“10 Things My Father Taught Me For My 10th Birthday”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Jessica Granger


10. He taught me to be patient.

I argued with my mother for months about letting my brother and I go to Disney with our biological father. She worried about us leaving the state with a man we hardly saw, but I convinced her we would be in good hands because we were visiting my abuelo in Miami, Florida, while we were there. I missed my abuelo very much at the time, even if I won’t see him again after this trip until I join the Army, after the memory of this trip has faded and I felt strong for the first time in my life.

I remember kissing my mother’s cheek before I ran to my father’s car and jumped in. I felt so relieved that after ten years of his absence, my father was finally coming around. That relief turned to fear as he yelled at me for sitting cross-legged in the cushioned seat with my shoes leaving a smudge in what he shouted was a rented Ford Taurus.

We were in line, waiting to be some of the first people to board the Hollywood Tower of Terror, Hollywood Studio’s newest attraction. This ride brought a palpable excitement to the crowd flooding the park. The press was there, snapping photos and taking interviews, and there I was too, standing proudly next to my father in my Minnie ears, waiting to board what seemed like the elevator to the rest of my life.

Hours passed and my legs started to burn from standing motionless against the metal barriers that caged us in like animals. I thought the anticipation of the ride would surely kill me before I could ever step foot in the elevator. I prayed for the line to move faster, for something entertaining to happen and soothe my ten-year-old mind.

9. He taught me not to be afraid.

At the end of several more hours, the “hurry up and wait” I will learn to love as a soldier, we reached the elevators. The doors opened and we were ushered into the seats of the front row. As soon as the doors closed, the cabin absconded into darkness and classic Twilight Zone music began to play. The car slid forward toward the flashing strobe lights and cresting music. I grabbed for my father’s hand beside me; he accepted the affection and squeezed mine tight in return, trying to reassure me that it was only a ride. He turned his head and smiled at me, whispering that it would be okay.

I sensed the elevator rising into the sky from the sensation of butterflies in my stomach, like riding in the back seat as a child when the car hits a big bump.

I will have this same feeling when I’m much older, speeding down a road in Westfield, New Jersey, with my daughter, in a rush to find my daughter a tiara for my sister-in-law’s wedding at the last minute. We’ll hit a bump in the road, and it will send her small head bouncing against the fabric of the roof. Her eyes will grow wider as her body dislodges from the seat and I’ll watch in the rearview mirror as her face transform into my ex-husband’s, their features identical in that moment. The bottom will fall out of my stomach in fear when I see that flash of him within her, when I remember the cadence of his combat boots striking the floor as he readily approached me in anger during our marriage.

The elevator started sliding forward again before the doors opened suddenly to the outside. The sunshine, blinding, disorienting. I cracked my eyelids just enough to adjust to the light, confused as to what was going on. I could make out palm trees in the distance. I could see identical hotels in neat rows, indistinct and equally monopolizing. The sunshine hurt my eyes so badly I didn’t have time to think of what came next; I was focused on the present.

The elevator was released from its hinge, sending us plummeting toward the ground so fast my scalp was receiving a signal of pain from my hair, pulling from the pressure. I can remember screaming the whole way down while my brother laughed at my expense. He laughed so loud and long it lasted for a good twenty minutes after the ride.

He was turning bright red, hunching over, curling into himself as the cramps started to affect him from lack of oxygen.

8. He taught me the importance of a song.

After the ride, with the guys in tow, I went skipping off toward the parking lot. I was just turning around to replay the ride again with my brother when I saw storm clouds rolling in over the park like an angry mother on a mission to catch her naughty child. Rain would be coming quickly and violently if the thunder growling high in the sky was any indication

I took off in my jelly sandals, the clear plastic slapping the concrete as I pumped my arms and forced my lanky legs to catch up with my body so I didn’t trip as I usually did. My brother had a Yankees hat in his hand that he put on to offer at least a little protection as he passed me. My father didn’t run, but I noticed that he picked up his pace and reached the car just a few seconds behind us.

Safe from the storm in our rental, I was heaving from the run. I laid down in the backseat to rest. I put my head in my brother’s lap, and for once, he didn’t complain. I fell asleep quickly. I slept for what felt like hours but was only a few minutes if the clock glowing on the dashboard was any true indication of the time. We were stuck in traffic on I-4 in a torrential downpour with lightning striking all around us when I woke up. The windows of the car were sealed up tight, the violence of the lightning and thunder making the glass shake.

I watched the play of electric charges jump from cloud to cloud as my father sang along to “Lady in Red” by Chris De Burgh. If I close my eyes now, all these years later, I can still remember the song and the cadence of his voice as he followed along. When the song was over, he reached into the glove compartment for a small envelope he always carried with him. He pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette. It was thin as the skin of the volcano I’d made with my mother.

I had a school project earlier in the year. It was the first project I was really proud of, one I can remember distinctly. We worked on it all weekend. My mother and I made Papier-mâché out of newspaper and glue. I would giggle every time she said Papier-mâché because it was probably the first time I heard her speak in French so fluently. I’d ask her to repeat it as we worked.

I watched it dry.

I painted the mound of newspaper a deep brown with a rim of tan around the top. My volcano was complete. I took it to school the following Monday and watched with delight as the baking soda mixed with the vinegar and it erupted.

7. He taught me that a brilliant lighting strike would be forever diminished with the memory of him.

He brought the cigarette to his lips, struck a match, and joined the two in slow motion. Taking his first inhale, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes on a sigh. He made no motion to open the window, and after a few puffs, the smell was starting to envelop me. I settled back down, turning my face in toward my brother’s shirt, trying to escape the smell, but I couldn’t. I felt as if the smoke was choking me. I couldn’t breathe. I sat up, coughing uncontrollably, but managed to ask him if he could please lower the window.
“Papi, please lower the window,” I said, but my father’s only reply was, “No, I don’t want to get my t-shirt wet.”

I tried to open the window myself, but nothing would happen when I pressed the little switch. My eyes began to water as I looked over pleadingly at my brother for help. He shrugged and shook his head in a side-to-side motion as he scooted closer to me. My eyes focused on the glowing dashboard clock.

I counted the seconds of each breath I took. It became a chant and meditation of sorts. I counted, breathing in and out, holding my breath as I prayed for the car to be struck by lightning, for the windows to shatter and release me from the smoke. For every lightning strike touching the Earth, my body was starting to float higher and higher above it in kind, the positive charge of my cells growing weightless under the onslaught.

(6-5). He taught me two jokes.

6. He grabbed a white napkin and poured pepper all over it from the shaker at a Red Lobster the night before Disney.

He asked me, “What does this look like?”

“It looks like black dots, papi,” I said.

“No!” He shouted, “It’s the people at the Million Man March.”

I didn’t know what the Million Man March was. I hadn’t learned about it in my history class at the public school yet, so I just watched as he continued. He folded the paper in half down the middle and lined the pepper up in a long row.

“Now, what’s this?” He asked, and without waiting for an answer he knew he wouldn’t get from me, answered his own question.

“It’s the line for the KFC after the Million Man March!”

5. My father: “Why are black people so tall?”

“Good genes?” I said.

“No!” he laughed, “Because they’re knee-grows!”

I repeated the word, Negros.

“Like abuela Celeste?” I asked with a smile.

My step-grandmother, the woman my grandfather married after my Cuban grandmother died of breast cancer when I was one, has dark skin and textured hair. She looked black to me. I didn’t understand the difference.

“No,” he scolded me, “she is from the Dominican Republic.”

“There’s a difference,” he said. “We are different.”

4. He taught me that my future reaction to a spider named Frankie would be part of my gift.

I remember the first time I got in my car and he caught my eye with his erratic movements as he attempted to walk across the black leather dashboard. He was newly hatched and stark white; a speck of a spider that was almost translucent and absolutely adorable. I named him Frankie and decided I’d let him stay. Every morning, when I got in my car, I searched for him on the dashboard, but he preferred the windshield. He worked furiously to spin a web on the glass and I’d try to give him advice because I knew it was impossible to stick the silk of his web to the steep, slippery glass, but Frankie didn’t seem to know the difference. I would go so far as to give him a boost when he would tumble down to the dashboard and start over again. His determination was astounding. We lived this way for a while, him trying to build something that would never stick and me being entertained by his inexhaustible energy, until one day he went missing.

I figured he had moved on from life on my dashboard and forgot about him until today.

I’m stuck in traffic, in a thunderstorm, and Frankie crawls out of the vent closest to my right hand. There is something about the way he carries himself that makes me positive it’s Frankie, but he’s changed. Long gone is the adorable, white spindly spider that used to fill my morning commuted with laughter. The Frankie I’m looking at now scares me. He’s big, with eight legs that seem to extend the length of my palm when I put it up to swat him away. His new body is covered in dark brown hair with black rings around the abdomen. My hands shake with fear as I grip the steering wheel and hold my breath praying he won’t come near me.

3. He taught me that I would never again allow my vulnerabilities to be exposed.

I cried harder than I ever had that day. I felt disconnected from my body, disconnected from reality, disconnected from my father. I wanted my mother. I wanted her to hold me to Earth while my adolescent consciousness drifted far away. I wanted to lash out at him. I wanted to hate him. I wanted to reverse time and tackle him the way I will eventually be taught to tackle an enemy when I’m out of rounds and must rely on my small frame and a bayonet.

My head began to tingle, my fingers went numb, and I was desperate as I watched the small orange flame glow, waiting for it to burn out. The paper seemed to regenerate. I could see his eyes drift toward the rearview mirror every few minutes, but he never turned around to fully witness what was happening. I held his gaze each time it turned toward me. It seemed that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” was as true for my father as it was for the car that day.

2. He taught me that when, in the future, I would wake up, at age 19, to a blaze in the grass outside of Echo Company’s, 187th Battalion barracks in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, that he would always be on the other side of the symbol.

I will lace up my boots and leave the building. The sun will still be a figment.

It’s only about 5:15 AM. The fire is bright in the humid morning air, but I’m unconvinced of what I’m seeing in the grass. I get closer and finally see the outline of the gasoline-soaked swastika. As I reach the corner of the swastika, I begin tracing it with my body, putting a hand out along the axis and almost touching the burning light until I reach the other end. I turn and walk to the next line and begin the motion back toward where I started the journey.

The other soldiers are making their way outside, their faces obscured by the darkness of early morning. I wonder what they’re thinking.
I’m scared.

As I look around I see that the majority of us are minorities.

I fall to my knees and wonder if the earth is deteriorating below it.

I lay my head down facing the flames, body parallel to the world I suddenly find myself in. My friend, Brunson, puts a hand to my shoulder and asks if I’m okay. I shake my head as I let him pull me up and into the body he always jokes is a gift from his ancestors.

“Are we safe here?” I ask him.

“This is the Army, sweetheart, we’re never really safe here.”

I chuckle at that and let him walk me to formation, me under his long arm, his tall stature dwarfing my smaller one. I let the heat of his body warm me from the cold I feel as I pass the smoldering swastika and look away.

1. He taught me to absorb and welcome the blackness of the smoke.

The lighting followed us all the way back to the hotel, even after the rain had stopped. When we finally arrived, and the locks were disengaged, I opened the car door in a flash. I tumbled out, taking big gulps of the sweetest, freshest air I’d ever breathed. Air that tasted of Earth and freedom. Air that will smell similar, like déjà vu, when I sprint down the lowered hatch ramp of a C-130 and throw myself onto American grass for the first time after being deployed for most of 2004.

Back in the parking lot, I was on my hands and knees struggling to keep myself upright as the gravel bit into my palms and kneecaps. My father took his time getting out of the car, coming around my side, and whacking me in the back of the head for making a scene in public.