The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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When I was seventeen, I moved from my father’s apartment on Long Island to the apartment in Beverly Hills where my mother and younger sister lived. Shortly thereafter, my father’s best friend also moved to Los Angeles, and began showing up regularly at my mother’s for dinner. I said nothing, but studied him carefully, as though I were lost and he were a map. We all did our best to pretend he and my mother were just two adults, alone in a new place, helping each other through a difficult time.
Los Angeles was hot. I worked as a bag boy at Von’s Supermarket on National and Sepulveda, and each day, as I waited for the bus to take me to work, I inhaled the smell of diesel fuel and sweat with the dry air. At work, I was tongue-tied around the attractive young checkers. I watched them move, watched their wrists emerge from red jackets as they grasped jars and cans. I was looking for signs — a smile, a comment about a customer — that would tell me we might disappear to the back room and roll around on the hard concrete floor.
I knew one other boy, and now and then we’d drive his old Peugeot over Sunset, up to Zuma Beach to run and throw a frisbee. He invited me to college parties where the girls wore heavy black eye makeup and everyone seemed to be in costume. I had to work too hard to pretend to fit in.
Once, my mother was driving me somewhere, and I was harassing her mercilessly, probably about the way my father’s friend liked to show off his knowledge of French wines, or about the skimpy, balls-strutting bathing suits he wore to the beach. I wouldn’t let up until, at a red light, my mother turned and punched me in the face. Her ring left a tiny dent in my cheek.
During that period of my life, I hated almost everybody and everything, but I reserved my deepest contempt for my father. Although the time he and I had spent living together had been merely strained, not hateful, in LA my mother’s bitterness about their marriage and divorce obscured my other images of him: the forceful school principal; the Little League coach slapping grounders at seven-year-olds and shouting encouragement across dusty baseball diamonds; the dad who rushed into the street during half time of Giants games to toss a football with my brother and me.
I don’t blame my mother for her anger toward my father. It was something she couldn’t control. Resentment burst from her in short explosions, especially after work, while she banged around the kitchen in her nurse’s uniform, her words laid over the odd crackling sound of polyester. Those evenings, I learned more about my parents and the life they’d had together than I’d ever wanted to know. I was unprepared at the time to hear all of my father’s inadequacies: his tightfisted way with money; his dependence on his own mother; his failures as a lover; his lack of sophistication (especially in contrast to his friend, who’d begun to sleep over at our apartment). All of them seemed, in fact, to describe me as well, to describe the man I was all too rapidly becoming.
My father, though, seemed unaware of my contempt, and in June, as my high-school-graduation gift, he took me to Torremolinos, on the coast of Spain. He’d booked us a room at a midpriced, touristy hotel through some educator’s discount travel plan. We saw a bullfight. We swam. We ate garlicky seafood that made my stomach do flips. I spent most of my time by the pool, sullenly eyeing a middle-aged woman in a powder blue fish-net bikini.
My father’s mood was upbeat. He’d throw his arm around my shoulder, trying to create affection, as if by magic. In the hotel restaurant, he’d speak poor Spanish and encourage me to use what I’d learned in high school. Mostly I refused, anxious to get back to the woman in the fish-net bikini. In ways I thought were undetectable, I’d try to make out the dark pubic hair beneath the netting so I could sneak back to our hotel room and jerk off.
One morning, my father decided to rent a car so we could make the hour’s drive along cliff roads to Málaga. The rental car was a tin can of unfamiliar European make, with a manual transmission.
My father hadn’t driven a stick shift in probably thirty years. Still, without a word, he slipped behind the wheel in his dark sunglasses, and we took off. Though the car shuddered and jumped at first, my father quickly adjusted, and we were soon gliding smoothly out of town and onto the highway. By the time we reached the cliffs — dusty, sinewy bluffs that reminded me of California — I began to relax. We made the trip in silence, my hand drifting lazily out the window.
The houses of Málaga were white with deep green shutters. Boldly colored clothing — red and black and the same deep green — hung from clotheslines. We arrived in late morning and stumbled upon an inn that seemed not to cater solely to tourists.
When we entered, there was no one around. My father looked up the staircase and called, “Hola? Hola?” An old woman emerged from one of the bedrooms, folding a blanket. Her skin was dark and unwrinkled. From behind my father, I somehow managed to ask in Spanish if she’d be serving lunch that day. She ushered us downstairs to the kitchen, where three or four small, round tables were set up before a Gothic window that looked out onto the hills. Fat black flies floated around the room. We were served a spicy chicken dish, with corn and pimentos, and my father ordered me a beer along with his. He smiled across at me, taking long drafts from the rust-colored bottle.
We spent the afternoon just walking around Málaga. We must have stopped at tourist attractions or gift shops, but I remember nothing except the colors, the mountain air, the clearness of the day, and the feeling that someone had peeled away time, that our difference in age didn’t exist. My father and I strolled around that town like army buddies reunited after thirty years. It was disorienting, but exhilarating, too. If I close my eyes, I can still see his face, relaxed in a way I had rarely seen it before, or would see it again. And I can see the way he walked, his long legs pushing him uphill, the dark hair on his arms moist with sweat.
Late in the day, as the sun was going down, we perched ourselves on a stone wall on the outskirts of town. Behind us, the houses were settling into deep shadow, the color draining from them, just as my sullenness had drained from me. It seems unlikely now, but in my memory, it was silent: perhaps a few bird songs, a rustle of leaves in the wind, an occasional car door closing.
I turned to my father and was surprised to find him doubled over, his arms wrapped around his stomach, his head curled in against his chest. He looked as though he might tumble from the wall.
“Dad,” I said, “are you all right?” I was more annoyed than concerned.
He twisted to look at me, his thinning hair hanging from the top of his head. “I don’t feel well,” he said. “Something I ate, maybe. Are you OK?”
He shook his head miserably and turned back to the ground.
Damn, I thought. Damn. It figures with him. It couldn’t last.
The shadows darkened, and what had all afternoon been a gentle, welcoming place suddenly seemed alien and ominous. We knew no one here. The people probably hated tourists. Where would I take him if he was really sick?
“You’re going to have to drive,” he said.
I looked at him doubtfully. “A stick?”
“Can you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. The stone felt cold against my hands.
“Maybe we can stay,” he said. “We can go back to where we ate lunch.”
“No.” It jumped out of me. The inn with the old woman snapping quilts no longer seemed friendly at all. I wanted the safety of our touristy hotel, the carpet, the sound of American voices ricocheting around the lobby. “Are you sure you can’t drive?” I asked, a whine creeping into my voice.
“I can’t,” he said weakly. “But you can do it. I’ll talk you out of town. Once you’re on the cliffs, you can stay in second or third gear. You’ll be fine.”
I don’t know why I was so easy to convince, although I suspect it had to do with a need to prove myself a better man than he was, and with the need to make up for an entire year of bad behavior — toward him, and toward my mother and sister. Whatever the reasons, I ended up in the driver’s seat, one hand grasping the black plastic steering wheel, the other curled around the gearshift.
I didn’t become nervous until I was actually back on the cliff road. In town, I’d liked the feel of shifting gears and had managed to ignore my sick father beside me, but on the cliffs, nothing looked the same as it had on the drive up. The face of the mountain was inlaid with creases and sharp edges; the drop into the valley was endless. If we went over the edge, I thought, we’d be alive a long time before we hit anything — long enough to think about it. I concentrated on keeping the car tight against the center line.
I shifted gears clumsily on the tight turns. Once, I hit the gas hard with the clutch in, and the car roared but slowed, a sickening sensation I’d never experienced in my six months of driving. The road was too narrow. There was a noticeable absence of nice, safe, American-style guardrails. The headlights of approaching trucks regularly slowed me to a crawl.
Despite the danger, my father had fallen asleep. His head lifted once, but immediately dropped back to his chest. I was stunned. How could he sleep? I leaned on the gas, jamming the car from second into third and on into high gear. The engine screamed. I took a curve too wide and had to jerk the car back to the center of the highway. “Slow down,” my father said, and then promptly fell back asleep.
When a sports car whooshed by, I hit the brakes and unintentionally swung onto the narrow shoulder, sending a hubcap clattering down the cliffside. There were no more straight sections of road, just a series of S-shaped curves. I struggled to stay between the lines as my father slept.
And then we were there; the headlights picked out the turnoff for Torremolinos. When we reached the edge of town, I pulled over, took my foot off the clutch, and let the car die. A street light shone through the windshield. My father put his hand on my knee. “I’m feeling a little better,” he said. “I should probably be driving when we return this thing.” He got out and walked around to the driver’s side while I slipped over the gearshift and into the passenger seat.
Shortly after our trip to Spain, I went away to college, where much of the connection I’d made with my father was forgotten as I quickly learned what a small and parochial life we had led. For the next twelve years, until he died, I did or said many things to hurt him. I remember once, in the living room of his new home, in front of his new wife, just before his driving me to the airport, I told him I didn’t want to show him my writing because he was too schlocky and sentimental to understand it. We made the drive in near silence, my father staring straight ahead, a blue cap jammed down hard on his head.
Despite this tension, we occasionally regained the feel of our walking tour of Málaga, perhaps more often than I’d once allowed myself to believe. I realize now that the man who may have feigned illness that day in order to give his son a chance to prove himself was the same man who had gone to war at seventeen; who’d earned a Bronze Star for bravery for leading a patrol to wipe out a mortar, killing one man and capturing four others. The citation and the medal hang on the wall above me as I type, as they hung on the wall of my grandmother’s apartment for more than forty years. I don’t know what role, if any, my father’s war experience played in his belief that I could make that drive along the cliffs. (Given what a self-absorbed little prick I was at the time, I’m stunned by his faith in me.) But I do know this: my father never forgot that night in Spain, and he never let me forget it. Until he died, he would periodically tell the story in my presence to whoever would listen, coloring it so that I was no longer a scared, sullen teen, but a man, full of heroism and courage. I winced at the clichés that dripped from his account — clichés about guts, heroism, trial by fire. But secretly, I embraced them.
I embrace them still.
Here is a list of the parallels between my life and Andrew Schwartz’s (“Traveling Stories,” March 1997): (1) my parents divorced; (2) I moved in with Mom; (3) Mom’s next partner was my father’s friend; (4) I was a bag boy at a grocery store; (5) I longed for attention from female cashiers; (6) Mom freaked out behind the steering wheel after I harassed her “mercilessly”; (7) my contempt for my father was fueled by my mother’s bitterness toward him; (8) I learned, from my mother, “more than I wanted to know” of my father’s failures; (9) I still loved my mother; (10) I feared that I’d inevitably become the man she described, and tried desperately to avoid that; (11) my father took me to Torremolinos, Spain.
That was the kicker.
(12) I hurt my father by behaving like a “self-absorbed little prick”; (13) I secretly embraced my father’s values; (14) I embrace them still.
How separate are we all?