My dad lives in Sevilla, Spain, and isn’t in the best of health. I need to get back out there soon.
I remember when I said goodbye to him last time. I was at his little condo and he was there with his sister, my aunt, who lives with him. They’re a very cute couple: he takes care of the bills and paperwork, she fries bread for his breakfast and irons his undershirts. My suitcases were packed, the taxi was waiting downstairs.
As I was getting ready for the final hug goodbye, I made the obligatory promise to come back soon and he smiled and said, “Good. After all, you are my only son.”
What happened next was so alien to me that I didn’t know what to do except what I actually did. I burst into tears. Right in front of him. I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. I didn’t see it coming. The emotion hit me like a bullet. I don’t burst out crying. It’s not what I do. I’m a pretty reserved Virgo, and we just don’t do that.
In the bathroom I washed my face, composed myself, and came back out. We said goodbye, neither of us acknowledging what had just happened.
I’ve thought about it many times since then, and I’m still not sure why I was crying.
I remember the day my dad moved out of our apartment. I was six years old and we were living on Rosewood Avenue in LA, and one morning I entered my parents’ room and noticed something odd: the open shelves where my dad kept his T-shirts and underwear were completely empty.
My mom looked at me tentatively. I asked what happened. She smiled meekly and said, “Well, you are the man of the house now, Chato.”
She looked so worried and unsure as she said it, but all I remember feeling at that moment was relief. My parents were yellers and screamers. They argued every night, or so it seemed to me. I can remember many times bringing my mom tissues so she could wipe away the tears. I hated it all. When he left it was quiet.
I decided very early on that while I couldn’t stand them together, I loved them just fine apart.
My dad would pick me up Saturday mornings and bring me back Sunday afternoons. We always walked to the movies, counting the blocks along the way. I believe our record was 68 round trip, from his apartment on Fountain Avenue to the Chinese theater on Hollywood, probably to see Star Wars for the umpteenth time.
After the movies we would stop at Pioneer Chicken (it’s long gone) on Western and Hollywood for dinner, cross the street for a soft serve ice cream at a little taqueria (also gone), and then close out the day playing pinball at a seedy pool hall called “The Fun Center” (also long gone). This was the pre-gentrified Hollywood Boulevard of head shops, shuttered storefronts, and porno theaters.
At Pioneer Chicken he would always pull out his pen and make me do math problems on a paper napkin.
On special days, when my dad was in the mood, instead of Pioneer Chicken, he would cook me my favorite dinner – “brandy chicken” – boneless chicken pieces sautéed in olive oil and brandy with tomatoes and bell peppers and served in a pita. Preparing it was an all day affair. He would buy one can of beer and we would share it. I was only 8 or 9, but he was European.
After dinner we’d watch a soccer match on some UHF channel on his rabbit eared black and white television, then it was lights out.
My dad was a great storyteller, and would regale me with tales of Spain’s 16th century grandeur as the “number one power in the world, in the world,” as well as with his own exploits in the civil guard tracking down bandits in the mountains as a young man.
I think it all drove my mom crazy. He got to be fun dad. Pioneer chicken, ice cream, movies, and after only one day, he got to turn me back over to her so she could do the heavy lifting of getting me to school, to soccer practice, of laundry and chores, and all the other mundane and inestimably important tasks of parenting.
It sometimes left her frustrated and resentful. I remember her telling me once that my dad had started complaining that taking me on the weekends was getting expensive, meaning, I suppose, the Pioneer Chicken and movie tickets.
Still this didn’t make me hate him. Once, in a particularly black mood, she told me that when I was still a baby in Spain, she would push me along the sidewalk in a stroller, and my dad would walk several paces ahead, pretending he wasn’t with us.
My mom was the hero, struggling to raise me, doing whatever it took, yet I still couldn’t hate this man.
My birth was an accident. My parents weren’t married, and he was from a traditional Spanish Catholic family, and my mom getting pregnant, unmarried and already once divorced, was a scandal for him. So when I was about a year old, they moved to LA, mostly, I think, at my father’s urging, in a vain attempt to run away from his problems.
His life was upended at age 40. He was a bachelor with a good job when my mom got pregnant. It was absolutely as much his fault as it was hers, of course, but unlike her, he never came to terms with it. Where she embraced it and made parenthood her life’s mission, he was in limbo. It was too late for him to feel at home in America. He worked a variety of odd jobs – correspondence school teacher, data entry guy, and most memorably, driving school instructor. I remember his old Dodge Dart. It was the only car I have ever been in that had a second set of gas and brake pedals on the passenger side, in case he ever had to bring one of his students to an emergency start or stop.
He lived in one small dingy apartment after the next.
So here he was in a foreign country, not knowing the language, in his 40’s, with a son he never planned on having. He didn’t know what to do with me, and so movies were a godsend. For me, it was a treat because my dad would invariably fall asleep during the showing and if I managed not to wake him during intermission, we would literally sit through the same movie twice in a row. I felt indulged, and I’m sure he felt relieved at having figured out how to pass the time.
In high school I saw him less and less frequently, perhaps twice a month, as I became busy with my own social life. And he, in turn, didn’t push to see me more. When I moved away to college, he finally felt that he could return home. He moved back to Spain twenty years after he left, and I’ve seen him every two to four years since then.
Sometimes he painted – he was a decent amateur oil painter – and he would paint scenes of village life in Spain, or sometimes still lifes. I remember one painting of a sliced open watermelon. It was so rich, and the colors so vivid. He doesn’t have it anymore. He thinks he gave it to a co-worker at the time.
I would kill to have that painting today.
I still don’t know exactly why I burst out in tears that day. Maybe I’m grieving for something, or longing for it, or regretting what was or what could have been. I just don’t know, but my guess is that it’s buried somewhere in these words.