally found a way to make my Father Approval Program pay off. After the fated meeting with Dad, I would look my guy in the eye and say, “My father really likes you.” If the guy looked uncomfortable, I figured I had about a month left. If he winced, I was looking at a week. If he grabbed his shoes and ran, I wouldn’t have to see him again. This system wasn’t meant to gauge commitment; it was meant to gauge courage. And it worked every time. Thanks, Dad!