I wait for my father at the airport, as usual. He is almost two hours late, according to his itinerary No. 48. I should be used to this routine by now. For years I have waited for him, regularly, outside the customs area of the International Arrivals Building at Kennedy Airport. He has never arrived on schedule. But I am still impatient and anxious. I still watch those blue metal doors religiously, as they swing open and shut, spitting out one baggage-laden passenger after another. And every time they open I crane my head yet another time, expecting him to appear, as usual.
Maybe he’s been arrested for smuggling. A few years ago he was detained in customs for several hours: he didn’t declare a $10,000 diamond ring he was carrying in his pocket. He had forgotten about it. I assume he hasn’t bought another one, but he usually stuffs odd pieces of machine parts in his dirty laundry, and lately he has been traveling with suitcases full of French baby food: for his triplets — a special organic formula. Being arrested for smuggling baby food is the kind of thing that would happen to him. I wonder how he would get out of that one. He managed to escape from three prisoner-of-war camps in France during the war. But he is no longer eighteen, and the New York City Tombs are different.
I hope nothing has happened. I only see him twice a year as it is, for one or two days each time. It’s been eight months since I last saw him. “You shouldn’t worry so much,” my father tells me all the time. “Be optimistic.”
I am trying to follow his advice when he walks through the swinging doors. He looks tired and preoccupied. The permanent furrows between his brows are deeper than usual, and he scans the crowd with dazed, near-sighted eyes. His hair is grayer than the last time; thinner, too. But otherwise he looks the same: short, stout, his very round belly protruding through his open dark blue suit jacket. His pants, as always, are too tight, too short, and very rumpled. The buttonholes on his fly are stretched close to tearing. His socks, and a sliver of leg, show below the hem. He wheels one suitcase in front of him, carries another, a briefcase, and a paper shopping bag. He always travels with a paper shopping bag.
He might be called a frumpy man. He could be taken for a kindly doctor, or an absentminded professor, but rarely for what he is — a successful international businessman, on his way from Europe to Brazil for the tenth time this year. Maybe that’s because he always wanted to be a physicist instead.
I shove my way through the crowd, crawl under the ropes that cordon off the entrance, and run toward him, waving, calling, “Papi! Papi!” His face dissolves into a broad smile when he sees me. His dark brown eyes sparkle behind his glasses. He drops his suitcases to hug me.
“Hi, Vonny! How are you? You look wonderful! I’m so happy to see you!” He talks with a British accent. He says the same words, in the same order, every time. He always sounds sincere.
I offer to take one of his bags. He refuses, as he always does, but hands me the shopping bag. The others are too heavy, he says, and besides, it’s easier to carry two or three heavy bags than just one. More balanced, he says. I have never followed his logic on this issue, nor understood why he doesn’t call a porter. But I don’t argue. Each of the suitcases weighs more than fifty pounds, and the day he lets me carry one of them I will know that he is growing old.
“Well, Vonny, how are you?” he asks again, as we walk toward the parking 1ot. “You look great!” I feel shy.
“I’m fine,” I say, without looking at him. I don’t want him to see that my eyes are wet.
We reach my battered red 1966 Volkswagen. I’m embarrassed. The seat covers are torn, the windows dirty. It has no heat, and only one windshield wiper works — hardly the vehicle for such a wealthy and distinguished traveler. But he doesn’t seem to mind, and as we load the bags he tells me about a sign he once saw in a cab. “Please excuse the dirty windows. We have not washed them because we expect to replace this car any day now.” He wanted to get me the sign, since I won’t accept his offer of a new car. I laugh, and we drive into Manhattan.
“So how are things in Europe?” This is my standard beginning, as we turn onto the Van Wyck Expressway; it’s the easiest way to break the long silences that always separate us. My father manages a multinational firm in Europe that distributes office supplies: carbon paper, staplers, paper clips, and so on. But this is a secondary concern. He actually lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he owns and presides over a company that manufactures office supplies. He has commuted regularly between Brazil and Europe ever since I can remember.
I have never spent much time with him. I was born in Sao Paulo, but he left my mother when I was four years old. I saw him occasionally until I was eight, when my mother moved with us — her three children by him — to New York. I have seen him regularly, twice a year, ever since; he stops in New York to visit us, on his way to other parts. I have never seen him for more than a weekend and usually for only a fraction of that. He has to split his time among the three of us. I have never returned to Brazil.
“The business is getting better. I think I may have found a new European manager.” He pauses, wets his lips. “I’m optimistic.” But he sounds worried. He has been looking for a European manager for a year, since he fired the last one for trying to take over the company. The ex-manager is now suing him for $500,000 in damages. His managers, if they don’t try to usurp his power, usually prove to be incompetent. When one company is running smoothly, the other is predictably in the midst of some financial or personnel disaster, and he has to fly to its rescue. He blames these failures on circumstance, and still talks of delegating responsibility so that he can retire in a few years. But I wonder if he will ever be able to relinquish the control and power he has acquired. He inherited the companies from his father, after the war. He didn’t want to be in business. He wanted to finish high school and become a scientist. But he felt compelled to sacrifice his dreams because he was the oldest son.
He never mentions those dreams anymore. He works sixteen hours a day, even on weekends, and reads what he can in his spare time. He doesn’t complain. He says he wants to teach when he retires.
“And how are things in Brazil?” I try again, knowing that this more cheerful topic will distract him from his worries. His second wife recently gave birth to a set of triplets. “The babies,” he calls them.
“The babies are beautiful!” he says proudly. “They grow so quickly. You can already see each of their personalities. I have lots of photographs to show you.” He boasts about their antics for a while, with joy.
“And T.?” T. is his second wife, supposedly a Brazilian gypsy and fortune-teller. According to my mother, he picked her up hitch-hiking twenty years ago, on his way to visit his mother’s grave on the first anniversary of her death. He fell in love with T., and left us and my mother to live with her. Besides the triplets, they have three other, much older children. Altogether, then, he is the father of nine.
“T. has found a maid she likes,” he tells me. I knew she had been looking for one for a long time, unsuccessfully. My father was worried, because she has a bad back. “But you know,” he pauses again, “I don’t know what she is going to do. The maid is very nice — a young girl, and very helpful. But she is five months pregnant.” He sounds puzzled, as if unable to understand his wife’s irrationality, or the fate that surrounds him with so many pregnancies.
We are quiet until we get home. “Home” is a housing project near Harlem. The paint is peeling in the apartment, which is otherwise a fairly new and cheerful studio. I am briefly embarrassed by my student-pauper lifestyle. When my father travels, he stays in places like the Dorchester in London. But I know he has seen worse during his visits with me. He says he likes staying here; he doesn’t mind sleeping on the couch. I don’t understand how he accepts these contradictions, but I am glad to have him as my guest.
“Well, Vonny. How are you?” He hugs me again. I feel like his little girl, though I am almost as tall as he is. I want to cry, and don’t know what to say. I am not really sure he wants to hear the details of the last six months of my life. He looks so tired.
The silence between us grows: a familiar, heavy silence; the silence of awkwardness, of not knowing each other. Who is this man I call my father, whose eyes I have? I feel no connection with him, except through my blood and my sadness over his absences. We share no tangible or continuous history. Each time we see each other, I feel we must build our relationship all over again, from the beginning. He is more like some distant, benevolent uncle. Through the silence I begin to turn inward. The old regrets for what we never shared begin to surface; the dam of tears wants to break under the weight of too much held-in grief.
But there’s no time for that now. He is already unpacking the bulging suitcases. He has brought me some presents. He hands me a large, very loud silk scarf, which I would never wear. But I don’t tell him that. “You should wear colorful things, instead of those,” he says, pointing good-naturedly to my usual scheme of black and tan. “They make you look too sad.”
His other presents are more useful: he has remembered the Brazilian coffee beans I asked for; the homeopathic soaps and luffa sponges he first introduced me to; a box of carbon paper — one of his company’s products. Finally, he hands me a set of nail clippers. I laugh. He has always chided me about my long and dirty nails. “They don’t go together with the rest of you,” he says. I thank him for the gifts, and suggest we go to dinner.
He is noncommittal about what he wants to eat. “Whatever you want, Vonny.” I take him to the Shanghai Cafe under the El, just north of 125th Street, on Broadway. It is an unpretentious place, bordering on seedy. I feel apologetic; the food is excellent. But he doesn’t seem to notice the place or the food.
He shows me pictures of the babies over dinner. In one, he is beaming over all three of them cradled in his arms. He calls this the “supermarket” photo, so nicknamed by one of his older sons. And it really does look like he might have just returned from shopping, and voila, the groceries.
The idea is not entirely absurd. T. did not tell him she was pregnant; he was away most of the time during the first few months of her pregnancy. Then he left for a six-week wilderness trip in the Brazilian interior. When he returned she announced that the babies were born, two months prematurely.
He looks and sounds so proud and happy as he shows me the pictures. But mingled with his joy I hear a note of wistfulness, a touch of sadness. He takes off his glasses and rubs his face, as if to ask, “What have I done?” He told me once that he feels himself a failure as a father, because he is so rarely at home. So why did you have so many children, I wanted to ask. But it is too late for such a question. I wonder what burdens he lives with, silently, what guilt for his abandonments and unfulfilled responsibilities.
At home again, he pads around in his slippers and pajamas before getting into bed. He looks exhausted and lost, and falls asleep almost immediately. I listen to his loud and even snoring. He looks sad, defenseless, and old. He grinds his teeth for most of the night.
As I watch him, I wonder again how he feels about sleeping alone, in strange beds so often. I once asked him. He said he didn’t mind, that he is used to it. But how could he not mind? He is still very deeply in love with his wife. He talks of her as if they had just met — with shyness, awe, even a little fear. The three times I have seen them together, he doted on her constantly, affectionately. He seemed proud to be by her side, enthralled by her flamboyance, her obvious provocativeness. She was charming with him, beguiling. He talks of their love as an example of true and lifelong passion. He thinks everyone is destined for such idyllic love. “Someday you will find it, too,” he reassures me. “You will know when it happens. It is the most wonderful and inspiring thing in the world.”
I want to believe him, but what I know of his relationship with T. defies all conceptions of love, or even of accepting companionship. He has told me stories of how she does not speak to him for days before he goes away, and after he returns. She sometimes locks him out of the house, and almost always out of her room. My sister says that each door of their house has a different lock with its own key; he can only open the outside door. Apparently, they fight, physically; they abuse each other verbally.
And still he loves her, and says he understands why she is this way. I have not asked for explanations. We do not talk about her or their relationship very often. Once, I asked him how he could tolerate these things. He looked at me as if he didn’t understand the question. He never answered it.
When I wake up in the morning he is already dressed and working. He looks refreshed, cheerful. He has been up since five, he says. The creases of worry are gone from his broad forehead, and he looks quite distinguished in a clean, pressed shirt and suit. He has not helped himself to breakfast, as I asked him to the night before. While I make it, he shows me the new computer-calculator he just bought. He slides the magnetic tapes through it over and over again, explaining how it works, excitedly. He is like a child playing with a new toy. I see no trace of the sad, burdened man of the night before.
We spend the morning shopping, the standard activity for every Saturday we have ever spent together. He has a long list, as usual. The first item is a suitcase. I tease him about it; he buys a suitcase every time he comes. I wonder what he does with them all — somewhere he must have a cold, dark cellar room, filled with dozens of discarded suitcases. Still, he is very indecisive in the department store. He looks at many of them, compares their merits and prices, and listens carefully to the friendly salesman. He finally asks for my opinion, and seems delighted and relieved to let me make the decision for him.
The next stop is a camera store. He wants to buy a number of things for his son. This time he knows exactly what he wants, but we go from store to store because he can’t tolerate the rude, aggressive clerks. He does not argue with them; he is patient, unassuming. But he won’t give them his money.
“I wish you didn’t have to leave so soon,” I tell him, as we load the bags into the car. He sighs, as if to say “I know, I have the same wish, but we can’t change the inevitable.” He says nothing.
When he finally finds a store where he likes the clerks, he spends $2,000 in fifteen minutes, without hesitating. Then we buy some gifts for T., the babies, colleagues, and friends. He spends money as if it has no meaning. He has always been extremely generous with all his children. He gives donations to blind beggars we pass on the street. He is crushed if I don’t let him buy me something, too. I want to refuse, but I don’t: giving with money is his mode. He doesn’t really know how to give in other ways. But he won’t spend any money on himself. When I suggest that we buy something for him, he protests — flustered and embarrassed by the idea. He still wears the same suits he wore ten years ago; he complains about the $35 car rental bill. He eats food out of a can when he is alone.
We do not talk about his forms of self-effacement. Our shopping done, he takes me to a restaurant for lunch. He has more pictures to show me: these are of his most recent wilderness trip into the lower Amazon Basin. He owns 20,000 acres of land near Matto Grosso, given to him in payment for a debt. He is not impressed by its size. A mere drop in the bucket, he says. I can’t even conceive of such a drop, but then, we have very different points of reference.
For the last three years he has traveled 4,000 miles each way into the jungle interior — with only a car, a boat, provisions, a driver, and one or both of his sons. The first year he went to stake out the land. Property laws are nearly non-existent in the Brazilian interior; if he didn’t claim it personally, another homesteader might have taken it, or the government could have given it to the Indians. Of course, he could have hired someone else to go. But he would never pass up an opportunity for adventure. So he set out, stopping at one isolated outpost after another, to find his land. He never did find it, on that first trip. But he returned the next year and found it, and the following year he went back again, because he wanted to.
In one picture, a man wades knee-deep in the muddy Xingu River, wearing only a pair of rolled-up blue jeans and a wide straw hat. I don’t recognize him at first. I have never seen my father wear anything but a suit. In another, he is cooking turtle meat over a fire; in the next, he proudly holds a rifle in one hand and a dead pigeon in the other. Another picture shows him smiling beside the chief of a tribe of almost naked Indians, whose lips are grossly swollen from the traditional lifelong wearing of wooden mouthpieces. In all the photos he looks carefree, completely in his element. He is very animated as he talks about the river flooding, bridges breaking as they crossed them, the tenuous peace offerings with the Indians — with whom he was never sure if he had bought enough of what they wanted. The penalty would have been his life.
I have never heard him speak of any other aspect of his life with such enthusiasm. I know he has always loved the wilderness. Daring the unknown, testing himself against obstacles, seeking inaccessible places and freedom are experiences he thrives on. At other times he has spoken with as much energy of his hiking expeditions through the Alps, which he undertook as a teenager with the Boy Scouts in Austria. I am entranced by his stories.
I look again at the picture of him wading in the river. I can identify with this man, know his experience. Just last summer I worked as a wilderness guide and boatwoman on the rivers of the Southwest. I feel a greater connection with this part of my father than with any other aspect of his life. It is a side of him that I have never known, and it fascinates me. His trips into the Amazon jungle are the only experiences in which I see him affirming and actualizing his ideals, doing something because he believes in it and loves it, not out of a sense of obligation and responsibility. I rejoice for him, quietly.
But as we drive back home he tells me he won’t take any more trips for a long time, if ever — because of the babies. I hear a twinge of regret and resignation in his voice. I express my sadness. We do not talk about it further.
I cannot shake my sorrow as I watch him pack his bags. He is going to Rhode Island to visit my sister before flying to Brazil. I am drawn again to the image of him wading in the river. I mourn quietly for the fact that I will never see it in reality, with my own eyes. We will never share this — perhaps our only — common ground.
The grief I feel mingles with another, more familiar one, that always accompanies his departures. “I wish you didn’t have to leave so soon,” I tell him, as we load the bags into the car. He sighs, as if to say “I know, I have the same wish, but we can’t change the inevitable.” He says nothing.
As we drive to the airport we talk for a while about neutral subjects: the political situation in Brazil, the pros and cons of using alcohol instead of gasoline for fuel, the management seminars he will attend again — designed to humanize relations in corporations. He speaks knowledgeably on these topics; he sounds interested, involved. He is excited about returning to Brazil, about seeing T. and the babies.
I park in front of the terminal. We get out of the car together, and he unloads his many bags. I will not wait with him inside. I don’t want to prolong the goodbye.
“Well, Vonny. I guess I will see you in six months,” he says, as usual. He hugs me.
“Goodbye, Papi.” We stand together awkwardly for a moment, in silence. I look at him, but cannot read his thoughts and feelings. I want to leave before I start to cry. He bends over to pick up his suitcases as I get into the car. I start the motor, and roll down the window on his side so I can say goodbye again.
He drops his suitcases suddenly and looks at me through the car window. He looks like he wants to say something, but can’t find the right words, or decide if he should say it. “Vonny, please don’t worry too much,” he says, finally. He turns around abruptly before I can respond.
I watch him as he carries the four suitcases and the paper shopping bag into the terminal. The automatic doors close behind him. I wave. He doesn’t turn around.
Ten years have passed since this was written. Ten years of visits, of life, of news. One of the triplets died, and twins arrived. Maids have come and gone. My father has retired — officially — although judging from his busy schedule, one would never know.
I see him only once a year now, if that. Paris, England, New York, North Carolina. He still wears the same short, tight pants, carries the same heavy bags: The furrows in his brow are deeper. I hold his arm now, tightly, when we walk together, and sometimes I even tell him that I love him. Otherwise, almost everything remains unsaid, as usual.
In Brazil, there is a word with no English equivalent: saudades (pronounced sowdadges). Roughly translated, it means “longing without end.”
I have saudades for my father, saudades without end. And nothing I can say, or think, or do; nothing I can add to this story or explain; nothing ever helps completely silence the crying in my heart. For nothing will ever change the truth: that I had to part from Papi, whom I loved, too young, too soon. Never to know him day to day, to laugh and play, to cry, and pray. Never to hold him, and be held, to have him there when I needed him. No, nothing can take away this crying in my heart — my saudades — or change the truth, as usual.