Son confronts Latino stereotypes and discovers the true nature of his father
My dad and I were eating at the buffet on a riverboat casino in Elgin, our “father/son bonding experience” sprung on me when I went home for the holidays. Nothing says “Happy new year!” quite like a suburban casino. We were taking a breather between the slot machines and the roulette table when my dad asked, “So how are you and Dani?”
My relationship with Dani—my freshly ended relationship—was a four-year lark that spanned three continents, four apartments, mental and physical illness, and a handful of four-thousand mile moves. Towards its apex, right around the time that I realized that we were going to be together until one of us died because that was our comfort zone and why change things, we got engaged.
This was the first serious conversation my dad and I had ever had. There were two other “serious” talks we had. Both times I cringed. The first was when I was eight years old and he dragged me into the backyard, sat across from me in a lawn chair and told me about sex, using words like “dick” to describe an erection and briefly hinting to the fact that anal was a thing that happened sometimes; the penultimate was when I was fourteen, outside Circuit City, where he told me if I was having sex (I wasn’t yet) to use a condom, and that he would buy them for me if I needed. I’m fairly certain my dad passed up parenting books in favor of porn.
So here’s my dad, eating a steak, asking me for the first time, in a lofty sense, how I was doing… emotionally. A man who I’ve never seen cry, even at his dad’s or his best friend’s funerals, asking me about feelings. it was unexpected, awkward and weird.
While I was growing up, I always managed to find some way of getting him pissed off. Failing a class. Not cleaning the kitchen. Piercing my nose. Calling him an asshole. You know, being a high schooler. Still, he wanted to bond with his only son. He took me to sporting events when I was in grade school, and that was good. But as soon as we moved to the suburbs, it was once a season going to the pool hall where he would only talk about sports or the pool game we were playing. Being at the casino kind of felt like that.
But I was lonely, not really having any of Dani and my mutual friends to talk to after the break up, so I told him what happened. The whole engagement was built on shaky ground. In October of 2009, after a night of heavy drinking in a bar in Wrigleyville, we were eating chicken nuggets in our apartment when I asked if she wanted to get married. It was the next step for a couple in love, one in a sequence of events that
led down the road to eventual death. There wasn’t a ring or any real planning. We didn’t need any of that. We were young and in love and felt invincible or whatever twenty-one-year-old me would say. We had grown into adults together, knew all of each other’s habits. It was time. But about six months later, as the excitement and newness of the engagement wore off, I started to regret it.
It was too much, the time together, the idea of forever…I was going to wait for our lease to be up and just tell her. That was the plan anyway. Instead, I left a document up on my computer, writing out my frustrations and wishes that I could be with someone, anyone else. I left it up and Dani saw it, confronting me in our room in an hour-long conversation that ended our relationship.
My dad watched and listened, still nodding patiently through the whole thing. I skipped the part about the document, worried that he would judge me harshly for it, worried that it made me seem even worse than I already felt, and stuck with “it was a mutual thing.”
Mostly, I worried that my dad would brush off the conversation, unable to relate, or that maybe he was just feigning interest. He was a jock in high school, a ladies man when he worked at the bar, and a catholic growing up, which was the opposite of my theater kid, awkwardly stumbling my way into long-term relationships starting at fourteen, and preference for wearing girl’s pants, at least in high school. He was fifty, I was twenty two.
Despite our differences, we look alike. My mom is mostly Scottish and Czech, making me racially ambiguous looking. The joke about my dad in high school was that he was a coconut–brown on the outside, white on the inside. He would say this like he was proud of it, laughing at the memory whenever he recounted old stories to my family as we were in the car heading to restaurants or vacations. In high school, my dad played tennis and was on the varsity wrestling team. Spanish wasn’t spoken in his house growing up. He would convince people that he was “half Black, half Japanese” as a joke. I don’t think he took being a minority, or the son of immigrants, very seriously, living as just another American. We’re Puerto Rican. That’s as close to being an American as any minority can get.
Still, we’re Latino. Famous for being passionate lovers, flashy dancers, gang members, and unloving fathers. Apparently, my grandfather, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, wasn’t the most affectionate of men, or so my mother tells me. Fathers in Latino houses are supposed to be cold. Fathers in Latino houses are supposed to instill the fear of god in their children. Yelling, pounding their fists, swearing in Spanish—this is what Latino fathers do while eating salty pork and beans and rice and drinking horchata or Tecate or whatever. I’ve met men like this. Dani’s dad, a Cuban immigrant, was like this. My dad, though—my dad was different.
When I finished talking about Dani, he told me that I made the right choice. Not because he didn’t like Dani, not because he was opposed to marriage, but because he thought I was a grownup and able to make the right decisions. He said, “Back when I was your age, everyone knew that I was going to marry my girlfriend at the time. Everyone but me. I wasn’t ready and it didn’t feel right. Eventually, surprising everyone, we broke up. Then I met your mom. And I look at her and I look at you and your sister, and I know I made the right choice. If you think you made the right choice, then it’s the right one. Don’t let anyone else tell you whether or not you did. I proud of you, boy. And I’m here for you.”
Here was real life advice. Real, pertinent advice from my dad. It felt like some sort of made for TV movie or a Hallmark card, warm and gooey, awkward and surreal. It was every little league game, birthday, and Christmas in one moment, and I didn’t know exactly how to handle it. This wasn’t typical of my dad, of my stern, Latino-despite-himself father.
As I struggled to say something in return, he got up, put a hand on my shoulder, and we walked back into the casino.
—Photo by Old Sarge/Flickr