Operator: “Thank you for using destination assist. Where are you heading today?”
Middle-aged Balding Man (MBM):“Hi. Netherleigh Place — Herndon, Virginia please?”
Operator: “Hmm could you repeat that? Nothing seems to be coming up.”
MBM: “Netherleigh Place, Herndon, Virginia.”
Operator: “I’m sorry, still unknown.”
MBM: “Neth-uhr-lee Place. I think I live there. I’m 80 percent sure it exists.”
Operator: “Nehhhth … What?”
MBM: “Netherleigh — N for Nancy. E for Eric. T for Tommy. H for Harry. E for Eric. R for —”
Operator: “Ah OK, thank —”
MBM: “No, stop. Now you have to let me finish. L for Larry. E for Eric. I for India. G for George. H for Harry. Netherleigh.”
Operator: “You have a good trip, sir. The map should be on the monitor now.”

I wilted in the passenger seat, shooting sideways glances at my father as that seat belt, that noose, dug its way deeper into my shoulders. He sat there. All satisfied, all smug: Those smug hands perched smugly behind that smug steering wheel, his smug fingers drum-drum-drumming as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” blared, that smug ballad of Smug Nation, where my father holds court, where he delivers smug justice, where the morning coffee is sipped from ceramic mugs that all say “sMug.”

I loved him, but there were moments when that confidence, whip-sharp and as easily apparent as it was, felt like a strain on my own insecurities, like a glowing, neon spotlight silhouetting the smaller, angrier person leaning next to it. The attempts at comedy, landing with all the subtlety of an old man heaving wheels of cheese at anyone in range, didn’t help. Nor his unflinchingly gregarious demeanor: A rotund clown who seems to tail my father wherever he goes, gluing posters blasted with bold-print small talk on the faces of unwitting strangers.

To go with my dad to a sporting event is to reevaluate the meaning of sanity. The home team could be up 50 points or down 100, but rather than cheer, or for that matter, form anything resembling a cogent string of language, he just screams. And the unfortunate human being idling next to him on the stands of FedEx Field never rocks back and forth to the familiar cadence of “LET’S GO REDSKINS.” That human being is stabbed by a piercing screech, that human being gasps, he pirouettes around and is met by an image more perplexing than it is predatory: a middle-aged balding man wielding a hotdog.

Back in the car, bobbing, that perpetual smile gashed across his face, he waited for the final “Hey! Teacher!!” before turning to me and doing that thing he always does when Roger Waters’s voice gravels through the speaker. He told me a story.

“Do you know where I first heard this song?”

It was in the dining hall, his first day on campus. A freshman, floating between uncertainty and anxiety, he watched as classmates crowded around each other in similar confusion, broken off into little shards, little groups of dormmates and roommates. A few of them were playing pool. Gangly, mustachioed Pankaj Seth inhaled, gathered his courage and raised his right foot to step cautiously in their direction. The moment it reconnected with the dining hall floor, Pink Floyd’s incendiary lyrics blasted through the room, the chords sweltering with youthful hostility, goading anyone listening to stoke the flames, ramp up the volume. And my father? My father, he smiled. He walked to the beat. The guitars thrummed his arrival.

***

He studied chemical engineering at one of India’s premier technological universities. He lifted weights. He played the electric guitar. He drank alcohol. He chain smoked (for a bit). He managed the dining hall. He got good grades. Constantly in motion, Pankaj (not pronounced “Pan-Jack”) would spend his summers at an industrial paper factory, learning the ins and outs of chemical production while drinking cheap chai and riding to work on an even cheaper bicycle. His plan was to move back home and seek employment somewhere within the city’s massive steel plant, the same one that gave his father his first-ever engineering job all those decades ago.

He stuck to the plan, kind of. After graduating, getting married, becoming my dad and settling in Bhilai, Pankaj did the one thing he’d really wanted to do his entire life. He started his own business and, in the process, deftly sidestepped the path that had been cleared for him by his father. And maybe it was just that damned Pink Floyd song, always bouncing around in the fringes of his conscience, or maybe a yearning — a real, honest yearning to give his kids something more than he had growing up — but he never spent a minute behind a factory machine.

Instead, he sold electrical parts. At first, nothing of significance: just light bulbs and wiring bought with money borrowed from his father, then peddled to any local businesses that let him break even. He would work long hours without any office space, cold calling clients, hounding whatever suppliers he could scrounge up, making deliveries in the summer heat, probably humming that song, beaming that stupid, toothy, mustache-framed Pankaj smile while he did so.

“The thing about business,” he would say, “is always being on time.” This, to him, meant not wasting any time. I’d see him on Sundays — when the rest of my extended family simply lazed around the TV or ate the Indian version of brunch, with samosas and jalebis and dhokla. The early years of my childhood, the ones I spent in India, were defined by that sense of one-noteness. Parenthood lived in my mother’s hands. The storybooks I thumbed through with her fingers, those seconds they hung in the air, fixed on the moon, lost in the night sky’s fiery blue miasma.

Masculinity was my father. Being able to provide, and the willingness to dedicate yourself to that abstract idea of “success” became, to me, what manhood was about. It nipped at me as I grew older, pushed me, this obligation to embody an unachievable archetype of responsibility, as if I’d been floating through life in the carcass of a human being too quiet, too scared to tell the world what he needed from it. Was I my father’s son? Did I fill out the shadow he cast? Did I do as he asked? And if not, was I turning my back on the work he did, the hours he toiled to even give me the opportunity?

Many of my white friends respond to these questions with some variation of, “It’s your life, man. Why should anyone else decide how you want to live it?” Because when you grow up adrift in a sea of people who look nothing like you, one thing becomes very clear: Find a model of success and stick by it. For me, it was my father. He fought, scrapped, bled to give me my voice. So shouldn’t part of its song be his?

Quietude is the currency in which this gendered culture of expectation deals: The stillness in my heart that held tight those empty smiles, wound them back as a violin peg flexes taut its creaking strings. It’s the same silence I see in the eyes of those who call this space “a closed forum where people of color bitch.”

***

As his business grew, so did my father’s aspirations. After spending years turning a small electrical parts supply service into a legitimate, successful enterprise, his eyes locked westward, toward the United States. The economy bubbled in the heyday of the dotcom boom, as its rumbling transition into a new technological age turned people with the faintest bit of tech experience into overnight millionaires. My father had no tech experience.

So when he first traversed the 8,431 miles separating my two homes — a trip he made without my mother, my brother or me — he had to teach himself how to program. He lived in a small apartment with a few other Indian engineers and, eventually, started working full time at my mother’s older brother’s consulting firm.

He’d visit every few months, bringing with him a suitcase full of toys, candy, books that I hadn’t yet realized were just an attempt to cover up his absence.

My grandfather didn’t know his father. He didn’t know his mother. Both died before he could form any meaningful memories to one day share with his grandson. He was raised by his older sister in a secluded home in Allahabad. He was hungry. He braved tuberculosis as a child, and in those early, messy stages of my country’s fight for independence, when his world teetered between violence and silence, he forced himself to go to school.

Santsaran Seth always had a knack for numbers, for the mathematics textbooks he’d spend hours, days pouring over and dissecting. Then, when he moved to a small town to start work at its then-fledgling steel plant, it was with the distinct sense that life was finally moving in the right direction. In time, he got married, had my father and my two uncles. He traded in his bike and bought his first car. The years passed and over time, as the small town became a thriving community, my grandfather saw himself go from a nobody mechanic to a pillar of the community. Everything pivoted around the steel plant.

New Years parties, wedding ceremonies, the schools he sent his kids to, the neighbors he lived next to were arteries that fed hot, molten blood into the beating heart he left in those machines. Constantly on call, he made factory trips late into the night, where he oversaw the repair and upkeep of virtually every engine and metal contraption housed within. To say he worked long hours would be a gross understatement. They were constant, unrelenting. On the tough nights, if a new system was being put into place or if an older setup had shown signs of decay, he wouldn’t come home at all; he would sleep at the factory.

Yet, when I ask my father about his childhood, he doesn’t recall any emptiness. His father was rarely there, but in the moments he was, he came with his innocence and his love and his tenderness and his voice. He acted in musicals, sang hymns, and now, when I hear his silent notes meandering next to Kishore Kumar’s, I feel the fracture, the complexity, the beauty of the values he instilled in his sons: broken men molded under the touch of hunger, of expectation.

***

My father remained a software programmer for exactly two years, until the routine started to stain his hands like the factory oil he turned away years ago. When he picked us up at the airport, I remember the grimaced edges of his smile, the wavering hands with which he pointed at his beat up Honda, used, bought cheap off a co-worker.

In the months after he quit his job and first moved out to Northern Virginia, the rest of his family remained behind. On the day he came back, I dropped a carton of milk and little white flecks dotted his shoes. He hunched deep down on his knees with a towel, made milky cop circles on the ground before slowly peering up to tell my brother and me we’d be driving, then settling 1,200 miles east. He looked scared.

He’d started another business, this time owning Subway franchises — unglamorous work that, in its early days, would see him stumble through the front door in exhaustion, clutching a bag of the day’s leftover bread. There were usually a few hunks of Italian but mostly stale wheat that carried with it that unshakable stench of yeast. The next afternoon, as we did homework in silence, my brother and I’d gnaw at the loaves cautiously.

The smell permeated everything, to the point where, when friends would come over, I’d try to break the ice by saying things like “Yeah, Jared The Subway Guy actually lives in one of our closets and every now and then he comes out and just rubs against the walls. We’re trying to get him some help.”

That was a long time ago, and, noble-hearted as it may seem to wring sweat and tears pursuing some pulpy notions of The American Dream, my father never once apologized for the times he abandoned my mother, my brother and me while cementing that dream with reality. I shudder to think what he’d have said had he failed.

Still, it’s hard for me to deny that the life he’s lived has been uncompromisingly, unabashedly, utterly his own. My father never inhaled syrupy-hot steel or donned one of the hardhats I see sidled nonchalantly on my grandfather’s back seat. In the same ways his parents, who laid a steel road jutting out of obscurity, did for him, he gave me a voice — a voice stunted, broken, bent under the weight of what it’s expected to say, to not say.

He taught me not to settle. And I may never, ever be the things he saw in me, the things he still sees in me. I may never be him, but because of him, because of those 8,431 miles that came first and then the 1,192 miles that came after, I will always fight to be someone. Because he looked me in my eyes, he held my hands tight and he told me his story.

***

There’s a part of this story my father doesn’t want me to talk about. That’s because this chapter, this little tidbit he’d much rather see buried with the voice memos of him doing what only he recognizes as singing, starts the night he dragged us to a Dallas Hooters franchise, one that has long since been framed in the patchwork suburbia of Olive Garden. He did this knowing full well my mother had no idea who, what, where or why — existentially speaking — Hootie The Owl was. Getting a read on my father is akin to performing palm-divinations on Edward Scissorhands, yet upon discovering an erupting Mount Vesuvius where his wife used to be, his only plan of action seemed to start and end with giggling awkwardly in no particular direction, like an LSD-addled hippie galumphing nude toward a grizzly, the word ‘free’ emblazoned on his left gluteus, ‘love’ on his right.

In a roundabout seven points, this is what happened:

1. My father, who keeps shooting weasely side-glances at his wife, his head glitching back and forth like a bird’s, still seems strangely confident this will all somehow blow over in the end. “Hey! It’s just boobs!” is probably the monologue reeling down like closing credits right behind his bulbous eyes, its tone resembling what would happen if Jerry Seinfeld played ‘Chad, peer-pressuring bully’ in a PBS after-school special.

2. He’s like a nine year old, clenching on for dear life to the Snickers bar melting inside his left pant pocket. If only he’d let his fingers breathe, if only he’d let go, if only he’d chill the eff out, fatty, he wouldn’t be stuck with a fistful of coco-scented poo-paste smeared around his upper thigh. But the joy in our lives, and the tragedy in his, is in knowing he never will.

3. Remember those times in “Kill Bill” where Beatrix Kiddo spots her mortal enemies, and the way Quentin Tarantino puts it on screen is by ramming the frame with closeups of her face, siren flares serenading their arrival? If I have to hypothesize, I’d hypothesize it’s kind of like that through my mother’s eyes, out of which courses a raging stream of black vitriol that makes Niagara Falls look like a saucy Michigan squirrel relieving itself.

4. The only thing I pick up from my father’s side is the sound that erupts whenever he rounds off a sentence or is about to close his mouth, because it can only be described as an audible squelch, a soaked rubber boot scrunching around on linoleum floors. A guttural fart that cascades up his throat and wafts over the conversation, injecting in the air a stench of buffalo wings/defeat.

5. I’m pretty sure the bald patch on the back of his head is encased in a plasticy sheen of sweat.

6. Yet, the thing about this evening, and at its core, the thing about this moment in my life, is that it is the first intersection, the first traffic signal at which I brake hard, only to crack my forehead across the realization that my father isn’t a lonely hermit living in the lumber cabin atop Mt. Cool. Gone is brown Tom Selleck, lush ‘stache chasing after its master, and in their stead stands this blubbering human, this man, this dude in the paunchiest sense of the word.

7. The more I think on it now — 12 years later, on the verge of geysering into this hair-thinning, non-tax-deductible thing we call adulthood — the more poetry I see in getting that first smack of life-affirming disappointment at my father’s hands. Partly, because I will always love him. Though mostly, because now, whenever a worm-jacuzzi doubling as puddle water seeps through my boot heels, or the neighbors spot me suspiciously kicking dirt over the dog diarrhea freshly spangled across their petunias, or life, just in general, hands me diarrhea-dipped lemons, Hooters — with all its neon, globular hedonism — comes to mind.

And on the rare occasions I feel Hootie The Owl’s arm draping my own shoulders, I don’t sag to the pull of cheap beer and buffalo wings. Not immediately. Because on those rarest of occasions — when childhood untethers its grip and shoves me through the murky portal that stands guard over responsibility — the imagined aroma of diarrhea-dipped lemons fills my nose.

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