In 1983, the winter I turned sixteen, things were good at home even though my parents were divorced and I lived alone with my mother. I possessed a crisp new paper license from the State of New York and had relatively free use of her Plymouth Volare station wagon. I’d been running around 40 miles a week for the upcoming track season, coursing along cold suburban streets in the dark, my body a perfectly synchronized machine, endorphins filling me with an open-ended sense of joy and possibility.
Such hopefulness was new to me. That previous September, after much angst, social banishment, and general depression at the public high school I’d been attending, I transferred to a private all-boys Jesuit school where I worked 80 hours of grant-in-aid in order to receive a break in tuition, about half off the $2,200 yearly cost. At the same time, my mother had bravely shaken off her single-mom loneliness and joined a health club, working out three nights a week to regain her once highly prized hourglass figure. She’d also begun dating again, giddy about preening herself for dinners and drinks with a series of pandering middle-aged, bespectacled men who drove massive rear-wheel drive sedans. (They were absolute jerks, every single one of them, and I hated each with great fervor. But that’s another story.)
We lived in a working-class suburb of Buffalo called Cheektowaga, which is an Iroquois word that translates as land of the crabapple trees. I saw my father, a career mailman, a stoic and sometimes disapproving Irishman, most weekends. He wasn’t too keen on me going to Canisius High, the private school, but after a while he stopped harping about it. For our dates, he’d pull into the driveway and beep the horn; I’d hop in, and we’d be off to somewhere, both watching the road ahead, speaking in monosyllables, listening to tinny music on the AM radio. Usually I dreaded such encounters, fraught with awkward silences and slow time as they were. And yet I liked being near my father, flush with the possibility that we might find a way to get to know one another.
My father lived in a one-bedroom apartment, part of a squat four-unit edifice that sat in the middle of a blank corner lot; no trees, no flowers beds, bushes, or other adornment. The living room sported a pull-out couch he’d bought from a friend, an uncomfortable thing with garish orange flowers that somehow matched the pea green curtains. Under the picture window stood a set of dusty cinder block and wood plank shelves, populated by some random paperbacks, a few Reader’s Digest Condensed hardcovers, and a black-and-white TV. The kitchen, where he sometimes cooked me dinner—amalgamations that often included hot dogs, frozen peas, and baked potatoes—was large and nearly empty, with only a small formica table and four vinyl-seated chairs. Most of the time we ate from paper plates.
Something about my father seemed quieter after he left home. He rarely yelled any more—something he did often when he lived with us—and when he did, I felt better prepared. I’d somehow realized that he was just a guy who did the best he could, which for him meant working hard, keeping all gripes to himself, and certainly not showing any emotion. Except anger. Like most sons, I’d never seen my father shed a single tear.
Occasionally, we’d be driving somewhere together and I’d look over at him and think, here’s this person, no wife, no house. He looks a bit like Robert Redford, but really, he’s just a guy. Just a mailman with three kids, a five-speed Toyota Tercel, and not much else. How does he get through each day?
Right after he moved out, I’d believed that he’d gotten what he deserved: namely, a former wife who despised him and blamed him for all her troubles, and three kids who felt cool towards him, at best. Then a year or two passed, and I began to see his stoicism as a quiet toughness, an ability to endure any amount of garbage that life tossed his way. I felt a little sad for him, too, all alone in that bland apartment. But in that cheap abode I saw a Spartan way of living, as if he knew that he needed a simple life right then.
* * *
One Saturday afternoon, my father and I decided to go to a movie. Looking at the paper, I ventured into the R ratings with Tarzan, starring Bo Derek. I had a wicked crush on her. I’d watched the movie 10 on HBO many, many times.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s go see that.” I’m not sure if he was unaware of the possible nudity and sexual situations involved, or if he merely wanted to see the movie, too. Off we went, driving slow on the snowy streets.
We watched Tarzan in a nearly empty movie theater, chowing on tubs of popcorn. I tried not to seem too excited by Bo Derek as she fell into a clear blue lagoon, gauzy blouse clinging to her firm, ample bosom. I tried to forget that my dad was sitting right next to me. I kept digging into my popcorn tub, my face flushed and pulsing. She was incredibly beautiful—not only her body, but her features—those high cheekbones, dazzling eyes, flawless skin. And that high, whispery voice.
The movie was awful. Gratuitous scenes of Bo topless, terrible acting, silly dramatics, a muscular pretty-boy in a loincloth grunting like an animal, and several disturbing scenes as Bo play-wrestled Cheetah, Tarzan’s large monkey-friend, who seemed a bit horny himself, the way he kept grabbing her.
At a supposedly climactic point of the movie, the sound in the theater went out. The English hunter, Jane’s fiancée, went nuts when she disappeared suddenly. Frantically searching along a muddy riverbank—she’d been ferried away by Tarzan under the brown, rippled surface—the English hunter sloshed through the water, yelling for her¾soundlessly, his mouth open, hand cupped against his cheek.
A general malaise was thickening the air of the dark room when some guy in the front row began lip-synching. “Bo-ooow!” he screamed when the white hunter mouthed Jane! “Bo-ooow!”
Pretty soon, another guy in the back chimed in. “Bo-ooow!” they yelled together. Another joined in, and then another. Pretty soon it was a symphony of male voices, all singing the same simple name.
I looked at my dad, and he at me. “Bo-ooow!” we shouted together, with the other men in the dark theater, until the film froze and a tell-tale burn erupted in the middle of the frame just before the screen went dark.
When the lights came up, my father and I smiled at one another, and in that moment I knew I loved my father, and that perhaps he loved me. Of course, we weren’t ready to say such a thing to one another—like any newly dating couple. But that was okay. We had all the time in the world.