An invitation to dinner turns into a night Alex and Frankie's hosts won't easily forget.
“I’m not understanding you.” Granny said after a long pause. “How do I spell your married name?”
“Um. As I said, I’m not changing my name….I’m keeping my own name...”
She knew this. I’d answered the question three times now.
“Are you keeping up with the housework and the cooking at least?” She asked sternly.
“I’ve been extremely busy so no, not really. Besides, Frankie prefers her cooking to mine.”
“I think you need to talk back less and do more around the house,” Granny scolded in her clipped English accent. “You want to stay married.”
I felt my cheeks flush and my pulse thump in my neck. Where did granny get off judging me like this? And if I was the little woman then who did that make Frankie? Some special man I’m expected to wait on hand and foot?
I’m no-one’s little woman, I wanted to yell but I ended up spluttering meekly instead. “Well I don’t think Frankie will di…”
“It really is quite confusing. What is your new name again?”
“You can call me Mrs-Dr-Alexandra-Conte-DeMarco.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Francesca is the Doctor, not you. You’re Mrs DeMarco.” She said my name reverently, with just a hint of triumph in her tone.
“Want to speak to Frankie?” I asked as I handed Frankie the phone without waiting for a reply. Then I stuck my finger in the Tiramisu she was assembling.
“Well yes, she’s a pretty good housewife,” Frankie said as she stifled a laugh. “No, not as well as I looked after you, I agree, but I don’t care about that, I think she’s perfect…”
I rolled my eyes, downed a shot of the Frangelico that was sitting on the bench and busied myself balancing the flavours of the mascarpone mix. Frankie waved frantically as I added some more Frangelico. And a bit more. And just a bit more. And one for the chef.
“Get out of the kitchen. Go,” She ordered after hanging up the phone.
“Granny says I have to get back in it.”
“Don’t get offended. She loves you.”
“She treats me like I’m not good enough. And she’s insulting our marriage with her 1950’s world view.”
“She thinks you’re my little housewife and you’ve achieved your destiny by marrying a Doctor. Be a bigger person and let her have that. She’s not hurting anyone. Now go shower. We don’t want to be late.”
Frankie and I had been invited to dinner by the son of her father’s best friend. Frankie couldn’t really explain why, out of the blue, we’d been asked to their house in the country, but she wanted to go. It was another opportunity to celebrate our wedding with people. And it involved free food.
The only problem was the weather. As we pulled out of the driveway, the charcoal clouds that had threatened the city all day finally opened and an avalanche of water pelted down.
When we finally found the farm, the sky had turned from grey to black and the wind was whipping the rain sideways. Sludgy brown water flowed down each side of the driveway as Frankie inched the car towards the house.
Our shoes made squelching noises as we ran through the puddles towards the front door. Wet leaves stuck to the bottom of my new Italian boots and I felt the water creeping through the leather. I wriggled my toes in the damp, clammy socks, trying to warm them as we rang the bell.
A slim blonde woman in her mid-forties opened the door and stared at Frankie. “Well you’d better come in then,” she said as Frankie handed her the Tiramisu.
Frankie apologized for our hour and a half lateness and ushered me inside. Unfortunately I was overwhelmed by an urge to run back to the car and head home. She pushed her hand into my back but my feet stayed where they were and she ended up bending me over to look at my shoes.
“Stop it,” she snapped as she grabbed my hand and dragged me to the kitchen.
“Hi Francesca, come stai?”Max smiled warmly. “Tiramisu? Our favourite!”
Max poured us wine and we stood around the kitchen bench eating cheese and biscuits while he and Frankie made awkward small talk. Karen still hadn’t made eye contact with me and I wondered if she’d notice if I took my shoes off and hung my socks over the fireplace.
“Where do you two go to church?” She asked Frankie after steering the conversation towards religion and the Catholic Church that her family attended every Sunday.
I shoved a biscuit in my mouth and told myself that marriage means doing things you really don’t want to and then expecting it to be made up to you afterwards.
“I don’t go to Church,” Frankie answered. “Not since I left school.”
Karen raised her eyebrows at Frankie and turned the conversation to Donald Trump. “I’ve noticed you have some very alternative views on politics,” she said, taking a sip of wine and staring as Frankie wrapped her arm around my waist and drew me close.
“I don’t think so,” Frankie answered slowly, looking confused.
“She probably got that from me,” I blurted. “But I think Trump’s views are the alternative ones, not ours. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia – that’s not really considered mainstream anymore.”
“I’ve seen your articles.” Karen replied, avoiding eye contact by heading to the oven to check on the potatoes.
“So what’s news?” Max asked Frankie casually.
“The wedding in the storm is probably the big news. We just got our photos and Alex’s hair is hilarious.”
“I told you Francesca got married,” Karen replied as she walked back from the oven.
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.”
“Well she got married,” she answered, waving her hand dismissively and pouring herself another wine.
“We got married,” I replied, wondering if Frankie would play along if I faked diarrhoea so we could go home.
“More wine?” Max asked.
“Fill it up,” I replied.
Dinner was finally ready so we sat at the table. As we politely passed the potatoes, Karen finally locked her eyes on me. “What do you think of this drama about gay people wanting to get married in Australia?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I answered as I saw green blobs flash at the side of my left eye. This horrible woman was actually giving me a migraine.
“Well, marriage belongs to religion. So what is your take on all this noise about gay marriage?”
“Do you mean marriage equality? Are you asking me what I think about marriage equality?” I stared back at her, my eyes blazing with rage. “If you’ve seen my work then you already know my views.”
Frankie went to kick me under the table but smacked her toes into the leg of my chair instead. She yelped in pain, tried to cover it with a cough but ended up sounding like a frog. That made me laugh, which made Frankie kick me again, which made Karen stare even harder.
“I’m just saying that marriage belongs to religion,” she continued, refusing to allow us to distract her from the whole purpose of her evening. “I mean, why would you even want to get married? I never wanted to get married,” she declared in a smug, superior tone.
“We did,” Frankie answered as she took my hand. “And as a newlywed couple we like to share the joy, love and hopefulness of this milestone. We’re not interested in our choices becoming a dinner party debate.”
I turned to look outside, desperate for us to excuse ourselves and leave, but the rain was smashing against the windows and I saw the wind rip a branch from the tree.
“I don’t want an argument; I’m just asking why you would want to get married. It’s a religious institution. Why can’t you have something else?”
She spoke in such an arrogantly dismissive tone that I pushed my feet into the floor to stop myself from reaching across the table to strangle her.
“I don’t want to get married, I am married.” I spat back. “Legally married - in New Zealand, Portugal, Argentina, Iceland, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Guam, Pitcairn Island, Greenland, America –”
I was going to list all the countries that we’re legally married in but Frankie told me to stop. I’d had enough of this woman judging, insulting and demeaning our marriage, so I ignored Frankie, took a sip of my wine and let rip...
“If you’re discussing marriage equality then you are talking about the marriage act, which is legislation. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s law, which religious people in fact do not own. As much as you like to think you do.”
I explained how the marriage act was hastily amended by the Howard government in 2004, defining marriage as `voluntarily entered-into union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others'.
“This is discrimination, pure and simple and we merely are asking for the marriage act to be changed back. It doesn’t require a procedurally discriminatory and constitutionally irrelevant public opinion poll, it requires a parliamentary vote. And how dare you expect us to defend our decision to legally become a family. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
Frankie, Max and Karen sat in stunned silence as I picked up my knife and fork and calmly cut my potatoes. Karen quickly pivoted the conversation to a rather mind-numbing analysis of the balance of pepper in the gravy and Frankie and Max filled another hour and a half with chit-chat about his parents. After dessert and coffee and more coffee, the rain finally eased enough for us to leave.
“She deserved it,” I announced as we drove off.
“I know,” Frankie replied.
A few days later we received a card from granny, addressed to Dr and Mrs DeMarco.
“I loved two men in my life, Arthur and grandpa,” she wrote, “and I was lucky enough to enjoy fifty- six years of happiness with one of them. I wish the same contentment and happiness for you both. I love you.”
Frankie welled up in tears as I thought back to my last conversation with granny. I’d felt like she was insulting our marriage when she'd actually been embracing it. She’d treated me exactly how she treats my mother and sisters: like a married woman with obligations and responsibilities and an important partner to obey. Because for her, that is marriage.
I called granny to thank her for her love and support.
“What are you cooking Francesca for dinner?” She asked.
“Actually, she’s making pasta for me….but I’m making dessert. She’s never had bread and butter pudding."
“Make sure you make enough custard to completely cover the bread, otherwise it will be dry. Add a hint of orange to lift it and let it stand for at least 30 minutes before cooking.”
“OK, thank you.”
“I’m so very happy for you; I think you two are a very good match for each other. But don’t eat too much pudding; it’s important that you stay trim.”
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