Editor’s note: I had published this earlier on the blog, but have revised it since. I await comments.
As a boy, Marcelo often wished he had come from a more illustrious family. He would spend time, both awake and asleep, imagining a history of audacity, with adventurers in his family tree lighting up the ages. He would play pretend where he was a conquistador leading a desperate band into dense, impenetrable jungles, questing for gold, silver, precious jewels. (Of course, he would leave out the part of slavery. His heroes would never soil themselves thus.) He quizzed his parents about the family’s history, and aside from finding out that his great-grandparents had been immigrants from Spain—and not very grand ones, at that—he was often left with more questions, unfruitful avenues of inquiry which led him back to a reliance on his imagination to burnish those common, quotidian ancestries. After school he would spend hours at the library, poring over books of heraldry. Unfortunately, all the books dealth with English and French heraldry; there was not a page devoted to the Castilians. But that was of no matter, when fancy was rampant. He would invent pedigrees for himself, tracing back his stock ten or fifteen generations, going a bit further with every attempt, accreting layers of eminence. He even invented a coat of arms for his family, cobbled together from what he found in books: a black lion rampant on a field of crimson, atop a turret of gold. One could say that he pulled it together completely at random, but for some reason it held meaning to him. He had shown his creation to both Mamá and Papá; they, doting parents, clucked and cooed over his endeavor, hanging it on the refrigerator door; it would hang there for years, always holding a place of honor alongside the magnets gathered from vacations and notes and lists posted to one member of the household or the other.
Nothing pleased him more than reading books about his motherland’s history—his multiple motherlands, for, as a child of the 20th century, he was if nothing else polymorphous, polyglot, a child not of one world but of two or three, all vying for his attention. Andalusia, Galicia, Marianao, Washington Heights: the words tripped from his tongue as he imagined them, in waking dreams and dormant reality. Crusader and Moor; cowboy and Indian; all were the same to him, all part of the skeins of his existence, the convergent, sometimes disparate histories which informed him, swirling around him in a primordial, dreamlike ooze, infecting him with expectations, beliefs, aspirations. Would he prefer to be the Crusader or the Moor? At that time, the Crusader; when he grew older, if he were to give thought to his juvenile self, the answer might be different. Everything met and mixed in him, washing him up on an ocean wave, and the things which thrilled him in boyhood left him with a bad taste in adulthood.
There was nothing particularly shameful about Marcelo’s family. It wasn’t destitute, on welfare, broken, abusive, uncaring, or unfeeling. It was, if anything, a normal family, as far as normal goes. It was, if anything, a family of which to be proud, making its way generally forward in the world. What Mamá and Papá instilled the most in their children was that they were responsible for whatever path they chose to follow, for good or ill. One can assume that most parents instill this in their children; such an assertion often isn’t borne out if one looks around one at the world’s chaos, however; and even if true, how many children take the lesson to mind, learn it, saturate themselves with it. Children are often recalcitrant, in love with their own youth and limitless possibility; if things don’t work out quite as they had planned, well, it wasn’t their fault; the world just didn’t order itself to their benefit, and it was to blame; no fault attached to them. All children, at one point or another, cleave to this notion, and are weaned from it only by time’s wearing work, until they, too, pass the lesson on to their children, only for the cycle merely to repeat again, in the absence of a genetic memory that would vitiate the need for every generation to heed warnings already given.
One day he returned from school. His brother had picked him up, unwillingly as always, as older brothers saddled with younger siblings usually are, and had kept poking him to walk faster, to hurry up, to move along. At crosswalks he wouldn’t hold Marcelo’s hand like the adults would, but instead grabbed him by the back of his neck and pushed him across the street. Marcelo could murder with hatred at times like that, dragged along like a leaky sack of groceries. Once inside the apartment, he marched to Papá, looked up at him, and said “I wish you were rich so that Carlos wouldn’t have to take me home.”
Papá was in the kitchen, cleaning out his clippers, soaking combs and attachments in solvents. Marcelo stood up just to his mid-thigh, standing still, with his arms akimbo and fists burrowed into his hips. Papá looked down, setting a clipper and cleaning brush on the counter, and reached his hand to tousle Marcelo’s neatly parted black hair.
“And tell me, Marcelo, do you want another Papá? One who’s richer, and maybe younger, and healthier?”
At first flush, the question made him want to cry. He looked up into his father’s kind, lined face, and felt his hand warm and heavy on the back of his head. He loved his father, loved his steady presence, his promise that things would always be the same, safe and secure no matter what monsters popped up in the world. Of course he didn’t want another Papá; it was a choice his mind would never be able to conceive.
Or at least, a choice it had never conceived before. Marcelo remembered this. He remembered that moment when suddenly something clicked in his six year-old mind. He realized he had a choice. True, it wasn’t a real choice. He couldn’t very well tell his father “Yes, Papá, I want someone new. Can you help me find him?” And, also true, at the end he threw his little arms around Papá’s legs, squeezing him tight, and said “No, no, you’re the only Papá I want.” Still. Marcelo would recall the time a choice, a moral choice, had been presented him, and he remembered how close he had come to making a choice, if only in his mind, that would have crushed Papá if spoken aloud. When he played the scene over in his memory, sometimes he would recoil in horror, or at least in disgust, from the closeness of the decision. But other times he relished the almost terrible freedom of running for the other path, the choice for something other than what he was.
But Papá, although not perfect, was his father, his only possible father; years later, again, after he had passed, the subject came up among the siblings of Mamá remarrying. Of course, Mamá would have never considered it; in her world there had been only one man, and his body lay interred in a mausoleum, and hers in turn would lay next to his. It wasn’t that he had been merely her life’s love; he had been her life. Who she had been before she had met him had passed on. Perhaps not passed, as neither spirit nor flesh had ceased upon exchanging their vows. Marcelo could only imagine what Mamá had been like before her wedding, before her courtship; she must have been something, he would say on that occasion, a willowy young islander, turning all the boys’ heads, he would conclude, because, even into her old age, Mamá remained beautiful, a dark, lush beauty, her hair remaining preternaturally dark—with, of course, some help. He and Carlos and Lexie would bruit about who would be acceptable to date and perhaps eventually marry Mamá. They didn’t know much of her social circle, as each had extricated themselves from participation in that community through many years of diligent avoidance. They then created a man out of whole cloth, and, predictably, the man they created was Papá. Even as adults it would be beyond them to consider anyone but him to be with her, anyone but him to complete their family. Papá and Mamá: joined not just linguistically, but in the realm of ideas, in the very way in which they thought of the world. The very thought of her ending up with anyone who in any way did not comport to Papá’s schematics revolted them; and no one would ever match those lineaments. Papá hadn’t been perfect, no; but he had been theirs, and perfectly him when required.
But still, he had wished for a more illustrious family.
“Why aren’t you a doctor? Or a lawyer? Didn’t you try? Didn’t you want to be one?”
“Is a doctor better than me? Or a lawyer? Or a policeman?” His father smiled as he answered his questions with questions of his own. “Do they have something I don’t? Do you think I don’t have something that they do?”
“Well, in that case, I’m like most people. The doctor and the lawyer, they’re the odd ones. I’m with the people.”
Papá could have gone on and explained the resources which are required to become a doctor or lawyer or other grandee in an impoverished Caribbean island before the glorious revolution, how his father had been a barber, which had been a step up from his grandfather, who had been a simple itinerant laborer; instead he let that sentence linger in his son’s mind, that it was men like him who were the stuff of life, the ones who did and did and made sure the world carried on. Marcelo would come to see those who had achieved some modicum of success as hothouse flowers, fragile, ephemeral, kept alive by the great toiling masses laboring to keep things running. (He would never admit such a Marxist reading of society to his parents.) The thing of it, though, is that he wanted to be one of those flowers—beautiful, exotic, requiring expert care to produce such stunning and aromatic blooms. Nothing would please him more than that, and, on and off, with varying degrees of diligence, he would work towards that.
Always, though, there would be the matter of time; it would become his vulture, hovering over his accomplishments, or lack of them, looming, brooding, waiting for the right moment to put him out of his misery. That’s it! No more time! It’s time to collect the bill. Even then, as a boy, he felt time’s presence, felt its utter transitory nature, its relentlessness, its inevitability, even though he could not put it into words, had merely a vague conception of it, but knew of its oppressiveness, its constant demands. Every day as the sun set and nighttime and bed came into sight, Marcelo would feel anxiety, a crushing sense that another day had been wasted. This would be true whether or not the day had been spent productively. If productive, he would try to cajole his mother into letting him stay up just a bit longer, just a few more minutes to squeeze more life out of the day, to do a thing which had to be done that day, before bed, before sleep robbed him of all volition. If the day had been wasted in his estimation, he would view its ending with something akin to desolation, a realization that precious hours had escaped him, unspent, frittered away like a box of popcorn left half-uneaten on a movie theater floor. Sometimes he didn’t care; sometimes a wasted day, a day spent in sloth in front of the television was still a good day, and to be extended. But other times such a day would declare its futility loudly and insistently, braying like a put-upon mule, and Marcelo would be filled with an inconsolable regret, to the point that his lip would quiver as Mamá would put him to bed and tell him: “You have to go to sleep. You know how early you wake up.” Even though he knew there was nothing he could conceivably do to save the day, he still wanted those extra hours—even a few extra minutes!—to attempt to salvage time. But he knew, even then, that time could not be salvaged. It could not be earned back like money, or trust, or love; time ran like water, rippling over your body and away to its certain fate, into the great past. All that one could do was to resolve not to let it just flow into the ocean, to use it, to bend it to one’s will, to harness its onrushing energy. That time had its own uncontrollable currents was besides the point; it was the act that mattered. Marcelo would honor that resolution more in the breach than the observance.
This wasn’t to say that Marcelo was an unhappy child. He had friends. He had family. He had love. And he had an immense imaginary life, one that he lived fully when left alone in his little room, alone with his Tolkien and his “World of Greyhawk”. He lived a good portion of his life in that imaginary world, that place where the prosaic didn’t matter, where the day’s troubles at school, or the scolding from Mamá, or the transgression by Carlos, or the favoritism shown to Lexie wouldn’t touch him, where all the day’s distractions and demands melted away, or not melted, but simply vanished, simply ceased to exist. The maps in Tolkien and on Dungeons & Dragons especially fascinated him, as much if not more so that the imaginary family history he created. He would design his own maps, his own magical worlds, peopled by elves and dwarves and hobbits, by men in clanking plate armor, and wiry little wood sprites flitting about the edges of human habitation, becoming more and more forgotten to men until their world became merely legend, but no less real for it. (His first attempt at a novel would come during high-school, after moving to California, where for a time he was alone and friendless in a new school, and a world he had spent the better part of a year creating called to him, beckoning him to fashion the tales he told himself in his head into tales he could put down on paper. As he moved from place to place, he would keep those three green notebooks, the paper worn and tattered, the ink fading, and would smile and sigh and think back on those fevered writing sessions, when ardor suffused his universe.) If Marcelo worried as a child it was a worry born out of a realization that his life was too good, too easy, too filled with the pleasant and necessary things of life to possibly last, that something would happen, some great tragedy or utter disappointment would crash down upon his carefully constructed home and shatter everything into constituent parts, into fine particles of dust. There would always be that tension between happiness and fear, living in the ever-present moment and casting thoughts to what could happen, what could hold forth in the future. No moment could be good enough that it wouldn’t hold with it its opposite, its anti-matter, its sense of the transitory.
“Have you had a bad life?” Papá would ask as Marcelo prepared to enter university. “You have everything we could’ve given you, and you’ve earned as much. Why are you never happy?”
Marcel said: “Ay, Papá, it’s not that simple. Sometimes I just feel like I don’t deserve to be so happy. I’m too blessed. I’m waiting for it all to be taken away from me.”
“When you get over that silliness, then you’ll be happy.”
“You’ll be waiting a long time for that.”
Marcelo was a happy child, just not carelessly so. As he grew older, his happiness was tempered by the realization that not everyone was happy, that being happy came with a price, a price that some—many—people could never pay. In high-school he would volunteer for soup kitchens—partly out of a real desire to help, partly because it was one of the few ways his traditional family would let him have anywhere near a normal social life, as long as it was conducted in the service of others, and under the supervision of the priests and nuns and lay teachers. Happiness and anguish: they were the complentarities. Even as a child he was not unaware of this law, and its force and truth only grew as he aged. But, yet, he was a happy child, despite his desire for a more illustrious family. Even that desire came not from shame at his family, or unhappiness with it, but from that place where he lived in his mind, where his ancestors could take part in all the adventures, all the high epic poetry, could have lays and songs written about them. Happiness paired up with anguish; but anguish rarely intruded on his life, save in the normal, petty, ordinary ways that it impinges on any child who is otherwise surrounded by love’s cocoon.
Marcelo was a sickly child. Or, rather, Marcelo had a sickly stomach. Often Mamá and Carlos would rush him in the middle of the night to the emergency room, his little body wracked by violent vomiting, vomiting coming out of nowhere, with no real rhyme or reason. His pediatrician merely said that he had a nervous stomach, that he wasn’t necessarily allergic to any one thing, but that, for whatever reason, his stomach would sometimes rebel, and bring on those violent paroxysms, where he would bend double over a bucket and throw up everything he had, and everything he didn’t have afterwards, tears streaming down his soft, smooth cheeks, cries of “Mamá” escaping from his lips in between bouts of retching, soft, thin cries, and his mother would hold back her tears, unable to bear the fact that she could do nothing for him, save take him to the hospital, get suppositories, treat the symptom but never cure the cause.
As he grew older, the stomach issues resolved themselves of their own accord. By the time he was in university they were a vivid memory, something he could recall with clarity, but that no longer impinged on his life. The problem was that he mistook what had been a natural airing out of a bodily process as something that he had effectuated on his own, somehow, perhaps willing the stomach pains to go away, so tired was he of being afraid to eat this or that for fear of triggering another episode, another tortured few moments spent in the bathroom in retching pain, another trip to the ER, more worried looks from his mother. As he realized that the pains had gone away, he became a fierce advocate of his own health, making sure to exercise, take vitamins, drink only in moderation, but eat everything, everything he could get his hands on, try new, exotic things, see how far he could push his stomach, see if he could trigger the old pains again. He didn’t, for the most part—some of the things he tried were really beyond the pale, things no one but a native should eat—and reveled in his newfound health, his sloughing off of his childhood ailments. As a child he had been happy; as an adult, less so, and saw his happiness as a child naïve, the happiness of someone who didn’t know what sadness existed in the world, whose only sadness was the occasional vomiting episode, the bad grade, the delayed gratification. He didn’t hate his childhood self; but he saw no particular merit in him. That’s how it is with most people; they cringe at the things they did in childhood once they reach adulthood, in the flower of their youth and potency. They think back on their awkward, gawky days, the things that occupied them, their irrational passions and foolish dreams, and marvel that they survived the time, that they grew up as they did, to become who they were. They may not want to obliterate their past selves, but they want to keep those selves hidden, discretely placed where they won’t raise questions, elicit comment or queries. Marcelo hated taking girlfriends home to meet his parents, as the house was festooned with photographs of him and his siblings from their childhoods and adolescences, their shortcomings in full view: the braces, the wispy moustaches, the horrible fashion, the pockmarked faces.
“We keep them,” Mamá would always say, “because we don’t want to forget who you were as you become who you are. And you shouldn’t forget either.”
So, Marcelo had a perfectly normal childhood, albeit with the normal neuroses which attend any childhood. And, it must be said, with a sense that childhood, that time of blessedly unmoored minority, would end one day, and he would have to go out into the world and make his way, no longer able to rely on his youth, or excuse mistakes based on his age. (Eventually, if he lived long enough, he would again be able to blame errors on his age. But that would be for another time.) As with his desire to be part of a more illustrious family, he always maintained a sense of the missing, of a piece which wasn’t in the box, which would complete the picture, which would, in modern parlance, make him whole. He would look about him, as he grew older, as maturity beckoned, and, despite his love for his family, wonder, Is this all? Surely not. Surely I’m made for something else, something more. He would never admit this to his family, of course, would barely think it to himself, but it lingered there, on the edge, haunting the margins of his consciousness, trilling just beyond earshot, telling him, yes, yes, you are more, this isn’t all, you must seek it, even if it upsets them.
But the question that had been posed that day after school remained: would he have wished for another father? Another mother? An entirely other family? If he could click his heels and clap his hands and WISH… What then? What would his wish be?