Growing up, instead of dealing with deep-seated feels, I’d work it out, like in an actual workout. I’d go so hard that sweat would pour off me and I’d pretend that every drop was my real problem wicking away from me.
Any decent shrink would point to this being at the root of my fascination with wrestling.
Wrestling being a stand-in for no dad. I mean, he existed. He was out there somewhere, but he wasn’t here. My dear mother, Arlene Powell, told me she met a tall, dark, sharp-jawed Native dude at a powwow in Lawrence, Kansas. They ate Native tacos. Talked Rock Chalk basketball. He was a student at Haskell. She was a journalism major at KU. They saw each other for five or six months, and then he abruptly called it off. Then he came back, and they ran hot and cold. Until the last time. She was late approximately three weeks later and went to a drugstore off Wakarusa. She bought three different brands of pregnancy tests while getting side-eye from the Midwestern, middle-aged cashier with a bob and zero accent, her voice flatter than Kansas, and she put her hand over my mom’s hand and told her, “Honey, there’s always prayer.” Mom went straight to her dorm and had to pee on a stick in her shared bathroom. Watched and waited. Wiped off the pee she got on her hands. When she told my dad, it was over coffee at a diner. She said he said all the right things: “I’ll do my best by you.” “If you want to go through with it, I’ll support you 100 percent.” He ate a cruller; she didn’t have an appetite. After a day or two, she went to visit him at his apartment and his roommates, two long-haired Phishheads, told her he’d moved. Grabbed a trash bag full of his stuff and fled. Told them he’d figure out the logistics of transferring later, just needed air. She never saw him again. Only remembered his name and a few details.
Minus the major blunder of skipping town, which she definitely held against him, she mostly talked about him in gentle terms with the occasional needle of a loved one. I don’t think she ever stopped loving him. From what I gleaned from stories, their entire relationship was only really on for about six months and then extended on and off for another five at most. It was around a year of her life, but something about the relationship, although she’d had plenty afterward, stuck to her ribs like molasses.
She only clued me in on who he actually was when I was about 5 years old. Prior to that, when I asked who my dad was, she’d tell me “that man,” and point to a wrestler on TV, an action hero in a movie, a firefighter in a commercial. She told me Dad had to go bye-bye, but he loved me very much. I took it at face value and continued playing with my Ninja Turtles, zoomed my Hot Wheels. When I got older, I did feel the emptiness of a lack of dad, and I guess I did a little research into Native Americans. One summer I watched The Last of the Mohicans 17 times. That was about as far as I took it. But not Mom. She always had a soft spot. Though not a strong enough yearning that she felt the need to find him.
This was years before Google. Before Al Gore even had the fever dream of the Internet. She couldn’t afford to hire a private eye, some gumshoe to track down her baby’s dad. Mom was also a firebrand, a full-fledged feminist in the days they weren’t afraid to use the F-word, and figured if any man was going to cut ties and run, then she didn’t need him in her life anyway. She told me once there are only two things you need to wrangle and break in this life, and a man isn’t one of them. I once asked her, recently, if she’d ever been tempted to look him up. Find him, now that the finding’s easier. She said no. She said, “If I saw a photo of him vacationing with his family in Barbados or flipping burgers on a grill with a Kiss the Cook apron on, I couldn’t bear it. I’d probably find out where he lived, grab my .38, drive down to his home and point the barrel at his smug face. I’d pull the trigger, knowing it was empty, just to see him squirm.” People laughed at that lady astronaut who wore a diaper and drove cross-country to stake her claim in a love triangle. But a heart will pump dumb on love.
Mom was dad, mom, boss, you name it, all wrapped up in 5 feet, 4 inches of no give.
Mom is tops, but somewhere deep inside me, buried so damn deep you’d need radar to find your way, is still that tickle of not knowing. Measurements. Hat size. Aftershave brand. And the even more important shit: political positions, family health history, favorite football team.
She never truly disparaged him in front of me. When I was younger, she talked about him being away like he was on a long work trip. When I got older and she explained what it meant for him not to be part of our lives, I got little snippets about him. Stories. A candid picture. He was quiet; a brooder. But if you were trusted to his inner circle, he really opened up. Was witty. Loved to crack wise. Gave everyone nicknames. Didn’t play sports, but was naturally athletic. They went to a friend’s backyard party, where a tournament ensued — axe throwing, three-legged races, etc. He crushed the competition.
He’s been as real to me as Superman, Hulk Hogan, Mr. T. Kayfabe versus reality. But now missing out on my own kid, and also feeling lost in every goddamned aspect of my life, makes me feel like I need to do something dramatic to jar me back on track.
This sounds fucked-up, but maybe he could help me feel better about not being a dad.
In my weed-and-pill-addled brain, I have this crazy idea that if I find my dad, if I can pick his brain somehow, I can get it right. Whatever “it” is. What decades of feel-good family romps and prime-time television have taught me is a cue-the-sad-tunes moment. In walks Pops to give me a chuck under the chin and sage words. Tosses me the pigskin.
Only I don’t own a football, know close to zilch about my dad, where he is and what he looks like. But even after all these years, I still want to know.
Excerpt from the new novel GO HOME, RICKY! by Gene Kwak published by The Overlook Press © 2021.
Author Website: www.genekwak.com
Purchase Here: https://bookshop.org/books/go-home-ricky/9781419753619
Cover Image: Courtesy of The Overlook Press