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I’ve never once seen my father in the mornings; I don’t really know why.
But I know that half an hour or so before sunrise, he’ll slip out of bed and prepare every mechanism of his routine. I’ve heard him many times –through the clouded bliss of a half sleep– flick on the boiler and set the toaster. Then he’ll march down the hall to a five-minute shower and back again, at which point I’d hear the crackle of boiling water stream into his mug and an almost hurried crunching of toast. Before I could think much of it, he’d either already have driven off to work, or I’d be back asleep.
In the evenings he picks me up from soccer, oftentimes ten or fifteen minutes after practice has finished, despite his work ending an hour before that. Some of my teammates have always joked that he was on a “business trip” or that he went off to get a carton of milk or cigarettes. They’d leave soon after, pulling out of the school parking lot in cars that didn’t exist when we were in middle school. After some time, I would finally see an old Volkswagen pull itself along through the lot and come sliding up to me. My dad in the driver’s seat, piloting this clunky metal box that probably remembered where it was when JFK was shot. Sometimes he takes to reaching over the seat to roll the window down for me. I reckon it’s to compensate for the time I have to wait for him.
One day I opened the passenger door to a milk jug in my seat. On the way home, it found a resting place on my lap; I was especially exhausted and needed something cool to press up against.
“Your mom wouldn’t mind if I surprised her with a good cup of coffee tonight, would she?” he asked.
“You’d have to make it quick. I don’t think she’ll drink any caffeine later than eight,” I replied. Then, when the car went silent, I decided to ask. “How about in the morning?”
“No, no, no,” he tsked. “There’s so little time in the day and I’ve got to spend as much of it as I can at work. I mean, as soon as dinner’s finished, I’m back to the lab again.”
“Maybe on the weekend? Before church maybe?”
“Did I go last weekend?”
“No,” I lied.
“Damn.” he seethed. Soon after, the car fell silent. As my dad drove, I rested against the window and watched the houses flit by. Then my dad mumbled. “I don’t think mom would be mad if I skipped church again.”
That Sunday, when my dad had already gone off to work, I surprised my mom with that cup of coffee that he hoped to make. I told her that the courtesy was all his and that he would’ve made it if he didn’t have so much work. She just sighed and didn’t speak much until after mass. When she did, she told me that same story of how they met in university:
My mom had just transferred from a junior college to a state school in her sophomore year and chose to major in physics. With little time, she got in with a group of kids from her electromagnetism class, one of them being my dad. He was, back then, as he still is today, except he was even more quiet and a little less of a hard worker.
When both he and my mom first went out, she quickly came to understand that his greatest concern was his work. His passion for it was contagious and throughout the rest of her undergraduate education, she followed him and his work. When they were out of university, she lost his interest and pursued a career in teaching while he stayed behind. Just about a year before they had me, they married, and just as the honeymoon ended, my dad embarked on some absurd research project that still curses him to this day. Gradually, his work fastened around what time they had together like a vice.
She’d always end there and say little else besides a few laconic responses to whatever questions I’d have. In recent years, I felt like I didn’t really have any. Now, as she’d finish, I’d sit with her for a moment and then leave. That brief minute of silence has always been something she’s savored. Leaning forward against the dining room table, I’d turn my eyes towards her and see a tired woman; her shoulders sag, and the mascara she wears lines her eyes like a dark rust.
That next Thursday, I got to see my dad at work. My chemistry teacher managed to get us a tour of the complex that he worked in, and as the class walked around, I passed by him on multiple occasions. We didn’t speak to each other as he was often busy, but at one point, he stopped me in the hallway and asked if I wanted to go and get tacos with him. After agreeing to a time, he walked up to my teacher and informed her that I had a dentist appointment and that I’d need to go with him at around noon; he also told her that the school had been called.
“My colleagues hate me for doing this.” He laughed as we sped-walked to the car. “I’m pretty sure that your teacher wasn’t so happy either too.”
“She doesn’t really care about much, so I’ll be fine.”
For lunch, we drove down to El Cozcorron, an old Mexican joint downtown. Dad had extra money ready for the meal, as if he’d been preparing for this lunch beforehand. The place was relatively empty, so we got a table for four with only the two of us sitting at it. He and I both ordered fish tacos, he without guacamole. As we waited for our food, he asked some of those questions that every good parent is obligated to ask: “How was your day? How are your grades? Have you got a girlfriend yet?” Then, he asked me how church was last weekend.
“Mom was quiet the entire time. She didn’t sing or listen so much. I think she wanted you there.” I said, cutting the bullshit. He listened to my answer with thoughtful eyes that turned to the table. His elbows supported his head and the area near his temples seemed to tense up. It was as if I were a doctor conveying to him the results of a medical analysis.
“She told me that you made her a good cup of coffee then,” he said, looking at me now.
“You’re a good kid. You’ve done a much better job of taking care of mom than I have.”
Then our food came and for several minutes, we ate in total silence. When he finished his tacos, he ordered another round for himself and a beer.
“Soon, very soon, I should be able to spend less time at the lab,” he said as the waitress left. “We are close to making a breakthrough in this project on electronegativity that we’ve spent the last decade or so on. Once it’s finished, we should be getting a publication in a journal and then we travel for a bit and then we come back and do whatever until we find something else that we want to look into.”
“When do you think this’ll happen?”
“We don’t know yet. We’re near the last quarter of the trials necessary for us to understand whether our set hypothesis was true or not. That will be a couple more weeks. Then, we have to write the damn paper which will be about a month or so. Other things like print and travel would take another few months, so I’d say by the end of this year. You won’t be in college by then would you?”
“No,” I replied.
My dad saw no use in me going to school for the rest of the day. Quite frankly, neither did I; I had a test in calculus and I thought an extra day for studying wouldn’t be so bad. When he dropped me off at home, I went into my room and sat down at my desk. It was just after noon, but some dreary darkness still hung from the ceiling. My chest felt like it was being pulled down by some kind of melancholy. Before I decided to open my math folder, I took the time to rest back in my chair and think. Like some neglectful dog owner, I let my eyes scamper around off-leash. Their own interests brought them to my bulletin board, where they stopped and stared at a polaroid of my dad and I atop Mt. Whitney a few years ago.
That weekend had been one of my dad’s longest vacations since his honeymoon. Back then, mom and I virtually never saw him. He’d leave in the early hours of the morning and return for a late dinner. At one point, he’d been gone for three days and returned a filthy mess. He and mom fought that night and the next day, him and I left on a road trip. I remember how he woke me up asking what I wanted at the drive-thru at an In-and-Out. We were the only ones in line at this gleaming bastion in the middle of a wide, desert expanse with jagged ridges growing out of the horizon.
That weekend, we’d work desperately to summit Whitney. Ultimately, that goal was achieved. Here we were, seemingly at the top of the world. Beyond our view lay vast miles of empty plains and rocky mountains. The air was clear and my dad took in all of it like the first gulp of air after a long dive in the ocean; his eyes widened like a child’s, and he stood proudly. For a fleeting moment, he reacquainted himself with the world from which he was secluded and wished he could spend more time there. When we got back, his work continued as it always had.
A month after that lunch that he and I shared at El Cozcorron, his team made a breakthrough in their work. For several weeks, the time he spent on his work returned to those same, grueling hours that he’d endured those years ago. Then, after the additional tests, the writeup, and the publication, he left for the summer. But before he left, he invited mom and I to a gala held by the lab in he and his team’s honor. That night, mom and I sat at a guest table, surrounded by the husbands and wives and children of my dad’s colleagues; we were the quietest table in the room.
After dinner and music, my dad took to the podium and spoke on and on about the countless hours that he spent working on the project. I could barely understand much of what he was saying, after all, I was applying to a world history major. But in between the incomprehensible talk of ionic transmutational cohorts and chemo theorem-bisulfites, were flickers of language instilled with regret. Here was a man who dedicated the last nineteen years of his life to a question, to a single pursuit. In doing so, he shed an integral component to his own life so that pursuit could be fulfilled. Now, all these years later, that question has been solved. He’s never once seen his son in the mornings because he obsessively followed his passion and what he has left for his son is a new question that asks him how much that an uncontrolled pursuit can be worth.