Fatherless Daughters

Father 1941The only picture we had of him was on Julia’s side of the dresser. A plain round silver frame resting on two pea-sized orbs, a perfect fit inside my hand. Mystery spilled out of that photograph, like that melody that now and then came up late at night into our apartment from one of the floors below us, the bewildering sound you complained about because it kept you tossing in your sleep and you could never figure out its source. Was it one of those overnight tramps that slipped into our building, maybe, and settled behind the lobby staircase with his horn, his mute fit in snuggly to keep the music just inside our orbit without causing a fuss, his sliding tones ascending to each floor, melismas slipping under doors and back down again, breaking the silence around us one sweet note at a time?

Nino, patient like that tramp, resting inside that little silver circle, in Colombia maybe, sitting like no man I’d ever seen sit, cross-legged and elegant in a dark cane armchair, one hand on his knee, the other slung over the chair’s side, his long fingers reaching toward the checkered floor, his shirt loose and open around his slender neck and strong chin, his features soft and symmetrical around the straight line of his nose, the only hint of tension the two small creases around his mouth. Nino, always waiting, disregarding everything else around him to look straight ahead, his eyes serious, sure, ready to listen to everything I needed to say. I used to run my finger around the edge of that little picture when no one was around, and cover up the line of his crossed leg and wonder what it would have been like to climb onto his lap.

I wanted Nino to be real. I wanted to know ordinary things about him, the kind of things you learn about people when you live with them. I would look at other fathers with their children, especially Ben with my little brother and sister, and wonder what my father had been like. If his voice was deep or nasal, or how he looked standing on a line or walking down the street, what the smell of his skin was, how he held a fork, or what his handwriting looked like on a shopping list. When I was in dance class I’d think of him watching me, the tall silent man by the door, and that would make me work harder at arm positions or at cleaning up my footwork. I’d practice my Czerny finger exercises and my mind would wander. I’d imagine what he would have been like coming home, hearing me play the piano. Would he smile and give me a hug and say something kind? Would he have been quiet and sullen and walk past everyone without a word, on edge, like you? And I had other, bigger questions. How did you meet, two people from different parts of the world? How did he die? How did he feel about me, the third child, another girl, still in a high chair the last time he saw me?

— from Tesoro, Chapter 6