Dreams From My Father

For the first fifteen years my son Lucas was alive, I nearly convinced him our life was better than it was.

He was invited to a birthday party in first grade. I went to great lengths to ensure his outfit fit the latest trends I saw in fashion magazines. Wearing clothes we couldn’t afford, he totted around the backyard like a little dandy while the other children wore tank tops and cargo shorts, which was still a cut above my own attire—discolored jeans that sagged from my hips and a hot pink polo one size too small. Lucas’s outfit was my priority that day, not my own. This made it all the more disappointing when the guests failed to comment on his spats.

It turned out that the clothes I bought for him were a mistake. The suspenders restricted his movements on the bounce castle. He was pushed aside and jumped over before being told to leave altogether. He was so afraid of spoiling his linen shirt that he ate his hotdog with far less gusto than I’ve seen him display at home, even leaving it half-eaten. Luckily, I was able to finish it and spare him from accidentally insulting the cook, the birthday boy’s father.

After cake but before presents, I made an excuse for us to leave. I told the mothers at the party that I needed to rush home to wait on my sick wife, Joy. I told the fathers something vague meant to land between the realms of sex and annoyance—I think I said Aunt Flo was in town and I was forced to deliver a package—but only solicited confused looks. The truth Lucas knew is we needed to pick up his mother from work. The truth he didn’t know is our family had not supplied a present, despite gifts being explicitly encouraged on the paper invitation.

On the street I asked Lucas to remove his clothes. He stripped and neatly folded the outfit into a bag with the receipt. This was the only way to preserve the material quality of the garments, I told him.

I’d left his regular outfit in the trunk along with a can of motor oil I’d been meaning to use once I taught myself how. Anxious to have him change before anyone saw, I knocked over the can as I reached for his clothes. The oil spilled, soaking his Minions shirt and pajama bottoms. Not wanting to risk the interior of the car and destroy what little equity I had, I devised a plan. The air conditioner broke while we were at the party, I told Lucas as I removed my own shirt and pants. Getting naked was the only logical way to keep cool.

I drove back to the mall with Lucas in his underwear beside me, praying we’d make every light. For not the first time, I was painfully aware in the differences between our skin color and general demeanor. I looked at him and sighed. He was covered with a thin layer of sweat.

“What’s wrong, Dad?”

“You deserve better, son.” I plugged in a portable fan to the car’s cigarette lighter and pointed it toward him. “No matter what people say about you, you’ll always deserve better.”

“What do people say about me?”

“That your Dad drives a car hot enough to cook pizza!” We laughed.

I left him in the car when I returned the clothes, cracking the windows like you would for a dog. He thought stores offered to hold your clothes for safe keeping. In fact, he thought all stores offered similar services.

The process was painless at the boutique children’s clothing store. The items were so pristine the self-return scanner didn’t trigger any alarms, and there were no employees present to

The process was painless at the boutique children’s clothing store. The items were so pristine the self-return scanner didn’t trigger any alarms, and there were no employees present to

I’d parked in the maternity space near the entrance so I could watch Lucas while I waited. He sat there, shirtless, staring straight ahead. He had no phone to occupy himself with, and the base model of the sedan I bought didn’t come with a radio. Complete silence and heat, that’s all he had. Strangely, no one looked at him. Not in the other cars parked nearby, not even the heavily pregnant woman forced to park elsewhere. The only thing on earth for him to do at the moment was to wait for me.

Five years later, there was a mass shooting at that same mall. It was a relative small one, and I doubt it still appears on the search results for our town. The only thing commemorating the event is a small plaque near the door with as much significance as a statue of a man on a horse. The mall has since been converted to a large non-denominational church, and I make an effort to say a brief prayer near the plaque each time I’m in town for service.

The day of the shooting, Lucas, his mother, and I were also there. Joy’s former coworker opened a restaurant after marrying one of the men she used to clean for. Financing fell through in the eleventh hour, and instead of sitting in a large banquet room in the mall’s auxiliary wing for the grand opening, we all sat outside in the parking lot instead. Her friends and family set trays of food on folding tables.

It was an unseasonably cold November. Having sold my jacket the year prior, I suffered the weather in nothing but a long sleeve shirt. I drifted around, stationing myself next to tail pipes of idling cars hoping the smoke would warm me. Every so often I’d feign tying my shoe so my nose and ears could also defrost.

Lucas, one of the few children there, was asked to help serve pancit to the people lined up with paper plates. I could see from his face that he enjoyed the task and liked being indispensable. Better still, he would be paid twenty dollars that we desperately needed after it was done.

The women he served told him how cute and handsome he was in Tagalog, while the men gave him quick smiles for a job well done. When one man saw how red Lucas’s ears were, he ran to his truck and gave him a beanie that said Quezon City. Lucas smiled broadly with the beanie on, unashamed of the gap between his teeth he always took pains to hide during our own family photos.

I told him on our way to the mall that it was proper to wait until the last person was served before getting your own food, which is why I would restrain myself. He took this to heart after realizing it wasn’t a riddle, and he hadn’t touched a single noodle of the food he served despite not having eaten since yesterday’s lunch. I hated how much he admired me sometimes. Not yet a teenager, he could have eaten as much as he wanted and he’d only have been encouraged to eat more.

Things might have been different if he knew I starved not for decorum, but because I owed the new husband money. You see, for the last five months, Joy and I were invited over bi- weekly while her coworker planned the eventual menu for her restaurant. She wanted both

someone intimately familiar with Filipino cuisine like Joy and someone foreign to it like me to taste her dishes and provide feedback. It was hard to believe we were the only couple she knew that fit that bill, but I was grateful for the opportunity nonetheless. It gave Joy a chance to feel less lonely, especially as each passing year diminished the chance I’d ever get enough money together to sponsor the visas I’d once promised for her family back home, and it gave me a chance to eat so much that I more or less sustained my weight throughout the lean times.

One night, the husband-to-be caught me filling my pockets with ziplock bags of pork skewers while I was supposedly doing dishes in the kitchen. He invited me out to the yard, and over a deep glass of red wine he offered me a generous loan at a friendly payment plan. He’d been off his feet once or twice, he said, and knew how the little help he could give would mean a great big deal to someone like me. I used his money to consolidate various other debts I had and with what remained I rented a fancy SUV and took Joy and Lucas to an even fancier lake house I rented for a long weekend. I cooked steaks on the grill, and when those didn’t turn out the way I wanted, I tried lobster tails. Lucas rode a jet ski for the first time, and Joy spent full day in bed. It was an enchanted time, and I still rotate photos from that trip for my phone screen background to this day.

The cleaning and administrative fees from both rentals were more than I anticipated, and before I knew it, I’d taken another loan from another man with stricter payment terms and consequences that took precedence. It’d been two weeks since I missed our first agreed payment date, and while the husband was preoccupied at the bank, the last thing I wanted was for him to arrive and catch me eating his wife’s food, so I continued to scan the perimeter like a sentry

while Joy played a game of mahjong with people that were not introduced to me and Lucas cleaned tables with the coworker. The sky was a dark grey.

I couldn’t help but notice Lucas had a natural rapport with the coworker, a woman nearly twenty years Joy’s junior. They joked around together like two adults might, pretending leftover spring rolls were rocket ships. Her movements had a bounciness that Joy lacked.

She smiled as I approached them, dipping her eyes as if to compliment me on raising such a fine boy. I must admit I was immediately taken by the small display of flattery, and the first words I spoke to both of them were:

“How would you like her to be your new mom one day, Lucas?”

Both of them stared at me like I’d vomited a bird. I was feeling too articulate to let my question hang or to change subject, so I pressed further: “Well?”

The mass shooter began firing inside the mall around that same time, and the aftermath poured out the mall doors before Lucas or the coworker could answer. We weren’t sure what the commotion was at first. Then we heard echoes of gun shots that sounded like rain on a tin roof.

In what may have been the most heroic moment of my life, I grabbed Lucas in my arms and took off like Judas out the garden. He screamed for his mother, and while I hoped Joy had the foresight to follow, there wasn’t time to confirm. I had parked far at the end of the parking lot, ashamed of anyone seeing the advertisement wrap I installed on the car for extra money, and there was a long way to go. I had told Lucas I was simply doing a favor to my friend who owned Airbnb, and as we drove out of the parking lot as fast we could, he said he hoped the new cameras got a shot of our car. It would be great publicity.

The coworker called me that evening. Joy was with them at home, though she’d likely broken an ankle in the confusion, and I’d need to take her to the Emergency Room. Her and her husband would keep her company in the meantime.

I made my wife Joy walk half a block on her broken ankle to meet me in the car along with the twenty dollars owed to Lucas from the coworker.

For the next several months, I used a combination of homeopathic medicine and online techniques to care for Joy. Things were rough going for a while, with the shape and color of her ankle swelling and swirling to previously unimaginable states, but her health prevailed, and her ankle eventually became what you might call healed.

Though I did my best, those months took a grave toll on our marriage and an even worse one on our finances. Joy was a housekeeper by profession and worked hand to mouth. She was good at her job, but ultimately replaceable. All her clients had moved on in the time she was off her feet. Now that she could walk again, she couldn’t work. When she called her former coworker to ask for help, the number was disconnected. They had moved to the Caymans.

We downsized our rental from a small home in the good suburbs to a basement apartment in the bad suburbs. While I convinced Lucas that our move was an upgrade, that houses only pushed families apart, the closeness in our quarters did little but wedge a frostiness between Joy and I. One night while I slept on the couch, she used my phone and spent the money I had squirreled away for an investment fund on a red eye plane ticket. She was gone when we woke up. I told Lucas she went home to care for a dying relative. Last I heard, she was back working at the hostess club in rural China where I met her.

I head this from the letters Joy eventually wrote to Lucas by the time he entered high school. That she still had our correct address is a stoke of pure luck. We’d moved many times in the years since she left, chasing rents like rat hounds out to the farm lands, only to wind up back where we started in the basement apartment, subletting at a steeply discounted rate due to the prolonged fumigation happening in the upper floors of the building.

She asked Lucas not to mention she had written. He did mention the letters, naturally, though he tactfully omitted her request when he told me about them. I didn’t discover it until later when I found her letters during a panicked sweep of Lucas’s room for spare change. He had hidden them behind a panel in his drop ceiling, tucked inside a folder of questionable illustrations.

I kept my discovery a secret from Lucas, only perfunctorily asking after his mother once or twice a month before devouring the details myself afterward. She wrote him regularly and with passion. It was impossible to tell what Lucas said when he wrote back, if he did at all, as her letters overflowed with information, a flood of language that destroyed villages of context in its path. I learned things about her I never knew while we were married, like the Parisian method she preferred to use when smoking cigarettes. In the last letter from her I read, she asked Lucas for money. She wanted to fly to America to see him, or perhaps buy him a ticket to see her.

I never got to read her reply if she ever sent one. Around that time, I had a run-in with a creditor of mine. One of the nefarious types I further entrenched myself with after my run-out on the coworker’s husband. Between jobs, I’d taken up a bit of idle gambling, first at the slot machines downtown before a lucky streak of wins brought me to private backroom games of War. When I won, I gave Lucas things like video games, fishing rods, and a puppy dog. When I

lost, I had to take these things away before someone else did, since the best and worst part of these private games was the ease of getting a bridge loan. If your face was recognizable like mine, the money was yours. Two men visited me after I missed one of these debt repayments. They didn’t mean to hurt me, but they intimidated me in such a manner that I doubled over myself when I backed away, my foot stuck in a sewer gate.

The trip broke my left ankle, ironically the same one Joy had broken years earlier at the mall. In contrast, and in what may have been for the best, the men who intimidated me took me to the emergency room against my protest. Confined to a small manual knee scooter and a cast just as Lucas graduated from his junior year of high school, I could no longer reach behind the false panel in Lucas’s ceiling. This cut me off from Joy’s letters, and the in the unsettle of my injury, I didn’t think much to ask about her, either.

Two weeks into the summer, I noticed Lucas acting despondent and glum. Perhaps the next letter from his mom never arrived, or perhaps it did and he didn’t like what it contained. Maybe he was finally beginning to discern the reality of our financial situation.

I was further in the red than I’d ever been thanks to the medical debt I incurred, but I couldn’t stand to see my son down in the dumps like he was. With the newfound free time I had while I recovered, I took a free public speaking course online and used what I learned to negotiate higher spending limits on my open credit cards. On a Friday evening, I let Lucas drive my perennial sedan with his leaner’s permit. We were getting dinner and a movie.

The dinner was one of the better meals I’ve been fortunate to have. Our new neighborhood didn’t have the widest selection of eateries, but there was one last bastion of a long-dead franchise chain called Irv and German’s. Once inside, we discovered it had no relation

to the original company, but a local couple had bought the rights to the name and resurrected the menu the best they could. I ordered the Kaiser’s Platter with extra sausage, Lucas the Hamburger. We played our favorite parlor game while we waited, a tricky rendition of word association. Lucas was almost good enough to beat me now.

I asked if he wanted his first taste of booze. He was older than I was when I first had it, and I was deeply impressed with the restaurants collection of authentic Bavarian Lagers. I could be his sherpa into the world of alcohol. He declined, albeit reluctantly. I ordered an ice cold Heineken straight from the can. The alcohol helped steel my nerves while I waited for the waiter to run my credit card after the meal, and it allowed Lucas and I to expand on our conversation on the way to the movie. He told me about his plans for summer, college, his career, and his future, all in only a few words.

Lucas helped me with the metal detector at the theater. The security wouldn’t allow me to pass on my scooter, so I hung my arm around him and hobbled through, painfully aware of how long it had been since I last showered. We gave the customary salute to the officers after they searched our pockets and stood in line for tickets to a comedy that was supposed to be quite good according to Lucas.

As we waited, a clique of boys Lucas’s age came out of another screening. I didn’t pay them a second glance, but the tension Lucas generated once he saw them filled the room. It wasn’t hard to guess why. I straightened my back as best I could on my knee scooter. If these boys wanted to bully Lucas, they’d need to do so in front of me. The stronger I looked, the harder that would be to do. I reached out to grab Lucas’s hand for support, but he quickly pulled it away.

To my great surprise, they passed us without acknowledging Lucas at all. When I gave him a bemused look, he ignored me in turn. We didn’t speak again until we ordered our concessions: bacon-wrapped scallops topped with aioli and a strawberry milkshake for me, popcorn and soda for the boy. He guided me to my place in the front aisle reserved for the disabled and we settled in for the previews. We’d arrived unusually early, and our seats were in full view of the entrance, so we saw each and every person who joined us in the theater that night. This made for good threat assessment.

Lucas was right, the movie was funny. Laughing after the five Heinekens I drank put me in such a good mood that I’m afraid I overstepped my social limits during one particular scene. It was a steamy number between the main character and his love interest, a real moment of passion. In the silence of the theater, I did my best impression of a sitcom audience and busted out a loud “Oooooooooooh!,” tilting my head back slightly so the rest of the audience could hear.

It was not my best work. The only response I received was a hearty “Shut up!” from the back.

Lucas immediately excused himself to use the restroom, leaving his cellphone in the seat’s cup holder. Seconds later, it started ringing.

Already in hot water from my outburst, I grabbed it as quickly as I could. Was it Joy calling him? Or maybe the boys in the lobby from earlier, calling to kick his ass? Had my debt collectors somehow found his number?

It turned out to be an alarm he’d set to go off at 8:23pm. I turned it off and returned to the home screen. Through some backchannel the alarm opened, I was able to access Lucas’s phone

unlocked, a privilege rarely afforded to me. The screen was on peak brightness. Someone in the row behind me nudged my seat with their toe.

The first thing I did was open his text messages. The only ones there were from me, advertisers, and automated authentication codes. Maybe he deleted the juicy ones. I went to his applications next. It was primarily games, along with an assortment of study and productivity tools. I couldn’t find an email app.

Cognizant of how little time remained before Lucas returned, I opened his photos. There were a few self-portraits, many photos of the puppy during the short time we owned it, a lunch we had together before I broke my ankle, and two pictures of me at the park. The only photo that wasn’t one he had taken himself was his most recently saved. It was strange.

It was a cartoon of a boy like the ones I found in his folder, sitting alone in a room with the following text emblazoned over the image: If only you knew how bad things really are.

I looked at it for a few moments, trying to decide what it meant. Was it about the boy in the picture? The state of the world? Lucas himself? Me?

I locked the phone again and threw it in the cupholder a bit too hard. Lucas came back the next instant. I watched the remainder of the movie in a daze, unsure of how to interpret what I saw. I felt angry. What on earth did Lucas find relatable in that image? If only Lucas knew how bad things truly were, then we’d have something to talk about. He only knew a fraction of the trouble we were in, the debts we had, the debts I’d pass on, the absolute hole I had dug us into, the dregs of survival I called my life, the future my younger self would have considered a fate worse than death.

He didn’t know the extent of what I’d done over the years to keep us afloat. The indignities I’ve had to endure. A constant cycle of low-wage jobs with superiors half my age, schemes that only pushed me further back, endless bureaucratic nightmares applying for benefits that still left bills unpaid, the hotels we stayed at that weren’t actually vacations, countless humiliations I’ve befallen for ersatz criminals—illegal loan sharks and legal money lenders who exploited my humanity and my respect for life as they suctioned all they could from me. He didn’t know the things I’ve had to do in the alleyways on spring mornings.

My anger reached its boiling point as the movie reached its climax. I looked over to Lucas wearing the worst scowl I could muster. I was thinking I’d punch him and win back the adoration of the theater after my sitcom stunt from earlier.

At that moment, whatever joke was on screen must have been unearthly funny, for what I saw arrested me. Lucas was smiling wide enough to show his signature gapped tooth. I hadn’t seen it in what felt like years.

My anger collapsed.

Perhaps that was the point—that Lucas didn’t know. I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid. As hard as I tried to insulate Lucas from the horrors my life wrought, I was only one man. I couldn’t prevent everything from seeping through. He must have seen the effects living has had on me, the sudden acute alopecia I developed last year, the number of days Dollar Store gout had me immobile, the various plans and professions I refused to talk about. He might have even

deduced that half of my reserved bathroom time each afternoon was spent in tears talking to my reflection. Maybe after talking to the kids at school he might known it wasn’t normal to have surprise sedan sleepovers or to call utility companies to explain your father was in the hospital with colon cancer. Or maybe he didn’t talk to the other kids at all, so he only picked up these details piecemeal. The ten minutes of streaming time our phone plan allowed him wasn’t enough for him to catch up on the latest shows, and it’s possible someone saw him wearing jeans they thought their parents had thrown away. He may have been shut out of these conversations, especially if he’d already used his gas telling stories from our trip up north with his mother.

I reached out and grabbed his hand, and he squeezed it back. I loved my son. I could still love him, even if I didn’t have the power to change our trajectory. I told myself that was an accomplishment. I also told myself that even if this was our last good night together, it was perfect. I was lucky to experience it. There are people out there who are infertile, or who’s children hate them. Hopefully this would not be our last good night together. But if it was, it was still a good thing to have.