I remember the first time my father introduced me to his writing circle.
I must have been either eight or nine, a small and skinny frame very similar to my father, with a mop of dark brown curls flopped on my tiny face. The curls covered the look of curiosity I’m sure I had being around these other men around my father’s age, who exaggerated their speech and spoke only of democracies and gods and what they considered was the bullshit of living.
The all got together in this small, cramped apartment somewhere around 137th Street in Manhattan. It belonged to my father’s childhood friend, whose wife left him years later, frustrated probably with his exaggerated speech as well.
The air there was heavy from the cigarettes, weed and their faded stories. The men were all immigrants, each trickled to the U.S. from different parts of Latin America – some from the Dominican Republic, others from Mexico or Cuba… their stories broken and difficult to write after 10-hour shifts of working in restaurants, as cab drivers and wherever else they all landed.
My dad here, was often loud and more forceful than back at home, something I never thought could have been possible.
“Simon, deja de hablar asi delante de tu hija, cabron,” one of his friends would say, forcing my dad to take a puff off whatever it was he was smoking and laugh… I think he would often forget he had dragged me over. “Callate cabron,” he would reply back with a smile. His smile often more of a sly, where he would lazily lift the left side of his face to show a glimpse of his teeth. It was the usually the most normal and calm I would ever see him.
For my father, it was the domestic life that did him in. At least that’s how it felt from how hard he fought us off.
He was often angry – raising his hand at my mother, or yelling at me or my baby brother for crying, walking or talking. He had his calm moments, of course, but he was usually distant during those. You sort of knew he was physically there, but not really listening… I was told he also destroyed everything in his path during his bursts – my mother’s college textbooks, our photographs.
It was during one of those that my mother, frustrated with trying to go school and take care of us and purchase new books, gave up college altogether. She would go on to take a nursing certification and program and spend the rest of her working days in nursing homes and home attendant facilities.
And my father would end all arguments the same. The finale, him storming out… only to return later in the day, after midnight or maybe even days later. We were usually already asleep, and my mother needing to remind her of his return, would put the pestillo on the door.
“Josefina,” he would call out. “Abreme coño.”
I often think it was this fighting that ultimately shut my brother up. He barely spoke growing up after my father left, and although doctors later diagnosed him with autism, I still wonder if it was really the fear that my father planted long ago.
Meanwhile, I only got louder. I talked so much, my mother started taking me to a therapist, to help me sort out all the questions and stories and ideas that I was forcing out. It was the therapist who encouraged me to start writing and drawing. And that, ladies and gentleman, became my saving grace.
It also became the one thing that decades later would reconnect me with my dad. But before it did that, it disconnected me from him more than I ever expected.
My mom, during one of his fights, packed all our stuff and took us to her sister’s on Wadsworth Avenue and 180th Street in Manhattan. We would spend a few months there. It was uncomfortable. I asked my mother if we were ever going back home, and if dad knew where we were… if he knew we were on “vacation” at Tia’s house. She wouldn’t respond or tried to with brief explanations. “You’ll see him soon…” or “He knows where you are.”
When we got back home to 144th Street, my father was gone.
My father self-published his book when I was in the 10th grade. For years my mother told me about my father’s writing ambitions. “He’s going to became an abuelo writing it,” she joked, unbeknownst to her that a few years later her prophecy would come true with the birth of my daughter.
And by then, I still hadn’t read my dad’s book.
But I had also lost my urgency to write. I blamed it on not sleeping, parenting, and writing for college, part-time work, freelance – everything else but for myself. I didn’t see it connected to me anymore. I didn’t write to write, but instead for deadlines. I became submissive to it. Doing it to get it done without much forethought or consideration of what I was really doing; exhausting myself out.
I used to be afraid, when I was younger, about running out of things to write. “What if I can’t do this anymore,” I thought, furiously writing one creative sentence after another, hunched over the paper and pad. “What if I can’t do this anymore…”
And for the first time ever, I felt like I was really nearing that point.
I freelanced for whatever people offered, often super cheap at $15 to $50 for 300 to 1,000 words. I had to survive, I thought, and I wanted to do this, but after years of that routine, I was burnt out.
There were other factors at play also, of course. But for the most part, it was the not knowing why I was doing this for again and what was it that I really wanted to write, that left me beat at night.
My father asked me why I had decided to pursue it in college, why go for a communications degree and not finance or law or medical… something more solid.
“There’s too much struggling in it,” he told me.
“Then why do you do it,” snapped back, laughing also to ease up the tension.
“For the healing,” he said.
For the healing. El reposo… el espacio.
I started blogging about being a young mother soon after, how hard it was to raise a confident daughter, when you were still growing up yourself, the battles of also growing up alongside your partner. The stereotypes that still linger long after you’ve done what’s “deemed” right. The relationships lost in reflection to those new ones gained.
In that growing, I started building a new writing life; watering my words, lighting my seedling and giving life to the experiences that made me.
My father, meanwhile, collected everything I wrote. Newspaper clippings, online stories… anything that featured my name.
“Mami, tu no tienes mas articulos que me mandes,” he would say often when we spoke. A routine that developed now weekly over the phone, although our conversations were quick, more like listening to each other breathe than anything else. I sent over the few articles and stories that trickled in, hoping it could help us move beyond the surfaced and suffocating father-daughter relationship we’d forged.
I wish I could write that I magically stopped doing everything I was doing, reconnected with my dad, read his book and lived happily-ever-after, but I didn’t… I continued writing, pushing myself, defining myself through my work for years and things did change. I don’t know how but I met my father somewhere down the middle of that frustrating road a few years later. When my dad, as luck would have it, found himself writing his second book and me working on my first.
A smoker for most of his life, I knew the habit would catch up with him eventually. It was always my biggest fear. I remember when I was about 13-years-old, we were living in a small Bronx apartment. We just returned from a two-year sting in Rhode Island and were getting ready to move back to Washington Heights. My father had been visiting again, when he suddenly stopped… he stopped calling and visiting for approximately three to four years. I honestly thought he had died of cancer.
“What if he’s dead,” I remember asking my mother one night before going to bed. I don’t know what I must have looked like, because she started laughing so hard, that she got up to leave our bedroom in tears. “Ay muchacha,” she said before turning off the lights. “Ese esta mas vivo que tu y yo.” He’s more alive than you and me, she said.
He’s working on the second version of his book, he said. I looked over the table, where he had a copy of “El Abuelo,” a dictionary, telescope toy and his laptop. The living room is empty because he’s in between moves, he said, but that he’s actually thinking of keeping the apartment to write. There a “Heineken” sign on the floor that’s serving as decor and lighting for the living room, some other books, a fish tank, guitar and quiet. The one-bedroom, New Jersey apartment is a far cry from the smoky room he once shared with his writing circle in Uptown Manhattan.
“The doctor said I’m in the early stages of emphysema,” he told me not so long ago, adding that he can’t lay down anymore without struggling with a terrible bout of coughing. He lowers his eyes as he tells me this, and for the first time in my life, I see the vulnerability to him.
He’s no longer angry. It’s been over 30 years from when I first saw him like that. His legs are crossed before him this time, his hands softly tapping away on the keyboard and his voice softer. I imagine this is how he sat when he hand-wrote letters to my brother earlier this year.
He wrote dozens of letters to him… their relationship, unlike ours, wasn’t mendable through writing. He mailed them to my mother’s house, where my brother lives, and each week they would stack-up on the kitchen table unopened.
“Did you tell him that he’s been writing these,” I asked my mom.
“I tell him,” she said. “But you know how your brother is…”
They would start talking again mid-year, when my brother was assaulted and almost killed visiting our aunt on Mother’s Day. My father rushed to be with my brother… and this time, he didn’t fight him off.
I don’t know the life expectancy of emphysema. Besides the smoking commercial with the woman who sounds like a truck and has a machine attached to her throat, I’ve never seen anyone that has the disease. It’s all foreign to me. The worst I thought could happen to my dad with smoking was lung cancer… but I feel like this might be worse.
I don’t know yet what to think of this, so I change the conversation quickly, asking him if he’s planning on going to anymore writing events with his friends in the city.
“I don’t know,” he said laughing. “Es que el Dominicano no lee.”
I laugh too, but I think he notices that my mind is elsewhere. He suddenly starts reading from a text message he said a friend sent him. He reads it again. “I don’t know what he means, but this is what I wrote,” he said.
I wish I could remember what it was he wrote. I don’t think my heart was connecting properly to my other sense at that point. All I know is that a strong part of me wanted to pull out my phone and record everything he was saying. Saving every bit of him.
I’ve been living a lifetime losing and re-losing my father… each time I mourn our relationship differently. But this time, with something more looming in the future, I feel like I just can’t lose him again. This is it.
We stay quiet for the rest of the evening, watching my son play with the telescope and guitar. He eats some of the chocolate cereal my father has on top of the refrigerator.
There’s no cigarettes, no cursing or weed… just a few books and two writers enjoying the quiet of a more personal writing circle.