My father is a 44-year-old unskilled labourer in Los Angeles and it is inevitable that he will die alone, with no family, a smattering of friends, and an unpaid mortgage on the suburbs of a city that he cannot afford to live in. And I will never know how he managed so many decades without me or my mother. And though I do not think of this often, when I do I become confused and hurt.
When I was a child I used to believe that at some point something would happen and we would live together, father and son, in the same house. I used to imagine it in the same way that lovers imagine living with one another; with the belief that something is missing until every moment is shared. I cannot say how exactly this fantasy transfixed me, but I would spend several moments of every day, usually in school, or sitting on the bus, or late at night when I couldn’t sleep, imagining conversations we would have, or experiences we would share in the future. I do not know when I began imagining these scenes with my father, but I do know that I never met him until I was four, and, all at once, I was shocked by this man who lavished constant attention on me and bought me toys and who made me do no chores; a man who took me to building sites where I was treated like an adult and respected by other men, much gruffer and older than my father, but almost just as caring.
My first vivid memory of him is when he was carrying me on his back as he held on to rafters like they were monkey bars and tiptoed across scaffolding. I remember I was holding a power drill with one hand and his neck with the other, and he asked me to drill his brains out and I pressed the bit against his skull and pulled the trigger and nothing happened. You have to plug in things if they are to work, he said to me, and then he put me down and we sat and shared a sandwich, our legs dangling over the edge of the planks. Then he said, The thing they don’t tell you about Los Angeles is how boring it looks all the time. That is my only concrete memory of my father from that first summer. I do remember smelling tar boiling and I remember the heat at midday, but I don’t remember anything else.
I always trusted my mother, so I always believed her when she told me about my father’s strangeness, but I didn’t fully realise how much he let his idealism impinge up reality until I was nine. My mother was always terrified by my father’s relaxed attitude towards safety and I remember, even at the age of nine, thinking of her in gendered terms, because of her shrewish concern about my welfare and her constant complaints about my father’s hands-off approach to rearing insofar as it didn’t concern practical knowledge and manual skills. But all mothers are single parents, no matter what the context, and I am ashamed of how I used to think of her.
Her worries became predictions in the summer of 2000. I had been in Los Angeles for three days, but my father, for the first time, didn’t allow me to go with him on-site. He didn’t get on with the foreman, and he used to call him a cunt and fret about the flat before he went into work, leaving me alone in the house with a PlayStation and a TV he had hired for the month from Blockbuster. On my third day of playing Crash Bandicoot I began to go blind and he realised I hadn’t left the house since I arrived. He took me down to the lobby and introduced me to a woman called Latecia who did the cleaning in the building and he told me to help her on her rounds. She was very nice, though she didn’t understand me when I spoke. After midday, once we had mopped three hallways, she told me I could go out into the courtyard and play with the children. I was very shy at the time, but the more I protested the more urgent her requests became. She almost pushed me down the stairs, telling me to ask for her son, Dwayne, saying he would play with me.
There was a basketball court in the back of the condominium and I stood at the mesh fencing for half an hour watching small Latin and black children play basketball with a beautiful fluency that I couldn’t understand. The heat was so strong that I closed my eyes for a minute, and when I opened them again, I touched my eyelids and felt the skin burning. Later that week they would turn pink and peel and whenever I blinked daggers of pain would send stars shooting through my eyes.
After a while, a tall child came over to me and asked me what I was looking at. I asked him if he was Dwayne and he asked who was asking. I told him Latecia said I should play with him. Two of the children laughed at Dwayne when I said this and he got angry and started cursing at me. Come onto the court, he said to me and I did. One of the children threw the ball at me and I tried to catch it, but it just bent my fingers back and I gasped in pain. You can’t play shit, Dwayne said at me. I don’t know the rules, I said. Another child started laughing and said, If your momma sent him down here it must be cause she’s hard dicking him, cause he’s stupid as fuck. Where is you even from, nigger? The small child, who couldn’t have been more than six, asked me. Kilshanny, I said. The other child continued to laugh and Dwayne closed his eyes for a moment before he started beating me. I didn’t know how to react. The blows didn’t hurt at first, but they scared me and I just covered my face with my arms. The children drove me off the court and I ran into the building. I didn’t remember what room number my father lived in and I ran around the different floors for hours, trying to remember where I could go, not able to find Latecia. Finally, I sat down on the fifth floor and cried for a while before falling asleep. When I woke up it was three o’clock and I began to think my father would never come back and I passed the next four hours in fear, shivering with heat.
My father found me at seven o’clock. I had been just three doors away from his room. He asked me what happened and I told him. He asked me why I didn’t ask the doorman or knock around the rooms to find out where he lived and I just started to cry. He carried me into his room and washed my face and then put me to bed on the fold-out couch. Then he said he had to go check and see if Latecia was alright. He left for a while and when he got back I didn’t look at him, even when he sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on my chest. For half an hour he explained to me social deprivation, institutional racism, the influx of drugs in black communities, the role of territory in gang politics and the mimicry of adult values by children with working mothers in lower income communities given their lack of role models. Then he said, If you tell your mother about this you will never be allowed to see me again. He ruffled my hair and walked over to his bed, took off his boots, lay down and read a Stephen King novel till midnight. He never once referred to the fact that I had been beaten, showed me sympathy, or comforted me, and I felt even more scared and mistrustful than I had felt when I was alone in the hall. I didn’t ever tell my mother, but I felt myself more drawn towards her as a person when I came home. Or I valued her for a few months anyway, before I went back to not caring.
The next summer I didn’t visit my father because my little brother was dying of leukaemia, but the year after that I went back around the same time my father was moving out of his building. He had changed a lot over two years. He had met a woman from San Diego called Ellen and was in the process of moving in with her. He had become less reserved, but more polite. At times he almost treated me with formality. But when we were both with Ellen he would act like a child and punch my arm and talk in a false accent and tell jokes. It was because of this that I didn’t like Ellen. It wasn’t that I thought of her as some kind of interloper, it was just that because of her my father acted embarrassingly. She was a manager in a bar, which didn’t make sense to me because my father never drank, probably because of his own father. Also, she lived in the suburbs and played soccer on the weekends. She was several years older than my father and I always got the feeling she talked down to him like a child, but this may have been my imagination playing tricks on me.
I too had changed a lot. Every couple of days I suffered from uncontrollable fits of anger and sometimes I wasn’t able to speak for hours no matter how hard I tried. I had come over to my father in June because I had been suspended from school and my mother wanted me out of the house for a while. My main concern that summer was getting back at Dwayne before we moved into Ellen’s house. I tried to do this without my father’s knowledge by wandering around the building for hours, clenching a rock in my fist. But the day we were moving out I snapped. I was carrying a box of plates to his pick-up truck, and as I was handing it to my father I asked him where Dwayne was. He told me Latecia had died of a heart attack three months previously and Dwayne had been moved to a foster home. I threw the box on the ground and started hitting my father and shouting that I wanted to kill Dwayne. My father reacted by hitting me once in the stomach and pinning me to the ground. I spat in his face and he slapped me three times across the cheeks, his face silent and unemotional as he looked down on me. I continued to writhe against his strength for several minutes before I tired out and said I was done. He let me go and walked around into the driver seat, leaving the box where it was, and keyed the ignition. I had to run around to the passenger seat before he put the truck in gear. He was already moving by the time I got in the car, because in America I always go to the wrong side of the car first.
The day after that was my father’s thirtieth birthday and we all went to a restaurant and my father got down on his knees during dessert and proposed to Ellen. She started screaming and then asked my father to hold that position as she took a camera out of her bag and told me to take some photos. I took them quickly and went back to eating my cheesecake. When we brought the film to the pharmacist’s the next day to get it developed, the photos came out with big black smudges from where my thumb had pinned the lens. Ellen thought I did it on purpose to spite her. And she locked herself in the restroom, crying. My father looked at me in confusion and then chased after her, knocking on the door, and pleading with her to come out. Finally, a security guard with a shaved head and a dotted triangle tattooed across his forehead told us we had to leave. I’m trying, my father said. The security guard turned to me and asked me if I was alright. I tried to answer, but couldn’t, and then I realised I hadn’t spoken since I had told my father I wanted to kill Dwayne. He’s alright, my father said. He’s not alright, said the security guard. Now get out and get her out as well. My father banged on the door wildly and Ellen unlocked it and came out. She had removed all her make-up and her face was still wet from the hand towel. Sorry, sir, she said to the security guard. Then she turned to me and said, I hate you. The security guard looked at me for a moment and then back at my father and said, You all need to go right now.
That evening my father called my mother and said I had to go home. I don’t know what she said in reply, but I know that for one month after that phone call I lived with one of my father’s co-workers, Santiago Esperanto. I never really saw Santiago though. His wife, Sherane, was the one who was there all the time. She made all the meals and cleaned up everything and talked endlessly. Sherane and Santiago minded seven children, though only four of them were theirs. All the children were under the age of fifteen and we all slept in the same room, four to a bed. That was the best month of my life. My second day there, my father came over with Santiago after work and brought a TV and a Game Cube that he had rented. He came over every evening after that; sometimes bringing me gifts, sometimes bringing Santiago money, but I never had time to speak with him as I would always be playing the Game Cube with Conal or playing basketball with Ethan and Nathan, or falling madly in love with Kayla, or learning footwork with Jada, the oldest girl. My footwork was so poor that even Sherane would start laughing and join in, even though she had to use crutches at the time, as she was five months pregnant. What was the most fun, though, was every two or three days, me, Ethan, Nathan and Conal would just beat each other up for hours. It was when Ethan and Conal had me in a headlock and I was trying to tap out that Sherane called me and told me to get ready to go. I didn’t cry because everybody was hugging me too much. Afterwards, my father drove me to the John Wayne airport talking all the while, but I didn’t answer any of his questions. When we parked the car he held my hand and said, I need you. It’s just it’s really hard now. I love you. I hugged him and told him I loved him too, which was easy because I didn’t care and just wanted to leave without making a scene.
When I got home I moved my things into my little brother’s room and started crying. My mother came in and held me for an hour or so and then asked me if I was ready to be good now and I said yes, because I was. I went into secondary school that next year and though I wasn’t good at school, I was polite and I didn’t fight anyone. I was picked for the Clare’s U-13 hurling team after Christmas, so I didn’t go to see my father the next summer. I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway because the Esperantos had moved to Chicago that year so Sherane could be closer to her parents. My father got married in May. He called in September telling me that Ellen was pregnant. When my mother found out she started crying. Is it because he can’t come home now? I asked. She sobbed for a moment and then said, He might be happy now, and then I hugged her for a while.
I stayed in my little brother’s bedroom till I was twenty, at which point I moved to Galway. But when I think of how I was between twelve and twenty, it seems most of my development happened in that bed, which was a child’s single bed that my feet dangled over once I turned thirteen. I lost my virginity to Aisling in that bed when I was fourteen, and when I broke my leg at fifteen, I stayed in that bed for four months and learned the skills that would lead to my career in web development. I did it mostly to get over the fact that I would never play sports again, but also to stop me from going crazy. When I was seventeen I sliced through the mattress and stored all my gear there, which my mother found when I was twenty and which is why I had to move out. Two years ago, when I had to move back in, me and my mother hauled the mattress into the back garden and burnt it and then sat down on deck chairs drinking beer, watching the flames and talking about our plans for the garden.
Then last year my grandfather’s liver finally gave out and my father came home for a month, but I was so busy with work that I only got to see him twice, the last time at the funeral, when I tried to approach him. After his divorce he started coming home every Christmas, even though it put him in debt, and I would make an effort to see him for at least the day of New Year’s Eve, but at granddaddy’s funeral he looked at me like I was a stranger. We were in Limerick, Mount Saint Lawrence, and it was windy and the wind was blowing his hair around and I patted him on the back and he looked at me. Hiya, he said and we spoke for a while. Then he said to me, What are your plans? What are your plans? I asked him in reply and he gritted his teeth and I realised he was smiling at me with that nervous, closed-off smile that I had only ever seen once before, the last time he gave it to me, when I was sixteen and in America and he had smiled at me with a smile that made me fall into a greater confusion than any I have ever felt.
I was sixteen then and still hadn’t gotten rid of my limp, but all the kids in the neighbourhood thought it was a stride I cultivated. I didn’t like hanging around that summer though, because we were in a neighbourhood dictated by Ellen’s vision of herself and not by economic necessity, and all the children struck me as boring in comparison with the Esperantos, so I hung around the house all day on my computer playing Half-Life 2, or washing cars for a friend of my father’s outside a gas station. I was staying on a mattress in my new little brother’s bedroom. The bedroom was more like an office with a cot in it. The house telephone was kept there. There was a desk, bookshelves and an exercise bike and Jonah’s cot, which was designed to look like SpongeBob SquarePants. Jonah, who was three at the time, still slept there with his fifteen teddies. He struck me as a useless individual, and he still does, though I never see him because at the age of eight he decided he didn’t want to come to Ireland anymore, and at the age of ten he decided he didn’t want to see his father anymore, decisions Ellen happily accommodated. But that summer he was still being breastfed; he wore organic nappies around the house and was still allowed to suck on a soother all day. He had developed a strong lisp his parents chose not to eradicate because they thought it cute, and whenever he threw a tantrum he was never hit, but was punished by having to go to his room, which didn’t make sense to me since he just played with his toys there. In any case, all that summer I was putting effort into being accommodating and loving to Ellen, Jonah and my father and it was putting a strain on me, because the only time I could be alone was when I was washing cars and I only had four hours work a day doing that. I was so bored that I began smoking heavily, a two-packet habit I sustain to this day, and I would daydream for hours on end, finding it difficult to discern what is real from what is not. Sometimes, I would burst into tears in public, but not very often.
Then one night, in late August, I went to bed at eight o’clock in the evening because Ellen was shouting at me because whenever I went for a piss I left the door open. Everyone in my family had always left the door open if they were just going for a piss, and I couldn’t understand why she was so angry. My father shrugged and I said ok and went to bed, bringing the icepack from the freezer that I laid on my chest every night so I could sleep in the summers. At two in the morning the phone rang and through my sleep I heard the tone click and my father’s voice saying please leave a message. Then a drunken man started speaking slurred syllables in hushed tones, his voice crowded out with tears, saying, Ellie, Ellie baby, please, please, this is Patrice, please, baby please, I can’t live without you anymore, I need your cunt, I need your ass, your lips, oh shit, please, I miss you so much, Ellie just fucking call me, I love you, I love you so much, I need your, oh God, oh God. Then he started sobbing for a while before he started again. You can’t just fuck me this hard and then leave me: I need you, I love you, baby. Call me now. Just call me right now. He hung up and I sat up straight in my bed.
I was certain that what I had heard was a dream. I looked over to see Jonah sleeping peacefully, his hands wrapped around his thin sheet, his small face turned away from me. I sat up at the desk and replayed the message eight times and then I sat still for an hour.
I went into the kitchen and drank a glass of water. I sat down at the table and began to get scared. As my breathing came quicker, I woke up more and more till everything I could see shone with an unnatural sharpness that stung my eyes. I kneaded my thumbs together and lay my head down on the table for a while. I must have fallen asleep, because I remember rising up, not knowing how much time had passed, feeling the imprint of the table heavy on my cheek. I walked into the master bedroom. The only light was the one in the hallway, but I could make out which side Ellen was on. I went over to her and looked down at her. Then I went over to my father and knelt next to him and put my face so close to his that I could feel his warm breath on my lips and nose. He turned on his side and opened his eyes sleepily and said, Son? Go into the office and listen to the last message left on the machine, I said. What are you doing? he asked me. Listen to the message, please. He got up half-asleep, just in his underwear, and stumbled out of the room.
I sat down on the side of the bed and looked out of the window for a while. Then my father came back in, crying silently. She’s a slut, I said. He didn’t reply or move. He just stood there looking at me. He remained silent for so long that I started talking, though I didn’t know what I was saying. I just kept speaking, feeling as though if I didn’t talk my father would disappear. Let me kill her, I said. We’ll give each other alibis. We’ll be fine. We can go back home together. You can even bring Jonah if you want. It’ll be fine. He can go to the Montessori, its right next to our house. I know the teachers there and all. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Don’t mind Ellen. She’s sick. She’ll take Jonah if we don’t do something. Don’t mind her. She’ll be fine. I must’ve spoken for several minutes in this relaxed listless tone that cost me no effort. I just rambled on, not noticing that Ellen had been sitting up, her eyes fixed on my father. Go back to your room for a minute, my father said when I trailed-off. Let’s just leave now, I said to him. Go back to your room, he said again. I had intended to leave, but as I was going out the door I saw he was still crying and then I started crying too. It’s ok, he said and he hugged me. He picked me up and put my head against his shoulder, though I was almost the same size as him. He turned to Ellen, me in his arms, and said, Go stay in a motel or go to a diner, or something. Or stay with Patrick, or whatever his name is, and come back in a few hours. Ellen threw the sheets off her legs, swung off the bed and started putting her runners on. I’m taking Jonah with me, she said, looking down at the laces she was trying to tie. My father sighed, and said, Will you just let me be with my sons for a few hours? I’m taking Jonah with me, she said, as she took her keys off the dresser. Don’t be silly, my father said. Let him sleep and come back in a few hours. Please. I just need a few hours.
She left without speaking anymore or taking Jonah and when we heard the car leave the drive my father sighed with relief and put me down. He led me into the kitchen by the hand and said he was hungry, so he made us two bowls of cereal. I sat down at the table, but wasn’t able to eat the Lucky Charms he’d put in front of me. He ate his noisily, slurping his milk, and then he looked at me. His eyes had been crying for fifteen minutes but his voice and his breathing hadn’t changed. Son, he said, if you care about shit like that you’re going to be fucked your whole life. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
After a while we went to bed. He took Jonah out of his cot and took me by the hand and guided us all into his bedroom. We all slept together that night. I woke up at six in the morning, feeling tired and sick. I watched the light of day coming through the window and then remembered what had happened. I shook my father awake, Jonah cradled up against his bare chest, and I said Dad. Dad. Yes, he said, his eyes still closed. Dad, let’s go. Let’s just go. Let’s go right now. I can’t, he said. She’s my family. No, she’s not, I whispered. I am. Then he opened his eyes and smiled at me.