My father and I stop near the fountain in the middle of a plaza. Baobabs and coconut trees lean over us and we are arm in arm as if we have been walking like this our whole lives. We sit on a bench as if we are not strangers, as if twenty years and the three thousand miles between Minnesota and Colombia have never separated us. In the darkness of this Colombian night, the sound of water drums in my ears. He pulls a single cigarette from his breast pocket but does not light it. There is a momentary, contemplative stillness as we sit side by side.
“I fell in a fountain once,” I tell him. This story will fill in the space between us. Stories have that kind of power.
“I was walking along the edge of this fountain when I was little and then I fell in.”
I turn to face this man, waiting for him to laugh. Everyone laughs at this story. But my father’s face is stone.
“I was there.”
His words hang in the starry air like threads of time.
* * *
I remember, I tell him, a fountain. In a big space, maybe indoors. I remember walking along the edge, the rippling water sparkling under my feet. I must have held my arms out like a tightrope walker, balancing between one world and another.
And then, I tell him, I fell. I tipped over, one of those falls where one moment you are upright and the next you’re in the water, soaked through like a prehistoric amphibian, your black hair matted to your head and your clothes floating. I was scared, I don’t tell him. I don’t tell him how scared I was in those moments before someone lifted me out of the water.
A red-checkered tablecloth, I tell him. A waiter wrapped me in a red-checkered tablecloth. I think I sat on my mother’s lap, cuddled close to her as I was warmed, relieved of my fear and surprise and embarrassment.
* * *
“I was there,” he says again after I have told him my story. A story I’ve related to all my friends and acquaintances, one of those simple childhood memories.
“It was at the Black Forest Inn,” he says. It is eerie to hear him speak with such authority about a time from my childhood. I didn’t grow up with him. This visit to Colombia is my first time meeting him. He has always been an imaginary father, the one I knew existed but had no memory of. And now, here he is, telling me something about my own life, something he knew and I didn’t.
“A German restaurant. We liked to go there, your mom and me and your grandparents. There was a courtyard with a small fountain. Do you remember that restaurant? Shit. Is it still there?” He speaks in English, his accent still peppered with American colloquialisms from the Seventies. “It was a great place to drink German beer.”
Even though his body is still next to me on a bench in Cali, Colombia, I can see that he is once again drinking beer with my mother and her parents in a restaurant in Minneapolis. The echo of falling water in the blackness sounds vast and forgiving. He rolls the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and then cups his hand around the match. The phosphoric smell rises as the flame lights and I am suddenly chilled by the night air.
“You fell in.”
I begin to do the math. It must have been a time when he and my mother were still married and we were still a family, shortly before the discordant divorce, perhaps even days, maybe minutes before. I try to picture myself as part of a little family with a mother and a father and a baby girl. We would have been dressed like hippies; I would have been wearing something hand-sewn and probably sturdy shoes to help me walk steadily, something that gave me the confidence to balance on that ledge. My mother always insisted on good footwear.
I count. I couldn’t have been more than a year or two.
* * *
I have no memories of my father. People used to ask me, “What is it like not having a dad?” I never knew how to answer them. What is it like living on the moon? What is it like having three hands? These are unimaginable things, preposterous even. “Don’t you miss having a father?” they would ask. I longed to say, Don’t you miss being an astronaut? And they would answer, I don’t know, I’ve never been an astronaut. And I would say, Exactly.
With no memories of my father, how can I be sure he was ever there? Now, here it is. That memory, that connection. In the form of a fountain. The possibility that my memories coincide with his.
But I know that memories can be tricky and fluid, can fade in and out and transmute themselves. We can take over other people’s memories, shape them with repeated recitations, mold them until they suit our needs. Our own memories are just as easily manipulated and kneaded and refined by internal or external forces until they are either further or closer to the truth. It is possible—probable even—that I have been told the story of falling into the fountain so many times that I only think I remember it, that it isn’t a memory but a story.
I say this to my father and he nods. We listen to the water rushing over the marble in front of us.
“But I remember the red-checkered tablecloth,” I say, although no one contradicts me. I remember it so clearly I can feel the over-washed cotton and smell the chlorine soaking into the cloth.
“It was a red-checkered tablecloth,” he says.
“No one would have told me a detail like that. People don’t say ‘And then you were wrapped in a red-checkered tablecloth.’”
He exhales smoke into the night air, contemplating this.
“Do they?” I probe.
“They probably don’t.”
I look over at him. I’m afraid my sequence of thinking may have pushed his English comprehension to the brink. But I can’t stop talking. My words tumble out, one after another, falling.
“It isn’t the kind of detail you tell people, at least not over and over. And I would have had to hear that story over and over again so that I would internalize it enough to make it feel like a memory. It must be a memory. I was there and I remember.”
I see the orange end of his cigarette light the darkness. Perhaps he’s still in Minnesota with his first wife, drawing on a pint of Spatan.
“I remember,” I repeat, more to myself than to him. “I remember that red-checkered tablecloth.”
He finishes his cigarette and I watch it roll across the sidewalk. I can tell that he doesn’t realize what this means. I have no childhood memories of him, but I remember a moment and he was in that moment, and I feel like I really am his daughter, like I really was born of a mother and a father and that my father came from Colombia and by some twist of fate he found himself with a daughter in a German restaurant in Minnesota and the daughter fell in a fountain and there was his wife swaddling their baby in a red-checkered tablecloth.
“So do I,” he says, squeezing my hand.
We stand up now and walk past the fountain. Arm in arm again, we cross the deserted plaza until the sound of our footsteps moving forward drowns out the falling water behind us.