I remember falling from my bike, scrapping my knee on the pink and yellow chalk filled pavement. I was accompanied by the touch of your heavy hands yanking my child-sized body from the ground. Out of an act of instinct, you wrapped your arms around me, hugging me. Each one of your fingers dug deep into my back, clenching the shirt between the hooks of my overalls. My face was buried in the straggly hairs that sprouted from your face. Gracefully, you separated my damp face from yours.
“Everything is going to be okay” You recited to me when the tears began to fall down my face.
I was only four-and-a-half years old.
I remember staying at your house in Florida. It was the first time I had ever gone there. I was only seven years old. We did father-and-son activities, as you would love to call it. Often, we would go to the zoo, watch Tom & Jerry, eat cereal in our boxers, and watch movies.
Sometimes we played basketball with your friends at the local military base. This was my favorite. All school year long, I practiced the move you showed me. You called it, “the big man move.”
The big man move wasn’t much besides having your back to the basket, give one, maybe two, shoulder shakes, take a power dribble, and put it up with the right hand.
When we played with your friends that day, I watched you do the “big man move” a few times. I sat there, holding a basketball in my lap and rooted for you to do it with the left hand. Occasionally, you placed your hands on your knees as the beads of sweat trickled onto the wooden gym floor. My name escaped your mouth while you huffed and puffed for air, signaling for me to come over.
Your large hands pressed on my shoulders, I felt the weight of showing your friends that I could be just like you. After all, I am your son.
I enjoyed the car rides back to your apartment the most. That was where you laughed at me for having too small of a mouth to eat the hamburger that came with a Mighty Kids Meal at McDonald’s. Your eyes would open wide as your hands graced each side of your belly when you laughed. Being that people often thought that you were a mean person based on the facial expressions you would make, was odd to me because you were always laughing with me. Your son.
When the laughter came to a halt, the father-like questions began to pour out of you almost immediately.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” You asked.
“Bigger.” I would respond.
“What do you mean bigger?” you responded.
“I don’t know. Just bigger. I want to be a bigger person,” I always said.
When I turned eight, you stopped calling my mom’s house. I always wondered why. Mom wouldn’t give me answers either. It was still the same response every time: “your father is busy with work.” It got to the point where I just stopped asking.
In my room was the picture we took at the zoo in Florida. I was smiling while missing my two front teeth and you were giving a straight face with a slightly raised eyebrow while twirling one of my loose curls.
We didn’t look much alike back then. My skin tone was as white as the shaving cream you gently rubbed on your face at the middle of every month. I didn’t have much body mass nor height, my hair was curly, and I was as timid as a black bear; I favored my mother in both looks and personality.
Then there was you. An oversized man who resembled a grizzly bear with naturally sunken eyes, stern demeanor, straggly facial hair that sprouted out from your chipmunk cheeks, with a decent height that complimented the low fade you wore.
I remember I wanted to be like you.
At the time, I had loose curly hair and was envious of your bald sides with the small bit of hair that resided on the top of your head. Each night, I would walk into the bathroom and place my palms on my forehead. Slowly, I brushed back all my hair with my hands and watched my curly afro disappear. Sometimes I even cracked a small smirk while placing my hand on the side of my belly, releasing a small laugh, just like yours.
One summer, I remember you told me how much you loved me while we spoke outside of your apartment. You rested your forearms on the thin black railing that overlooked the complex’s pool. Graciously, you rubbed your thumb on the edge of the black railing. Your shoulders dropped from your neck as your teeth clenched the skin beneath your bottom lip.
“Do you think I love you,” you asked, staring out into the night.
My fingers tapped on my thighs; I questioned whether you loved me. We saw each other twice throughout the year. One holiday (usually Christmas or Thanksgiving) and during the summer.
You cleared your throat, spitting the mucus over the railing, watching the wind force it one way when it wanted to go the other. Immediately, your eyes locked on to mine.
“Yeah—you’re my dad. I hope you love me,” I replied while twiddling with my fingers.
“You know, just because I don’t tell you how much I love you, doesn’t mean that I don’t love you.”
We were engaged in a staring contest. I was looking at you in the eyes, while mine were pooling with tears. Your forearms lifted from the railing and you sat down on the royal blue bean bag. Carefully, you stroked your chin hairs and arched your index finger toward your top lip while your thumb rested beneath your chin. Whenever you were stuck between a rock and a hard place, you would often cover your face with your clammy palm of your right hand and wipe the frustration off your face. Following that, the tan lips of yours would pout as a deep breath escaped your body.
Like the caterpillars that inched its way to a leaf for safety or food, you inched closer to me. You parted your lips and said:
“Growing up, my father hardly said those words to me. He showed us he loved us, so we never questioned it. We knew he loved us by him putting clothes on our back and food on the table. The words I love you didn’t leave his mouth until we graduated from high school. Sometimes, I wish he said it more.”
Silence hovered over us like a cloud, drenching us in the truth of the words we spoke.
“I love you daddy.”
You inched closer to hug me.
“I love you more than you will ever realize,” you said while wiping the tears that fell from my eyes with your thumb.
Days later, we sat on the balcony once again. This was becoming our nightly ritual after dinner. Being that I was timid, I was usually scared to tell you what was bothering me.
This was the summer where my cousins, your nephews, that I’ve never met before were also visiting. They welcomed me with open arms as most family members would. They were significantly older than I was. About six to eight years older to be exact.
We got along, but, one day, they used the n-word in a way that I have never heard it. They used it at me, not in an angry or hateful way but as a form of endearment. I was curious as to what that word meant. So, I decided to ask you.
Together, you and I stared out into the night sky. We admired the fireflies that roamed freely around us. The tiny neon yellow lights circled around the apartment complex, bringing light to this area of darkness.
I parted my lips and said, “Dad, what does the n-word mean?”
Rather than answering the question, you studied my face.
“Where is this coming from?” You asked while raising your eyebrows and leaning closer to me.
“One of my cousins,” I responded.
Seconds escaped time and I remember your face turning purple as each one of your fingers rested in your palms; making a fist. I was not too fond of that word, nor did I want to be referred to as such. Especially with being a white-passing black child at that time.
In the rarity in which I have seen you blow up, this was one of them.
You bit down on the side of your bottom lip, tucked each one of your fingers in and clenched your fists.
“You’re just like your mother!” you shouted in a voice that made the hairs raise on the skin of those whose ears it landed upon.
My eyes widened as I bit down on the sides of my finger between my finger and my nail. I froze with fear in the lawn chair that I was sitting on. Your hands were no longer wrapped around the black railing, it was on the sleeve of the grey shirt I was wearing. My heart dropped,, and the fear I felt left me without color.
“Sorry, dad! Please don’t hit me,” I cried.
Consistent name-calling that reminded me how “soft” I was and how much of a “woman” I was, all because I didn’t want to be called a word that I didn’t know the meaning of.
I ran inside, closing the screen door to the balcony behind me. The dinging from the rail, the impact of your heavy hand, found a home in the ears of everyone in the apartment. For me, it had a permanent residency in my soul; I was petrified and bruised by this moment.
Twenty minutes later, you calmed down, walked into my bedroom, and apologized. You sat on the edge of my bed, tapping my feet.
“Can I speak to you?” you asked.
“I just want to let you know that I am sorry. I don’t want you to fear me or hate me. That isn’t something I would ever do again,” you continued.
Hiding underneath the covers, I poked my head out and listened.
“It’s okay,” I whispered.
After all, I was only eight years old.
When I returned home to New York City a few days after that incident, I informed my mother on the situation. She replied with several gasps and ten unanswered phone calls to you.
I was nine years old, and this is the last time that we spoke.
I remember receiving a phone call from the man I idolized, whom I cared for, whose flesh and blood I was born from.
It was November, and I was sitting in the living room watching X-Men 2 when the voice of my father escaped the tiny holes in the bottom half of the phone.
“Hey, dad!” I said with the uttermost excitement.
“Hey Dominic, I have to tell you something,” he replied in a drowsy tone that was unnatural for him.
“Well…,” and my father went on a tangent of how I am not his child solely because I did not look like him at the time.
His words poisoned me, clouded my perception of who I was.
As the phone dropped from my ear, so did the tears from my eyes. I couldn’t believe that the man I idolized and wanted to grow up to become was saying this to me. His child. The kid he used to hug tightly and kiss on the cheek.
The man who picked me up from the airport to give me a tight bear hug told me that I am not his child because I, “don’t look like him.”
Those words were like ink, and my skin was paper. They soaked in and became permanent. They altered my perception and I began blaming myself for a situation that I had no control over.
I spent several nights in the bathroom, crying. Happy memories between my father and I that I hold near and dear to my heart burned slow on the cinematic photographs that I imagined them to be. As the flame grew more prominent, I watched my father’s face turn into ash. Leaving the cinematic pictures of myself next to the vacant face of somebody that I used to idolize.
Dominic Wright is a writer and tutor from New York City and is a recent graduate of the English Department at Green Mountain College. After receiving his BA in English and Writing, Dominic returned home to New York City, to continue his activism for mental health in African American communities through tutoring/mentoring young students of color. His work has been published in Former Cactus Magazine, The Elixir Magazine, and is forthcoming in MoonChild Magazine.