Three years had passed since my dad drank himself to death. my mom’s friend’s brother was visiting the United States. for two hundred bucks a month he slept on our couch. this guy snored and wore tight tank tops. they barely hid his gut. it was round but barely jiggled. his face looked wrinkly from years of smoking. there’d sometimes be pieces of drywall stuck to his eyebrows. he came here on a travel Visa and worked off-the-books construction jobs. i wanted him to bang my mom.
my mom’s friend’s brother had a wife back in Poland. they had two daughters, aged fourteen and eighteen. he would show me pictures of them on his flip phone. first generation smartphones already existed. not many people had them. his daughters’ faces were pudgy. their bodies seemed muscular. he’d joke about me marrying one of them. neither would’ve been my first choice for a wife. as a fat sixteen year old with long uncombed hair and cheap wire-rimmed glasses, i fantasized about the girls at school with slender faces, even slimmer waists. personality doesn’t matter to teenage boys.
he and i played blackjack a lot. it amazed me how well my mom’s friend’s brother could shuffle cards. two fingers were missing on his left hand. we’d take turns playing the dealer. during our games he’d talk about what it was like back in Poland. while his stories were interesting, i was always half-focused on winning. many details got lost in the heat of competition. what i do remember is his family lived on a small farm. their home was surrounded by fields. he’d met his wife at a party hosted by a local church. they had kids a few months later. the four of them now helped each other milk the cows, plus feed their chickens. they even made jam from freshly picked strawberries.
his family seemed so wholesome compared to mine. i didn’t even know where most of the humans who shared my DNA were. by that point i’d gotten used to the mystery. my mom worked as a live-in maid during most of my childhood. after my dad’s liver gave out, she started making daily two hour trips to-and-from that same job. he and i used to share the studio apartment these blackjack games were now happening in. despite us living together for thirteen years, i knew almost nothing about my dad’s upbringing. all i ever learned were disparate details during his drunken outbursts. he had a brother who was a priest. their mother, for some unexplained reason, was a whore. i’d never seen pictures of either of them.
the only person my mom kept in contact once she’d arrived in America was her own brother. he traveled between parts of Europe for most of the year, doing manual labor. they hadn’t seen each other face-to-face in over twenty years. both of their parents were dead. my uncle could never get a Visa. to do so in Poland meant going to an interview and answering things like, “what do you plan on doing in the States?” or “who are you going there to see?” many applicants got denied for stupid reasons. not having a cheery enough tone was one of them. those who got papers usually ended up overstaying them. i spoke to my uncle over the phone occasionally. apart from generic topics, such as school, or whether i had a girlfriend, we rarely had much to talk about. his voice was very monotone. from what i’d overheard of my mom’s long distance conversations with him, i knew he had a wife, who felt unloved because of his constant trips to different countries; two sons my age; and a habit of drinking while sad.
that tendency towards separation was what gave my family a sense of unity. my mom and i were no exception. while we’d been sharing one roof since my dad died, and she made dinner every night not only for me, but also her friend’s brother, our relationship stayed distant. that’s not to say my mom wasn’t a nice woman. when the guy who slept on our couch injured his arm, unable to work for three months, she let him stay with us for free. having seen our blackjack games, my mom would even bake Polish cookies for us to snack on. she’d ask about my classes too, then congratulate me if i’d gotten a good grade. if i didn’t, she wouldn’t yell, just say “study harder.” what kept us apart, and still does to this day, is the fact i’ve been unable to talk with her about complicated stuff like dreams or girls. how to pass difficult exams or think of ways to make money were easy topics because my mom had that go-getter immigrant mentality. she didn’t, however, have good advice for questions about love and other passions. the first guy she’d met after moving to New York turned out to be a deadbeat. being a maid isn’t anyone’s dream either. to her credit, my mom didn’t let herself become openly bitter about men or the world, though her go-to answer for dealing with feeling lost in life, or going through a heartbreak, was usually a vague “it’ll get better,” which i had a hard time believing was her honest opinion.
i’ve always felt a bit guilty for how my mom’s life turned out. she’s never talked with me about her reasons for moving to America. i didn’t ask. it seemed weird to think she had a life before being my mom. in all likelihood, her goal was the same as most people’s: make enough money to, ideally, buy a home and be secure. unfortunately, i’m the reason she got tied down to some dude who drank away his paychecks instead of taking care of bills. and while, as the son of an absentee dad, i’d missed out on things as well, whether they were everyday lessons such as how to shave, or more abstract stuff like having a male role model, i was luckier than her. there was less personal responsibility in being a mistake, rather than making one.
i’d try to spend time with my mom on weekends, either by watching cheesy cop dramas together, or by taking walks around the neighborhood. she liked quiet residential streets, away from the bodegas that blasted reggaeton music. her overworked feet would hurt after a few blocks. still, she was the only relative i had left. my mom had no other family members in the States either. entertaining her once in a while was the least i could’ve done. sometimes she’d notice that effort by saying she was lucky to have me, or by us spontaneously going out for ice cream. other times, i guess as a weird way of apologizing, she’d say, “why’d i even come to America? i should’ve had you back home with another man” — completely ignoring the fact it took my dad’s genes, for better or worse, to make this exact human she was now talking to.
a shadow of regret constantly followed her. simple walks in the sun were weighed down by family drama. that’s why i preferred to hang out with her friend’s brother instead. our blackjack games went on for an hour most nights. both of us wanted rematch after rematch. while this guy was a righty, he’d keep cards tucked between the two calloused stubs on his left hand, probably to keep me from peeking at them. i’d never actually cheated, but liked how my mom’s friend’s brother seemed suspicious. there was a passion in him, this desire to win, even in these small moments, our tiny tournaments. despite that competitiveness, he would laugh when i beat him. all of our cards, bad draws included, then got scooped back into his three fingered hand, and reshuffled for a new beginning.
those blackjack games were comforting because the specter of the past loomed over me too. while three years had passed since my dad’s death, which felt largely like an extension of his absence, i thought about him frequently. most of his days were spent outside, roaming the streets with a brown bagged 40 ounce. after coming home around 12 a.m., he’d dial 311, the city’s 24 hour hotline for reporting stuff: damaged sidewalks, broken traffic signals. besides drinking, that was his only hobby. he’d stay up until 3 or 4 a.m., yelling at government workers. it was if he thought they purposely withheld a magic power to stop that streetlight on Church Avenue from flickering instantly. what’s worse is my dad felt screaming “i’m been call every night!” would’ve reassured them they weren’t dealing with a crazy person. sleep was impossible because of how loud he’d get — funny because that was his biggest complaint against our “ape” neighbors. to make things worse he’d pull me out of bed, even if i pretended to be off in a distant dream world, just to drag me into his calls — always under the guise of needing something explained in proper English. we’d never played ball together, or talked about how to be brave in scary situations. this was our only way of bonding.
i held out hope, thinking enough paved sidewalks could lead him towards change. it was an optimism driven by the natural instinct sons have towards their fathers, one that lets us truly believe, no matter what, our dads to be the real versions of those heroes we see in movies or video games. mothers might have a similar positivity towards their kids, a light allowing them to think life will eventually get better. yet, as i turned eleven, twelve, thirteen, it slowly dawned on me: this man who shared half my genes was a joke. knowing so little about his past — even how my parents met was unclear — meant all i had to judge him on was what i could see. his moist lips. weak legs. those sickly reddish-yellow eyeballs. countless hours spent shouting into the void of 311 calls. him passing out for a few hours on our couch, or the floor, the toilet. then leaving again in the morning, searching for more pointless shit to bitch about. my dad was obviously not who i wanted him to be. after his death, i didn’t look into what stopped him from becoming that man. it scared me to possibly learn that at one point he thought the same about his own father, who was never mentioned, not even during drunken outbursts.
i had no clue what it would’ve been like to milk a cow, or how to harvest fruit, though found comfort in hearing about my mom’s friend’s brother’s farm. other details i vividly remember are how he said his cows were scared of thunder so they’d moo up a storm whenever they heard one coming; and once his daughters forgot to cage their chickens at night, which meant the next morning his wife woke up to a hen lying next to her in bed. to this day i can also picture the way he’d end these stories by swatting his three-fingered hand and shouting “ah!” seeing that made me smile every time. it gave me the sense he was acknowledging how hard life was, both in Poland because selling homegrown produce didn’t make much money anymore, but even in America, where he woke up at 6 a.m. every morning to tile people’s bathrooms. despite his money problems, there was a playfulness, even genuine hope, to his “aaaaah!” — something i’d never heard before.
my mom got along with her friend’s brother in the sense they didn’t argue. she laughed at his stories too. they never hung out though. she always came home tired, made dinner, then went to bed after an hour of T.V. he’d suggest hooking her up with other Polish guys from his off-the-books jobs. she wasn’t interested. my mom’s friend’s brother never hit on her personally. i guess he loved his wife and kids, who he phoned a lot. i’d have to leave the room when he called them. i told myself it was to give him privacy. in truth, hearing him be sweet to his daughters made my eyes slightly water. the two of us didn’t only play cards. he showed me how to fix bikes and, during the summer, we’d gone swimming at the beach. regardless, spending time with him didn’t make me his son. as much we enjoyed our rounds of blackjack, he probably, understandably, saw me as lesser to his own children. they shared his genes. i didn’t.
there was a piece of me missing. seeing those two stubs on my mom’s friend’s brother’s left hand created this sense — as superficial as it might’ve been — that a part of him had vanished too. one night, in the middle of a card game, he explained how he’d lost his fingers. i’m not sure if it was because he caught me staring, or if i’d asked directly, but i remember him being as nonchalant about his accident as he was about losing at cards. basically, what had happened was, he’d been using some kind of tractor thing to plow wheat or whatever when suddenly a part of it got stuck and wouldn’t move. without thinking, he tried to fix that with his bare hand, which got snagged in the machine. my mom’s friend’s brother didn’t mention how old he was when that happened, though what were left of his two torn fingers had already calloused with seemingly decades of age.
thinking back, my mom’s friend’s brother must’ve gotten asked about his fingers a lot. telling me how he’d lost them was probably not a huge deal to him. all my life i’ve known people who’d been hurt in some way, and although his accident was more bodily than anything, i appreciated him for being blunt about it. while the secrecy about not only my parents’ pain, but also their lives in general, was somewhat my fault for not asking, i still kind of yearned for more openness. then again, maybe exposing ourselves wasn’t in our nature. this man i played blackjack with might’ve never asked about my dad, yet i’m sure he knew of him, either from my mom, or his sister, who worked as a housekeeper two doors down from where my mom did. he could’ve just not wanted to be nosy, but i always wanted to talk to him about my father. it felt natural to now tell him about what had damaged me. however, i’d ended up keeping those cards close to my chest. i didn’t want to risk weirding him out.
his Visa only let him stay in America for six months at a time. in my mom’s friend’s brother’s last week at our place he’d stashed around ten thousand dollars in a package, buried alongside sweets and new clothes for the family. airport security was suspicious of people who traveled with lots of money, especially if they weren’t from the United States. the safest way of getting it overseas was through the mail. i wasn’t sad because his plan was to come back to New York after half a year. in fact, after he’d left, i started practicing cards by myself. a few times i’d even convinced my mom to play. she always let me win for some reason. then one night she came home and told me her friend’s brother had gotten into an accident. he’d swerved off the road while driving. his car had apparently flipped over, landing in the fields by his house. this latest accident only resulted in a few minor injuries, though doctors at the local hospital, after running routine tests, found his heart was weak. nevertheless, i kept trying to perfect my game. a month later he was dead from cardiac arrest. hearing that i felt sad for his wife and daughters, but couldn’t help wondering whether all this fucking shit could’ve been avoided if he’d somehow just banged my mom and had kids with her instead.