Of course he was not a perfect father. More than his imperfections, I remember his love of simple things: gardening, cooking, making people laugh. These are the things that nurtured us and, together with his rituals, urged our little brown bodies towards growth. Every morning before he left for work, he’d prepare café con leche with a little sugar in a bottle that he would leave for me on the kitchen counter. (He did this for me well past my 9th birthday.) After work, he came home with a Chicago Sun Times under one arm and an empty thermos in the other, arriving happy and ready to feed us.
“Hi monkey, whad arju doin? Ju hongri now, Nena?”
We loved the Puerto Rican meals he cooked after work and being greeted by the smell of sofrito. At the stove next to Mami’s dark, curvy body, it was easy see just how short Papi was, but the head of thick curls he carried added a full inch to his height. Plump olive cheeks framed a set of smiling eyes that laughed often and cried too quickly. The kitchen was Papi’s performance space. For Mami, it was the place where she’d watch her daily novelas and layer coats of frosted burgundy polish over well-nurtured fingernails. Dinnertime marked her exit for another night of lotería with her friends. These departures lasted past midnight and extended beyond our childhood years.
On Saturday mornings Papi’d nudge us to crawl out of bed like baby cubs and follow him around the city, from lakefront parks to neighborhood markets. He liked to form new friendships and sought a captive audience everywhere we went. Women seemed especially drawn to his humorous antics and unpolished charm. This made for long visits with Humboldt Park vendors, where we would spend many childhood hours. La carnicería was a gross little storefront somewhere on Division. We felt sad for all the live chickens. We’d wait outside and wave frantically from the murky window, to keep Papi on track for our next stop: la frutería. It was our favorite place because he’d let us buy our own mango and eat it in the store. I savored every second I held the sweet slippery seed against my mouth in a gesture that reminded me of my bottle of café con leche.
It rained that night and I dreamt about water. I was standing up to my waist in a lake or a river, wading toward a shore that never seemed to get any closer. Something swept over my foot but the water was too dark for me to see what it was. The water got deeper and so I swam, fast, not wanting to feel that dull weight brush against my skin again. I swam until my hands hit sand, and as I stood up near the shore something unseen crashed out of the water and over my face.
I gasped and woke up in time to see Casey laughing in daylight above me behind a black curtain of hair, her long fingers recoiling from my nose.
She exhaled and her hair parted neatly down the middle. “Dude, you snore so fucking loud!”
“Well, you don’t have to try to murder me for it. Go watch TV or something.”
She lay back down next to me. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to get out of bed today. Feel that breeze... we finally got a breeze.”
It was mid August and the past week had been brutal... five straight days near 100 degrees, the nights hardly bringing any relief, and mornings starting hot and early on stagnant, sweaty sheets. But this morning was cool and clean, with some soft rain still falling from light clouds left over from last night’s heavier storms.
Casey had her back to me, and her head blocked my view of the clock. “What time is it?” I asked.
She leaned up a bit on her elbow, and I saw the clock blinking 12:00. “Shit,” she said. “Power must have gone out again.” She reached for her phone next to the clock, then asked, “Hey Jack? What time are you supposed to be at work?”
“11:00… why? How late am I?”
“20 minutes.” I heard her punch out a text before setting her phone back on the nightstand.
“Who was that?”
She flipped over to face me. “My sister. She said thanks for letting me drive home last weekend.”
“Thanks for not wrecking my car.”
“No problem.” She closed her eyes and bunched up her pillow under her head. “Well... what are you waiting for? Get dressed.