There are very few phrases my father has ever spoken aloud to me. “I love you” is not one of them. “Never depend on a man” is. And I don’t, in fact, rely on men for emotional sustenance, for income, or for praise. I have never hoped for the extraordinary, and I resist disappointment like a used hanky.
Back when we were all small, when my sisters and brother and I shared a bedroom, before our family fell, when we lived on dreams and loans, in the only house we would ever own, a soon-to-be foreclosed 800 square foot shelter bordering the city dump, I used to rise early, when it was virtually silent, to watch my father get ready for work.
I would sit on the counter in the bathroom while he lathered his face with Noxema, heating the water until it fogged the mirror, watching while he slid his razor across his preternatural white face. Sometimes I would dip my fingers into the cream and softly, tentatively, quietly mold it onto my girly face. My father tolerated this in silence, without so much as a nod. One time, when he was finished shaving, before he splashed on his Old Spice with a virulent shake, he took the blade out of the razor and handed me the empty shell. I carefully stroked my tender cheeks with the vacuous metal, until each white row had vanished and I looked like a little girl again. Then I splashed my face with water and looked to him for approval. He didn’t comment, but he held my gaze, and I felt something akin to respect. There was validation in the motions I had sequenced, almost in tandem with his, the rituals of manhood like a handshake between us.
My older sister later told me that girls don’t shave their faces, but that wasn’t of particular interest to me. Our home was a man’s world, where brute strength still ruled, and I was proud that I had stood there next to him, doing what men do. I loved watching his calm face in the mirror, as every errant hair was meticulously removed. My sisters often claimed he looked like a bear, that they were frightened of him, of his gruff manners and his gutteral growl. And to be frank, I was often frightened of him myself–but not as I sat on the bathroom counter, not during his morning ritual, not while I could see my face in the mirror next to his.
It’s simpler to remember the brutality, to focus on the slaps and the slugs that came later, on the random anger, the tightening spine of fear. It’s simpler to negate moments like these, to dismiss early morning reflections in a mirror, to see them as the anomalies they certainly were. And yet, I wonder now if he shared mornings like these with his own father when he was small, before his mother took him far away on a bus in the night, away from abuses of which he has never spoken. He did not see his father again after their stealthy, well-planned and much-needed exodus. His father died of alcoholism and pneumonia only four years later, long before he could become my grandfather, a man I never met, buried in a military grave in San Diego that my father visited for the first time three years ago.
My first boyfriend, called me a cat. He said you could drop me from unimaginable heights and I would squirm and screech and hiss and flail, but I would consistently land on my feet. I told him that sounded like a form of torture, that people shouldn’t take cats up skyscraper heights, let alone drop them. He said this was the way of the world and we survive the best we can. During a particularly difficult juncture not long ago, he called to remind me of this. I assured him I had come to the end of my nine lives, that my luck had rampantly run out. “Ahhhh, but it’s not luck,” he assured me, “it’s in your training. It’s so well-rehearsed, it looks like instinct, but the fact is, you know how to fall.”
We do not know how our origins will save us. We can only recognize when they do.