I was shocked to see my father cry the night I said goodbye in February 2007. We walked to the train together after dinner my last night in town (a thing we never did in the six months I had lived in New York). Something about this walk felt normal, an unusual word to describe any aspect of my relationship with my father. I wanted to prolong this moment, as part of me didn’t want to say bye again; I hadn’t had to do that since I was 11. I accompanied him through the turnstile, even though my stop was two avenues away, and hugged him—another thing we never did—and he started sobbing.
“I wish I could have helped you,” he said.
I decided to leave New York for the hills and fog of San Francisco after a difficult and disappointing six months, rife with joblessness and untreated depression, as well as a spoiled attempt to restore my relationship with my long-absent father. Had he shown as much emotion and affection during the previous months that he did in those few minutes, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so shocked, so speechless. But there was nothing normal about our walk to the train that evening; it was quite the opposite. For the first time in over twenty years, he was my dad, and it lasted minutes.
My father split after my parents’ divorce in the mid-1990s. Rather than trying to make it big in north Texas’ regional theater scene, he decided to test his luck with Broadway. He made it after a few years, but swept my sister and me by the wayside in the process. I hadn’t seen my father, the eccentric musician, since I was a teenager when I moved to New York at 23; we hadn’t spoken in two years.
By that time, we lived on different mental planes. He lived in his own world built on the fantasy of being a rich and famous pianist—more akin to Marvin Hamlisch than, say, Yanni or John Tesh. From that world, he frequently buttered me up with promises of extreme, Jay-Z levels of wealth. In the car while taking me to school, he painted extravagant scenarios: When he got his big break, we would have seven cars. When he got his big break, Eddie Van Halen would teach me guitar. When he got his big break, our family would never have to worry about money again. He lived inside of that fantasy and never made it out, and at times I couldn’t help but fall in with him.
Looking in the mirror as I grew, I couldn’t see my father in my brown face, and I used that to my advantage. To accept my whiteness was to accept him, and him, my whiteness.
My father had a privileged, upper class life growing up. His family emigrated from Poland after World War II, but were well-situated in north Texas by the 1950s. His father was a doctor, and they lived lavishly. The family was incredibly musical, and my father was able to hone that talent from childhood. He met my mother in the late ‘70s at a department store in south Fort Worth, Texas, where she worked. A child of immigrants herself, her parents came to the United States from central Mexico during the guest worker programs in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, until ultimately settling down.
My parents’ respective upbringing led to friction in how they viewed labor, money, and the pursuit of happiness. My father was largely provided for during his formative years into adulthood, when my mother held down multiple jobs to keep the family afloat and supporting her spouse who inched his way toward musical stardom with or without her.
In the years between their divorce and my brief stint in the New York, I took his flight to Broadway hard. When their marriage ended, my mother moved us back to south Fort Worth, next door to my grandparents’ house in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. I transferred to a Catholic school in the neighborhood, and got it from all directions. At school, I was hazed and bullied for being an outsider with a funny last name that had far too many consecutive consonants. At home, my uncles singled out my Polish half, calling me “polaco” or “Polack” with an extra emphasis on that first syllable just so I knew they were using the term pejoratively. It didn’t help that I had no contact with my father’s family. I had always been told by my mother that they never spoke to us on account of our brownness. I still haven’t been able to corroborate that.
Feeling not only abandoned and rejected by my father, but alienated by my mother’s side of the family, I dissociated from the whiteness that made half of me to try and foster some kind of relationship with the uncles who were helping raise me.
My father was the only anchor point I had for a white identity, and he was long gone. Even if I had wanted to identify as white, my brownness automatically erased any chance of passing as my father’s son. Next to his pale, white skin, my color was unmistakably, overwhelmingly brown. “These are your kids?” his friends asked, gawking at the two brown kids flanking the zany pianist. “Yeah! Can you believe it?”
Looking in the mirror as I grew, I couldn’t see my father in my brown face, and I used that to my advantage. To accept my whiteness was to accept him, and him, my whiteness. I began telling my classmates I didn’t have a father, even going so far as claiming he was dead once or twice. I dropped his last name and took on my mother’s, shedding myself of the burden of my father—or at least I tried.
The more I distanced myself, the more afraid I was that I would become him. I began to qualify bands I liked once my interest in music began to bud. “He only let us listen to showtunes, so I can buy this Metallica CD,” I’d reassure myself. When I started to play the guitar, I repeatedly insisted it was a hobby, that I would never want to make a career out of it. When guitar became more than a hobby, I justified my decision to pursue music with the fact that I had a day job. I became so preoccupied with living a life so unlike my father’s that I unwittingly made most of my decisions in relation to him.
Falling into the fantasy world my father built became easier the more qualifiers I attached to each decision that mirrored his path. By the time I hit my twenties, I was neck deep in that world, convinced my music career was an inevitability.
I moved to Brooklyn on a whim after my college friends talked me into it over a few growlers of beer. A solid handful of our classmates had experienced relative success after heading to New York straight out of college. One friend deservedly found herself working on The Colbert Report in its first season. Another joined a parody news site that was ultimately bought and supported by the Huffington Post. In my naivete, I attributed their success to the geography of opportunity in the city, and simply being there with the same diploma as my peers would yield the same results.
Like my father, my idea of success was based on that of others, without taking into consideration the work or support systems they had in place. In search of validation, and seeing this as a another chance to patch up my relationship with my father, I called him for the first time in two years to make sure I was making the right decision, to see if he could summon one of his industry friends for a job for me. “Something to help me get my music career going,” I told him trying to win favor, but also trying to make some connection. He promised he could. I believed him.
Even if I had wanted to identify as white, My Brownness automatically erased any chance of passing as my father’s son.
Of course, none of this ever happened.
Worse than the fantasy that I was going to become a well-regarded concert guitarist, or the next thrash metal prodigy, was the idealization of what life with my father would be like. He offered little of himself when we finally shared a city again. Instead, I would continue to see the surprised looks on the faces of his cohorts when they met me, someone who couldn’t possibly be this guy’s son.
When we finally saw each other for the first time in years, we met at his usual hang out: a sports bar in midtown. The conversation was tense, as I vented frustration about the last decade—grievances I had brought up that he was never willing to hear, no matter how loudly I spoke. I talked about feeling abandoned, rejected. I brought up my single mother, our poverty, and where I laid blame. He still couldn’t hear me.
“I wish I could have helped you,” he said, six months later.
“It’s okay,” I replied. “Now’s just not the right time.”
I had a dad for five minutes underneath the noisy Midtown avenue; it’s not much, but it’s all I ever got.
This post originally appeared on NTRSCTN.com