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It wasn’t much to look at ? a shriveled plum that bordered on prune status ? that was all I had to eat for the day. My other hand held a palm full of rusty nails?all I had left of my father. He left home when I was sixteen months old leaving my sobbing mother in an abandoned apartment with only her name, and me. She told me he left to find work in the construction trade which was apparently a booming business out west.
I remember my mom grabbing my tiny fingers and helping me wave goodbye to a man I’d never really known. Of course my whole childhood my mom told me stories of my father’s bravery and insistent charisma. “Everyone loved him hijo (son),” she would whisper at night as we sat huddled by the flickering lamps of Grand Central Station. “Even the rats and snakes”. Whenever she said this I was always conditioned to huddle closer and beg for another story of his kindness and altruism. She would comply, acting as if it pained her to mention any part of him, but she always smiled faintly as the story began and I would watch her eyes fill with memory as she was lost in better times.
My favorite story was of the time my father and mother were walking down the sun-scorched beach of Hawaii when they came across a baby turtle that was struggling to reach the foaming waves that roared down the beach. As gently as he could, my father held out his hand and allowed the helpless little animal crawl onto it before he carried it out to the water. Mamà said he loved all of nature’s children; even those with four legs and flippers.
Stories like this warmed my heart when it got too cold in the winter and piercing white flakes poured down from the sky and filled our boots and socks. Mamà would wrap any blankets or coats she scavenged from dumpsters or vacant apartments around me. “But what about you, aren’t you cold?” she would ask. I would whisper meekly, fully aware I had no intention of giving up my warmth for her. “You need it more my child. I’m fine.” And I could always see the pain through her strained smile. We both pretended not to notice.
Throughout my childhood we were always moving. I felt like a kid from the book series my Mamà read to me?“The Boxcar Children”?except we never lived in a boxcar and I had no other kids to play with. Occasionally we would see boys about my age walking down the sidewalks with tattered school books clutched tight to their chests but when they saw us they would always avert their eyes and walk briskly away. Mamà told me they were afraid of offending us, but I heard what the men on the street with the folded newspapers and black shiny shoes whispered about us. No one wanted us around.
In the summer, my mom would take me to Central Park and we would lounge on the emerald grass and watch the dogs playing Frisbee or the school boys riding bikes. One time, she even let me go up to one of the men with the dogs and ask to pet them. I’ll never forget the simple joy of running my fingers through their course fur and the cold sloppy kisses they gave with their lolling tongues. Sometimes I would pretend I was the dog and the men would throw Frisbees my way and I would leap to catch them. The school boys giggled and whispered to each other, but I was too young to notice the contempt in their gestures.
As I grew older, my mom began to apologize over and over again for not having the money to give me a better life. “I love you so much! But we can’t afford much right now niño (child).” I didn’t mind. I was content to hear stories of the grand life my mom lived when she was with my father. They went all around the world to exotic places where the people had strangely colored skin like mine and their words rolled off your tongue like slippery marbles. Whenever I asked what happened, my mom would shake her head and murmur “God is teaching us something. Escucha (listen).”
It was a dark cloudy day when she finally passed. We were standing by a hotdog stand, attempting to grab some scraps when she let out a scream like a cat being kicked. I called for help and pleaded with the heavens, but there was nothing I could do. I cried and cried until a women in a plastic pink suit pulled me away and murmured a mindless babble of information in my ear. I swore I would think only of my mother to ensure her memory and spirit would never be lost. I couldn’t imagine anyone else to care about the filthy homeless woman with her grimy, uneducated child. But I would care. Always.
At the time, I was not yet a legal adult and was forced into an orphanage that specialized in getting children off the street. I stayed there for about two years until the day when my father returned for me. Of course I couldn’t recognize him when he first entered the shabby bungalow I called home. He was a tall white man with thick dramatic eyebrows that reminded me of fuzzy caterpillars sleeping on his face. His mouth was curved slightly upward in a playful grin and I couldn’t help thinking all the stories had to be true. When the owner of the orphanage, my ‘foster parent’, confirmed that the man was my father I didn’t know how to feel. We both looked at each other as if there were so many unspoken emotions that just couldn’t be put into words. I felt the presence of my mother on my shoulder like a friendly sparrow, watching the man who left us.
We continued in our silence throughout the discharge process. My father didn’t ignore me, yet didn’t embrace me as if we were long friends. He wasn’t trying to be something he wasn’t. When we left the orphanage, my father began to relay stories of his travels and the adventures he’d had trying to find a decent job. He said he tried to contact us, but without an address, there was no way. He didn’t want us to live with him until he had a real place all picked out and a steady job. Unfortunately, life on the west coast wasn’t as golden as he’d thought. Finding a job without a college degree proved to be exceedingly difficult. Finally he found a place that offered him a seven year contract and a large enough salary to support us. When I asked how he had found me, he said that fate just had a way of putting people together. That, and my pretty unique name: Jesus Claro Tortuga.
I stayed with my father until I was nineteen. We never had the simple close relationship most fathers had with their son, but we got along fine. I got a full scholarship to a local college and what my mother had always promised me was mine: an education, a roof over my head, and someone to love. And every night, I read aloud from The Boxcar Children, with my Mamà listening from above.