Tell me what it means to be a man, father. I beg you to say something. Anything. Because all you could utter after you chased that boy in my arms out of our house was, I wasn’t a man.
I sit at your side on the worn leather couch. The glow of the muted television spotlights our bodies rigid in silence, awaiting for one of us to break its hold on us.
I steal a glance at you, moving only my eyes towards your feigned stoicism. Your head militantly focused ahead; your thumb shuffling through the channels until it settles on the comfort of a sitcom rerun you could repeat verbatim; and your copper-rimmed glasses perched on the edge of your nose bridge, ready to jump.
Mother will be home soon. The scene she will walk into is a cold war disguised as peace. I desperately monitor you, father, for any signal of emotion. Breathless words formed on your tongue. A shaken hand combing through phantom strands of hair on your shiny bald head. A lurch towards my shoulders, grabbed and shaken, screaming, who are you?
The television flips to a commercial. The volume is now at a bare hum. There’s a mother chasing her child through the house with a forked floret of broccoli. “One more bite,” she grunts as she closes in. His glare now moves towards the pictures on the wall—of us together when I was a child with button-like features and youthful urge to please. He blinks at them like its urgent morse code to save us from the moments he failed me, and I, him.
Father, tell me, is that why you’re silent. My eyes plead to invite me into the destruction of how you see me because it’s an easier wound than this. Your mind is a minefield, and I am the explosion you stepped on. The ruse was discovered—that the boy you raised to be a man is not who you thought he’d be. Who he never was destined to be.
How was I supposed to be a man? When did you tell me?
Was it when my child-sized hand held the flashlight above the open hood of a car, while you fiddled with the innards of a machine I could never understand? (A man must be handy.)
Or when I was six, you berated my mother for letting me wear a witch’s costume on Halloween— to strut a beautiful, bejeweled black gown with a curled hat around the block. She lied to say it was a wizard’s garb. (A man must command his domain. A man must know the masculine uniform.)
Or when you hollered from the sidelines of the high school baseball game to frame my elbows, widen my stance, and follow through because somehow, I couldn’t. (A man must be disciplined in his actions.)
Or after picking me up from a game across from the community theater, you pointed out the theater teacher Mr. Moretti, shuttling a box of sequined costumes spilling above the cardboard lip. “Don’t be like that. Alone,” you said. Because you came to this country with nothing, so I could be something. (A man’s purpose is to have and provide for a family. To become the American Dream.)
Or was it when I followed you and the neighbor bearing guns into the woods, firing tactfully for a stuffed deer head, mounted above the television set. It’s how you wanted me to be. (A man must be a point of pride for his father. Something dead, forced to be alive as a prize.)
“Your Amma comes home soon,” he said, shattering the silence. “Make tea for her.”
I rise to the kitchen and obey. I open the faucet to let water fill the electric kettle. The handle falls off and creates a metallic thud in the sink. As the basin of the kettle overflows, I twist the handle back on the bald, protruding rod and shut off the flow. I dab the splatters of water on my floral print shirt and mid-thigh chinos, which another man peeled off, with a plume of paper towel.
The lukewarm water in the electric kettle comes to a boil in a minute. I pour the steaming liquid into a cup with a pyramidal bag of PG Tips tea (mother’s favorite) couched in the bottom. I swirl it with a spoon and let it steep. The routine is comforting. In our household, a plate of cut fruit, a toasted malu pang (fish bun) on a napkin, or this steamed mug of tea with a dash of milk and a spoon of sugar articulates what words cannot. I fish out the teabag and place it in the trash. I cover the mug with a ceramic plate to hold temperature until mother arrives.
I rush back to your coldness with a second steaming, brewed tea for you. You pause before accepting and warm your hands around the stone-gray ceramic. The vapors fog your glasses.
After removing your mouth from the cup, you finally whisper, “What happened to the son I raised?”
“He became a man,” I replied. And he can’t help but not look away.
Dillon Fernando is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Hobart, and Carolina Muse.