The sun-soaked evergreen of Dora Park darkens in the presence of this mold of bearded flesh in nicotine cologne, cross-body bag, unkempt business casual clothes, wan smile. Yellowed teeth and four-dollar cigarette breath greet me before anything else. Claims he's my father. I scoff toward the trees as a group of scattered wise oaks bend over to hear us.
My dad is an outline of a man, I deadpan. A silhouette of boozy nights and casual trysts with countless women.
His lanky chest caves, glassy eyes the color of rain clouds sink into their sockets. Silent for a beat. Uncomfortably so. I tighten my folded arms. The oak branches bend closer toward us.
Dora Park is lovely this time of year, isn't it? he sputters, inching toward space beside me on the park bench.
I block his path with outstretched legs. This man who claims to be my father arrives with no apologies, no warm tidings, nothing. Seventeen years of hope squandered on this apparition who thinks he can reappear and receive forgiveness. Mom died in tears because of you. He flinches.
The oak branches bend right above us.
I don't care for groveling but he's on bent knees before me. Penitent, sorrowful, misty-eyed. I rediscover empty high school concert chairs in those misty eyes. I excavate missed birthdays, weekends, sprained ankles, first heartbreak, graduations in those tears. I fold a leg and sigh.
The oak branches are low enough to scrape our scalps.
Please, Joseph. Please forgive me for everything.
I glance at his petulant and woeful posture, eyes, begging. Forgive you for leaving Mom and me in the pouring rain after church? Forgive you for arriving in the sanctuary drunk out of your mind? For sleeping with her best friend on your anniversary?
My heart bottoms out. I want nothing more than to shout at him. Nothing more than to thrash at him, the park bench, the nosy oaks, anyone who walks by. I want to shout at the scent of fresh hot dogs, the blare of grunge in speeding cars, the arguments of brownstone neighbors. Everything is impossible right now as I panic off the park bench, thrashing and foaming at the mouth.
The oak branches lean in deeper.
I'm seated at a table, mahogany like the woman across from me, like Mom. She is Mom. Her face is bare, as bare as the diner with its time-worn furniture, patrons, and waitresses. Those trademark patient hands clasp mine and squeeze. And her clothes are not unlike her smile, tailored by angels, by a presence we have yet to witness.
Forgiveness is not a revolutionary act, she grins with a french fry saddled between her teeth, but we should give it as if it is. I chuckle at the french fry, at her silly belief. Forgiveness has to be earned as much as it's given. She pauses to inhale, exhale, tug at her cufflinks, and gaze at me.
The diner falls speechless. No one eats, no music plays, no waitresses move. Every eye is fixed on us. Mom has that command over people. Or she had that command over people.
Forgive your father when you meet, and you will meet. Forgive him without expectation. She taps a stray french fry against my forehead. Taps until it doesn't feel like a french fry anymore. Taps until I regain consciousness.
There he is again. There is my "father", the ghost. Hovering above me the way ghosts do. I am too confused to complain, to yell, and he is too wounded to apologize. His finger is the french fry.
The nicotine makes me want to retch, and I plug my nose. Paramedics watch us with professional suppression. One blurts out, are you okay, only to hush up again. I nod with my nose plugged. He rises to his feet and shuffles toward one of the oaks. I retch anyway.
The oak branches recoil in remorse.
He recoils in remorse before and after the paramedics leave. Quit staring at me, I growl. He picks at the dirt and grime under his nails while I collect myself. He needs a shower, and I need aspirin, a nap, distance. Give me a minute.
I can't be too disillusioned to ignore human emotions. I can't be too annoyed to notice his blood-caked fingers. He's gonna pick them to death. We have to hash this out without people watching. Follow me to my car.
The brief journey there extends through his awkward attempts to reach out. To break through to me. I focus on squirrels that skitter past, gleeful chess players, picnic table dancers, and anyone or anything else that rescues me from a public conversation with this man. I haven't been happier to see my flimsy car, wrench the door open, and drive off except for this guy who resembles me, slouched in the front passenger seat.
Joseph, I know you hate me for the endless cheating, ditching you and Marla often, missing all your benchmarks in life. I would hate me too, and I do. The last thing I expect is kindness, grace, mercy, etc.
Good thing I have the windows down because this nicotine is irritating my nose. Windows down with the air conditioning blasting. I don't bother to switch it or his tear-soaked apology off. He can blabber while I stare off into every landmark we pass. I wonder whether the museum curator has to shoulder the burden of a missing father during a tour or if the park coordinators face such a bothersome situation at a team meeting.
When I stop in front of my apartment, clouds gather above us, and he sprints to my door. I sift through my keys, shove open the door, and trail behind him up the ancient, winding staircase. He comes to a glacial pace and slacks his jaw at the weathered checkered walls that stretch upstairs. I know he wants to complain about it, wants to communicate his disappointment or concern for the sake of conversation. But once we reach my apartment, he swallows his words.
Take a shower. You stink, I bark, and he stumbles his way to my bathroom. I flop on my couch, and while the water runs, I flick on the TV. There's a made-for-television movie about a boy and his dad who don't see eye-to-eye on anything from wrestling to dancing. I catch a climactic part where they yell their lungs out in the father's kitchen. They wrestle in every section of the room until they sob in each other's arms.
The water stops, and I have something in store for that jerk.
On his way out of the bathroom, wrapped in one of my towels, I wrestle him to the ground. I easily throw him into a chokehold and slam him into a mountain of clothes by my south-facing windows. He slaps my arms, and I ram him into a hand-me-down washing machine from a former neighbor. There's a rhythmic knock at the door, and I release him to answer. A freckled girl asks, are you okay, and I picture her as the paramedic from earlier except in an oversized paramedic uniform.
I nod and plug my nose from memory. She clasps her hands over mine with Mom's patience, peeks over at him, and strolls back down the hallway. I press the door shut and glared at the man who claims to be my father. March across the room to throw him in another chokehold until we sob. I hear Mom's honey-tinged voice echo in my head, forgive him without expectation.
Forgive him without expectation.
Forgive him without expectation.