My father whistled for me from outside–a whistle all four of his children growing up in three different households knew and answered to–and I ran to the window. It was the same whistle he would use to call me back when I went too far into the water at Orchard Beach, or too far up Indian Rock in Crotona Park. When he whistled, I always knew he was calling me, unless we were all together, then, we would all look back from wherever we were standing, climbing, or hanging. It was amazing he had imposed such order on a row of ducklings growing up so far apart.
I watched from the window as he stood proudly in front of my building with a new bike, which was no girly pink or purple with a basket and bell number, but instead a midnight blue and white Schwinn with silver bolts of lightning embedded into the spokes of the wheels. I would be the envy of every boy on the block.
“Whatcha think, kid?”
“It’s pretty cool, pa; I’ll be down in a second.”
I ran from the window and down the stairs before my grandmother could stop me. By the time I got outside, she was already arguing with him out the window about how dangerous it was, and where was she supposed to keep that thing in such a tiny apartment.
“Hay Willie, se va dar un golpe.”
As usual, he won with few words. “She can’t stay a baby forever, Gloria. At some point she has to learn how to be brave.” I heard his response standing right next to him and he hugged me hard and said, “Happy birthday.” He knew I had asked for roller skates, but with a big grin on his face he presented me with the bicycle and said, “This will get you a lot farther a lot faster than a pair of roller skates.” I was disappointed the way kids always are to not get exactly what they asked for, but over the years I came to understand that he was letting me know I had not asked for enough. He saw my need before I could: to escape the tiny world of the one bedroom I shared with my mother, my grandmother, and the darkness of their fears. He was trying to make sure that escape didn’t come attached to a boy. He couldn’t take me with him, but he could give me a set of wheels so I might find my own way out. I wanted those purple skates with the glitter wheels, and instead I had a boy bike. But I couldn’t deny that it was as enticing as it was intimidating. It reeked of power and possibility.
The cool breeze of late summer made my shorts and his leather jacket both feasible and improbable, as both of us willfully extended the season–on either side of fall and summer–to our favorite clothes. He was a boots-and-leather-jacket guy, and at ten-years-old I was a shorts and sandals girl, though I would find myself in cowboy boots and leather jackets not too far in the future. My father is a cowboy from the Bronx, and his favorite line, when questioned on his style choices, was always on the ready. Someone would ask him if he was from the south, and he would say, “Why yes, yes I am. I’m from the South…the South Bronx.” A Bronx boy, born and bred in fact, and never really left. When pressed about the boots he still wore years later despite pain and significant discomfort, he admitted to having loved the TV show Bonanza when he was a kid on Crotona Avenue. The boots came to make sense in a way they never had before.
Had I known how much cement my knees were going to see the day he taught me how to ride that bike, I would have worn my jeans. Instead, I climbed aboard “Storm” in my pink and yellow shorts and my Wonder Woman t-shirt blissfully unaware of how much falling was involved in learning how to ride. I was too short for the bike or it was too tall for me. I couldn’t sit on it properly and keep my feet on the ground. It was terrifying to have my feet so far off the ground as I kept trying to find the elusive secret of balance. “Don’t worry, once you know how to ride all you need to be able to reach are the pedals and the brakes.” He did all the teaching-bike-tricks, and I did all the falling, crying, pouting, and trying-to-quit tricks.
“Don’t worry, kid, as soon as you’re riding hard you’ll get your second wind. Everything sucks when you first learn how to do it.”
“I promise your favorite pizza is waiting at the end of this bike ride. Give it everything you got.”
“I have homework to finish.”
“When I called you yesterday you told me you finished all of it.”
“Hang on, mamita, you’re almost there.”
As the sun began streaking the sky with orange it seemed that maybe both of us had lost. I was still trying despite my desire to be home watching TV, and I still had not learned to ride the bike. He wiped away his own sweat as I measured how long he would hold out. My grandmother was eyeing us from the kitchen window dying for us to call it quits. Periodically she would call out the window, “Tienen hambre?” Trying to soften us with her food or coffee. He would turn his back to the window and wave her off. I stood there on the bike tempted to make eye contact with her. I knew if I looked up at the window and seemed ready to cry she would start yelling at him to bring me upstairs. I looked at him and knew that he was asking me to make a choice. My arms hurt, the scrapes were burning and my butt was sore. We had been out there for hours. He was giving me the look that said, “What’s it gonna be, kid?”
Every conversation he and I ever had somehow found its way there. During Sunday dinner with Abuela Eppie or Wednesday night dinners at Hawaii Sea or over milk shakes after parent teacher conferences, which he never missed and was dismayed to discover did not exist in college, they all ended in some version of he could take me only so far then I would have to choose. Choices. It was all about choices and according to him the sooner I learned how to make the right ones, and suffer the consequences of bad ones, the sooner my life would get going in the right direction. An inscrutable lesson during the earliest years when most of the time I was just worried about making him happy and making sure he loved me, and I just wanted him to tell me what to do so I wouldn’t get it wrong.
It was a powerful and shockingly brave policy during adolescence when so many choices were tantalizing and dangerous. His most powerful statement often repeated after watching some sappy movie with a wedding at the end, “I don’t want to hear about no wedding gowns. I only want to hear about cap and gowns.”
Yet that’s when it all started to kick in. Trained from so young to think long and hard before announcing my choice, be it for what dish I wanted to order (which, once chosen, I would be required to eat) or what flavor milkshake, I learned to deliberate and think and choose. Everything appeared a choice. Nothing felt inevitable, and though I didn’t live with him it was as if he followed me everywhere I went as a teenager and would be standing behind every person offering me very stupid options repeating, “Okay, so now you tell me what you want to do. I’ll let you choose.”
The funny thing was that at some point it didn’t even feel like a choice, and, yes, I, like everyone else, have often made some stupid ones. But somehow without ever demanding it he had taught me to make the right choice. The right choice always being the one filled with courage, conviction and fearlessness. Not always the safe choice, but the right one. The one that would move me forward. The one that would make me grow and teach me something. It might even be a choice that would, in the short term, piss him off, but the right one for me. These were choices he had not always been able to make for himself, but had somehow magically taught me to make. Choices my mother never even felt she had. Choices my grandmother felt certain she had to make for everyone, incapable as we all were in her eyes of making choices of our own. As I sat there with my sore butt, my father was looking at me and offering me choices. I turned the bike around in the direction of trying again.
“Just a few more tries. It’s almost dark. You’ve worked hard. You’re almost there. You have no idea how much you’re going to love this.”
I was halfway down the block before I could no longer smell leather and cologne and I realized that he had let go of the back of the seat. I wanted to look back to see if it was ok to keep going, but instead I just kept pedaling and waited to hear the whistle. At some point the wind blowing my hair back made me notice I was going down a hill, and just as I heard the whistle I panicked and threw myself into a sharp turn that slid me and the bike into the middle of the street. I could hear him calling my name and running toward me. He surprised me by scooping me up in his arms and completely ignoring the bike in the middle of the street which some kid scooped up for us and brought to the sidewalk. He gave me a high-five and said, “Good job. If you have to fall you should do it in style. Well done.”
He picked the bike up and put me down on the sidewalk where he pulled out the bandanna with the Puerto Rican flag on it that he had in his pocket, and tied it around my knee.
“Bike scars are some of the coolest scars you’ll ever get. You’ll never forget where or how you got them. You can be proud of a scar you get riding a bike down hill.”
“I guess.” I said trying not to cry.
“So you fell. What next? I’ll let you decide.”
I knew I wanted to go home and I knew he wanted me to ride one more time. His own life filled with going the extra mile, and usually going too far, had somehow had the effect of making me clear about limits. “I’m done, Dad. I’ll ride again tomorrow. But for today, I’m done.” I looked down as I said it, pretty certain by then that he would be a little disappointed, but he would in fact let me choose.
He smiled and patted my head. “Good choice kid. You shouldn’t ride after dark.” Though of course at my age he himself would have ridden that bike all night long or at least till his mother went out into the dark streets to look for him. He carried my bike up the stairs and when we were at the front door he kissed me on the forehead and said, “Mamita, be sure to ride that bike again tomorrow. Don’t let the fear of falling make you forget you already learned how to ride. You were great out there. Fearless.” He gave me some money to give to my grandmother and said, “I better let you go in alone today.” We both smiled knowing why.
My grandmother opened the door and went straight for my knee, as he cowboy clopped down the stairs out of sight. I could smell her rice and chicken, filled with cilantro and garlic, cooking on the stove, overpowering the scent of my father’s cologne. It was clear that she would always be the one to take care of me which was not the same thing as teaching me how to take care of myself. I was lucky enough to have them both. My grandmother was not the enemy; she was the guardian at the gate. Given all that she had lived, her fierce warrior stance at the door and the window made perfect sense and likely kept me alive, which could not diminish the power of being taught how to walk out the door when the time came.
As she fawned over my knee, she started yelling about how much chaos my father was always causing as she propped me up on pillows across the couch, and served me plate after plate of food. She simply could not understand what I now knew. He might have failed to really free himself or my mother, but he had come back for me, and this time he would teach me how to escape on my own.