By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
I like to imagine I can trace my son’s birth through the lineage of his father’s past—mapping out every choice, every move, every step my husband thought was a mistake, that made my son’s life possible. It’s like visualizing the butterfly effect, resonating and sounding within one man’s heart. Of course, creating life takes two hearts. But I already know my story.
This is his story:
A black-haired boy stares at the doors of a restaurant, then pushes his way inside. He’s holding hands with a beautiful blonde, his dark brown wrist crossing boldly over her white one. The migrant workers behind the counter eye him warily, envious. It is summer in Tucson, Arizona. The year is 1970.
This boy, who is not really a boy but not quite a man, stills the tremor in his voice as he asks to see the owner. He sweeps his gaze over the adobe walls, the bare, wooden rafters, and the unique cement sculptures twisted with wire that adorn the archway. He has heard of these sculptures, inspired by the ancient Mayan artwork of Mexico. He has come to meet the artist. He grips the woman’s hand, and she squeezes back. They’ve planned the wedding for August.
The owner appears, a sturdy-looking man with a gray-swept beard and serious eyes. He sees the couple, stops and raises a hand to his chest. The hand falls away, and he closes the distance, embracing the son he has not seen in thirteen years.
Father and son waste no time filling the chasm; they simply jump it and move forward. The boy is the youngest of five; he has the shortest memory, and sees nothing to forgive. It was only out of loyalty to his mother that he adopted his brothers’ vows to refrain from seeking out the man who deserted them. Barely six at the time, his sharpest memory remains the one where he watched the tail lights fade, and ran after them, crying out, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Dad!” But no corners of this boy’s heart are dark enough to house bitterness. He’s always known the moment the calendar marked him free, at eighteen, he would find his father, and know him.
The father, Jesus, gives his son a job at Tia Elena, washing dishes. The son, Alex, is a fast learner; he is spirited and ambitious. Within a year, he is managing the kitchen. Within two, he speaks fluent Spanish, a language silenced and purged from him long ago by his school teachers. Like a chameleon he absorbs his father’s world, but reflects it with his own shape and colors. Though he won’t judge, he knows when his own son arrives, he will never leave him.
Alex and his bride work hard for this son. They make love with all the hope and abandon of newlyweds dreaming of babies. Maybe a girl will come first; it doesn’t matter. They choose the names. The faces they see in endless combinations: her eyes, his hair, his eyes, her hair, skin a shade of caramel that falls between them. They have time. When Jesus retires, they take over the restaurant. Alex continues to learn from his father: masonry, adobe-making; he becomes an artist in his own right, fashioning jewelry from silver and turquoise, and creating beautiful stained-glass windows.
But years pass, and there are no children. Alex and his wife see doctors, and learn there will probably never be children. He loses himself in the restaurant; he drinks too much. His wife begins making frequent trips to her hometown. The dull ache of infertility settles between them, and the marriage fails.
Alex shoves aside his losses and holds on to the restaurant. He builds a lounge, where soon he’ll dance nights away with a new wife, and new hopes. She is stunning, big-breasted and doe-eyed, tall and blonde, with passions that match his. Together, their passions fuel a sense of fearlessness and indestructibility. They will have a child, of course they will, and until then they will drink and dance and pour money into the restaurant, because they cannot fail.
Ten years later, there are still no children, and now there is no money. The restaurant folds. The divorce papers are drawn up. Alex loses his father. He loses everything.
Just north of the slow quiet skies of Tucson, a valley cradled among mountains blazes with sprawling growth. It is here, in Phoenix, that a man can lose himself in the bright noise and blurred speed of the city. His brothers have built a business in commercial painting, and Alex joins them, spending his days taping and brushing, trimming and spraying, and listening to the smooth familiar drone of his older brothers’ teasing. They contract with a preschool, and paint the walls in glossy reds and greens and yellows and blues. Alex, now in his forties, accepts that this brightly colored world is probably beyond his reach. He meets a woman with children of her own, teenagers, and they cautiously begin to know each other. She is done having children, and he is fine with that. Not every man is meant to be a father.
Another decade passes, and he begins to think not every man is meant to be a husband. He jokes about his marriages and his bad luck with blondes, but he never disparages the women, or himself. Well into his fifties now, the silver threads through his black hair, and his weathered skin bears the marks of the desert, though his heart remains unchanged. The narrow focus of his optimism and the strength of his vitality push him forward, always forward. He puts his skills to use at a hospital, repairing walls, broken beds, faulty electrical wires, damaged pipes. At home, he tears down walls and builds new ones. Sometimes he thinks about his father, and the cries of “Hey, Dad! Hey, Dad!” and watching the tail lights fade. Sometimes, he thinks he hears the voice calling to him, as if he were the one leaving. But when he imagines this, he is always walking toward the sound, not away from it.
Maybe it was the moment his first wife left him. Maybe it was the moment he walked away from Tucson. Maybe it was the moment he chose a job closer to home. Probably it was all of these moments that fell in a slow cascade that leads him through the path of a nurse on the second floor. Inexplicably, she tells him she’s been waiting for him, that she believes they belong together. But she’s too young, he thinks. She has brown hair. She carries a thermos plastered with pictures of her little girl. He tells her he can’t have children; she tells him she’s fine with the one she has. He tells her it would be unfair, that he may only have twenty years; she tells him she’ll take what she can get.
He thinks about the time he first walked into Tia Elena, every muscle in his body taut with a thrilling anxiety of the unknown, every nerve charged with dazzling, confident hope. He knows his future will never feel like that again. But he remembers something else; he remembers tracing the arc of his father’s sculptures: crushed rock and water, aggregate and wire, formed and bound into works of art. He remembers thinking how sometimes the unlikeliest ideas can produce something strangely beautiful.
Four months later she hands him a plastic stick with two pink lines. In another two months they learn it’s a boy. And when Alex holds his son for the first time, when the first cries echo through his heart like a distant flutter of wings, I imagine he feels like his life is just beginning.
Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website http://www.elizabethmarianaranjo.com/
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