It was Mom who didn’t love him. As far back as I can remember, their marriage was an endless round of shouts and reproaches marked by timeouts to send me off to brush my teeth. They must have had a few good moments together, but I never witnessed any. Maybe they took place while I was brushing my teeth.
No need to explain how their divorce went, no need to enumerate the long series of exits and returns, her tears and his insults. Why bother to describe the box (property of the Gloria Milk Company) Dad used when he packed or tell how he turned up at dinner time to return the box, which, with astonishing accuracy, he tossed onto my grandfather’s head.
I will tell what happened many months later, when Mom began to ‘rebuild her life.’ Well, that was the expression I once heard her use on the telephone talking to one of her girl friends as she put polish on her toenails. Toenails must have had an important part in that ‘rebuilding her life’ business, because I never saw her polish them before. Actually, before that afternoon, I wouldn’t have known for certain that she had toenails.
It didn’t take me long to understand that the red polish was a warning sign. A few days later, a man named Alejandro visited. He visited again. And he kept on visiting. There came a point when he didn’t even have to visit, because he never left. He spent weekends with us. He used the same knives, forks and dishes we did. And the same bathroom. And from time to time he would give me educational presents – books and question-and-answer toys that made me want to definitively reject learning in any form.
The new boyfriend treated me well and made Mom laugh. On the other hand, Dad . . . well, he kept on being Dad. He went along promising me that one day he’d get back with my mother and from time to time made tender gestures – like bringing her flowers or giving her a kitten. Without fail, those gestures backfired: Mom would find out he’d stolen the flowers from the neighbour’s garden. Or she’d remind him – at the top of her lungs as usual – that I was allergic to cats.
I soon understood that if I wanted to get my father back I was going to have to help him get rid of the competition. On his own, Dad could never do it. I used my twisted child’s mind to come up with the perfect plan. I demanded we spend Christmas together, just as we always had. Mom couldn’t say no. Alejandro wouldn’t dare visit, ashamed at having destroyed this family. Dad and Mom would have dinner together and remember how much they loved each other. I would behave and eat whatever they gave me. And the next day, instead of finding that jerk Alejandro in the bathroom, I’d find Dad there reading the paper: heaven.
I’m sorry to say that everything went wrong: Alejandro did in fact turn up for dinner and chatted amiably with my mother, my grandparents, my uncles, and my aunts. Dad on the other hand went missing. He didn’t even call. He simply, as usual, forgot us. When I went to bed that night, I hated Dad and desired, with all the high drama I could muster at the age of eight, not to wake up.
At five in the morning, a racket – broken glass, furniture being dragged around, and loud curses – woke me up. A thief, or, to judge by the noise, a gang of thieves or maybe a herd of buffalo, was in the house and about to destroy it.
Mom and Alejandro were already in the living room when I got there. They were frozen in a corner staring at the spectacle. It wasn’t a thief, and it wasn’t a small plane crashing against our windows: It was Santa Claus, drunk as a skunk, staggering around the living room and mumbling incoherencies. When he fell on top of the Christmas tree, his beard came off, and it was then I discovered that it was Dad hiding behind that pot belly and red uniform.
‘Merry Christmas, son!’
‘I wanted to surprise you,’ he managed to gurgle, ‘but Santa Claus didn’t want to give me his costume.’
‘Was it really hard to get it off him?’ I smiled, relieved to see him, not caring what condition he was in.
‘It took two bottles,’ he answered.
Then he fell asleep on the sofa.
And that was it.
He didn’t even bring me a present. Just the opposite: He puked on the sweater Mom gave me and took away the space ship Alejandro brought me.
Maybe it sounds stupid, but I still remember that Christmas as the best one I ever had. Great moments are the ones when you understand great things. And as the sun rose that morning, I understood, to the tune of the drunken snoring of that destructive Santa Claus, that loving Dad was like being the fan of a bad soccer team, a team that never makes it to the finals but whose fans follow them, weeping rather than laughing, from stadium to stadium: Maybe they never win, true enough, but for that very reason, every time they score they make you so happy you can never forget it.
Photograph © Bert Kaufman