When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant
I could hardly stand to have the old man around.
But when I got to be twenty-one,
I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
I may have been the only girl in my grade school who knew the dynamic “quick-quick-slow” of the mambo. It all starts with the hips—you have to feel the music and sway with it, my father explained. Traditionally, the mambo is a sensuous dance, reserved for couples—it means ‘voodoo priestess’ in Creole because the dance is said to put you into a hypnotic state. When I mamboed with my father, it was far from sensual or transcendent—our favorite mambo was “The Piggy Mambo,” a hookie rendition of the classic Latino melody that included periodic oink-ing between the lively calls of the mariachi band and the pounding of the tom toms. At this point in the song, I would always break out of the traditional steps and improvise on a hog-inspired freestyle that involved getting down on hands and knees like a real pig. It was a performance I put on for my dad—to see his eyes light up with love from behind the wire frames of his glasses. When the band would stop oink-ing and the music would start up again, we were all smiles and ready to conqueror the 4/4 beat.
* * * * *
I come from what you might call a “broken family.” My parents separated when I was five years old. I don’t really remember how or why it happened. We used to drive downtown every Sunday to eat lunch with my dad while he was busy working overtime. I would rush out of the car, up the elevator of his office building and into his arms. I always thought it meant something special that my dad had a corner office, instead of a cubicle—I was convinced that it was more than a mark of financial success or social status. They must have just really liked my father, right? I thought my mom really liked my dad too, until that night when I was watching Looney Tunes with my brother and the yelling began. He never came home after that. I didn’t understand.
Having divorced parents isn’t all that bad, though. Your parents can’t conspire against you if they aren’t on speaking terms and there are two Christmases and two Thanksgivings every year. When my mom didn’t think I was old enough to go to Europe for two weeks by myself in high school, I just asked my dad instead and was on a trans-Atlantic flight four months later.
The real problem is not the divorce, but the negativity of the aftermath. Marriage is a bit like a balancing act. Each partner must constantly strive to improve for the sake of the other and their children. After my parents separated, I began to see each of them in a different light—their shortcomings became more pronounced. I spent most of my time with my mother because I couldn’t stand the idea of living with my dad alone. Without a woman in his life, all of his slovenly tendencies became five times more pronounced. He was irritable, bills littered the countertops and when I wanted to go play at the park, the answer was always “later.” People get married because they bring out the best in each other, when people get divorced a lot of old skeletons begin to emerge from the closet.
* * * * *
My dad used to play the guitar a lot when I was younger—he had been trained by one of the most well-known blues guitarists in East St. Louis when he was in his late teens. In his early twenties, he had even received an offer to play with some big band that toured across the country and played gigs in Vegas: an act small enough that I had never heard of them but well-known enough that a simple Google search yielded thousands of results. He would normally play his light-bodied acoustic guitar, but sometimes he would go into the guest bedroom and pull out his Gibson Byrdland hollow-body electric jazz guitar, complete with gold plated hardware and mother of pearl insets on the neck. It was beautiful and the sound it made when my dad plugged it into his vintage Vox amplifier (the same kind the Beatles used in the 60s) was like listening to the harps of angels—only gritty, with more reverb and the kind of soul that only rock n’ roll music can produce.
He would play classical guitar pieces drenched in romantic chords that conjured images of dark-eyed Spanish women and then switch to the Blue Oyster Cult’s classic rock hit, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. Sometimes I would listen to my dad play guitar for hours on end. We didn’t talk much except for when I would ask what he was playing or he would pause to explain the tuning on a particular song. Occasionally he would offer an anecdote about the music and his life, like how he got kicked out of his Catholic high school once for listening to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” too loudly during lunch. It was almost like the guitar strap slung over my dad’s shoulder transformed him back into the free-spirited hippy of his past. In high school, I came to worship the bands that my dad introduced to me on his guitar: Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Hendrix. When my dad played the guitar solo of “Purple Haze,” his passion was evident—standing in our living room, I could picture him thirty years younger, rocking out on stage, not just playing the song but really feeling it and believing in the transformative power of the music—and that passion was infectious.
Even when I fought with my father over my curfew or whose turn it was to take out the trash, we always came back together again to listen to Frank Zappa and the Beatles on vinyl.
My dad no longer plays the guitar. He sold the Byrdland last year when finances were bad; his acoustic guitar has needed new strings for years. He has to wear a hearing aide now, the inevitable result of music so loud that it leaves your eardrums ringing after the concert is over. I expect to have the same problem when I’m older. Recently when we were driving together, I flipped on the radio and tuned into a classic rock station. We both recognized the chords being strummed immediately—they were playing the Animals, an old favorite of ours from the days when my dad would play guitar. “Sometimes I find myself long regretting some foolish thing, some little simple thing I've done, but I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood,” came the voice of Eric Burdon through the speakers. On the next chorus, my dad and I both joined in.
* Above excerpt is from a piece awarded 2nd place in the Tiberius Gracchus Jones Prize category for best work of literary nonfiction as part of the 2012 English Literary Awards.