1975, Florida. On the afternoon of our first day together, I pull the swinging, cedar door, and we step into the merciless heat and humidity of a steam room. We are alone.
Father: “It’s not hot enough in here.”
Son: “It’s too hot.”
Father: “Only babies can’t take heat. I’m moving to a higher bench.”
Son: “You’re out of your mind. I’m moving to a lower bench.”
My father had invited me to join him at a Florida spa-hotel so we could enjoy a few days together, without my mother and siblings. I knew he was worried about me as I was experiencing a stressful transition in my domestic life. By this time, I was thirty-one, he was sixty.
It was imperative for me to begin on the upper bench; to have done otherwise would have ignored the first step of the time-honored, “It’s-not-hot-enough-It’s too-hot” ritual my father, my two brothers, and I (in various combinations, but always with our father) had observed many times in steam rooms, including this one.
As I settle onto a lower bench, I hear my father say, “I was upset that a young man brought his five year old boy to the exercise class this morning. It was disturbing.” My father’s voice isn’t angry; its bewildered, even beseeching.
“For God’s sake, Dad. How could that disturb someone unless he’s already disturbed?”
“Because he was helping his son do the exercises, and it interrupted the class.”
“And that’s what disturbed you? It probably interrupted no one. You drive me absolutely crazy with this crap.”
This was another of the many “here we go again” moments with my father. The exchange between us was emblematic of how we tended to interact when each of us wants something from the other, and neither of us can ask for it in simple, direct terms.
The next day, my father and I again sit alone in the not-hot-enough-too-hot steam room. From my perch on the bottom bench, I hear from the top bench, “I have it figured out.”
Careful to leave the conversation door open, I say nothing.
“The father was so gentle, I was jealous of the little boy. I couldn’t admit it to myself, so I got angry at the father.”
“It takes real courage to admit something like that, Dad.”
He gives one of his self-conscious laughs–more like a quiet clearing of the throat–indicating he’s flooded with emotion.
I, too, am flooded with emotion.I want to say to him that maybe the father and son reminded you of something you hadn’t received as a boy. Maybe you’re ashamed of those times when youweren’t the gentle father, when I was a boy, sometimes frightened and hurt. You tell me this exercise class story, and I think you want me to help you heal, while I want youto help meheal.
All of this, I don’t say to him.
Instead, I say, “You’re right about one thing–it’s not hot enough in here.” I dip a ladle of water from the wooden bucket and pour it on the heated rocks. The hissing cloud of steam envelopes me and obscures the room; but it doesn’t obscure one crystalline thought: Please, Dad. Let’s just tell each other the truth, whatever it might be. The words can help heal both of us.
Later that day, I walk outside to where my father sits at a card table on the lawn and plays gin rummy with three other men. He and two others are shirtless, as are several of the spectators. Grey hair covers their chests and, on a few men, their backs. As I walk toward them, I laugh: first the steam room, now a group of silver-back gorillas. This must be a mirage. The mountains of Rwanda look just like a manicured lawn in Florida.
Then, I remember something fromseventeen years earlier. I’m fifteen years old, in the car with my father on a Sunday afternoon. He has asked me to go with him, doesn’t tell me where we’re going, and I don’t ask. I’m happy to be alone with my dad. He parks on a main street lined with storefront businesses.
“Uh… Dad? It’s Sunday…everything’s closed.”
“The cigar store isn’t. C’mon.”
A man inside sees us on the sidewalk, unlocks the swinging, glass door and pulls it open. He greets my father with, “Hi, Eddie.” I like it when someone says, “Eddie” instead of “Edward”. The small store, twenty feet square, is filled with a sweet aroma of fresh tobacco. Decorative boxes of cigars fill glass display cabinets and line the shelves that cover the side and rear walls. The man pushes a section of the rear wall, and a hidden door swings open, revealing a back room where a layer of cigar and cigarette smoke hangs at the ceiling, and middle-aged men are deep into gin rummy games at five card tables.
My father takes the open chair awaiting him at one of the tables. After at least six years of having lost gin games to him at home, and having watched him play other people, I know to move a chair from the wall and sit behind and a bit to the side of him so I can study his strategy. These games are serious. Money changes hands. Sometimes a lot of it.
I can hardly believe what a damn cool place this is to be with your dad. And no one says, “What’s your boy doing here, Eddie?” I want to say, but don’t, “Please…somebody…I gotta have a cigar.”
Back on the Florida lawn, I move a chair to my customary place behind and a bit to the side of my father so I can study hisstrategy. He’s in the midst of what has been a long game, marked by slow decisions about each card played. His opponent discards a deuce, and my father adds it to his hand. With a flourish, he drops his gin card face down on the table, and says, “What’s the name of the game?”
Someone answers with an obligatory, “Gin.” Then, players and spectators alike examine the two hands of cards, now face up on the tale, and begin the patois: “He should have,” and “I would have,” and “Why’d he play the deuce and not the Jack,” and more of these exchanges I have witnessed dozens of times, all part of the game, just another ritual.
“Great hand, Dad,” I say.
He smiles at me. “Your old man hasn’t lost his touch.”
“Of course you haven’t.” I get up from my chair and say, “I’m going to read for a while and take a nap, so I’ll see you in the lobby before dinner.” Not unlike bowing, I lean down to him as he stays seated, kiss his cheek, and walk across the lawn.
In the lobby a few hours later, my father and I greet each other and take a few steps toward the dining room, when he stops and says, “After you left, one of the guys at the card table–right in front of everyone–said, ‘You wanna know how lucky you are, Eddie? I have more money than I can spend, and I'd give away all of it, every damned penny, if my son would kiss me, just once, the way yours kissed you.’”
In a tone of amazement more than disbelief, my father says, to himself as well as to me, “Can you believe he said that?”
“Sure I can. What your card buddy said…and that he actually said it…is wonderful, don’t you think?”
My father gives another of his self-conscious laughs–more like a quiet clearing of the throat–indicating he’s flooded with emotion.