Alone in my father's apartment, I began to dig through his desk drawers, his closet and even under his bed -- in hopes of getting to know him. In his closet the mixture of musk and menthol cigarettes permeated everything. For the first time, I felt close to him. My emotions overflowed as I examined his clothing, accessories and collection of Playboy magazines. I put on one of his business suits, which was baggy on my then 5'10 frame. With a smile, I lifted my head high and noticed the medicine cabinet in front of me. I opened the mirrored door; expensive looking jars of eye creams and moisturizers stared back at me. He was GQ personified: business, fitness, fashion and impeccably groomed. "Your image is your passport," he always said.
My father had been the fourth child in a family of 10 brothers and sisters. His mother was the devout Catholic disciplinarian that held the family together, while his father was the charming man who wandered in and out of their lives. As a teenager he was introduced to responsibility by having to provide financially for his home, working as a tailor after school and every weekend. When he married my mother his aid didn't end. He was the head of two households. After their divorce, he remarried and had three more children, and still helped his siblings and childhood friends secure visas, homes and jobs in the United States. In his 40s he earned a doctorate in economics from Fordham University. His impressive resume contrasted the way he treated me -- the neglect convinced me there was something repellent about me.
"Only you can take control of the things that you do. You're getting fat. Do something about it before you ruin yourself," my father told me, laughing and pinching my lower-back flesh in front of his friends. His comments confused and embarrassed me. I was a growing 13-year-old boy who was not overweight. My hormones were raging, my body was changing as I embarked on puberty. Earning my father's love and respect became my goal.
How can I transform myself into someone acceptable? I asked myself. Bulimia was not an option, the finger down my throat was torture and the results were too messy. Running 10 miles a day, five days a week became my savior. When it rained, I stayed in and used my mother's Jane Fonda's Workout video. Food was fuel and only used when I felt light-headed. I selected five pieces of leafy greens, sans dressing, with protein that fit in the palm of my hand. In two months, I was emaciated. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I could touch-play my spinal cord like a xylophone. Like a shot of morphine to severe pain, anorexia numbed me. The emptiness was soothing; I felt "elevated."
My earliest memory with my father was through a picture of us together. I was facing the camera with an ice cream mustache while he looked at me, adoringly. Despite the contrast between his white skin and my brown complexion we shared a similar face. My parents had divorced soon after my first birthday. He had left the Dominican Republic for New York City to start a new life. My mother followed soon after, independent of him while I was left with my maternal grandparents. My mother brought me to live with her shortly before my sixth birthday. On a soggy night, over a sancocho supper, I "met" my father.
"In his face I see the two of us," he told her, "but he has the best of you." It was the nicest comment my father ever made about me. Throughout the years, every subsequent encounter, he found more that I needed to work on. I wasn't achieving high enough marks in school, I was rude, and I was gaining weight.
The summer I turned 15, I thought I could finally start to build a solid relationship with my father. After finishing my freshman year of high school, with honors, my father rewarded me with an invitation to spend time with him and his family in New York City.
At JFK airport I searched for my father, eager for our reunion to begin. One hour passed, and I realized no one was there to greet me. I called him at work.
"Hi, papi, it's me, I'm here," I said.
"Here? Where's here?" he asked with a bothered tone.
"At the airport, you sent me the plane ticket," I told him.
"If you know where to go, I'll see you there after work," he said before hanging up.
My mother had given me what she called "just in case money" which I debated using for another ticket to return back home. I reasoned I had come too far to turn back, so I hailed a cab and soon arrived at his apartment. He scanned me up and down, gave me a hug and said, "You're slimmer and taller. Now, you're the darker version of me," he said proudly, with his arm around my waist, admiring our respective athletic physiques.
"The trick for you now is to learn to maintain it," he said. I pulled out a box from my suitcase and carefully handed it to him. My fingers nervously rustled the silver paper covering it. My father cracked a smile after seeing the present. My mother said it was his favorite, Chivas Regal. In rock glasses, over ice, he served it to his friends that night. At the dinner table, I pushed my way to sit next to him. There was one grilled chicken thigh, neatly placed at the top right hand corner, on the center laid a mountain of greens with one tomato slice, and on the left was a spoon full of rice with beans. I made sure my plate mirrored his. After dinner, reclining on his leather sofa with a drink in his hand, he called me to his side.
"You are almost 15, practically a man. I can teach you to become a man. Mother Nature has blessed you with a big gift, you are my son, after all. I can teach you how to use it, how to please a woman properly. Do you want to meet a special friend of mine?"
As a teenager he'd been known as a "ladies man," where as I, for having a "fresh mouth, with an answer for everything." I am also blessed with your crooked bottom teeth. Thanks, but I can do it on my own, I said. By this point in my life I knew I was gay and still wrestled with being sexually abused, when I was 5-years-old, by a teenage male that lived in my grandparent's neighborhood.
"Never say that I didn't offer, my son. And your top teeth are perfect and that's all people will see," he said.
The morning before my trip back home, I ate one last supper with him and his family. The dinner table was silent, except for the cutting sounds of forks and knives. His wife brought up his gay siblings. He looked at her, took off his glasses and cut her off.
"Let me remind you to never bring up that issue around me again," he said.
The words he said to my mother, during their divorce, echoed through my head, "A son who grows up with only a mother is doomed to become a faggot." I understood from that moment on that I could never truly have my father's love and acceptance. In our Hispanic culture, being gay was as a mortal disease that led to social shame. A year later I moved back to NYC and I avoided him as much as possible. I stopped over-exercising, but still suppressed my feelings through appetite control. My wake-up call came when I was 21, working in a vegan restaurant as a host. I passed out due to malnutrition. I awoke to a crowd standing over me with a waiter holding a towel above my right eye. Kerry Washington (the star of Scandal) was the second host who covered my shifts, while I recuperated. She left a message on my answering machine, "Whatever you are going through, realize you are stronger than you know." Ten stitches later, I vowed to abolish the false idol, I erected.
The last time I saw my father was a month before my college graduation, in his Champagne-colored jeep. He picked me up after class and handed me two thousand dollars in a crumpled bank envelope.
I took it as a parting gift. I changed my body, but not being gay. My childhood of carefully shaping my outer appearance in order to appear "masculine" ceased to exist. Consciously, I decided to fade him out and not give him power over my life anymore. Unconsciously, however, I sought my father out in the men I dated. Ironically, my straight father's scrutiny prepared me for what I thought the gay dating scene was all about: image. My twenties were parties in NYC's hot-spots, high commissions, designer clothing and dating lean, "refined" men. I was the elusive character that could never be held down, who carefully selected one-night stands, that is, until I met "The German." We shared a mutual love for aesthetics, the arts, and the myth of Marlene Dietrich. For a year we lived together, creating a home and a routine, but after his visa expired, he decided to go back to Berlin.
"Mein Shatz, I have to leave you, but I don't want to let you go," he said to me. I responded that a long distance relationship wouldn't work but he insisted on it, and like a fool, I agreed. For five years, I delayed the inevitable, and had a cross-continental relationship with a man that could never fully commit to me -- but I accepted it as the norm I'd known. It took being robbed, beaten, and hospitalized and having to move in with my mother to finally end the cycle. I chased holograms in a desperate attempt to create love between a father and son that had never existed.
Now in my 30s, I stay naturally thin, by listening to my body. I enjoy rich foods paired with wine, but right before I edge to the point of overindulgence, I stop. I used to think all my father taught me was how to craft an "ideal image" for public acceptance, but I was wrong. The hatred I once had towards myself forced me to learn how to love, before it destroyed me. Thanks to him, I learned to develop the father I always yearned for, from within.