My father weighed 67 pounds when he died, but that’s not how I remember him. I remember him in his prime.
Every morning as he got ready for work, he would sing. He had a strong, steady baritone, unwavering and simple. He would stand in front of the mirror and pat Jovan Musk on his cheeks and sing, “I’m so handsome,” and wink at himself. He was only half-joking.
His tan skin showed few creases, his short, curly ‘fro had no hints of gray, even as he aged into his 40s.
His morning routine was more elaborate than mine when I was a teenager. He’d get up, have coffee and a cigarette, and then take a shower. Until he cut back, he always accompanied every action in his morning ritual with a cigarette. After he’d shaved, he would iron his dress shirt and smoke. He worked as a pit boss in a casino, so he had to wear a suit every day. It was when he’d finally finished dressing and had put on his cheap, robust cologne that he’d start singing.
If I came into the room, he’d ask me, “Why am I so handsome?” I never had a response because I—like other children—could not understand what made a parent attractive and preferred to think of them as sexless beings.
I was in the minority, however. At one point, my father had three girlfriends at the same time, dating them all for several years without any of them knowing. “I’m soooo handsome.”
There was Christina, Geneva, Janet, Kim, Ling, Hong, and Terese, who had been my stepmother at one point. (I have changed most of the names to protect their privacy.) They were all beautiful, stylish, and out of his league.
My mother, though, apparently wasn’t immediately convinced when she first met him. He was a short Italian man, only five-foot-eight. He wore pinky rings and tacky suits that were reminiscent of the Mafia, but were just what everyone wore in Newark, New Jersey, where he was from. His broad face and stocky build made him seem heavier than he actually was. But my father didn’t let his shortcomings stop him. He’d come to the restaurant where my mother worked as a waitress and hit on her every day. Eventually, she caved. They married and moved to Las Vegas. She had me. They divorced less than seven years after they married. She died when I was 7 years old.
My father’s charms worked on women—he had a crass sense of humor, was warm and funny, was emotionally distant and a little bit controlling. It was and is a magic formula for attracting beautiful, insecure women.
Once, a woman he was dating called when I was on the other line talking to my best friend. I was 13, and when you’re that age, watching MTV and talking about made-up boyfriends (I wasn’t allowed to have an actual boyfriend) is of utmost importance. There are to be no interruptions.
“Christina is on the phone.” Christina was a blonde, athletic type, different from the lusty Italians and Latin lovelies he preferred.
“Okay,” he told me and turned to finish his conversation with Janet in the kitchen. Janet was dark haired and petite. She was my gymnastics coach. In a rare sighting of one of my father’s dates, she had come over after practice.
I went back to my room, and at the next commercial break, I realized the phone was off the hook. I went to the kitchen. “Christina is still on the phone.”
“She’ll wait,” he said and turned his back.
They all did. He dated another one of my gymnastics coaches, Desiree. He dated our vivacious hairdresser, Chamarron. She was pretty in a trashy way, with long black hair and a bawdy sense of humor. She was tough and funny, she had a big personality—and I loved her. She sounded and dressed like she was from New York, but she’d really grown up somewhere boring like Ohio. She died a few years later from a brain tumor. It killed her in two months.
He once tried to date Bobbie Jeanne, the daughter of the older woman we lived with in Las Vegas. Bobbie Jeanne was a flight attendant and had perfect handwriting, large brown eyes, and dark brown hair cut into a bob. She wore a necklace with a diamond pendant in the shape of a heart. She liked pink, frilly clothes and flowing, flowery dresses. She spent an hour every morning putting on her face, even if she was just going to the grocery store. I looked up to her because she was everything I was not and everything I would never be. I was a tomboy and a gymnast with short, curly hair who played with Matchbox cars as often as I played with Barbies. I wasn’t allowed to wear dresses or makeup until I was teenager, and I was forbidden to shave my legs until the last possible minute at 12 years old. Inexplicably, I’d be chided for not being feminine enough.
Bobbie Jeanne and my father went on one date, but it didn’t work out. He blamed it on her being too uptight, but I knew she probably thought he wasn’t elegant enough and couldn’t afford her expensive taste.
He didn’t bring the various women home, he didn’t introduce any of them to me, and he never told me about them. I’d figure it out based on the scraps of paper left by the nightstand in his room. He never entered the numbers into his address book, maybe because he knew he’d only keep them around until they became too demanding of him. Geneva, though, won a coveted spot on the mirror. She was the most beautiful, and she looked a little bit like my mother—with thick dark hair that billowed away from her face and large, overwhelming eyes and coconut crème skin. But she was too hot for him. He couldn’t tell her what to do. He didn’t like that.
As he got older, his taste in women changed. He stopped dating American women and dated only Asian immigrant women he met at the casinos where he worked. Maybe their petite stature made him feel big and tall even though he was short. Many white men also buy into the stereotype that Asian women are subservient and can be controlled. If he bought into that, he found out he was wrong the hard way.
My father’s girlfriends all seemed to be rich in their home countries, but they were the black sheep of their families so they didn’t have access to any of the money. One, the improbably named Sugar, purportedly was a princess in Thailand.
Later, in his late 50s, he married a perky, stylish woman who was supposedly related to the family that owned a large technology corporation, but she was estranged from them. Her husband had died suddenly, leaving her his generous pension. The money was mysteriously gone—they did live in Las Vegas after all.
I went to visit them once. I wanted to go down the street to the casino where he worked and get a drink with his wife. My father stood in my teenage bedroom, which was now bare of furniture, and stated plainly that his wife would not be going out with me. He talked for her. “She’s not going anywhere. She’s tired. She worked all day.” She stood next to him, an uncomfortable smile pinched on her face. I yelled that she was a grown woman and could probably make her own decisions.
We ended up going for a drink, and she did what many women do in emotionally abusive relationships—she made excuses for him. “He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s just protective. It’s okay.”
I wondered what there was to love about this man, why they all adored him and acquiesced to everything he said. I wondered if he’d ever understand that in spite of himself, he’d created the exact type of woman he didn’t want to date: an independent, strongheaded person who could support herself and had her own thoughts and dreams and ideas.
I saw my father in my first and only serious boyfriend, a guy in my early 20s I’ll call Tom. I mistook Tom’s controlling possessiveness to be a sign of his deep affection for me. He grabbed my hand in public, declared us to be boyfriend and girlfriend on the second date, and once stalked me when I went out with a girlfriend, following us to the club and waiting for me outside the apartment, crying. When my father and Tom finally met, sitting side by side in a depressing hotel room, chain-smoking and eyeing each other warily, I realized they were the same person.
When I was a teenager, he would tell me: No one will ever love you. You are too hard.
He also told me: Don’t trust men. They all want one thing. Even the nice guys. Especially the nice guys.
In 2003, my father died six months after having a heart attack and a pulmonary embolism. He’d had complications from the surgery to put in his pacemaker and had gone off the medications to treat his depression. He fell into a stubborn funk, unable or unwilling to dig himself out. He stopped eating, stopped trying, stopped caring. He essentially starved himself to death.
But about a year before his heart attack, I was flying from New York to Los Angeles and had a three-hour layover in Las Vegas. To my surprise, he took off work and we met up for a coffee and lunch at the airport. For once, we didn’t argue. He’d gotten divorced. He asked me if I was dating, and I said, “Are you kidding?” For once, we agreed on something: “Me, too. It’s hard,” he said. He said he felt better than he ever had, working out every day, lifting weights, riding his bike.
For the first time, I could sense his mortality. He’d perpetually looked 35, but that day, he actually looked 59. I could see the age spots on his scalp near his slightly receding hairline. His hair had gone almost completely silver. He was skinnier than usual, and his glasses were too big for his face. He seemed tired, defeated by the recent events in his life, and he didn’t want to fight. I gave him a hug good-bye. I could smell a whiff of Jovan Musk. He was still my father. He was still so handsome.
Originally published in The Stranger.