You’d have to know exactly where to look on the field to spot me. Not only did I keep my helmet on, but I knew where to hide from spectators. I had no other choice; my father attended every practice during tryouts, his body slung like a game day banner against the chain link fence. You’d have to know where to look because I was half the size as the other sophomores and juniors trying out for Junior Varsity. The elephantine linemen watering each other’s backs easily shielded me. I was thinner than the goalpost, shorter than some of the cheerleaders, and had no business playing football.
But my father played the game, insists he could have played in college if he wasn’t kicked off the team his junior year for stealing the coach’s car and smashing it. He was Norfolk County’s leading passer, starting as a sophomore, and had the highest grades on the team. But he was also best friends with a kid on the bench, a kid who didn’t play because he hated football, but was on the team because there was only one thing he hated more than football: when his father beat him. This kid, Nelson, had a successful broker for a father. They were so rich Nelson would buy pints of stout beer for him and my father with hundred dollar bills. It didn’t matter that they were only sixteen. No bartender at the time would turn down a twenty-dollar tip.
My father says he’ll never forget the night he wrecked coach’s car, and he won’t. He and Nelson were drinking at the only bar within walking distance of their neighborhood that would serve them. Nelson ripped all his money out of his wallet and slammed it on the table—a crumpled wad of green, a tumbleweed of dough. He told my father with an unusually gray face, a face prepared for the grave, that he could buy all the booze in the world but could never buy a reason to not drink it. What my father didn’t know at the time was that Nelson would commit suicide before he could finish high school, so he thought of the best way to cheer him up: “Let’s steal a car.”
That car was their coach’s: a sleek DeSoto Deluxe that was never locked and always had the keys in the ignition.
They didn’t mean to smash it. Both were drunk, but since Nelson had already puked, and my father hadn’t, they decided my father should drive. They spun around in empty parking lots and sped down unlit streets in the sleeping city, until my mathematician father miscalculated a turn and fishtailed the car. Wrapped it around a tree. Sacked. He and his friend were cut up pretty badly from the shattered windshield and had to spend the night in the hospital. Coach didn’t press any charges, but he did make the two of them work concessions for the rest of their high school lives. Neither of them ever strapped on shoulder pads again.
A good thing my father loved math. Loved it as much as a last resort could be loved.
Because my father scored high in school, he was allowed to play football, but if he wanted to involve his father, he had to show him the math that fueled the sport. He graphed his per game passing averages, factoring his completion percentage, yardage, touchdowns, and interceptions. He turned himself into a chart of numbers with a squiggly line because his father found it much easier to love this:
Much easier than loving the human boy burning under a suit of armor.
My father’s father was an amateur day trader in Wall Street, believed math was God’s language. And my father’s father’s father considered himself a Wall Street pioneer, believed the world began and ended with math, numbers. He thought we could portend our own existences by calculating the right formula. Soon after the Crash, he threw himself out of a skyscraper window, probably recognizing his fate in the velocity at which he fell. I can go on forever.
My father had it figured out, was aware of the ponderous expectations of history, but couldn’t deny his first love, football. That’s why I think my father promised himself not to force history upon me. He didn’t. I actually loved the game of football, which is very different from saying I loved playing the game. What I had to do to prove I loved it, however, was play. He made sure of that, watching me like a parole officer behind amber aviator glasses that exaggerated the extent of his vision. I never had to graph pie charts or find the means and averages of my Pop Warner statistics to warrant his approval. Instead, I had to hear him adjuring me to run faster, hit harder. Play as if I loved it.
After my father was kicked off the team, he focused on the only other thing he knew how to do, earned a degree in accounting and after that his C.P.A. He started his own firm, worked at home, secured a comfortable lifestyle, but when I spent Saturday afternoons watching Notre Dame football (good old fashioned Catholic brutality) with him in his office, I saw how his eyes flashed green and gold—a light reflecting not from some external source, but emanating from his irises, rings of emerald fire. The blur of heat blinding him to the fact that what I loved were those shared moments. I dreamed he and I were both out on the field in sacred Fighting Irish colors, but I never actually wanted to be out there, getting battered around senselessly, counting concussions like badges of courage.
There’s one afternoon I particularly remember. My father fingered drilled keys on his desk-sized calculator as I sat in the chair he bought for me—my gameday chair—wedged between file cabinets and his desk, gleaning what I could from the TV. He had to take a call from a client during the second quarter when Notre Dame was behind USC 14-3.
I’ve always found it odd that he never took a day off from work, even to watch Notre Dame, his favorite team. I guess in deterring his passion from football to accounting he found he had to work as hard as he played in order to justify his failure, or his success, which is only a success if you don’t count the failure.
It was September in Miami and the office was a sauna. Even with an oversized fan in my father’s office, having the copy machine, printer, TV, and computer crammed into that small room made the wallpaper unraveled at the ends. Already my clothes were drenched in sweat, my body as heavy as desire.
“Your hibiscus is your MVP,” he told the client, an owner of a plant nursery. “If that’s what the fans want then grow a whole team of hibiscuses.”
When USC scored a touchdown and the network focused on the famed Touchdown Jesus perched atop Notre Dame’s stadium, my father slapped the phone against his chest, muffling the mouthpiece, and said they should rip that goddamned statue down because Notre Dame didn’t deserve Jesus. He shook his head in disbelief, his anger taxing his patience, and brought the phone back to his ear.
“Listen,” he told his client, “you’re hurting your own profit by growing mandevillas. It’s too much of an expense. It’s not selling. Release it or donate it to a smaller nursery. Collect a tax deduction that won’t count against you during next season’s draft.”
By the time he had hung up the phone, it was the start of the third quarter, Notre Dame down 24-3. He cursed the players, cursed the coach for recruiting those players, cursed the athletic director, a priest, for hiring the coach, and cursed God for calling the athletic director into his line of holy work.
I imagined myself receiving an athletic scholarship to one of Notre Dame’s rivals and having to play them every Saturday. I chuckled thinking about how I could make my father swear up a hurricane by scoring against his beloved team. Yet, at the same time, I thought that if I could play football in college, I could give him the life he’s always wanted. I could succeed him.
I, too, had a second-hand love, although I never allowed myself to think so. I considered it a hobby, but a hobby about which I was passionate. Touchdown Jesus passionate. On the days when I was convalescing from Pop Warner practice, nursing bruises and aches received from kids that were at least restricted to an equitable weight, I drew and scripted comic books. I had tomes of them tucked away in my closet. I created character after character, then sloughed them from my imagination and abandoned them in the small space in my closet under sweaty clothes and muddy shoes like I was a dead beat Dad, a disinterested creator.
The closest I came to perfidy—betraying one love with another—was when I entered an art contest at my middle school. I feigned a tailbone injury so I could skip Pop Warner practice, telling my coach it was useless for me to attend practice just to sit on the bench because the cold, hard metal would aggravate my tender tailbone. With the allotted time, I drafted a comic book based on Nat Turner, about whom I’d learned in seventh grade. I never gave him a name, though, and I never knew why. Maybe I feared making him too human, as if the name would have given him an identity, would have made him real, concrete, so my father could explicitly say, “Did you see what JT drew? It’s a comic book hero called…”
A name is having a jersey number—the white curving symbols on a black uniform that pinpoints exactly where you are while you’re trying to hide during tryouts. By keeping him nameless, I think I saved my drawing from becoming wanted for sedition. I saved him by keeping him a drawing, nothing more.
Don’t be threatened, Dad. A drawing will not preempt our dream, our success. Nameless heroes in executioner masks with a sickle can slice off heads on paper but can never make us fail.
My father wanted to take me to a doctor to see if my tailbone was injured badly. Not that he didn’t believe me, but I think he worried I’d miss too many practices and games. Fortunately my mother babied me, said there’s nothing to be done for a bruised tailbone but rest.
“He’s sitting on his ass drawing,” I’d heard my father say. “How is that good for his tailbone?”
“Only five games left of the season,” he’d remind me, as if hearing of the impending deadline would encourage my body to heal faster.
I sketched my character for the contest while putting together a portfolio as an attempt to attract my father’s appreciation of my art—no, hobby. Just a hobby. I collated drawings of NFL logos, the Notre Dame leprechaun, sketches of stadiums and helmets. Stuff I could have sworn he would have liked, art that dallied as sport, just as, for him, math dallied as sport. He would look over my drawings cursorily and then hand them back to me, muttering a “huh.”
Skipping practice paid off. I won the art contest, awarding me twenty-five dollars and a publication in the school’s newsletter. This is the award-winning drawing—my character based off Nat Turner—the drawing that I’d hoped would get my father to see the real boy pressing a pencil to paper, outlining lead shapes of passion:
This is what my father said:
During high school tryouts, I quit drawing, writing, reading, anything that would lead me astray, and focused entirely on the first love. Not like it helped. I dropped the one hundred pound barbell on my chest, unable to lift the required weight, and when it came time for the mandatory two hundred meter run, the other players could have jogged and beaten me. In fact, I’m still running it. The first time we dressed in gear was terrifying. I closed my eyes and jumped on whatever behemoth carried the football. Most of the time I latched on and wafted in the air like a scarf as he continued running, but I think a couple times the guy actually fell, probably only because he lost his balance.
In the locker room after the second week of tryouts, a senior, his face blasted red with acne, his muscles as rigid as geological formations, told me he was as tiny as I was his freshman year. Told me he had thought he would get cut from the team before the month of tryouts even ended. He offered to do for me what someone else did for him: sell me steroids.
It was the first time I’d been offered drugs. He had given his spiel so informally, so casually, as if steroids were the norm. That is, if you expect to play football much longer. I was young and gullible then, believed everything I’d heard about drugs, from the claim that cigarettes will set your lungs on fire to the rumor that alcohol will severely stunt your growth. I also believed in steroid’s small-penis-side-effect.
On the way home that day in my father’s car, while he lectured me on my faulty three-point stance, I wondered whether my father had gone so far with his love as to take steroids.
The point is to make the team, right? At all costs? Even if the price is a small penis? How far did my father go and how far did he expect me to go?
I don’t know whether or not my father has a small penis.
High school football was the topic of every dinner conversation. My mother knew nothing about football so tried chiming in with trivial words of encouragement: “Do your best,” and “we are already proud,” typical maternal fodder. But my father reminded me to go for the legs when tackling, to use my small stature as an advantage and run low to the ground, making it hard for me to get tackled, to throw myself out there and let my toughness impress the coach. “Football is ninety percent mental,” he said, “and only ten percent physical, so you being the smallest one out there doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
My father the C.P.A. I had to believe him when he used percentages.
It should be noted that I got my chicken legs, wiry arms, and plywood torso from my father. What I didn’t get, though, was his indefatigable pursuance of his desire to play the game. He’d use the salt and pepper shakers and utensils on the dinner table to illustrate how best to find the soft spot in zone coverage. If I paid more attention to eating, he’d take my utensils so I’d have no choice but to listen.
“It’s a game of inches,” he said. “With the inches you lack in size, you make up for in attitude. You can always compensate inches for inches.”
Reading the cut-list only made official the fact I’d failed him. I felt sorry for him the second I left the stadium, walked to his car glistening in the unforgiving sun. It seemed as though we were somehow elected to damnation like the butt end of Calvinist theology. Our lives imprisoned by failure, the two of us linked like cellmates.
As I crossed the sizzling parking lot, the news of my being cut, though not unexpected, weighed down on me more than my duffle bag pulling on my sore shoulder, aching chest. When I opened the door and dropped in the passenger side, I felt the breath of high hope—a/c blasting throughout the car. The seats still smelled of untouched leather. My father smiled like a child, his grin pushing the wrinkles off to the sides of his face.
I didn’t say a word, but felt the air become heavy, felt his car struggle against the weight to shift into gear. He stopped at the light leaving the parking lot and looked at me, looked through me, saw me inside and out. I stared out the window at the stadium split open with bleachers on either side. The far end disappeared in the harsh sunlight.
“It’s not in our genes,” he said. I could hear the disappointment that had been stored since his high school days. He an inch, me an inch—compensating for much larger inches of lost loves.
On the drive home, he tried talking about something other than football. Told me how he had to drop a client for embezzling money, told me about an argument he and my mother got into over what kind of meat to buy. Eventually he sensed his own gaucherie and gave it up.
I looked at him then, saw him. A man who simply didn’t want to know failure. A man who feared the inevitable, that everything following failure will, no matter how great, be defined by it. His eyes twitched and his body melted.
The icy air whipped out of the dashboard vents and froze any words we could have said. I remember wanting to apologize, as if failure would let us free by yielding to it. But I didn’t say anything because I somehow sensed in my father—tense, pulling himself unnecessarily close to the steering wheel—the same feeling, the need to apologize for something over which we have no control.
JT Torres has an essay appearing in Best Food Writing 2014, and his novella, Nana's Guide to Illusion, is forthcoming from VP&D House. He is a PhD candidate at Washington State University.