11

Years and years have passed since then. In the early 1970s my father came to this country. He learned English. He earned a degree, then another; while he studied, first mathematics, then business, he played soccer for his university, and to his teams he was a hero; his name appears at the top of many lists of statistics—you can look him up, if you wanted to. He had grown into a man, thick, short—shorter than I am—and strong, a soccer player of the very best kind. He had moved to America, to California, to Hermosa Beach on the coast, that small city—it was practically a village—where I grew up, and in a few years he married a white woman who gave birth to two boys: I am their firstborn. Before long, before I had turned five, he left us and married again, this time to a Mexican lady, a dark-haired dark-eyed mother of two children, a boy and a girl, whom he raised in his house, and together they, the dark-eyed woman and my father, conceived another child, who is my half-brother.

There are pictures of his early days here, photographs of my mother and father, of their friends and families, of their days as teenagers, as young adults—I have seen them many times. One thing you cannot get from these pictures is that Hermosa Beach in the 1970s was a very beautiful place, because its beauty is behind them, off camera. The pictures only show you Mom and Dad and Fernando, standing in front of Dad’s blue-and-orange van, all still teenagers, hanging around in the gravel-and-dirt parking lot drinking beer and playing music from the speakers, Fernando wearing a yellow headband, sporting his catfish mustache, in those days very popular among Latinos. His left arm is raised over his head, holding up a can of Coors to the sun. Dad’s arm hangs loosely around Mom, who looks too young and too pretty to be my mother. Everyone is wearing a tank top. They are holding their own beers. These were the days before they had me, before they married, the days even before Dad started hitting Mom.

Or, here are my cousins Stevie and Gina and Cathy—Cathy is the little girl in the light blue dress—all in the front driveway of O.P.’s house. The basketball hoop rests above their heads, secured to the roof of the garage. And here, see here, it’s Tío Carlos, my father’s uncle, ten, maybe fifteen years before his heart attack which came late in the 1980s; he is behind them smiling, sitting down in the orange-and-green-and-yellow aluminum lawn chair, the one he would bring to all Dad’s soccer games, his back straight as he leans forward, wearing short pants and black socks and sandals in the way of old men, and everybody looks happy.

Here is this picture of my abuelo, in the days after he came to this country, his nose as big as his face. He wears a dark tie and a white shirt and long pants and black shoes, and his face looks serious and cruel, though I have added the cruelty, because when Dad drinks he talks about how Abuelo used to beat the shit out of everyone.

But you cannot see in these pictures the ocean of my childhood. You cannot see the cliffs of Palos Verdes which stand like soldiers over the shore. Behind Dad and Mom and Fernando, behind the van and the Coors and the yellow headband, behind the gravel-and-dirt parking lot, down that hill, what you cannot see is the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, stretching and stretching and stretching, reaching as God does until the ends of the earth—but it is there. It is part of all those pictures, behind them, underneath them, in all those good times, while they celebrate at those parties I have heard about, before the weddings and the adulteries and the divorces, because they are held up by it and drawn to it, to this ocean, lured by its power and wonder as I was just a few years later, by its promises of life and of mystery and of strength and of hope. You cannot get this from the pictures, and perhaps it is not enough merely to tell you about it, but I have seen this place, I have lived in it, and now while I tell you of it I am reminded of this truth: One thing I understand about him, about my father— he could never bear to leave the ocean.

Pictures from the 1970s have more yellow in them, or more orange—we have all seen the old reels and photographs; the people in them are taller, or skinnier, or happier; these pictures do not have the pinks and whites and neons of the 1980s, the rush of time or the self indulgence. These pictures have in them ease, long hair, open-toe sandals, naïve happy smiles that teenagers give when their worries are only theoretical. And even though the ocean is absent from view, even though these pictures do not show you the time I spent here, how I grew up in Hermosa Beach swimming, how beautiful I used to be, and small, and dark—my skin wrapped tightly over my child’s-bones and muscles, and my hair, how when it was wet it stuck to my face—even though you cannot see it, it, the ocean, is always there. In this way I grew up like my father had grown up, very near the water, always near the water.

These pictures in my hand, these pictures I am holding now, these were the happy times I am told of, here in California, in Hermosa Beach, and these eventually became the world as I knew it, made up only of white people and Latinos, my family, when I still believed everything had been created so I could have that ocean, playing with my father on the beach, holding to the back of his neck when the waves crashed over us, watching the dolphins jump and swim in the waves while he held me against him, and I felt happy, and I felt brave, for when a boy is with his father, he is not afraid.

___

Many years later, my father has not yet become old. His face is wide, Latino, brown, very dark brown, dark even for a Latino. He still has all of his hair, which is black, thick, like a young man’s. His eyes are handsome and enormous, with black pupils like very still water—unmoving, vulnerable, meek but not afraid. When he smiles you can see his mouth is big but his teeth are small. In Hermosa Beach, after he left us, while I was still a boy and I visited him sometimes on weekends, I watched his soccer games (he was always in a league of some kind), and I heard his team call out to him—for the ball, or to look out because someone was behind him, or to shoot—and still they called him Choco. The name is right: it—CHOCO—was his license plate, a Father’s Day gift from my mother, and I remember always agreeing, Yes, yes, yes, like chocolate, like chocolate. But now he walks gingerly, as over ice, his knees like broken hinges, limping from years of fist fights and soccer.

He says, My legs are gone, sure, but I still have my looks.

He laughs. I laugh too.

Despite his bad knees, however, he is still short and thick and strong. And although he has reached his fifties, a part of me still believes—as I believed when I was a boy, faithfully, doubtlessly, as though God’s strength moved through him—that he can yet beat almost any man in a one-to-one fight, like in the old days. Three years ago he was arrested on suspicion of spousal abuse (everybody in the house was, at the time, very drunk, and no one remembers exactly if this was the case, but his wife—his fourth now, a woman from Ecuador, from Quito—swears he slapped her, saying, Shut up, bitch, so she called the police), and for one night he was given a cell to share with four other men: three black, one Latino. The Latino man was enormous, and, my father says, No one dared to fuck with him. When my father was led into the cell, they, the enormous Latino man and he, nodded to one another. My father explains, It was silent camaraderie. My father, seeing that a top bunk was still empty, climbed up and made the space his own; then, because he could now make his phone call, he was escorted back out—but he had laid down his baseball cap, to secure his place on the bunk. When he returned, one of the black men was in his space wearing his cap, which, my father says, was a direct challenge. Now my father—this is the way he tells it—understood: Even in just this holding tank, even here for one night while we all waited for someone to bail us out—even in this place which was not quite prison, it was only jail, it was nonetheless something like the movies, mijo—and everybody was divided by race. And now they were testing me.

I am quiet, and he goes on.

Mijo, he says, I had to do something. I had to respond. Powerfully. Urgently.

He takes a drink from his glass. It is Sunday. We have met in a bar we both like. We drink, we eat, we talk. This is our way—for today, anyhow.

I look at him. This is my father, I tell myself. This is the man I call Dad.

He continues. He tells this story as though he is at once proud and ashamed. He says, I looked over at the big guy, who nodded to me again—which was his blessing:  like saying, Yes, man, go ahead, I will back you up. I turned to the black guy, the one on the bunk, the one with my hat on.

My father sees my disbelief, my surprise, and he reminds me, again saying, This is jail, mijo. This is the way things are.

He says, I raised my arms. In one hand I grabbed his throat. And in the other hand I grabbed his balls. I lifted him from the bunk. My father moves his arms up and around, as if to show me how he did it.

And then, mijo, I threw him to the floor.

He says this as though he too is in disbelief, that same pride-and-shame mix painted on his face.

He says, I said to the black guy, You nigger son of a bitch. Get off my bed, you mother fucker. Because of his accent, these last words sound like mahther fahker.

I feel my eyes grow. I look at my father, then I look around the bar to see if anyone has heard him, and I am relieved to see the place is practically empty—Sunday afternoons are more or less safe, I suppose.

He says, The other two black guys stood up, the one with my hat was still rolling on the floor and holding his balls. The other two were coming to shit down my throat. But the big guy, my compadre, he said, No—no—no. And everybody looked at him. We turned our heads. He lifted his finger, saying, One at a time. I stood there, and they came at me, first the bigger one with yellow instead of white in his eyes. Then came the little bald one. I kicked the first one and I punched the second one—both in the balls. They were on the floor, and I kicked at them a while. Finally, the one wearing my hat, he came at me too, but he was too hurt to do anything. Each got his turn at me, and I beat every one. I am in my fifties, mijo. I have bad knees. But I beat all of them, all three, one at a time.

He takes another drink. He swallows. He pours more beer. That look of pride-and-shame lingers a few moments longer, then disappears behind laughter.

And you know what, mijo? Now I was safe. I took back my hat. I pulled it down over my eyes. And I went to sleep. In my bunk.

We go on sitting in the back of the bar, at our little brown booth—and we order food. He lifts chicken wings and fried calamari to his mouth, he dips them in their sauces, and every now and then he pours more beer from the pitcher, or douses hot sauce onto his little white plate, and he remembers those days from many years ago in Guayaquil, at the restaurant by the harbor. He tells me of the food, how it covered that long red table, the mounds and mounds of it, how they never could finish it all—and his big wet eyes grow bigger and bigger. He talks of the smell of the harbor, of the rides on his father’s motorcycle, of the view of the River Guayas, and of the sailboats, and of the beggars, and of the man who sold avocados, and how when finally they arrived to that restaurant on Sundays the sounds of those folk singers made him feel happy. He is reminded of his tía, of the stories she used to tell, of her giant purple birthmark and his old fascination with her big ugly face. He describes it to me. He talks about the purple mark. He shows me with his hand how it covered half of her face, from forehead to chin, from her nose to her ear, on the left side. It was dark, mijo, he says. Dark and purple. It puffed up a little from her face. Hair grew from it near the bottom, close to her jaw line. Her face grew hair not quite like a man’s, but not like a woman’s. He says to me, I even wondered if she knew, if she knew how ugly she was. She had to know, but she never let on.

He tells the story of the Octopus King, of his father’s disappearing with the yellow canoe, how he protected his sister’s honor so like a child, so like a man, and together we laugh. For a moment I consider my father’s awe of his own father, of the contradictions, of the horror, of the love my father the boy had for his father, and of the hatred that was finally pushed into him. These stories lie between us and hover above us. They are the myths we have come to know as the truth. They are everything we believe in. I have heard these stories again and again over the years, and I know them like I know his face, like I know the face of my own son.

He, my father, does not cry anymore but he has cried before, many times, when he was drunk enough to cry. He has said, heaving into my shoulder, shaking, over and over again, I do not want to remember. I do not want to remember. I do not want to remember. Now, right now, he sighs, as though in disbelief, as though the stories happened to another person, as though he had never been Nofrito the child, and in truth this is in part how I have come to view things myself, which saddens me to discover.

Still, there is one memory which is for him a curse—that is his word, curse. It is the one story of Nofrito the child which, above all others, always brings me sadness, and it is the reason I have told you anything at all. When he has had enough beer to remember, he pushes himself back into the back cushion of his booth. He wipes his mouth with his napkin and he takes another sip of beer.

He says, shaking his head, as though arguing with the table before him, It is my curse, mijo. Mijo, it is my curse.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Full Text

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