For as long as I can remember, I've only been able to cry when I was laughing at the same time, even as the tears flowed from a place of genuine sadness or pain. It has often confused and hurt those closest to me. My second husband, for instance, saw it as a cynical carry-over from our years together in mime school, which is where I met him while I was still married to my first. He would get up from the table, accuse me of 'playing The Tramp' with his feelings, and leave the room. His reference to Chaplin's beloved character is fitting because, like him, I love to walk in the rain so that no one could see that I was crying. In fact, if anyone bothered to peek out from under their umbrellas, they would have smiled at the thought that I was rather enjoying myself. I don't know where or when I learned to do this, or if I was born with it. I may have inherited it from my father, whose facial expressions never seemed to quite connect with what I thought was really going on inside him, until, of course, it was too late. By then, he was already dead and I felt as if I was only just learning to read his face for the first time.
My father joined a rock band the same year Margaret Trudeau danced with Mick Jagger at the El Mocambo. This was around the time our mother began seeing her future husband again and my father used to wander around the house like he had lost or forgotten something. When she came home late smelling of whiskey, he would look at her in a strange way. It wasn't the look of a jealous or angry man, but an expression I imagined a priest would have after one of his parishioners confessed to robbing a bank.
We had recently moved into a new townhouse complex in Mississauga. Before the move, my father took me aside to explain that it would be a fresh start for the family: a job in a warehouse that would allow him to spend evenings at home; a new school for my brother and I; yet another church that might have a decisive influence on our mother's spiritual life. The few photographs from that time are sepia-colored, fading portraits of ghosts who resembled members of my family. And for reasons that may or may not have had anything to do with our mother's future husband, we gave away what little furniture we had, as though it was contaminated by all that was wrong with our previous life.
Our mother had the master bedroom to herself, while my brother and I were crammed together on a double-sized mattress on the third floor. My father slept on the sofa in the living room. Sometimes when our mother was out, my father would let us join him on his "bed", eat popcorn, and watch movies until we fell asleep. He would then carry my brother and I over each shoulder up the two flights of stairs. From the bedroom window, I could see him under the bald porch light, quietly picking at his acoustic guitar, blue halos of smoke from the cigarette forming around his head.
The band consisted of four middle-aged men who performed sad Korean songs from the '70s about couples trying-- and often failing-- to make something last. Every Saturday night, after our mother got all spruced up and left the house to a waiting car, my father would pack the two of us into the van and take us to a club in Koreatown. At the entrance, the Madame, an aging former Miss Korea dressed in a ceremonial Korean gown, welcomed guests with exaggerated cheer. Inside, on the main level, an elevated stage and bar book-ended the two long ends of the floor. Tables with mismatched chairs were haphazardly placed in between. My father would prop us up on bar stools and join his band on stage.
I was fourteen-- my brother, twelve-- when my father took us to the club for the first time. That night, we were swarmed by hostesses who cackled like geese and pinched our cheeks. They scattered at the sight of the Mother Goose who came around with some stern words about customer service. She appeared to be infatuated with my father and spoke wistfully about a lead actor she once worked with during the war who reminded her of him.
The audience was made up of poets and rogues, convenience store-owners, and lonely housewives who were constantly wiping away tears as they recalled a less complicated time. The band members all wore disco shirts with huge collars and played their instruments while cigarettes dangled from their lips. My father was the lead singer and he sang every song with his eyes closed. His voice, heavily inflected by years of cigarettes and Scotch, sounded as though bits of gravel were lodged in the back of his throat. Women with bright lipstick and impossibly-coifed hair swooned when they heard it.
One Saturday night, after leaving my brother with our mother, my father took me to the club alone. I put on my favorite dress, the one with blooming fuchsias on it, and my ruby slippers. I sat at the bar, sipped on my 7-up and orange juice, and pretended to be one of the swooning women. I blushed when the hostesses commented on how ladylike I looked. One of them, whom I vaguely recalled from our previous life, told me that I looked the splitting image of our mother. She must have sensed that her comment did not please me because she then whispered conspiratorially, your mother is a complicated woman, like you will be one day, but she is still your mother.
When the band was ready to play, my father stood behind the mike and asked the audience to join him in welcoming his beautiful girl to the club. Everyone looked my way and applauded. I stared at the wine glasses glinting wildly behind the bar. He then went on about how, when he was my age, he dreamed of becoming a rock star, but that he was never into drugs and knew he could only handle one woman at a time. The audience laughed. He turned toward his band, nodded his head, and started playing his guitar. The first set of songs all sounded alike, ballads that came naturally to my father's low baritone range, simple melodies about loss and imprecise longing. When the set was over, he passed his guitar over to his bassist and made his way down the floor toward me. Mr. Lee was into American rock & roll and folk. He sang covers by Bob Dylan, The Animals, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, with a voice perfectly suited for the type of karaoke that called for the least originality. At the bar, my father ordered a Chivas Regal on the rocks, stroked my hair, and asked me if I was enjoying myself. I told him that I was and that I dreamed of being a rock star some day like him. He laughed, took a sip of his drink, and told me that being a rock star wasn't all it was cut out to be, that the important thing was to dream, especially when things weren't looking so good in your life.
When Mr. Lee went into the next song, my father leaned up against the bar, closed his eyes, and tapped his feet on the floor.
Someone told me long ago
There's a calm before the storm
It's been coming for some time.
When it's over, so they say
It'll rain a sunny day
Shinin' down like water.
I want to know, have you ever the seen the rain
I want to know, have you ever seen the rain
Coming down on a sunny day.
I loved the simple upbeat tempo and the way Mr. Lee yelled into the mike with his eyes on fire while strumming slash chords really hard on the guitar. It was the kind of song I wished my father would sing, the kind that could inspire grumpy old men to get up from their seats and dance with abandon. When it was over, Mr. Lee wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and turned to a slow tune by Simon and Garfunkel. It was about a songwriter who was thinking of a woman who lived far away and who he couldn't see anymore but wished that he could. With one arm crossed in front of him and the other arm behind his back, my father bowed and asked if I would like to "have this dance". I nodded my head and with my hand inside his arm, we walked across the floor toward the stage. Everybody stopped talking and watched us. On stage, in the blinding glare of the spotlight, we bowed to the audience. I placed my slippers on top of his shoes and he hunched his body forward so that I could rest my chin on his shoulder. We rocked back and forth slowly in a clockwise direction as he lead me around the stage. Then suddenly he lifted me up by my arms and swung me around and around, his smiling face, the lights and tables and chairs stretching and merging into a single smear of light, the way a city skyline looks at night when your plane is about to land. When he put me back down, we staggered around stage a bit, laughed along with the audience, and danced some more. I don't remember much else from those few minutes on the stage except for hoping that the song Mr. Lee was singing would never end.
* * *The last time I saw my father alive was two years ago. He was on his way back to his home in Kingston after visiting a sick friend in Hamilton and requested to meet me for dinner in Toronto. I did not respond to his voice message until the very last minute. He was a stranger to me by then.
Within days of that night at the club, I watched from the top of the staircase as my mother left the house with a small leather suitcase and my father sat at the kitchen table weeping into his hands. One week later, my father took my brother away with him to Kingston, where he had a younger sister there to help raise him. I went to live with our mother and her future husband in his house in Richmond Hill, with its two door garage and swimming pool in the backyard. My father promised to come for me after he found himself a regular job and things settled down a bit. In the meantime, I paid weekend visits to them, and, along with my aunt, pretended that nothing had changed, that everything was business-as-usual with our family minus our mother.
My father never delivered on his promise.
Your mother and the courts keep getting in the way, he would say to me. Within a year, I stopped answering the phone when he called and stopped taking the train to Kingston on the weekends. In my last conversation with him, I told him that I didn't want to have anything to do with him anymore and slammed down the phone.
Our mother and her future husband tried to make living arrangements bearable, but I had no stomach for either of them. I accused her of being a slut and him of being a home-breaker and locked myself in the bedroom. On three occasions, I ran away and into the arms of boys I didn't care much for from school. The police were called in each time to pry me away and bring me back.
After one particularly nasty argument with our mother, when I put my fist through the china cabinet, my father came to pick me up at the hospital and take me with him to Kingston. My brother was attending his first year of university by this point and my father was living alone in the house. Our aunt had moved to an apartment in the downtown core so that she could be closer to her church. I told him at every opportunity I could that I would never forgive him for what he did and that he was already dead to me. He would look at me the way he used to look at my mother all those years ago and turn way in silence.
Within a month, I was back in Toronto, this time living on my own on Queen Street and working full-time at a vinyl record store. It was there that I met my first husband, who I married a year later at City Hall. During the wedding reception at a chinese buffet, my brother pulled me aside to tell me that it broke my father's heart that I hadn't invited him to the wedding. He sent along a mahogany Taylor acoustic guitar as a wedding gift with a note that read: You always wanted to be a rock star. I ripped up the card and sold the guitar at a pawn shop the following week for almost nothing.
It was when my second marriage was going south after my current boyfriend entered the picture, that I received the call from my father as he was boarding the train in Hamilton. We met at a steakhouse near Union Station. He smiled when he saw me, but I barely recognized him. He had aged considerably and was the pale shadow of the man I once knew. He had the diaphanous eyes of an alcoholic, deep furrows across his forehead, thinning grey hair. His face appeared to be in a constant state of some unnameable ache. We had difficulty getting our conversation going. I moved my Caesar's salad around my plate with the fork and he only looked up from the table when the waiter came by to refill his wine glass. We talked briefly about my brother and his growing family and avoided any allusion to my own life. When the main course was brought to the table, he lay down his cutlery and tried to steady his gaze into my eyes. He told me he was sorry that things didn't go as he had wished-- as we had both wished-- and that he should have fought harder to take custody of me. He paused to gather himself, held onto the sides of the table with his jittery hands and asked me to forgive him. I looked away and didn't respond. I called for the bill and we left the cold steaks untouched on the plates.
We walked to the train station in silence. On the platform, I could tell he wanted to reach out to me, but I drew my hands away and put them in the pockets of my jacket. I muttered something about getting home safe. I left the platform before he was able to get to his window seat.
* * *It was my aunt who called me four days ago to inform me that my father had died in his sleep. He had been battling lung cancer for years. I knew this because my brother would send me email updates of his worsening condition and I made one excuse after another to avoid visiting him. Around noon, my boyfriend picked me up in his car and we took the two-hour drive out to Kingston. At a bar across from the Korean Presbyterian Church, we did tequila shots and chased it with some beer until it was time for the ceremony. He patted me on my behind and told me to be strong and that he would be waiting right there for me at the bar. Inside the church, I recognized two of my father's band members, including the bassist, Mr. Lee, and some of the hostesses from the club. I avoided eye contact with them. They were well into their sixties and seventies, and I could tell that they had been to one too many funerals in recent years. My brother sat in the front pew with his wife and three children. Our mother was seated by herself in the second row. I went and sat beside her. When she looked up at me, I was surprised to see that she had been crying. I felt an urge to do something, but I couldn't find it in myself to do it. I just sat there with my hands on my lap and stared straight ahead, blocking out the eulogies being recited by my father's friends on the stage.
When the service was over, I followed behind my brother toward the casket. My father had on a grey jacket and a blue paisley tie, the one that he returned with from a vacation to Barbados so many lives ago, when he and our mother still acted like husband and wife. There was a thin mask of dry white plaster covering most of his face, but in some areas it was left untouched, as if the mortician was too lazy or didn't have the time to finish the job. But his head, shrunken and bald now from the chemotherapy, permeated a soft inner glow, like his mind was still very much alive beneath the dead layer of skin. They had shaved him, so I could see the tiny mole under his left nostril above a mouth turned slightly downward. And even with his eyelids shut, his face was suffused with a vague emotion, as though it was still trying to express some hidden concern. It was the expression he used to wear when he was on stage singing all those sad songs, the look he used to give our mother when she came home smelling of booze and cheap perfume, with only the mildest hint of judgement, and that seemed to come from a coded place of love that only he could decipher. As I stood there over the casket that held my dead father, and with that same look that he was now directing towards me, I knew that things would be different from now on, I could just feel it.