My father and my husband met once, years before I was acquainted with Sparta, the soldier/policeman I have since married. Sparta was — and still is — best friends with my cousin George, and George brought Sparta to a barbeque at my father’s house in San Jose, California.
I love to imagine that meeting.
In the ancient city of Sparta, foreign travel and foreign visitors were prohibited. They were considered a threat to the ideas of honor and duty that formed the fabric of society. Daddy Sparta isn’t so rigid, but he is most comfortable around clean-shaven men dressed in uniform, or perhaps in blue suits with regimental ties, or at the very least in L.L. Bean clothing. I picture him on my dad’s patio, sitting stiffly in a white lawnchair next to the Jacuzzi. I sense his discomfiture at my dad’s jeans and Birkenstocks, his shaved head and goatee, his silk shirt and turquoise-and-elk-tooth necklace. Sparta was taught by his own father to distrust men with beards, and though he tries to repress it, he still occasionally utters the epithet “Beardie-weirdie.”
But then my father offers Sparta a beer, and this wins his tentative approval. My cousin guffaws with my dad as they huddle around the grill. My father is saying in his heavy Hungarian accent, “Just wait till you try my moose burgers! They are a real delicacy” — only he pronounces it “de-LICK-acy.” About then, my dad invites Sparta up to see the secret cedar-lined gun cabinet he and I built in the bedroom closet, and beards are forgotten among stories of Remingtons and Rugers and Glocks.
It seems fitting that my father would win Sparta over with his love for adventure. Sparta is my adventure partner now, but my father, or “Api,” as I called him, was the first, the original. My earliest escapades occurred on top of his shoulders, grasping his waxy head as we loped through the world. I was so high, and I could see so far. Plus there was that thrill, that tickle in my stomach, that I just might fall off.
Later, when I was getting too big to ride on Api’s shoulders, I started riding horses. Api would wake me at 4 a.m. on summer Saturdays to go to the horse shows. “Little Lady,” he’d whisper, “it’s time to get up.” I was allowed to doze a few more minutes, but soon he’d be back, gruffer now. “Little Lady! Front and center! We need to be at the stable in half an hour!” We had to bathe and braid my pony, bandage his legs, and load him in the trailer for the day’s show.
Groggy at first, I was wide awake once we got in Api’s Fiat sportscar. Every time our headlights gleamed out from the top of a hill, I’d ask, “Now? Now?”
He wore thin black leather driving gloves, the kind with holes over the knuckles. His head was freshly shaved, his homemade necklace glinting from his open jean-shirt collar. Finally, we crested a knoll and I knew that we’d reached my favorite part, a long curvy decline. “Now,” Api said, and flashed me a mischievous smile. Then he turned off the engine, put the car in neutral, and coasted.
My stomach trilled. I held my breath. We glided through the silent darkness as shadowy trees whizzed by. The object was not to touch the brake or the accelerator. Could we make it down all the curves? Through the one-lane bridge at the bottom? All the way up the next hill to the intersection?
At the show, my father was always ready — to hot-walk my pony after a jumping class, to hand me my helmet, to shine up my boots just before I went in the arena. In the late summer afternoon, when we arrived home exhausted and dirty, I’d sit with my legs propped on his, and he’d feed me slabs of fresh rye bread with sour cream. After the bread and sour cream came watermelon, carved and eaten with buck knives. We speared massive chunks with the sharp tips of the knives, gingerly fit them into our mouths, and let the juice drip down our chins. Like the sweetest center part of the melon, these memories of my father are de-LICK-acies.
When Api was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, I was dating a Mexican man I’d met while volunteering in Tijuana. My beau had come to the U.S. illegally. He was proud and stubborn and resisted learning English. Shortly before my father died, Api asked me to sit with him. “Woman-Child,” he said, “your brother has married a good woman, his career is moving along, I am not worried about him. But you . . .”
I took his hand. “Don’t worry, Api, please, I’ll be okay –”
“No. Listen to me!” he said. “I am leaving you ten thousand dollars for your wedding. But. If you marry Manuel . . .”
“You can only have five thousand dollars.”
“But don’t you think if I marry Manuel, I’ll really need the ten thousand dollars?”
“Yes . . .”
“But I don’t want you to marry Manuel.”
I laughed. Did Api really think that if I chose Manuel, I would betray my heart for five thousand dollars? He knew me better than that. No, there was something playful in the whole conversation, some joke below the gruffness.
I hug to myself a secret thought. It was not long before he died that my father met Sparta at that barbeque. In his last weeks, aided by proximity with another world, another plane, isn’t it possible that his intuition become more acute? That he foresaw the turn that my life might take? And that after his death, his spark guided me, like headlights on a foggy road?
I like to believe he glimpsed the map of my future and couldn’t resist leaving me a little clue. Nothing too obvious; he didn’t want to spoil the adventure. No, he wanted me to coast breathlessly in the dark, slip through the curves, squeeze through the one-lane bridge, and glide up the next hill.
But I think it’s just possible he saw the intersection up ahead.