My dad never quite looked the part. Twelve years my mother’s senior, he was thin and leathery, his skin hardened by a tanning regimen that not even the bright orange blondes of my high school could have rivaled. Every summer day he sat oiled and stretched over a thatched vinyl beach chair, the radio playing classic rock while my brother and I splashed nearby in a kiddie pool. I’ve yet to see anyone match the deep brown-red skin color, a strange one outside of easy racial classification, he attained in August and kept until the sun returned in the spring. Somewhere hidden on that darkened canvas lay a few tattoos and scattered scars. A parachute, I remember, a few shrapnel bumps, and other skinbound souvenirs from his Vietnam service. Around his neck he wore a gold chain, one just thick enough to suggest that he, the wearer, had purchased it as a status symbol. A thick gold ring with a heavy onyx stone and another chain, wrist-sized, rounded out his jewelry collection when they weren’t under pawn shop glass. My father’s real achievement, of course, was his glossy black hair and matching black handlebar mustache. Everyday after his shower, he waxed the long, thin ends of the mustache into two perfect curls centered between his deep dimples. I wasn’t allowed to touch his face while the wax set; if I did, even just to plant one kiss on him, dad said his whole mustache would fall off. So surely did I believe him, it wasn’t until last year that I realized he was probably lying about that.
It is easy for me to revisit my father’s physical appearance. My Daddy, the kicky eccentric self-parodying Italian, whose cartoonish appearance may have influenced my own flamboyant style. Those details well-captured and recited, the ones that mask any hint of my father’s behavior. I’ve always tried to gloss over the dark days he authored, pushing them aside to skulk off and wither in my memory’s forgotten corners. From the time I was little, my relationship to my father depended upon forgiveness and forgetting, and an understanding that he was not to blame for his moods. Before having my brother and I, my father served three Vietnam tours as a paramedic. His military career ended with a spray of shrapnel into his legs, a perfect injury severe enough for him to be listed as 100% disabled, but mild enough that he could still walk alone to the VA hospital when his pain meds needed a refill.
Nearly two decades passed between that injury and my birth, a surprise for a man who thought himself infertile. Dad played his part well, sometimes. He did best on pay day, when his government-issued check gave him enough money to take my brother and I on a small spree. We’d go see an age-inappropriate movie, eat chicken nuggets at McDonald’s, and, when times were good, take a run through KB Toys before picking out a present. “Ain’t I a good Dad?” he’d ask, before listing all of the things he’d bought us in the last year. Other respectable moments of fatherhood include the times we’d curl on the couch and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, the booming, paternal voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard encircling those memories of my father with unearned warmth.
Only scraps of sound and tears remain of my father’s worst days, the one’s I trained myself to forget almost as soon as they happened. Trying my hardest, I still cannot recall too many details. My parents’ fighting peaked in the house we had, briefly, after fleeing the city for the suburbs. To think of it now sets my heart racing still; even to hear the mildest arguing triggers a recall of the anxiety I felt in those days, hiding in the corner of my tiny pink bedroom waiting for it to end. Sometimes I’d duck into my brother’s spare bunkbed just so we wouldn’t have to be alone during it. We heard my mother, yelling desperately “Don’t Go!” while my father berated her and threatened to leave. Not empty threats, but ones he delivered with absences lasting a night, a few days, a week. Me always hoping to soothe things over, not understanding the why of their words, stretching myself across the hood of our car, the one my mother used to get to work, while he drove it from our house. That is, until one day I learned how to not-feel during those incidents, to bury myself in books and wait for it all to be over. And even when it ended, when my father left for the last time, the not-feeling stayed with me, left me hovering ten yards above my emotional vicissitudes, watching myself go through them as though they were biological functions that I could rationalize and will to leave.
When I was old enough to realize what it meant when my father said he was a Veteran, I wanted to know more about what he had seen. Couldn’t there be some logical explanation for everything he had done to my mother, my brother, and I? My mother’s self-esteem depleted, my brother left thinking all of the pain was her fault, and me numbed to everything. Did he see his best friend die, did he kill a child there? Am I not old enough to know? Movies, books, tell the stories of Vietnam, but never my father.
Ten years ago he took ill, and he has not left his bed since. It’s a good time to forgive him, but I have a hard time doing it without understanding what’s been driving him these last twenty-five years. It’s selfish, it’s irrational, and forgiveness should not require a condition like that. But when I ask my father about the war, I still feel disappointed when he shrugs and says “It was bad.” He makes light of it, showing me pictures of himself, young and clean-shaven, playing with the pet monkey he kept over there; only the happy memories, only the shallow ones.