I’ve seen my father pull down a car window with his hands. When times are tough he gets restless. In this case my dad paced, raking his hands through shoulder-length black dreadlocks while trying to stomp a mudhole in the concrete. Once I realized the keys were stuck in the car I was tempted to ask what our next move would be. Before I could ask, I saw my dad place his hands flat upon the driver’s side window. Pressing down upon the glass, he used all of his weight to push.
I snapped into consciousness at four-years-old, wondering what life would bring me. I woke up in my Fisher Price racecar bed, my cousin’s bed lying empty beside me, surrounded by four pastel yellow walls that run up to the sky, a fat boxy TV hooked up in the corner, and windows that shed light on everything. In that space with the freedom of a blank slate, I felt unshakeable excitement: “What does the world have in store for me today?” I believed that somewhere out there I was already that perfect person I dreamt of. Living was simply the means to my glorious end that made all the nonsense worth it.
A couple of days into the first week of Pre-K, I saw a new girl sitting alone in the corner of the room. In a room full of toddlers, toys, and all the picture books you could flip through, Q sat at a table by herself in her dark blue jean jacket. Her cool energy drew me in. I tapped Q on the shoulder, eager to welcome her into the classroom, only to black out in seconds. As her grip tightened around my neck I faded, losing feeling in my fingers, feeling my body go limp. I distinctly remember suffocating—being uncomfortable but not in pain. As much as I wanted to fight back and protect myself, I couldn’t. My fear bubbled up, and I hunkered down in the hopes that it would pass. As the weeks went on I accepted Q’s non-apology and my lack of closure. At any moment anything could happen, and that was just something I had to get used to.
Outside of watching football, baseball, or going out with family, my dad’s favorite activity is working out. Whenever he’s scared, frustrated, or lost with no idea of where to turn next, he goes to the gym. That place is his church. He always used to ask if I wanted to go with him and I never said yes because my father could be out there for hours. He’d justify this by saying he liked to take his time, no need to hurt himself by rushing. He’s the guy in the gym that people can’t help but stare at. He’s practically a gym god. He consistently shows up after the midday rush. He despises being in the room with the new-year resoluters but he knows they won’t stay long. Occasionally people work up the courage to ask him for advice while he’s in the middle of a set with his headphones in. He hates when people try to train with him because they tap out early and slow down his routine. He’s not there to socialize and only flexes in the mirror to ensure he’s maintaining. He cleans up his area, particularly peeved by other gym rats who make a show out of using the heaviest weights and leaving them for someone else to put away. My dad looks like a functioning bodybuilder, ripped and not scrawny. As far as he’s concerned, if you take care of your body it takes care of you, meaning you can eat whatever you want as long as you burn it off. He stands by his hundreds, breezing by his push ups and sit ups to get to the main event: weightlifting. He has those Hulk Hogan biceps, and in comparison, my four-year-old legs weren’t even half the size. My dad is solid. I used to poke his muscles, looking for a soft spot, a weakness before he’d flex. Becoming invulnerable once again, maintaining this facade of a man of steel.
My father didn’t try to convince me that fear wasn’t real. If I was afraid of doing something he would simply say do it scared. He loves to impersonate my old Brazilian taekwondo teacher, enunciating with flair: connn-fi-dence. Worried about failure? Have some connn-fi-dence. Scared of embarrassing yourself? Gotta have connn-fi-dence. Nervous about lif—connn-fi-dence! In training this meant to focus, dig a little bit deeper, remember what I’ve practiced, and believe in myself. From my father this felt more like hurry up.
Glimpses of peace set my mind ablaze. I grew up in New Jersey about an hour away from New York; nonetheless, I was constantly in the city. I can still feel the glare of the Holland Tunnel’s orange lights, momentary adventures in Somewhere Else. I used to follow my dad around New York, keeping my eyes and ears open to catch whatever life lessons flew by. We walked around the sweltering summer heat looking for icees. Not just Rita’s or x brand nonsense but authentic Italian shaved ice from someone lugging a cart across scorching concrete streets. We walked up to a small mustachioed man pushing his cart around the park. My dad bought coconut for himself and cherry for me. I can still smell the sticky syrup dripping down my hands as I clutched the frozen treat. One particular day we were going to my uncle’s house, which meant having access to one of the greatest views on the planet. If I was lucky (I always was), my uncle would take me to the roof of his apartment and give me binoculars to see the whole city. I could stare at that strawberry lemonade horizon over the skyline forever.
Every kid wanted to have the strongest dad, but I believed mine had a legitimate claim to the title. No one knows pain like him. “My dad almost died ten times,” I’d say to a listener who had no idea how to respond. I had no idea how to respond to my dad’s life-or-death stories either. I’d just sit and listen. I couldn’t wrap my head around his life, stories of former athletic glory intertwined with violence. At sixteen he was shot and spent the summer in bed with a colostomy bag, clenching and unclenching a grip strength tool, dreaming of going back out into the old neighborhood. As a child I hoped I wouldn’t end up with a colostomy bag. If I were ever shot I’d want it to kill me instantly or go clean through. It was hard to tell what bothered my dad more: the memory of being shot or the lead poisoning from the bullet fragments.
I entered adulthood with an inclination toward nihilism and existential dread—anything is possible in an exciting and terrifying kind of way. Choosing to live meant accepting that I hated waking up at five in the morning to catch a bus but knowing it was worth it to be with friends. By high school I had begun shaking the dust off my somatic and emotional senses, adjusting to a life without constant dread. Reawakening myself to the depths of feeling through opening myself up to new love despite seeing an overwhelming wave of fear and anxiety in the distance. I was no longer the deathly shy and lonely child I used to be even if I still remembered how they felt. I knew at any moment I could lose the life I dreamed of, right after finding it. It was hard to predict when things were better but once there was a shift I could feel it.
The car window budged slightly under his pressure. I knew the tells of his frustration, the signature huffing and puffing, the rhythm of his pissed-off gait, the pregnant pause in the air waiting to be broken by impact. My dad didn’t want to curse around me as a child. His expletives were muffled by innocent ears and exasperated winces. Every time his hands slipped from the window with a screech of affected flesh, my ears shrank but I didn’t turn away. We both knew this was going to hurt.
My mom has also seen death, delivered four out of five children to it, dreamed of Hell before waking up to reality’s sweet release. My mom’s stories are told with the appropriate dark gravitas of someone who knows grief real well. My father tells stories like legends, urban tales of street knowledge and the natural consequences of lacking common sense. I could tell he wasn’t sure that I always got the point of his stories, and I don’t think he knew why he told them either. I learned that sometimes the world sucks, other times it can be wonderful, either way people will try to take what you got so you better come correct. More than anything else, my father wanted me to be able to stand up for myself.
When I’m trippin’ I can’t focus. After the initial wave of anxiousness that practically severs my connection with the real world, I have no idea what to do with myself. My therapist tells me navigating through these feelings in a gentle and supportive way is part of my journey. Even after I make a mistake. One time I’m fully aware that I’m afraid of everything: failing, dying, losing myself and everyone I care for. I’m sitting completely still, trying to go through my breathing exercises and feel that moment when part of me decides I’ve had enough. I watch myself create distance from my fear, I know it’s part of me but without feeding my worries they shrivel up and die. It’s scary to admit that I have things to live for, after years of comforting myself with the opposite. I found comfort in chaos, a space where I didn’t have to think or truly feel anything. I didn’t have to worry about being stuck because I knew that life never stops. By the time my life shifted and I realized it was passing me by, I was embarrassed. I don’t want to live the wrong life and then die but what if I can’t stop that? This is typically when my friends would grab my hands or my shoulders and stare into my eyes, fiercely trying to bring me back to the present, where they knew I wanted to be.
The other day my dad talked about surviving his heart attack. I’d heard his death-defying stories a million times, it was like he was right back in the moment. He would tell these stories about how he found himself in trouble, the pain of the consequences, how he came out of it with some grand reverence for life and heavy realizations. He’s telling the room about what it was like to die, and I see him tremble, the usual wide smile replaced by a sincere, almost mesmerized stare. My mom sat there at his side, reassuring him that everything would be fine, he can only do what’s best for him, and we’ll love him regardless. For a second he can only whisper, I was just so tired.
When I lived in Jersey I tried to take armfuls of David Catrow, Mo Willems, Ezra Jack Keats, Marvel Encyclopedias, and MAD comics to bed with me every single night, making sure to remove their delicate covers before nestling into their stiff spines. In this world I wasn’t followed, I didn’t have to be one step ahead, I took solace in my reading community. The one place I couldn’t be turned away. Nobody could convince me there was anything better than that paperback-bound portal. I didn’t have to speak to be understood. It’s not that I gave up on life, I gave up on a life I could not bear, where my best was never enough.
As a kid I used to think I had a guardian angel, like a big sister that talked me through life’s toughest moments. They told me when to be strong and when to cry. They encouraged me to keep moving forward because eventually things would get better. I often think about what I would want my younger self to know about life now. Even in hindsight, it’s difficult to see a world where I tell myself to get over my worst moments. If I could do this all over again would I do anything different? If I had the choice I don’t see myself picking a timeline as bizarre as this one again. When I make fun of my dad for being old, he says he’s grateful, blessed to be as old as he is. Can’t help but admire that kind of confidence.