Alejandro thought the last time he would speak with his father was at his college graduation party. Alejandro’s father served in Vietnam. He earned a Purple Heart. According to Alejandro’s father, God saved his life. One night, camped outside in enemy territory, while he slept, a band of Vietcong approached. They could hear the whispers, the swish of machetes cutting through the jungle bush. They were trapped. But Alejandro’s father saw what the others couldn’t see. A passageway of light. The light showed them a path out past the Vietcong. Alejandro’s father, Fernando Perez, earned a medal for his bravery in leading his unit out of a heavily infiltrated area. They could have been ambushed and slaughtered. But Fernando did not take the credit. He only gave credit to God. Alejandro knew the story, but his father never shared it with any other soul. It was their secret. He was trying to convince Alejandro to have faith, to recognize the presence of God in their life. But Alejandro was rational and thought of other reasons for the miracle. like survival instinct, or a keen sense of night vision, or maybe even the role of luck. Alejandro remembered as a boy that he was warned never to approach his father while he was sleeping. And once, when he did to ask for ice cream, his father awoke screaming and lashed out to strike him quicker than a startled snake. There was no recognition in his eyes.
It was twenty years since the graduation party when he had last seen his father. He got a call from his younger brother, Jose, that their father now had Alzheimer’s, was in a nursing home, and that Alejandro should visit him before he died. They had held the graduation party in the basement hall of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church. His mother (now dead from ovarian cancer) and his father saved a lot of money to be able to rent the hall. It was a joyous day since Alejandro was the first in his family to graduate from college. They were proud even though they were not sure what he was going to do with an English degree. They did not understand literature, or the value of fiction. But they were still hopeful that he might make lots of money and not have to work as hard as them (his mother cleaning offices and his father as a laborer in a construction crew). That morning of the party he had received his diploma with honors and afterwards they went back to the house to get ready. His whole extended family was going to be there, so he put on his suit and wore a white carnation in his lapel. He remembered the sadness he felt because he would have to move back home and find a job and his years of experimentation were over.
They went to the hall. His aunts served him his favorite dishes, cheese enchiladas and tamales. He drank beer with his brothers, cousins, and uncles, and everyone cheered his future success as a college graduate. But for him his future felt like a trial. It was as if he walked around with a fresh amputation, a ghost limb that he could still feel and caress but that was actually missing and he would now have to learn to cope without.
His brother was telling him about this girl Maria that he wanted to introduce him to. He tried to play along, but he was reminiscing about the first time he met Jack at the club. The DJ was playing Ricky Martin. He got up to dance and Jack followed him to the dance floor. At first they tried to pretend that they were dancing alone, but slowly, they started circling each other like two strange dogs sniffing out each other’s scent to see if the other was friendly or dangerous. By the end of the night, they were back in Alejandro’s car making out. He and Jack had been dating but they kept their relationship secret. Jack’s parents raised him as an evangelical Christian and struggled with the notion of sin. Alejandro had given up his Catholicism the minute he stepped inside the gay bar. That was his new church. At this graduation party these worlds came crashing together like two passing galaxies. And one was either going to absorb the other or they would intersect and continue moving farther away.
He drank more and more and the sadness was building. It was now or never. He took his mother and father outside. At first he wanted to thank them for the wonderful party. His mother was already crying. They presented him with a silver watch of his grandfather’s. Alejandro didn’t know what to do because the silver watch was the most valuable thing they owned and an important heirloom. It should have gone to his oldest brother Fernando Jr., but Junior was addicted to heroin and he would have pawned it the first chance he got. They had guarded the watch with their lives. According to legend his grandfather had brought it from Mexico and when he enlisted in the U.S. navy it had survived the Pacific Theater. So here he was with the watch, the pride of his parents, the one with the most promising future, and what happens? He blurted out, “I’m gay.” His father slapped him. His mother screamed. His aunts and uncles heard the scream and his whole family came running. His brothers latched to his side because he was holding his face and blood was trickling down his chin from his bit lip. Then his brother Jose asked, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” and he could not say a word. He just handed his father back the watch and walked away. As he was walking to his car in the dark, he started to cry, but knew that he would call Jack as soon as he drove off, and then he heard his father yell out, “You’re not my son!”
That was some twenty odd years ago. His brother Jose and he were the only ones left (his brother Fernando Jr. dying of a heroin overdose at thirty-five) in his father’s life. He walked up to the window at the Ann Lee Nursing Home. They took down his name and walked him to his father’s room. Alejandro saw him for the first time. His father was sleeping wrapped up in a white blanket. Everything in the room was white, except the TV, the picture of his mother on the nightstand, a crucifix on the wall, and the silver watch on the windowsill. He didn’t know if he should wake his father up, so he had a seat in the corner in a plastic chair. It smelled like antiseptic and a faint odor of urine. He had to go to the bathroom, but he held it. He looked over at his father. His father had shrunk to the size of one of those Egyptian mummies they just discovered. His brown skin was dry and wrinkled and you could see the bones of his clavicle and hips poking up through the blanket. His father had been small to begin with, but he always carried a lot of muscle from working construction. He could not believe that this was his father. He could not reconcile his memory with the new reality. He wanted to leave right away before his father woke up. He wanted to call Jack who was minding their flower shop. They had opened their shop right after graduation and it was doing very well. Since gay marriage had been legalized, they had made lots of money providing flowers for weddings and parties. His father would never know what a success he had become. He got his hardworking gene from his father, but he could not share any details of his new life with his father. He especially wanted to tell him how Jack and he were planning on adopting a child. Fernando would be a grandfather.
The nurse came in to check on them. She gently shook Fernando awake so he could visit with his son. She had seen this type of thing before when a relative does not know what to do with the new situation facing them. She felt sorry for Alejandro. His father woke up slowly and started to raise himself up in bed. He looked over to the corner where Alejandro sat, and he said, “Fernando.” The nurse said, “No hun, that’s your son Alejandro.” Fernando didn’t say a word he just looked confused. The nurse put on Wheel of Fortune. She left the room. Alejandro just sat there silent. Alejandro looked at the watch. He was surprised it was still there. He picked it up and his father started talking: “I always wanted to give that to you, but I was afraid you would sell it.” Alejandro didn’t say a word. His father looked at him. “Go ahead and take it. It’s yours now.” Alejandro did not know what to do. He did not want his father to wake up later and think the watch was stolen. But it was his inheritance as the oldest son. His father continued, “I am so glad you got off those drugs. They were killing you. I was scared every night.” Alejandro decided it was time to play along. What harm could it do? That was how the reunion was going to go. “Yes, dad. This is Junior. I am doing better.” His father looked at him. His face started twitching. Tears started streaming down his stained t-shirt. He started heaving and trying to catch his breath. Alejandro wasn’t sure what was going on. Maybe he should go get the nurse. “I thought I lost you. I wanted you to have that watch twenty years ago, but things got screwed up. I am so glad you are better and that you came to see me. I missed you.” Now Alejandro wasn’t sure who he was talking about. Was it him or Fernando Jr.? “I lost Alejandro, then your mother, and then you. I don’t want to lose anyone else.” “So, he missed me too,” Alejandro thought. “He still thinks I am Junior, but he said he lost me.” He had an idea. “Well, Papa, if Alejandro were here, what would you tell him?” His father stopped crying and took deep breaths. He was still shaking but he could talk. “God sent me many challenges. I walked through fire. Now he is challenging me again. Alejandro was one of those challenges. But I would tell God that it was his choice he made Alejandro that way and that I cannot question God’s choice. I would tell Alejandro that God made him and that God loves him and because God loves him, I love him too and that I am sorry, I made a mistake, just like I made a mistake being too hard on you which probably made you do the things you did.” Alejandro was trying not to cry. He was holding it in. He would wait until he got in the car and he could talk to Jack. It would be hard to leave his father here like this but at least he got his answer. It was a hard compromise but at least he knew that in their way his family loved him. “Thank you pop. I will take the watch now. I have to go. But know that I love you and I will be back to visit.” His father turned to him as he was at the door and said, “Bring that husband of yours too.” And then he faced back to watch Wheel of Fortune.
Alexander Perez writes from his home in Schenectady, NY. He has a piece forthcoming in Furtive Dalliance.